Discover the Wonders of an Ancient Land Where Nature, Culture & History Are Equally Magnificent
Day 1: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Meet your Expedition Leader on arrival at Bole International Airport and transfer to our hotel in the heart of Ethiopia’s capital, where we’ll have a welcome dinner this evening. Located in the center of the country, bustling Addis Ababa is Ethiopia’s geographic, political and cultural hub. Addis is distinct from many other African capitals because it was not founded or developed under colonial rule. Ethiopia’s independent influence has led the secretariats of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) to establish their headquarters here. One of Addis’ best-known sites is the National Museum of Ethiopia, which houses the remains of “Lucy,” a bipedal hominid that lived 3.2 million years ago and was discovered in 1974. Since Addis is located at 7,700 feet above sea level, our overnight stay here provides an important acclimatization interlude before we ascend substantially higher over the next few days.
Day 2: Gondar / Simien Mountains National Park
Transfer to the airport very early this morning for our flight to Gondar. Driving on to Simien Mountains National Park, the road winds through highland pastures and fields of grain, eventually emerging on top of a vast plateau. This wild high country known as the “Roof of Africa” boasts some of the continent’s most dramatic scenery. The Simien Mountains, among the largest ranges in Africa, include Ras Dashen, Ethiopia’s highest peak at 15,157 feet. Precipitous cliffs, Afro-alpine steppe, tree-studded grasslands and deep canyons define this varied terrain that stuns our senses at every turn.
After lunch, we’ll make an easy hike to Chinquanit to see gelada baboons, a gregarious species of Old World monkey (not actually a baboon) found only in the Ethiopian Highlands. Geladas are the only primates that are primarily grazers, living on the grasses of the central plateau. Large and robust, males weigh up to 60 pounds, with a heavy cape of dark hair down their back. Little known and little studied, geladas live in huge troops of several hundred individuals. They are highly social, often rambunctious, and comfortable allowing us to approach at close range. At night, they sleep on cliff ledges out of range of nocturnal predators such as hyena, leopard and jackal. After an unhurried visit with the baboons, we drive on to Sankaber Camp, stopping for wildlife viewing en route. There's an option to take a longer hike before settling in at Simien Lodge, which is the highest guest accommodation in Africa at 10,700 feet. Drink in the vast scale of the highland landscape, with magnificent views for miles, and keep an eye out for resident wildlife that may include walia ibex, klipspringer, jackal and fox.
Days 3 & 4: Exploring the Simien Mountains
An exhilarating day is in store as we set off to discover more of this high-altitude region and its local wildlife. Driving along the escarpment edge, we pass Korbete Metia, a solid rock wall that opens up to reveal beautiful views over the distant lowlands, a scenic highlight of our trip. This is a good place for spotting lammergeyers—giant birds of prey with a 10-foot wingspan that nest on the cliffs and spend their days soaring on thermals with a variety of other raptors. Look, too, for the tawny eagle, bearded vulture and Ethiopian thick-billed raven.
Reaching Chennek at 11,800 feet, we walk among giant lobelia trees with their spiky fronds, in a landscape that’s almost otherworldly. This is the best place to spot the walia ibex, a national symbol of Ethiopia and one of the world’s most endangered mammals, found only in this isolated region. Habitat loss and pressure on their environment from cultivation have driven their numbers down to just a few hundred animals, which live on the steep slopes and grassy ledges of the escarpment. The area is also home to two more of Ethiopia’s threatened endemics: the gelada baboon and the very rare Ethiopian wolf, also called Simien fox. Fewer than 400 remain, living in the alpine zone of the plateau. Keep an eye out, too, for klipspringer and bush buck. After a chance for some leisurely hiking this afternoon, we return to our lodge for dinner.
Day 5: Gondar
Drive back to Gondar this morning, famed for its 17th-century stone castles and fortresses that evoke a feeling of an African Camelot. Founded in 1636 by the great Emperor Fassilidas, this UNESCO World Heritage Site that was once the royal capital of Ethiopia enjoys a striking setting atop high, tree-studded hills. We will visit various castles and churches built by Fassilidas and his descendants, including the emperor’s own palace, the grandest of them all. Perhaps the greatest highlight is Debre Birhan Selassie church, whose walls and ceilings are intricately decorated with scenes of biblical lore and medieval history. A swarm of bees is credited for preserving this beautiful church from the destruction that befell most of Gondar’s churches by marauding Sudanese Dervishes in the 1880s. When their troops appeared outside the church gates, a huge phalanx of bees flew out of the compound and drove them away, a stroke of luck that some attributed to divine providence. Inside the stone walls and arched doors, every available space is filled with scenes from the life of Christ and other historical events, including some hundred faces of whimsical winged cherubs that stare down at us, representing the omnipresent gaze of God.
