Ethiopia is Africa's oldest independent country. Apart from a five-year occupation by Mussolini's Italy, it has never been colonised. The country is better known for its periodic droughts and famines, its long civil conflict and a border war with Eritrea.
In the first part of the 20th century Ethiopia forged strong links with Britain, whose troops helped evict the Italians in 1941 and put Emperor Haile Selassie back on his throne.
From the 1960s British influence gave way to that of the US, which in turn was supplanted by the Soviet union.Ethiopia’s uniqueness and history makes it a fascinating destination for every kind of traveller, but in particular for the traveller who wants that bit more.
Ethiopia’s historic sites are extremely wide-ranging and possibly the most extensive in the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa. Experts claim that such sites are only a fraction of what Ethiopia has to offer given that a further 95% remain to be discovered and excavated.
Ethiopia's National Parks
Ethiopia is also a land of natural contrasts, from the tops of the rugged Simien mountains to the depths of the Danakil Depression, at 120 meters below sea level one of the lowest dry land points on earth.
The cornucopia of natural beauty that blesses Ethiopia offers an astonishing variety of landscapes: Afro-Alpine highlands soaring to around 4,300 meters, deserts sprinkled with salt flats and yellow sulphur, lake lands with rare and beautiful birds, moors and mountains, the splendor of the Great Rift Valley, white-water rivers, savannah teeming with game, giant waterfalls, dense and lush jungle the list is endless.
Ethiopia's many national parks enable the visitor to enjoy the country's scenery and its wildlife, conserved in natural habitats, and offer opportunities for travel adventure unparalleled in Africa.
Awash National Park
Awash National Park is the oldest and most developed wildlife reserve in Ethiopia. Featuring the 1,800-metre Fantalle Volcano, extensive mineral hot-springs and extraordinary volcanic formations, this natural treasure is bordered to the south by the Awash River and lies 225 kilometers east of the capital, Addis Ababa.
The wildlife consists mainly of East African plains animals, but there are now no giraffe or buffalo. Oryx, bat-eared fox, caracal, aardvark, colobus and green monkeys, Anubis and Hamadryas baboons, klipspringer, leopard, bushbuck, hippopotamus, Soemmering's gazelle, cheetah, lion, kudu and 450 species of bird all live within the park's 720 square kilometers.
Bale Mountains National Park
The Bale Mountains, with their vast moorlands - the lower reaches covered with St. John's wort- and their extensive heathland, virgin woodlands, pristine mountain streams and alpine climate remain an untouched and beautiful world. Rising to a height of more than 4,000 meters, the range borders Ethiopia's southern highlands, whose highest peak, Mount Tullu Deemtu, stands at 4,377 meters.
The establishment of the 2,400-square-kilometre Bale Mountains National Park was crucial to the survival of the mountain nyala, Menelik's bushbuck and the Simien red fox. This fox is one of the most colorful members of the dog family and more abundant here than anywhere else in Ethiopia.
All three endemic animals thrive in this environment, the nyala in particular often being seen in large numbers. The Bale Mountains offer some fine high-altitude horse and foot trekking, and the streams of the park - which become important rivers further downstream - are well-stocked with rainbow and brown trout.
Gambela National Park
The Baro River area, accessible by land or air through the western Ethiopian town of Gambela, remains a place of adventure and challenge. Traveling across the endless undulating plains of high Sudanese grass, visitors can enjoy a sense of achievement in just finding their way. This is Ethiopia's true tropical zone and here are found all the elements of the African safari, enhanced by a distinctly Ethiopian flavor.
Nile perch weighing 100 kilos can be caught in the waters of the Baro, snatched from the jaws of the huge crocodiles that thrive along the riverbank. The white-eared kob also haunts the Baro, along with other riverbank residents that include the Nile lechwe, buffalo, giraffe, tiang, waterbuck, roan antelope, zebra, bushbuck, Abyssinian reedbuck, warthog, hartebeest, lion, elephant and hippopotamus.
Omo National Park
Far to the south-west lies Omo National Park, the largest in the country, with an area of 4,068 square kilometers. It is a vast expanse of true wilderness, adjacent to the Omo River, which flows southwards into Lake Turkana and is one of the richest and least-visited wildlife sanctuaries in eastern Africa. Eland, oryx, Burchell's zebra, Lelwel hartebeest, buffalo, giraffe, elephant, waterbuck, kudu, lion, leopard and cheetah roam within the park's boundaries.
The Omo Valley is virtually free of human habitation but is rich in palaeo-anthro-pological remains. According to scientific research done in 1982 by the University of California at Berkeley, hominid remains from the Omo Valley probably date back more than four million years.
