Wild Photography Holidays - Photographic Adventure Travel: Northern Ethiopia – Holy Festivals in the Roof of Africa with Chris Roche


Northern Ethiopia – Holy Festivals in the Roof of Africa with Chris Roche

Highlights include…

  • Timkat Festival at Bahir Dar
  • The Simien Mountains UNESCO
  • Wildlife including Gelada Baboons
  • Axum, the capital of an ancient empire UNESCO
  • The Royal Enclave of Gondar UNESCO
  • Birdlife including the Lammergeier
  • Lalibela, the centre of pilgrimage and a dozen underground churches UNESCO
  • Traditional villages off the beaten track
  • Lake Tana source of the Blue Nile
  • Ancient monasteries
  • The largest street market in East Africa
  • Stunning desert-scapes
  • Gherlata Mountains
  • Hidden cave churches
  • Local festivals

General Summary

Our exciting new Africa holiday takes us through 4 UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the Rock Hewn Churches of Lalibela, the ancient city of Axum, the Simien Mountains and the Royal Enclosure of Gondar. As well as these unique sites we will explore traditional villages off the beaten track locations and photograph a variety of wildlife including the Gelada baboons. We have chosen January for this tour as it is one of the best months to visit Ethiopia with warm, sunny weather, low rainfall and the dates coincide with many celebrations and local festivals. We will witness Ethiopians dressed in their finest traditional costumes, laying on lavish feasts to pray and give thanks during this time. The holy festivals often last two or three days and pilgrims flock to religious sites in their thousands during the festival period, using every available method of transport to get there.

The Northern Highlands of Ethiopia are as old as history and the birthplace of coffee! The country has spent much of its past in isolation, and it is culturally, historically and linguistically quite different from the rest of Africa. It was only country in the continent never to be colonised. It is often difficult to separate history from myth in Ethiopia, for example it is said to have been founded by Etiopik, the great grandson of Noah and a dynasty of rulers followed, the greatest being the Queen of Sheba who travelled to Jerusalem to meet King Solomon, bringing with her great treasures.Traditions, unchanged since biblical times, continue to take place across ancient landscapes.This is also home to three million year old Lucy, the oldest fossilised human skeleton.Throughout the tour we will stay in lovely hotels that are all well placed for our photographic locations.

Photographic Guide

Chris Roche has spent the last five years working on ‘Devotion’ a project exploring ancient and disappearing faith traditions around the world, and has published two books on the theme, one of these is about Ethiopia
View a short introductory video of Chris on youtube…

Brief Itinerary

For full details please download the trip description PDF

Day 1: Addis Ababa (2355m)

Today we arrive Addis Ababa, the fourth highest capital in the world. A transfer to the hotel is included. 
You will have the option to explore the city before we meet in the evening, this could include one of Africa’s largest street markets, a wild and sensory photographic introduction to Ethiopia! For those that enjoy a more tranquil start to their journey the Holy Trinity Cathedral is an interesting photographic possibility. We will meet at the hotel around 18:00 for introductions, a trip briefing followed by dinner.
Capital Hotel (B,L,D)

Day 2,3: Bahir Dar and Lake Tana (1800m)

After breakfast we take the short flight to Bahir Dar, a city resting on Lake Tana and home to many medieval monasteries. We are here to experience and photograph the Timkat festival which celebrates the baptism of Jesus. This is one of the most vibrant and important festivals in the Orthodox calendar. The festivities begin on the Eve of Timkat with colourful processions and ceremonies. A myriad of traditional dishes are prepared, the customary beverages Tella and Tej are brewed and a special bread called ‘Ambasha’ is baked. Sheep will also be slaughtered to mark this grand three-day celebration.

Lake Tana itself boasts picture perfect azure waters fringed by lush tropical vegetation, it is Ethiopia’s largest body of water and the principal source of the Blue Nile. Serviced by the attractive lakeshore port of Bahir Dar, which doubles as the regional capital, the lake is important thanks to its rich birdlife, a wealth of historic island monasteries and its proximity to the Blue Nile Falls, ranking among the most spectacular in Africa when they are in full flow. During our first afternoon we will sail across the lake by boat following a flotilla carrying the holy ‘Tabots’ from churches to their resting places, a unique and striking photographic opportunity.