Day 6: Lalibela
Today we fly to Lalibela, Ethiopia’s cultural crown jewel. A cradle of Ethiopian Christianity, Lalibela is famed for its magnificent ancient churches and is the scene of many major religious ceremonies. Christianity in Ethiopia dates to the 1st century AD, the only pre-colonial Christian presence in sub-Saharan Africa and one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. Today, about 60 percent of Ethiopia’s people, with most part of the orthodox tradition.
Often called the eighth wonder of the world, Lalibela’s mystical rock-hewn churches evoke a profound sense of awe and admiration. Churches below ground level are carved straight from the rock, ringed by trenches and subterranean courtyards and connected by a maze of stone tunnels and passages. Of these, Bete Giyorgis is most famous and most photographed, as it is unobscured by any shelters erected over the site. The churches above ground are equally wondrous feats of engineering, built out of a single hunk of rock, using no blocks, bricks, joints, seams or mortar. While individual churches are often built in the shape of a cross, multiple churches together also form a larger cross. Among the churches we will visit is Bete Amanuel, a 36-foot-high monolith considered by architectural historians to exhibit the finest and most precise workmanship in Lalibela, possibly because it was the private church of the royal family. Bete Medhane is the largest of Lalibela's churches and the largest human-carved monolith in the world, while the most majestic and best preserved of all Lalibela’s churches is Bete Markorios, a cave church originally used for secular purposes and thought to be approximately 1,400 years old.
Day 7: Lalibela—Asheton Maryam Monastery
After a relaxed breakfast we make an excursion to a little-visited 13th-century rock-hewn monastery near Lalibela, at an altitude of more than 13,000 feet. Carved out of a cleft in a vertical cliff face on the side of Abuna Yoseph Mountain, the monastery’s setting is spectacular, as is the view from the trail on the way up. Though the hike to reach the site is short, the route is steep, and we take our time in the thin air. After our visit we’re treated to a coffee ceremony in a local home, where the lady of the house hand-roasts the green beans over a fire, then grinds and brews them into a delicious cup for us to enjoy. Coffee has long been a hallmark of Ethiopian culture, and in fact, the coffee plant originated in Ethiopia. Ethiopia today is Africa's top coffee consumer and producer, and coffee exports currently constitute about 10 percent of GDP and 60 percent of Ethiopia's foreign income.
Day 8: Bale Mountains National Park
We fly back to Addis this morning, then continue by private chartered plane to Bale Mountains National Park. Ethiopia’s second-highest mountain range contains one of the richest habitats in Ethiopia’s alpine heights. It is the best place for viewing a broad cross-section of the country’s unique wildlife including Ethiopian wolf, rare mountain nyala, giant forest hog, cape hyrax, colobus and vervet monkeys and 16 endemic bird species. Bale was one of the last regions of Africa to attract serious scientific exploration, and it remains sufficiently out of the way even today that few travelers make it here in comparison with the Simien Mountains. The park’s main attractions are its wild alpine scenery, particularly on the Sanetti Plateau that rises more than 13,000 feet above sea level. We’ll take a nature walk in the forest around the park headquarters to look for endemic antelope and forest birds.
Day 9: Gaysay Grasslands
Via a scenic 3-hour drive this morning, we reach the Gaysay grasslands, part of Bale Mountain National Park. The landscape of the northern Gaysay section comprises a central broad, flat valley at altitudes ranging from 9,800 to 11,700 feet. The southern ridge of the Gaysay area, which is relatively dry, is covered mainly with juniper forest, a nationally protected species, while the relatively wet northern ridge is largely covered with Hagenia abyssinica—
African redwood trees—and Hypericum revolutum,
the yellow flowering curry bush. The flat valleys of the Gaysay region offer excellent game viewing, with opportunities to see the rare endemic mountain nyala, duiker, Menelik's bushbuck and wild pigs.
Day 10: Sanetti Pleateau & Harenna Forest
Early this morning we drive to the Sanetti Plateau. This vast highland region is the world’s largest expanse of Afro-alpine moorland, a montane habitat with an average elevation above 13,000 feet. The plateau is renowned for supporting the most substantial remaining population of Ethiopian wolf, which we'll hope to spot during a wildlife drive in 4x4 vehicles. A walk atop the plateau reveals exhilarating views all the way to the Harenna Forest, one of the most extensive natural forests remaining in Ethiopia. At the southern end of the plateau, the Harenna escarpment affords an astounding view over the forest well over a mile below us—deeper than the Grand Canyon. This forest, far denser and more varied than the juniper woodland around Dinsho, has a similar appearance and composition to the forests found in other East African mountain landscapes. Though we're unlikely to see them, lions live in this densely wooded region. Back at Bale Mountains Lodge, we enjoy a festive farewell dinner together.
Day 11: Bale Mountains National Park / Addis / Depart
After a last morning of activities in Bale Mountains National Park, we return to Addis by private chartered plane. A day room awaits for refreshment and relaxing before late afternoon and evening transfers to the airport. Dinner is included for those with later departures.
Physical Rating: Moderate