Ethiopia - A journey to the cradle of humanity
I suspect that, like many Irish people, my perceptions of Ethiopia are not simply outdated, but frozen at a particular moment in its history. I may have been vaguely aware of its rich and complex history, but, whenever I thought of Ethiopia, I thought of famine and the horrific images it evoked.
My father had visited the country in the early 1980s, and his descriptions of what he had seen there were pretty bleak. He told me that at that time he visited Addis Ababa there were said to be only two proper roads in the whole of Ethiopia: one was said to run from the Emperor's Palace to the airport - the other was from the airport to the Palace.
It was, therefore, with a mixture of excitement and trepidation that I started my journey. I had to fly from London, but Ethiopian Airlines plan to open a new route direct from Dublin by 2015. The flight was long, but comfortable, and I slept for most of it. I awoke as we started making our approach to Addis - flying over the Entoto Mountains.
Soon after I arrived, I drove around the city to try and get my bearings. I was immediately struck by the huge amount of construction underway, and the frenetic pace at which Addis and Ethiopia seemed to be changing.
There are still a few of the old Imperial palaces, and some ancient Orthodox Churches. But huge swathes of the city have been built in the last few years. It wasn't hard to see where the money for this scale of massive investment had come from: there were numerous signs in Mandarin all over the city, and much of Addis' new development has been paid for by China.
By lunchtime, I felt ravenously hungry, so I headed to the Kuriftu Diplomat Restaurant, which can be found in the heart of the city. The restaurant was cool and inviting, and it was a relief to be out of the sun.
I ordered a local dish - thin strips of beef fillet, marinated in butter and chilli. It was accompanied with injera - a traditional form of Ethiopian flatbread. Injera has a distinctive, slightly spongy texture and a somewhat sour taste. It may not be to everyone's liking, but it complimented the spiciness of my meal perfectly. This was washed down with some of the local St George Amber beer - which had a crisp and slightly bitter flavour.
Later that afternoon, I drove southeast to the Kuriftu Resort, near the city of Debre Zeit. The road system had clearly improved since my father's visit, but the drive was still along a dusty and bumpy track. I was pleasantly surprised, however, when I reached the resort.
The restaurant was gigantic and I sampled a range of both international and local dishes - accompanied with generous amounts of the local wine and beer. On the walls of the restaurant were framed photos of previous guests - from Archbishop Tutu to the late and unlamented Colonel Gaddafi. After dinner, I swam in the hotel pool, and the night sky seemed almost overcrowded with stars
The next day involved a drive to the Bale Mountains National Park in the Ethiopian Highlands. It covers a vast area and the drive was long, but the scenery was so stunning that it was immensely enjoyable: after all, it is not every day that you get a chance to see a lion stalking a group of unsuspecting warthogs.
As night began to fall, the landscape was thrown into even more dramatic relief by a violent lightning storm.
I arrived shortly before midnight at the Bale Mountain Lodge - a small boutique Lodge in the National Park. It was opened last year by Guy Levene, a former Army Colonel and his wife. Guy was very welcoming, and it soon became clear that he is passionate about the conservation and preservation of the local habitat.
While I was there, I met two young English herpetologists who believed that they had discovered a new species of viper. This was a rather terrifying creature: jet black, with a vivid diamond yellow pattern. I was somewhat relieved to return to the safety of my room.
The next morning - after a breakfast of jam, fruit and local honey - I set off on a trip with James Kuria Ndung'u, the Lodge's Resident Naturalist. Afterwards I climbed up to a waterfall high in the cloud forest, stripped off and plunged in to a deep rock pool. The water was intensely cold - but it was one of the most exhilarating and enjoyable swims of my life.
In the afternoon, I headed for the Sanneti plateau, where I scaled Mount Tulu Dimtu. It is Ethiopia's second highest point, and the trek to the top was gruelling, but it was worth the physical demands, because the uninterrupted views offered from the summit were quite remarkable.
The vast expanse of plateau and rocky outcrops looked like the surface of some distant planet. The native plant life added to this sense of strangeness - with strands of giant lobelia growing up to 6m high, and huge aloes with bright orange spear-shaped flowers.
There is also a lot of wildlife to be found here - with herds of mountain nyala, Menelik's bushbuck, and the occasional lion, or giant forest hog. This region is also home to around 60pc of the remaining red Ethiopian wolves - the world's rarest canid.
