Begin this Ethiopian adventure in the capital of Addis Ababa. Your adventure begins with a welcome meeting at 1 pm. Please ask the hotel reception where it will take place. If you can't arrange a flight that will arrive in time for this, please arrive a day early so you are able to attend. We'll be collecting your insurance details and next of kin information at this meeting. If you arrive early perhaps take a tour of this bustling city, dotted with Italian architecture, interesting churches and friendly inhabitants. This relatively new city, established by the Emperor Menelik II in 1887, is one of contrasts – the Addis Sheraton, with its ‘singing fountain’, is one of the most luxurious in all of Africa, yet you only need to travel a few streets away to find yourself among busy markets, dirt roads and the odd goat or two wandering the street. Timket festival is a three day festival that commemorates the baptism of Jesus Christ in the river Jordan by John the Baptist. Today the priests remove the ‘Tabots' (replicas of the Ark of Covenant) from each church and march to the nearest water source, where the communal baptism takes place. The procession is accompanied by thousands of locals dressed in dazzling white traditional dress that contrasts the colours of the ceremonial robes and sequined velvet umbrellas of the priests. Stay close to your leader and fellow group members as you'll be in the thick of the crowd as you join the march to Jan Meda. In the evening you'll have dinner at a local restaurant.
Wake up early today to enjoy the main celebration day of Timket. This morning there will be mass and sermons happening all over Ethiopia in preparation for the blessing of the water. We will head back to Jan Meda to be part of this fascinating event. Here the patriarch will bless the water and baptise the crowd with the Holy water. The event and day then turns into a celebration with the churches singing hymns and providing musical performances to the crowd. This afternoon is free to enjoy the festive atmosphere at a local restaurant and taste injera, coffee and locally brewed beer.
Today we will take a spectacular flight to Bahir Dar. From the air we can gaze across the extraordinary nature of the Ethiopian Plateau, repeatedly cut by immensely deep gorges. Bahir Dar is a small but fast growing town on the southern shore of Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile. It has long attracted religious men and the area contains numerous churches and monasteries, many of them on the thirty or so islands of Lake Tana. This afternoon, board a sightseeing boat for a cruise around the lake. Covering over 3,500 square kilometres, this is Ethiopia’s largest lake and is home to 37 islands, 20 of which house some of Ethiopia’s most venerated monasteries. Many of these monasteries are believed to date back to the 13th and 14th centuries, and feature superb ecclesiastical art. Legend has it that the Ark of Covenant was hidden here for protection during the times when Pagan forces invaded the ancient capital Axum. Your boat trip will take you to the monastery of Ura-Kidane Mehret, which dates from between the 16th and 18th centuries. It is renowned for its collection of crosses and crowns, and its incredible painted walls that offer up a virtual 'who’s who' of Ethiopian saints. The boat returns to your hotel via the source of the ‘Blue’ section of the Nile.
Head out to the Blue Nile Falls today. Located 32 kilometers south of Bahir Dar, the Blue Nile Falls measure over 400 metres wide and crash down 48 metres in full flood. These falls are known locally as Tis Isat (Smoking Water) and are a spectacular sight when the water’s high. New hydro-electrical plants and dams have somewhat impacted on their magnificence, but the sight is still a memorable one. You can take a longer scenic walk past the main viewpoint (1.5 kilometers) or a shorter walk to reach the foot of the falls. You will then cross the Nile River by boat to reach your vehicle. After a leisurely lunch back in Bahir Dar, perhaps visit the open air market to take a tuk tuk up to the town viewpoint.
Travel north around the edge of Lake Tana this morning and head for the regal city of Gondar. This drive will take approximately 4.5 hours, including stops for photos along the way. Gondar was the 17th and 18th century capital of Ethiopia, and is famed for its medieval castles and churches. This afternoon, there is the option to visit Gondar’s most significant churches and castles, either as part of a tour or unaccompanied. The city's unique Royal Enclosure is a World Heritage site, home to dramatic Emperor-built castles unlike any other in Africa. The architecture shows the richness of Axumite traditions as well as the prosperity of Ethiopia in the 17th and 18th centuries. Spend the afternoon visiting these medieval castles – like the two-storied palace of Emperor Fasilades – and stop by the famous church of Debre Berhan Selassie. The church is one of the finest in Ethiopia, with walls and ceilings covered stunning in ancient murals of angels.
After breakfast there is free time to explore the quiet streets Gondar or perhaps enjoy the views from the hotel poolside. After an early lunch in the city, we make the drive to Debark (approximately 3 hours), your base for exploring the Simien Mountains. The rest of the afternoon is free to explore the small town of Debark on your own.
Enjoy a full day to explore the spectacular scenery of the Simien Mountains National Park. The park is a majestic series of undulating amethyst peaks, including Ethiopia’s highest point – Ras Dejen (4550 metres). The peaks have been eroded over millions of years and have left strange and wonderful geological formations behind. The mountains are also home to much of Ethiopia’s wildlife and are great for bird watching. Once you pass the entrance to the National park, you will hike and drive up to Sankaber and enjoy dramatic views of the mountain landscape. The park is home to some of the world’s most elusive animals, and while you're here you might encounter troops of the endemic Gelada baboons. The baboons, only found in Ethiopia, are often referred to as the ‘bleeding heart baboon’ or the 'lion monkey’. Their coat is shaggy, resembling a lion, while their chest has a marked ‘red heart’ or patch. The Gelada baboon doesn’t have natural enemies and so can be found in good numbers and are quite easy to approach. After the hike set up camp within the park to experience the park by night. The camp has no showers and basic facilities.
