Afternoon's sightseeing tour visiting the National Museum, the Church of the Holy Trinity where Haile Selassie's remains were reburied in 2000, and the Menelik Mausoleum.
Today we will take a spectacular flight to Bahar Dar. From the air we can gaze across the extraordinary nature of the Ethiopian Plateau, repeatedly cut by immensely deep gorges. Bahar Dar is a small but fast growing town on the southern shore of Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile. It has long attracted religious men and the area contains numerous churches and monasteries, many of them on the thirty or so islands of Lake Tana.
The afternoon is free, perhaps to enjoy the remarkable birdlife in the area, but most people will probably want to take the excursion by boat on the lake to visit some of the monasteries. The nearest one, the 15th century Kebrane Gabriel, is forbidden to women, but Ura-Kidanemereth, on a peninsula jutting out into the lake, is open to all. Under the thatched roof are some distinctive colourful paintings of religious scenes, and an impressive display of illuminated bibles written in Ge'ez, the religious language from which Amharic is derived.
Early in the morning we travel to the Tississat Falls, located about thirty kilometres from Lake Tana. Due to a nearby hydro electrical power scheme, the waterfalls can no longer be guaranteed to be in full force. It is still amazing to see the Blue Nile pouring over the fern-fringed lip to be channeled into the incredibly narrow gorges on its journey to Khartoum in Sudan. We take a gentle walk to the falls (approx two hours) before stopping to admire them. From here we head back to the river for a short boat ride to meet the vehicle. (N.B. A shorter visit to the falls can be arranged for those who don't want such a long walk). We then return to Bahar Dar for lunch and explore the town. We may choose to visit the local market or watch the activity in and around the lake where the main means of transport is the traditional boats made of bundled papyrus known as Tankwa-a.
This morning we drive north to Gondar, the former capital of Ethiopia and visit the castles, which were built in the 17th and 18th century by several generations of Ethiopian kings. Nearby is Debre Birhan Selassie church with its sensational angelic ceiling, and the bathhouse of Fasilides at which thousands of Ethiopians celebrate Timkat festival every January. Our hotel is up on a cliff top with wonderful views looking over the town.
After breakfast we drive to Debark on the edge of the Simien Mountains. The road is fairly rough and rugged and usually takes about two and a half hours. In the afternoon we drive up into the mountains for some spectacular views of this unique ecosystem. The highland plateau is capped by a dramatic skyline of jagged volcanic plugs and split by deep gorges and gullies. On a good day, the views are sensational and the striking towers and formations have been described as the 'chess pieces of the Gods'. We take an optional walk and hope to see the endemic Gelada baboons and Klipspringers before returning to Debark. The maximum altitude we reach is 3250m. PLEASE NOTE that the Timkat departures will NOT visit the Simien Mountains. An extra day will be spent in the town where we celebrate the festival to ensure that we have time to visit all the relevant sites.
Continue on the rugged road for a full day's drive to the fabled city of Axum via the lowlands of the Simien Mountains and Tekeze River gorge. Arrive in the late afternoon with time to enjoy the beautiful sunset (weather permitting) from the hotel terrace.
Axum is the seat of the ancient capital of the Kingdom of Axum, which was once one of the most powerful in the ancient world. Located at the centre of the trading routes between the Mediterranean and India, and the great port of Adulis on the Red Sea, it was economically, politically and technically advanced and at times had control over both sides of the Red Sea. Axum is also the origin of Christianity in Ethiopia and believed to be the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant. The old church of St Mary of Zion was the first church to be built in Sub-Saharan Africa around 330AD. Its ruins can be seen in the precinct of the church compound. We visit the famous monolithic stelae of Axum, the tallest one still standing reaches over 21 metres and the greatest one of them all, once 34 metres high now lies toppled on the ground. However, it is still the largest monolith ever erected by man. The subterranean tombs, stone inscriptions of ancient Axumite kings and the small archaeological museum are also living witness of the ancient Axumite history. We will also visit the ruined palace of the Queen of Sheba who is said to have given birth to Menelik the First, fathered by King Solomon, the founder of Ethiopia's ruling family until the late Emperor Haile Selassie.
We take a short flight to Lalibela and visit the first cluster of rock-hewn churches in the afternoon. These churches are Ethiopia's top attraction. The churches are mostly cut from solid rock, and therefore have the appearance of being underground. The most famous church is Bete Giorgis (St George, patron saint of Ethiopia), carved in the form of a Greek cross. It is exceptionally well preserved and visually almost flawless.
The churches are quite dark inside, with little artificial light, and in some cases limited natural light. In each one there is a resident priest, who is usually happy to put on richly embroidered vestments and pose for a photo with his crosses, ancient bibles and sunglasses (due to constant camera flashes!). Although the churches are remote, they are not short of worshippers: most Ethiopians, certainly of the older generation, are devout Orthodox Christians, and the services in the churches on religious festivals are of marathon length: sixteen hours is not unusual!
In the morning we enjoy an adventurous mule journey to visit Ashetan Maryam (St Mary), built on a ridge with excellent views over the surrounding countryside. The trip takes approximately 5 hours and will start early to avoid the heat. We will ride the mules up the mountain for approximately an hour, then hike the rest of the way up the mountain to the church. After visiting the church we then walk back down to the village on slippery mountain paths. This is a tough walk and is optional. If you choose not to do the walk there is plenty to do in Lalibela: There is the opportunity to walk into the town and visit some of the many shops or relax in a Tej café and sample the local fermented honey drink.
In the afternoon we visit another cluster of churches that include the churches of Bete Gabriel and Rafael, Merkorous, Emanuel and Abba Libanos. Bete Emanuel is the best in this group and exceptionally carved with unique Axumite building features, such as the indentations on the walls, symbols of the multi-storey building taken from the stelae of Axum, monkey heads and false windows.
The rest of the day is spent absorbing the atmosphere of this extraordinary town with its Tukul or round houses. Made as two-storey buildings, they are unusual in Africa.
This morning we fly back to Addis. The afternoon is free for personal exploring or relaxing at the hotel.
We travel south, on surprisingly good roads to Lake Abiata-Shala National Park. This region is home to the Oromo people, farmers and cattle herders, and we shall probably see them grazing their stock on the lush lakeshore pastures. We should see Grants gazelle, greater and lesser flamingo, as well as a variety of water birds, including the Sacred Ibis, which loves to perch in fig or acacia trees. Our final destination is the little oasis town of Wendogenet.
Wendogenet is a hot springs resort with the remains of the original Ethiopian forest. Papaya, mango, bananas, false banana (enset) and coffee all grow here and Colobus monkeys, parrots and baboons play in the trees beside the hotel. We can take a walk in the morning or just relax in the hot spring pool in the afternoon
Before returning to Addis we drive a little further south to the freshwater Lake Awassa. A rich variety of plankton and fish inhabit the lake and support an interesting lakeside market where the Marabou storks will undoubtedly perform impressive dives to capture fish. Many species of bird are found here and hippos are sometimes sighted in the lake. On our return to Addis day rooms will be provided for clients on the 00:25 flight, departing day 14. For those on the lunchtime flight home (day 14) a full nights accommodation will be provided.
End Addis Ababa.