5 amazing adventures to have in the Ethiopian Highlands

5 amazing adventures to have in the Ethiopian Highlands

The top things to do in this lofty region

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The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela / Image: 123rf

Andy Hill

Andy Hill is a writer and musician who feels incredibly fortunate he’s allowed to do either of those things at all, let alone as a job.

Home to four fifths of Africa’s tallest mountains, the Ethiopian highlands cover much of the north and west of the country. Their height has, over the centuries, been pretty useful, helping Ethiopia remain one of the few African nations never to have been colonised. Today, the highlands are a dazzling natural spectacle, replete with wildlife, colourful history and holy sites. Here’s some highland quests we straight-up adore…

Gelada baboons in the Simian mountains / Image: AdobeStock

Trek the Simian mountains

This fantastical landscape of needle-sharp pinnacles, soaring mountains and kilometre-high cliffs is not nicknamed the ‘roof of the world’ for nothing. And scenery is only part of the attraction on these bracing multi-day hiking adventures. There’s wildlife aplenty, especially gelada baboons – often seen with adorable babies clinging to their mum’s lustrous fur – and precious endangered Walia ibex. But also, a warm, human welcome with heaps of food and cloudy, potent home brew from the big-hearted villagers. For best results, visit in September- November when the flowers are in bloom after the rainy season. 

You'll be howling if you miss out on seeing the rare Ethiopian wolf / Image: AdobeStock

Meet the Ethiopian wolf

One of the world’s rarest wolves – experts reckon there may only be as few as 500 left in the world – has plenty to fret about. The old, old story of mankind’s encroachment on its territory is one reason for the white-socked canid’s dwindling numbers, as is its susceptibility to disease. Genetically, it’s similar to the grey wolf, despite its uncanny resemblance to a European fox, and your best bet of spotting one is at Bale Mountains National Park, where conservation efforts will hopefully keep the metaphorical wolf from the door for this adorable beastie. 

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It's said that the churches of Lalibela were built by angels / Image: 123rf

Explore the Churches of Lalibela

Ethiopia was a Christian nation centuries before most European nations even dabbled with the idea. Later, medieval King Gebre Mesqel Lalibela said God told him to build a ‘new Jerusalem’ and told everybody that a team of angels helpfully carved out 11 remarkable churches almost overnight. Whether you believe it was angels or people that did it, it doesn’t matter. Focus instead on the word ‘carved’. Nobody was dragging stones and stacking them on top of each other, like a normal church. Oh no. These amazing edifices are hewn out of the solid basalt, fine detailing, windows, drainage systems and all. Literally holy. 

Gondar was once the country's seat of power / Image: Adobe stock

Discover Gondar, aka ‘Africa’s Camelot’

Gondar, in the foothills of the Simian Mountains, was for centuries the seat of power in Ethiopia. And it shows. A walled complex of mostly ruined castles, churches and monasteries speak to a grand, sadly lost courtly civilisation – even the lion cages seem to cry power and wealth. Historians also point to evidence of painting, music, dance and poetry happening, and the influence of trade with the Portuguese and Indian courts is shown in the architecture and surviving art. A capital attraction.

The beginning of the bean: Bonga is the birthplace of coffee / Image: Adobe stock

Pay your respects at Bonga, the birthplace of coffee

Somewhere round the sixth century, the story goes, in the misty mountain forests of Bonga in western Ethiopia, a wise goatherd by the name of Kaldi observed that his animals became notably more frisky when they ate a certain red berry he happened to be unfamiliar with. Curious, clever old Kaldi sampled the berries himself… and so coffee was discovered. Today, the multi-billion-dollar coffee industry is nowhere to be found in Bonga, where folks still pick the beans by hand. Pop by and raise a cup to the legend Kaldi.