Category Archives: Ethiopia

Ethiopia familiarisation trip March 2014

Ethiopia Familiarisation Trip 2017

With a unique landscape, a native script, its own church (Ethiopian Orthodox, the oldest national Christian church in the world) and even its own calendar, Ethiopia is unlike anywhere else on earth. Always my favourite destination for hosting fam trips, the pleasure lies in seeing travel experts arrive in the country not knowing what to expect and return home passionate ambassadors for this emerging tourism destination.

The rendezvous for our fam trip ‘dream team’ was Heathrow Terminal 2.  Introductions took place over a few friendly beers before embarking on the seven-hour flight to Addis.  Ethiopian Airlines had managed to organise upgrades for our group so there was much excitement about being able to experience their Cloud 9 Business class.  The extra comfort was much appreciated and served us well in preparation for our jam-packed itinerary.

All of the Ethiopian Airlines (ET) fleet are under 5 years old & our plane looked brand new! They now fly to over 100 different destinations and have the largest pan-African network.  ET are growing at an average of 25% year on year and naturally with an airline growing this fast it is important that their hub can service the volume of traffic coming through. Addis airport is currently being upgraded (including recently launched free wifi) with the new terminal due to open in January 2018.

Day 1 – Bahir Dar

The first scene or smell that hits you when arriving in a new city always makes a lasting impression. In Addis it was a double whammy of a welcome: we were instantly enveloped by the smell of spring flowers and the beaming smile of our Kibran guide, Dawit. Wasting no time in filling us in on the facts about our new surroundings, he whisked us off to breakfast at the Radisson Hotel where we met Assefa, the MD of Kibran Tours – our co-hosts on this trip, along with Ethiopian Airlines and Bale Mountain Lodge.

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Addis Ababa

With a population of 4-5 million and growing, Addis Ababa is Africa’s fourth-largest city and the continent’s diplomatic capital.  The city is only 15 mins from the airport making it a doddle to access although many visitors choose to transit out of the city as quickly as possible.  However, if you are willing to linger, you can happily spend a day exploring the museums of Addis (where you can visit ‘Lucy’, who is 3.2 million years old)  or sample the offerings of the countless Ethiopian eateries.

With our bags checked through to our first destination, Bahir Dar, we were able to travel to breakfast with just our boarding passes before heading back to the airport for our 45-minute internal flight. It’s worth noting, when you buy your international flights with Ethiopian Airlines, your domestic ones are hugely subsidised.

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Bahir Dar

Bahir Dar is the capital city of the Amhara region in northern Ethiopia and, with palm trees lining the streets and hotels on the shore of Lake Tana, it has a distinct holiday vibe about it. We were staying at the Kuriftu Resort & Spa. The resort is relaxed and the rooms are large, although some were a little dark. The spa comes highly recommended, especially if you want to unwind after a day’s travelling. Re-charged after a delicious lunch of salad and tilapia caught fresh from the lake, we set sail on our boat cruise to visit the monasteries on the various lake islands.

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Lake Tana is the source of the Blue Nile, although its waters are more brown than blue!  There are two renowned monasteries on Lake Tana but we visited only one – Ura Kidane Mihret. The boat takes about an hour to cross to the islands and then it’s a pleasant 20 minute walk through the lush island woods to reach the monasteries. While architecturally the monasteries can’t compare to Ethiopia’s famous rock-hewn churches, they are still beautiful, decorated with wonderful paintings depicting scenes from the Old and New Testaments.

My previous trips to Ethiopia have taken place in March when it was far drier and dustier. Visiting in September meant I could see firsthand how green and lush the landscape can be as well as appreciating the region’s many stunning spring flowers. It was lovely to see the artists lining the pathway to the monastery and to admire their paintings inspired by the vibrancy of these natural colours.

