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Here's why you should visit Ethiopia

From ancient ruins to bustling markets to thriving wildlife and nature, the African nation makes a fascinating destination to check out in the new year

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Boon Chan on 29 Dec 2019

The Straits Times

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Lucy and coffee: Ethiopia is the land that gave birth to humanity and, for good measure, also gave us a reason to wake up in the morning.

 

Discovered in 1974, the 3.2million-year-old fossil skeleton of everybody's common ancestor resides today at the National Museum of Ethiopia in the capital city of Addis Ababa - though what is on display is a plaster replica.

 

And coffee was said to be discovered by a shepherd named Kalid in the 9th century in the country's highlands when he noticed his goats being perkier than usual after consuming a particular berry.

 

With such primal and compelling beginnings, if you are considering exploring someplace new in the new year, Ethiopia should definitely be on your shortlist. Here are 10 reasons to visit:

 

1 DISCOVER THE MIGHTY AKSUMITE EMPIRE

 

Though the Aksumite empire was roughly contemporaneous with the Roman empire, it is far less well-known.

 

The ancient city of Aksum, also spelt Axum, was the heart of the kingdom, which ruled the region at the crossroads of Africa, Arabia and the Greco-Roman world from about 400BC to the 10th century.

 

What remains today are clusters of ruins (including the tantalisingly named Queen of Sheba's Palace), royal tombs and some impressively large obelisks.

 

The stelae, carved from single blocks of granite, were believed to have marked graves.

 

The largest stele still standing - commonly known as the Obelisk of Axum - is 24m tall and intriguingly carved to represent a multi-storey building with motifs of windows and doors. Found by the Italians in pieces and taken to Rome as a war trophy in 1937, it was returned to Aksum in 2005 and re-erected in 2008.

 

One can only begin to guess at the splendour of the kingdom at the height of its power from the intricate construction methods and detailed craftsmanship.

 

Much of the area is still unexcavated and mysteries abound, including how the ancient peoples transported stone blocks weighing hundreds of tonnes.

 

2 CHRISTIANITY HAS DEEP ROOTS HERE

 

King Bazen, a king of Aksum, was one of the three wise men who journeyed to Bethlehem during the birth of Jesus.

 

That is how deep Christianity's roots are in Ethiopia.

 

The ark of the covenant, one of Christendom's holiest artefacts, is supposedly watched over by a single monk in an unassuming chapel near the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Axum.

 

Forget about laying eyes on the treasure, even spotting the yellow-garbed guard is a rare event and my guide goes up to him and kisses the monk's cross.

 

Christianity has a different flavour here, from the circular churches to the pilgrims dressed in white to the use of drums and percussive sistra in religious music.

 

Experience it in full in January during Christmas at the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela; and Timkat - or Epiphany, which celebrates the baptism of Jesus - at Fasilides' Bath in Gondar. Christmas is celebrated in Ethiopia around Jan 7 as it follows the older Julian calendar instead of the commonly used Gregorian calendar.

 

3 CHECK OFF UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITES

 

Of Ethiopia's nine Unesco World Heritage sites (whc.unesco.org/en/statesparties/ET), only one is a natural, as opposed to cultural, site. That would be Simien Mountains National Park, which is cool and lushly verdant, a stark contrast to the brown and dry landscape of Axum.

 

Steep cliffs and deep valleys stretch into the distance and just a 15-minute walk away from an unpaved road - with some slippery spots and a bit at the end which makes it challenging for those with vertigo - the impressive Jinbar Waterfall plunges more than 500m, one of the tallest waterfalls in Africa.

 

For boasting rights, stay at Simien Lodge (www.simiens.com), which lays claim to being Africa's highest hotel at an altitude of 3,260m.

 

4 GET UP CLOSE TO UNUSUAL WILDLIFE

 

Apart from the invigorating scenery, Simien Mountains National Park is also home to rare endemic animals such as the Gelada baboon and the walia ibex.

 

Having decided that humans are not predators, the monkeys pay us little heed and it is easy to get near them. So close, I can hear them chewing as they feed on a sunny leisurely morning with the heady perfume of thyme in the air.

 

As the alpha male swaggers about, the rest forage, some of the younger monkeys scamper about, while the babies are careful not to stray too far from the safety of an adult. Geladas are the only primates that primarily eat grass.

 

Getting close to the endangered ibex would involve several days of camping and hiking, but the monkeys are easily accessible.

