I’m crazy about Ethiopia. It’s exciting and elegant and stuffed full of history and drama. It offers vast distances between its remarkable tourist sites so, for a traveller like me who wants to get lost in the journey, it’s a fascinating place to visit and one that’s rapidly changing. It’s six years since my last trip here and change is everywhere.
I’m in a minibus heaving with European journalists, cutting down through the Ethiopian section of the Rift Valley towards the Bale Mountains. It’s an eight-hour drive from the capital Addis Ababa, if we don’t take pit stops – but that’s unlikely in a country as surprising and eye-catching as this.
There are deep blue crater lakes to explore, buzzards flying overhead, lush pastures and dark forest alongside us and great restaurants and brand new vineyards to visit. And that’s before we make it to the mountains themselves and all that they offer.
Ethiopian tourism is expanding rapidly and the country is working hard to contain it. The whole world seems to want to be here right now. Two of my travelling companions work for Lonely Planet and the Rough Guides. Both publications gave Ethiopia their vote of confidence recently, putting it among the top tourist destinations in the world you need to see right now.
Beyond tourism, countries such as China, Turkey, the US, the UK and others are investing heavily in a country that is stuffed full of potential. The hotels of Addis buzz with the sound of business being done.
It’s a safe country for tourism, well managed and with a young, educated workforce striving to educate the world that there’s a country and a culture that runs much deeper than old headlines might suggest. After all, 30 years and a lot of political and economic change has washed over Ethiopia since the famine of 1984.
Ethiopians are proud and relaxed. Men of all rank and association walk hand-in- hand in the street. A shoulder bump, that I couldn’t quite master, is the greeting of choice among friends, male and female.
Some say their natural pride comes from the fact that as a country they were never colonised like their African neighbours, others from the fact that they can chart their history back to the birth of man. More again claim it’s just the Ethiopian way – elegance comes from within they say: simply enjoy it for what it is.
The main goal for the engine behind tourism right now is increasing the standards in accommodation, guides and transport infrastructure. Ethiopian Airlines operates an extensive internal flight network making it easier to travel around this country of 90 million people – an essential service since the distances to be travelled can be vast and the roads network still developing. The airline has also recently partnered with Ethiopian Holidays to offer tailor- made packages with experienced guides and great accommodation. There are also many independent tour companies with extensive experience such as Ethiopian Quadrants, run by Irishman Tony Hickey.
The standard of resorts is increasing quickly. Back on the road to Bale we overnight in the Kuriftu Resort and Spa Debra Zeit, one of a group of luxury resorts clustered around one of the crater lakes that make this part of the country so attractive.
Our individual bungalows are thatched and huge while the swimming pool and restaurant overlook sapphire-blue water where pelicans drift slowly behind fishing boats on the lake. It’s a remarkable location, calm and lush with incredible food and wonderful staff.
The next day we travel onward towards Bale and take a pitstop in Bekoji – a small Ethiopian highlands town that has produced some of the greatest distance runners in the world, including Tirunesh Dibaba, Kenenisa Bekele and Derartu Tulu.
Traffic passes and children stare and I try to figure out why so many Olympic medals have been brought home here. The high altitude helps and the great coaching, but the story of Bekoji and its track record is bigger than that. Perhaps, like Ethiopia in general, the people are simply ambitious enough to win, or maybe they’re destined to do so.
The sun is setting as we finally cross into the Bale mountains national park, casting triumphant colours across the horizon. We’re in the Ethiopian highlands surrounded by some of the highest peaks in Africa. A magnificent lightening storm is chasing us from a distance and as night falls and the terrain gets rougher the sense of adventure is palpable.
Thunder snaps in the air as our driver navigates a route across the plateau shaped by rains and deep crevices. The rainy season in the mountains lasts from June to September creating a colder climate than you would expect and you’ll be glad you packed warm clothes. Bale is a biological hotspot in Africa. There are more than 280 different bird species, 82 different mammals and 1,600 plants, 10 per cent of which are endemic to Bale.
While Ethiopia doesn’t claim to compete with its neighbour Kenya for tourist access to wildlife, there is a huge amount to see and experience and we were heading to the very best place to help do that: the Bale Mountain Lodge.
This is a luxury eco-lodge nestled among virgin forest and high peaks. It was opened by Englishman Guy Levene in late 2013 and is a good example of how to build sustainable tourism facilities in the wild. There are only eight guestrooms and in fact they’re not just rooms, rather individual bungalows, each isolated from each other at various heights and looking out on the forest. Some have outdoor showers, some have glorious balconies and all offer five- star accommodation.
Not surprisingly, there’s an Irishman involved. Mark Megarry, a Belfast man, is the lodge manager. He has spent two years away from his usual home in Uganda managing the building of the mountain lodge. The pride of everyone involved is great to see. Local people are trained to work in all aspects of tourism and local materials are used for all building, bringing us closer to understanding our surroundings.
This isn’t a lounge-by-the-pool resort. It’s a get up close to nature and breathe it all in kind of place – although there’s a beautiful natural pool under a waterfall in the forest if you do feel the need for a swim.
Our roundtrip the next day takes us back across the plateau. We spot an Ethiopian wolf, one of only two wolf species living in Africa and one of the rarest canids in the world. Families of warthogs, antelope, mountain nyala and, later in the lower grasslands, families of monkeys flank our route. The views are exceptional and wild.
We finally arrive at our last stop: Haile resort in Hawassa, a low- rise resort-style hotel owned and managed by the great Ethiopian runner and Olympian, Haile Gebrselassie. It surprises us all with its international style and warm welcome. Standing on my balcony I can look out on the magnificent Halesse lake, packed with wildlife and try to spot the families of hippos that live there.
Human life here is rich with adventure. A wedding party pass on horseback. The bride, veiled and dressed in vibrant colour, is led up one side of a hill to meet her husband for the first time who approaches, also on horseback, with a party of men from the other side of the hill. Churches and mosques dot the landscape, shantytowns and cafes, farms and schools. Children run along the road calling out, families till the land around us. Crowds throng the cities, cinemas fill and empty, music is everywhere. People eat and walk and dance and live their lives like every country in the world.
You can find poverty in Ethiopia, of course, but look a little deeper and you’ll find there’s a great richness too – cultural, historical and human. You can ignore it but you might come to regret it. Seek it out and I’d suggest it will pay back forever.
* Originally published on Irish Times, on April 11, 2015, authored by Gary Quinn, who was a guest of Ethiopian Airlines which introduces its new Addis Ababa – Dublin – Los Angeles route on June 17th.