Hanging with hyenas in Harar

Harar is considered by Ethiopian Muslims to be the fourth holiest city in the world (after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem), and the old city has 88 mosques within its walls (a mere few square kilometres).   Apparently, there are almost as many bars as mosques in the old city, and one of the busiest chat markets in Africa.    I was looking forward to wandering around the old city alleys and seeing the famous hyenas be fed in the evening.    Our flight was markedly different to earlier flights this week, with many fewer tourists and a marked shift from Christians to Muslims.

Landing in Dire Dawa was quaint- a tiny terminal almost overgrown with trees.  We couldn’t find our driver and were grateful for Ethiopian airlines awesome investment in WiFi in every airport, as I was able to contact the agent and track down the driver through WhatsApp.  The friendly guard at the airport did offer to lend us his phone though.

Endale (the driver) located, we hopped in his 4wd adorned with a painting of Che Guevara and headed off into the night to Harar.  Halfway we passed through the town of Awaday – home of the all night chat market.  Traffic was bonkers, headlights on high beam, crazy tuktuks and lots of evening shoppers.   It was like Oxford Circus at rush hour.  We eventually made it to Harar after a bumpy and swervy 90 minutes and checked into the Hotel Winta – it didn’t have great reviews but it was apparently better than the other hotels in town.  The hotel would win an award for the most hilarious bathroom in town – there is a tile painting of a huge tiger in the shower.   The bedroom is fit for a princess – with sparkly pink curtains and a matching bed cover.   We went downstairs for dinner – a choice of omelet or shiro, and a bucketload is cinnamon tea.  We then headed up to try and sleep through the noise of the mosquitos buzzing energetically around the room and the light shining in from the hallway.

Monkeys and marvels
The muezzin kindly woke us up at 5am, and we snoozed until 7.30.  We had an excellent chilli omelette for breakfast and some excellent local coffee.    The plan for today was to visit the largest livestock market in Ethiopia in the town of Babile (cutely pronounced ‘bubbily’).  We drove for an hour, located the town, walked to a walled market where there were a few goats, oxen and cows, but a distinct lack of camels.  Our hapless guide Hamdi seemed quite confused, and said ‘no camels’.  Hmmmmm.  Oh well.  We drove further to the misnamed ‘valley of the marvels’ which apparently has stunning rock formations.   Hmmmmmmm, not so stunning.   However, the road in the marvels was somewhat redeemed by the presence of hundreds of monkeys.  Apparently the locals feed them here, and every truck that went by seemed to throw a load of peanuts out the window.  It was kind of amusing. 

Finally some camels….
While we were there, Hamdi made a few calls and figured out that the camel market had moved to near the Somali refugee camp at Qoloji which is further into the Ethiopian region of Somalia (not to be confused with the country).  I must confess, I was entirely unaware that there was a large scale humanitarian crisis in this region with around 1 million displaced Oromian or Somalian people who have been feuding for many years.   Qoloji is one of many camps in the region.    We found the camel market!  The owners lounge around in makeshift shelters chewing chat while the brokers do the selling.  Male brokers sell camels, women sell goats.   

A maze of pastel alleys
Back in Harar, we strolled around town.  There isn’t much to do except get lost in the pastel maze of alleyways.  We wandered down Machina Girgir -the famous street with old Singer sewing machines were the tailors could whip you up a hijab in a few minutes.  The camel meat market in town was amusing, if smelly, and there were eagles circling overhead waiting for camel scraps.  We dropped by the tomb of Sheikh Abadir – founder of Harar, and had a chat to the local ladies about their kids who are now all living in London or Canada.   After sufficient strolling we went for lunch at the ‘best restaurant in town’ – the fresh touch.  Ordering was fun ‘no ambo, no bread, no eggs, no pizza, no pancakes’.  Steph ordered injera, and I went across the road to find some bread rolls.

Hyenas and the Quran 
After a relaxing siesta, we headed off in the dark to see the Hyenas being fed.  This is apparently the highlight of any visit to Harar, though there is something incongruous about driving down a dirt road to join a line up of tourist vans pointing their headlights at a man feeding semi rottten camel meat to 30 or so hyenas.   The tourists took it in turn to feed the hyenas, who were surprisingly docile and afraid of humans.  I know hyenas are supposed to be ‘evil’ but I find them quite adorable.    After that Hamdi took us back to Sheikh abadir’s tomb to see the Thursday celebrations.  We spent a blissfully relaxing hour listening to 20-30 people chanting melodically from the Quran while chewing methodically through their bags of chat.  I was most amused by the haughty cat who strolled around the mosque like she owned it.   The worshippers were all pretty zen and didn’t seem at all offended by the presence of three random faranjis who didn’t know any of the chants.  Apparently they chant well into the night, using drums from about midnight to keep them awake.   It was quite a treat to sit there and enjoy the locals.

