UPDATE November 2022: the civil war that two years returned to this fragile country, more precisely between the northern province of Tigray and the national government has caused immense tragedy and famine. But on 2 November a ceasfire deal was struck so there is now hope that this nasty conflict can be ended. Still, travel to the troubled areas has to be discouranged for the time being. Whether/when other parts of Ethiopia will be safe enough again, is difficult to say. The situation will have to be monitored carefully.
One of the largest, most populous and economically strongest countries in Africa, with quite a distinct cultural history from the rest of the continent. In fact, someone I know who used to work there said the Ethiopians don't even consider themselves African (but as “something better”, with no small dose of aloofness). Its 20th century history includes enough dark chapters, as well as xtreme landscapes with a dark appeal, to make the country a veritable destination for the dedicated dark tourist.
In late December 2019/early January 2020 I finally made it to this country; and these are the places of relevance here that I had on my itinerary and have hence given them their own chapters:
Ethiopia is an ancient culture and the only place on the African continent that was never
, although Italy
had a dabble at it when Mussolini
's Fascist regime decided they, too, needed a colony as a hallmark of a proper world power and occupied this part of East Africa from 1936.
Italian East Africa, also comprising Eritrea and Italian Somaliland, didn't last long though, and by 1941 the British and American Allies of WWII pushed the Italians out. Liberated Ethiopia was returned to monarchic rule under the reinstated emperor Haile Selassie.
Eritrea, to the north of Ethiopia proper, was initially left under British administration, but was lumped together with Ethiopia by the UN shortly after. Thus having access to the sea, Ethiopia became strategically important for the interests of the USA in the region, who used it as a military base, while turning a blind eye to the subjugation of Eritrea and Ethiopia's general lack of development and democracy (a familiar pattern in so many parts of the world where the Americans have “interests”).
Ethiopia wasn't dependent on outside powers to earn its place on the dark history map, though. It was also perfectly capable of the home-grown variety of terror and devastation:
resistance developed from the 1960s and in 1974
by the Derg
, a socialist-inspired paramilitary organization, which proceeded to subject Ethiopia to a ruthless and deadly authoritarian regime under quasi-dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam
. This period of repressions and atrocities became known as the “Red Terror
”. The regime had some support from the Soviets
, but there was also lots of rebel resistance
, especially in the northern region of Tigray through the organization TPLF
('Tigrayan People's Liberation Front') – see Mekele
One particularly nasty incident was the aerial bombing of a market in the Tigrayan town of Hawzen
by the Ethiopian air force in 1988 in which 2500 civilians were killed.
And as if civil-war-like conflict wasn't enough, eastern and north-eastern Ethiopia was also hit by a devastating famine in 1985 – which gave rise to Bob Geldof's mega charity concert Live Aid. To this day many people in the West primarily associate Ethiopia with famine and assume it must all be parched desert country. In actual fact, however, only the lower-lying regions in the east and south of the country fit that bill. The majority of the country on its high mountain plateau has always been green and fertile.
The 1985 famine wasn’t the first, especially the north and east of Ethiopia were repeatedly affected in the 1970s by severe droughts and resultant crop failures. The 1985 famine, however, was the worst and around a million may have perished in it. What’s worse, it was not just a natural disaster, but in no small part man-made. Initially it was exacerbated by the refusal of Western countries to send aid to a country with a socialist government, and then by that government’s failure to distribute aid adequately to where it was needed most (see Red Terror Museum
was also the year when the worst-ever rail disaster
happened in Ethiopia, namely near Awash on the Addis-Djibouti line, when an express train, which was apparently travelling at excessive speed, derailed on a curve approaching a railway bridge over the gorge of the Awash River sending carriages plunging down off the bridge. Over 400 died and more than 500 were injured. The disaster also disrupted the supply line for goods sent in as famine relief from the port of Djibouti.
When communism fell
in Europe in 1989/1990, culminating in the dissolution of the USSR
in 1991, the Derg found themselves without the support of its former socialist allies, and the regime quickly crumbled. Mengistu Haile Mariam fled in 1991 to Zimbabwe
(where that country's dictator Robert Mugabe granted his buddy a safe exile). In Ethiopia a transitional government was formed, while Eritrea
voted for independence
, with a resounding referendum result, and was granted full sovereignty again in 1993.
Yet that didn't mean the end of trouble, and border disputes between the two countries eventually led to full-on military conflict
in the late 1990s. A ceasefire was brokered in 2000 and a UN
peacekeeping force sent in. But for the best part of two decades, relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia remained strained, and the border closed. Northern parts of Ethiopia remained unstable, and that also affected tourism. In the Danakil Depression
, in the remote northern Afar region that borders Eritrea, tourists were even targeted (and a few killed) by rebels, so this was a somewhat dicey part of the world to travel in.