I left the Park to make my way to Lake Awassa. This region was different again to the Sanneti plateau. The land was extremely arid and dry. In fact, it looked as if little had changed here across several millennia.
From time to time, I passed small groupings of simple dwellings. They were constructed of wattle and daub, with steeply thatched pitch roofs. Occasionally, the terrain was punctuated by brightly coloured churches and mosques.
I could not have expected to find in the middle of this starved landscape a huge and thriving vineyard. Rift Valley was acquired by the French wine producers Castel in 2007, and is now one of a number of wine producers that have emerged in Ethiopia over the last few years. Their wine is still young, but I enjoyed their Cabernet Sauvignon from the 2013 harvest - I found it a little too sweet, but still refreshing.
I drove back to Addis the next day, and stayed in the Hilton. The hotel gave the impression that it hadn't changed much since the 1970s. It was easy to imagine an assorted crew of jaded ex-pats, foreign correspondents and soldiers of fortune propping up the bar, and arguing over who had paid for the last round of G&Ts.
The following morning, I took a short flight to Lalibela - a small city perched in the northern Highlands. Lalibela is famous for its magnificent monolithic churches - carved out of the hillside's red volcanic rock. It is one of Ethiopia's holiest sites, and second only to Aksum - where the Holy Grail itself is reputed to be hidden. Lalibela is still a major centre of pilgrimage for many of Ethiopia's Christians, and it was a place that I had often dreamed of visiting - so, in some respects, this was the highlight of my visit.
I made my way to the Lalibela Lodge, my room was light and airy, and the view from the balcony was almost overwhelming. After a simple lunch, I walked to the famous eleven churches, where I met up with my guide Fikru Woldengiorgis. Fikru was a former deacon in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. He had grown up in Lalibela, and played in its ancient ruins when he was a child. He was exceptionally knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and able to answer all my questions.
The city was first constructed in the reign of Saint Gebre Mesqel Lalibela who conceived it as a new Jerusalem in response to the capture of the original city by Muslim forces in 1187. Many of the major buildings have names that are associated with the Bible and even the river that flows through it is called the Jordan.
The Churches are closely packed together, but each of them offers something unique to the visitor. I spent hours walking around them - dazed and dumbfounded by their beauty. Some of the frescos and paintings inside them come from the 16th century, and are almost beyond adequate description: they are vividly coloured, highly emotive and expressive with an iconography that is quite removed from that of western Christianity.
To say that my visit to Ethiopia changed my perception of that country is an understatement. This is not a poor country, but one of extraordinary cultural riches. I cannot wait to return.
If you fly with Ethiopian Airlines they offer a 40 percent discount on all internal flights. You will need a visa to enter Ethiopia, I got mine from the embassy in Dublin but you can get one on arrival at Addis Ababa Bole or Dire Dawa International airports, at a cost of approximately $25 (Euros, US dollars and Ethiopian birr are all accepted). Ethiopia is truly vast with a large number of micro climates, and it is necessary to check with your doctor before flying out. Kuriftu Resort (www.kurifturesortspa.com) offer excursions and has a number of other resorts throughout the country and in neighbouring Djibouti. The Lalibela Lodge (www.lalibelalodge.com) offers a small discount if you book on-line. In order to access the eleven stone churches it is necessary to pay a fee of $50. As the ground is uneven and the complex difficult to negotiate, you must also be accompanied by a guide.
The chalet in which I was staying at the Kuriftu Resort was very thoughtfully designed - blending a traditional thatched exterior with all the modern amenities. It was set in a beautifully landscaped garden and was perfectly secluded. Kuriftu is located on the banks of a large crater lake, and offers a succession of spectacular vistas - each of which seemed achingly perfect to me.
To my amazement, I was able to spot no less than six of these beautiful creatures in the Sanneti plateau. They look a little like a coyote, but with longer legs and a sharp elongated nose and ears. They live in packs, but, unlike their European cousins, they hunt alone. Their chief prey is another species endemic to this region: the giant mole rat - a striking-looking creature - but for very different reasons.
The Church of St George
The Church of St George was last of the eleven churches to be constructed in Lalibela and it is perfectly preserved. Formed in the shape of a Greek cross it follows the contours of the hill in which it is embedded. To reach it, I had to make my way down a narrow path carved into the rock. Suddenly, the Church appeared in front of me like a miraculous apparition: in shape, colour and form, it seems as close to aesthetic perfection as is possible.