Museums, my favourite!
I have managed to avoid visiting museums in most cities, but we had kind of run out of things to see.  First up, the Haile selassie museum.  Haile selassie was born near Harar and he was the last emporer of Ethiopia.  The museum was full of pretty random artefacts but it killed an hour while Isiah the enthusiastic guide explained every item. Then we wandered to the Rimbaud centre – not actually where the famous poet lived and as far as we can tell it was built after he died.  But it was a beautiful house and we whiled away some time sitting on steps watching the eagles soar above us… the locals feed them leftover camel meat from the meat market.    

House of Haile Selassie
Rimbaud centre

The best coffee in the world?
We then went to the coffee factory and bought 2 kg of coffee, which made us thirsty so we wandered up to the Mermaid cafe and had two cups of the best coffee I drank in Ethiopia – zebras, as they are black and white.  Outstanding! It’s busy in town today, its ethiopian good Friday for the Christian minority and Friday for prayers for the Muslim majority.    The beggars are out in force, lining the streets in the shade chewing chat and hoping for alms from those en route to the mosque.  We stopped by the local pool hall and cinema – a dank large room with broken plastic chairs.  The enthusiastic audience were watching Bollywood on the tele while they waited for the 1pm screening time.  A group of competitive old men where on the terrace playing rapid games of dominos.  We had a chat – the whole group are Man United fans, which made Jess very happy, and there was a lot of debate about who was going to win next week.  Football definitely is the universal religion for most of the world.   

Chat, Kyat, Kat….
We retreated from the heat to the Res Hannan hotel for an average lunch in the shade, and then made our way back to Diredawa via Awaday – where the chat market was still very much in full swing.  Locals were buying and selling, men were chewing, and the goats were eating the leftovers.  Side note – I was shocked to learn that it takes 500 litres of water to irrigate enough chat for one persons daily consumption.  Apparently 40% of the water usage in Yemen is for chat irrigation – it’s an ecological nightmare.   https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khat

Additional notes

It was my first visit to Harar and it was fascinating but honestly wouldn’t put it on the top of my travel list. We stayed at the Winta hotel which was away from the old town but good and clean and friendly – though read the trip advisor reviews, some people have had issues with their bills. We rented a car and driver for the time we were there, honestly that wasn’t necessary. just get a cab from dire dawa and sort arrangements when you arrive.

Dire Dawa, 26 April 2019

Facing old demons in Tigray

The Tigray was one of my favourite regions in Ethiopia.   Rock hewn monasteries perched on top of steep mountains, to be closer to god and protect from invaders.  I was looking forward to revisiting the lovely monastery of Maryam Korkor and also managing to visit Abune Yemata – I didn’t make it last time, but more on that later ..

We were met at Mekele airport by Zaray our guide, and our driver Fish.  As coincidences would have it, Fish had been my driver last time I was here (he was brilliant then, and has aged well though his English hasn’t improved one bit).   We popped by to see Dawit, the owner of covenant travel, who had organised my last trip here as well, several years ago, and had treated Tamara and I to his house for lunch with his family).  And then we headed a couple of hours north to the Gheralta escarpment, passing through towns that were quite unrecognisable.  The area is growing, half built hotels and office blocks were sprouting in Wikro Agula and there appears to have been an explosion in tuktuks- apparently several hundred thousand have been imported from India in the last five years – you can tell.   

Fortunately the landscape hadn’t changed, and it had retained its spaghetti western qualities, made more moody by the storm clouds and the humidity.  We had arrived early evening, and driving at nighttime is always a bit dicey anywhere in Africa.   No one really understands (or follows) road rules here, passing is at will, and headlights are largely optional, though if you are going to use them, you must remember to high beam all oncoming cars.  On the bright side, the Chinese work crew I saw on my last visit had clearly done their job and the road from mekele to hawzien was now entirely asphalted.  On the downside I saw at two dead goats and one dead dog who obviously didn’t understand the road rules. 

We would be spending three nights at the Gheralta Lodge – the first ‘boutique’ hotel in Ethiopia, I had stayed here years ago and it was lovely. Set up by an eccentric Italian, they grow their own veg and make excellent pasta.  The rooms are lovely but the organisation was and still is chaotic (an interesting blend of Italian and Ethiopian organisation).   Dinner was hearty and delicious and I got mildly drunk on the honey wine (the upside of barely drinking is that I can get drunk on half a glass of anything).   

