Wilder, warmer, and more archetypically African than the highlands north of Addis Ababa, southern Ethiopia holds a suite of attractions very different to those along the northern historical circuit. Culturally, the highlight is the remote South Omo valley, inhabited by a dozen ethnic groups who survive by agriculture and livestock-herding and adhere to such ancient traditional rituals as body painting, ritual scarification and bull-jumping. Scenically, the region is dominated by the Great Rift Valley, an immense tectonic scar whose acacia-studded floor is scattered with a half-dozen beautiful lakes teeming with flamingos, pelicans and other charismatic African birds. Rising to the east of this, the immense Bale Mountains National Park is unquestionably the best part of the country for viewing endemic wildlife, including the iconic Ethiopian wolf. Other lesser attractions include the charming resort city of Hawassa on the shore of the eponymous lake, the historic island monastery of Maryam Tsion on Lake Ziway, and the lushly forested slopes surrounding the famous hot-springs resort at Wondo Genet.
Set at an altitude of 1300m, ARBA MINCH (“Forty Springs”) is a medium-sized town comprising two discrete settlements – downtown Sikela and uptown Shecha – linked by a 4km asphalt road. Shecha in particular boasts one of Ethiopia’s most spectacular locations, with the Chamo and Abaya lakes glistening to its immediate east, and the Rift Valley escarpment rising to 3000m in the west. A convenient overnight stop en route to South Omo, Arba Minch is also the best base for day-trips to Nechisar National Park and to the striking Dorze homesteads of the highlands around Chencha.
Bordering Arba Minch’s eastern edge, the extensive Nechisar National Park protects portions of Abaya and Chamo lakes, along with the eponymous Nechisar (“White Grass”) Plain to their east. Lake Abaya, the country’s second-largest body of water, is known locally as Key Hayk (“Red Lake”) due to the ferrous hydroxide suspended within it. The smaller Lake Chamo hosts significant populations of hippo and crocodile, though game viewing is best on the Nechisar Plain, which supports fair numbers of Burchell’s zebra, Grant’s gazelle, Günther’s dik-dik and the endemic Swayne’s hartebeest. By contrast, the ficus forest near the park entrance is haunted by primates such as guereza, grivet monkey and Anubis baboon. Around 350 bird species have been recorded, none more alluring than the Nechisar nightjar, which was discovered in the 1990s and has yet to be seen anywhere else in the world. Also of interest, near the park entrance, are the forest-fringed hot springs and thermal pool after which Arba Minch is named. The park can only realistically be explored in a private 4x4, as walking is forbidden, roads are poor, and there is no public transport.
Extending across 2200 square kilometres of dramatic highlands, Bale Mountains National Park is one of the country’s most alluring destinations for hikers, wildlife enthusiasts and birdwatchers. It protects a variety of niche habitats, including Afro-alpine moorland, Afro-montane forest, juniper-hagenia woodland and grassy highland meadows that explode into floral colour during the rainy season. The park is an important watershed, and its upper slopes supported glacial activity until two thousand years ago and still receive the occasional snowfall. It’s also home to a remarkable 82 mammal species and the main stronghold of several endemics, including the Ethiopian wolf, mountain nyala and (rare) Bale monkey. Some 280 species of birds have been recorded here, including sixteen endemic to Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Endemic to the highlands of Ethiopia, the Ethiopian wolf (Canis simensis) is the scarcest of the world’s thirty-odd canid species, with a population of fewer than 450 now confined to half a dozen isolated pockets of high-altitude moorland. Its most important stronghold today is Bale Mountains National Park, which supports an estimated 270 individuals, while another fifty still roam the nearby Arsi Highlands. Elsewhere, the Simien Mountains are home to perhaps a further fifty wolves, and a trio of other isolated sites each support around thirty.
For those who are fortunate enough to see one, the Ethiopian wolf is a strikingly handsome creature. Long-legged and narrow-snouted, it stands some 60cm high, and has a rich rufous coat offset by white throat and flanks and a black tail. Its taxonomic affinities puzzled scientists for several decades, but recent DNA tests determined its closest living relative to be the European grey wolf. Its ancestors most probably arrived in the Ethiopian Highlands around 100,000 years ago, and evolved into specialized hunters feeding mainly on the giant mole-rats and other large rodents that are abundant in Afro-alpine habitats.