 

5 WANDER THROUGH CASTLES

 

Conveniently, they are clustered together at the Fasil Ghebbi royal enclosure in Gondar, established as Ethiopia's capital in 1636 by Emperor Fasilides.

 

His castle was influenced by Arab and Hindu architectural designs though the exterior, with its turrets and watchtowers, is undeniably reminiscent of European castles.

 

The grounds are pleasant to wander about and the venue is popular with locals as well as they stroll and pose for pictures.

 

6 IT IS A LANDLOCKED COUNTRY - WITH BEACHES

 

Ethiopia is landlocked and surrounded by Sudan, South Sudan, Kenya, Somalia, Djibouti and Eritrea.

 

But yes, it has beaches, thanks to the Great Rift Valley, which is (very) gradually splitting Africa into two.

 

A number of lakes dot Ethiopia, including Lake Zway, Lake Hawassa and Lake Langano, with waterfront resorts offering relaxing views and excellent birdwatching.

 

Former Olympic gold medallist long-distance runner Haile Gebrselassie is behind the successful chain of Haile Hotels and Resorts (www.hailehotelsandresorts.com).

 

Do note that not all the waters are suitable for swimming in due to bilharzia, a water-borne disease.

 

It is safe to do so at Lake Langano and if you stay at the Italian-owned Sabana Beach Resort (www.sabanalangano.com), try the tasty Italian fare such as pizzas and lasagne.

 

7 TRY SOME INJERA

 

Of course, you should also definitely sample Ethiopia's distinctive cuisine.

 

Injera is the national staple and it is made with flour from the edible seeds of a grass native to Ethiopia, teff.

 

It is like a spongy, slightly tart thosai and eaten with a variety of delicious stews of lamb, beef and chickpea.

 

At Yod Abyssinia in Addis Ababa, there are music and dance performances showcasing the diversity of Ethiopia's ethnic groups to go with the food.

 

Don't forget to hail the waiter carrying a jug of water and liquid soap to wash your hands before your meal.

 

8 COFFEE IS LIFE

 

The ubiquitous beverage is very much a part of social life in Ethiopia, with the locals taking it black, sweetened with sugar, seated on low plastic stools clustered around a woman brewing it, sometimes with wafting incense smoke adding to the sense of ceremony.

 

I visit a co-operative in Yirgalem which collects the coffee berry harvests from individual smallholdings, then washes, grades and dries them before sending the so-called coffee beans (they are actually the seeds) to Addis Ababa for roasting.

 

I enjoy an aromatic cup (7 birrs or S$0.30) in town when it starts to rain.

 

A good souvenir to buy are packs of roasted coffee, either ground or as whole beans, available from some cafes and restaurants and at the Addis Ababa Bole International Airport.

 

9 MESMERISING MARKETS

 

The Mercato in Addis Ababa claims to be the largest open-air market in Africa, with 500,000 people thronging through it every day.

 

Even with a guide, it is easy to get overwhelmed trying to navigate your way through buyers, sellers, human carriers of goods, donkeys, chickens, vegetables, spices, butter, baskets and gingerly sidestepping the metalwork.

 

Things quieten down at prayer time as the Muslims unfurl their prayer mats.

 

For a more manageable experience, check out Hawassa Fish Market on the shore of Lake Hawassa.

 

As fishermen pull in their catch, untangle their nets and hawk their tilapia and catfish, marabou storks and pelicans lurk around for scraps.

 

Fish is cooked two ways at the market: grilled or in a hearty stick-to-your-bones soup cooked with turmeric, onion, chilli, basil and ginger.

 

10 Go before tourists take over These are peaceful times for Ethiopia and it has the Nobel Prize to prove it.

 

Its Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who assumed office in April last year, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October for his "decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea", according to the official citation.

 

Ethiopia is increasing in popularity as a travel destination, with its tourism sector growing by 48.6 per cent last year, the largest year-on-year growth for any country in the world according to the World Travel & Tourism Council.

 

This means that infrastructure and facilities for tourists have been improving and will continue to do so.

 

When I depart from Addis Ababa, the new international airport terminal extension gleams brightly in the night, all ready to welcome visitors.

 

• The writer's trip was sponsored by Changi Airport Group, Ethiopian Airlines and ET Holidays (www.ethiopianholidays.com), which offers packages. For example, a five-night, six-day Northern Historical Sites tour - including Axum, Lalibela and the Simien Mountains; domestic flights and an English-speaking local guide - costs US$1,408 (S$1,910) a person for two travellers.

 

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.

 

 

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