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5 Reasons To Go To Ethiopia in 2015

5 Reasons To Go To Ethiopia in 2015

You hear the hyenas before you see them. An eerie wail coming from the darkness beyond the car headlight we’re crouched in front of, punctuated by yelps and deranged cackling.

Suddenly they enter the light, their long powerful necks and spotted hides make them look like a mad scientist’s attempt at mixing a wolf and a giraffe. A “hyena man” holds a piece of raw camel meat above my head on a skewer while I squat and consider how easily this animal could kill me if it wanted to. Then the hyena places its feet on my shoulders, using me as a sort of step ladder to reach the food. I can feel its intimidating weight as it snaps up the meat above my head.

This isn’t even the most unusual thing that happened to me in Ethiopia. Here are five reasons to consider visiting Africa’s second-most populated nation in 2015. Well, sort of 2015.

#1 Everything is different in Ethiopia, even time

Ethiopia, with its well-preserved historical sites and faithfulness to ancient traditions, evokes the well-worn cliché “like stepping back in time”. It wasn’t until I arrived that I found out that is literally true – the Coptic calendar is used in Ethiopia which has 13 months, meaning it’s currently 2007 there.

Ethiopians celebrate New Year’s Eve on September 11 and Christmas day on January 7. To complicate matters further they tell time starting from 6am. So at 7am they would say it’s one’o’clock. I asked a tour guide whether these unique time systems make it difficult to do business with the outside world. “Oh yes,” he said, with a grave nod of his head.

#2 Ethiopia has an epic history

Ethiopia was one of the world’s first Christian countries and the country is home to some of the world’s most unusual churches in the most unusual of places. The enormous conical churches of Bahir Dar are nestled away in lushly-forested islands in the middle of Lake Tanaa and are only accessible by boat. The spectacular monolithic churches of Lalibela were incredibly carved from single slabs of rock in the 12th century.


In Tigray, churches are improbably located on mountain tops and rocky plateaus and act as home to a few solitary monks. The story goes that sometime in the 10th century a queen named Judith tried to eradicate Christianity by burning churches, so the faithful of Tigray decided to start building them out of harm’s way on the top of mountains.

The Abuna Yemata Guh is so difficult to access that even the most passionate of church-burning queens could surely not be bothered with it. The ascent involves a one hour trek from the base of the mountain, followed by a rock-climb up a sheer cliff face using well-worn grooves in the rock and without safety equipment. The whole endeavour appears insane.


“Don’t people die doing this?” I asked our guide, Gabre, as I clung to the rock like a trembling mollusc.

“No,” Gabre said. “The priests say that this is a holy place, God would not let anyone fall.”

While you might fear for your life, a few wisened old locals run nimbly up and down the ascent in plastic slippers, sometimes chatting on their mobile phones at the same time.


At the top you must walk along a metre-wide stone ledge with a drop of 200m to one side to reach the church. It’s worth the risk and effort. You step away from the precipice and into a mystical cave with ornately carved pillars and the colourful, slightly cartoonish murals of bible stories that are typical of Ethiopian churches.

#3 See some of the world’s most bizarre and dramatic landscapes

Who needs Richard Branson to organise an excursion into space when you could visit the Danakil Depression? It’s less expensive than a trip to Mars and slightly more habitable. The heat, lurid colours, and bizarre rock formations are the very definition of “otherworldly”.

(Photo: Achilli Family | Journeys/Flickr)

The vast plateau of the Semien Mountains offers some of the best hiking in Africa. The highest peak, Ras Dashen, is four-and-a-half kilometres above sea level but the rugged escarpments create awe-inspiring views and a sense of vertigo throughout the entire landscape.


#4 The food and coffee is excellent

Ethiopian food is eaten communally, served on a large thin piece of bread called injera which has a slightly sour taste. Everyone takes turns breaking off a piece of injera and picking up a piece of food with it, usually a richly spiced meat stew or a diverse selection of marinated vegetables.

(Photo: Rod Waddington/Flickr)

Traditional restaurants will often offer entertainment. Early in the evening there’s usually someone with a keyboard singing mellow Ethiopian soul or a folk singer with a stringed instrument who wanders between tables roasting the customers with improvised lyrics.

Once the honey wine starts flowing the tempo picks up and members of the audience are pulled from their seats for a bit of “horse dancing”, a traditional dance which involves jerking your shoulders back and forth in time to the music. It looks incredible when done well and hilarious when done terribly (always by tourists).

Woman preparing coffee (Photo: Amanda Aung)

Ethiopian coffee is strong and delicious and an important part of social interaction in Ethiopia. One man shared that in his village there were three coffee ceremonies each day – in the morning someone would invite the other families over, then everyone would have three or four coffees, work for a few hours and repeat the same thing at lunchtime. Finally there would be another coffee ceremony in the evening.

“That’s like 12 coffees a day!” I said. ‘”Do you guys sleep?”

“Not well,” he sighed.

#5 You can feed hyenas and walk amongst gelada baboons


Gelada baboons are red-chested baboons with glorious manes of straight blond hair reminiscent of an ’80s hair metal band. They’re endemic to the Semien Mountains. A large pack of them came screeching and scrambling over a cliff face while we were hiking, baring their fearsome fangs. Then they all settled down and started pulling at grass with their tough little hands while we walked right through the middle of their group.


To feed the aforementioned hyenas you have to travel to Harar – a walled city founded in the seventh century. It’s only about one square kilometre in size and contains a labyrinthine maze of colourful alleys, mosques, and people chewing through ungodly quantities of khat (a leaf that produces a mild stimulant effect). Each night hyenas approach the city gates to be fed by “hyena men”. The legend goes that the feeding started over a hundred years ago as a way to stop the hyenas eating the farmer’s livestock, but as with so many of Ethiopia’s fascinating curiosities it’s hard to tell where fact and fiction diverge.

(Lead image and all other uncredited photos: Adam Black)

Qantas flies to South Africa, a gateway to the rest of the continent. 

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