Note also that Ethiopia is surrounded by a host of other problem zones of Africa, especially Sudan and South Sudan to the west and Somalia to the east. The whole region has long been especially troubled.
For Ethiopia, however, things have changed for the better a lot in recent times. Economically
Ethiopia has become a powerhouse
with growth rates in double figures and rapid development. This is still ongoing, now also with a lot of Chinese
investment (as elsewhere in Africa), for instance into the re-establishment of a railway line between Ethiopia and neighbouring Djibouti.
Then in 2018, a newly elected government in Ethiopia initiated a thaw in relations with Eritrea, diplomatic contacts were resumed and even the first flight connections between the two countries set up. So things looked very much up and on a solid road to peace. Yet, with the complex make-up of the population from over a dozen different ethnicities, there remain tensions – and again protests led to street violence in the capital Addis Ababa.
When I eventually made it to Ethiopia, it was politically relatively calm; but it’s always a good idea to check what the current security situation is before planning a trip to this region.
Getting to Ethiopia
will for almost all travellers mean flying in, and the national carrier Ethiopian Airlines is actually regarded as one of the best in Africa. If you fly in with them you are also eligible for massive discounts on domestic flights, which can be useful, as the distances in this vast country can simply be too great for overland travel, unless you have a lot of time. Otherwise getting around
is mostly by road (except for that Djibouti railway), and the roads are also improving rapidly. Some parts of the country can be done independently
, but for a few destinations you will have to go on guided tours
. The latter applies in particular to the north, especially the Danakil Depression and Erta Ale
, which can only be visited on guided tours accompanied by armed guards.
Climate-wise there are great contrasts too. While the mountains can be reasonably cool, the Danakil Depression is infamous as the hottest region on Earth, where summer daytime temperatures frequently exceed 50 degrees Celsius, and even in the winter reach well into the mid-30s.
Hence the best time to visit Ethiopia is in the winter. In the mountains, e.g. the dramatic Simiens, it can get a bit chilly at night in winter, but daytime is still pleasantly warm.
There are a large number of tour operators, both within Ethiopia as well as international companies. It pays off to do some research and shop around, as prices can vary quite dramatically. But bear in mind too the rule of thumb that you get what you pay for. So the cheapest offers may have their downsides.
I experienced this myself insofar as while the overall costs for my tailored itinerary booked with an Ethiopian company were lower than what some specialized international operators often charge, the handling on the ground was frequently very chaotic. In particular there was a degree of lack of communication and confusion that I had never experienced in any other of the nearly 100 countries I’d been to up to that point. In the end most things worked out somehow, though often more through luck than planning and only after short-notice reorganizing and plenty of phone calls (do get a local SIM card for your time in Ethiopia; you’ll definitely need it!). For instance, our transfer from the Simien Mountains to Gondar airport did not turn up at the agreed time and when after a few phone calls a driver did come it turned out he didn’t know the way to the airport so drove around the town in zigzags and had to ask directions from the locals (we did make it in time for check-in, though, as I had factored in plenty of extra time to be on the safe side – luckily).
I won’t go into further details and I won’t disclose the name of the operator (as I do not want to engage in negative advertising), but just brace yourself for needing some good nerves and a degree of flexibility in Ethiopia. I spoke to a British expat in Ethiopia who was in no way surprised by the chaos and confusion I reported. Apparently it is fairly normal here. One crucial problem is the somewhat skewed language barrier: many Ethiopians involved in the tourism industry can speak English reasonably well, but listening-comprehension is something they tend to have issues with. Asking questions thus ends up rather pointless because you’re either not given an answer at all or one that seems to be an automatic, pre-programmed response that does not necessarily match the question. That can get a bit frustrating after a while.
Unfortunately, the national airline’s handling of domestic flights can also display a level of chaos that can be hard to deal with. When I turned up for my first domestic flight I was told it had already departed – five hours before the scheduled time! They managed to get me on a different flight, so at least I got to my destination, but it was a little disturbing – and it happened twice again later on the trip. And at Gondar I was just boarding the plane when I saw a luggage handler taking my case off the conveyor belt and parking it on the tarmac – so I went over to enquire. Some boss man was eventually called and after lots of non-answering my questions (“so what’s the problem?”, “no problem”, “Yes there is, my case isn’t in the hold, why not?”, “is OK, no problem” … and so forth …), the case did go on the plane … but I never found out why it was nearly held back at the airport.
