We visited a number of hotels throughout our stay which I have reviewed below.
Raddison Blu – this is a new hotel and is great. The staff were fantastic, the rooms very comfortable and it was perfectly located in th centre of the city www.radissonblu.com/hotel-addisababa
Kuriftu Resort – We stayed at the Kuriftu Lodge which is right on the lake and has a very relaxing ‘resort’ feel to it. It is popular with Ethiopians coming up from Addis for the weekend. The food was very good & the foot massage was out of this world!! They also had wifi. www.kurifturesortspa.com/
Abay Minch Lodge
– This lodge is located on the outskirts of Bahir Dar and is delightful and great for people on a lower budget. It was set in 3 hectares of gardens which had mangoes, papaya and avocados hanging from the trees. The only downside of this lodge was that you don’t have a view of the lake but it is about half the price of Kuriftu and is very good for the price. We did’t sample any of the cuisine though. http://www.abayminchlodge.com
We stayed at Mayleko lodge which was recently opened and absolutely lovely. The only negative was that it didn’t have wifi but apart from that it was lovely. The rooms were lovely & spacious and the setting 5 mins outside of town was very peaceful. The food was very good & the staff were really friendly & efficient. It is located near the airport so useful to get to the morning flight for Axum. maylekolodge.com/
The Goha hotel is a government owned hotel but undergoing a refurbishment (don’t hold your breath though….the few rooms that had been refurbished were nothing to write home about!) its got stunning views of Gondar from its vantage point on top of the hill but the rooms were small although very reasonable. www.gohahotel.com/
We also visited the brand new Gondar Landmark hotel which is a large, impersonal hotel but good value if you want to be in town. www.gonderlandmark.com/
Yeha hotel – this is a very dated government hotel but it has lovely views & the food was pretty good. It had far more character than the hotel we stayed at which is called the Sabean hotel. www.yehahotelaxum.com
The Sabean hotel was fine for an overnight stay but could have been any hotel anywhere in the world! www.sabeanhotel.com/
The Mountain View Hotel where we stayed was great. It had amazing views & very good food. They also had complementary wifi in the reception area. The rooms were simple but comfortable rooms & this is probably the best option for Lalibela. www.mountainview–hotel.com/
Tukul village – This is a Dutch/Ethiopian hotel with round rooms. The rooms are nicer than the rooms at MVH but lack the amazing view…although the first floor ones have a good view. www.tukulvillage.com/
The iconic Ben Abeba Restaurant
is due to open four rooms later this year. These will be well worth keeping an eye on as they looked stunning from the CGIs we saw. They are going to be built into the rockface & have the most stunning views from the mountain top. http://www.benababa.com
I was given some really handy travel tips before I departed and gathered quite a few more when I was down there which I thought I might be useful to share….
Definitely bring hand sanitiser & packets of tissues. Although all the loos that we used were in good condition there were a number options that left you feeling slightly dubious about the cleanliness levels!
A number of people suggested bringing flea spray or tea tree spray to put on your feet before going into the churches. None of our group did this and we were alll fine. Apparently they have really cleaned up the church carpets in the last couple of years.
Money – change your money on arrival in Adddis. Ask for lots of smaller denominations as you will need them for tips when taking photos of the priests etc. Ethiopia is really quite cheap (a beer is about $1.5) so don’t change too much.
Photography – Ethiopia is a photographer’s paradise. Bring a good zoom as there are endless opportunities to capture the people but it is far nicer to do it subtly with a large zoom rather than being too intrusive.
Toiletries – although all the hotels had soap, they lacked any shower gel or shampoo. Those that did have them were not very nice!
Scarf – bring a light scarf which can act as a shawl to cover your shoulders when visiting the churches.
A friend told me to bring some postcards of my town (Bath) or of London. Our guide was particularly fascinated to see my postcards of Bath as Haile Selaisse spent 5 years in exile there.
It is nice to bring some school books or pens but don’t give them to the children that accost you at every opportunity asking for pens. Instead ask your guide if you can visit a school during your trip and give them to the head master to distribute. The Ethiopian government has done a lot in recent years to try and stop the amount of begging that goes on by improving their social services. In Lalibela the entrance fee has doubled over the last couple of years from $25 to $50 with the difference being put into hostels and projects to help the beggars.
We visited Ethiopia in March and in the North was warmer than I expected. The most you needed in the evening was a light sweater (& maybe something warmer in Lalilbela as it’s so high). I took too many warm clothes!
Language – the locals really appreciated our attempts to master some of the Amharic language. ‘Selanta’ The Ethiopian Airlines inflight magazine has a great ‘beginner guide to Amharic’ page which is worth ripping out and keeping in your pocket!
