Tourist Attractions In Ethiopia
Ethiopia is a country we had long wanted to visit. When we visited Armenia in the late 1990s a number of people we met were travelling there because they seemed – to us youngsters – to have visited everywhere else. On a trip to the beautiful Armenian rock-hewn Geghard Monastery a couple told us about the underground churches of Lalibela and in that moment Ethiopia was added to the To-Visit list. It would be many years before we could make the journey but we found a local company who were able to offer us a tour.
Although it was Lalibela that piqued our interest, we discovered that this wonderful country has so much more to offer than its star attraction. With a rich history, stunning landscapes and amazing wildlife, here is our guide to the tourist attractions in Ethiopia.
- A Northern Ethiopia Itinerary
- Addis Ababa
- Fly to Bahirdar
- Drive to Gondar
- Fly to Lalibela
- Fly to Tigray
- Ethiopian Food
- Ethiopian Coffee
- Some Interesting Facts About Ethiopia For Travellers
- Related Posts You May Enjoy
A Northern Ethiopia Itinerary
Ethiopia is huge. Our itinerary covered some of the best historical sites and spectacular landscapes in the northern part of the country. Although the route involved a lot of driving, we also needed to fly between key locations. This itinerary took 13 days to complete. This post is intended to provide an overview of the tourist attractions. We have some other posts on the blog that provide more detail about some of the places we visited.
We started off in Addis, Ethiopia’s sprawling capital city. Emperor Menelik’s third wife Empress Taytu Betul settled in the region in 1886. Eventually the emperor established himself there in 1887 and the city started developing. Addis became the capital in 1889 after It has continued to expand to this day. Its name means ‘new flower’. It is a lively, bustling city and a centre of commerce. The Merkato district is home to the largest open market in Africa. There are plenty of interesting places to visit .
National History Museum
This museum houses a collection of artefacts, set out in chronological order, depicting Ethiopia’s long and fascinating history.
One of the most interesting exhibits is that of ‘Lucy’ – a 3.2 million year old skeleton, who was discovered in the mid-1970s and became enormously famous as the oldest human. Lucy is no longer the oldest since ‘Ardi’ was discovered – she predated Lucy by about 1.2 million years, but she was a local lass as well, suggesting that Ethiopia could well have been the place where humans evolved to stand upright.
This museum, located at Addis university, exhibits all sorts of cultural artefacts, including tools, clothing and cooking implements.
A coffee ceremony set – something that is hugely important in Ethiopian culture.
The entrance is interesting – it has a staircase to nowhere constructed by the Italians who occupied Ethiopia from 1935/6 until 1941. Each step represents a year of Mussolini’s power. But at the top of the staircase is the Lion of Judah, which represents the Ethiopian monarchy. It was placed there as an insult to the occupation.
Day trip to Bishoftu
A visit to the resort town of Bishoftu (formerly known as Debrezeit) which is located around 50km southeast of Addis, is a popular day trip. There are five crater lakes to visit. These formed following a number of volcanic eruptions which created the craters that then filled with water over the years.
It’s a very pleasant area to go walking and there are plenty of places to enjoy a nice meal with some drinks while observing the plethora of birds that can be found in the area. These cormorants were enjoying drying their wings in the sunshine.
Fly to Bahirdar
We flew from Addis to the town of Bahirdar. Its main attraction is Lake Tana which is the source of the Blue Nile. It’s a lovely place to visit where you can see a variety of wildlife and, of course, the amazing Blue Nile waterfall.
A boat trip across the lake took us to the the Zege peninsualar where we visited the Ura Kidanne Mehret convent. This is a living church where services still take place.
The structure is circular and the inside is decorated with beautiful centuries-old murals, many painted by Alaga Engida. We would see these distinctive designs through out this region.
We saw lots of wildlife on the boat trip on the way back.
Lake Tana is the source of the Blue Nile and is located around 30 km from the lake itself is the Blue Nile waterfall. The 42m high falls are known as Tis Abay, meaning ‘great smoke’ in Amharic, which is a far more romantic name than Blue Nile Waterfall. The moniker is highly appropriate- they are spectacular. But it’s worth noting that they are spectacular in the rainy season. There is a hydro-electric power station which regulates much of the water flow these days, so it’s worth checking whether you are likely to see a cascade or a dribble.
Drive to Gondar
The City of Gondar
Gondar sounds like a city from Lord of the Rings and also looks like a city from Lord of the Rings. It has a grand history. It was the central location of the Ethiopian government and home of the Ethiopian emperors for several centuries and is a UNESCO heritage site.
Established by Emperor Fasilides in the 17th century, the city of Gondar boasts a number of castles and palaces that were residences to successive Ethiopian leaders. The buildings are particularly interesting because they resemble European mediaeval castles.
The history of the emperors is fascinating. There are all sorts of tales of skullduggery – poisonings, murders and mysterious deaths. It is possible to explore the ruins of the castles, palaces and royal baths.
Fasilides was emperor of Ethiopia from 1632 until 1667 and decided to establish Gondar as the capital of Ethiopia. He built the Royal Enclosure which was further developed by his successors. A little way out of town he also constructed a remarkable bath complex, compete with bathing pool, tower and bridge. It is considered a sacred site to this day.
On leaving Gondar we got into a van and had a bumpy ride to the spectacular Simien mountains national park. This is another UNESCO world heritage site. There are plenty of opportunities to go hiking amidst spectacular scenery and have a drink at the highest bar in Africa.
In the Simien mountains you can walk among wild gelada monkeys in fields scented of wild thyme, a magical experience.
You can read more about the fascinating history of Gondar and see the beauty of the Simien mountains.
Fly to Lalibela
We caught a flight from Gondar to Lalibela where we spent a couple of days exploring the astonishing rock-hewn churches. They were as spectacular as we had been promised many years before.
Another UNESCO world heritage site the churches date from the 7th to the 13th centuries. They are remarkable because rather than being constructed from the ground up, they have been hewn from within the rock, using basic tools such as chisels and hammers, and were built from the top down. This meant that they couldn’t be seen from a distance.
Fly to Tigray
More history beckoned when we flew to the far north of the country to the region of Tigray. Tigray has had a difficult history in recent times. It was the location of the Ethiopian famine of the 1980s, which prompted the Band Aid and Live Aid appeals. And recently it has been engaged in a civil war between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and the Ethiopian government. A peace treaty was signed in November 2022 and we very much hope that tourism will be able to be revived in the area once more.
First stop was Axum, which has a history dating back to 400 BCE. It was the capital of the Aksumite empire which ruled the region until the 10th century. It is famous for its towering stelae, obelisks that are around 1700 years old. They were designed as impressive grave markers for royal burial chambers. They are huge – the tallest is 33m. Some of them have fallen and others were taken, notably King Ezana’s obelisk which was transported to Rome after Italy’s occupation of Ethiopia ended.
