Join us on an exploration journey into the wilder parts of Ethiopia. Road trip through the otherworldly Danakil Depression passing through the hottest inhabited place on earth. Visit the lava lake at Erta Ale and witness the life of the salt mining Afar nomads that live in this otherwise inhospitable climate. In the north of Ethiopia, visit some of the most spectacularly located rock churches you’ll ever see. For classical history buffs Axum is a gem. Relics from this ancient empire are still being discovered! Fly to the East to the ancient walled city of Harar, exploring the narrow alleyways where wild Hyenas still wander.
For the truly intrepid traveller, add on an extra 48 hours in Mogadishu with our experienced guide and security team.
Day 1 - Arrive in Addis Ababa
Welcome to Ethiopia! Upon arrival in Addis, you will be met and transferred to your hotel. Located on the highlands fringing the Great Rift Valley, Addis Ababa serves as the political, cultural and commercial centre of Ethiopia. This sprawling city rests in the foothills of the Entoto Mountains and is a mix of traditional homes, elegant villas, and tall office buildings. Take a tour of the city this afternoon including a visit to the National Archaeological Museum (home to the 3.25 million year old Lucy), traditional crafts and prehistoric fossils; exploring the copper-domed Holy Trinity Cathedral, a neo-baroque architectural landmark; and sampling rich Ethiopian coffee as well as memorable cuisine featuring spicy stews and Ethiopia’s signature Injera bread.
Overnight at the Jupiter International Hotel or similar
Day 2 - Addis – Afdera
This morning, board your flight from Addis to Afdera. From here, you will begin your journey by 4×4 into the Afar Region, where the Danakil Depression really begins. The Afar Regional State covers the north-eastern part of Ethiopia and is one of the country’s nine regional states. The Afar region is home to the Afar people and is best known as the archaeological site where fossil specimens of the very earliest hominins were discovered. As a result, the area is believed by some palaeontologists to be the cradle of the evolution of humans.
In the north of the region, the Afar depression consists of a remarkable landscape predominantly made up of desert scrubland with stunning salty lakes and long chains of both active and dormant volcanoes. The southern part of the region consists of the valley of the Awash River, which empties into a string of lovely lakes along the Ethiopian-Djibouti border. One of the lowest places in the world, the Danakil Depression is an inhospitable landscape of sulphur springs, acid pools and colourful rock formations. Afdera is an isolated stratovolcano in north-eastern Ethiopia, located at the intersection of three fault systems between the Erta Ale, Tat Ali, and Alayta mountain ranges. (B,L,D)
Day 3 - Erta Ale
After breakfast, you will be driven to the Erta Ale volcano. Some 30 km after Afdera town, you turn right and head towards the village of Kisrawad, at the foot of Erta Ale. This is about 50 km on a very sandy and rough road, which takes about 2 hours. At Kisrawad village you’ll meet the camels which will carry your supplies, food, water, camping and cooking equipment, and the local guides and militia who will accompany us to the top of Erta Ale Vocano.
You set off up the volcano at about 17:00, the ascent should take around 3-5 hours hiking, depending on how fit you are. It is a walk, rather than a climb, and you can stop as often as required for a breather. At the top on the caldera, the Afar people have constructed simple stone shelters, there are no roofs, but the walls offer protection against the wind, which can make it quite chilly in the early hours of the morning.
The best time to see the lava pits of Erta Ale is at night – you can sit back some distance and see the lava bubbling like soup, with the occasional eruption which throws gobbets of lava up into the air, before subsiding once again. Overnight, you will be camping on Erta Ale. (B,L,D)
Day 4 - Hamedela
Rise with the sun this morning before another day exploring the Afar region. Today you will be driven to Hamed Ela. You start your descent of the Volcano Mountain around 06:00, to avoid the heat, and can enjoy breakfast at the base camp. Once you’ve reached the bottom and had breakfast, you will head by road to Hamed Ela via Erepti-Abala-Berhale, an attractive little town set among mountains. In Hamed Ela, you will have time to see how the nomadic people live out their daily lives in such inhospitable conditions. There will be time for photos and perhaps purchasing some items from the Afar people. (B,L,D)
Day 5 - Tigray Region
After an early breakfast, you will visit (when temperatures will still be low) Dallol, the salt mines, Lake Asale and the strange, multi coloured mineral formations around Dallol. Salt is extracted directly from the ground in great slabs, carved into blocks called amole, which was once a currency in Ethiopia, and then loaded on camels which carry the salt up to the high lands. Camel trains can be made up of hundreds, even thousands of camels. Within the next few years, the camel trains will be a thing of the past – with improving road conditions it will be possible to load the salt directly onto trucks at the extraction area.
