Natural Attraction

An ancient land of fertile well-watered mountains that form the main source of the Blue Nile, northern Ethiopia has long stood at the cultural crossroads of Africa, Arabia and the Mediterranean.

These divergent influences have bequeathed the region a unique cultural and historical heritage epitomised by a quartet of unique and magnificent UNESCO World Heritage Sites - Aksum, Lalibela, Gondar and the Simien Mountains National Park - as well as a vast array of lesser-known but equally fascinating historical sites.

Danakil Depression

Set at the juncture of three tectonic plates, the Danakil is one of the world’s lowest-lying places, set mostly below sea level, and it officially ranks as the hottest inhabited place on earth, with an average daily maximum of 41°C. Much of the region comprises sun-cracked salt-flats that stretch like blinding-white crazy paving towards a shimmering flat horizon. However, the high level of tectonic activity means that more than 30 active volcanoes protrude from this stretch Great Rift Valley floor. These include the iconic Erta Ale, which has hosted a permanent lava flow since the late 19th century, and the Dallol Crater with its sulphurous pools enclosed by strange pastel-hued crystalline formations.

Bale Mountains National Park

Ethiopia's most important biodiversity hotspot, Bale Mountains National Park supports a rich mosaic of high-altitude habitats including lush evergreen forest, stands of giant bamboo, pastel-shaded moorland, and sheltered river valleys swathed in fragrant juniper-hagenia woodland. Nominated as a tentative UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site in 2009, the park is the most important stronghold to three endemic large mammal species - the charismatic Ethiopian wolf, handsome mountain nyala and delightful Bale monkey - while its incredible avifauna is reflected by the African Birding Club having listed it as one of the continent’s top five birding hotspots.

Simien Mountains National Park

Ethiopia’s premier trekking and walking destination, the 412km2 Simien Mountains National Park was inscribed as a Natural World Heritage Site in 1979, whereupon UNESCO lauded it as “one of the world’s most spectacular landscapes, with jagged mountain peaks deep valleys and sharp precipices dropping some 1,500m”. In addition to the splendid scenery and hiking opportunities, the Afromontane meadows and moorlands of the upper Simiens also form one of Ethiopia's most important biodiversity hotspots, populated by an alluring wealth of endemic plants and animals including Walia ibex, gelada baboon and Ethiopian wolf.

Awash National Park

National Park protects a semiarid tract of Rift Valley floor inhabited by dry-country antelope such as the handsome Beisa oryx and magnificent spiral-horned greater kudu. A bird checklist of almost 500 species includes Arabian bustard, African swallow-tailed kite, northern carmine bee-eater, Abyssinian roller and the endemic yellow-throated serin and near-endemic rock chat. Scenic highlights include the spectacular crater of Fantelle Volcano and peculiar Lake Beseka set amidst stark black volcanic rubble at its base, as well as the surging waterfall at the head of the Awash Gorge and a field of palm-lined hot springs regularly frequented by Hamadryas baboons. A dusk visit to Aga Edu Cave might reveal some of 20-plus spotted hyenas that have their dens there.

Nech Sar National Park

The wildly beautiful and diverse landscapes of Nech Sar National Park include a dense swathe of groundwater forest bordering the town of Arba Minch, the twin lakes Chamo and Abaya, the spiky acacia scrub of the mountainous Bridge of God that divides them, and the wide open Nech Sar (‘White Grass’) Plains. A popular excursion is a boat trip to Lake Chamo’s so-called crocodile market, a stretch of reed-lined sand flats populated by some truly gigantic crocodiles as well as a few pods of hippo and a wealth of aquatic birds. Monkeys are common in the groundwater forest, while the guided walks on the Nech Sar Plains offer a good chance of seeing Burchell’s zebra, Grant’s gazelle, Swayne’s hartebeest, greater kudu and other large ungulates. Star attraction on the park’s avian checklist of 275 species is the Nechisar nightjar, Caprimulgus solala, which many regard to be the world’s rarest bird. This was first described in 1993 based on the discovery of a single dead bird's wing in Nech Sar a year earlier, and the live bird went unseen until 2009, when it was finally observed by an ornithological expedition to the park.

Chebera-Churchura National Park

One of the western highland’s most underrated gems, hilly Chebera-Churchura extends across 1,215km2 of well-watered jungle and savanna. This is the most reliable place in Ethiopia to see elephants, which can be tracked on foot through the swampy Maka Forest with the help of experienced scouts. Bushpig and giant forest hog are also regularly observed in the forest, while other more secretive wildlife includes buffalo, lion, leopard and various antelope. Walking trails lead to four lily-covered crater lakes with abundant hippos, while a lovely campsite on the forested Shoshuma River supports white-cheeked turaco, silvery-cheeked hornbill, half-collared kingfisher, doubletoothed barbet and plenty of monkeys. Other attractions include a number of hot springs, and the twin waterfalls on the Bardo River.

Blue Nile Falls

The 18th century Scottish traveller James Bruce described the Blue Nile Falls as: ‘a magnificent sight, that ages, added to the greatest length of human life, would not efface or eradicate from my memory’. Particularly in the rainy season, the waterfall known locally as Tis Isat (Water that Smokes) is a sensational sight, kicking up a thunderous wall of spray as it crashes over a 45-metre high cliff before being channelled into a frothing gorge. From the village of Tis Abay, a splendid series of full frontal viewpoints can be reached along a 1.5km footpath across the 17th century Alata Bridge. Birders should check the riverine forest here for endemics and near-endemics such as blue-breasted bee-eater, white-cheeked turaco, black-winged lovebird and yellow-fronted parrot.

Gambella National Park

Ethiopia’s largest national park extends over 5,060km2 of Gambella Regional State in the low-lying far west. It is bordered to the north by the Baro River, a wide tributary of the Blue Nile navigable all the way to its confluence with the White Nile at Khartoum. Gambella National Park is at its most alluring between March and June, when Africa’s second-largest antelope migration, an estimated 1.2 million white-tailed kob, crosses into Ethiopia from South Sudan. The park is also a stronghold for the endangered Nubian giraffe, localised antelope such as Nile lechwe, Lelwel hartebeest and tiang, relict populations of lion, leopard, buffalo and elephant, and the largely terrestrial patas monkey. A checklist of 327 bird species includes Ethiopia’s only population of the bizarre papyrus-dwelling shoebill stork and Uelle paradise whydah, along with Egyptian plover, African skimmer and the exquisite little green bee-eater. Game viewing is best around Matara, 185km west of the park headquarters in Gambella town.

Blue Nile Falls

The 18th century Scottish traveller James Bruce described the Blue Nile Falls as: ‘a magnificent sight, that ages, added to the greatest length of human life, would not efface or eradicate from my memory’. Particularly in the rainy season, the waterfall known locally as Tis Isat (Water that Smokes) is a sensational sight, kicking up a thunderous wall of spray as it crashes over a 45-metre high cliff before being channelled into a frothing gorge. From the village of Tis Abay, a splendid series of full frontal viewpoints can be reached along a 1.5km footpath across the 17th century Alata Bridge. Birders should check the riverine forest here for endemics and near-endemics such as blue-breasted bee-eater, white-cheeked turaco, black-winged lovebird and yellow-fronted parrot.

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