The Aksumite Empire ended in the 10th century and the emperors of Ethiopia moved southwards, eventually settling in Gondar some centuries later, when Fasilides established his government there.
Churches of Our Lady Mary of Zion
Axum is also home to two important churches. The church of Our Lady Mary of Zion was built by Fasilides in 1665. It is rumoured to have housed the Ark of the Covenant.
Emperor Haile Selassie built a new cathedral of St Mary of Zion next to the old church. It is possible to enter this church and to watch the services.
Tombs of the Kings
A few kilometres out of the town of Axum are the Tombs of the Kings which date from the 3rd century.
King Kaleb’s tomb is located here. Kaleb was king of Axum between 514–542 CE.
Nearby is the Ezana Stone, a stelae, which shows an inscription in three different languages: Ethiopian Ge’ez, South Arabian Sabaean, and Greek. It’s similar to the Rosetta Stone.
Beware though, the stone is cursed and anyone who touches it is likely to meet an untimely end. (No, we didn’t dare!)
The final stage of our journey through the Tigray region involved a drive across the countryside to Gheralta where we could view the rock churches of Tigray.
There are over 100 churches in the regions, largely dating from the 6th to the 14th centuries and they are mainly carved into cliff sides or rocky outcrops.
And that concluded our Ethiopian itinerary. We drove to Mekele, the major city in the region, and caught a flight back to Addis before our return home.
Something that intrigued us before we arrived was Ethiopian food: we had absolutely no idea about what to expect. A quick internet search revealed ‘injera’: Ethiopian traditional bread.
We still had no idea what to expect.
Injera is a flatbread that looks like a cross between a dirty dishcloth and a sponge.
It really doesn’t look enticing at all. This was about as attractive as it got.
Actually, it tastes really good. It has soft texture and a slightly sour flavour. Injera is made from teff, apparently the world’s latest superfood – a grain that is highly nutritious. Injera is made using a fermenting process rather like sourdough or dosas. A combination of teff flour and water are combined to make a batter which takes a few days to ferment. When the mixture is bubbly and smells sour it is ready. It can be fried on a skillet (on one side only) until the characteristic bubbles appear in the surface.
It is often served laid out flat with stew (wat) or with meat and vegetables placed on top – you can pull off chunks of the injera to scoop up the stew. So it serves as plate, cutlery and delicious food.
The local people we met were quite surprised that we were willing to eat injera and that we enjoyed spicy food.
In the UK the county of Yorkshire is renowned for providing large portions of food. Ethiopian portions are so enormous that we quickly discovered that one meal between the two of us was more than enough to fill us up. We generally only needed to eat brekkie, then we shared all other meals.
Ethiopia can claim to be the country where the coffea arabica originates. Coffee has been grown in Ethiopia for centuries and it forms an important part of the culture.
Coffee ceremony is highly social activity and the ceremony is usually performed by the female members of a household. The process starts with green coffee beans which are roasted in a pan over a flame and then ground using a mortar and pestle. Then the ground coffee is placed into a pot which has a spherical base and long neck and water added. It then boils on the flame so that the coffee can infuse and is then filtered using a sieve. The finished drink is poured from height into small cups. The grounds may be brewed a couple more times.
It is also possible to drink home-made beer in Ethiopia. Bars aren’t common in rural areas so you need to know someone local because the beer is only available in private homes. These are called tella places. We were lucky to have a guide who invited us to a tella place to enjoy the beer. It’s a beer brewed with teff or sometimes sorghum and the variety we tried was quite light – around 3%. Drinking beer in a home was a nice way to enjoy a tipple with local people.
Some Interesting Facts About Ethiopia For Travellers
Because Ethiopia isn’t located too far from the equator daylight and nighttime are pretty much equal all through the year. The Ethiopian time system is very different to ours and uses a 12 hour clock. Sunrise, at 6am, is 12:00 dawn time. Night starts at 12:00 dusk, which is the equivalent to 6pm international time. While many tour guides will work on international time, it can get a little confusing if you are looking at a local clock, especially if you have a flight to catch.
Additionally, Ethiopia has thirteen months in its year. This means that, at the time of writing in 2023, it is still 2014.
Another interesting element to Ethiopian culture is that many people follow the Ethiopian Orthodox church and hence don’t eat meat on Wednesdays and Fridays. This is great for vegetarian/vegan visitors as there is a good selection of veggie food available. Ravenous meat-eaters don’t need to worry though, hotels and restaurants will still offer meat on those days.
Ethiopia has so much to offer – a fascinating history and culture, remarkable architecture and really beautiful landscapes and wildlife. We received a warm welcome wherever we visited and would love to return to explore the south of the country.
Related Posts You May Enjoy
- Tourist Attractions In Ethiopia
- Kibale National Park Chimpanzee Trekking
- Visit Ethiopia – Gondar and the Simien Mountains
- Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary Uganda
- Etosha National Park Namibia – Self-Drive Safari
- Bwindi Gorilla Trekking, Uganda
Kibale National Park Chimpanzee Trekking
Uganda is one of the best places in the world to view wildlife. From the Murchison Falls park, through Kibale National Park, the Queen Elizabeth Park, and into Bwindi Impenetrable, where the extremely endangered mountain gorillas reside, there are opportunities to get really close to all sorts of amazing wildlife all over the country. While it’s very possible to encounter all the ‘big five’ game animals Uganda is also an exceptional location for encounters with large primates.
Kibale National Park is one of the best places to go chimpanzee trekking. Kibale is located in western Uganda, around 340 km from Kampala. It would take around 5-6 hours to drive there, depending on road conditions.
The opportunity to spend time in the forest following the local primates is a marvellous experience. You need a permit to enter the park – the tariffs are published on the Uganda Wildlife Authority website.
- Kibale National Park – The Briefing
- Chimpanzee Trekking
- Other Activities In Kibale National Park
- Related Posts You May Enjoy
Kibale National Park – The Briefing
On arrival at the park you receive a briefing and are then split into small groups. Each group comprises six people who are accompanied by two guides. The chimps are wild but habituated, that is, they are comfortable in the presence of humans. It is a privilege to be able to track them, so it is important to pay close attention to the briefing and to follow the guides’ instructions at all times.
It is essential not to visit if you are feeling unwell. We share about 98% of our DNA with these amazing primates so passing on a virus or disease could wipe out the population.
There are a number of rules to abide by to ensure the safety and welfare of both the chimps and the humans while tracking: these include staying with the guide, keeping your distance from the chimps (unless they decide to walk past you) and – our favourite – don’t imitate the chimps’ vocal sounds – you don’t know what you might be saying!
