International Adventure Guide 2013: Ethiopia: Addis Ababa And The Northern Circuit

Ethiopia

Ethiopia
is the rising star of the adventure travel scene. The country has a great deal to offer those who want to visit Africa beyond the usual favorites. Want to see ancient ruins? North Africa is dodgy at the moment and Europe is expensive. Want to go on a safari? You can see stunning vistas and isolated tribes you won’t find in Kenya, Tanzania or Botswana. Ethiopia is one of the safer African countries and has monuments unique to Ethiopian civilization such as the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, carved out of bedrock.

What makes the country distinct is that it’s been a nation for more than a thousand years and has produced several major archaeological sites that are on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The rock-hewn churches are justly famous and can be found in several spots throughout the country. In the far north, Axum’s great monoliths tell of an earlier civilization. You can also visit Ethiopian Orthodox monasteries perched atop steep cliffs, or hidden on green little islands in the middle of a giant lake.

The best part of any trip to the country, though, is the people. Ethiopians are warm and open and you will have no trouble meeting people who can carry on a conversation in English. As you make a circuit through the country, you’ll pass through many different cultures such as the Oromo, Amhara and Tigrinya. Each has its own language, history, and customs.

Ethiopia is shedding its 1980s reputation of famine and civil war and developing economically and culturally. Paved roads are being laid everywhere and the infrastructure is slowly improving, although Internet service is still agonizingly slow.

This guide focuses on the capital, Addis Ababa, and a popular circuit often called the Northern Historic Loop.

Adventure Activities

Strolling the city
Visitors can get a good grounding of Ethiopia’s past at the National Museum and the Institute of Ethiopian Studies. The latter is on the verdant grounds of Addis Ababa University in one of Haile Selassie’s old palaces. The Merkato open-air market, said to be the largest in Africa, is a sight to see as well, just beware of pickpockets. Take some time to relax in one of Addis’ many fine cafes to enjoy some Ethiopian coffee. Coffee was first brewed in Ethiopia so it’s no surprise they have the best in the world.

Addis is a big city and the most interesting neighborhoods tend to be separated by less interesting residential areas. Walking tours are best done by exploring one neighborhood and then taking a minibus or taxi to the next one. The Piazza neighborhood, for example, has a variety of shops tucked into the ground floors of old Italian Art Deco buildings. Go to Menelik Square and pay 30 cents for a minibus to Siddist Kilo Square, where you can visit Addis Ababa University. The network of minibuses can take you anywhere. It’s a bit complicated to figure out but locals will be happy to help.

Entonto Hills
Want a cool, green getaway from the big city? Lush hills are only a minibus ride away from all the main neighborhoods. Here you can hike through eucalyptus forests and visit the Asni Gallery, an artists’ co-op housed in a historic home. Some 13,000 hectares are preserved as Entonto Natural Park. You’ll find native plants and animals, great spots for bird watching, and fine vistas from altitudes of up to 3,200 meters.

Day Trips
Several natural and historic attractions are within a day’s drive of the capital, including the Akaki River Wetlands, the hot springs resort at Sodore, the stunning Durba waterfall with its population of gelada baboons, and the monastery of Debre Libanos. You can do some of these via public transport, but hiring a taxi for about $30 for the day is much more convenient and ensures you’ll have time to enjoy the sights. With all taxis in Ethiopia, a bit of haggling will get the price down. Make sure gas is included and pay when the trip is done.

For more details on Addis Ababa, check out this post.

Hotspots on the Northern Loop

Lake Tana
Take a boat past bathing hippos to visit isolated monasteries on the islands of Lake Tana. Monks live a simple life here, guarding libraries of medieval manuscripts and worshiping in brilliantly painted churches. The lake and islands are beautiful and relaxing. Some monasteries don’t allow female visitors; luckily there are some nunneries too. For more on this site, see Gadling’s illustrated article on Lake Tana.