Much of Africa's volcanic activity is concentrated along the immense 5,000-kilometre crack in the earth's surface known as the Rift Valley. It is the result of two roughly parallel faults, between which, in distant geological time, the crust was weakened and the land subsided.
The valley walls - daunting blue-grey ridges of volcanic basalt and granite - rise sheer on either side to towering heights of 4,000 meters. The valley floor, 50 kilometers or more across, encompasses some of the world's last true wildernesses.
Ethiopia is often referred to as the 'water tower' of eastern Africa because of the many rivers that pour off its high tableland, and a visit to this part of the Rift Valley, studded with lakes, volcanoes and savannah grassland, offers the visitor a true safari experience.
The Omo River tumbles its 350-kilometre way through a steep inaccessible valley before slowing its pace as it nears the lowlands and then meanders through flat, semi-desert bush, eventually running into Lake Turkana. Since 1973, the river has proved a major attraction for white-water rafters. The season for rafting is between September and October, when the river is still high from the June to September rains but the weather is drier.
The river passes varied scenery, including an open gallery forest of tamarinds and figs, alive with colobus monkeys. Under the canopy along the riverbanks may be seen many colorful birds. Goliath herons, blue-breasted kingfishers, white-cheeked turacos, emerald-spotted wood doves and red-fronted bee-eaters are all rewarding sights, while monitor lizards may be glimpsed scuttling into the undergrowth.
Beyond the forest, hippos graze on the savannah slopes against the mountain walls, and waterbuck, bushbuck and Abyssinian ground hornbills are sometimes to be seen.
Abundant wildlife, spirited rapids, innumerable side creeks and waterfalls, sheer inner canyons and hot springs all combine to make the Omo one of the world's classic river adventures.
East of the Omo River and stretching south towards the Chew Bahir basin lies the Mago National Park, rich in wildlife and with few human inhabitants. The vegetation is mainly savannah grassland and bush, extending across an area of 2,160 square kilometers. Mammal species total 81, including hartebeest, giraffe, roan antelope, elephant, lion, leopard and perhaps even a rare black rhino.
Simien Mountains National Parks
The Simien Mountain massif is a broad plateau, cut off to the north and west by an enormous single crag over 60 kilometers long. To the south, the tableland slopes gently down to 2,200 meters, divided by gorges 1,000 meters deep which can take more than two days to cross. Insufficient geological time has elapsed to smooth the contours of the crags and buttresses of hardened basalt.
Within this spectacular splendor live the Walia (Abyssinian) ibex, Simien red fox and Gelada baboon - all endemic to Ethiopia - as well as the Hamadryas baboon, klipspringer and bushbuck. Birds such as the lammergeyer, augur buzzard, Verreaux's eagle, kestrel and falcon also soar above this mountain retreat.
Twenty kilometers north-east of Gondar, the Simien Mountains National Park covers 179 square kilometers of highland area at an average elevation of 3,300 meters. Ras Dashen, at 4,620 meters the highest peak in Ethiopia, stands adjacent to the park.
The Simien escarpments, which are often compared to the Grand Canyon in the United States of America, have been adopted by Unesco as a World Heritage Site.
Rift Valley National Park
The park is in the chain of seven lakes which run from Debre Zeit south toward Lake Turkana in Kenya. The park is about 200 kilometres south of Addis Ababa, and consists of two lakes, just to the west of Lake Langano. They are particularly attractive stretches of water, and they are very different in character to each other. The main interest is the extensive bird life that the lakes attract, with over 400 species recorded.
There are a few mammals on the shores of lake Abiyatta, including Grant's gazelle, warthog and oribi. The water of Lake Abiyatta is alkaline and among the birds attracted to feed on the algae are greater and lesser flamingoes and white pelicans, white-necked cormorants, herons, storks, fish eagles, spoonbills, ibises, ducks, gulls and terns.
Surrounding woodland contains trogons, turacos and weaver birds. In the northern hemisphere winter the lake is host to migratory ducks and waders from Europe and Asia. Lake Shala is particularly famous for its colony of great white pelicans, (about 15,000 pairs), ibises, Abdimi's storks, and the white-necked cormorant. The lakes are important breeding grounds for several species of birds, especially the pelicans.
Senkello Swayne's Hartebeest Sanctuary is close to the park, and is administered by the staff. It contains about 2,000 of these hartebeest, which are endemic to Ethiopia.
Lake Abiyatta is the more northern of the two lakes, and is about 20 kilometres across. It is shallow and surrounded by grass-covered shores and acacia woodland.
Lake Shala is 260 metres deep at maximum, and it is surrounded by black peaks and cliffs. There are two lots of hot springs on the margins of the lake. One, Ghike is close to the park HQ at Dole and the other is further round the lake on the southern shore.