We arrived in the morning and many of the chimps had yet to wake up. So the first part of the trek involved looking up. Sure enough, the chimpanzees were in the trees. They were eating breakfast – their diet mainly consists of fruit, supplemented by insects such as termites and leaves. The forest in Kibale has an abundance of fig trees so figs are usually the breakfast of choice.
Walking though the forest is relatively easy – unlike Bwindi Impenetrable, the terrain is pretty flat and the paths through the forest easy to navigate. Sturdy shoes are recommended and waterproof gear is useful if you are trekking during the rainy season.
Each group tracks the chimps through the park, following the guides’ instructions in order to keep both the chimps and the visitors safe. It’s advisable to be reasonably fit as you may need to move pretty quickly to follow the chimps.
As the day progresses some of the chimps will come down from the trees and wander through the forest. It’s okay to follow them – just stay with the guide and keep a respectful distance.
One chimp climbed down from his tree and decided that he was going for a walk. He just strolled by. The rangers told us that you are lucky if you get within 10 metres of a chimp. This chimp passed by within 10 centimetres! He was totally nonchalant as he walked on. I could barely contain my excitement!
Other Activities In Kibale National Park
While in Kibale, it’s also possible to visit the local communities. The Bigodi community offer the chance to see how the local people live and work. We visited various craftspeople, including a brewer who made his own banana beer, weavers, a local shaman and a coffee maker .
The local coffee maker makes a very fine brew. The coffee berries have been dried in the sun…
… they are then pounded to remove the husks
It’s a fine art to blow away the husks from the beans.
Then it’s time to light the fire and roast the beans .
They are cooled off before grinding.
The final step is to brew with water for a damn fine cup of coffee.
From bean to cup in half an hour. Cheers!
We also met the banana brewer. He stores large bunches of bananas in a wooden shed on stilts. A fire is lit underneath to ripen the bananas. The fruit needs to be ripe but not over-ripe. The bananas have a natural sweetness and the sugars are perfect for fermentation.
The bananas are peeled, mashed and mixed with leaves to extract the juice. The mash is filtered to separate the juice from the pulp. The resulting liquid is fermented for a day or so then bottled to produce a tasty and refreshing banana beer.
Some of the beer is distilled into a banana spirit which packs a punch!
A local shaman taught us about the medicinal uses of plants in the area and demonstrated some of the healing rituals he performs within the community.
We also met some weavers who showed us how to weave baskets using reeds from the area.
It required a lot of dexterity – they made it look so easy!
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Visit Ethiopia – Gondar and the Simien Mountains
Ethiopia is a country that is blessed with many amazing places to visit, whether you are interested in wildlife, history, landscapes, or archaeology.
We enjoyed a two week tour of Northern Ethiopia, starting in Addis Ababa, then travelling to Barhidar, Gondar, the Simien Mountains, Lalibela, Axum and Gheralta. During this trip, we managed to visit no less than four UNESCO sites. The area around the city of Gondar alone had two.
We had travelled to Gondar from Barhidar. We stayed at the Jantekel Hotel, a couple of kilometres from the main attractions. It’s a modern hotel with the most delightful staff.
- Ethiopia Gondar City
- The Fasil Ghebbi
- Fasilides Castle
- Fasilides Baths
- Mentewab-Qwesqwam Palace
- Debre Berhan Selassie Church and Monastery
- The Simien Mountains
- Monkey Magic
- Viewing Spectacular Views
Ethiopia Gondar City
The city of Gondar was Ethiopia’s capital between 1632 and 1855. Prior to this the country’s leaders had moved throughout the country. It was King Fasil – Fasilides – who decided to settle and he chose Gondar.
There are a couple of legends connected with the reason that Fasilides chose Gondar as his capital. According to one story, Fasilides was out hunting one day when divine intervention led him to encounter a buffalo which showed him the way to the site. Another cited a prophecy which foretold that that the capital of Ethiopia would be a location that began with the letter ‘G’. Whether these are true, Fasilides was content enough with Gondar to establish his government there.
Fasilides was emperor of Ethiopia from 1632 until 1667. He was of the Solomonic dynasty and claimed to have descended from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. (Fasilides was also responsible for the building of the Cathedral Church of St Mary of Zion at Axum, which is reputed to contain the Ark of the Covenant.) He built several castles, palaces and churches as well as a long wall, effectively turning it into a fortified city.
We explored many of the remarkable sites at Gondar. We suggest getting a guide who can show you the main sights and explain the history. It’s also worth considering finding transportation because the main sites are a few kilometres apart. We had arranged a guide who could pick us up from our hotel and take us to each location. We recommend a full day sightseeing – it was fascinating and hugely enjoyable.
The Fasil Ghebbi
The Fasil Ghebbi is the Royal Enclosure of the complex built by Fasilides. It comprises a number of buildings that were constructed over the years, the most important of which include Fasilides’ castle, Iyasu I’s palace, Emperor Dawit’s Hall, Emperor Bakaffa’s castle and banqueting hall, Empress Mentewab’s castle, an archive, a library and a number of churches. The word ‘ghebbi’ means ‘enclosure’ so the site is surrounded by an extensive wall. It is possible to explore all these structures that have survived the centuries and there are no restrictions about entering the buildings.
What’s interesting about the construction of these castles is that they look very European, with some Arabic and Indian influences as well.
Fasilides’ castle (which is sometimes referred to as the Egg Castle due to its domes) is the most impressive of all the structures. It has huge towers with crenelated walls which give it the appearance of a European mediaeval castle. High up in the castle was Fasilides’ prayer room. The view from the watchtower afforded views all around Gondar. It’s even possible to see Lake Tana, Ethiopia’s largest lake, on a clear day.
The royal library was built by Emperor Yohannes, Fasilides’ successor.
Emperor Iyasu’s palace was apparently the most refined and sumptuous of the buildings with gilded decorations and plush furniture. Iyasu, who ruled from 1682 to 1706, was known as The Great and was the son of Emperor Yohannes I. Although Iyasu led a number of military campaigns he was also known as an emperor who wanted to reconcile religious differences amongst his people, holding councils to discuss and resolve ecumenical matters.
This gateway was accidentally bombed by the British. We were told that they didn’t mean to, they were helping Ethiopia defend itself from the second Italian invasion (1935-37).
The buildings are largely ruins – very few of the ceilings in the buildings remain, most are destroyed.
Dawit’s Hall, named for the Emperor Dawit who ruled from 1716 to 1721, was also known as the House of Song, was a place for entertainment and feasting. Unfortunately the feasting came to an end when Dawit met his demise – he was poisoned.
His successor was the Emperor Bakaffa, Dawit’s half-brother, who ruled from 1721 to 1730 (and who married Mentewab, who became a highly influential empress) Bakaffa’s Castle had a huge banqueting hall.