A delicious breakfast was the perfect start to the day to set us on our way for our long journey to Addis.
Our speedy transfer over the plateau didn’t allow us the chance to see a wolf but we did see some wart hogs, Mountain Nyala and Bush buck.
The drive to Addis takes about 7-8 hours but we advise most people to stop on the way down at the Rift Valley lakes and stay a night at one of the lodges on Lake Langano (we normally recommend Bishangari). This is a stunning area and a lovely way to break up the journey. The roads are very good so you can do the journey in one go but it is quite a long day’s drive. Up until the end of 2012, Bale Mountain National Park was really off the beaten track as the road from the Rift Valley road to the park was a dirt road so took up 10 hours to cross. 18 months ago they completed a brand new road which now makes this transfer only one hour long and has made the Bale Mountains far more accessible for tourists. The drive is fascinating passing through some stunning landscapes and villages. Its worth pointing out to your guests that Ethiopia does not have many ‘rest’ places so often you have to make do with a bush on a long drive!
We stopped off for lunch at the Kureftu Lodge at Debre Zeit which is a lovely spot overlooking a lake. The last remaining hour to Addis was quite painful with lots of overtaking. However a new motorway is due to open in two months time connecting Addis and Nazret which will reduce the journey down by one hour & avoid the need to do some heart stopping overtaking.
Kibran Tours thoroughly spoiled us for our last night in Addis with a cocktail party for the group with local dignitaries including Soloman Tadesse who has recently been appointed to head up the new Ethiopian Tourism Authority which is a combination of public and private sector partners whose remit is to develop tourism in Ethiopia. It was fascinating chatting to him and his team about his plans to develop tourism in a country where it is really in its infancy but with so much potential.
Assefa from Kibran Tours was keen for us to experience some of Ethiopia’s famous music scene and took us out to an Ethiopian Jazz evening. It is said that the driving force behind Etho-Jazz is Mulatu Astatke who first created it 42 years ago while studying music in the United States. It was mindblowing enjoying the most incredible jazz in a very unassuming cafe in the middle of a shopping centre in Addis! For me that evening summarised our entire trip to Ethiopia…..totally unexpected, unanticipated, and fascinating with unbelievable potential.
With only one day at BML, we wanted to make the most of our time so we split into groups with the keen birders going off with the naturalist James and the rest of us attempting to summit Mt Gushuralle, the volcanic plug in front of the lodge (seen on the right of the picture below).
The walk took us through the Harenna Forest and up through the bamboo forest which provides the very important habitat for the Bale Monkey. Unfortunately the Bale Monkeys were shy that day but we did see plenty of Colobus monkeys and birds.
Ibrahim our guide was excellent at telling us about the birds & plants that we were walking past and the view from the top was well worth the 2 hour climb.
Ibrahim is passionate about the mountains and has been so motivated by the work that Guy & Yvonne are trying to do that he has set up an environmental club to educate the local population about over grazing etc. It was great to see how the impact of BML being built has motivated local young people like him to help preserve the forest and their surroundings. The forest is home to the Bale monkey, a vervet type monkey wtih a little white beard. It is also home to many bird species including the Abyssinian catbird, yellow-fronted parrot. Menelick’s bushbuck & giant forest hog are easily seen with more rare visitors being African wild dog and black maned lions. We saw a number of droppings from leopards, lions, honey badgers and hyenas but unfortunately none of them were brave enough to show their faces!
Ibrahim pointing to the lodge location
After a delicious lunch of pumpkin soup, pasta salad and fritata, a group of us went on a short horse ride. In this area of Ethiopia there are horsemen with horses everywhere. The horses look well looked after and the saddles & bridles were very comfortable. Unfortunately we only had time for a 45 minute short hack but it would be lovely to spend half a day exploring the forest by horseback.
Next up was a site inspection of the rooms. So far 7 of the intended 12 rooms of phase one have been completed. The remaining rooms will be completed over the rainy season and will come online in September. The final 3 rooms will be completed in phase two which will finish by the end of 2015. There are 3 rooms attached to the main lodge which are wheelchair friendly and 5 rooms dotted on the hill side in front of the main area with amazing views of the mountains and overlooking the stream that runs through the plot. The stream has two waterfalls just in front of the rooms and Guy & Yvonne are planning to create a decked area around these stunning natural swimming pools. This will be a lovely area to be able to chill out at.
As it can get cold in the evenings at BML due to the altitude, all of the rooms have wood burning stoves & hot water bottles which make them very cosy!
