For Dora

May 2010.

Splendid Christian Kingdom

Dear Dora,

The following tailor-made journey pushes out the frontiers of travel into the highland Christian kingdom of Abyssinia. Your itinerary is a helicopter and driving itinerary, visiting the important centers of Ethiopia’s orthodox Christian history and religion. Using both flight and ground travel, you will have the chance to explore a variety of territories, from the elegant and well traveled to the rough and rustic. Ethiopia is a fascinating country, but is neither for the faint-hearted nor for those seeking luxury and Rolls-Royce service. Its beauty lies in its openness, its wilderness and its uniqueness—perfect for those, like you, with a sense of adventure and travelers’ wit.

Day 1: Arrival in Addis Ababa

Upon arrival into Addis Ababa, you will be met by your guide, Moira, at the Sheraton Hotel. The sumptuous, neo-classical Sheraton is a comfortable base for your stay in Addis. It drips in marble and lavish furnishings, and delivers unexpected levels of luxury in one of the less privileged corners of the continent.

Centrally located opposite the National Palace on a hilltop overlooking the city and surrounded by wonderful flowering gardens, the Addis Sheraton boasts offers a wide selection of diversions, including restaurants, boutiques, small spa, a pool (with underwater music system), a Vegas-style fountain light show, and—one of my personal favourite highlights—a terrific pastry trolley!

Though this excellent hotel has a very “international” ambiance, you will also get a chance to delve into local life in the form of top-notch traditional food—notably, the excellent breakfast buffet.

Day 2: City Tour and visit with Dr. Richard Pankhurst

Today, two experiences will provide you with deep insight into this country: first, you will experience a city tour of Addis Ababa; then, you will join Dr. Richard Pankhurst at his house for a private talk on Ethiopian history and culture.

Addis Ababa, which means “new flower” in Amharic, is a fitting name for this blooming city. Though originally Ethiopia’s capital was in Ankober, Emperor Menelik II moved it to its current strategic military position at the foot of the Entoto Hills in response to possible invasions from the south at the end of the last century.

At an elevation of 7500-8000 feet, Addis is the 3rd highest of any capital in the world, offering bracing temperatures and plenty of fresh highland air. As cosmopolitan a city as any, Addis Ababa has highrise apartments, theaters, and hotels—features of developed city designs that sit not wholly comfortably alongside traditional homes of wattle and daub. The city is characterized by its plentiful eucalyptus trees and wide streets and by the occasional donkey train making its way among the traffic. Dr. Pankhurst will guide your attention to these sorts of characteristic details as you make your way through the bustle of this busy but moderately sized city.

Addis has a number of attractive Orthodox churches, museums, and sites of interest—including one of Africa’s largest market, Mercato, where everything under the sun is sold under the sun. Dr. Pankhurst will be glad to help you find the best bargains, and will introduce you to various friends of his as you wend your way through the market. When you’ve finished your adventurous day, return to the hotel to recharge. If you have energy, you’re in for an exciting treat: nightlife in Addis can get quite lively, and Moira can recommend a bar or restaurant for high-quality evening entertainment.

Day 3: Mountain View Lodge, Lalibela

This morning you will be transferred from Addis Ababa by helicopter to Lalibela, flying north along the great Blue Nile valley. Land for a late morning tea and biscuits overlooking this gaping chasm.

For the next two nights, Mountain View Lodge will provide a scenic and cozy home base for your explorations. Perched at an altitude of 2680 meters, this contemporary hilltop hotel of wood and glass construction is the latest, and certainly smartest, of the privately owned lodges springing up in the Lalibela area. Built by two former guides, Getachew and Metaso, who teamed up with an American investor to complete the lodge in 2008, Mount View affords unbeatable panoramic vistas—both at sunrise and particularly at sunset—of the surrounding highlands. You will also find the staff to be helpful and friendly, particularly the well-known Jamaican head chef who, alongside his team, produces tasty European and local fare, served in an open dining room often illuminated by ethereal natural rays.