Ascending the escarpment, you pass through the small town of Agula which was and to a lesser extent still is an important entrepot for the salt trade from the Afar depression. The first major town you will pass through is Wukro, about 60 km from Mekele. From here roads east and west lead to rock hewn churches – there are more than 120 rock hewn churches in Tigray, some of which still have not been visited by non-Ethiopians.
North of Wukro is the historically interesting site of Hamad al-Negash. The early followers of the prophet Mohammed, facing persecution in Mecca from the Quraysh, in 615, sought and were granted asylum by the King of that part of Ethiopia, whom the Arabs called Negash al-Habeshat. This first group was joined later by another 100 refugees, including the prophet’s daughter Ruquyya, his future wives UmmaHabiba and UmmaSalama, and his cousin Ja’afar Abu Talib. When asked by the rulers of Mecca to return the exiles, the Ethiopian king refused, “even if offered a mountain of gold”. The generosity and principled behaviour of the king impressed the Prophet Mohammed to such an extent that he exempted Ethiopia from Jihad – Holy War. The remains of King Negash (who according to Muslim tradition converted to Islam) and those of the exiles who chose to remain in Ethiopia are buried in the compound of the Mosque. Looking west from Hamad al-Negash, a church is perched right on the peak of a mountain. (B,L,D)
Overnight at Gheralta Lodge or similar
Day 6 - Tigray Region
You will spend today visiting the churches in the vicinity of the Gherelata lodge, including AbrehaWaAtsbaha and Dugum Selassie. The local council at AbrehaWaAtsbaha has won UN awards for its works on environmental rehabilitation. There is a very interesting church near Dugum – Abune Abraham, which requires a 1 ½ hour hike.
The landscape here is spectacular and those wanting to combine some trekking with terrific art and history, this is the perfect place and we can tailor something for you this afternoon. (B,L,D)
Overnight Gherelata Lodge or similar
Day 7 - Axum
After breakfast you set off for Axum by road. Today’s journey will begin as you pass through Adigrat, an important regional centre & a trade hub on the routes north, south, and west to Axum and the Sudan. It is noted for its fine climate, the quality of its mes or tej (honey wine), and the regional culinary speciality tehlo – balls of barley dipped into a spicy sauce, which is eaten with a wooden fork. It was once used an important centre for Catholic missionaries and has a fine Cathedral as a result.
Continuing on your journey, to the right of the road is the 7th century monastery of DebreDamo, where the only access is by rope up a 17-metre ascent and is only open to male visitors. Soon one of the most dramatic landscapes in Ethiopia will come into view, “the teeth of Adwa” – the jagged mountain scenery in the vicinity of Adwa, where the invading Italian forces were defeated by Emperor Menelik II in 1896.
Shortly before Adwa you turn left off the main road to visit the pre-Axumite temple at Yeha. Dating to the 8th century BC, Yeha marks the site of Ethiopia’s earliest known settlement and is sub Saharan Africa’s oldest building. The temple was dedicated to Il-Muqeh, the moon god. In the same compound as this temple is the church of AbuneAftse, one of the “9 Saints”, who did much to spread Christianity throughout Ethiopia.