Gondar
In a green valley surrounded by mountains stands Ethiopia’s Camelot, complete with castles. It was once the seat of power for the Ethiopian kings. This is one of the more relaxing places in Ethiopia, with its cool mountain air and laid-back atmosphere. For more on this site, see Gadling’s illustrated article on Gondar.

Axum
As you head north you leave the verdant hills of central Ethiopia behind and enter a dry, rocky terrain of rugged beauty. It’s hard to imagine that more than 2,000 years ago this was the home of one of the great civilizations of the ancient world. At Axum you can see several important archaeological sites including palaces, tombs, towering monoliths, and the Rosetta Stone of Ethiopia. For more on this site, see Gadling’s illustrated article on Axum.

Debre Damo
Fancy an adrenaline rush? How about climbing a dubious-looking leather rope up a sheer cliff to a 1,500 year-old monastery? Your climb is rewarded by getting to see a community straight out of the pages of early church history in a landscape that looks like the Holy Land. Only men are allowed up to the monastery. For more on this site, see Gadling’s illustrated article on Debre Damo.

Lalibela
If you’ve heard about one place in Northern Ethiopia, it’s probably Lalibela. Starting in the 12th century, thirteen churches were hewn out of the bedrock here. To visit them you walk along a plain of bare stone that suddenly opens up, and you’re looking down at the churches. Some are decorated with carvings and medieval frescoes and you’ll get a chance to meet priests and religious students from all over the country. The entry price has recently been jacked up to an astonishing $50. There is no other place like this in the world though, so suck it up, pay, and make your feelings about extortion known to the curators. When in town try the tej, an Ethiopian honey wine that’s especially good here. For more on this site, see Gadling’s illustrated article on Lalibela.

Where to stay

Itegue Taitu
Ethiopia’s first hotel was built in 1898 and for a while it was beginning to show its age. Now it’s been renovated and is much nicer. Pleasant staff, an excellent kitchen that offers an all-you-can-eat vegan buffet, and a relaxing garden make this one of the most popular places to stay. Rooms in the historic wooden main building are getting pricey, but the concrete building out back has budget options. From $10. Dej. Jote Street. http://taituhotel.com/

Cozy Place
One of the newer hotels in town, this German-run business gets high marks for cleanliness and efficiency. It caters to the budget backpacker crowd so you’ll have to deal with shared bathrooms and a rather noisy bar/restaurant. On the other hand, the rooms are in little buildings tucked away in a lush garden, adding a rural flavor to an often-overbearing city. From $13. Mike Leyland Street. http://www.bds-ethiopia.net/cozy-place/

Ras Hotel
Functional rooms in a classic old deco building. The patio restaurant/bar is a nice place to unwind. Budget rooms are on the ground floor, with renovated rooms at a higher price upstairs. It’s centrally located close to the national theater and bus station. A buffet breakfast is included in the price and the staff is quite friendly. From $17. Churchill Avenue. http://www.ras-hotels.com/

Logistics

Getting around
Intercity buses are cheap, but are slow, crowded, and suffer from occasional breakdowns or fuel shortages. Some popular routes have luxury buses run by companies such as Selam Bus and Sky Bus. These are quite comfortable at a much higher price. Bus journeys of all types are often subject to last-minute cancellation. Luckily most of the roads on the Northern Loop are now paved, although construction is continuing and mudslides occasionally take out sections.

If money isn’t an issue, Ethiopian Airlines offers flights between cities. This can get you around the country quickly and you’ll get some great views out your window. On the other hand, you’ll miss all the experiences in between the sights. Flights aren’t cheap; hopping around the Northern Loop will put you back $700 or more.

In my experience, the best way to see Ethiopia is to hire a private 4×4 from a tourism company. These generally go for around $150 a day or a bit more and include all expenses and a driver/translator/fixer. While the price is steep and has been rising steadily thanks to rising gas prices, if you split it between two or three people it isn’t so bad. You’ll also get to make your own schedule, stop when and where you want, and gain a wealth of cultural insights from your driver. Make sure to talk with the driver in detail beforehand about your itinerary and interests.