On our second day after a morning lakeside sunrise, we will head across Lake Tana to the forested Zege Peninsula where we visit a remote monastery founded in the 6th Century. Of all the monasteries, Ura Kidhane Mihret is reputed to be the most beautiful and it sits in the heart of a glade surrounded by a forest of coffee trees. There’s a certain whimsical style to the spiritual paintings in Ethiopian monasteries giving them an almost child like charm. During our return boat journey we will photograph the abundant birdlife, vervet monkeys and locals making papyrus canoes We will also glide by the source of the Blue Nile and possibly see hippos wallowing in the lake before returning to our base. We will stay for two nights in a beautifully located hotel with its own swimming pool overlooking the lake.
Kuriftu Resort (B,L,D)

Day 4,5: Simien Mountains (3200m)

This morning we make the spectacular drive to the striking Simien mountains with a stop in Gondar for lunch. Along the way we will photograph some of the various festivities celebrating St Mikael’s day. The National Park is an exotic setting with breath-taking views on a landscape shaped by nature and traditional agriculture. Ethiopians know the Simien area as the roof of Africa, it is an awesome afro-alpine plateau of grassy meadows and ericaceous moorlands rising to the lofty heights of Ethiopia’s highest mountain, Mount Ras Dejen 4,533m. The Simien mountains abound with deep gorges and precipitous cliffs, some as high as 1500m, created by millions of years of erosion. The range and its national park are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Free from light pollution the mountains offer a great opportunity us to shoot the African night sky and experiment with astrophotography.

For biologists, this area is the most important biodiversity hotspot in northern Ethiopia, it is populated by an alluring wealth of endemic plants and animals. There will be opportunities to photograph wildlife such as the imperious Walia Ibex, the golden-maned Gelada Baboon and perhaps a sighting of the rare Ethiopian wolf. Birders and photographers know this area as the best place in the world to see the mighty Lammergeier (Bearded Vulture) which is regularly seen soaring overhead displaying its 2-meter wingspan.

The traditional lifestyle of the rural population and their survival in a rather harsh climate with scarce natural resources make for some striking photographic impressions. A forty five minutes hike from our hotel we encounter the village of Limalimo where we will experience and photograph rural Ethiopian life including traditional beer brewing, cooking, bee keeping and coffee making. incidentally the coffee in Ethiopia is renowned. Our beautiful accommodation for the two night stay in the Simien Mountains is exclusive and perched on an edge of a cliff with panoramic views over pristine and untouched nature.
Limalimo Lodge (B,L,D)

Day 6,7: Gondar National Park (2133m)

This morning we will continue exploring the Simien Mountains and enjoy lunch at the hotel before driving back through to Gondar where we will check into our hotel. Street and architecture photography will be our focus for the afternoon as we walk around the town experiencing the local life, children returning home from schools and photographing the legacy of Mussolini’s Abyssinian adventures in the art deco architecture. In the evening’s light we can wander out of town to ‘King Fasilidas’ a ceremonial bath complex surrounded by lush vegetation.

Following breakfast on our second day we will head out to visit the key sites of this ancient capital including the Debre Birhan Selassie church (Light of Trinity) with its wonderful murals. We’ll also visit the Royal Enclosure, a UNESCO Site with its medieval castles which are all architecturally unique and unlike anything else found in Sub-Saharan Africa. A walled compound that dominates the city centre, its high enclosure walls contain six castles and a myriad of tunnels and raised walkways. Here we see Fasilida’s Castle, the most impressive in the complex, the Royal Archive building, and also three churches.
Gondar Hills Lodge (B,L,D)

Day 8,9: Lalibela (2,630m)

This morning we fly to Lalibela, also known as the ‘New Jerusalem’. The small town of Lalibela is home to one of the world’s most astounding sacred sites, it is the spiritual heartland for Ethiopian Christianity, a place a place of pilgrimage and devotion and historically fascinating. In the 12th century the Christian King of Lalibela ordered the building of a second Jerusalem on Ethiopian soil when the original was captured in a 1187 AD raid by a Muslim faction. The result of his vision is eleven interconnected churches carved into the rose-gold mountain rocks and dug into the ground by hand, an extraordinary feat with or without the angels that, legend has it, lent a hand.

These churches are perfectly preserved today, both delicate and monumental, impossible to detect at a distance but utterly majestic up close. These ages old structures are central to the spiritual life of the Ethiopia. Situated amongst the craggy slopes of Ethiopia’s northern highlands they are surely one of the great wonders of the world and have been compared favourably to Machu Picchu but without the tourists! They are carved straight out of the rock at ground level, rather than built upwards, some are more than ten metres deep and decorated in intricate detail. Bet Medhane Alem is the largest monolithic church in the world and many of the churches are connected by a warren of tunnels clustered into two groups on either side of the River Jordan, each is quite different in design and character. We will spend two days exploring the churches and the surrounding villages where traditional life is vibrant and intrinsically woven into the daily rituals and spirituality of the churches. The traditional villages are well known for their unusual two-story round stone houses with thatch roofs.
Tukul Village Hotel (B,L,D)
http://mountainview-hotel.com/standard-double-room/ an alternative

Day 10: Axum (2131m)

This morning we will walk up to the Lalibela churches before sunrise to hear the haunting singing and chanting together with some energetic ceremonial dancing which is all part of the celebration of Sebara Atsimu Giorgis.

