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On Safari with John Stevens

An Extraordinary Ethiopian Odyssey

When John’s journey to Ethiopia was confirmed,
he could barely contain his excitement.

For the adventurous spirit, Ethiopia conjures up images of ancient civilisations, rich history, beautiful people, incredible landscapes and rare wildlife species. And that’s exactly what Ethiopia gives.

For some time, now, Guided Safaris Africa has wanted to offer Ethiopia as an “alternative” safari destination following a brief visit there by John and Nicci in 2007– and if we thought John’s enthusiasm before this latest trip was impressive, we were bowled over by how incredibly inspired and excited he was on his return. Just the photographs and his travel journal entries will get your travel bugs itching!

The opportunity John had to travel across the “cradle of humankind” with a long-time client and friend has opened up the way for us to realise our dream of making Guided Safari Africa’s journey offering more exciting, edgy and adventurous… we hope to create some interest and can then set about coming up with some great itineraries to suit all you African adventurers out there!

John’s journey began in Addis Ababa. Enjoy these extracts from his diary, November 2013…

“… we (boarded) our Eurocopter AS 350 B3 flown by Ben Simpson – for months I had been looking forward to this adventure and now we were on our way.

Lift-off was at 0900 hrs and we were heading for the Bale Mountains Lodge. Just prior to arriving at the Rift Valley lodge, we flew over a flock of Lesser and Greater Flamingos in a stretch of water. The soils beneath us were dark and fertile and at this point we located the source of the Awash River – a large volcano rose up into the clouds and I believe that a monastery had many years ago been constructed at the summit.”

Bale Mountains

“We then flew over Lake Langano…”

Lake Langano is about 250km from Addis. The lake is one of many running south along the Rift Valley. On the eastern shore of Lake Langano is the East Langano Nature Reserve, a beautiful forest, home to many birds and mammals, including Colobus Monkeys and over 300 species of birds, 7 of which are endemic to Ethiopia.

“The highlight of the day was visiting the Hyaena Man who lived not far from our abode – (a drive north to the ancient walled city of Harar, one of the most holy Muslim cities in the world.)

There he sat surrounded by at least six hyenas that would approach him when meat was offered at the end of a stick held in one’s mouth. Our client and Ralph both fed the hyena whilst I took the photographs!”

Close encounter with hyena

“… it was not long before we were flying off towards Lalibela. The terrain became very dry and shortly we were flying over virtual desert. The time was 1300hrs and beneath us we observed many small circles on the ground made of stone – they must have served some purpose. A herd of Soemmerring's Gazelle stood out in the open – they all looked very healthy. We had reached the southern end of the Danakil Depression…

Ethiopian Wolf

We could see Flamingos, Great White Egrets, herons and duck species and Soemmerring’s Gazelle. Pods of hippo exploded beneath the surface of the water. We were heading northwest past old lava flows when an old road came into view. The body of water was now east of the foothills – another main road came into view - Djibouti to Addis. More gazelles came into sight – approximately twenty in number. We were now over the lower end of the Danakil Depression – a dry arid environment that never receives any rain.”

Dallol Crater, Danakil Depression

The Danakil Depression is one of the hottest, harshest places in the world and has even been dubbed ”the cruellest place on earth”. But for many Ethiopians here in the north, the salt mines provide a steady, reliable source of income, albeit one that is hugely labour intensive and arduous. For centuries, local miners have been trekking in to Danakil with camel caravans, hacking salt slabs from the sun-scorched earth before making the 2-day journey back to the nearest town.

A new tarmac road is being built through the desert basin, making it easier to transport the sparkling slabs of ‘white gold’, but the region’s independent salt miners and traders are wary of the access it might give to industrial mining companies, as their less labour-intensive mechanised extraction equipment will pose a threat to livelihoods.