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Day 2 – Blue Nile Falls / Gondar / Simien Mountains

An early start meant we could squeeze in the chance to see the Blue Nile Falls before leaving for Gondar.  Normally guests wouldn’t depart at 6am to visit the falls but we all agreed that our sunrise start was definitely worth it: the early morning haze created an etherial filter over the verdant landscape. The drive takes around 1.5 hours and then the walk to the falls themselves is around 30-40 minutes. Leaving early ensures you’re walking in the cool of the day and it means you beat any “crowds”.

The Falls are known as Tis Abay in Amharic, meaning “great smoke”.  Over 400 metres wide when in flood and dropping over a sheer chasm of more than 45 metres deep, the falls throw up a continuous spray of water which produces rainbows and a perennial rainforest of green vegetation that’s home to monkeys and beautiful birdlife.

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Our next stop was Gondar. The drive from Bahir Dar takes around 2.5 hours along excellent roads and past stunning scenery. Our lunch venue was the Four Sisters restaurant in Gondar. A typical Ethiopian restaurant, it might be touristy but it’s a brilliant place to tuck into some local food. Lunch was worked off by exploring Gondar’s famous castles.

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Gondar

Known as “the Camelot of Africa”, the city was the first capital of the Ethiopian empire, which began back in 1632 with the reign of Fasilides. The Kings of Ethiopia continued to base their power here for two centuries. Home to a host of medieval churches and castles built by various Emperors over the course of 236 years, many of the buildings and picturesque ruins lie in the World Heritage Site of the Royal Enclosure so they are easy to amble around. About 2km northwest of the piazza lies Fasiladas’ Bath. The large rectangular pool is overlooked by a charming building, thought by some to be a vacation home. It’s a calm, beautiful spot, where tree roots snake along sections of the stone walls.

The Simien Mountains and Limalimo Lodge was our final port of call for the day. The drive took 2.5 hours along excellent tarmac roads which explains why Ethiopia is becoming such a popular cycling destination. I was particularly excited about this Limalimo leg of our trip. Having worked with the team to launch the property, this was to be my first actual visit. Campbell, the American manager, was there to greet us along with directors, Lucas, Shif and Meles. Julia, the co-owner of Limalimo (& wife of Shif), normally manages the lodge but she is currently in England awaiting the arrival of their second baby.

Limalimo is perched on the edge of an escarpment with views of the Simiens stretching as far as the eye can see. The realisation of a dream for two native Simien mountain guides – Shif and Meles – who grew up in this precious place, they wanted to be part of a project that would help preserve the wildlife and spectacular scenery they’ve loved for decades.

Working in partnership with the African Wildlife Foundation, from the outset the lodge sought the emotional buy-in of the surrounding community to ensure their involvement and that they benefit from contributing to the future wellbeing of the National Park. Almost all the staff are from the two neighbouring villages, with the majority of them having built the bar, restaurant and bedrooms they now work in.  As many ingredients as possible are sourced from the local area and there are plans to team up with the farmers to grow a selection of vegetables for the lodge’s kitchens. The bar and restaurant are perched on the cliff edge with a sweeping terrace.

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Constructed using rammed earth so they blend with the landscape, the rooms are in cosy cabins scattered over 10 hectares of grounds allowing guests to luxuriate in the peace and privacy of their surroundings. The design is minimalist and the en-suite rooms have windows that run the full length of the space to bring the beauty of the outside inside.

With 12 rooms the lodge is small but the fact that they are already running at 80% occupancy after one season means that they are looking at adding a few more. The beds are among the most comfortable I have ever slept in with thick duvets and heavenly mattresses. To ensure the lodge operates with minimal environmental impact, investment has been made in bio-waste technology while hot water, heating and electricity are generated using renewable energy sources. Recycled water irrigates the gardens.

Chatting to Meles over a dinner of piping hot carrot and ginger soup and delicious creamed chicken, we got a real sense of what a long journey this has been for the Limalimo team and how encouraged they have been by the support and success it’s received.

