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Published: December 13th 2011
It has taken Ethiopia a long time to shake off its international image as a nation blighted by famine, pestilence and civil war. In 1985 Bob Geldof and his gang of activists raised awareness of mass starvation in the horn of Africa with the famous Band Aid concert which went a long way to generating support and money for the people in need. An inevitable consequence of this though has been to brand Ethiopia as a symbol of despair. When I visited the African country last summer I expected the worst; bloated children, emaciated old women and fly-ridden cattle, basically a tear jerking collection of skin and bones. What I encountered was a totally different experience.
Driving through the highlands of Ethiopia I was totally unprepared for the sheer greenery and abundance of beauty. Long grass savannahs were interspersed with dramatic and ear splitting waterfalls. Tall and magnificent mountain ranges loomed on the horizon and gorges carved their way deep into the earth. Small, neat villages without a spot of litter line the well paved tarmac roads and we don’t see another car for hours. This is clearly a poor place since no one can afford to buy petrol but there is a sense of pride and community here that is unique. Young boys eagerly stroll into the hills carrying stacks of firewood in smart blazers, lent down from the previous generation, perhaps donated in 1985. They smile as we drive past and a group of beautiful girls wave coyly nearby.
The highlands of Ethiopia are one of Africa’s natural marvels, a land of rich culture and traditions spanning back millennia. It is a crossroads of civilisations, a meeting of orthodox Christianity, ancient Judaism and Arab Islam, not to mention a plethora of African animism and Rastafarianism. It isn’t surprising then to realise that in spite of this mountain kingdoms reputation for diversity that it was actually once the cradle of humanity and the place of the original diaspora.
High in the jagged peaks of the Simien Mountains and the Amharic highlands, life is almost unchanged since our ancestors left some 50,000 years ago. Subsistence farming and hunting continues and traditional village life is a tempting draw for increasing numbers of visitors who want to visit Ethiopia before this way of life is gone forever.
The list of attractions in Ethiopia is endless, the stone castles of Gonder are a true marvel for anyone interested in history, as are the ancient rock hewn churches at Lalibela and the obelisks at Axum. The Omo valley is home to some of the most fearsome and traditional tribes in all of Africa, not to mention a vast array of wildlife and endemic species. Ethiopia is famed for its tasty coffee and local culinary delights. Culture and pride pervade every aspect of society. The people regard themselves as Ethiopians first and foremost and take delight in reminding visitors that theirs was once a great civilisation that resisted even the most determined of imperial invaders. It is the source of the Blue Nile and allegedly home to the ark of the covenant. It was a playground for explorers and hunters. There is so much more to this place than famine and disease.
Nowadays Ethiopia is beginning to attract a new breed of travellers- intrepid visitors who want to explore the vast hinterlands and mountain ranges and she can certainly oblige. International expedition companies and local tour guides alike are beginning to operate adventure treks and rafting tours in off the beaten track regions. ,
My last visit was brief, but what I saw meant that I promised that I would return again this year and get involved in one such expedition. Being a keen historian I was always interested in how Ethiopia resisted the imperial advances of Italy and Great Britain but it wasn’t until I read Flashman on the March - a fictionalised account of a little known episode in British history that was, in effect, the first modern hostage rescue operation, that I learnt about the demise of the Abyssinian Emperor Tewdros II. It is a fascinating story - just Google ‘March to Magdala’ and you’ll see why I just had to attempt to recreate an expedition following in its footsteps.
So, In April next year I will be leading a team of ten adventurous souls in an epic exploration of the Amharic highlands in one of the most remote and mountainous parts of rural Ethiopia and I would like to invite anyone with an interest in history, exploration, wildlife, photography, or simply pure adventure to come along on this trip of a lifetime. The expedition
will follow the final 140 miles of the original 1868 campaign. Starting at Lake Hashengie, a protected eco reserve, the journey will traverse deep mountain gorges, cross hyena and lion inhabited plains and meet remote indigenous communities that have seen barely a handful of westerners, before finally reaching the mountain fortress of Magdala. It promises to be a tough but incredible experience and will prove that there is a lot more to Ethiopia than skin and bones.
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