The amazing Zamani project has mapped out 3D models of the main buildings as well as a panoramic view of the site.
A little way out of the city are the Fasilides Baths, a compound thought to be constructed around the same time as the Royal Enclosure. The baths comprise the pool itself, a central tower, and a bridge to the tower which is used when the baths are filled with water.
The walls of the baths have slowly been taken over by the local trees.
Fasilides baths are considered sacred and are filled just once each year, on the 19th of January, when Ethiopians celebrate Epiphany in a festival known as Timkat. Timkat translates as ‘baptism’ and the festival represents Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist on the River Jordan. It is celebrated across Ethiopia.
Mentewab was Empress of Ethiopia from 1722 to 1730. She married Emperor Bakaffa (a son of Iyasu I), becoming his second wife. The first wife died in mysterious circumstances on the day of the wedding banquet, which does seem somewhat suspicious.
After the Emperor’s death, Mentewab was crowned as co-ruler of Ethiopia while her son, Iyasu II, was still a child, and she continued her reign after his murder and when her grandson Iyoas I came to power. She had enormous political influence.
She commissioned several buildings within the Royal Enclosure as well as a church dedicated to St Mary at Qwesqwam, a few kilometres from Gondar. Mentewab also built herself a rather splendid palace next to it, and this became her primary residence and was used as a retreat, away from the Royal Enclosure.
It had an impressive banqueting hall. Mentewab took a lover after Bakaffa died (her husband’s nephew, known as Iyasu the Kept, who was also a grandson of Fasilides) and was exiled because of it. We were told of a legend whereby she invited nobles to visit her palace, then locked them in and wouldn’t allow them out, even to pee. They were eventually released when they correctly answered a riddle. She didn’t have to take any more flak from them after that.
The church and castle were destroyed in a fire in 1888 by Sundanese Mahdists during the sacking of Gondar. Restoration of the church started in the mid-20th century by the Italian occupiers and was completed by Emperor Haile Selassie. The remains of Empress Mentewab, Iyasu II, and Iyoas I, were interred in a glass toppedglass-topped coffin inside the church.
There is also a small treasury at the site where it’s possible to view a centuries-old bible.
Debre Berhan Selassie Church and Monastery
This is one of the most important of the Ethiopian Orthodox churches. It was built by in the 17th century and its name means ‘Trinity and Mountain of Light.’
Men and women are allowed to enter, albeit through different doors, and shoes must be removed. Women who are menstruating or have had sex the night before are asked not to enter the church. It’s also requested that conservative clothes and a headscarf are worn.
While the exterior of the church isn’t particularly dramatic or compelling its interior is covered with vivid frescoes depicting tales from the bible.
The remarkable ceiling is covered with row upon row of cherubs looking down upon visitors and worshippers. The figures are painted in a style typical of the Ethiopian churches – known as the Gondarine style.
The Simien Mountains
After exploring Gondar’s amazing castles and churches it was time to take a long, bumpy drive to the Simien Mountains. This area is a national park and another UNESCO world heritage site. We drove to The Simien Lodge, via the small town of Debark, situated at an altitude of 3260 meters. The Simien Lodge is the only lodge in the central area of the park. It offered comfortable accommodation in our own private huts.
Our only criticism of the place was that meals had to be taken as a buffet (there is no choice to eat anywhere else), which wasn’t a problem per se, but all the food was international – there were no Ethiopian options, which was disappointing. It was also quite pricey but that is understandable as the food has to be brought in from the nearest town.
The lodge also claims to have the highest bar in Africa, so we made sure to enjoy post-exploration beers in the evenings.
On our first day we enjoyed hiking in the area. The landscapes are spectacularly beautiful. Walking through fields scented with wild thyme we encountered groups of gelada monkeys, which are also known as gelada baboons, bleeding-heart baboons, or lion monkeys. They are found only in the Ethiopian highlands. They look like baboons but are monkeys and are characterised by their long, shaggy golden coats, which look like lions’ manes, and a heart-shaped patch of pink bare skin on their chests.
The gelada spend much of their time foraging for grass or herbs in the grasslands but sleep on the ledges of nearby cliffs at night, in order to avoid predators such as servals and leopards as well as domestic dogs.
They have a complex society and the different groups move together as troupe through the day.
We met researchers who were monitoring the monkeys andobserving their behaviour. They had spent some time recording the social dynamics between the groups as well as monitoring diseases.
Unlike baboons, the gelada have a very gentle nature (at least with human visitors – we did see some play-fighting and chasing each other!). They are quite relaxed about people walking among them. Obviously we had to treat them with respect and keep a reasonable distance, but it was an absolute joy to be able to get so close to these wonderful creatures.
The baby monkeys were having such a fun time in the trees!
Viewing Spectacular Views
The following day we visited Chenek to see the Kurbet Metaya viewpoint, a wonderful vista overlooking the mountains. The viewpoint is actually a gap in the cliffs revealing views of the mountain faces and a beautiful valley.
We continued to explore more of the area. As ever, it’s always worth looking out for other travellers pointing at something in the distance. In this case it was a rare and endangered Walia Ibex, found only in these mountains. It was actually quite some distance away at the foot of a cliff – this was the camera’s best possible zoom picture!
Then we returned to Gondar for one more night at the Jantekel hotel before we caught our flight to Lalibela. The hotel served traditional Ethiopian meals in enormous portions! This is injera, a bread made from teff flour, filled with doro wat, a spicy chicken stew. Injera doesn’t look particularly appetising but it tastes great. It’s fermented and has a lovely sour flavour.
Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary Uganda
Uganda is known as the ‘Pearl of Africa’ and is a fantastic place to visit to see wildlife. The Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary is located in Nakasongola around 170km from Uganda’s capital Kampala and it takes around 3.5 hours to reach it on the Gulu highway. It’s possible to stop to admire the Nile en route (the source of the Nile is in Jinja, around 70km from Kampala) and meet a few baboons by the roadside – carefully and from a distance.
We visited Ziwa on our way to the Murchison Falls National Park. The park itself is the largest in Uganda and four of the so-called Big Five game animals can be found there. All except rhinoceros.
The southern white rhino population of Uganda used to be vast but they were poached virtually to extinction, the rhino horn sadly being considered to be a rare and valuable medicine in other countries. Six rhinos were reintroduced to Ziwa between 2001 and 2006 and they have managed to breed in the intervening time so that there are now over 30 rhinos.
There are a number of differences between black rhinos and white rhinos. The most obvious is in the shape of their mouths. There isn’t really any difference in their colourings or markings, all rhinos are grey, but it is thought that the name ‘white’ might have derived from the Afrikaans term ‘weidt’, which means ‘wide’, a reference to the rhino’s mouth, which is flat and broad in shape, compared with the black rhino, which has a hooked lip. White rhino also have a longer front horn. White rhino tend to feed on grass whereas their black counterparts eat bushes and leaves. And white rhino are generally thought to be less aggressive and inquisitive than black, which was good to know as we those were the ones we would be tracking.