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Lucas, Campbell, Shif and Meles…..the men behind Limalimo

Day 3 – Simien Mountains

A splinter group decided to brave the early morning chill to see the sun rise over the Simiens.  Unfortunately, clouds did their best to thwart the sun’s efforts to dazzle us but that didn’t deter from the magic of the vast views laid out before us.

Bidding farewell to Limalimo we made for the Simien Mountains National Park. While Limalimo has plenty of walks immediately surrounding the lodge, its location is just outside the national park so it takes about 20 mins to drive to where the majority of the hikes are.  We met our requisite local park guide and ranger and headed off in search of the Gelada Baboons. Sadly, the same mist we’d seen at sunrise had thickened and hopes of drinking in views of “Africa’s answer to the Grand Canyon” were dashed. However, together with the giant heather and scent of wild mint filling our noses, the poor weather made for a mystical mood.

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10 minutes into our walk, our guide pointed to a large troop of around 200 baboons. He reassured us that they were at ease with humans and that we could happily go to within a metre of them but nothing prepared me for quite how relaxed they were.

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The Gelada baboons are sometimes called bleeding-heart monkeys because of the males’ red, heart-shaped chest patches. My very own David Attenborough moment came as I’d settled myself among them. Distracted by the baboons’ 80’s pop star manes, a large Alpha male crept closer. Observing me casually, he suddenly stood up and walked straight towards me, brushing my side as he passed by. I have never experienced a wildlife encounter as intimate or restful as this.

Swathed in mist and the air filled with their cooing, baby-like gurgles, the troop comfortably accepted us into their territory where, for nearly two hours, time stood still while we watched them go about their daily routine of grooming, playing, eating and mating.

Reluctantly we tore ourselves away from the baboons and headed to the Simien Mountain Lodge for lunch.

The Lodge has been open for 11 years and is built in a totally different style to Limalimo. Far more traditional in its stone and thatch design, the rooms are spacious but it seemed a shame that none of them had been designed to take in the lovely view from the lodge.

We headed back in the direction of Gondar to Mayleko Lodge which was our resting place for the night. Mayleko is a sweet 18-bedroom property about 15km out of town near the airport. It’s ideal for an overnight stay if you are catching the morning flight from Gondar the next day, as we were.

Day 4 – Lalibela

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Lalibela

After a 30-minute flight, the hour-long drive to Lalibela took us up to an altitude of 2600 metres, the perfect height to take in the swathes of lush greenery below.

We were staying in Hotel Maribela which was a simple but charming place near the centre of town. The staff were really lovely and couldn’t do enough for us. After a delicious lunch of chicken curry we made our way to the first collection of churches.

The small town of Lalibela is a UNESCO World Heritage Site famous for its eleven medieval monolithic rock-hewn churches. Weaving history with legend, Lalibela is often referred to as the “New Jerusalem” and is set in an almost inaccessible mountain stronghold, nearly 2,368 metres above sea level.

A photographer’s dream, the town is full of portrait perfect priests and the churches themselves are mind-blowing. Built by King Lalibela over a 24-year period, more than 500 people toiled to carve them out of the rock, although legend has it that 12th century angels assisted them in their epic task.

We were in Lalibella for the Meskel Festival Of The Cross. This colourful festival involved over 200 priests dressed in their finery dancing to the drumbeats and chanting in Geez, the language of the ancient church. In the midst of hundreds of school children who were singing, dancing and playing their drums, we felt like we had stepped back in time.

After a day rich with new experiences, dinner at Ben Abeba was equally extraordinary. A hilltop restaurant built to look like a witch’s hat, its owner is a Scottish lady who ran an architectural competition asking entrants to come up with a design for the restaurant. The menu is a blend of local and European influences and I can vouch that the Ethiopian take on shepherd’s pie is delicious.