Conquering old demons at Abune Yemata
After a leisurely lie in until 7.15, and one of the best showers I have had in Africa, we had a healthy breakfast of eggs, homemade bread, apple cake, and homemade guava jam.   Zaray, Fish and Dawit picked us up and we bumped along the gravel track to the entrance to Abune Yemata (see a great BBC video about it here and another sweet video here

Abune Yemata is a high monastery carved into the top of a rock pillar.  I have terrible vertigo and last time I was in Ethiopia i weighed significantly more than I do now, and I was too frightened to climb up the cliff face with toeholds.  This time I am fitter and stronger, but if anything my vertigo has gotten worse with age.   But they do now have a harness and a rope on the hairiest part of the climb so that was something.   Well I made it.  I tried to turn back once half way up the rock face but the scouts blocked my way.   And then I had a moment when I climbed onto an exposed flat rock with steep drop offs on all sides and I lay on the stomach and the poor scout had to say ‘stand up’ four times before I could get up.  And then I bottled it on the ledge inching along to the entrance.  But I made it.    

The priest was adorable and is clearly used to freaked out faranjis (foreigners) arriving at the door.  The paintings are stunning and ancient and worth the trip.   And Dawit (our local Tigray guide) assures me no one has died here (though people have fallen).   

Hiking up to Maryam Korkor
Feeling triumphant, we decided to head straight over to the climb to Maryam Korkor.   We acquired another volunteer scout as we headed off and just as well as I was in the mood to go fast.  Dawit told me it would take fit people an hour and 20 minutes to get to the top so I decided to try for 30 minutes.   We started off too slowly, but I got my new friend Gabriel Giorgis the scout to jog the flat bits, so we made it up in just under 31 minutes (Strava here).   Steph wasn’t too far behind in 54 minutes, but in fairness he was handicapped by stomach pains from last nights chilli.  Gabriel was most amused and asked Dawit the guide when he arrived if I worked in sport.   The view out across to Abune Yemata was fabulous.

The church of Maryam Korkor is lovely but the highlight for me is the tiny monastery of Daniel Korkor which is carved out of the cliff face and accessed by a narrow ledge.  It has stunning paintings, and an outstanding view.
For entertainment (and to the annoyance of the tourists coming up hill), Gabriel and I decided to try and beat our time down the hill and so we ran down in just under 21 minutes pretending we were airplanes.   He was fun and apparently I was the first tourist who had jogged down with him.   
After that we retired for a lazy afternoon in the lodge, hubby drinking lots of mirinda to deal with his ailments (it is his miracle cure).    And yet another substantial Italian dinner and a good night sleep 

Visiting the Danakil depression
I had wanted to visit the Danakil for years, but last time it was off limits due to safety concerns.   Several groups of tourists have been shot or kidnapped over the years (always blames on the Eritreans).  Things have settled down some (the last incident was in December 2017), and the local afar tribe have now made an industry out of tourist security.   Everyone is obliged to have an afar escort in the territory and it isn’t cheap.   The Afar are the local people who have carved a living out of the desert hacking out salt and transporting it on camel trains to Mekele. It’s a tough region, temperatures average 35 degrees and the ‘depression’ is 100m below sea level (the lowest spot in Africa).  This is one of the poorer areas in ethiopia.  The roadside huts are built of plastic and branches, and are far from any obvious water or sources of food.  The afar have a challenging relationship with the Amhara and it feels more like Djibouti here than Ethiopia. 

One advantage of visiting now is that there is now an asphalt road most of the way to Dallol (thanks to the Chinese) so what once would have taken 5-7 hours now took 3.5.  The drive was stunning, leaving the yellow rock of the Gheralta, descending down through the lush green gorges around Agula, arriving in the black moonscape of Berhile and then finally the stunning white salt plain of the Danakil.    

We stopped in Berhile to do some paperwork, and then again closer to Dallol to pick up our ‘guards’.   One of them was young, with a serious face and a battered Kalashnikov.  The other was much older and only had the use of one eye.  I was assuming that the ‘toughness’ of our guards correlated with the potential of any actual danger, and wasn’t expecting anything much to happen.

A large group of camels and men were hard at work on the side of the road, hacking salt from the earth in the same way that the locals had done for centuries.  Big blocks of salt which they took on long camel train to Mekele, each camel would have 30 slabs of salt (c.200kg) and in total each camels load would be sold for c. 500 birr (under $20)

Not far away from the camels were the main reason people visit the Danakil, a spectacular geothermal area with incredible pools of sulphur in amazing colours.   The guard matter of factly informed us a German tourist had died on the site a few days ago, falling behind the group, fainting and slipping into the sulphur.   We were pretty careful with our foot placement after that.   