When visiting Ziwa you wouldn’t know you are in a sanctuary – at 70 square kilometres the area of the land that the rhinos can roam through is vast. It is nothing like a zoo or even a safari park, it feels like savannah wilderness.
What was very lovely was being able to do a walking safari. In Queen Elizabeth National Park we weren’t even allowed to walk from our bedroom tent to the main lodge at the camp, without being accompanied by a gun-bearing ranger just in case any of the local lions were feeling peckish.
We travelled out to where the rhinos were located and were given a safety briefing. We were to walk together in small groups and stay downwind from the rhino. Rhinos have a great sense of smell but appalling eyesight. They can move very quickly if they want to. If they charge, you are advised to run away in a zig-zag pattern and try to climb a tree if possible. This was consistent with the briefing when on a walking safari in Chitwan, Nepal (although we weren’t lucky in seeing any rhino on that trip). Looking around the area, there didn’t seem to be too many trees that would be robust enough to support us in the event of us encountering a grumpy rhino, so we made sure we followed our guide’s instructions at all times.
Safari At The Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary
Walking through the bush we spotted signs of other creatures living in the area.
We found a discarded snake skin in the grass, although the snake itself was nowhere to be found. Most snakes in Uganda slither off when they feel the vibration of visitors’ footsteps, the exception being the lazy puff adder, which often suns itself on footpaths and can be quite aggressive. It is responsible for most snake bites in the region. For this reason when we went walking we wore sturdy walking boots and long trousers.
We also came across some Uganda Kob who were frolicking in the grassland. We would see these lovely creatures, a type of antelope, bouncing through the grassland throughout our Uganda trip.
As continued our walk we noticed our guide signalling to a ranger a few hundred metres away. The ranger beckoned us over. We carefully circled a small copse and to our delight saw a mother and her child, quietly grazing together. We managed to get within a few metres of these marvellous – and enormous – creatures.
The rangers keep watch on the rhinos 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They are constantly in touch with each other via mobile phone and radio links and they monitor the rhinos in order to protect them from poachers. There used to be a system whereby the rhinos were given radio tracking collars so that they could be monitored remotely, but sadly poachers managed to hack into them with devastating consequences. For this reason, humans are assigned to watch them, which provides much needed protection.
We continued the walk through the grassland and came across another rhino, a male, snoozing in the shade of a tree. He was totally unperturbed by us.
It is possible to stay overnight at Ziwa and enjoy other activities such as a canoe safari or night-time walks but we had to leave in order to reach Murchison Falls before nightfall.
Even though our visit was just a couple of hours, the trip to the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, walking through the savannah to get so close to these magnificent endangered creatures, was absolutely excellent and an ideal stopping point on the way to Murchison Falls.
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World’s Best Breakfasts -Breakfast of Champions!
….And Why It’s Often Okay to Go Off-Menu When Travelling
Many years ago we were excitedly choosing all sorts of delicacies at the breakfast buffet at our hotel in Yerevan, Armenia, when another guest glanced at our plates, shrivelled their noses in a very patronising manner and exclaimed, “Ugh! Salad? For breakfast?” It’s widely considered to be most important meal of the day but so many people seem to be set in their ways when it comes to eating a hearty breakfast. So much that hotels all over the world seem to offer pretty much the same fare. Western visitors are often offered fried food such as bacon, sausage and eggs with bread-based accompaniments and Eastern visitors are usually offered rice or noodle dishes. All these dishes are generally familiar to the tourist and often don’t reflect the traditional breakfasts of the country they are visiting. Here are some of the world’s best breakfasts.
Maybe it’s because people don’t feel so adventurous first thing in the morning, and that’s fair enough, but they may be missing out. Thing is, we’re British and can have bacon and eggs any time we like. (Although, to be honest, we haven’t cooked a fry-up for years as it’s quite a lot of effort.) We’d much rather eat a typical breakfast using local ingredients from the country that we are visiting.
It’s quite common for hotels to ask their guests to pre-order breakfast. It makes sense, they know what they need to order in beforehand and this can help minimise food waste. There is usually a form with tick boxes and you can choose from a variety of typical breakfast offerings. But if you do want to eat like a local, we’ve learned that many hotel restaurants are happy to cook you a regional breakfast. We’ve discovered that very often it’s absolutely okay to go off menu.
It all started in Uganda when we breakfasted at a lodge with a local guide. We were eating standard fare but our curiosity was piqued when something entirely different was brought out for him. On asking, we learned that it was a rolex – a chapati with a layer of omelette on top, then rolled into a spiral cylinder, perfect for munching on. So the next day we asked the lodge staff if it would be possible for us to have a rolex for brekkie and they were happy to oblige. It’s great – tasty and filling – a good start to the day.
In Nepal we were given a standard pre-order form to complete (eggs, bacon, sausage, toast…) to pre-order breakfast for the following morning. We politely asked whether it was possible to have a local breakfast instead. We didn’t specify any dish – just asked for local food. They were delighted. The following morning we were served a marsala omelette accompanied by a joyous curry and roti with home-made yoghurt. It was delicious.
One of the world’s best breakfasts is gallo pinto from Costa Rica. It’s so popular it is often eaten for lunch and dinner as well. Which is just as well because it tastes great and is also really healthy. It comprises rice and beans and is usually accompanied by a fried egg at breakfast. Other accompaniments to start the morning include sausage, fried potatoes and some salad.
A dosa for breakfast in South India is an absolute joy. This is a pancake traditionally made from rice and dal (lentils) which are ground to form a batter and then fermented. The batter is cooked on a hot plate to form a large pancake and served with chutney – coriander, coconut and tomato are particularly popular.
In Vietnam breakfast usually took a buffet form but often there were chefs on-hand to cook some food to order. We were always offered Pho – a tangle of noodles, freshly cooked and served in a yummy broth, topped with meat and vegetables. You pick up a side plate and add herbs, chilli, limes and other delicious items so that you can create your own personalised taste sensation. The liquid of the broth also ensured that we were thoroughly hydrated for the day ahead.
Japan also offers some of the world’s best breakfasts. A Japanese brekkie often comprises grilled fish, vegetables and pickles, maybe with tofu, dumpling and an omelette.
These are accompanied with a bowl of rice, into which you could crack a raw egg mixed with shoyu (soy sauce) – the egg sort of cooks in the heat of the rice – or that famous smelly fermented soybean concoction, natto, maybe with some sliced negi (similar to spring onion). Just grab a slice of nori (dried seaweed), place it over the rice, then using a pincer movement with your chopsticks grab a portion of rice with the nori. Scrumptious. (It’s worth noting that if you are at a breakfast buffet in Japan the eggs on offer may well be raw – be careful when cracking them.)
