Expert Reviews – Ethiopia
Philip is an acclaimed travel writer and author of many guidebooks, including the Bradt guides to Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa.
Historical sites and endemic wildlife
Having explored Ethiopia extensively over the course of more than half-a-dozen trips since I researched the first modern guidebook to the country in 1994, I’d regard it to be one of the most profoundly rewarding travel destinations in Africa, and possibly my personal favourite. Admittedly, it isn’t a classic safari location in the mould of, say, Tanzania or Botswana. Of the so-called Big Five, for instance, rhino are extinct within Ethiopia, and while elephant, buffalo, lion and leopard remain in small numbers, they are very localised and seldom seen on standard tour itineraries.
For more specialised wildlife enthusiasts, part of the allure of Ethiopia is the opportunity to spot several endangered large mammals in highland national parks such as Bale and Simien Mountains. These include Ethiopian wolf, mountain nyala, Walia ibex and gelada monkey. And the country is a birdwatcher’s delight with 900-plus species recorded including more than 50 ‘specials’ that are either national endemics or near-endemic unlikely to be seen in any comparably accessible location.
It should be noted that Ethiopia’s primary attraction is not its wildlife. On the contrary, the main fascination of this culturally unique nation is its historical circuit. The highlights of this circuit include the atmospheric rock-hewn churches of Lalibela and eastern Tigray; the mediaeval castles of Gondar; and the ancient stelae and castles of Axum, a city associated by legend with the Biblical Queen of Sheba. Ethiopia also boasts some of the most scintillating highland scenery in Africa, the spectacular volcanic landscapes of the Danakil Desert, and the wealth of traditional animist cultures that inhabit the South Omo region.
Ariadne is a renowned African wildlife photographer whose work is featured in many well-known guidebooks and magazines.
The Ethiopian highlands and its endemics
Ethiopia, though best known for its cultural attractions, offers some very interesting wildlife viewing. Most of the usual safari animals are absent or only survive marginally in remote parks seldom visited by tourists. The focus of most safaris to Ethiopia, however, is several fascinating endemics that are completely unique to the country. You might think that these highly endangered animals are difficult to find, but go to the right parks, and they are quite common and easy to see.
The relatively accessible Simien Mountains National Park is popular with hikers and package tourists alike for its stupendous mountain scenery and the opportunity to look for endemic wildlife. It is the last stronghold for the walia ibex, a high-altitude goat-like creature that ranks as the most endangered large mammal in Ethiopia.
Although I appreciate the ibex’s rarity, it is the more common gelada monkeys, also endemic to Ethiopia, which bring me back here time and time again. I can easily spend a whole day following them on foot over the grassy slopes, watching then squabble, groom, fight, mate, play and eat until they descend down a steep cliff to spend the night safe from potential predators.
The highly endangered Ethiopian wolf, an endemic canid, is also present in the Simiens. The wolf is far more common, however, in the high-altitude (around 4,200m/13,780ft) Afro-alpine moorland of Bale Mountains National Park’s mist-shrouded Sanetti Plateau. The atmospheric hagenia forest that characterizes the lower slopes of Bale Mountains is the place to look for two endemic spiral-horned antelope: the all-black Menelik’s bushbuck and the statuesque mountain nyala.
Overall, wildlife viewing in Ethiopia isn’t about ticking off lots of species so much as enjoying high-quality sightings of charismatic endemic animals in the spectacular mountain scenery of its more popular parks.
Sue is an award-winning writer who specializes in African travel and conservation. She writes for national newspapers, magazines, Rough Guides and Lonely Planet.
Ethiopia is a vast and extraordinary country. Its vibrant cultures, rich history and dramatic landscapes all add to the uniqueness of a country that never fails to amaze. And although it’s not primarily known as a safari destination (you won’t find endless plains teeming with game, Serengeti-style), it does have a large number of endemic animals and birds found nowhere else on earth.
The spectacular Simien Mountains National Park in the north draws trekkers and nature-lovers alike. It’s home to Ras Dashen, the country’s highest mountain, as well as to gelada monkeys with manes like lions and elusive walia ibex, an endemic goat-like creature. In Bale Mountains National Park, you’ll likely come across the Ethiopian wolf, the world’s rarest canid, as well as giant mole-rats, possibly the world’s ugliest animal. Another natural wonder is the dramatic Danakil Depression, one of the world’s hottest places, with multicolored moon-like landscapes. And for some spectacular bird-spotting, head to Lakes Ziway and Langana lakes and Awash National Park in the Rift Valley – more than 800 bird species have been recorded in the country.