The Ethiopian wolf was reportedly quite common in the mid-nineteenth century and its subsequent numeric decline has two primary causes. The first is habitat loss and fragmentation associated with the conversion of large tracts of Afro-alpine moorland to agricultural land. The other is the transmission of introduced diseases, such as canine distemper and rabies, via domestic dogs. One particularly virulent rabies outbreak led to the Ethiopian wolf being IUCN listed as critically endangered in the early 1990s. Its status was downgraded to endangered in 2004, but with almost three-quarters of the population concentrated in such a comparatively small area, Africa’s rarest carnivore remains highly vulnerable to future epidemics.
Administrative capital of the ethnically diverse Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region, HAWASSA (known as Awassa prior to 2009), 270km from Addis Ababa, has a population estimated at 170,000, making it probably the largest town in southern Ethiopia. Modern and attractively laid-out, it lies on the eastern shore of the freshwater Lake Hawassa, which is lined with resorts catering primarily to Addis Ababa weekenders.
Despite its proximity to town, the lakeshore supports a cover of lush ficus forest alive with guereza and grivet monkeys. It also offers perhaps the finest suburban birdwatching in the country, with an astonishing array of avifauna. Woodland endemics such as black-winged lovebird, yellow-fronted parrot and banded barbet are commonly seen alongside the water-associated birds such as the African fish eagle, blue-headed coucal, pygmy goose and various pelicans, waders and waterfowl. Private boatmen at the jetty west of the main roundabout will take you out onto the lake to look for hippos.
The gateway through which all road traffic must pass en route to South Omo, the small junction town of KARAT is often referred to as Konso after the Cushitic-speaking farmers who inhabit the surrounding hills. The Konso are unique in Ethiopia for constructing labyrinthine stone-walled fortified settlements, many dating back several centuries, which bear a strong but presumably coincidental resemblance to the Dogon villages of Mali. In 2011, UNESCO inscribed a 55-square-kilometre area centred on Karat as the Konso Cultural Landscape World Heritage Site.
Karat itself is not strongly traditional, but it is home to the Konso Museum, which contains an excellent collection of waga – carved wooden poles erected to mark the graves of chiefs as well as other important elders and warriors. The poles usually portray the dead person with a disproportionately large penis clasped in one hand.
The largest of several traditional stone villages that stud the Konso Cultural Landscape, MECHEKE has a magnificent hilltop setting only 13km from Karat. Its centrepiece is a ceremonial square where a cluster of around two-dozen “Olahitsa” generation poles (erected every eighteen years when a new generation of warriors is initiated) suggest that the village is at least 450 years old. There are also four groups of waga grave markers
About 15km south of Lake Ziway, rust-coloured Lake Langano is the most developed of Ethiopia’s Rift Valley lakes in touristic terms, largely because it is reputedly the only one without bilharzia, and thus claimed to be safe for swimming. The lake’s shores are lined with more than half a dozen (mostly upmarket) resorts, the majority of which are aimed primarily at a hedonistic Addis Ababa weekender crowd rather than at international visitors seeking a rustic getaway or a wildlife fix. There are exceptions, notably the eco-friendly Bishangari Lodge, but on the whole Langano is best visited during the week, when its tranquil shores offer good birdwatching and swimming. It’s also the best base from which to explore nearby Abijata-Shala National Park.
The planet’s largest terrestrial geographical feature, the Great Rift Valley stretches across 6000km from western Arabia to the Lower Zambezi region of Mozambique. More than 1km deep in parts, it follows a fault line associated with tectonic plate activity, the phenomenon which, 200 million years ago, caused the vast landmass of Gondwanaland – which comprised most of today’s Southern Hemisphere – to start splitting up into our present-day continents, and which, more recently, wrenched Madagascar and Arabia from mainland Africa.
Africa’s Rift Valley started to form around 25 million years ago, and its subsequent expansion has been accompanied by significant volcanic activity. Indeed, the valley floor is studded with active and dormant volcanoes, among them Ethiopia’s Mount Fantalle and Erta Ale. In addition, many other major peaks outside of the valley are volcanic by-products of the rifting process – among them snowcapped mounts Kilimanjaro and Kenya.
