Dozens of bleeding-heart “baboons” are scattered across the misty mountainside, plucking double fists full of grass and stuffing them rhythmically into their ever-hungry mouths. The shaggy brown figures work intently with bowed heads and hunched backs, quietly making sure their turf comes with plenty of personal space.
Ethiopia is the only place in the world to see these gelada monkeys, which aren’t actually baboons but look like them because of bright red skin patches on their chests. Here in Simien Mountains National Park, these gentle creatures were once killed for their fur and their numbers plummeted. Then UNESCO declared this area a World Heritage Site
and people started coming to trek through the lush highlands and see the walia ibex, Ethiopian wolves and gelada monkeys.
The monkeys are the easiest to find since they hang out in large social groups along the long and winding road through the park. This generation knows who to trust. They run from the local children, but graciously tolerate the faranji (foreigners) who come calling with big cameras and quiet cooing. They apparently recognize the smell of kindly local guides and scouts — armed park rangers — who protect them while showing them off.
“Don’t walk towards them,” warns my guide Melaku “Mali” Tesfa. “Better to avoid eye contact. They are not aggressive at all, but the males are very proud. Go slowly. They are not used to food. If you give them food, they will have to be killed.”
Inching through the grass, I envelope myself in monkeys, who calmly readjust, making sure their backs are to me at all times. A few sneak peeks before returning to the important business of ingesting multiple kilos of grass a day. Some engage in brief, snarling turf wars with each other and babble quick, coded messages to the group. Two, each with babies clinging to their tummies, plunk themselves down on a large rock, lovingly grooming each other while keeping a watchful eye on me as I hunker down on a similar rock a comfortable distance away.
How lucky to see bleeding-heart baboons in the wild like this.
How lucky to see beautiful Ethiopia in the early years of tourism.
“Thank you for coming to Ethiopia,” Tesfa tells our group as we spend 13 days zig-zagging between Addis Ababa and Lalibela with Intrepid Travel
, a small group adventure travel company. “Please tell the people what you saw, and tell them to come and experience the reality. Forget the image and experience the reality.”
The image, to those of us who remember the 1980s, is of a devastating famine and the musical fundraiser Band Aid mounted by Bob Geldof and the world’s best musicians. But that was one moment in time decades ago in one part of this large and geographically diverse country.
It’s fair to say that most people can’t conjure up any image of Ethiopia, beyond a coffee ceremony or platter of colourful, berbere-spiked stews spread out on injera. I’ll admit that I got Ethiopia wrong. I told people I was going to experience Africa without the animals — and then was dazzled by the bleeding-heart baboons and colourful birds at every turn.
Lucky for me that Tesfa, with degrees in history and tourism, is an avid birder and photographer who has been guiding people throughout his country for a dozen years.
At a cooking demonstration in Lalibela we admire two lammergeier (bearded vultures) as we learn to make tej (honey wine) and injera (a fermented pancake-style bread) with Sisaynesh Gebeyaw. At the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela we spot a red-billed firefinch. At a pagan temple in Yeha, there is a brilliant yellow weaver. Along the road, there are hooded vultures. By the time we spot a Hemprich’s hornbill, I have bought an African bird book.
Wherever we go, Tesfa has been multiple times before and shows us the best angles for our shots.
What really astounds me is how rich Ethiopia is in religion, culture and history. It was never colonized — it calls the five years under Italian rule an occupation. It’s famously the home of Lucy, several hundred pieces of bone fragments at the National Museum of Ethiopia from a 3.2 million-year-old fossil skeleton of a human ancestor.
Religion — namely Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity — is woven into virtually every moment of daily life. But there are Muslims, Catholics, Protestants and even Jews among the 105 million Ethiopians. I land in Addis Ababa in September during the Meskel Festival and brave a gauntlet of security patdowns to see the country celebrate the finding of the True Cross with top clergy, deacons, priests and a massive bonfire at Meskel Square.
In Lalibela — widely considered the crown jewel of Ethiopian tourism — I see a dozen churches in one day. They are nearly all rock-hewn churches, carved in place out of the rocky landscape. The most spectacular is the famous Church of St. George’s, or Bete Giyorgis. You literally stand on the rock and look down into a hole at an ancient church.
Lalibela is a magnet for Christian pilgrims, and many of the people in my trip have come specifically to see the religious sites.
UNESCO attributes the rock-hewn churches to King Lalibela, who wanted to construct a “New Jerusalem” in the 12th Century.
In the city of Bahir Dar, I take a boat across Lake Tana. It’s Ethiopia’s largest lake and its waters are the source of the Blue Nile. I find my way to the Ura Kidanemihret Monastery and one of the country’s beautiful round churches, its interior walls filled with colourful murals.
