Fly overnight to Ethiopia’s intoxicating capital, Addis Ababa. The city’s name translates to new flower in Amharic, the language that sings through the city’s streets. Supposedly, the city was a love gift from the consort of the Emperor Menelik II, who preferred Addis Ababa’s climate to the country's then capital Entoto. The seat of power has remained in this verdant setting.
A city of contrasts, Addis Ababa’s chaotic streets are a hotchpotch of mystical Menelik remains set against dizzying high rises. Your guide will show you the former palace of Haile Selassie, now a fabulous ethnographical museum chock full of ancient artefacts. A true oasis in this wonderfully mad city, the palace’s beautiful gardens and fountains offer the perfect place to relax in.
Take a short flight to one of Ethiopia's prettiest cities, Bahir Dar. Literally meaning sea shore, the city straddles Ethiopia's largest lake, the eternally shimmering Lake Tana. There are 37 islands scattered among its waters, 20 of which hide tiny churches and monasteries containing accomplished paintings. You’ll take a boat trip here before journeying on to the source of the Blue Nile, Tissiat Waterfall, which offers fantastic photo opportunities.
A scenic journey to Gondar takes you through the time-trapped villages of beautifully desolate Ethiopian Highlands. Gondar, the first capital of the Ethiopian Empire, stands tall above a circle of hills. Surrounded by fertile plains, you'll visit the castle complex, the baths of Fasilidas, the church of Debre Berhan and the Italian-built piazza that marks the town centre.
Next you'll depart for Lalibela. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this astounding city was built by King Lalibela in the 12th-century. No amount of research can prepare you for your surroundings: Lalibela was supposedly whisked to heaven and instructed by God to build the city. As you photograph Lalibela's iconic rock-hewn churches, it’s not hard to believe that the legend is true.
Incredibly, many of Lalibela’s 11 stone churches were hewn from single blocks of stone. The Bete Giyorgis (Church of St George) is by far the most spectacular. Your guide will show you the Monastery of Nakutoleab that is built inside a natural cave, and houses a shimmering array of golden drums, ancient crosses and royal thrones. Your day will end as the incredible sunset paints shifting colours over the arid terrain.
Another UNESCO World Heritage Site awaits you: Axum, the capital of the Axumite Empire. Here the cobbled paths of the stelae are made from giant granite monoliths, and the elaborate crowns of Ethiopia’s kings will astound you in the church of Saint Mary of Zion. Meanwhile, in the Axum Museum there are 16th-century royal gowns threaded with gold, intricate Ethiopian crosses and engraved tablets that date back 2,000 years.
As you drive along the red mud roads towards Hawzen you’ll pass rocky terrain where fields of wheat, lentil, millet and sorghum struggle to thrive. There are pre-Axumite temples and cliff top monasteries to visit where half of the pleasure is reaching them. At the teetering Debre Damo the only approach is up a sheer cliff-face. Luckily, someone always seems to be on hand to throw down a harness!
More sheer cliffs and vertical spires dominate this stunning region. Gheralta’s churches were designed to be inaccessible to raiding armies. Don’t worry, your guide won’t expect you to climb their sheer sandstone walls! Many more accessible churches reside nearby, including Abreha Atsbeha Monastery and the church of Petros and Paulos, where you’ll discover charming murals of saints and angels.
It’s a sensational drive to Mekelle, where you’ll board a flight back to Addis Ababa. On your last afternoon, we recommend visiting the Merkato. The largest open-air market in Africa is as chaotic as it is colourful. It’s a marvellous experience to wander through the vibrant textiles, heady aromas and incessant sounds as you pick up a souvenir or some pungent spices to remind you of your Ethiopian adventure.
Your head will be whirling from the fascinating tapestry of history, culture and terrain. Your Ethiopian tour is complete and it’s time to fly home to the UK.