the Historic North


Churches of Lalibela; Colourful festivals; Spectacular Simien Mountain scenery; Axum Stellae Park; Tribal south, kaleidoscope of cultures; Christian churches, gilded monasteries

Full Itinerary

Day 1 Arrival in Ethiopia
Arrive in Addis Ababa, (2450 m / 8,038 ft) Ethiopia's capital city.

THIS IS A TRIP FOR THE ADVENTUROUS. The itinerary has been designed to be as comfortable as possible, but this part of the world is still undeveloped. Accommodation is basic in some places and some road journeys are long, dusty, and rough. This trip is suitable for hardy travellers who do not expect "creature comforts" or things to work smoothly everywhere. Despite the often-rustic conditions, delays, and bumpy roads, this will be a fascinating journey, full of epic moments for the experienced traveller who possesses a sense of humour, flexibility, and a true spirit for adventure.

Overnight in Addis Ababa.
Meal plan: dinner

Day 2 Addis Ababa: City Tour
This morning we tour Addis Ababa, with a visit to Ethiopia's National and Ethnographic Museum. One of its most famous residents is Lucy, a proto-human skull discovered in Ethiopia in 1974 and believed to be 3.5 million years old. The Ethnographic Museum, on the university campus of Addis Ababa, displays many items important to daily life in rural Ethiopia. A brief section also pertains to the life of the late Haile Selassie, Ethiopia's last emperor, crowned in 1930.

We also visit the Holy Trinity Cathedral, the second most-important place of worship in Ethiopia and the final resting place of Emperor Haile Selassie.

NOTE: Our September departure is set to coincide with Meskel, celebrated in this country for over 1,600 years. The word actually means "cross" and the feast commemorates the discovery of the Cross upon which Jesus was crucified by the Empress Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great. The original event took place on 19 March, AD 326, but the feast is now celebrated in late September. In Addis celebrations start in the early afternoon, when a huge procession bearing flaming torches approaches Meskel Square from various directions. The marchers include priests in their brightly hued vestments, students, brass bands, contingents of the armed forces, and bedecked floats carrying huge lit crosses. They circle the demera and fling their torches upon it, while singing a special Meskel song. Thousands gather at the square to join in and welcome the season of flowers and golden sunshine called 'Tseday.' As evening darkens the flames glow brighter. It is not until dawn that the burning pyramid consumes itself and the big tree at the centre finally falls. During the celebrations each house is stocked with tella, the local beer, and strangers are made welcome.

Overnight in Addis Ababa.
Meal plan: breakfast,dinner

Day 3 Addis Ababa - Bahr Dar: Tis Abay (Blue Nile Falls)
Today we fly to Bahr Dar, situated on the shore of Lake Tana in northwestern Ethiopia. Bahar Dar is a small town set on the southeastern shore of Lake Tana (Ethiopia's largest lake), where local fishermen still use papyrus boats, and just 30 km (19 miles) from the spectacular Tissisat Falls.

This afternoon we have an excursion to Tis Abay (Blue Nile Falls), a cascade 45 m (150 feet) high. The locals call it Tisissat, which means "Water that Smokes". The area is also home to a great variety of birds and plants.

Return to Bahr Dar.

Overnight in Bahr Dar.
Meal plan: breakfast,dinner

Day 4 Bahr Dar - Gondar
Today we cross Lake Tana by boat and connect with our land transport at Gorgora and continue by road to Gondar, the former capital of Ethiopia (1818 m / 6,000 ft). This "City of Castles" is one of Ethiopia's most interesting. Set in a beautiful landscape, Gondar is situated at the base of the Simien Mountains. The city's unique imperial precinct contains a dozen castles built by various emperors over a 236-year period.

Overnight in Gondar.
Meal plan: breakfast,dinner

Day 5 Gondar: Town Tour
Today we will acquaint ourselves with the city of Gondar, touring the castle of Emperor Fasiledes, founder of the former capital. The two-story castle with its domed towers was said to be "one of the most marvelous of buildings" by a visiting Yemeni envoy. We will also see the Bathing Palace, once surrounded by a moat of water. Today the moat is only filled with water during Epiphany for an annual baptism celebration. We will also visit the monasteries of Qusquam and Debre Berhan Selassie. The latter has not only many detailed 16th century frescoes, but also one of Ethiopia's most photographed ceilings, painted with angels' faces. We will also make a short trip outside Gondar to the tiny village of Wolleka, where there once lived a large community of Falashas (Jewish Ethiopians). Although most departed in 1991, their Christian neighbours still make the figurines of black and red pottery for which the Falasha were so famous.

Overnight in Gondar.
Meal plan: breakfast,dinner

Day 6 Gondar - Simien Mountains
Today we travel by road into the Simien Mountains and the Simien Eco Lodge. The highest point, Ras Dashen (4620 m / 15,246 ft above sea level), is Africa's fourth highest peak. Numerous large rivers, including the Blue Nile, drain the highlands from east to west, towards the Nile Basin. From north to south, it's the Omo River, flowing into Lake Turkana. Our overnight location approaches 2800 m / 9,000 ft; not terribly high, but you will notice the thinness of the air and cold at night.