World’s Best Breakfasts – Back At Home
And, of course, whenever we are staying away from home in the UK, we’ll always have an honest-to-goodness fry-up. Sausage, bacon, egg (usually fried, poached or scrambled), black pudding, mushroom, tomato, beans and sometime a hash brown are the usual components.
We recently discovered that the best possible place for a full English breakfast that we’ve ever eaten is actually in our home town. While many top breakfast establishments boast locally sourced food (which is, of course, delicious), The Gourmet Food Kitchen in Fargo Village, Coventry go one step further and actually cure their own bacon and make their own sausages and black pudding. And that’s just the start: The hash brown (never the most fabulous component of breakfasts) is a home-made bubble and squeak, a glorious blend of fried potato and cabbage. The beans have never seen a tin – they are home-made baked beans in a rich tomato sauce. Chef Tony even makes his own rich, tangy and utterly delicious brown sauce to accompany the feast.
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Etosha National Park Namibia – Self-Drive Safari
The Etosha national park in Namibia is located in the north of the country and is probably its most famous park and a popular tourist attraction. It’s well designed and has great wildlife viewing opportunities but the best thing about it is that you can take yourself on safari.
Take a Drive on the Wild Side
Namibia is a fantastic country for a fly-drive holiday. The distances may be long but the roads are well made and largely empty. And the scenery is spectacular. It’s worth noting that some of the roads are gravel, so it’s worth packing a spare tyre, and that the petrol stations can be quite a distance apart. We travelled on the principle of topping up the tank every time we passed a petrol station, trying never to let the tank go below half-full.
The great thing about Etosha is that it is accessible for all types of car. We had hired a two-wheel drive saloon car – perfect for the pair of us – and encountered no difficulties at all, there was no need to have hired a 4WD. (Indeed we had been absolutely fine with the two-wheel drive throughout our journey in Namibia, even on the Skeleton Coast.) The roads are clearly marked and easy to navigate. There is plenty of parking around the waterholes, which are the best places for viewing wildlife.
The park is located in the vast Etosha pan, the largest salt pan in Africa. Four of the ‘Big Five’ game animals – lions, leopards, elephants and rhino (black and white) – live in the area. Etosha became a game reserve in March 1907 and a national park in 1967.
The word ‘Etosha’ means ‘great, white place’ in the language of the Ovambo tribe, which is entirely appropriate. The pan was a lake several thousand years ago. Angola’s Kuene river used to flow into the area but changed its course over the years, eventually flowing into the Atlantic. The result was that the lake dried up completely. However, there are a number of springs in the pan and lower lying areas fill with water during the rainy season. Indeed, if the wet season is particularly rainy the lake can re-form across Etosha, although these days it is fairly shallow and dries up again swiftly. If the area is flooded the chances of seeing wildlife can be reduced as they have no need to travel to the watering holes. Hence the best time to visit is during the dry winter season, from April to October.
Entry To The Etosha National Park, Namibia
On entry to the park you need to pay a fee per person and for the vehicle. and you will also need to show ID. Your passport will be fine to use for this purpose.
On entering the park, the first thing we had to do was stop… for a zebra crossing!
Although organised safaris are available, we thoroughly enjoyed exploring the park at our own pace. The advantage of an organised tour is that the local rangers can communicate with each other via mobile phone to let each other groups know about particular sightings.
We found that when visiting a watering hole it was actually better to wait. A number of organised safari tours turned up to the watering hole, quickly established that there was no wildlife there, and moved on. But waiting turned out to offer a much more rewarding experience. Sitting in the car, looking out across the vast, vast pan, we saw what appeared to be some angular shapes appear on the horizon. We continued to watch. Slowly, a group of giraffe sauntered across the plain. It was such a pleasure to see them as a group.
Giraffe often appear to be somewhat ungainly but actually they were very graceful creatures. It was fascinating to see them part their legs, despite their long necks, in order to reach the water and have a long, cool drink.
We saw wildebeest having a rut.
An encounter between a young lion, an elephant and an impala. (The lion is in the background.)
The impala was very aware of the lion’s presence…
…but he made the best decision to saunter away.
Although the large mammals are the obvious attraction, it’s also great to discover some of the smaller animals, birds and flora.
Moringa ovalifolia is a succulent tree which looks very otherworldly, almost like it has been planted upside down.
And the park is abundant with zebra…
and gemsbok and springbok.
We also saw a ground squirrel, a marabou stork and a jackal.
There are a number of safety rules at the Etosha national park in Namibia. Obviously stay in your vehicle and it’s advisable keep the windows closed when you’re out in the park. You are not allowed to drive at night, so make sure you leave enough time to get back to your rest camp. The speed limit is 60 km/h but it’s far better to drive at a leisurely pace – you have a greater chance of spotting wildlife if you’re not zooming around. Look for other vehicles that have stopped – there’s a good chance that someone has spotted some wildlife worth viewing.
Staying At Etosha
The area has a number of rest camps with all the facilities you might need. There are various levels of luxury in terms of accommodation. We were in self-catering accommodation in Okaukuejo Rest Camp.
It has a restaurant as well as shops where you can pick up food and other items. And, of course, the all-important petrol station. Our cabin was clean and comfortable with a couple of bedrooms, a bathroom, kitchen area and it also had a braai, an African barbecue. You can buy meat and charcoal in the local shops and it’s rather nice to relax with a few beers and a barbecue as the sun goes down.
The safari experience doesn’t end in the evening. The rest camps are located very close to (fenced off) watering holes that are floodlit at night so it is possible to wander out to the fence and watch the wildlife as they come to drink in the cooler evening. It was fantastic to be able to see endangered rhino enjoying both a drink and a bathe.
One thing that rounded off our experience happened on leaving the park just as we were checking out. Throughout our journey in Namibia, a number of people approached us, at park gates or local attractions, to ask whether we would be prepared to give their friends or colleagues a lift to the next town. We were happy to do this – it was a fantastic opportunity to chat with local people on a long drive.
At Etosha we were asked whether we could give one of the park rangers a ride to Otjiwarongo. We were delighted to be able to help. We had a brilliant chat with him and learned loads about the park. He was very interested to hear about the wildlife in our country. We don’t have anything nearly as exotic or large as elephants – we reckoned the largest animal in the UK is probably a red deer. And we had a laugh comparing Namibia’s enormous termite mounds with England’s teeny-tiny ant hills. The Etosha National Park, Namibia is an ideal place to take yourself on safari and view amazing wildlife.
