Back to Ethiopia

Posted by Jonny Bealby 10th February 2023
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Back to Ethiopia

One of the great things about my job is that I get to return to countries over and over again. And Ethiopia is one such country.

My first visit was more by accident than design. In 1991, I set off on a motorbike from London with the aim of driving to Cape Town. I had thought that I would take the ‘normal’ route, across the Sahara, along the north of what was then Zaire before cutting down to the Cape through East Africa… I had no intention at all of visiting Ethiopia. However, once on the road, I was surprised to find quite a lot of overlanders on this route and so decided to break away from the pack and head southwest from the Central African Republic through war-torn Angola and Namibia. Once in Cape Town there was only one thing to do: drive back, and that route took me through Ethiopia.

And what I found was a country in turmoil. The communist ‘Durg’ that had ended Haile Selassie's rule in the mid-seventies had just come to an end and the country was in a state of semi-civil war with various ethnic groups vying for power. Not far north of the Kenyan border, I had been held at gunpoint while a small skirmish between rival factions – the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), if memory serves – was being played out a mile away across the savannah. One night the hotel I stayed at in Addis got shot up. And driving north I was constantly passing the detritus of war: blown-up tanks, armoured personnel carriers and broken trucks.

But what I also discovered was a country of immense beauty, character and charm. This was only a few years after the great famines of the eighties and I was expecting to see parched lands, deserts and malnourished children. Instead, I discovered a land of lush green hills, stunning ravines, lakes and flowing rivers. I found a country of huge cultural wealth in the ancient Christian religion, in the churches and hidden monasteries and in the castle of the 17th-century Abyssinian empire based in Gondar. And above all, I discovered a population of warm-hearted, friendly people that took me in and helped me on my way. (For more details please buy Running with the Moon and earn me £1 in royalties)

In short, I fell in love with the place and so it should come as no surprise to learn that when Pakistan went off the grid for a couple of years in the aftermath of 9/11, it was to Ethiopia that I looked to fill the void. I lead my first trip there in October 2002.

Back then things were still pretty rough and ready. I remember one of my early groups – which rather embarrassingly included my parents and aunt – getting bumped out of a hotel in Gondar and put in the local brothel instead. The only way to stay in the stunning Simien Mountains was to camp and that was pretty basic as well. And the roads! Oh goodness, they were terrible.

But over the following 20-odd years that changed with the construction of excellent roads, cutting journey times in half, the building of great new hotels and lodges and Addis became one of the most important metropolises of Africa.

And then of course disaster struck in 2020, not with the pandemic, which gripped the rest of the world, but with a two-year-long civil war. With horrendous war crimes being alleged on both sides, it’s believed as many as half a million people were killed, and many more displaced. Thankfully last November a peace deal was signed between the national government in Addis and the TPLF restoring peace and hope to millions.

Understandably, over the 20-odd years between 2002 and 2020, Ethiopia became one of Wild Frontiers' top destinations. I am now heading back to see how things are and what our travellers can expect when they return this autumn. So if you are interested, watch this space as I will be reporting on my trip as often as I can get wifi!

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