Adventure: Trekking, Rock-climbing, Caving, and Ballooning

There are many possibilities for trekking in Ethiopia, here are four.

A. The Simien Mountains present perhaps the most dramatic mountain scenery in Africa – great volcanic plugs, formed some 40 million years and eroded over the aeons into fantastic crags, pinnacles and flat topped mountains, “the chess pieces of the Gods” as one writer described them, tower over precipitous gorges, river valleys and plains stretching all the way to Eritrea. There are many peaks over 4000 meters, and Ras Dashen at 4550 meters in the highest in the country and the fourth highest in Africa. While trekking in the Simiens visitors can see the endemic Gelada or bleeding heart monkey, the Walia Ibex, Simien Wolf or Ethiopian Wolf and rock hyrax, endemic birds such as the Thick-billed Raven, Black-headed Siskin, White-collared Pigeon, Wattled Ibis, White-billed Starling, Spot-breasted Plover and White-backed Black Tit, cruising Lammergeyer with their 3 meter wingspan and Afro – Alpine meadows carpeted with flowers and punctuated by the tall spiky kniphofia or “red hot pokers”. You can go in for a day, or go the whole hog and climb Ras Dashen – it is not a technical climb and no special climbing ability is needed. Mules can carry you and your luggage for most of the way. If you are interested in climbing Africa’s fourth highest mountain, Ras Dashen (4550 meters), you should allow eight days in and out. The Simien Mountains can easily be combined with a tour on the Historic Route. Visitors with little time can fly from Addis Ababa to Gondar, some 100 km from the entrance to the park at Debark. For those who do not like camping, there are lodges inside the park near Sankaber and just past Debark town on the way to Limalimo.

B. Good trekking itineraries, by horse or on foot, can also be made in the Bale Mountains National Park, an area of high altitude plateau, with volcanic crags and lakes, forests, alpine moor land, trout filled streams and a striking variety of fauna and flora. Several endemic mammals, including the Mountain Nyala, Simien Wolf and Menelik’s Bushbuck, are found within the park, while 16 endemic bird species have been recorded. In the Harenna Forest in the southern part of the park there are leopards and lions, although the dense forest makes spotting animals difficult. A one-day excursion from Goba (by car) takes the visitor to the fantastic underwater river and caves of Sof Omar. Since it takes one day to get to Bale from Addis Ababa, a minimum of 4 days should be allowed.There is now the very comfortable Bale Mountains Lodge, situated just south of Rira Village at the edge of the Harenna Forest, which can be used as a base for visiting the park.

C. Down in the south, on the west bank of the Omo River are found the Surma, who like some of their cousins on the eastern bank go in for body painting and (the women) wearing lip plates. This is an opportunity to see unspoiled wilderness, a variety of game, more than 300 bird species and of course the Surma people themselves, their rituals, dance and stick fighting. (NB Stick fighting has now been classified as a Harmful Traditional Practice, and it is no longer possible for tourists to attend “donga” or stick fighting.) A minimum of 1 week should be allowed. It takes 2 days by road to where the trek can be started.

D. Village to village trekking: in recent years trekking routes have been established which take visitors from village to village, inside the villages special huts have been set up for tourists. Popular routes are around Lalibela and in the Gheralta region of Tigray – contact us for more details.

Rock climbing is not an indigenous sport, but there are excellent sites in Tigray which have been visited in recent years by rock climbing enthusiasts. In the last few years paragliders have found excellent flying in Ethiopia. Caving is similarly not practiced in Ethiopia, but groups from the University of Huddersfield in UK have discovered vast cave complexes in Harerghe, in the east of the country.

White water rafting is generally done on the Blue Nile near Bahir Dar (a few days), along the Omo River (the whole stretch can take up to a month) and on the Awash River (one or two days). Specialized expeditions have tackled other rivers, including the Tekezze, the Beshilo and the Baro. Rafting can only be done at certain times of the year, after the rains, and needs to be set up well in advance. Currently, no company in Ethiopia has the equipment or expertise to mount a rafting expedition – all equipment would need to be brought in.

Caving is similarly not practiced in Ethiopia, but groups from the University of Huddersfield in UK have discovered vast cave complexes in Harerghe, in the east of the country. Now Ethiopia has its own expert speleologist, Nasir Ahmed, who has studied 321 of Oromia’s natural caves, has uploaded 200 maps on Google maps and written a 360 page book titled Caves in Oromia.

The cave system at Sof Omar, formed by the Web River as it goes underground, is said to be the biggest in Africa and one of the biggest in the world. Its passages extend for a total of 16 km, although the route normally taken by visitors covers 1.7 km and can be covered in an hour.

Local people worshipped animist deities and spirits here long before the arrival of Islam, and traces of these influences and beliefs persist till today in the various ceremonies and sacrifices carried out around the cave entrances.

Sheikh Safiyullah Omar, disciple and nephew of Sheikh Hussain, the 11th century Muslim missionary, established his mission in the caves, whose beauty it was felt, attested to the greatness of Allah. The main entrance to the caves, Ayyo Makko, is named after Sheikh Safiyullah Omar’s daughter.

The little village of Sof Omar, located above the entrance to the caves, is 120 km from Goba along a dirt road the condition of which varies according to the season and to whether maintenance has been effected after the rains. Wildlife in the area include dik dik, lesser kudu, serval cat, giant tortoises and rock hyrax, while more than 50 species of birds have been recorded in the area, including Banded Barbets, Brown Tailed Chat, Bristle Crowned Starling, Pied Fly Catcher, Pygmy Kingfisher, 5 species of honey guides, 5 species of woodpecker, 5 species of hornbill and the Lead Coloured Fly catcher.
Inside the caves themselves there are fish, crustaceans, and plenty of bats. Crocodiles are found in the Web River, but do not seem to live in the caves.

You need a guide, a map and some good torches to explore the caves, but no other special equipment is necessary. One of the most striking features of the cave system is the Chamber of Columns, where limestone pillars soar up to 20 metres as in some ancient temple. Another is the Great Dome, where the roof is 50 metres high. Generally, the shapes and colour of the rocks and pillars and the sound of the river as it makes its way through the subterranean passages makes the trip a special and unique experience.


It is now possible to book balloon flights over the countryside near Addis Ababa, and this service will soon be extended to other sites in the country.