Ethiopia: A visit to remember

Photo Caption: 2102 completed. African Union HQ, Addis Ababa. Chinese funded)

Photo Caption: 2102 completed. African Union HQ, Addis Ababa. Chinese funded)

Editor in Chief Malcolm Ginsberg has been to Ethiopia, courtesy of that country’s national airline. In a two-part piece he reports on a country and air carrier that are both looking up. Malcolm hopes to go again later this year. A full three-day, two-night visit, was too short to do the country (and its airline) justice.

Ethiopia is perhaps synonymous with Bob Geldof and Band Aid circa 1984. To an earlier generation Emperor Haile Selassie is the name that epitomises the country, a proud man who spoke out at the League of Nations in 1936 condemning Italian naked aggression. In 1953 he was a very popular visitor for the Queen’s Coronation but in 1975 he died at the age of 83 having been overthrown by a Communist coupe the previous year.

A period of civil war followed with the BBC highlighting a very serious famine problem picked up by Geldof, the money from “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and a sell-out concert at Wembley Stadium highlighting Ethiopia’s plight.

(Haille Selassie MuseumIn)

(Haille Selassie MuseumIn)

Things have changed.

1991 Dictator Mengistu fled the country to asylum in Zimbabwe, where he still resides, the country ruled since by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front. New elections are due in 2015 and a change of government is not expected.

From a visitor’s point of view it certainly appears prosperous, the people very friendly, with 83 ethnic groups, dominated by 60% Christian and 40% Moslem. English is widely spoken and Addis Ababa is a bubbling city, only established in 1887 and without a discernable centre. Our local host was ET Holidays whose headquarters has a spa on the ground floor and the delightful Diplomat restaurant on the top of a six-storey building. This rather typifies a place and country that is rapidly growing on the tourist map.

Photo Caption: Merkato Market, Addis Ababa, said to be the biggest in Africa

Photo Caption: Merkato Market, Addis Ababa, said to be the biggest in Africa

Ethiopia is bordered by Eritrea to the north and northeast, Djibouti and Somalia to the east, Sudan and South Sudan to the west,  and Kenya to the south. With over 93m inhabitants it is the most populous landlocked country in the world, and the second-most peopled nation on the African continent.

Merkato Market, Addis Ababa, said to be the biggest in AfricaEthiopia was one of the founding members of the UN, the Organisation of African Unity, with Addis Ababa serving as the headquarters of the African Union, the Pan African Chamber of Commerce and Industry, UNECA, the African Standby Force and many global NGOs focused on Africa. The country has seemingly recovered from the drought period and it now has the largest economy by GDP in East Africa and Central Africa. The Chinese have arrived in a big way, but keep themselves to themselves and have an enormous enclave not far from Addis Ababa Bote International Airport.

The first impression is that of a massive building site, with a brand new motorway just by the airport, dual carriageways being thrust through the city centre and a metro system in the building phrase. And building after building under construction.

Photo Caption: National Museum of Ethiopia - the home of Lucy

Photo Caption: National Museum of Ethiopia – the home of Lucy

You need a car and driver to get around Addis, a sprawling metropolis complete with international standard hotels, the Holy Trinity Cathedral, the National Museum (containing the bones of Lucy, claimed to be oldest human remains ever found and said to be three million years old). The city is at well over 7,000ft above sea level, which will clearly help the golfers at the nine-hole Addis Ababa Golf Club (the restaurant is said to be very good) or a six-hole pitch and put course within the massive British Embassy compound. Visitors are welcome.

You can only squeeze so much into a three-day, two-night trip, but Ethiopian Airways partner ET Holidays did themselves proud with a rushed, but nevertheless eye opening visit. In Addis there was just time for a quick visit to a small chapel dedicated to the last Emperor. He still is not the official flavour of the month but is now well respected. When the airport is renamed back to Haile Selassie the world will know his revivification is complete. In the meantime in the Caribbean he has acquired the status of a messiah by the Rastafari movement.

Photo Caption: Kuriftu Debrziet Resort is on the lakeside

Photo Caption: Kuriftu Debrziet Resort is on the lakeside

Kuriftu Debrziet resort is about 30 miles south east of central Addis Ababa on the road to Djibouti. The bad news is that the current highway is a single track road full of overladen old lorries. What should be a 45-minute journey can take two hours. The very good news is that a new motorway is about to open from Addis Abada Bole International Airport. The journey time will be 30 minutes and the already busy resort will boom. New individual chalets are being added to the 105 already in service.

The 50-acre estate includes a swimming pool with sunbathing terrace, an organic spa with Swedish style steam rooms and a gourmet restaurant. It looks out onto a crater lake with a backdrop of forest hills and distant mountains. You can of course go boating on the water or take a swim.

Each of the suites can be described as elegant traditional, combining modernisation with African style. There is a fireplace, private courtyard ready for a barbeque and there is 24-hour room service from the very friendly staff. If you want to cut yourself off you can but every suite has a flat screen TV and wi-fi. Most packages include a visit to the spa and a relaxing massage by experts followed by a manicure for ladies and a haircut for men. For those who wish to be active there is horse riding and quad bikes. A fantastic resort in the heart of Africa.

A must visit while in Ethiopia is to take an hour’s domestic flight (aboard the Q400) to the isolated town of Lalibela, high up in the mountains of Lasta. It is famed for its stunning rock hewn churches which date back to the 12th and 13th Century. There are 12 churches, each uniquely carved in shape and size. They are not just awesome tourist attractions but active Christian Shrines, an embodiment of the spiritual centre of the town’s life.

Photo Caption: A rock hewn church in Lalibela

Photo Caption: A rock hewn church in Lalibela

During our group’s visit in the morning we saw swathes of white robed men in prayer, mostly Orthodox Christians, walking bible in hand to bask on the rocks greeted by Eucharisitc drumbeats and swaying chants.

During the reign of Saint Gebre Mesqel Lalibela (a member of the Zagwe Dynasty, who ruled Ethiopia in the late 12th century and early 13th century) the current town of Lalibela was known as Roha. According to local legend, the saintly king was given this name due to a swarm of bees said to have surrounded him at his birth, which his mother took as a sign that he and not his brother, should reign as the Emperor of Ethiopia. The names of several places in the modern town and the general layout of the rock-cut churches themselves are said to mimic names and patterns observed by Lalibela during the time he spent in Jerusalem and the Holy Land as a youth.

Lalibela is said to have seen Jerusalem and then attempted to build a new Jerusalem as his capital in response to the capture of old Jerusalem by Muslims in 1187.

There are on average seven hours of sunshine per day, meaning it is sunny for around 60% of the available time. The UK winter period, the dry season is the sunniest time of the year, though even at the height of the rainy period in July and August there are still usually several hours per day of bright sunshine. The average annual temperature in Addis Ababa is 16°C in February, with daily maximum temperatures averaging 20–25°C throughout the year, and overnight lows averaging 5–10°C.

Ethiopia could be the next tourist destination from the UK and the first into Africa central for many. The people are lovely, English is spoken, and it is not expensive. What more do you want? A review of Ethiopian Airlines will follow.

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Edition 51March 2014

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