The Eritrean–Ethiopian portion of the Rift Valley runs from the Red Sea to Lake Turkana on the Kenyan border. In the north, it forms the inhospitable Danakil Desert, while further south, the region coursed through by the Awash River has yielded several of the world’s oldest hominid fossils, suggesting that much of human evolution took place there. South of the Awash, a damper stretch of the Rift Valley bisects the Ethiopian Highlands, its floor studded with a string of beautiful lakes starting with Ziway in the north and running all the way south to Turkana. Eventually – several million years from now – the Rift Valley will most likely flood completely, splitting Africa into two discrete landmasses.
Attractive scenery and birdlife have been the main draw cards of Abijata-Shala National Park since most of its larger mammals were poached to local extinction during the Derg era. The park is named after the two Rift Valley lakes that lie within its boundaries, separated by a narrow sliver of hilly land. The southern part of the park is dominated by the scenic Lake Shala, which lies within a 260-metre-deep volcanic caldera and is fringed by a field of steaming, bubbling hot springs. Of greater ornithological interest is the sump-like Lake Abijata (or Abiata), whose alkaline algae-rich shallows are regularly tinged pink by hundreds of thousands of flamingos, along with various migrant and resident waders. An excellent guided circular hike (3–4hr) from the main entrance gate takes you to a superb viewpoint over the two lakes, as well as to the hot springs abutting Lake Shala.
Flanking the Shashemene road 160km southeast of Addis Ababa, the well-equipped town of ZIWAY is named after reed-lined Lake Ziway (or Denbel) on its eastern outskirts. Once a rather small and nondescript place whose livelihood depended largely on the lake’s profusion of tasty tilapia, Ziway has undergone a recent boom as a centre of commercial horticulture and the site of the high-tech, French-run Castel Vineyard, which produced 1.2 million bottles of wine in its debut 2014 season. For travellers, however, the main attraction of Ziway is the lake, with its prolific birdlife, plentiful hippo, and historic monastic islands.
The largest island on Lake Ziway, rising some 350m above the surface, is known as Tulu Gudo (“Large Mountain”) to the local Oromo and as Debre Tsion (“Mount Zion”) to the Amhara. It is the site of the ancient hilltop monastery of Maryam Tsion, which was reputedly founded by Christian refugees who carried the Ark of the Covenant there for safekeeping during the reign of Queen Yodit. The monastery houses several illuminated fourteenth-century Ge’ez manuscripts, and is particularly recommended for those not visiting any of the monasteries further north.
Ziway’s causeway and jetty extends into a marshy stretch of lakeshore teeming with birdlife. Most conspicuous are the large numbers of the ungainly marabou stork and strapping great white pelican attracted by the offal left by the fishermen. Serious birders, though, will also find the marsh hosts a good selection of migrant waders and waterfowl in season, along with localized residents such as lesser jacana and black egret (also known as the “umbrella bird” for its unique way of raising its wings when it fishes). Hippos are occasionally found here too, but you are almost certain to see them on a boat trip on the lake itself.
The most important route nexus in southern Ethiopia, the large and rapidly expanding town of SHASHEMENE sits at the junction of the main highway running south from Addis Ababa to Moyale on the Kenyan border and the roads branching east to Bale Mountains National Park and southwest to Arba Minch and South Omo. It ranks among the most charmless of Ethiopian towns, with a reputation for hassle and crime. The Rastafarian community informally known as Jamaica, founded on the northern outskirts of town during the Haile Selassie era, is Shashemene’s one theoretical draw, but visitors are often made to feel unwelcome. Unless travel logistics force you overnight here, you’d probably be better off staying in Hawassa or Wondo Genet.
Twenty kilometres south of Shashemene, the spa resort town of WONDO GENET was once a favoured weekend getaway for Haile Selassie and his imperial entourage. These days, however, the cement hot-springs pools – housed in the grounds of the Progress International Resort Hotel – are pretty grotty, and a much bigger attraction is the surrounding forested hills, which can be explored on a network of steep footpaths with knowledgeable local guides. Anubis baboon, guereza and grivet monkey are all quite common in the vicinity, while avian highlights include silvery-cheeked hornbill, white-cheeked turaco, Narina trogon, double-toothed barbet and half a dozen easily seen Ethiopian forest endemics.