The area is stunning, we stopped by some incredible, if phallic rock formations and also the large shallow salt water lake.  The landscape is very similar to the Bolivian altiplano, but much hotter with the temperatures reaching 36 degrees before lunch.   

We retreated back to the car, blasted the air con and still sweated buckets (apart from Fish who was as cool as ice and was still wearing his sweater)….. it was an hour or more before we started climbing out of the depression and we finally opened the windows.  It was a long day, almost 8 hours of solid driving but totally worth it.    It’s our last night at Gheralta – more pasta for dinner and a big nights sleep before heading to Harar tomorrow 

Hawzien, April 23,2019 
Additional notes

Celebrating Palm Sunday in Lalibela

I am back in Ethiopia for the fourth time. I love it here!  I am not sure why but (apart from when in Addis) I feel utterly chilled whenever I am here.  Ethiopia has stunning landscapes, friendly people, pretty decent food, and some amazing heritage sites.   I have company this time, hubby and Jess have been persuaded to come along.
Landing in Addis it was the usual chaos.  The terminal upgrade, due to complete last year, is late, and hubby and Jess looked pretty sceptical when I made them cross a muddy construction site to transfer to the domestic terminal rather than wait for the shuttle.   Hubby blagged us an invite to the business lounge so we had coffee and then hopped on the flight to lalibela.

Loving Lalibela….
Lalibela is one of my favourite places in the world.  A quiet village perched high in the hillls with some spectacular churches hewn our of the rock 900 years ago.   Tourism has come to the region, but if you time your visit well, and also get up early you can largely see the main sites without any tourists, just the locals
We arrived around 11 and headed straight out to see the first cluster of churches.  It’s lent, with Ethiopian Easter a week away (although it was good Friday on our calendar).  As luck would have it, all the tour groups had already passed through, and we were treated to groups of smiley men praying melodically in every church, leaning on their sticks).   I am not religious but I find services here both joyful and soothing, it is something in the tone of the sung prayers that chills me out instantly. 

Rock hewn churches
We saw all the spectacular churches in the first cluster and wandered up the hill for an excellent injera biyenot and shiro wat lunch at the seven olives hotel in the shade of a tree.  Fortified by a couple of cups of the excellent local buna (coffee), we headed back out to view the rest of the churches.    By this time it was 3pm and it was hot and the tourists had all come back, so it was a slightly sticky and overcrowded afternoon.  The highlight was scaring the pants of Jess as we walked through a 75m pitch black tunnel (said locally to be the literal hell).  

 I was delighted to see Bet Giorgis again – the most stunning of all of lalibela’s churches and the last one king lalibela built.  However, it is less lovely with large groups of German tourists, which we were blessed with that day….so definitely worth visiting more than once if you can.    We hiked back to hotel (it is good exercise at 2500m and up a steep hill – we had told our guide Melese that we weren’t tuktuk people everytime he suggested us getting one :-)).  

Top of Bet Giorgis

I allowed everyone a luxurious hour break for a shower and a rest, and then we went to Ben abeba for dinner.  It’s the most famous restaurant in lalibela given its weird architecture and nice view but the food was rubbish and the service was worse.   So retired to our lovely hotel (the top 12) and had ginger tea on the terrace before passing out at 10pm

Dawn services
We got up at 5.30 and headed down to Bet Giorgis, wandering through town by the light of the moon watching the town wake up.   We were the first tourists at the church (and only a couple arrived in the next half hour) so we had a blissfully quiet time enjoying the sounds of the men praying.    

Wandering back to the hotel, we passed Golgotha church which was hosting a very well attended mass, with a few hundred devotees standing on the surrounding rocks. It was extraordinarily peaceful being surrounded by people listening to the prayers through the speakers.  We hiked back up to our hotel for breakfast- marmalade and sweet Kita (homemade local bread kinda like a crumpet), eggs and coffee and enjoyed the astounding view out over the mountains.  

Yemrehenna Kristos 
Our plan for the day was to head 40km our of Lalibela to go to the Bilbilla market and also see some of the more ancient churches that predated Lalibela. Heading out past the town of Bilbilla, we passed hundreds of locals walking tens of kilometres to market, with chickens and goats and mules.  It is the last big market day before Ethiopian Easter, so important to get all the shopping done. First stop, Yemrehenna kristos, a lovely chocolate box cave church about 1100 years old predating the churches at Lalibela.   There are the eerie remains of pilgrims bones in the back of the cave.  The priest and I have both aged since I saw him last but he is still smiling.