Seasonality

Ethiopia’s rainy season lasts from June through September, with a shorter rainy period in October. The central uplands get quite a bit of rain on good years and this can hamper activities such as hiking and visiting outdoor sights. Since so many roads are unpaved, it can also slow down or completely stop transportation. The South Omo region gets hit especially hard. Rains in the south are more variable and thus it’s best not to visit from March through June or in October.

October through January sees Ethiopia at its greenest and you have the added advantage of being there during the height of Ethiopia’s festival season, with events such as New Year’s, Christmas, Timkat, and Meskal. Spring is a good time to visit too. The mountains aren’t as cold as in the winter and it’s before the rainy season. Conditions can be dry, though, with a haze that irritates the eyes and deadens photos.

Safety

Ethiopia is generally safe. That said, rural border areas such as the Afar and Somali regions have small rebel and bandit groups. Last year five tourists were killed by one such group in Afar.

Such violent attacks on foreigners are rare. More common is theft. Pickpockets are rife in Addis Ababa, and young guys hang around areas where tourists congregate hoping to scam them. One common scam is to invite you to a “party”, which ends with you footing a massively overpriced bill. Others will tag along trying to give you a tour and then insist on being paid. Keep your wits about you and learn how to politely say “no” and you can fend off these guys with no problem. They tend to be more annoying than aggressive.

Some of these hucksters can prove amenable. On more than one occasion I’ve hired one for a few bucks a day to show me around and keep the other hucksters away. You have to be a good judge of character to find the right one, though.

Women travelers generally have few problems in Ethiopia, although I have heard reports of solo women travelers being harassed. Also, most local women you see in all but the swankiest bars are prostitutes, so a Western woman showing up in one is not going to be treated with respect. Sorry ladies, but you’re going to have to do your drinking in your hotel or at a restaurant. Western guys showing up in bars will attract a flock of admiring temporary girlfriends. Guys, you might be tempted. Ethiopian women are gorgeous. Just remember that Africa’s rate of STDs, especially AIDS, is sky high. Besides, sex tourists are evil. Don’t be one of them.

For general health issues, check out this thorough website.

Tour Providers

There are numerous tour operators in Ethiopia. Most are based in Addis and offer tours throughout the country. A local guide can be hired at an extra cost at each of the sites, although this is generally not necessary. Below are three tour companies that I, along with trusted fellow travelers, have had good experiences with.

Amazing Ethiopia Tours
One of the larger tour companies, Amazing Ethiopia Tours offers packages around the country, including places such as Western Ethiopia that many other companies don’t serve. For those pressed for time, they offer an abbreviated 8-night/9-day tour of the historic route that involves some flying. They also provide hiking tours and support for individual hikers. http://www.amazingethiopia.com/

Ethio Renaissance
Another large and experienced company, they offer everything from one-day Addis tours to long road trips that take you into the neighboring countries of Kenya, Sudan, and Djibouti. Like Amazing Ethiopia, they offer full driving tours of the Northern route as well as shorter driving/flying trips. http://www.ethiorenaissance.com

Riki Tiki Tavi
Make your vacation make a difference with some voluntourism. This Spanish tourism company offers tailor-made volunteer opportunities depending on what you want to do and experience. They focus on local people and cultures, and helping communities with existing local projects. By staying in a community you share their way of living and get a real insight into the culture while making a positive change. www.rikitikitavi.es

Equus Ethiopia
There’s no better way to see the country than on top of a good horse. This company offers a range of rides from short jaunts to long treks. They also have day rides from Addis. www.equus-ethiopia.com

Conclusion

This article only offers a taste of what Ethiopia has to offer. In the south you can go on safari and see animals such as elephants and bushback. While you’re down there you can meet numerous distinct tribes such as the Mursi, famous for their giant lip plugs. In the east you can visit the medieval walled city of Harar and venture into the Somali region.

