Ethiopia is an upcoming African destination that has the potential to become a bucket list adventure for many travelers.
African tourism industry veteran Chris Roche recognized the potential of this destination a few years ago. He decided to leave his position at Wilderness Safaris and built a new company, Wild Expeditions, which focuses on what he calls “authentic, obscure and unpretentious” destinations. “I wanted to explore the possibilities of destinations where the biggest brands are not brave enough to go,” he said with a laugh.
Roche noted that Ethiopia has been one of the fastest growing economies on the African continent, but acknowledged that there are still some challenges. One of these challenges is that the country has no foreign banks, a major obstacle for companies that want to invest in the destination. Another is accessibility, especially from the US: Ethiopian Airlines is the only major carrier that flies non-stop to the United States, with seasonal service from Washington Dulles and Chicago O’Hare.
The country currently carries a Level Three (reconsider travel) advisory from the US State Department. Ethiopia has been plagued by civil unrest for years. The latest conflict erupted in 2020 between Ethiopian government forces and its allies against Tigrayan forces.
But the challenges haven’t stopped Wild Expeditions from launching tours in this virtually unexplored country. The company has a permanent camp, Lale’s Camp, which is located on the banks of the Omo River and was founded by local guide Lale Birwa.
Accommodations in Ethiopia are remote and rustic at Lale Camp. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Chris Roche, Wild Expeditions
An ethnic Kara from the neighboring village of Dus, Birwa is fluent in many of the Lower Omo tribal languages and, from this comfortable base in Ethiopia’s cultural melting pot, excursions are made to the isolated villages inhabited by the Kara, Hamer and Mursi. people. The nearby village of Kara i Dus (one of only three villages belonging to the Kara people) is only a few minutes’ walk from Camp i Lale, with several isolated Hamar settlements further afield. Interacting with these fascinating people and learning about their culture and customs is a major focus of this camp. Meeting the Mursi people requires staying at an overnight fly camp far from the river, at a place where Mursi women collect clay to create their lip plates.
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Lale Camp is extremely remote and access is only possible by river after first driving or flying into southern Omo using the little-known Murule Airstrip (less than two hours flight from Addis Ababa on a private charter) . This remoteness is key to enabling exclusive access to the authentic tribal cultures of the lower Omo, such as Kara, Hamar, Mursi and Nyangatom, which makes for an unforgettable cultural experience.
An eye on sustainability
Roche explained that Wild Expeditions is extremely sensitive when organizing cultural encounters as decades of exploitative tourism have resulted in cultural degradation in the area. Wild Expeditions wants to serve as a catalyst for sustainable development in the region and empower local communities to make decisions about how to protect their livelihoods, cultures and futures.
But culture is not the only obstacle for the country. Although Ethiopia is not particularly known for its wildlife, it does have some unique wildlife experiences. Although the size of the wildlife populations does not rival other African destinations, Ethiopia’s parks more than make up for the loss with their high numbers of endemic wildlife and exceptional bird life.
The Ethiopian wolf is undoubtedly the country’s most iconic animal. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Chris Roche, Wild Expeditions
In the highlands of Ethiopia in the south of the country, travelers can go on an expedition to discover the Ethiopian wolf, perhaps the country’s most iconic animal. They are similar in build to a coyote and have a distinctive coat of red and white fur; a narrow, elongated head; a black, bushy tail; and pointed ears.
There are three strongholds of the Ethiopian wolf in the Bale Mountains on the southern side of the Ethiopian Rift Valley. The fragility of this Afro-Alpine Highland ecosystem and its inhabitants is such that the best way to access the best areas and not leave an impact is in a small mobile camp that is quickly packed and removed. Wild Expeditions tents are equipped with “safari showers” that are open to the sky.