27th April 2016
Our new Africa consultant Peter is exploring Ethiopia. Here he describes his experience on the Tesfa (Tourism in Ethiopia for Sustainable Future Alternatives) Trek, one of the highlights of our Northern Explorer tour, whilst it can also be arranged on a tailor-made basis.
For many seasoned travellers to Africa, and indeed worldwide, the phrase "cultural interaction" can mean many things. Too often these days, a chance to get a glimpse of local culture and interact with local people is horribly contrived, an attempt to get some US Dollars as a tip and not much else. I remember once seeing a "traditional" Zulu Dancer remove his traditional dress, put on loafers, jeans and shirt before climbing into a new VW Golf talking on his iPhone - about as far from traditional as one can get. Of course, there are still many excellent, truly traditional experiences one can enjoy and through many travels to Africa, I have found none more authentic and engaging than Ethiopia's Tesfa Trekking.
The concept, as with all good ideas, is remarkably simple. Guests choose how many nights they would like to trek for (generally 3 nights and 4 days but the route can accommodate up to 12 night treks) during their visit to Ethiopia. They are met at the start by their guide, briefed on the route and away they go. Generally walks are between 15 and 25 kms per day, although this varies depending on the route, most along the edge of a cliff offering breath-taking views to the valley, surrounding oneself with mountains, but sometimes through local villages. This is billed as a chance to experience the real Ethiopia and boy does it deliver this. Along with your guide from Tesfa, you are assigned local guides who, along with their trusted donkey(s) ensure you and your luggage make it safely to your camps each evening.
The camps are comprised of several traditional tukuls, stone and thatched huts with double and single beds, all set just back from the lip of the escarpment with stunning views from the verandas. The beds have a solid concrete base with a thin mattress and, despite huge misgivings, gave the author the best night's sleep he has had in sometime. The small dining rooms have a fire lit in the centre at night to keep away the chill which one does feel this high (most camps are around 2800 metres) and a simple, yet delicious dinner is served in them, with a small bar (bucket filled with drinks and water) to help wash the meal down.
What makes this such an authentic experience is that the camps are run almost entirely by the local community and with that, are totally eco-friendly. No electric lights, no gas, just traditional log fired kitchens and candles for the rooms at night - the food is fantastic, given the limited facilities, eco loos and bucket showers mean guests leave no footprint when staying here. The camps are run by the local villages, which are close by and guests will love the opportunity to visit these before dinner. The camp staff are all drawn from these villages and much of the cost of your trek goes directly to them to help improve their way of life.
What struck me was just how cut off these villages and indeed much of the country is from the western world. 85% of Ethiopians live in these small rural communities, many with no idea what life is like beyond the edge of those village. My guide recounted a lovely tale of Brad Pitt's visit in 2004 when he was grilled extensively (via his guide translating) by the camp manager who demanded to know what crops he grew in his garden and how many goats he owned. To see people so far removed from our way of life is a very humbling experience, the people who live and work in the camps are warm, friendly, interested in learning about their guests and genuinely proud of their homes and the camps they run with Tesfa, and rightly so.
Tesfa isn't luxury accommodation, the walking can be tough and the very basic facilities can be off-putting to some. But if you are looking to experience how the local people truly live, an opportunity sadly diminishing across much of Africa, this is the place to come and do it. A truly wonderful experience I would recommend to anyone visiting Ethiopia, and one worth making the trip for on its own. However, there are plenty of other great sights to see and things to do as well!