Yemrehenna Kristos

Returning to Bilbilla, we deviated for steep hike up the hill to a more ancient 5th century cave church Bilbilla Giorgis, famous for its holy honey.  Locals come from miles around to be healed by the honey (made by bees in the walls of the monasteries) when modern medicine has failed them, and they apparently stay for months.  

The monk and his honey pot

Saturday market at Bilbilla 
Strolling down the hill into Bilbilla town, it was ram packed.   The chicken market was hilarious, loads of people sitting under a tree holding my on to their chickens with no space to get through, let alone view the merchandise.  We picked our way through trying not to stand on the heads of the chickens for sale.   The spice, fruit, sugar and goat sections were equally hectic.  The usual hierarchy applied, women and kids do chickens, younger men do goats and the old wizened ones sell the cows.  The odd man was wandering around with an ancient Kalashnikov.  The trend of the region is to adorn your jacket with buttons – it’s quite fetching.

We stopped for buna and injera biyenenot in a dirt hut in Bilbilla, the cups were washed in the corner in a bucket of river water, much to jess’s horror.  I got bored of the Ethiopian reggae on the satellite tv so went and  played outside with the friendly village kids who were pretending to be Messi and Ronaldo (football is the universal religion)

Lalibela market
Lalibela was a bustling metropolis after Bilbilla, so we went to check out that market – more cows, goats and an impressive array of plastic Chinese shoes.   

Climbing to Asheton Maryam
After a relaxing hour in the shade, we rattled out of lalibela in our aged minibus and picked our way through the potholes up to Asheton Maryam. At 3000m it has impressive views of the surrounding hills.  We had to hike the last 800m of path and made it just before the rain started torrenting down.  The priest had twinkly eyes and an impressive array of icons.   We ran the path back down to the amusement of some local girls who chased me back to the van….
The return journey was somewhat perilous, the rain has turned the dirt to slippery mud and there were steep drop offs on both sides.  We spent over an hour stuck behind a huge truck…..inching down the mountain side.  In hindsight it would have been faster to run down

More dawn services
Another early morning start to head down to mass at Bet Medhane Alem and Bet Maryam, the last mass before Ethiopian easter Friday so it was very crowded but lovely.  The atmosphere was somewhat ruined by a group of shouty Chinese tourists who were shoving their cameras in peoples faces and ignoring requests of the locals to stop taking pictures. I told a particularly shouty man to shhhhhh, and his guide sidled up to me afterwards to thank me for telling him off.    

We resisted the urge to annoy the locals with our cameras and sat down at Bet Maryam and enjoyed the atmosphere, taking the odd picture but mostly playing with the local kids and watching the worshippers make rings out of woven palm.   The ladies around us were lovely and we ended up amusing their daughters by taking photos of them and showing them to them…. at one point hubby looked like a kindergarten teacher surrounded by kids.  Bliss! 

Monastery of Nakuta Laab
After breakfast, more excellent kita and coffee, we made our way to the monastery of Nakuta Laab – the last king of lalibela.   What the monastery lacked in architectural splendour it more than made up for with views out over the valleys.   Mass was still underway, with the deacons translating the morning mass into Amharic.  Lots of beautiful locals in white headscarf’s peacefully sitting in the sun, greeting us and their neighbours and enjoying the service.  Quite lovely.   It was a bit of a wrench to leave, but we are off to the Tigray so we said goodbye to Melese our guide and left for Mekele.
Lalibela, April 21, 2019

  • Additional notes
  • there are lots of nice basic hotels in lalibela – we stayed at toptwelve this time.  About usd 50 per night
  • Food is fine in lalibela but nothing amazing.  Best to stick to local food.   I like the view from Ben abeba but not enough to tolerate the shoddy service, below average food and highest prices in town.  Seven olives and unique are better bets.  
  • Guides are easy to get – like last time we used the guy who picked us at the airport, we negotiated us 40-60 per day depending on the day length.   Drivers and cars are extra, for a full full day rental it is about usd 100 (from 7.30-7.30).  Our guide Melese was very good

Which are the best countries in the world to visit?

Given my travel history, I regularly get asked which is my favourite country in the world….. Honestly, that’s easy. New Zealand every time!

