Ethiopia’s ‘wonderful’ mix

By Kevin O’Brien
This item appears on page 29 of the May 2013 issue.

My wife, Jane, and I arranged a private tour in Ethiopia for 18 days, Dec. 16, 2012-Jan. 2, 2013, with Yama Ethiopia Tours (Haile G/sellasse Ave., Haile Building 5th floor, No. 507, P.O. Box 14973, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; phone +251 116 628710).

An oryx in Awash National Park. Photos: O’Brien

I feel the price was very fair: $3,900 per person, including guide, driver, hotels, breakfasts, one special meal with a show, and all entrance fees. 

We have had tours organized with drivers and guides in numerous countries. This was probably our best-organized tour. Tariku of Yama Ethiopia responded promptly to all of my requests and tailored an itinerary that fit our interests. 

Especially appreciated — Tariku said we could modify the itinerary during the trip as long as it fit in with the timing of the tour. We did ask to go to Christmas Eve Mass on Dec. 24. Our driver, Genaye, picked us up from the church at 10:30 p.m., then got up early the next day to pick us up for the tour!

It is important to have an expert driver, as we did with Genaye. Although the roads are in surprisingly good shape, vehicles share the road with wandering cows, sheep, goats, donkeys, dogs, camels and people. 

We had some extremely long driving days, some back to back, but Genaye was never annoyed or flustered. (We noticed that Ethiopians in general did not raise their voices or get angry. Anger is never a good way of solving a problem in Ethiopia. The people have to put up with difficult conditions on a daily basis. Maybe that is why they are so gentle.)

Our guide, Getnett, was a fountain of information and was wonderful in the museums describing tribal groups and in the churches explaining frescoes. Jane doesn’t walk well, and Getnett always arranged to have our room near the reception desk or the restaurant, whichever was more convenient. He and Genaye both were very solicitous of my wife, helping her on stairs, etc. We all really liked each other. It was like traveling with friends.

Fr. Brehanu Beyene in Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Debre Zeyit — Ethiopia.

Our itinerary included Addis Ababa (the National Museum and the Ethnological Museum were fascinating); Bahir Dar for the Lake Tana monasteries; Gondar; Axum for the obelisks; Lalibela for the rock-hewn churches, and the Simien Mountains for the gelada baboons. For the Simien Mountains, I recommend staying two nights in Gondar and taking a day trip to the mountains. 

We then went east and spent the night at Awash National Park. We saw the beautiful Awash Falls and some animals, including oryx, and lots of birds. While Ethiopia does not have abundant wildlife like in Kenya or Tanzania, what makes the country so wonderful to visit is the mixture of culture, religious sites and nature.

The big festivals in Ethiopia are Christmas and Epiphany, both in January for the Orthodox Christians. Since we would not be there then, I arranged to see the Kulubi Gabriel Festival on Dec. 28. Held in the small town of Kulubi, it celebrates the Archangel Gabriel. 

Getnett and I walked with the pilgrims toward the town’s church. There were probably 200,000 people, but it was amazingly orderly. Some travelers we met were put off by the crowds, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. I think it is interesting to see how people celebrate holidays. Seeing the very strong faith of the people gives a real insight into the culture.

We also went to Arba Minch in the south. I highly recommend a side trip into the Guge Mountains to see the Dorze people, expert weavers of cotton and other materials. We loved the market there. Also from Arba Minch, we took a boat ride on Lake Chamo, The boat, itself, was great, and we saw crocodiles fighting. We have seen crocodiles before but nothing like that.

Kevin and Jane O’Brien and a priest in Nakuto La’ab Monastery in Lalibela, Ethiopia.

Another highlight was a visit to Hope Enterprises in Addis Ababa, which I found out about in the Lonely Planet guidebook. For only $10, you can buy food coupons that will feed 200 people. Many of those who came for the meal were disabled or elderly. Hope feeds 1,000 people per day. It was a privilege to be able to help. 

Through Yama Ethiopia Tours about a month in advance, we also arranged to visit the Holy Trinity Catholic Church at Debre Zeyit (45 minutes from Addis Ababa). We then packed two suitcases full of clothes, school supplies and stuffed animals for the priest, Fr. Brehanu Beyene (email, to distribute to the needy on Dec. 25. 

We spent the day with Fr. Brehanu. He hosted us to a lunch (inviting Getnett and Genaye to join us) and showed us his school and the retreat center. He could not have been more gracious. I have never drunk so much coffee in my life as I did that day. Coffee is a real part of the fabric of Ethiopian culture.

I encourage everyone with a sense of adventure and an appreciation of unique cultures to go to Ethiopia with Yama Ethiopia Tours. You will not be disappointed. If you want further info or to just talk about Ethiopia, e-mail me c/o ITN.


Savannah, GA