There aren't many organised activities to get involved in while in Ethiopia – wildlife watching is a notable exception, while horse riding is possible in some areas. But one widely available activity more than compensates – the country offers some of Africa's most rewarding trekking opportunities.
Ethiopia is a fabulous place to go trekking, from day hikes in the Kafa Biosphere Reserve to multi-day expeditions along the ridges of the Simien Mountains National Park. Wherever hiking is a popular pastime with plenty of tourist traffic – that means especially the Simien Mountains, Bale Mountains and the community trekking possibilities around Tigray and Lalibela – trails are well marked and guides and equipment are easy to organise. Elsewhere, you'll need to be more self-sufficient, but day hikes are generally easy to accomplish independently while local guides are never far away.
Safety Guidelines for Trekking
Before embarking on a trek, consider the following points to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience.
- Pay any fees and possess any permits required by local authorities.
- Be sure you are healthy and feel comfortable walking for a sustained period.
- Obtain reliable information about physical and environmental conditions along your intended route (eg from park authorities).
- Trek only in regions, and on trails, within your realm of experience.
- Be aware that weather conditions and terrain vary significantly from one region, or even from one trail, to another. Seasonal changes can significantly alter any trail. These differences influence what you should wear and what equipment you carry.
- Ask officials before you set out about the environmental characteristics that can affect your trek and how you should deal with them if they arise.
Trekking in Ethiopia has the potential to put great pressure on the environment. You can help preserve the ecology and beauty of the area by taking note of the following information.
- Carry out all your rubbish. Never, ever bury it.
- Minimise the waste you must carry out by taking minimal packaging and taking no more food than you’ll need.
- Where there’s no toilet, at lower elevations bury your faeces in a 15cm-deep hole (consider carrying a lightweight trowel for this purpose). At higher altitudes soil lacks the organisms needed to digest your faeces, so leave your waste in the open where UV rays will break it down – spreading it facilitates the process. Always carry out your toilet paper (zip-lock bags are best). With either option make sure your faeces is at least 50m from any path, 100m from any watercourse and 200m from any building.
- Don’t use detergents or toothpaste within 50m of watercourses, even if they’re biodegradable.
- Stick to existing tracks and avoid shortcuts that bypass a switchback. If you blaze a new trail straight down a slope, it will erode the hillside with the next heavy rainfall.
- Avoid removing any plant life as they keep topsoil in place.
- Try to cook on lightweight kerosene, alcohol or Shellite (white gas) stoves instead of burning dead erica wood or eucalyptus. Never burn indigenous trees.
- Be aware of local laws, regulations and etiquette about wildlife and the environment.
- Never feed animals, as it messes with their digestive system and leads them to become dependent on hand-outs.
- If camping, try to camp on existing sites. Where none exist, set up away from streams on rock or bare ground, never over vegetation.
For the independent traveller, incorporating an organised tour into your travels in Ethiopia is useful for four things: specialised activities such as safaris; access to remote regions with limited public transport such as the Lower Omo Valley or the Danakil Depression; ‘themed trips’ (such as birdwatching) with expert guides; and to help those with limited time who are keen to see as much as possible.
To reduce the cost of tours (few are cheap), hook up with a group of other travellers, or contact the agency far in advance to see if there are pre-arranged tours that you can tag onto – in such cases you may need to be flexible with your dates. The Thorn Tree forum on the Lonely Planet website can be a good place to hook up with other travellers.
Agencies offer all or some of the following: guides, 4WD hire, camping-equipment hire, Historical Route tours, birdwatching and wildlife viewing, Omo Valley tours, photo safaris, Simien and Bale Mountain trekking, Rift Valley Lake trips, and Danakil and Afar excursions. Some have branches in towns outside Addis Ababa, from where (if prebooked) you can hire a 4WD or guide or take a tour.
Though prices are officially fixed, most are very open to negotiation, particularly during the low season. Some agencies now accept credit cards (with a 2% to 3% commission).
The following list is far from exhaustive, but it includes those recommended by travellers and Ethiopians in the tourism industry.
Abeba Tours Ethiopia Friendly and very professional, this operator seems to go the extra mile for its customers. It organises general tours throughout the country. The drivers they use are about the best in the business. If travelling by jeep is just too rough for you then they can also organise helicopter tours!
Amazing Ethiopia Tours Respected operator with tours all around the country.
Ethiopian Quadrants Respected and well-managed tour company run by knowledgeable staff. All the standard tours as well as birdwatching, butterfly, flower and coffee tours.
GETTS Ethiopia Well-regarded and professional operator with countrywide tours with good drivers, guides and vehicles.
Green Land Tours & Travels Green Land is one of the biggest agencies, with trips throughout Ethiopia and some pioneering tours to the remotest corners of the country.
Mon Pays A relative newcomer, Mon Pays has tours all across the country, and can customise your itinerary. They're especially experienced in dealing with French travellers.
Red Jackal Tour Operator Good-value tours of all the main tourist sites. Used to dealing with backpackers and high-end visitors alike.
Simien Trek Run by Shiferaw (Shif) Asrat, this professional outfit specialises in the Simiens, where they have their base, but are adept at sending you all over the country.
Smiling Ethiopia Does trips around Ethiopia but we recommend them for their trips to the Danakil Depression.
Tesfa Tours With a focus on community tourism and trekking, Tesfa Tours, run by Mark Chapman, runs tours that take travellers into the heart of remote areas and local villages.