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Day 5 – Lalibela

The following morning we ventured 10 minutes outside of Lalibela to a rock-based monastery called Nakuto Laab. The water running through the rock lends it a rainforest feel. Dawit greeted a man who ran up to us wearing his farming clothes. He quickly kicked off his sandals, donned a shawl and unlocked the church. I recognised him as one of the most photographed priests of Lalibela.

There were lots of young Ethiopians who had come on a pilgramage to visit the church. According to Dawit, having been discouraged from religion under communism, when the politics of the country changed in 1991, the youth became very active in their Christian worship – a trend that continues today.

After lunch, we visited the second group of churches, including the famous Bet Georgis. This cross-shaped church, located in a deep pit with perpendicular walls, is only accessible through a tunnel. The other four churches of this group are Bet Emanuel, Bet Mercuiros, Bet Abba Libanos and Bet Gabriel-Rufa’el. Bet Emanuel’s elaborate exterior is frequently praised by art historians. Religious or not, you can’t fail to be impressed by the bewildering feat of architectural calculation that has gone into these buildings.  Quite how they managed to get the proportions perfect and lines so straight when they were effectively building upside down, is staggering.

The day was rounded off by a delicious traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony before heading back to the hotel for dinner and the chance to experience some of the local nightlife.

Dawit was keen to take us to a local Ethiopian bar. The bar’s patrons were a mix of local Ethiopians and a few tourists and the vibe was warm and welcoming. A musician wandering around playing a traditional Masinko, a one stringed violin, was soon accompanied by a brilliant drummer who increased the tempo. Encouraged to join in the dancing, additional entertainment came in the form of watching our group attempt to throw some Ethiopian shapes of their own. By way of reciprocity, we tried to introduce the dancer to a couple of new English moves, although I’m fairly confident they won’t be incorporated into his routine any time soon.

Day 6 – Bale Mountains

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Bale Mountains National Park

The next stage of our itinerary was taking us further south to Bale Mountains. We flew down on the scheduled Ethiopian Airlines flight to Addis before connecting immediately with our charter flight to Bale. The scale and drama of the scenery as we swooped over the Rift was an unforgettable aerial reminder of just how incredible Ethiopia’s landscape is. When we neared Goba grass airstrip, I was delighted to see that the new tarmac runway at nearby Robe airport looked to be nearing completion. We hope that ET will soon be flying down there themselves… Watch this space.

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The flight to Bale Mountains takes you over the Rift Valley

As we touched down at Goba airstrip, we were met by three sparkling white Kibran Tour 4 x 4s however, the rain soaked drive up to the Bale Mountains National Park ensured they didn’t stay that colour for long.

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Red Hot Poker flowers lined either side of the road heading up into the park

Bale Mountain National Park is known as ‘One Park Many Worlds’. From the Gaysay grasslands of the north and the high altitude Sanetti plateau, to the wild forests of the south, the amazing range of habitats support myriad rare and endemic species, many of which are unique to this Park. UNESCO has estimated that more mammal species would become extinct if the habitats of the Bale Mountains were to degrade than if any other area of equivalent size on the globe disappeared. The main wildlife attraction, and almost an ‘icon’ for Ethiopian wildlife travel, is the Ethiopian Wolf. The Sanetti Plateau is home to the largest numbers of the remaining Ethiopian wolves. They are the world’s rarest canid and Africa’s rarest carnivore… and we were lucky enough to see one!

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The Sanetti Plateau is a pristine wilderness that incorporates the largest remaining tract of afro-alpine moorland on the continent.   The majority of the plateau is over 3800m above sea level and you certainly feel it as you step out of the car.  Fortunately, the chill and our laboured breathing were quickly forgotten as we caught our first glimpse of an Ethiopian wolf hunting in the distance. The wolves are relatively easy to spot due to the vast open landscape they roam across and the fact that they survive on the rodents that make their dens along the side of the road.