Your adventures will begin right after lunch, with a visit to the rock churches of New Jerusalem after lunch. There are no less than 1000 churches in the Lasta region of Lalibela, a diversity that includes some places of worship hidden in enormous caves. However, even with this plethora of offerings, it is exceptional to find 11 churches of such master craftsmanship in one locale. At the end of the 12th–and beginning of the 13th centuries, King Lalibela of the Zaghyou dynasty built a series of rock-hewn churches—the New Jerusalem as he called it—which is now rightly designated as one of the wonders of the world. There are 11 churches in the town named after him, with others in the surrounding countryside. Ten of these are still in use today.

Stamina permitting, set out on a trek to the Asheten Mariam church on Mt Ashten, the first of King Lalibela’s rock churches. You will be able to ride mules for the majority of the trek, but you will have to walk the steeper and rockier sections. This walk is quite strenuous and your footing will, at times, be unsteady, but the walk is well worth it, as Asheten boasts the best view in the area. In fact, this scenic spot had originally been King Lalibela’s site of choice for all of his churches—he moved the remaining 23 churches to lower ground due to space constraints. While you’re hiking, keep an eye out for Bateleur Eagles. The hike will be a round trip of 12 kilometers, totaling about four hours of walking. If you to the top of Asheten, you should ask your guide about walking off the back of the mountain into the Nakutalaub Cave Church—this is not usually done, but offers an otherworldly adventure for daring guests.

Day 4: Helicopter to Yemrehanos Cave Church

Depart after breakfast for a morning helicopter excursion to Yemrehanos Cave Church. It will be early, so be sure to relish the ride. Though only a 15-minute flight from Lalibela, the post-dawn rays will be truly breathtaking, and an excellent precursor to a day spent viewing more holy places. Your helicopter will land on Mounta Abuna Yosef, just a short distance from the church, and from there you will approach this northeast-facing cave. As you take these final steps, appreciate the challenges that other visitors to this place have faced: until 2000, when a road was constructed, visiting the church required a taxing day’s journey on foot. Once inside, be sure to note the murals high on the wall of the nave—these are thought to be the oldest such paintings left in Ethiopia. When you’ve finished exploring this cavernous church, return to Lalibela for lunch.

In the afternoon, you will visit a second set of rock churches, at Old Jerusalem. By now you will be familiar with the general feel and history of these churches, and so will be primed to notice small details that make each church precious and unique. Moira will be sure to draw your attention to such minutiae, ensuring that each church you visit adds layers of knowledge and emotion to your experience. In the late evening you will return to The Mountain View, perhaps caressed by the dying rays of the sun as you make your way back from a truly unearthly day of exploration.

Day 5: Gheralta Lodge

Your day will start with another breathtaking dawn flight, this time to Simien Mountains. However, your airborne activities won’t stop there: today will be an efficient combination of air travel and elevated observation. Because I know you enjoy helicopter rides, this one will be leisurely, and your pilot will happily draw extra circles in the sky in order to allow you to preview the excellent scenery. You will stop for lunch and then fly onward, via Axum to Gheralta Lodge for four night’s stay.

Boasting extraordinary vistas of the sharp, imposing peaks of the Gheralta range, the lodge is beautifully built with local stone, wood and thatch in a traditional Tigrayan style, blending effortlessly with the wild, rural setting. Handsome, beautifully finished, and opened in 2007, it provides an ideal base, full of home comforts, for exploring this mountainous area, which is truly one of Ethiopia’s best-kept secrets. The wildlife, culture, and rock-hewn churches make this mountainous province a must-see for those keen to combine trekking with terrific artistic and historical treasures.

Day 6: Simien Mountains

Famous for its dramatic highland scenery, the Simien Mountain National Park is designated as a World Heritage Site. In fact, you may recognize the mountain’s jagged peaks (ambas), as they frequently serve as a backdrop to Ethiopian tourist initiatives. These gigantic pieces of rock are far more than common limestone or granite: they are cores of volcanic outlets, left behind after the surrounding substrates eroded over centuries.

