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Combine an in-depth tour of the Ethiopia's stunning historical Northern Circuit with a leg-stretching five day trek amidst the mountain panoramas and wildlife of the Simien Mountains National Park.
Ethiopia’s Northern Circuit offers a remarkable density of historical and religious attractions coupled with a striking landscape of endless mountains. This tour combines the wonderful trekking and wildlife of the Simien Mountains with the incredible historical sites of the rock hewn churches of Lalibela, the island monasteries of Lake Tana, the ancient stellae of Axum and the wild and remote pinnacle-top monasteries of the Gheralta region.
Lalibela is justifiably the star in the collection with its fascinating churches carved out of the bare rock all concentrated within walking distance of the town. Gondar with its well preserved royal compound was once the Camelot of Africa, whilst the island monasteries and relaxed lake-side charm of Bahir Dar offer a refreshing change of pace.
If you like to walk, then it would be criminal to visit Ethiopia and not to trek in the Simien Mountains. Over five days you traverse a highland plateau with striking views over the mountain chain thousands of metres below. The park plays host to rich endemic wildlife, with packs of Gelada Baboons and the graceful Wallia Ibex competing for your attention.
The itinerary includes internal flights with Ethiopian Airlines and local guides / services in each location. This keeps the overall cost down and saves on some long and arduous journeys. If preferred we can quote to include an accompanying tour leader for the whole trip and / or overland travel by 4wd instead of internal flights.
All treks and tailor-made itineraries are organised on demand for groups of two or more people. For single travelers or those who prefer travelling in a group, we offer several scheduled small group tours, see here.
If you are considering Ethiopia in the first place, you are probably aware that the standard of hotels, road and general comfort is not going to match what you might expect at home. Travelling in Ethiopia is always an adventure and it is incredibly important you come with the right mind-set. The challenges are the lack of luxuries (a reliable hot shower in Ethiopia is a rare thing, even in upmarket hotels), the unique cuisine and occasionally hassle from hawkers (no worst than most tourist destinations). Having said that it also happens to host one of the most unique cultures in the world with a rich cultural heritage and some of the best trekking in the world. You can’t have everything.
Trekking in the Simien Mountains is classified as moderate. You will need to have a good level of fitness and able to cope with basic amenities. Although walking lengths each day are reasonably long (7-8 hrs a day), it is mostly flat going with several options available to shorten the trekking day if necessary. Altitude can be an issue with nights spent at 3,200m – 3,600m, but being a plateau walk, there is little altitude gain to contend with.
We were extremely impressed with the organisation, logistics and execution of the trip by the local team on the ground - we didn't expect a trip to Africa to run so smoothly! Plus a lovely touch by a few hotels who acknowledged it was our honeymoon....petals on beds in Addis Regency and Gondar, with a free evening meal at the latter too!
Richard Waters reviewing Classic Northern Circuit & Simien Mountains
Everything, from start to finish, was perfect. Minalu, our guide, and Yohannes (Johnny) our driver, were absolutely wonderful. I had never taken a private custom tour before and was not sure what to expect. Minalu and Johnny were fabulous. I think what I appreciated the most was their flexibility and absolute sincere interest in showing us their country. I loved that over dinner Minalu would give us briefings on the history of the country. He was extremely knowledgeable and I truly appreciated learning so much from him. We would often stop in villages that neither of them knew so we could visit typical homes, or visit the markets. We also crashed a wedding near Hawzien as they thought it was something we should see. We were of course received with open arms by the people at the wedding and offered copious amounts of local honey beer. We made several spontaneous stops in villages when we saw a market or special event. There is no way we could have experienced this in a large organized group tour.
When we were planning this trip you asked us right at the start what our interests were. So, we said we were looking for a trip that included lots of culture and history and a lot of photography. And this trip delivered on all counts. Minalu knew that I was very interested in photography and ensured that this was a big part of the trip. Johnny was great, stopping whenever we wanted to let us take photos. Minalu often intervened for us with the local people to ask them to have their photo taken. I could not have asked for more in terms of photographic opportunities. Well, maybe less haze and bluer skies, which Minalu tried to get for us.
Our trip started with 2 days in Awash. The area does not have the abundant wildlife you would see in Kenya or South Africa but the huge plains of thorn trees and large herds of Oryx were quite impressive. We did see a few zebras, some austrich, antelope, warthogs, baboons, dikdik and the black backed jackal. My absolute favorite part of this area was our visit with the Afar people. We visited a local village with a local guide and got a quick glimpse into the lives of these nomadic people. My only regret is that this visit was very short. Accommodations in Awash were very good. The Anamalia lodge was a bit expensive for food, but we did get to eat antelope.
After Awash we went North towards to more historic highlands area of Ethiopia. We stopped at Bati market which we toured with a local guide. We did miss the camel market as we got there too late. Our local guide should have taken us there immediately on arrival in Bati however we only went to that area of the market after lunch and it was over by then. The market itself is spectacular as there are people from all over the area. This was an incredible glimpse into the lives of the Ethiopian people. They come from all over to sell their wares, just amazing, like stepping back in time.