To learn more, check out our extensive coverage of Ethiopia, including my series on a road trip around the historic north and living in Harar. Also consider reading the Bradt guide to Ethiopia. It’s one of the best guidebooks for any destination I’ve ever used.

[Photo Credit: Sean McLachlan]

New Technology May Lead To Light- And Heat-Sensitive Tent

tent, camping
The tent we’re all familiar with from camping trips may soon be old tech thanks to a new material designed by a team of Harvard scientists.

Researchers at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering have announced in a press release that they’ve developed a flexible material that can shed or retain moisture, and turn from opaque to transparent.

You can see how it works in the image below. The material is a liquid-repellent film that coats, and is infused in, an elastic porous backing. Normally the surface is flat and will shed water, but when the backing is stretched it changes the size of the pores, causing the surface to become rough and retain droplets.

In its normal state the material is transparent, but when stretched it becomes opaque. The material could be used to make a tent that blocks light on a dry and sunny day, and becomes transparent and water-repellent on a dim, rainy day.

The material may also be used in products as diverse as contact lenses and water pipes.

Researchers were inspired by the function of tears, which block materials from damaging the eye, and flush out these materials, yet remain transparent. Such inspiration is typical of work at the Wyss Institute, which looks to nature to find solutions to technological problems.

Top image courtesy Krish Dulal. Bottom image courtesy Harvard University.
tent, Harvard

Gadling Goes Underground: More Explorations Of Caves In Spain

caves in Spain
The caves in Spain are famous for their variety and extent. Some delve more than a kilometer into the ground. Others are adorned with prehistoric cave art more than 10,000 years old. Almost all have beautiful rock formations. There’s a whole other world under the one we usually see.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m taking a course on caving. My first experience was in Cañuela cave, an easy cave suitable for beginners. Last weekend we went to Coventosa in a remote valley in the Sierra de Cantabria, a tougher cave system that requires more rope work.

The first challenge is what you see in this photo. Here I am worming my way into a little tunnel that slopes down at a steep angle. As you can see I’m tied in with a pair of carabiners attached by ropes to my harness. Why? Because at the end, the tunnel opens out onto the edge of a cliff. Start sliding uncontrollably down this tunnel and you could fly right off the cliff, fall ten meters and smash into a bunch of jagged rocks.

Coventosa is an active cave with some amazing formations. Water seeping through cracks in the rock leaves mineral deposits that harden into stone. Over vast periods of time, these accumulated deposits create stalactites, stalagmites, columns and other formations. Several walls were full of shellfish fossils, evidence that the area was once underwater. Exploring caves gives you an appreciation for how incredibly old yet constantly changing our planet is.

%Gallery-183046%Normally as the water drips down it will create a stalactite hanging from the ceiling. The water hits the floor below, leaving more deposits to create a stalagmite rising from the ground. Eventually these two features will meet to form a column.

If the water is dripping more slowly, sometimes instead of a stalactite you’ll get a soda straw, which looks exactly like what it’s called. These tend to hang straight down or at a bit of an angle if the water is pushed by an air current. Some soda straws eventually turn into stalactites, while others cling to the side of existing stalactites and grow at crazy angles, with the water seemingly defying gravity. There are various theories as to how this could happen, which means that scientists really don’t know what’s going on. We still have a lot to learn about our world.

Caves are one of the last frontiers left to us for exploration. New caves are being discovered every year, and additional tunnels in existing caves are being explored regularly. Caving is pretty much the only way a regular person can discover a previously unseen part of the world.

While I’m years away from that level of skill, the caves in Spain are already giving me a taste of that feeling. How many people have been to the Beach, a stretch of sand next to an underground lake so large that it defied my attempts to photograph it? Or visited the Ghosts and the Virgin Mary, a cluster of eerie stalagmites in one of the deepest parts of Coventosa Cave?