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Bwindi Gorilla Trekking, Uganda
Gorillas in the Mist… And Pouring Rain
Although it has its fair share of excellent safari locations where you can see the so-called Big Five game animals, Uganda is also well known as a top destination to see primates. We had the opportunity to track chimpanzees in Kibale and mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable in the south-west region of the country. Bwindi gorilla trekking is one of the country’s top attractions.
- Gorillas in the Mist… And Pouring Rain
- Bwindi Gorilla Trekking – The Briefing
- Bwindi Gorilla Trekking – The Trek
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The mountain gorillas are critically endangered – there are only about 900 left in the wild and they can be found in Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Uganda and Rwanda offer a limited number of gorilla tracking permits each day. We chose to travel in the low season when it is more likely to be rainy, because the cost of the permits is reduced significantly during certain months of the year. It’s worth booking the permits in advance. They are really expensive, even out of season, but the money goes directly towards the conservation of these marvellous creatures. And it is really a once in a lifetime experience.
The Ugandan conservation programme has ensured that half of the gorilla population has been habituated – wild, but comfortable in the presence of humans – and the other half remain completely wild. This is a good strategy. The conservationists’ greatest fear is that the gorillas, which share about 98% DNA with humans, could catch a human disease for which they have no immunity. You are requested not to track the gorillas if you have a cold. Following the start of the pandemic, the area was closed off for a while, Covid presenting risks both from the disease but also an increase in illegal poaching activities, but it has now opened up with extra precautions in place that trekkers need to adhere to in order to protect these magnificent creatures.
Bwindi Gorilla Trekking – The Briefing
The trip starts with a briefing at headquarters. Then you are allocated to a gorilla group – a maximum of eight people join each trek. It can take any time between 30 minutes and 6 hours to reach the gorillas – some parties have returned after nightfall in the past. Additionally, we were tracking at altitude, around 2300m above sea level, which enough to knock the breath out of you going up some of the steeper slopes! We were assigned the Bitakura group in the Ruhija area. One member of our party had mobility issues and was carried on a sedan by a team of four porters (who rotated shift with an additional four porters at regular intervals) who did an amazing job and ensured that she had full access to the gorillas. Our guide called it “the helicopter”. This system can be used if any trekker becomes unwell during their hike.
You wouldn’t have known it was the rainy season for most of our trip – virtually every day was bright and sunny and it had rained for a maximum of 15 minutes on just a couple of the days throughout our trip. Of course, on the day we really wanted it to stay dry the rain absolutely chucked it down. That’s why we packed good walking boots and raincoats.
We were advised to borrow walking sticks and also to employ porters to accompany us on the trek. This was a really good idea. Not only do they carry your backpack (you are advised to take three litres of water and a box lunch because you just don’t know how long it will take to reach the gorillas and you will need the energy) they will also hold your hand to steady you if things get slippery and push/pull you over obstacles if necessary. Importantly, they are local people who can earn a decent living from tourists, so hiring a porter also contributes directly to the community. The porters are available at the starting location and will be allocated if you ask for one.
Bwindi Gorilla Trekking – The Trek
The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA – apparently pronounced Oo-er!) have an excellent system in place which ensures that you have practically 100% chance of seeing the gorillas: each morning two trackers head out into the forest to find the troop based on their location the previous day. They then radio to the guide, who will lead the tourists via the best route to see the gorillas. The trackers do an amazing job – they spend all day with the gorillas, even after the tourists have left, so that they know where to trace them to on the following day. We were advised that they would appreciate a personal tip as most tourists don’t recognise the brilliant job they do and we were delighted to do this.
There’s a reason the region is named “Bwindi Impenetrable”. We trekked along a main path – up and down some very steep, muddy and slippery slopes, for a couple of hours. Then our guide indicated that he was close to the trackers. The rangers/trackers cut through the forest with machetes and we followed a newly made path, through dense forest to where the gorillas were located.
We were soaked through to the skin, muddied, shattered and utterly bedraggled. But nothing beats the sight of wild gorillas just a few metres away from you.
We saw one of the group’s silverbacks…
…some younger males…
…and a mother and child.
It’s difficult to find the words to describe how magical it was just being in their presence. The rules say that you are allowed one hour with these amazing creatures. It flew by. Then there was the slippery, steep trek back to base. It was a tough climb but we made it without difficulty. Gorilla trekking in Uganda was one of the most amazing things we have done. We were exhausted but elated.
The gorillas were feeling a bit sleepy too.
At the Elizabeth National Park we managed to purchase some Gorilla Coffee. Made from arabica beans it is grown, processed and roasted in Uganda, and is delicious. It has a lovely aroma – it smells of sweet, buttery caramel and has a smooth taste with just a touch of distinctive coffee bitterness. Even better, some of the profits from its sales go towards conservation efforts to help the marvellous mountain gorillas.
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The Lalibela Ethiopia Churches
Hewn From the Living Rock
When planning our visit to Ethiopia it was Lalibela’s rock churches that were top of the ‘must-see’ list. Lalibela is located in northern Ethiopia and you can fly direct from Addis Ababa, although we had spent some time exploring Gondar and the wonderful Simien mountains beforehand, so flew in from Gondar.
The town is named after the late-12th and early-13th century King Gebre Mesqel Lalibela of the Zagwe Dynasty, who was highly revered and was reputed to have commissioned the construction of the churches, but it is more likely that they were built over several centuries. Although the devout claim that holy angels played a part as well.
The churches, which were designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1978, date from the 7th to the 13th centuries. They are remarkable because rather than being constructed from the ground up, they have been hewn from within the rock, using basic tools such as chisels and hammers, and were built from the top down and then carved from within. There are three main groups: northern, eastern and western. It will take more than a day to explore them thoroughly so make sure you factor in enough time.
You need to purchase a ticket at the main office – this is valid for five days. It’s not cheap but is definitely worth the price. You need to make sure that you keep your ticket as you may need to produce it when you enter each church. It’s generally okay to take photos (keep an eye out for signs indicating if photography is prohibited) but if you are taking photos of someone (and we found that many of the priests encouraged us to do so) it is polite to tip them.
We also recommend getting a guide as they will be able to tell you the history of each of the churches as well as point out some of the more interesting features. The churches are open from 8am-5.30pm, but are closed for two hours at lunchtime, around midday.
These are very much living churches, highly revered by Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, and a place for pilgrims to visit. We were welcome to join the services.
We explored each cluster of churches in turn. The churches within each group are linked by subterranean passages.
- Hewn From the Living Rock
- The Northern Group Of The Lalibela Ethiopia Churches
- The Eastern Group Of The Lalibela Ethiopia Churches
- The Western Group Of The Lalibela Ethiopia Churches
- Day Trip from Lalibela
The Northern Group Of The Lalibela Ethiopia Churches
Biete Medhane Alem, believed to be the largest monolithic church in the world, at approx 33 metres long, 23 metres wide, and 10 metres deep, is home to the Lalibela Cross. It has five aisles and its name means ‘Saviour of the World’.