The Simiens stretch for over 40 kilometres with an almost two mile drop into the valley below. Our lodge is near Debarak, an area that is home to endemic animals such as Gelada baboons. Visitors are encouraged to explore the area on foot and learn about various ongoing eco-projects that preserve the fauna and flora and foster the economic development in the region as a whole.

Overnight in Simien National Park.
Meal plan: breakfast,dinner

Day 7 Simien Mountains - Axum
Today we continue our journey north towards Axum (2202 m / 7,226 ft). This afternoon you may want to walk through part of the town or relax at our hotel.

Axum (Aksum) was the centre of the (eventual) Christian marine trading power the Aksumite Kingdom, which predated the earliest mentions in Roman era writings (around the time of the birth of Jesus) in good correlation to the expansion of Rome into northern Africa, and later when it developed into the Christian kingdom, was a quasi-ally of Byzantium against the Persian Empire. The historical record is unclear; primary sources are limited mainly to ancient church records.

Overnight in Axum.
Meal plan: breakfast,dinner

Day 8 Axum: Area Tour
Today we explore the wonders of ancient Axum, beginning with the Stelae Park. Carved completely from blocks of granite, these stelae are truly impressive. Although never erected, the largest stelae -- now broken into several pieces -- measures over 30 m (100 feet) long and dates from Ethiopia's pre-Christian era.

Our tour continues to the Archaeological Museum, and to St Mary of Zion Church. We will see the ruins of the original 4th century church, and view an amazing collection of church relics including crosses and ancient crowns. It is here that we will also see the building that houses Ethiopia's most sacred religious artifact, the supposed Ark of the Covenant.

We will wander through King Ezana's Park. Of particular interest is a tablet inscribed in three languages: Ge'ez, Sabean, and Greek. We will also visit the tomb of King Basen, who ruled Axum at the time of Christ's birth. This afternoon we will visit two sites located outside the modern town of Axum: the Palace of the Queen of Sheba, and King Kaleb's Palace. Both enjoy commanding views of the countryside -- lands that were once part of the powerful Axumite Kingdom.

On our late November departures, we watch the Hidar Zion Day processions and celebrations. This festival is attended by tens of thousands of people from all over Ethiopia, making it one of the most joyous annual pilgrimages in Axum, the "sacred city of the Ethiopians."

Overnight in Axum.
Meal plan: breakfast,dinner

Day 9 Axum - Yeha - Mekelle
Today we travel to Mekelle, the capital of the province of Tigre, a dry, rocky region.

En route we make a short detour to Yeha and the oldest standing structure in Ethiopia--the Temple of Yeha. This is a tower built in the Sabaean style, and dated through comparison with ancient structures in South Arabia to around 700 BC. Although no radiocarbon dating testing has been performed on samples from site, this date for the Great Tower is supported by local inscriptions. David Phillipson attributes its "excellent preservation" to two factors: the care with which its original builders ensured a level foundation, firmly placed on the uneven bedrock; and to its rededication -- perhaps as early as the sixth century AD -- for use as a Christian church.

Upon arrival in Mekelle, we can view the city's new war memorial, a towering monument reminding us of the many who lost their lives fighting a bitter struggle for a more democratic Ethiopia. According to local historians, Mekelle was founded in the 13th century. Its heyday came later during the late nineteenth century, after Yohannes IV was crowned as King of Kings of Ethiopia, and chose Mekelle as the capital of his realm.

Overnight in Mekelle.
Meal plan: breakfast,dinner

Day 10 Mekelle - Lalibela
Today, as we travel from one valley to the next, we shall see a great variety of crops growing. Sugarcane, bananas, citrus fruits, wheat, barley, potatoes, and plenty of teff grow on the dry terraced mountainsides and valley floors. Teff, a short-stalked grain, produces the smallest grain in the world. Ethiopians mill it into flour used to make injera, the national bread.

Lalibela is the site of eleven rock-hewn churches dating from the 11th century. Each of the churches is architecturally unique and several are decorated with colourful, well-preserved paintings.

Overnight in Lalibela.
Meal plan: breakfast,dinner

Day 11 Lalibela
Our January departure coincides with the Timkat Festival in Lalibela, the biggest celebration of the year in Ethiopia, marking the Epiphany every year on the 19th of January. Timkat is celebrated all over Ethiopia, but nowhere is it quite as spectacular as in Lalibela. The festival begins with Timkat Eve and dramatic processions through a night of fasting. Crowds of revelers, all dressed in white, sing and dance in the streets to the beating of drums. Priests, decked
out in jewel encrusted velvet and satin robes, carry a replica of Arc of the Covenant known as a talbot in a grand procession through the streets.

On all departures we will visit both the western and eastern group of churches where we will spend time wandering through parts of the village.

Overnight in Lalibela.
Meal plan: breakfast,dinner

Day 12 Lalibela - Addis Ababa
Today we fly from Lalibela back to Addis Ababa.

Overnight in Addis Ababa.
Meal plan: breakfast,dinner

Day 13 Departure
Departure from Addis Ababa, or continue to South Ethiopia on our longer Southern Ethiopia itinerary.


Meal plan: breakfast




TOUR ENDAddis Ababa