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Sanetti Plateau

Bale Mountain Lodge is located in a clearing within the Harenna Forest of the Bale Mountains National Park, one of the largest remaining tropical Cloud Forests on earth. The lodge sits on a small hill 2380m above sea level. Overlooking a mountain stream with views of the 1500m high Harenna escarpment, its volcanic outcrops rise dramatically from the forest.

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View from Bale Mountain Lodge

Bale Mountain Lodge is the brainchild of Guy & Yvonne Levene, an ex-British Army officer and his teacher wife. Working across Africa for 20 years and living in Ethiopia for six, they were inspired to bring the country the same comforable tourist accommodation available on the rest of the continent by creating a property with the very best ethical, conservation and community driven credentials.

In true pioneer spirit, they jacked in their jobs and invested their life savings in making a difference. They began by writing the government legislation for investment in the National Parks (none had existed before) – work that set the environmental and community standards to which all future National Park investors must adhere. The lodge is now the largest financial contributor to the Bale Mountains National Park, and employs 23 local staff who have all been taught transferable skills in housekeeping and the lodge’s kitchen staff have been trained to cook international meals under the guidance of a qualified chef.

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The lodge was constructed using state of the art technology to make it sustainable and eco-friendly.  Electricity is hydro-powered by the river, they have their own water filtration systems and further purification works which means water can be safely returned to the river after use.

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The group admiring Guy’s micro-hyrdo electric plant

Bio-gas is produced and natural, sustainable materials were used in construction where possible. The independent Environmental Impact Assessment, which was produced by the government to measure the success of the project, estimated that the lodge would have a 35% positive effect on the environment over the course of its first 10 years of operation.

The Park is a birdwatcher’s paradise and has been rated ‘4th best birding site in Africa’ by the African Birding Club.  The National Park harbours some 18 endemic species along with large numbers of migratory birds and passage raptors alongside the resident populations.

Day 7 – Bale Mountain Lodge

As the day dawned, it was clear that the weather wouldn’t be playing ball which meant we couldn’t climb Mount Gushralle in front of the lodge or go on a bird walk. Determined that the rain wouldn’t completely ruin our plans, we dug out our waterproofs and trekked into the rainforest to check out the micro hydro plant and the new sauna that’s almost finished.

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Soon-to-be-finished sauna and natural plunge pool

After a long, lazy lunch it was time for a few hours relaxation and the opportunity to soak up the views.   Some broke off to go for a walk around the lodge while others ventured into the village for coffee and honey with the added bonus of seeing the endemic Mountain Nyala and a family of colobus monkeys.

The dining room sunken fireplace

In the evening we went for a night drive and while we sadly didn’t spot the black maned lions, we did spy some hyena and bush buck in the grounds of the lodge.

Day 8 – Bale to Addis

Despite Addis being a nine-hour drive from Bale, the journey wasn’t an arduous one thanks to the decent roads. After a quick freshen up at Addis’ Golden Tulip, we were whisked off to meet Assefa from Kibran Tours who was treating us to a farewell meal at Castelli, one of the city’s oldest restaurants.

The Italians marched into Ethiopia in 1935 and left six years later minus those few Italians who chose to stay on. One of those who remained, was soldier Francesco Castelli who opened his restaurant in 1948.  According to Sir Bob Geldof, it’s the best Italian in the world bar none!  Part of the charm of the place, say regulars, is that it hasn’t really changed in the last half century.

After a quick site inspection and drink at the Sheraton, we hightailed it to the airport for our flight home.

Summary

The more I work with Ethiopia the more I realise how far removed the reality is from the many misconceptions that exist about this spellbinding country. The group couldn’t conceive that our green, lush surrounds were the site of the cruel famines many people still associate with Ethiopia. The nation needs and welcomes tourism. From the astonishing rock-hewn churches of Lalibela in the north to the lakes and beautiful rolling hills in the south, it is a land of awe-inspiring contrasts that even the most seasoned travellers felt privileged to experience.