Biete Maryam may be the oldest of the churches, named for Mary.
It has an incredibly deep pool outside which is believed to grant fertility to any woman who bathes in it.
Biete Golgotha Mikael is said to contain the tomb of King Lalibela himself.
The Eastern Group Of The Lalibela Ethiopia Churches
It is thought that some The Eastern Group may have been used as royal chapels or palaces.
Biete Amanuel (House of Immanuel), possibly the former royal chapel.
At Biete Abba Libanos you can see how the church was carved downwards from inside the rock.
Biete Lehem is the house of bread.
The Western Group Of The Lalibela Ethiopia Churches
Last, but by no means least, Biete Ghiorgis, the church of St George, which takes a cruciform shape, and is the most beautiful of the churches.
You cannot see it on your approach, so well is it hidden. (Actually you have to be careful not to fall into the courtyard.)
It also appears to be totally inaccessible but there is a passageway carved into the rock behind the church and you walk through a tunnel to arrive at the main entrance.
Day Trip from Lalibela
While you’re in the area, it’s also possible to visit Yemrehanna Kristos which is located around 20km from Lalibela. This would make for a pleasant morning or afternoon trip.
The church here is built inside a large cave on Mount Abuna Yosef. The church is named for Ethiopian king Yemrehana Krestos who reigned in the 11th Century.
The area is known for its honey. There is a legend that Gebre Mesqel Lalibela was surrounded by a swarm of bees shortly after his birth. Apparently his mother believed it to be a sign of his future greatness. Whether the legend is true or not, make sure you get to taste the local honey, it is absolutely delicious.
And if you want a tip for a good restaurant at the end of the day’s sightseeing you can’t go wrong with Ben Abeba. The building has a highly unusual design and you can either sit indoors or outside – we recommend the latter as there are some splendid views, especially if you time your visit for sunset. The food on offer is slightly unusual – of course, you can have Ethiopian food, but somewhat surprisingly there are a number of Scottish dishes on the menu! The restaurant is run by a very friendly Scots lady who now lives in Lalibela.
You can explore the Lalibela churches online via The Zamani Project who can offer several digital tours, including maps, photos, panoramas and 3D models of the site.
Wild and Desolate: Namibia’s Skeleton Coast
Namibia is a perfect country for a fly-drive holiday. The roads are wide and, outside the towns and cities, virtually empty, which makes for remarkably easy driving. You can drive for thousands of kilometres across spectacular scenery, encounter amazing wildlife and even take yourself on safari. You don’t even need a 4WD, we hired a saloon car which was just perfect. Many of the roads are constructed of gravel so it’s advisable to pack a spare tyre (or two) just in case you get a puncture. If you do get a puncture you can be sure that any passers-by will stop to help you fix it but you can’t guarantee that you will encounter a passer-by. We visited Namibia before SatNavs were widely used so we navigated with old-fashioned map. When we got hold of our map of the entire country it seemed surprisingly basic – just showing the main roads. But we soon discovered that the map was definitely detailed enough for travelling vast distances as there are very few roads. The map also helpfully pinpointed the location of petrol stations. We made a point of topping up the tank at every opportunity – our car had good fuel economy but distances are long and you really don’t want to run out of petrol.
One region that we particularly wanted to explore was the Skeleton Coast, the western coastline where the Namib desert meets the South Atlantic. It is a place that is truly wild and lives up to its name – where the skeletons of animals and shipwrecks are scattered across the sandy beaches. The coastline is incredibly long and large parts of it totally inaccessible. From Swakopmund we drove north as far as it was possible to drive.
And at either end we ate our most and least decadent meals, two nights apart.
We had driven to Swakopmund from Windhoek via the amazing red sand dunes of Sossusvlei and spent a couple of days there, having a great time taking part in all sorts of adventuresome activities – you can parasail, go hot-air ballooning, ride the dunes on quad bikes or even go along the coastline to Walvis Bay and kayak with seals. There are loads of tour operators in town that offer activities and you can make bookings with them directly. Some activities, such as the hot-air ballooning need some notice, for others you can just roll up on the day.
Swakopmund is the largest town on the coast, it’s small and friendly and bears an influence of German colonial architecture. We had our most decadent meal in this town. The Tug restaurant is located on a jetty right on the coastline and, as its name suggests, was constructed around a tug -boat – a Danie Hugo to be precise. Being right on the coast, naturally the restaurant specialises in seafood. And you can look out to the Atlantic as you dine.
We ordered a sharing dish – the seafood extravaganza: rock lobsters, kabeljou and kingklip fillets, juicy prawns cooked in their shells and the softest melt-in-the-mouth calamari we had ever eaten. All washed down with a crisp white wine. We visited some years ago and a quick glance at the most recent menu online reveals a slightly different offering to the one we dined on but it’s lovely that an indulgent seafood feast is still available.
We left Swakopmund early the next morning as we had a long drive ahead of us. It was going to be a full day’s journey along an isolated gravel road through the Skeleton Coast national park. We passed by the smelly Cape Cross seal colony and onto the park.
The gates were ominous. You need a permit to enter the park and we had to register our arrival. There are different types of permit – if you plan to stay on the coast you need to obtain an overnight permit.
Once we had entered the park we saw just one other car in the entire day. We didn’t suffer a puncture but were glad that we had spare tyres in the trunk of the car in case we had needed them. We were driving a two-wheel drive car so kept to the road but stopped off at various points along the way to explore the wild, windswept beaches, observing shipwrecks and other skeletons. The area is quite often misty as the heat of the desert hits the cold air above the ocean and it adds to the enigmatic nature of the stark landscape.
Our final destination was the Terrace Bay resort, near the Uniab River Delta. It’s very remote and popular with anglers but there are things to do if you’re not into fishing. We enjoyed walking along the beach and across the dunes. The accommodation in chalets wasn’t luxurious but was perfectly fine. The car was filthy.
Food was taken in a communal dining hall. Because the area is so remote, we weren’t expecting a brilliant meal. It may have been a far cry from the seafood extravaganza but our dinner was good old fish and chips and they were absolutely great. The dessert in the desert was that 1970s classic, Angel Delight. I have no idea what Angel Delight actually is. It feels like it basically comprises a powder to which you add milk and stir to get a soft, creamy dessert. It was our first Angel Delight in decades and – don’t tell anyone – it was surprisingly good.
It is possible to explore further along the coast but not by car – you would have to fly. After leaving the Skeleton Coast we headed inland towards Damaraland, stopping to admire the famous Welwitschia plant some of which can live to be over a thousand years old, and eventually the Etosha National Park.