The variation in shape and size of the ambas is quite stunning, and the region includes many summits over 13,000 feet—most notably Ras Dashen, which at 14,901 feet is the third highest peak in Africa. The park is also known for its endemic walia ibex, a large and endangered mountain goat—today, about 60 exist in the wild. Other specifically Ethiopian animals live in the park, including the Abyssinia wolf and the gelada baboon. Moira will take you on game tours during the day, giving you the chance to “shoot” these incredible indigenous creatures with your camera.

Day 7: Danakil Depression

Today will begin with a scenic helicopter flight to the Danakil Depression. You will depart at dawn and spend two hours exploring, delighting in flight as you meander south to seek out Afar Salt mines.

The Danakil Depression, also called Afar Depression, is a geological depression in the Horn of Africa, covering territory in Eritrea, the Afar Region of Ethiopia, and Djibouti. Only the Awash River flows into the depression, where it ends in a chain of lakes that increase in salinity. Danakil Depression results from the presence of a tectonic triple junction, where the spreading ridges that are forming the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden emerge on land and meet the East African Rift. The central meeting place for these three pieces of Earth’s crust is around Lake Abbe.

Danakil is well known as one of the cradles of hominids—perhaps best known for the Middle Awash, site of many fossil hominid discoveries. Moira will accompany you, offering insight into these ancient incubators of early human life. After visiting Middle Awash, you will progress on to Gona, site of the world’s oldest stone tools, and then onward to Hadar, the site where Lucy, the fossilized specimen of Australopithecus afarensis, was found.

After a high-flying morning, you will be in for another extreme after lunch. As you might guess, the Danakil Depression is below sea level—but you will be awed by its depth when you visit Lake Asal, the lowest point in Africa at -155 meters. Your helicopter journey will continue on to more extremes, taking you to Dallol, one of the hottest places year-round anywhere on Earth.

Day 8: Local Gheralta excursions

After a jam-packed day of helicopter adventures, you will have a chance to keep your feet on the ground and unwind a little bit. After a more leisurely breakfast, you will spend a full day exploring Gheralta. Moira will be sure to offer detailed explanations of local trekking options, so that you can visit the many and varied monolithic built-up cave churches. Local guides will also be on hand to add even more specific insight to your adventure. Grab a picnic lunch on your way out, and return whenever you desire for a quiet evening and dinner at Gheralta Lodge.

Day 9: Day visit to Axum

Knowing your proclivities for helicopter adventures, I have planned another one for today, merged with a chance to fulfill your desire to experience the extraordinary in ordinary local life. You will board the helicopter early for the journey to Axum, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia. This medium-sized town is by many metrics an ordinary-looking place, but it hides a wealth of culture and history.

Axum is the cradle of Ethiopia’s 3000-year-old civilization and is said to have been founded by the great great grandson of Moses. In the 6th century, in its heyday, the Axumite Kingdom was one of the four great powers of the ancient world, ruling the two southern sides of the Red Sea.

The main features of interest in Axum are the colossal rock stelae, the stonework of royal tombs and the legendary bath of the Queen of Sheba. The 16th century Church of St. Mary stands on the ruins of an earlier 4th-century church. It is the country’s oldest and holiest Christian shrine. Most importantly, Ethiopian Christians believe it the resting place of the original Ark of the Covenant—one of the most precious relics of Judeo-Christian tradition. You will spend your afternoon immersed in this holy ambiance, and will take one last helicopter survey of the area before departing in the soft light of dusk.

Day 10: Kuriftu Lodge

This morning, you take an early helicopter flight to Bahir Dar, a town on the shores of the lovely Lake Tana that rose to prominence in the 16th century. An important commercial center, it is now the capital city of its region. Before you arrive, though, you will make the most of the journey, you will take a detour to Gondar for a city tour before landing at Kuriftu Lodge.