“It was an incredible trip, and I would go back without a doubt!” Abercrombie & Kent

“It’s such a wonderful and unique destination – stunning scenery and very interesting sites to visit. Thank you for a fantastic trip and I would have no problem at all recommending or selling Ethiopia” Wexas Travel

“Great trip, so privileged to have been invited.” Daunt Travel

“Thank you so so much for including me on your wonderful trip around Ethiopia.  I learned so much about a fascinating country, one that is completely under the radar from a tourism point of view. ” Joanna Davies Travel

“Ethiopia was a fascinating country full of colour, dramatic scenery, friendly faces and enchanting wildlife. The highlights had to be doing my Jane Goodall impression lying amongst the Gelada Baboons amongst this heavy mist in the Simien Mountains, and wandering around the wonderfully atmospheric rock-hewn churches and monasteries of Lalibela. Thank you to everyone involved in making this trip happen and I would not hesitate to recommend the destination and suppliers to clients and other industry colleagues.” Bailey Robinson

“First let me say thank you so much for the incredible experiences in Ethiopia! It was truly fantastic and I am very much hoping to return soon and see the rest of the country.” Henry Cookson Adventures

 

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Ethiopian Airlines VIP Press Trip celebrates First A350 in African Skies

On Sunday August 14th Africa’s first and most technologically advanced aircraft, the Airbus A350 XWB, was launched on the London Heathrow – Addis Ababa route.  To celebrate this momentous event a press trip of top trade and aviation journalists ventured on a 48-hour London-Addis non-stop press trip.

Excited at the prospect of a night flight at the front of the plane rather than the back our happy band of travelers gathered at London Heathrow Terminal 2 for our six-hour and 50 minute night flight to Addis.  Unusually for mid-summer there was no queuing and we passed swiftly through the business class check-in and, as we had no check-in baggage, in no time receiving boarding passes and an invitation to the business class lounge. Here we downed welcome gin and tonics whilst being briefed on the upcoming hectic 48 hour press trip.

Boarding swiftly, the economy passengers already having taken their seats, all the journalists were given a super goodie bag including a very useful multi-purpose travel adapter kit – who ever has the right plug for the right international socket?

Now for the technical details – Ethiopian Airlines’ first A350 XWB (named “Simien Mountains”) has 313 seats in a 3-3-3 configuration in economy with a 32-inch seat pitch and an 18-inch width. In business class, ‘Cloud 9’, there are 30 business class seats (BCE diamond seats) which convert to a 78” fully lie-flat beds in a 2-2-2 configuration.

The whole flight was extremely comfortable giving everyone a really great first experience of the A350-XWB. Service was extremely friendly and can-do. Dinner was very tasty (there are Ethiopian culinary choices too on the return flight) and then the wonderful lie-flat beds with fluffy duvets made for a very comfortable sleep for all. Some game journalists even woke for the inaugural flight celebratory cake and champagne at 1am – others did not!

First stop was Ethiopian Airlines HQ where we were greeted by many of the Senior Management team led by MD Ethiopian International Services, Mr Esayas WoldeMariam, for a briefing on the current status of the passenger, cargo and ET Holidays services and expansion plans globally.

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After the presentation was over we were led to the very impressive collection of high-tech space-age looking simulators for a simulated landing at LHR which everyone really enjoyed. Sadly there was not the time for us to attempt a landing ourselves or perhaps this was sensible with such highly tuned and sensitive machinery.

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Following lunch came my personal highlight of the day in a tour of the ET aviation academy, an amazing light and spacious facility housing many buzzing cadets all busily training in tens of classrooms or on the many sections of aircraft used for teaching cabin service.

The journalists particularly enjoyed their own chance to try out the evacuation slide with even the very game 74-year-old Editor in Chief of Business Travel News eagerly taking the plunge. Sadly we were not permitted to try the same on the landing on water evacuation slide – we’d forgotten our costumes so saving that experience for next time!

On visiting the pilot training school we were all very impressed to learn that ET trains many hundreds of male and female pilots not only from Ethiopia but from all over Africa and even Europe who go on to fly on many different airlines beyond Ethiopian.

