Return to Ethiopia

By Susan Lushing
This item appears on page 30 of the November 2013 issue.

After 17 years, in 2013 I paid a return visit to a truly unusual and interesting country. I was in Ethiopia in 1995 visiting the tribal south on a rugged tour, mostly camping. I returned with a friend, Jan. 6-21, to explore the unique rock churches in the Christian north. I found a changed country, with no starvation and with decent roads and a much-improved tourist infrastructure, in terms of hotels and restaurants. 

Our trip was superbly arranged by Red Jackal Tours (PO Box 28529, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; phone [+251] 111 559915). The land portion, including one internal flight, cost each of us $3,266. The head of the agency, Yohannes Assefa, had been my extremely competent and personable tour guide in 1995, and it was a pleasure to see him again.

We had an unexpected and moving experience on our arrival day, Christmas Day, when we were taken to a below-ground rock church not far from Addis Ababa — not famous like those in Lalibela but similar. With great timing, we arrived at the end of the service and in time for the procession of priests, some with the tablets wrapped in brocade on their heads and all shielded by brightly colored umbrellas.

After two nights in Addis, we flew to Lalibela for a 2-night stay, then made a 13-day driving loop back to Addis in the capable hands of Tassew, a friendly and expert driver/guide. The days on the road were not uncomfortable and always revealed an interesting panorama of natural sights plus multitudes of people going about their daily activities, such as farming or going to market or worshiping.

In addition to seeing multiple rock churches and the cities of Axum, Gondar and Bahir Dar, we stayed at two mountain lodges, including Simien Lodge, where we saw gelada baboons, unique to the country. 

One evening, we met with six university students over dinner at the home of an American woman (a friend of a friend) who works with an NGO in Addis but independently is arranging for Westerners to sponsor scholarship students so they will have some money for expenses beyond basic tuition, room and board.

My friend and I had been asked to bring with us two laptops purchased in the US for these students. As a result of this dinner, I am now the proud sponsor of a first-year medical student at Addis Ababa University.

We ended up in Gondar for the major religious festival of Timket, the reason for the timing of our trip. A sort of mass baptism, it was memorable and a great opportunity for photography, with hordes of worshipers in white. 

The large and tightly packed crowd also was pickpocket heaven. Our guide was nervous for us but protected us well, but we heard that another guide lost his cell phone. 

Traveling by car gave us the opportunity to really get a feel for the country and have contact with some of its incredibly friendly people. Overall, it was a comfortable, hassle-free and memorable trip, and I hope these comments will tempt more people to visit what we found to be a safe and fascinating country.

Note: for defensive reasons, many of the rock churches in Tigray were located in inaccessible places, requiring uphill climbs on uneven rocks, cliff faces or long sets of steps. Climbing poles helped, but after the first day we trusted Tassew to alter the choice of churches (there are hundreds in the area) to better suit our physical abilities. 

Readers with questions may contact me by email c/o ITN.


New York, NY