What to see in Ethiopia’s best national parks
A guide to the flora and fauna you can spot in five incredible national parks, plus tips on navigating the terrain
Ethiopia’s national parks may not house the quintessential game reserves Africa is famous for, but this landlocked country in the Horn of Africa wins hands-down for being one of the wettest and most fertile on the continent, giving its parks a rugged untamed beauty. You’ll find these remote spots towering with sublime mountainous highlands and peppered with glossy blue lakes, and the wildlife is no less spectacular.
These reserves are home to vast flocks of flamingos and astonishingly rare species like the Ethiopian wolf. Whether you’re looking for an adventure clambering around UNESCO-recognised Afro-Alpine wilds, want to sit among troops of giddy gelada monkeys, or just fancy a relaxing soak in a steaming hot spring, these are the Ethiopian wildernesses worth making time for.
Sprawled over 850 square kilometres, this wilderness packs in semi-arid acacia woodland, dusty savannah, shimmering gorges and riverside jungles, all loomed over by Mount Fentale, a 2,000-metre-high volcano. A landscape as varied as a family-sized bag of Revels means a wealth of wildlife, from grazing zebra and oryx to chaotic families of white-maned baboons. But really. this is a twitchers’ paradise. There are over 400 bird species here (some extremely rare) and most wildlife drives focus on following the park’s feathered inhabitants, like the flamboyant great ostrich or vivid carmine bee-eaters. Looking for an adventure? Raft the Awash River rapids, trek to the volcano summit past wispy jets of steam and ancient curios from civilisations past or get an eyeful of Awash Falls’ strip of thundering cascades. Otherwise, enjoy the softer side of safari life by soaking in palm-tree-lined hot springs and sleeping in luxury river-side lodges.
Five-hour drive from Addis Ababa
While there’s plenty of acacia-dotted scrubland to explore, the real stars of this rugged land are its startling opalescent alkaline lakes – Abijatta and Shalla. This is real David Attenborough documentary-style territory. A sharp sulphurous tang hangs in the air across the shores of Shalla, where a network of gurgling hot pools cause a thick, curling mist to cascade over the glossy blue waters littered with crowds of great white pelicans. Just seven kilometres away, Lake Abijatta – where the constantly fluctuating water level remains an unsolved phenomenon – is best visited in the early evening, when the setting sun bathes its vast flocks of resident flamingos in golden hues. Pure cinematic magic.
124 miles south of Addis Ababa
Thank your lucky stars for ancient volcanic eruptions and elemental erosion, because together they have gifted us one of the most staggering landscapes in Africa. Often dubbed the Grand Canyon of Ethiopia, this UNESCO-approved massif is a prehistoric-looking sight, where rocky peaks rise like stone cathedrals above swooping valleys, gushing waterfalls, craggy outcrops, highland meadows and valleys covered in cactus trees and aloe vera groves. The best way to drill deeper into this otherworldly land is on foot. Organised treks set off from the Debark park headquarters and can take anything from two hours to two weeks. Popular routes usually pass by troops of gelada monkeys and pause at lmet Gogo, a 4,000-metre-high observation plateau with undulating panoramas that plummet down across the misty lowlands.
Two-hour drive from Gondar
Getting to this UNESCO-certified wilderness is no easy feat. Covering the largest area higher than 3,000 metres above sea level in Africa, the only way to reach these remote climes is via a winding single-track road from the south-eastern town of Dodola. But those who make the effort will be richly rewarded. It’s a fairy-tale world of glacial lakes, towering volcanic peaks, lush Afro-tropical forest, gorges of gnarled juniper trees, bamboo thickets and more wildlife than you can shake a pair of binoculars at. In fact, as UNESCO points out, it’s been estimated that more mammal species would go extinct if the Bale Mountains disappeared than any other habitat of equivalent size on Earth. Visitors can hike, fish, birdwatch and sip on coffee made from wild plants at makeshift cafes in the surrounding villages, but don’t miss a chance to spot the highly elusive Ethiopian wolf on a Sanetti Plateau safari. It’s the only place in the country where you’re almost guaranteed to see one.
Six-to-seven-hour drive from Addis Ababa
Sandwiched on a narrow neck of land between Lake Abaya and Lake Chamo, this dramatic stretch of Ethiopia’s famous Great Rift Valley – known as ‘The Bridge of God’ – is a glorious patchwork of colours. There are the rolling plains of sun-bleached white grass, dramatic green mountains, golden sand beaches and Lake Abaya’s intriguing blood-red waters. The roads are notoriously poor, meaning a guided boat tour is the best way to explore. Popular spots include the curious fig forest along western Lake Chamo where monkeys and baboons swing through the four-metre-wide twisted trees, plus Chamo’s ‘crocodile market’, a patch of sand where large congregations of the reptiles bask in sun. Look out for local Oromo people sailing by in traditional wooden boats. Just don’t startle the hippos – we’re not kidding.
Seven-hour drive from Addis Ababa