I’ve seen many a waterfall around the world, but the Blue Nile Falls (Tis Abay) is one of most memorable. Half the fun is the challenging hike to get to it, up and down rocky hills, past a gauntlet of people who want to sell you walking sticks, become your unofficial guide, help you when you stumble and sell you local crafts.
I learn that the city of Aksum is widely believed to be home to the Ark of Covenant, a chest that holds tablets engraved with the Ten Commandments. No one, except for a solitary monk, gets to see the treasures but we solemnly stare at the decidely unglamorous building where it supposedly resides. “Many people have said why don’t you show it,” acknowledges Tesfa. “It’s not about money. It’s about faith. We believe we have it.”
Aksum is also home to UNESCO-backed ruins with monolithic obelisks, also known as stelae. Made from single pieces of granite, the giant stelae were long used as tombstones.
And yet, despite all this history, I gravitate to the here and now, and so it’s the Ethiopian people, animals and roads that I will remember.
Our group of 12 worldly travellers pile into a minibus each day as we drive from Bahir Dar to Lalibela. A precious few roads are paved. Most are gravel and dotted with the deepest potholes I’ve ever seen. Cars are scarce, so we mainly share the road with tuk-tuks, jammed local minibuses, zebu (humped cattle), goats, sheep, mules, horses and donkeys.
Ethiopia is not for the faint hearted.
Yes, Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed was just awarded the Nobel peace prize for helping thaw relations with Eritrea. But we get a crash course in the multiple levels of police that we see and hear about the ongoing devestation of inter-ethnic conflicts. We learn that khat, a mildly narcotic plant, is messing up farmers’ lives and causing terrible social problems. We are warned not to create a culture of begging by giving kids the pens, candy, soap and money they beg for along the road.
Everywhere we turn, people try to help us — for a price. They ask to shine our shoes, help us along steep or rocky paths, care for our shoes while we are inside churches. We experience several official police checkpoints — targetting smuggled goods — and even two vigilante roadblocks created by young men trying to keep khat out of their communities.
There is turmoil along the challenging roads, but also beauty. We pull over to talk to a farmer and his son who are using two oxen to thresh teff, separating the grain used to make injera from the plant by hand. On the trail to Blue Nile Falls, we visit a woman making injera for a community celebration. We see how part of her tiny home is reserved for her animals. We learn how villagers bake cow dung on the side of their homes so they can use the patties for fuel.
It seems strange to leave the countryside behind and spend our final few days in the small but busy tourist city of Lalibela.
At Torpido Tej House, we get a brief lesson in how the popular local honey wine is made. At Ben Abeba, an architecturally striking restaurant on a cliff, our cross-cultural feast includes Ethiopian shepherd’s pie and vegetarian, but Ethiopian flavoured, Scotch eggs. A Scottish retiree co-owns the restaurant with a local businessman.
There is one taste that will forever remind me of Ethiopia — kolo, a crunchy mix of roasted barley grains, peanuts and sunflower seeds. Ethiopian Airlines serves it on the flight from Toronto to Addis Ababa, and when I tell Tesfa how much I liked it, he he buys two big bags for the road.
“Barley?” our trusty guide asks several times a day as we drive across the country. He doles out a handful at a time, making sure it lasts until the very end of our journey.
How to do this trip
Take a tour: Intrepid Travelspecializes in small-group trips around the world. I did Incredible Ethiopia— a 13-day historical and religious route through the North with plenty of hiking — but there are other routes and themes. Ethiopia’s challenging roads are always filled with people and animals, so having a driver (and comfortable minibus) is essential. Having a dedicated guide/translator/fixer brings the country to life. All hotels, some meals and most activities are included, but some free time (and meals on your own) are worked into each day.
I flew Ethiopian Airlines direct from Toronto to Addis Ababa. The return flight stops in Dublin to refuel. I tested out business class, grateful to get lounge access and turn my extra-wide seat into a comfortable bed. For two internal flights (Addis to Bahir Dar, and Lalibela to Addis), I also flew Ethiopian Airlines.
Buy an e-visa in advance or when you land in Addis Ababa. I swapped U.S. dollars for Ethiopian birr at the airport but there are plenty of ATMs and hotel currency exchanges. Credit cards and U.S. cash are accepted in some places. Go to a travel clinic about six weeks before your trip for advice on malaria and vaccines. A first-aid kit with Imodium, antibiotics and electrolytes is essential.
Some parts of my trip were at high elevations and so prepare for altitude sickness. Hotels have inexpensive laundry and free wifi, although bandwidth can be low and sometimes it only works in the lobby. Cell service is available everywhere, but we did experience power outages. We visited tourist towns and spots where it wasn’t safe to go out at night, so trust your guide’s advice on safety and keep on top of Government of Canada alerts.
By Jennifer Bain