View from Room 5 – this is room which is furthest away from the mess area therefore perfect for those who want to be completely immersed into the forest.
All the rooms have been built using traditional materials, in order to blend in with the forest and to be as ‘low impact’ as possible. Before any construction began a thorough environmental impact assessment was made, and technologies put in place to help make the Lodge carbon neutral. No trees have been felled in the construction of the Lodge, as the rooms have been built around the trees that were here, inside a natural clearing.
We finished off our jam-packed day by witnessing some traditional honeyharvesting. It was fascinating to the see the honey farmer shimmying up the tree with such ease and also terrifying to see how high he had to go! Once he is safely settled up at the top of the tree, his partner on the ground sends up the Spanish moss bundle which he lights and puts into the hive. This sends the bees out of the hive & makes them sleepy which makes it safe for him to put his hand in and collect the honey.
The honey was absolutely delicious and one of the projects Guy & Yvonne are helping the local community with is to help start selling it to tourists & to other parts of Ethiopia.
The delicious lamb stew and amazing sticky toffee pudding was the perfect way to round up the day. We were also lucky enough to be treated to a traditional coffee ceremony as a farewell…..I’ll certainly miss the delicious Ethiopian coffee!
Today was spent travelling from Lalibela to Bale Mountains. The plane trip from Lalibela to Addis took 1.5 hours as we went via Gondar. Everyone was excited to board the private charter for the one hour plane trip down to Robe.
The flight was stunning flying over the Rift Valley…..
We also flew over a volcano with a monastery on the top.
We were met at Goba airstrip by Guy Levene, owner of Bale Mountain Lodge and 3 other four wheel drive vehicles from Kibran Tours. We set off on the 2 hour transfer to the lodge and the change in the landscape as we climbed up onto the plateau was incredible. It was such a different, barren but hauntingly beautiful landscape. The Sanetti plateau is the largest expanse of Afro alpine habitat in the world and is the best place to see the world’s rarest canid – the Ethiopian wolf. There are around 450 wolves left and 60 % of them are found in the Bale Mountains. They are relatively easy to spot as the landscape is so clear and they tend to be out hunting in the mornings and evenings. Guy crosses the plateau at least twice a week and said he will see the wolves on 85% of his journeys.
The transfer is a fascinating game drive and as we were lucky enough to have Guy driving us, he brought everything to life pointing out endemic birds & mammals such as a the Rougets Rail and Giant Mole Rat (the Ethiopian Wolf’s favourite dish!) .
Guy stopped on top of the plateau to brief the team that we were entering the Ethiopian Wolf territory and to keep our eyes peeled. Within 5 minutes of setting off two of the groups spotted a female lying close to the road. A further 10 km on and we were lucky enough to see a wolf hunting for his dinner. It was fascinating to see them pat the ground trying to encourage the rodents out of the ground ready to be caught.
It took us about 45 minutes to cross the plateau before we started dropping down into the Harenna Forest, the second largest forest in Ethiopia covering 4000km2.
Ethiopia is one of the top 25 bio-diversity rich countries in the world and the Bale Mountains have one of the highest incidences of animal endemism of any terrestrial habitat on earth: the park itself holds 26% of Ethiopia’s endemic species. The Bale Mountains is also listed as one of the top 4 birding spots in Africa with over 300 species being found in the area.
We arrived at the lodge just as the sun was going down and it was so nice to eventually get to experience it first hand having been working with Guy & Yvonne for 18 months in the lead up to the opening.
Yvonne was there to greet us with drinks & delicious nibbles and each of the wood burners were lit making our rooms lovely & cosy. Just what was needed after a long journey! The lodge looked amazing & they had done a great job of combining traditional design with contemporary style. We all had a quick shower and change and reconvened around the fire pit for more drinks & nibbles. Dinner was a delicious meal of Tilapia, sauteed potatoes & cauliflower cheese followed by caramelized bananas & tropical sorbet. The food was far better than anything else we’d eaten and whilst it had been lovely to experience the traditional Ethiopian food, it was nice to have some western dishes! Guy & Yvonne had invited Eric , the Manager of the Ethiopian Wolf project who gripped us all with updates on his work. The biggest threat to the Ethiopian wolf is rabies that they can catch from domestic dogs so a big focus for Eric was on a vaccination programme for the dogs.
We all fell into bed exhausted after our days travelling but keen to make the most of our next only full day at Bale Mountain Lodge.