Near Adwa is the monastery of Abba Gerima, a Byzantine monk, and among the many treasures stored there are two illuminated gospels. The monks and local people have always maintained that these were written by Abba Gerima himself, while non-Ethiopian historians provide a later date, at around the 10th or 11th century. However recent radiocarbon dating carried out at Oxford University has confirmed a date between AD 390 and AD 570 for Garima 2, likely the earlier of the two gospel books, making them the earliest surviving dated illuminated Christian manuscripts. (B,L,D)
Two nights at Yared Zema International Hotel or similar
Day 8 - Axum
From around 200 BC to 700 AD, Axum was the seat of an Empire which extended across the Red Sea to Arabia, traded with India and China, had its own alphabet and notational system, constructed great engineering works and dams. All of these great achievements lead to the 3rd century Persian historian Mani to calculate the Axum Empire to be one of the four great powers of the ancient world, along with Persia, China and Rome. Today visitors can see stelae (the largest single pieces of stone erected anywhere – how they were brought from the quarry 4 km away and erected is still not fully understood), the tombs and castles of kings, Axum Museum and Mariamtsion Church, built on the site of Ethiopia’s first church. A chapel within the church compound is believed by Ethiopian Orthodox Christians to house the Ark of the Covenant, or the original tablets of Moses (see Graham Hancock’s The Sign and the Seal).
Today will begin with a visit to the newly constructed museum, immediately behind the stellae. You will then then ascend the hill to the East to see the castle and tomb of King Kalab, passing on the way, Mai Shum (or the bath of the Queen of Sheba) and also the stone on which is carved exploits of the Axumite kings in three languages, Ge’ez, Himyar (from Yemen) and Greek. Returning to Axum, you will see the tomb of King Basen, whom Orthodox Ethiopians believe was one of the three Magi who brought presents to baby Jesus.
After lunch, you’ll proceed to the grounds the grounds of Mariamtsion Church, we can see the ruins of the old church, and the stone seats of judges. Here it is possible to see the ruins of the old church, and the stone seats of judges. Inside the grounds you’ll visit the small museum (female visitors are not permitted inside, nor are they permitted into the 17th century church built by Emperor Fasilides, but the priests usually bring out some crowns of kings for the female visitors to view), and end the day with a visit to the site known locally as Queen Sheba’s Palace. (B,L,D)
Day 9 - Lalibela
After breakfast you will be transferred to the airport for the scheduled service flight to Lalibela. On arrival into Lalibela, you’ll be met by your vehicle and driver guide. At the end of the 12th and beginning of the 13th centuries King Lalibela of the Zaghwe dynasty built a series of rock hewn churches – the New Jerusalem as he called it – now rightly acknowledged to be one of the wonders of the world. There are 11 churches in the town named after him, with others in the surrounding countryside, all of which are still in use today. The churches are divided into two groups, the division of these being the River Jordan.
It is estimated that the churches took 25 years to construct – for the Kingdom based on Roha (later renamed Lalibela) to have kept a large work force engaged in economically unproductive labour for such a long period means that it disposed of a large economic surplus and was very wealthy. The area then was clearly fertile and agriculturally productive, whereas now deforestation and population pressures on the land have reduced its productivity. (B,L,D)
Two nights at Mountain View Hotel or similar
Day 10 - Lalibela
Following breakfast, today you will continue to explore the fascinating rock churches in Lalibela. If you are lucky enough to be here on a Saturday, you can also visit the local market place and witness the many sounds and colours of Ethiopian trading. (B,L,D)
Day 11 - Harar
Enjoy breakfast this morning at your hotel before setting off for another full day of travelling. After breakfast, you’ll be transferred to the airport for the scheduled service flight to Addis Ababa. On arriving at Addis Ababa Airport, you will connect to the next flight to Dire Dawa at. From there, you will be transferred to Harar (40 km). The remainder of the afternoon is free for you to explore Harar or relax in your hotel. (B,L,D)
Two night stay at Ras Hotel or similar
Day 12 - Harar
Harar is in the Eastern part of Ethiopia, some 520 km from Addis Ababa. It constitutes one of Ethiopia’s nine autonomous regional states. There had been settlements in the area since the 10th century, but the city attained prominence in the sixteenth century under the great Muslim warrior, Ahmed bin Ibrahim al-Ghazi, or Ahmed Gragn, (Ahmed the Left Handed), who brought the Jihad or Holy War to the Ethiopian highlands. In Christian historiography he has been demonised as a destroyer and sacker of churches and monasteries, Muslim commentators however point out that he was merely giving the highlanders a taste of what they had been inflicting on the lowlanders for several centuries previously.