However, I do have a list of places that I highly recommend, many of which I  would go back to (or have gone back to) over and over again. Here it is:

Africa highlights

1. Mali

I totally lost my heart to Mali. Hiking in the Dogon was one of the highlights of my life. No hot water or showers, few cold drinks, filtering my drinking water from the wells, sleeping on grubby sheetless mattresses in the dusty wind on the roof of the chiefs house in every village, and dinner of gritty couscous and mystery meat most nights. I went in summer and sweltered doing 30k hiking days in 40 degree heat for six days (we had to lie down on the shade from 11-3 every day). I would recommend going in December when it’s cooler. But I loved it!!!! The scenery in the Dogon is amazing, the welcome incredibly warm and the history was fascinating. (Djenne was lovely too) I can’t recommend it highly enough

Blog posts here

Djenne mud mosque

Djenne market

Yougoudougourou Dogon

2. Ethiopia

I am torn on Ethiopia. Addis is a crap hole full of touts. And there are more and more busloads of Italian tourists. And whenever you stop to pee, anywhere in the country, you will be surrounded by kids while your pants are down asking for a pen or a sweet. However, there is nothing like going to Bet Giorgis in Lalibela at dawn for the services, or climbing up to the ancient monasteries in the Gheralta (although some are men only, like Debre Damo). I loved it, and have developed a real love for Injera. I have been back several times, most recently early this year.  Blog posts here

Hubby’s photos here.

Yemrehanna Kristos

Woman worshiping at Bet Giorgis (not allowed inside)

Church Guardian

Bet Giorgis

3. Namibia

Sossusvlei alone merits a visit to Namibia. Big red dunes, amazing old trees, and stunning sunrises – if you have extra cash take a balloon ride at dawn. With more time, you can fly up the skeleton coast, cruise around Windhoek (which wins my vote for the most zen capital in Africa), and go on safari in Etosha. Originally colonised by the Germans, the efficiency and organisation remains!

Dead vlei

Desert flowers


4. Myanmar

We went before it got touristy (luckily we did the same in Cambodia). I hope it still retains its charm. Getting up early to see the monks collect alms, watching the sun set over what seems like hundreds of miles of temples, and spending time with very friendly locals. You do need to offset that against a truly oppressive political regime.

hubby’s photos from his recent trip here

Monks going for morning alms

temples in bagan

happy monks



5. Bolivia

The first off the beaten track place I went in South America 20 years ago. It was a lifetime highlight, cycling from La Paz down the death road to Coroico, seeing a black jaguar swimming across the amazon while I was in the rainforest, freezing my butt off at 4,800m while being amazed by the salt plains in Uyuni, and horse riding in the footsteps of the Sundance kid in Tupiza. Often overlooked for neighbouring Peru, I would take Bolivia every time, even when I remember the 24 hours I spent lying on the bathroom floor in La Paz with altitude sickness barfing into a less than clean loo. I recently revisited with the husband, and there were a lot more tourists but it was still amazing

blog post here

hubby’s photos here

Cholita La Paz Salar de Uyuni

Laguna Colorado

Laguna Blanca

Cholita La Paz

Europe/Middle East

6. Georgia

Tbilisi is a trip, great food (Khinkhali and kachapuri) and some terrific architecture. But the joys of Georgia can be found out of town. Apparently it has changed since I went and there are now some posh hotels, but I have amazing memories of hiking in the Kazbeg and loving the locals in their skodas. I also enjoyed David gareji – the ancient monastery. It’s safe, friendly and stunning.

Tsminda Sameba

Ananuri Fortress

Bustling metropolis of Kazbeg

Old town architecture Tbilisi

The new Tsminda Sameba in Tbilisi

7. Uzbekistan

Ok it has a totalitarian dictatorship and the food isn’t amazing (plov!). However, the Silk Road architecture is incredible – Khiva, Samarkand, Bukhara. I have been three times and will go again. The first time I went there, ten years ago, there were no tourists to be seen. Last time there were busloads. Try to go off season but pack warm clothes

my husband went recently and took some amazing photos. link here

Tomb of Tajikistan’s most loved son

Chor Minaret – Bukhara

The Minaret late afternoon – Bukhara

8. Afghanistan

It’s little visited and had a horrendous war torn history but the mosque in Herat and the shrine in mazar are breathtaking. The people are amazing! Hubby and I both loved it, and I can’t wait to go back to Bamian.

blog posts here 

hubby’s photo’s here

Kabul Sakhi Tomb Kabul Playground Kabul Friday Mosque Herat Circus school Kabul Hubby at hazrat Ali shrine Hazrat Ali Shrine Mazar i sharif

For a splurge

9. Botswana

For eye watering sums of money, in my view, there is no better place to see big game. You might find leopards more easily in Kenya, but within ten minutes you will be surrounded by other vans bursting with camera toting tourists. Find a leopard in Botswana and chances are you will have it all to yourself. We went top end and stayed at Mombo, and I don’t want to remember what we paid but it was worth it. Flying in the tiny planes between camps, and scanning the runway for elephants before you land also created memories for a lifetime.

Job done!