Kuriftu Lodge is a reasonably large lodge, and its focus on wellbeing, together with its position, makes for a sumptuous stay. The shared areas include a reception, bar/lounge area, swimming pool, restaurant, extensive outdoor seating, and spa. In many respects, it is the rooms—bungalows—that make the place. You will enter your raised and balconied room by way of stone steps, and inside will find a feathery four-poster bed and up-to-date amenities. The overall effect is one of space and—accomplished by flat wooden ceilings, enormous support beams—and also of homeliness. A fine balancing act.

After settling into the lodge, take an afternoon excursion to the Blue Nile Falls, named Tis Issat in the Amharic language, which descriptively translates as “Smoke of Fire.” The Falls plunge over a sheer 45-meter precipice that is 400 meters wide. Sought in vain by Egyptians, Persians, Greeks and Romans, the first European to discover the source of the Nile was Portuguese Father Paez. 150 years later in 1770, Scottish Traveller James Bruce described it as “one of the most stupendous sights of the Creation.”Though the recent upstream installation of a hydroelectric dam has changed the overall atmosphere of the falls, it is still worth the visit due to its historical significance.

Day 11: Gondar

After a stunning day at the falls, you will awake today for a more cultural adventure, heading back to Gondar, the city you previewed during your helicopter ride. You will begin your visit by exploring the imperial compound, where you will learn about Gondar’s regal history: it was the imperial capital from the 17th to mid 19th centuries. The castles are still in good condition (some recently restored), and you can also spy the bath of King Fasilides. This is a significant religious site: every year at Timkat (Ethiopian Epiphany, on the 19th of January) a nearby river is diverted to fill an area the size of a small swimming pool here. Worshippers then plunge into the cold water in a re-enactment of the baptism of Christ in the River Jordan.

More church visits will follow this divine stop. Knowing your appreciation for such places as well as your own deep spirituality, I know you won’t tire of so many holy sites: instead, you will appreciate how each transcendental spot builds on the next, weaving a rich understanding of the importance of Christianity to this country. Although many of Gondar’s churches you’re destroyed during the Mahdist invasion from Sudan in the 1880s, one very fine example, Debre Berhan Selassie, was saved, according to the legend, by a swarm of bees which routed the invaders. The walls and ceiling are completely covered with murals. You will also visit the ruined palace of Queen Mentowab, and the church of Qusquam.

In the evening you will retire to The Goha Hotel, situated on a hill with a panoramic view of the town and monuments. You will arrive just in time to watch from the terrace as the sunset illuminates this dramatic scenery. You might even get to see the giant Lammergeyer, with its 3-meter wing span, soaring on the air currents by the hotel.

Day 11: A boat excursion on Lake Tana

After breakfast, you will visit the Blue Nile Falls, before embarking on another aqua-centric experience: a boat excursion on Lake Tana. In their funerary texts, the Pharoahs referred to it as “Lake Karou of the Country of the Happy.” In the Middle Ages, churches sought refuge on the islands of Lake Tana and, due in part to the challenges of accessing this area, are to this day rich in Ethiopian illuminated manuscripts, religious paintings, and other treasures.

Journeying on this celebrated historical lake, Ethiopia’s largest at 85 km long and 65 km wide, you will enjoy a refreshing breeze and beautiful sights. During your excursion, you will visit the Island monasteries, and also stop by local coffee fields planted under high canopy forest. You will also surely encounter phenomenal local bird life.

After a picnic lunch, you will continue on the boat tour to Narga Sellassie Monastery on Dek Island. Though this visit will add four hours to your time on the lake, I don’t think you will mind: I know you appreciate transport as an opportunity to move fluidly through the unknown, and the comfortable boat is an ideal vessel in which to do so.

You will return to the Goha hotel in the evening.

Day 12: Departure

After a leisurely morning, you will fly to Addis Ababa and check in at the Sheraton hotel for a day room before dinner at Castellis. This will give you time to begin to reflect on your amazing adventures. After dinner, you will transfer to Addis Ababa airport for your international return flight home.

Dora, it has been a pleasure planning this Ethiopian itinerary for you. Please do not hesitate to give me a call, should the need arise.