If you only do one thing outside Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, do a trek with TESFA.
TESFA organises treks mainly in the mountains around Lalibela. You can choose the length of your trek, and they can arrange it to be easy or tough, depending on your fitness and appetite for exercise. You’ll be accompanied by a guide, based in Lalibela, and by donkeys to carry your bags.
TESFA has worked with villages to help them to build facilities for visitors. You’ll stay in comfortable tukuls in beautiful locations, and members of the local community will come along to cook dinner and breakfast for you, and they’ll be happy to talk to you over dinner. Most of the money you pay will go to the villages. It changes their lives, and it will change yours.
Comments from our friends
Trekking with TESFA is an extraordinary experience. It gives you a glimpse of northern rural Ethiopia, and combines access to local communities with walking in dramatically beautiful landscapes. I started my development career working in a remote area of Namibia, attempting to set up a community-based tourism enterprise, and I know just how difficult it is to achieve the right balance between cultural sensitivity, business success, and meeting the wierd and wonderful needs of tourists! TESFA does all of this admirably well. I have now done 2 treks with TESFA this year, and plan to keep going back.
You can trek for anything between 2 days and a week in the North Wollo region, and TESFA are in the process of adding new sites in Tigray. I would recommend at least 3 nights trek, and longer if possible – each camp is special in its own way – and they are all located in carefully chosen, incredible positions. There are easier routes (Mequat Mariam to Aterow) and then the more strenuous … with Abune Joseph being the toughest at the moment. The easier routes are suitable for a broad range of fitness, and TESFA regularly takes out children and older guests – it is not purely for the young and super fit! For those who tire, there is always the option of co-opting a 4 legged friend from one of the local communities – which the kids absolutely love.
In terms of equipment to take with you – good walking boots essential, plus comfortable practical clothing – and to be aware that sunburn is probably the most likely health issue you will confront, other than possible altitude sickness at the highest sites. A torch, warm clothing for the evenings, binoculars for the birdlife are also recommended.
All the TESFA guides are based in Lalibela and know the communities very well, and are a fantastic interface between you and the people you will meet at each site, and along the way for various food stops. The guides have been well trained to meet the needs of the tourists, and are very good at pacing the walking and judging various requirements. When I developed the first signs of altitude sickness going up to Abune Joseph, we stopped and I was given strong coffee (very helpful) and fine food.
The food is great – making the most of fantastic Ethiopian local produce, from coffee to honey to whatever is fresh and available. At some sites it is possible to buy a sheep for feasting in the evening, which is highly recommended for the carnivores, and is a nice way to enjoy a meal with those who work at the site. Tipping is of course an option, and you never feel as if its expected. The first time I went I wished that I had brought more cash with me, as I wanted to tip at each site.
In contrast to Juliet, I have had no problems at all with internal flights in Ethiopia. I have found Ethiopian Airlines to be efficient and reliable, and I have taken several flights in the last few months (to Lalibela and other towns).
The TESFA trek was absolutely superb. The guides, the scenery and locations, the food, the cosy tukuls – in short, everything. And hearing about how the local communities were using the income generated was fascinating and inspiring. If this were the only wonderful thing in Ethiopia (which it’s certainly not), it would be worth making the trip for. I went for two nights and wished I’d done three or four. One word of caution: friends who went a couple of months before me arranged to be met from Lalibella airport and driven straight to the trek. I made the same arrangement, only to have my flight deleyed by three hours and to find further, on arriving at Lalibella that the baggage had been taken off the plane at the half-way stop and we wouldn’t have it till the next day. Given that the trek site was a two-hour drive away, over unmade roads, I couldn’t just pop back to collect it the next day. In the event, it didn’t arrive until the next evening anyway. Luckily I was able to borrow a fleece and spare toothbrush from other guests. I think the lesson is that it is inadvisable to arrange to do something time critical within a few hours of being due to arrive on an internal flight. In fact I think (given the number of delayed/cancelled flights I had and heard about on my way round) I’d suggest that it’s safer to leave a day’s cushion between the scheduled landing time and anything time-critical. In my case, even this wouldn’t have been enough for my baggage (I was without it for 36 hours) but at least I wouldn’t have missed my first afternoon’s trekking.