The morning view from my balcony was so stunning that I decided to make the most it by doing some stretches and yoga (I’m supposed to be in training for a triathlon…..even being in the running heart of Ethiopia didn’t inspire me to get my trainers on however!). I soon realised that I was being watched and found myself re-enacting the Romeo & Juliet scene with the hotel gardener who had picked a bunch of flowers for me! Needless to say my training session was cut short!
An outlying cave church of Nakuteleb near Lalibela is a relatively simple church built around a shallow cave in which several holy pools are fed by natural springs. It has many treasures and again we had a couple of very obliging priests happy to model for us.
On our way back to Lalibela we popped in to visit a local primary school. We had brought some pens to give to the head master and he proudly showed us around (you get hounded by kids everywhere asking for pens but its much better to give them to a school to distribute than hand them out to kids begging). I think the children were as fascinated to see us as we were to see them.
They gave us a gorgeous song before we proudly sang ‘Head, shoulders, knees and toes’ and ‘if you’re happy and you know it’. We were all very impressed with the school which seemed to have some really good faciliities. Ethiopia has many success stories not least its education policy. 15 years ago less than 50% of the Ethiopian kids went to school whereas now over 90% do.
One thing which really struck all of us who had traveled around Africa extensively was how clean and tidy Ethiopia seemed to be with none of the usual plastic bags dotted around the place like in other African countries.
After another delicious lunch of Ethiopian buffet at the Mountain View Hotel, we were energised enough to tackle the second group of churches. These churches were more challenging to access with the group climbing through holes in the walls and tunnels. My favourite was House of Emmanuel which was designed by Lalibela’s wife and is considered to be the most challenging architecturally as it is freestanding but still attached at the roof.
Our 30 minute drive up to the Asheton Maryam Monastery took us up some incredibly stunning scenery and we climbed to an altitude of almost 4000m.
The final ascent into the monastery
The 20 minute walk up to the monastery gave us the opportunity for some great photo ops including some Gopro group selfies!
It is a stunning drive from the airport up to the town of Lalibela. The area is very arid & mountainous with round thatched huts dotted across the landscape. Fields near the river had been cultivated and it was fascinating to see the traditional oxen ploughing techniques which hadn’t changed for centuries. It was incredible how so many people can survive in such a dry, seemingly harsh environment and not hugely surprising when Dawit told us that this area was very badly affected by the droughts of 1984.
We checked into Mountain View Lodge which has a cool angular design and stunning views from each of the relatively simple rooms. It is the best place to stay in Lalibela & the food is delicious.
View of Lalibela from Mountain View Hotel.
Lalibela is famous for its 12 rock churches which are divided into two groups in the centre of the town. The daily church service had just finished so it was quite a sight seeing everyone emerge from the churches all in their white finery.
We set about visiting the main group of churches first despite a slight distraction & delay caused by the fact that George W Bush & his entourage were about to turn up & we were desperate not to miss him! Our guide Dawit very sensibly said for us to see the churches first & then come back up & catch a glimpse of him…he was well experienced in knowing that ‘dignatories’ are never on time….which he wasn’t!
The gathering crowd waiting for GW Bush.
The churches were incredible. It took King Lalibela 25 years to create the 12 churches. Folklore says that they used to work on the churches during the day and at night angels flew down to help them and carry on their work. King Lalibela is said to have seen Jerusalem and then attempted to base Lalibela on a new Jerusalem concept in response to the capture of old Jerusalem by Muslims in 1187. As such, many features have Biblical names – even the town’s river is known as the River Jordan. It remained the capital of Ethiopia from the late 12th century and into the 13th century. Each church is guarded by a priest. It is a photographer’s paradise with the combination of the photogenic priests, churches and light breaking through the tunnels and doors.
A couple of times we had to dart back to the gathering (small!) crowd at the entrance like a group of crazed fans but George W was taking his time to turn up. Eventually we heard that he was at the church of St George (appropriately!) We weren’t allowed into the church until he had finished but a few tourists who had been in the church when he arrived had said how humble he was and how happy he was to be snapped. Ironically if we hadn’t kept on rushing back to the entrance to see him we would have been in the church when he turned up…..that would’ve made a pretty cool selfie! When his entourage eventually decided to leave, we had a brief snapshot of him before he was swept away to the waiting crowds.
Above: the paps waiting for GW!
The church of St George was incredible. It was lovely that it wasn’t covered by a protective roof like the other ones so you could get a good look at it. The evening light made for some perfect photo opportunities.
On our way back to the hotel, Dawit took us to an Ethiopian house to experience a traditional coffee ceremony and to also sample some local honey wine & Ethiopian vodka. The latter nearly blew my head off but the honey wine was delicious!