A visit to the maintenance, repair and operations (MRO) facility enabled several of the journalists to regale us with tales of their own early piloting experiences and to unleash boyhood tinkering impulses.

By this time, exhausted and seriously impressed we returned to the hotel for a rest before the evening’s festivities. We did manage to squeeze in an impromptu city sightseeing tour en-route enjoying views of Meskel Square, the National Museum and Palace as well as scenes of bustling Ethiopian daily life. It had been easy to forget in the high-tech academy that we were even in Africa.

An evening of cultural dinner and traditional dance at Yod Abyssinia cultural restaurant was a welcome conclusion to the day affording another glimpse into traditional Ethiopian life. Journalists happily dived into trays of the national dish –injera or Ethiopian flatbread surrounded by delicious spicy sauces, meats and vegetables – the mainstay of Ethiopian cuisine.  A few were even persuaded to end the night with a little traditional shoulder dancing to shake it all down.

On Tuesday morning we rose early to get to the airport, check-in and experience the airport facility tour before departure for our day-time, equally comfortable, flight home – a happy, impressed and weary posse.

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Ethiopia – Day 8 – Bale Mountain Lodge

 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).
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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.
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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.
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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!
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 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.
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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.
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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!
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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!
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Day 8 – Zanzibar White Sand Luxury Villas & Spa

I was keen to make the most of our last day in Zanzibar & wanted to go & visit The Residence Hotel having represented the hotel group previously and before the Zanzibar property being built.  I was so impressed at how impeccable the staff & service were and the whole hotel seemed so serene.  The infinity pool was particularly cool with the glass side walls…..it took all my will power not to dive in to cool down from the Zanzibari heat!

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Returning to Zanzibar White Sand, I realised the reason why I love working with smaller, more personal properties rather than bigger hotel chains.  The hotel is a real labour of love built on Natalia’s father’s passion for Zanzibar and it comes through in everything they are doing.  It is great fun to be part of that.  The service isn’t as slick or serene yet as The Residence (yet!) but the team are incredibly passionate and switched on and considering it is the owner’s first experience of opening a hotel, they have thought of everything. Most of the things I suggested they had considered or were in the process of doing.  Antoni the GM has opened two hotels in Europe & Dubai and is very professional and rather than being frustrated by the African pace of doing things, he is enjoying the challenge!

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The remainder of the day was spent chilling out in our stunning villa…..after all its critical that I know exactly how the sun loungers feel to lie on,  how comfy the swing bed is & the exact temperature of the plunge pool!  It wasn’t all play though as I did tap into the villas wireless internet to download all my emails.  Each of the villas will have wireless and sound systems, tvs etc for those guests who can’t switch off from the outside world.

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I am so glad that I got to see Zanzibar White Sand before it was completely finished as its always nice to then go back & see the finished product.  I have no doubt that Zanzibar White Sand will be a real success as the design, the team, the location, the food & the activities all combine to offer something very special for Zanzibar.  I will definitely be back very soon and maybe next time I’ll have time to give kite surfing a go!

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Day 7 – Zanzibar White Sand Luxury Villas & Spa

There is something very cool about arriving in the dark to a new hotel and only discovering your surroundings in the morning light.  Needless to say we were pretty delighted with our view when we opened the curtains…

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After a pre-breakfast plunge pool swim we were treated to a delicious breaky of unbelievable fresh fruit, still-warm Mandazi (donuts…..my new year diet is on hold!) and freshly squeezed orange juice.  Fuelled up we were ready for our tour of the property.

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ZWS consists of 5 one-bedroom villas, 5 two-bedroom villas and a 3 bedroom villa.  The one bedroom villas are all finished & ready for the hotels first guests who arrive on 20th Feb.  The two & three bedroom villas still have some finishing off to do but there is a 200 strong workforce working at quite some pace!