Take the asphalt but winding road up to the fabled city of Axum, crossing the lowlands of the Simien Mountains and the Tekeze River gorge (approximately 7 hours). Though this is a long and winding journey, the spectacular views of the mountains makes the time slide away. You’ll arrive in Axum in the late afternoon. Axum was once the capital of Africa’s oldest empire – the Kingdom of Axum lasted from 1 AD to 700 AD and grew to rank among the most powerful kingdoms of the ancient world. It was positioned at the centre of an important trading route that stretched from Egypt to the Mediterranean Sea and all the way to India and Sri Lanka. Axumite society was rich, well organized and technically advanced. In this period, bronze, silver and gold coins were produced, amazing tombs and monoliths constructed and Christianity was introduced to Ethiopia.
Today is a free day with the option to tour the incredible historical sites of Axum. Visit the stele fields, several tombs, the ruins of the Queen of Sheba’s palace and an archaeological museum. The field is home to over 100 stele – the largest one measuring 33 metres and weighing an incredible 517 tones. Stele (or monoliths) are carved from a single piece of granite, and are often elaborately decorated to resemble a multi-story house complete with windows, doors, locks and structural beams. Their scale reflects how important Axum once was, and they were probably transported by elephants from a nearby quarry. The mausoleums in this area include the tomb of the false door and also the tombs of King Kaleb and Gebre Meskel, while the archaeological museum houses fascinating displays. An unimposing building with a green picket fence is the St Mary of Zion Church, the first built in sub-Saharan Africa. This holds the crowns of various former Ethiopian emperors and is even said to house the most fabled biblical relic in history – the Ark of the Covenant. The afternoon is free for you to keep exploring – you might like to see some of the handcraft shops or take a walk out of Axum for an hour or so to see Gobodera, the quarry place for the stele and rock lioness relief.
Leave Axum for Mekele, looking across to see the spectacular Adwa Mountains and the battlefield of Adwa, where the Ethiopians defeated the Italians in 1896. Stop to visit the Pre-Christian Pagan Temple of Yeha before breaking for lunch at Adigrat. Yeha is though to have been Ethiopia’s first capital and the temple has been dated to around the 6th century BC. After lunch, drive to Enda Teka Tesfay and walk to the rock church of Medhane Alem Adi Kesho (approximately 4 hours). There are numerous magnificent rock-hewn churches in the Tigray region, but Medhane Alem Adi Kesho is one of the best in terms of architectural quality. The outside is roughly carved, but the interior ceiling is elaborately sculpted. Spend the night in nearby Mekele.
Start the long journey to Lalibela early in the morning on a smooth paved road and, after a couple of hours, reach the spectacular mountain range of Amba Alaje. Continue through green valleys and flat plains before turning west towards Lalibela at Woldia (approximately 4.5 hours). The road after Woldia offers one of the most scenic routes in the country. It involves climbing on winding roads along steep hills and evergreen lush valleys up to the Delanta Plateau (3,500 metres), then contouring around the valley for a couple of hours, before arriving at Lalibela in the late afternoon (approximately 4 hours). Despite the town of Lalibela being isolated in the Lasta Mountains at 2,630 metres above sea level, it is still the home of Ethiopia’s top sight, and one of the world's greatest historical and religious sites.
Today you’ll use the morning and afternoon to visit Lalibela’s amazing churches, which look like they've been dropped down from the sky. Between 1137 and 1270, several astounding rock-hewn churches were constructed in Lalibela; astonishing because most are not built from carved freestanding rocks, but instead created from huge single blocks of stone unearthed by the digging of enormous pits. The Northern Group contains seven churches, a tomb, a chapel and a sunken chapel. At the centre of the group is Bet Medhane Alem, measuring 33.5 metres by 23.5 metres and said to be the largest rock-hewn church in the world. A tunnel connects three of the churches in a courtyard to the east, whilst another tunnel connects two other churches to the west of Bet Medhane Alem. However it is Bet Giyorgis (St George's), carved in the form of a Greek cross and lying slightly apart from the main northern cluster, which is the most famous and frequently photographed. This church is exceptionally well-preserved and is probably the most visually perfect. The Eastern group of five churches includes the only hypogeous church, where only the roof remains attached to the overhead rock.
This morning we trek to the rock church of Asheten Mariam, which sits on the 3,150-metre-high Abune Josef mountain that overlooks Lalibela. You will climb for 2.5 hours to the summit, where the church is carved out of a cleft into the cliff face. The monastery houses ancient parchments and crosses, but the real treasure is the setting and the view. Descend the mountain and return to the hotel for lunch. This afternoon is free to relax or continue exporing this fascinating town. This evening you will enjoy a special dinner at Ben Ababa open air restaurant.
This trip comes to an end today after breakfast. There are no activities planned and you are free to leave at any time.