Prior to that, being sufficiently far away from the Christian centres of power, the site had served as both a refuge for Muslims under threat and also as a centre of Islamic learning and culture in the ‘African Horn’ as a whole. After the death of Ahmed Gragn, the kingdom he had established disintegrated but Harar survived as an independent state and trading centre for many centuries, before falling under Egyptian control for 10 years (1875-85) and in 1887 was incorporated into the Ethiopian Empire under Menelik II. With the building of the Djibouti – Addis Ababa railway, which bypassed Harar, Harar’s commercial importance declined, but it has retained its importance as a centre of Islamic learning – there are 140 mosques and shrines within the city and it is said to be the fourth holiest place in Islam, after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem.
Harar today continues to attract the fascination of visitors. The site itself is scenically stunning – situated on a magnificent hilltop and surrounded in part by deep gorges, it was originally chosen for the ease with which it could be defended. To add to its impregnability, the 16th century leader Nur ibn al-Wazir Mujahid built a defensive wall around the city, which with its five gates remains one of the most distinctive features of the city. The mountain chain on which Harar is located is surrounded by deserts and low-lying savannah.
Harar has grown beyond its walls, and is now divided into the old and new towns. Within the walled part, the jegol, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the streets are narrow and winding while the houses have distinct architectural features, with carved woodwork and specially shaped windows and doors. The interiors are distinguished by different levels, raised platforms and niches set into the walls.
A tour of Harar will take in the walls and the old city, the various markets in which Harar’s ethnic diversity is easily seen, the recently restored house of the French poet Rimbaud, the government museum and the community museum attached to the cultural centre, the church of Medhane Alem, Ras Mekonnen’s palace and the Jami Mosque. A visit to a typical Harari home can also be arranged – some of these old homes have now opened up as cultural guest houses, allowing visitors to stay within the jegol.
After dark, visitors can see Harar’s famed “hyena men” summon and feed hyenas just outside the city walls. (B,L,D)
Day 13 - Addis Ababa
Today, you’ll be driven to Dire Dawa, a journey of around 40 km for your connecting scheduled service flight to Addis Ababa. On your arrival into Addis Ababa, you’ll be met by your driver guide and vehicle for the transfer to the Jupiter Hotel. This afternoon you’ll experience the Meskel Celebration. The burning of the large bonfire called ‘Demera’ in Meskel Square will take place at 17:00. After the celebration you will drive back to the Jupiter Hotel for your overnight arrangements. (B,L,D)
Overnight at Jupiter International Hotel or similar
Day 14 - Departure
Today is yours at leisure until it is time to transfer to the airport for your onward flight. (B)
- Return airport transfers
- 13 nights accommodation
- 13 Breakfasts, 11 Lunches, 11 Dinners
- Services of an English speaking local guide
- Transportation in a private vehicle
- Domestic flights (Addis to Mekele / Axum to Addis Ababa / Addis Ababa to Dire Dawa)
- Camping equipment when in the Danakil Depression
- International and domestic flights not mentioned above
- Travel and medical insurance
- All services, meals other than those indicated above
- Any changes to the proposed and confirmed program.
- All items of a personal nature e.g. drinks, laundry, telephone calls, tips etc
**Please note that this tour can be organised on request for private departures.
* Pricing is subject to change at anytime until full payment has been received.
* A minimum of 2 adults is required to guarantee this departure.
A non-refundable deposit of $1000 AUD per person plus the cost of your domestic flights is required to secure your place. Final payment is due no later than 60 days prior to departure. Travel insurance is mandatory for travelling with Crooked Compass. For full terms and conditions, please click here.