Following breakfast we fly to Axum. The ruins of this ancient city are found close to Ethiopia’s northern border. They mark the location of the heart of ancient Ethiopia when the Kingdom of Aksum was the most powerful state between the Eastern Roman Empire and Persia. In command of the ivory trade with Sudan, its fleets controlled the Red Sea trade through the port of Adulis and the inland routes of North Eastern Africa. Axum is believed to be the ancient site of the Queen of Sheba’s palace and today still makes claim to be the final resting place of the Ark of the Covenant. The massive ruins, dating from between the 1st and the 13th century A.D. include monolithic obelisks, giant stelae, royal tombs and the ruins of ancient castles. Long after its political decline in the 10th century, Ethiopian emperors continued to be crowned in Aksum. We will spend the afternoon exploring this magnificent area.
Atranos Hotel (B,L,D) (the reviews for this hotel are not great?)

Day 11,12: Gheralta & Tigray Mountains

Today we drive through the Adwa Mountains to the Gheralta region which is a magnificent desert like landscape, often resembling Monument Valley in the USA. It is the home to innumerable mountain top monasteries and the iconic hidden cave churches. As we make our way across the valleys it is not uncommon to be invited to a wedding, there seems to be rather a lot of these. We have two days to explore the region taking in the area’s majestic landscape at both sunrise and sunset. We will visit hidden churches housing reclusive priests in seemingly impossible locations. The energetic will walk to visit the isolated churches of Daniel and Miriam Korkor, both sit atop a steep rock offering astounding views with fine paintings. This location is very rewarding and quite an adventure.

Our accommodation for the two nights is Korkor, a newly established eco-lodge. It is situated next to the traditional village of Megab and within close range to many of the historic, archaeological and traditional cultural locations. The Lodge offers a dash of luxury in the heart of the Tigray mountains with marvellous vistas of the Gheralta Escarpment and surrounding mountains.
Korkor Lodge (B,L,D)

Day 13: Fly to Addis Ababa 2355m

This morning, our last in the Tigray we rise early for sunrise in the mountains to witness the Asteryo Mariam an annual celebration that takes place at one of the most accessible and rewarding locations in the area. Here we will witness swelling numbers of pilgrims, priests and musicians as they sing, dance and drum their way through this deeply moving celebration. Following breakfast we will check out of our hotel to take a leisurely drive visiting other worthwhile locations en route to Mekelle the economic, cultural and political hub of Northern Ethiopia. Here we take the short flight back to Addis Ababa where we will celebrate our adventure and present some of our favourite images to each other.

Capital Hotel (B,L,D)

Day 14: Departure

This morning there will be an included transfer to the international airport for homeward flights. WPH services finish at the airport.

Joining Arrangements and Transfers

Participants generally arrive at different times since they will book their own flights. The first-night hotel in Addis Ababa will be available for check-in at midday on Day 1. If participants arrive several hours before this, they may prefer us to book them in for an extra night in order to get some valuable rest. Please ask us if you would like us to book an extra night for you.

What’s Included

  • All meals
  • 4 Internal flights
  • All accommodation
  • An English-speaking Ethiopian guide
  • Private vehicles for transport in country
  • Photography tutor
  • All entrance & camera fees, except for video equipment
  • Transfers to and from the international airports of Addis Ababa on Day 1&14
  • All internal transfers

What’s not Included

  • International flights
  • Travel and medical insurance
  • Alcoholic beverages, soft drinks, snacks between meals
  • Tips for local staff
  • Ethiopian visa


Our accommodation hotels/lodges are all of a good standard with private bathrooms. We have chosen accommodation carefully to allow us both access to some exciting locations and peaceful retreats from the vibrant hustle and bustle of daily life Ethiopia. All accommodation is allocated on a twin-sharing basis. If you are travelling by yourself, you will be paired up with another single client of the same sex. If you wish to have a room to yourself, ask us about the single-room supplement fee.


Ethiopian and western continental-type food will be available. The standard of Ethiopian cuisine will be of a good standard and is often nicely spiced. We will always take care to eat in establishments that have a high standard of hygiene. Bottled water is readily available.

Complete Itinerary and Full Details

This page is only a brief summary. A complete itinerary and more details can be found in our trip description PDF
It is important that you read this full day-to-day description and further information for this holiday before making your booking.