The baboon tree viewing gallery

Elephants in the Okavango

10. Bhutan

Expensive but worth it! I saved Bhutan for country 182. I spent more in one day in Bhutan than I did in a month of over-landing on a truck in west Africa the year before. I tried not to think about the cost too much and just enjoyed every minute. A highlight of my travels – the most astoundingly friendly people, a culture which is cherished and preserved, and obsession with improving gross national happiness rather than GDP. Add that to outstanding landscapes and stunning monasteries with great hiking and it is my perfect travel destination. And for my husband – the five star hotels with world class food were a big draw! Save up and go!

blog posts here

Tigers Nest Monastery

Archery in Paro

Monks in Punakha Dzong

Paro Dzong

Off the beaten track countries I wouldn’t go back to, but are definitely worth a visit

11. North Korea

Ok this is a controversial one as the oppression is horrendous. However, I can think of few other places as unusual and where you are so tightly scrutinised! The questions the guide asked me made it obvious they had investigated me before arrival. So, the sights aren’t great shakes, you will get heartily sick of the propoganda and bullshit, and you will struggle not to pee your pants laughing when you hear about how the ‘great leader’ solved all the worlds problems. Recommended if you want to see what life without freedom looks like, it’ll make you thankful for whatever your political system is at home.

blog posts here

Pyongyang metro

12. Eritrea

Very hard to get into, and hard to get around without lots of paperwork, but worth it. For any Art Deco fan, the architecture in Asmara is worth making the trip. The coffee is good, the donuts better! Tourists are so rare that you will be warmly welcomed by everyone you meet, and I found it difficult to pay for my coffee at any cafe.

blog posts here

Bowling alley

Famous fiat garage

13. Yap, Micronesia

Ok it’s blimmen hard to get to (and united just made it harder by cancelling the weekly flight) and you aren’t allowed on any of the beaches without the local chiefs permission. And yes you have to carry a leaf when you wander around the island to demonstrate you are not a threat. And women aren’t allowed to wear shorts. And if you want to go to the national festival you have to go in local costume (that means topless!). But Yap has a charm that I rarely found elsewhere, largely because of its isolation. The stone money and paths are amazing. If you are a diver, apparently the manta rays are extraordinary. And I also suspect the excellent Oceania hotel I stayed in in Colonia made all the difference. However the Chinese government had just started big net fishing on their reefs, so I hope their idyllic lifestyle survives.

blog post here

Ancient stone paths

Meeting house and stone money

Stone money

Meeting house

13. Sudan

Far more interesting than its Egyptian neighbour, Sudan has the stunning pyramids at Meroe, the nile, the lion temple at Naqa and the whirling dervishes at Omdurman. It’s hard to get into, completely corrupt and you can’t get cash when you are there. But the entrepreneurial Greek brothers at the acropole hotel (a Khartoum legend) can sort you out.

Women at Omdurman during the Friday service for the whirling dervishes

Meroe pyramids

Meroe pyramids

Meroe pyramids

Naqa Lion Temple

14. DRC

a terrific place to see gorillas, and support the conservation of them.  its cheaper and less touristy than Rwanda, so you might well have the whole family of gorillas to yourself.  And while you are there you can climb Nyiragongo.  Its easy to get to Goma through Rwanda and you can book everything direct with virunga.org

blog posts here


It’s hard not to keep adding countries, as I have had wonderful experiences at most places in the world (largely as a result of the people I meet), so just because I didn’t put it on this list, doesn’t mean I didnt love it.  Honestly, I love France so much, I made it my second home, and everyone should go there, but I reckon most people will go there without my recommendation.   I also love a tonne of other places, too numerous to list. 

I also don’t think my list is for everyone, it’s entirely subjective and solely my opinion. No gripes if you don’t agree, just write your own list!

Happy trails!

Places to Return to – Ethiopia

May 26, Castelsagrat, France

I am spending the bank holiday in our house in France.  Our second home here is in a wonderful sleepy village, surrounded by baking fields of sunflowers in the summertime, and the biggest thing that is likely to happen when we are here is a gathering of hearty eighty year olds on the village petanque field right outside our front door.   Coming here for a holiday is like putting on a warm and familiar pair of flannel pyjamas.  Our routines are comfortable and effortless, from popping down to get a morning croissant at the bakery, to driving to the local market town to see our butcher.    The smells, sights and experiences from here are clearly etched in my memories and bring me comfort even when I am not here.   It has made me think about places in the world I have visited that have left similar indelible impressions on me.  Places I felt incredibly comfortable and would like to go back to to spend some more time.  So, this week, I am going to share with you a few of the special places in the world that I can’t wait to (or already have) revisit (ed).  Amazing places which fed my soul (and most likely my belly), and that I would highly recommend you put on your to do list.   Today – Ethiopia!  There are lots and lots of things to do in Ethiopia, including hiking in the Simiens and seeing the Danakil Depression, but my favourite places are…..