Our next big stop was Lalibela. Of course the rock-hewn churches are amazing. We had a wonderful day visiting all the churches with our local guide. But for me the next stop, Ghelralta was an absolutely spectacular highlight. I never expected this at all. We climbed to the top of mountains to see incredible rock hewn churches and monasteries from the 6th century. To me, these were the absolute highlights of the trip. Going up Abuna Yamata Goh is something I will never forget, and I really appreciated Minalu taking us up there. When we saw where we were going we thought he was crazy, but he and the guides encouraged us and helped us all the way up. It does sort of require nerves of steel to go up the sheer rock face and then the small ledge along the cliff to the actually church. The Gheralta lodge is probably the best place we stayed. It is quite isolated but so calm and relaxing and the food was delicious. I could have stayed there for a week just to relax and visit the sites.
A short drive from Hawzien brought us to Axum, the ancient home of the legendary Queen Sheba. We toured all the ancient sites with an excellent local guide, and saw the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant. It was a very full day of touring which was great.
The Simien Mountains was the next stop, three nights of camping. We were not sure what to expect but this whole trek was amazing. We joked about how many people it takes to take two Canadians camping. We had Minalu with us, and a local guide, a scout, a cook, the cook’s assistant, 4 mules and 4 muleteers. The service on the trek was top notch. Our cook was excellent. It is incredible to arrive at the camp after a full day of trekking in the mountains and have hot water waiting for us to clean up, a nice cup of coffee and popcorn. We had a bit of time to relax before dinner, then time for a short trek to see the sunset and wildlife after dinner. Our local guide set the perfect pace for us during the trek. The trek up to Inatye was difficult, but our local guide took his time getting us there. We got lucky and did not get any rain during the entire three days despite some menacing looking clouds.
The wildlife in the Simiens is fascinating, especially the Gelada baboons. I loved these animals. They allowed us to get quite close to photograph them. They are fascinating animals, plucking the dried grass to eat the fresher roots. While trekking we came to valley in the midst of a Gelada baboon fight. The sound of the screaming baboons echoing through the valley was unbelievable. And of course in the Simiens we encountered the Walia Ibex. There were a few near out camp at Chennek, and then we saw a whole herd of them on a short trek we took on out last morning in the mountains. We must have spent more than an hour watching the whole herd descend from the top of a cliff to the valley. It was nearing rutting season so there was a lot of sniffing and posturing by the males. It was just a wonderful experience to see this. We also saw the Bush Buck, the Klipspringer and many birds like the Lammergeier vulture.
One thing that surprised us was how populated the trekking area is. There were quite a few villages and lots of kids shepherding their flocks. It was kind of nice to see all the local people throughout the park. We stopped at a local house for a coffee ceremony during the second day of the trek.
(Just a side note about the trekking - I think it would be important to warn trekkers of the potential dangers in the campgrounds. There are lots of people milling around the campsites with all the muleteers and villagers around. We met a woman who was trekking at the same time as us but spend an extra night in Geech so was in Chennek the day after us. We met up with her again in Gondar and she told us she was robbed in the middle of the night in her tent at Chennek. Someone slashed her tent and made off with her bag. Armed guards and guides cannot prevent this kind of thing at night. So trekkers should be warned to keep all valuables on their person even at night. This woman lost almost everything and as you can imagine she was quite traumatized by the whole thing. We had discussions with our leader about this and from his point of view it would be too scary to the travelers to be told there were certain dangers. Our leader did however leave most of his money and his valuable with the driver, seemingly aware of the potential for thieves. It was never suggested to us that we do the same.)
After our wonderful trek we headed to Gondar, with a quick stop at a Falasha village. This stop was not very interesting, more of a tourist trap than anything else. Our stay in Gondar was very nice. The hotel Fasil Lodge was very nice, and the restaurant was very good. The history around Gondar is fascinating, a visit to the old castles and churches was our morning activity, and in the afternoon we went to visit a monastery on Lake Tana. The whole area of Lake Tana is so different. It has a more tropical feel to it. The monasteries on Lake Tana near Bahir Dar were interesting. Perhaps after having visited so many churches and monasteries we were starting to feel a bit churched out, but the paintings and history of the area are very fascinating. Some of the monasteries around the lake are very touristy, perhaps this led to our feeling of this being less authentic. Lots and lots of stalls selling jewellery and other local crafts.
We also saw the Blue Nile falls, the source of the Blue Nile and the Blue Nile Gorge. The falls are not what they were before the installation of a dam but just seeing the falls and the actual source of the Nile was amazing.
And so to end my little trip resumé, I have reiterate that the whole trip was outstanding. The hotels we stayed at were all excellent, and the restaurants suggested to us by Minalu were as well. While it is difficult to choose my favorite parts of this trip, I would have to say the highlights for me were the visit to the Afar village, the monasteries and churches of the Gheralta plateau and the Simien Mountains Trek. And seeing the churches at Lalibela was a dream come through after having read about them so long ago.
Anne-Marie Bernier reviewing Classic Northern Circuit & Simien Mountains