Then there was my favorite, a low gallery with a forest of columns half submerged in water. Our lights couldn’t penetrate to the far wall. As we crouched there, one of the students asked how far it extended. The instructor said it didn’t go much further than we could see and was sealed off by a rock fall at the end. That made me wonder – what if we took away the rocks? Was there a tunnel on the other side? Where would it lead?

Passing between these sights got tricky at times. On one cliff we had to tie into the rope, get around a difficult outcropping, then secure our protection to a second rope. Going up that same route was even more difficult and a couple of us (myself included) made the rest wait as we fiddled around trying to find the best way to do it.

While caving can be physically demanding, it requires more balance and focus than pure strength. The best student in our class is a young woman who is a foot shorter than I am, who flies up and down the ropes with far more ease, and an obvious natural talent. This is a sport that any reasonably fit person can do.

Even so, by the end of the day we were all worn out. As we emerged from the cave entrance we were greeted by the deep blue sky of evening. We’d been in the cave for nine hours and the day had passed us by. Jupiter and a crescent moon shone high above the peaks. In that other world you lose track of time. Now that I’m back in the regular world with its sky and its clocks, I’m marking time again until next Saturday, when I’ll try an even more challenging cave.

[Photo by Dani]

Caving In Northern Spain

caving, Spain
After living a year in Santander in Cantabria, northern Spain, I had a problem. I was chronically, unutterably, and perhaps terminally bored. Santander is a sleepy regional town, and while weekend hikes and trips for Gadling helped ease my boredom somewhat, I was still not getting my drug of choice – a long-term, low-level adrenaline high.

There’s nothing like it. Do something captivating and somewhat perilous for a period of a few hours to a few weeks and you’ll feel more alive than any amount of booze or drugs can ever make you. My trips to Iraq and Somaliland were two of the biggest benders of my life, but they also came with a bad case of withdrawal. So, at age 43 in a town I didn’t like, I needed to find a regular adrenaline fix.

How about learning an extreme sport in a foreign language with a bunch of people half my age?

Yeah, that should work.

Cantabria is one of the best regions in Europe for caving, and luckily the Federación Cántabra de Espeleología offers annual classes. I already had some experience caving in Missouri and New Mexico, but that was 15 years ago. Plus techniques are somewhat different in Europe and technology has changed over time. So I took a beginners’ class. This is not the sort of sport where you exaggerate your ability. That could land you in serious trouble.

%Gallery-181190%The course started off with a series of lectures that provided me a long list of Spanish words I hadn’t picked up making the rounds in bars. This was followed by a practical class at an abandoned quarry. While most of my fellow students were from the local university, I was glad to see a couple of others who looked like they knew what it was like to have kids instead of just be one.

We spent all day learning to ascend and descend. Unlike rock climbing, the point isn’t to take the most challenging way up a cliff, but rather get up there as easily as possible in order to save energy for exploring the cave. You wear a harness similar to a climbing harness. For ascending, you tie into the rope with a Croll, which has a blocking device that allows you to go up the rope but stops you from moving down. Another device that locks into the rope is called a puño (fist) and has a strap with a loop that goes around your foot. The puño has a blocking device like the Croll and you move up the cliff by doing a series of one-legged deep-knee bends, worming your way up the rope like a caterpillar.

For descending you switch to an locking pulley called a Stop that allows you to safely rappel down. Switching from ascent to descent requires securing yourself with the aid of two carabiners on ropes tied to your harness and making sure you disengage and secure the equipment in the proper order.

Beginners at a sport always expend far more energy than they need to. I was no exception. Once I got to the top of the quarry wall for the first time, I started switching over from my ascending gear and securing my Stop so I could descend. Each step is safe if you do it right, because at least two devices are securing you to the rope or wall protection at any time. Despite this, my mind was still in rock climber mode and I was trying to do it all with one hand as my other hand gripped a ledge. One foot was on a good hold and the other had a halfway decent smear.