Another thing that some may find difficult to handle in Ethiopia is the degree to which white Western tourists get hassled
by street vendors, beggars, children (“Faranji” is the local derogatory word for white people … racism can work in both directions!). It’s quite bad in Addis
, but much less so in e.g. Mekele
. It is also quite routine that foreigners are charged a lot more than locals, at museums and other tourist sites at least. Yet in a way that is understandable (given how much less income an average Ethiopian has) and not an uncommon practice in other parts of the world too (Russia
, for instance); it just has to be accepted.
Ethiopia is culturally
and hence also linguistically
– dozens of different ethnicities are recognized and while the official first language is Amharic
, many others are spoke regionally. English is the most widely taught outer-African language (but see above!). Amharic is a Semitic language (like Arabic and Hebrew) and has its own very elaborate alphabet, which unusually for a language of that group is written left to right (like European languages). However, it is so different to other languages that visitors really face a big language barrier. In addition there is no single agreed way of transliterating Amharic into Latin script, hence many place names’ spelling can vary quite a bit (most frequently with regard to ‘a’ and ‘e’ and the doubling of consonants, hence e.g. Mekele
can also be spelled Makale, Makelle, Mekelle, etc.).
, in terms of food & drink
, Ethiopia is, again, unique and very different from the rest of Africa. The staple is called injera, made from a grain called teff, which is turned into spongy soft flatbreads used both as “plates” and to scoop up dishes placed on it, often spicy stews. Ethiopians are very fond of meat, including raw meat, but vegetarians
are also well catered for. Injera seems to be a bit of an ‘acquired taste’ for some, and while I quite like it, I did get a bit tired of it after a week or so. Fortunately there are alternatives (with a notable Italian influence as these are often pasta or pizza).
Ethiopia is famously the country of origin of coffee, and it's still a major cash crop. The Ethiopian coffee ceremony is a vital part of the local culture too.
As Ethiopia is predominantly a Christian country, there's alcohol too, and the country even makes its own wine ((some of it quite palatable!), though typical lager beer and local honey beers and other such concoctions are more common. Interestingly, even Muslim Harar is far from dry, though locally the Arab/Yemenite drug of choice, qat, is popular (also spelled 'khat' or 'chat', these are leaves you chew to extract a mildly narcotic effect, though it's said to taste foul and not be particularly inebriating, so I would definitely give it a miss, personally).
Ethiopia is a cool country for wildlife watching
, though some of its endemic species are decidedly rare (especially the Ethiopian wolf). Much more commonly seen are the Gelada monkeys
that are most numerous in the Simien Mountains, where they form the largest troops of any primate on Earth (other than humans, that is), up tp 800 individuals! A rather special animal in Ethiopia is the spotted hyena
, and the semi-habituated clans of hyenas in Harar
are also a highlight of a visit to Ethiopia and constitute arguably a darkish kind of attraction.
The vast majority of tourism in Ethiopia, however, is historical cultural tourism. The mainstay of this takes in those famous rock-hewn churches, the most prominent ones being those of Lalibela. Visiting the isolated animist tribes of the south is also a highlight for many. On my trip to Ethiopia I did not include any of these things, a) because of my limited time, and b) because my interest in ancient cultures in general and churches in particular is also rather limited. However, the fact that I had not included Lalibela in my trip was frequently cause for noticeable consternation on the part of some Ethiopians I spoke to. Maybe I was the first visitor ever not to have gone there …
- Ethiopia 01 - flag
- Ethiopia 02 - alphabet
- Ethiopia 03 - much greener highlands than many in the West are aware of
- Ethiopia 04 - from the air
- Ethiopia 05 - flying over Lake Tana
- Ethiopia 06 - donkey traffic on the road
- Ethiopia 07 - Simian mountains escarpment
- Ethiopia 08 - Simien Mountains National Park
- Ethiopia 09 - Gelada monkeys in the Simiens
- Ethiopia 10 - aka bleeding heart monkeys
- Ethiopia 11 - Gelada monkey showing some teeth
- Ethiopia 12 - cheeky little monkey
- Ethiopia 13 - oryx in Awash National Park
- Ethiopia 14 - Awash River gorge
- Ethiopia 15 - ex-Kereyou Lodge
- Ethiopia 16 - abandoned ex-Kereyou Lodge
- Ethiopia 17 - more hyenas near Awash
- Ethiopia 18 - chalky white hyena poo
- Ethiopia 19 - Awash Falls at sunset
- Ethiopia 20 - Awash Falls at dusk, long exposure
- Ethiopia 21 - crocodiles at cross purposes
- Ethiopia 22 - old Djibouti railway line
- Ethiopia 23 - getting dark
- Ethiopia 24 - coffee roaster
- Ethiopia 25 - very distinctive national cuisine
- Ethiopia 26 - injera is king