Villa 1 at Zanzibar White Sand Luxury Villas & Spa

Each of the villas are really spacious with stunning interiors.  The villas consist of two buildings – the bedroom and a dining/sitting room.

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Bedroom at Zanzibar White Sand Luxury Villas & Spa

(Mosquito net & a few more soft furnishings still to be added!)

During our tour Natalia & Antoni also showed us their carpenters workshop where the majority of the furniture, roofing and flooring are made.

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It was fascinating to see how they are combining contemporary styles with traditional methods and using local wood.

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What I hadn’t realised from the photos I had seen of ZWSLVS was how the roofs are a real work of art.   They have beautiful curves and waves within them but are also thatched using wood slats.

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This is the lofty roof in the restaurant.  They will also have a ‘green’ wall which will be full of flowers & greenery.

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This is the view of restaurant & roof top bar as you drive into the hotel.

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This spa will be in a walled garden with swimming pool, sauna, hammam (picture above) and two open treatment rooms (pictured below).

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The gardens at ZWSLVS are stunning and colours of the flowers against the white stone walls are beautiful.

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The vegetable garden is blooming with chillies, tomatoes, herbs, salad & lots of other yummy edibles.

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After our tour & lunch the wind had picked up and the kite surfers were making the most of it.  It was so entertaining to sit on our roof terrace and enjoy watching the beautiful kites swirl & fly around…it was like a dance!   I have no idea how the 100 or so kites didn’t get completely tangled up in one big kite surfing ball!  Andre Niznik, the owner of ZWSLVS also owns the kite surfing school next door & his passion for the sport is the reason why the hotel was first dreamed up.

Kite surfers paradise, Zanzibar

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Unfortunately the obligatory sundowner had a stronger pull than giving kite surfing a go but I was seriously tempted….particularly as they made it look so easy!

Day 6 – Zanzibar here we come..

Matt & I were very sad to leave Naibor & the Mara after a couple of unforgettable days.   We had some fantastic game viewings and only saw 7 other cars during our 5 game drives.  There is something to be said for going to the Mara in the off season!!

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Next stop Zanzibar. ….but first we had to clear the buffalo off the runway!

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I last went to Zanzibar 19 years ago so I was fascinated to see how it had changed. We landed at 8.30 in the evening and were met by Antoni Rygiel, GM and Natalia Niznik, the Executive Assistant Manager & daughter of the owner of Zanzibar White Sand Luxury Villas & Spa.    Our first stop was the newly opened 6 degrees South restaurant (http://www.6degreessouth.co.tz)  It was ultra cool & I felt like I was sitting in Cape Town rather than the old, shabby Stone Town I remembered!   I would highly recommend it to anyone needing a watering hole in Stone Town!

Day 5 – Naibor

My wake up call was the sound of a lion calling.  I mistakenly thought it was far away only for me to find out later that a small pride of one male, a female & two young cubs were just outside our tent….I must have been deeply asleep to have got that so wrong!

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This female obviously approves of the Naibor tents as she had given birth to the two cubs just outside Little Naibor in November.

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The Mara showed us all her glory this morning with the most amazing photo opportunities….

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…..and the most stunning leopard sighting.  It was like he was working it for his audience as he chose the stunning river backdrop & proudly stretched & yawned & looked around. They call him goldenboy & I could see why…..he was beautiful.

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After we returned from our game drive we had a guided tour of Naibor Wilderness.  Naibor Wilderness consists of 3 large tents with a communal mess tent.  Guests staying here can be incorporated into the activities/dinners etc at Main camp unless the camp is full in which case they will have dinner in their mess area.

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Naibor Wilderness is a great option for people whose budgets don’t quite stretch to main camp as they still have the same food, service, guiding experience and tent sizes.  The only difference is the location is slightly further away from main camp & the tents have wrought iron furniture rather than the lovely chunky wood furniture of main Naibor……but they are still stunning!  IMG_7750