This, of course, was entirely pointless since I was properly secured through my gear. Just then one of the instructors popped his head over the cliff top.

“Why are you hanging on?” he asked.

I didn’t have an answer for him.

“Let go,” he told me.

I let go.

“Now hang there for a minute.”

OK, lesson learned. I got back to work.

“It’s easier with two hands, isn’t it?” he said.

We finished the day worn out but successful. The class all made it through the techniques without injury, even that older foreign guy who made everything more difficult for himself.

Now came the real test: Cañuela Cave in the beautiful Sierra de Cantabria. Our instructors were easy on us and picked a cave with little technical work. The entrance is like an airplane hanger, a huge hole in the hillside sloping into darkness. Not far in, the tunnel starts to narrow and the floor gives out. The only way to continue is along a rounded hump that slopes off at a steep angle to the jagged rocks below. A rope is secured along it and by tying in with the carabiners attached by short ropes to our harness we were able to traverse this pretty quickly.

Now all daylight was behind us and we started to see rock formations such as stalactites, stalagmites, curtains and more. The route opened up into echoing galleries and then narrowed down into smaller rooms. One room was nearly circular and fringed with stalactites reaching almost to the ground, making it look like a giant petrified birdcage.

A bit beyond, we had to use the Stop to descend a cliff. A second, deeper one came later. I couldn’t see the bottom from my vantage point. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m scared of heights. All through university I went rock climbing in order to conquer my fear. I never did; I only learned to ignore it and get on with what I was doing. Discovering that you can live with the source of your fear without being affected by it was the most important thing I learned in university.

I thought I may have trouble with caving, but it turned out I didn’t. At the quarry I was too busy fiddling with the new equipment to even notice. In the cave, not being able to see the bottom made going over the edge easier somehow. No, that doesn’t make any sense – phobias never do.

More wonders followed: a lone bat clinging upside down to a rock, stalactites formed at an angle because of air currents, fossils stuck into the wall. Check out the gallery for just a small selection, and stay tuned for more underground adrenaline highs. I’ll be going into more detail about the world underneath our feet and the sport that helps you explore it.

[Top photo by Sean McLachlan. Bottom photo of yours truly wearing his helmet at a rakish angle taken by Dani “that guy in the caving class whose last name I should have learned.”]

caving, Spain

Mount Kilimanjaro Defeats Jordanian Princess

Mount Kilimanjaro
It looks like money and privilege can’t buy everything.

Princess Sarah Princess Sara bint Al Faisal of Jordan, niece of King Abdullah II, failed to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, the Tanzania Daily News reports.

The 18-year-old princess tried to scale the famous mountain last weekend with a large entourage of assistants and Jordanian international students. She reached the Kibo point at 4,700 meters (15,420 feet) but developed altitude sickness. Doctors climbing with her advised her to descend instead of attempting to reach the mountain’s highest summit, Uhuru point at 5,895 meters (19,341 feet).

Symptoms of altitude sickness include headaches, dizziness, shortness of breath, rapid pulse and more. For full coverage see this PDF document. To prevent altitude sickness, it’s best to ascend in stages, staying overnight at an intermediate altitude to give the body time to adapt. The only cure of altitude sickness is to descend to a lower altitude, which should be done immediately.

It’s difficult to predict who will get altitude sickness. When I climbed to similar elevations in the Himalayas the only symptom I noticed was a need for more breaks. On the other hand, a couple of other trekkers who looked far more fit than I was got very sick and had to descend.

The princess hoped to get a certificate of achievement for scaling the mountain. Only three of her party made it to Uhuru Point and got the certificate. She said that she enjoyed her trip to Tanzania and would try to climb the mountain again.

[Photo courtesy Muhammad Mahdi Karim]