Salt Train Danakil Depression

“The terrain which we were flying over was rugged and dry. Lines of stone indicated where the Afar tribe had lived many years ago. This was certainly the harshest country I have ever seen! Now there was no vegetation on the hills – a volcanic area with rock slides. We were flying at 245ft – then 25ft and then we were down to 1ft. Now well below sea level… As we flew on, the scenery changed – 5,000 years ago the land beneath us was all sea. The terrain was flat with clusters of dry grass – altitude -350ft! Now there was no grass or stones, only salt, which ran to a depth of 3,500 feet – sediment salt. The temperature outside was 30 deg C at 0700hrs. Below and on the edge of the Dallol Crater… We touched down in the vicinity of brilliant colours – greens, yellows and pink, much of which was bubbling and steaming.“

The edge of the Dallol Crater

Simien Mountains

Afar Tribesmen

“We touched down beside a shady acacia and shut down. Ralph ascended one of the lower slopes in order to begin his usual survey when over the crest appeared seven tribesmen – two had AK47s slung over their shoulders – one weapon was a folding butt. As I approached, a few of them rapidly disappeared from view so we beckoned them to remain calm; we even sat down which I thought was the logical way to be of no threat. The others returned and we “touched hands” which seemed to go down well – however, they were obviously very nervous of us! They were of slender build with great mops of hair on their heads. Beautifully fashioned knives were lashed to their waists – the handles were highly decorated in brass and were no doubt of Arab design…”

Known by the Afar as the "smoking mountain" and "the gateway to hell," Erta Ale is a 2,011-foot-high constantly active basaltic shield volcano. It is one of only a handful of continuously active volcanos in the world, and a member of an even more exclusive group: volcanos with lava lakes. While there are only five known volcanos with lava lakes globally, Erta Ale often has two active lava lakes, making it a unique site. Extract from Slate online magazine

“We took off for Tigray, Northern Ethiopia at 1530. On our right hand side of the helicopter a precipitous cliff face reaching up to the bright blue sky came into view – halfway up was a ledge. At the end of the narrow ledge was a dark shadow – it was the entrance to Abuna Yemata Guh and we were going to attempt to climb up to this church.

Climbing to Abuna Yemata Guh

“A steep trail had been well worn by generations of worshippers making their way to the summits – we followed the same route assisted by Gabriel who was our guide and the head priest himself. Halfway up, Ben attached a climbing harness to Ralph, who certainly did not enjoy heights!

There was no turning back – we grasped for hand-holes, which had been dug into the sides – without them the mission would have been impossible!

Climbing to Abuna Yemata Guh

The final challenge was the narrow shelf which would lead us to the entrance – we dared not glance down into the extreme depths behind us; instead, we clung to small hand holes which had been perfectly positioned into the face – there at last.”

Priest inside Abuna Yemata Guh

Beautiful frescoes covered the ceilings of a large dugout cave… biblical scenes, which had all been perfectly preserved. A pile of centuries-old bibles in worn leather cases lay piled up at the edge of a patterned carpet. The Priest knelt down to pick one up – and with the aid of a handmade candle, read out a scripture. The whole scene was most moving…”

Priest inside Abuna Yemata Guh

“Lift-off at 0730 hrs. We headed towards the escarpment range which rose above the valley to the south. Beneath us there were crops being grown on sand bars – coffee and sorghum. The tribes in this particular area are Mursi and Suri. Scarification on their bodies indicates manhood. In these tribes, it is still a norm to wear fairly large wood or clay pottery plates that are inserted in a girl's lower lip - the bigger the plate the more cattle she would have in marriage.

We continued to search the escarpment for signs of the Suri and eventually landed next to a village and were immediately approached by a large number of men and women. The women wore beautifully arranged necklaces which made them look so radiant. A number of men moved off only to return in their “stick-fighting” dress! Stick fighting takes place to train boys and young men and also to allow them to meet women. The stick-fighting began. The encounters were fierce and bells attached to their limbs rang as the sticks clashed! Knuckle pads attached to their hands prevented dislocation of fingers. Whilst the fighting was taking place, dogs also became involved in combat. A few others roamed around with AKs slung across their bodies (obtained in Southern Sudan) – it was really quite a show.” 

Stick fighting


“Later on in the afternoon, we travelled from camp upstream in a boat so that we could interact with the Nyagatom.”

These are just some extracts taken from John’s lovingly hand-written journals… we hope you enjoyed them as much as we did sharing them with you.

Ethiopia is a breathtakingly beautiful, wild and rugged country. Infrastructure is not as developed as in some African countries, and access to some of the more remote locations is difficult. This safari was possible because travel was by helicopter, which allowed easy access to these fascinating areas.

Contact us now if you are interested in taking a similar journey to Ethiopia.

Best wishes from John, Nicci and Sarah

Contact Details
Phone: 263 4 490612 (Office hours 9am - 5pm
Zimbabwe UTC/GMT +2 hours)
PO Box CH 84, Chisipite, Harare, Zimbabwe

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