visit Bet Giyorgis Church, Lalibela at Dawn

Lalibela is a relatively sleepy high altitude town surrounded by small mud hut villages with a surprising surfeit of ‘barack obama’ gift stores.   The town is famous for the most incredible rock hewn churches.  Unlike normal churches where rock is excavated and a church is built, here they have dug the churches out of the ground!  It is hard to describe without seeing them.  For those of you who have been to Petra, think that but 10 times more impressive.     I have vivid memories of visiting the church at 6am to hear the amazing chanting from the white robed monks.  The music was haunting, the smell from the incense pervasive, and sight of the worshippers in the dawn chill is indelibly etched on my brain.  Spend a few days in Lalibela to visit all the churches but also head out to Yemrehanna Kristos which is a beautiful chocolate box church in a cavern about an hour or so from Lalibela.  I loved Lalibela and can’t wait to go back (stayed at Tukul Village, picked up a decent guide on arrival at the airport)

Bet Giorgis from above
Bet Giorgis from above

Woman worshiping at Bet Giorgis (not allowed inside)
Woman worshiping at Bet Giorgis (not allowed inside)

Yemrehanna Kristos
Yemrehanna Kristos

Do the dawn procession in Axum

Axum is apparently the home of the Arc of the Covenant at the Cathedral of Tsion Maryam, though no one ever gets to see it.  Apparently it is so sacred only the guardian gets to see it, and that job passes down when the guardian dies.   The Cathedral is worth a visit but isn’t wildly interesting.  There are also some extremely famous stelae (pillars), which are mildly interesting and the reason most people come to town.    Axum town itself is a boring strip of poorly built glass and concrete buildings with none of the charm of Lalibela.  So, why come?  Two reasons, a) it is the gateway to the Tigrai – more on that later, and b) the Wednesday procession at dawn where pilgrims walk around town paying homage to the churches.   We joined in, (sporting the obligatory big white scarfs) and it was a wonderful experience……  (stayed at Sabean Hotel which was basic but fine, and hired a guide and driver from Dawit tours – travelcovenant@yahoo.com)

End of the dawn procession
End of the dawn procession

Climb to the monasteries in the Tigrai
  • If you have a head for heights and are comfortable rock climbing in bare feet, definitely hike up to Abuna Yemata.    I bowed out as am petrified of heights, but my feisty companion Tamara made it up with some rope and some help.
  • If you have a penis, definitely head to Debre Damo.  Again, this is a rope climbing effort, but sadly only men are allowed to visit (apparently women aren’t clean or holy enough)
  • I did make it to Debre Maryam Korkor, which was at 2,500 metres.  I thought I was climbing well until I was overtaken by three nuns who were in their seventies, bare foot, and carrying all their food and water – very humbling!!!!   While up there, pop round the corner to visit the monk at Abba Daniel Korkor (he had the most amazing face)
(Stay at Gheralta Lodge in the Hawzien region if you can penetrate their useless reservation system, we hired a driver and a guide as there is very little public transport anywhere in the Tigrai.  Dawit from covenant tours sorted this for us too)

Monk at Abba Daniel Korkor

The barefooted nuns overtaking me climbing to
The barefooted nuns overtaking me climbing to Debre Maryam Korkor

Some additional tips!
  • Apparently the attendants on Ethiopian are often asked if there will be food in Ethiopia.  Yes there definitely is food!  and the food is actually pretty good, provided you stick to the vegetarian.  The goat and the chickens were the toughest things I have ever eaten. However, injera (ethiopian bread made with teff) and vegetarian food is pretty delicious.  Favourites are shiro wat, kik wat and shira tegamino!
  • Addis is a crap hole!  the hotels are overpriced, its dirty, and the taxi drivers are what you would expect in Africa.  Get in, get out as fast as you can
  • The kids here have been ruined by overly generous foreigners.  If you stop your car in the middle of nowhere to pee, you will be overrun by kids within three minutes.  Pee quick!  Apparently kids don’t bother to go to school in some places as they don’t want to miss out on begging from foreigners
  • Ethiopia is extremely traditional.  Neither Fish nor Teddy (our driver and guide) thought women could drive a car.  After much persuasion Fish did let me take the 4wd for a spin around the desert and he was most impressed that I knew how to use reverse!  Ladies – keep your expectations for equality low!

Church Guardian Hawzien
Church Guardian Hawzien

Church Guardian
Church Guardian