What Ethiopia might lack in traditional wildlife areas, it more than makes up for in culture and history. The classic Northern Circuit takes in the giant stelae fields of Axum, also believed to be the home of the Ark of the Covenant, and the medieval rock-hewn churches of Lalibela. As you walk around these churches, you can almost believe that they were built by angels – as they are said to be – if only because their construction by mere mortals seems almost impossible. Also take time to see the 14th-century monasteries on Lake Tana’s islands and the 17th-century castles of Gonder. Come here in January and you’ll experience Timkat, the Ethiopian Orthodox Christians’ unique celebration of the Epiphany.
And for Ethiopia’s cultural vibrancy, the Omo Valley is a fascinating destination with its ancient tribes such as the Mursi, Karo and Hamer. But a word of caution here – many of these tribes benefit little from tourism, scraping a few birr (the local currency) in exchange for photographs. Some irresponsible operators offering tours here have helped to create something of a human zoo scenario while pocketing the profits. Do your research if you wish to visit, and choose operators who have the well-being of these fragile communities at heart.
Harriet is a zoologist with more than 20 years’ experience. She has the privilege of working with the world’s top wildlife photographers and photo-guides.
Extraordinary, Epic and Endemics!
Ethiopia is like no other African country – it is truly extraordinary in every sense of the word. Its uniqueness is partly because it’s never been colonised by Europeans (though the Italians had a go in the mid-20th century). It is a rugged, landlocked country, split by the Rift Valley, with its associated lakes and highlands.
As for wildlife, it is a treasure trove of endemic species, including the Gelada baboon and Ethiopian wolf – both thankfully quite easy to see. It also boasts over 30 endemics in a bird list of around 850 species. If you’re a keen birder ensure you book a specialist bird guide, we were very disappointed with our guide who knew less than we did.
Having said that, Ethiopia is one of the most underrated wildlife destinations. I will never forget sitting on a cliff edge, watching Gelada baboons only for my view to be blocked by a bearded vulture swooping past – not another tourist in site.
Ethiopia is also a fantastic country for trekking – with the highlands of the Bale and Simien mountains and the lowest place in the world, the Danakil Depression.
And of course, Ethiopia is a cultural jewel – from its 11th century rock-hewn churches at Lalibela, to today’s tribal communities with their rich customs, festivals and traditions.
Ethiopia is like nowhere else on the planet – it has an embarrassment of riches, and will blow your mind.
Stephen is a travel writer and avid conservationist whose work appears in prestigious magazines such as Africa Geographic and Travel Africa.
Safari uniqueness in the land of endemism
The stunning views and spectacular trails of the Bale and Simien Mountains, combined with the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, impressive castles of Gondar, and a cultural extravaganza (that centres on the Omo Valley tribes) make Ethiopia an excellent destination for intrepid safari addicts. Remote Gambella, excursions to explore the otherworldly Danakil Depression, and a night-time odyssey to meet the hyena men of Harar feature high on the bucket list of the most adventurous travellers.
Omo River Valley is the setting for a cultural experience beyond words. Ethiopia boasts a diverse mix of primitive tribal and linguistic lineages that have remained surprisingly unaffected by globalisation and the influences of the outside world. With more than 80 different ethnic groups – each with its own language, culture, customs and traditions – there is no denying that Ethiopia is a cultural tourism hotspot.
Aside from its diverse array of cultural and religious tourist experiences, Ethiopia is home to some unique wildlife, including a number of endemic species (such as the Ethiopian wolf, Walia ibex and huge troops of Gelada monkeys), as well as prolific birdlife with 861 species recorded.
In addition to the culture, religion, history, wildlife and extraordinary array of unusual safari experiences, the country also boasts Simien and Bale Mountains national parks: two iconic East African trekking destinations with wonderful trails to explore and magnificent vistas to enjoy every step of the way. But for most avid nature enthusiasts, it is Africa’s most endangered large carnivore – the Ethiopian wolf – that tops the list of must-see mammals during any Ethiopian mountain walk.