Her bottom lip was ceremoniously split at her coming of age. Now, here she stands, gracefully inserting a 13cm decorative clay plate into the fold; elegantly displaying her timeless traditions and the mystical beauty of the Mursi tribeswomen. Protecting the clan, four tattooed tribesmen are armed with Kalashnikovs. (My own rifle-armed ranger accompanies me.) It’s a surreal sight but one that induces deep respect.
Driving through winding jungle paths deep into the unfurling expanse of tropical wildlife, there’s an unexpected bustle. A market is heaving with members of the Hamer tribe. Draped in mass multicoloured beads and fur-lined leather hides, breasts and backs are exposed. The sea of heads is an explosion of flame-red braids thickly coated in red soil and butter. Seeping onto foreheads and necks, the ochre paste melts beautifully into the starkly contrasting skin.
Travelling in the remote uncharted jungle territory that is southern Ethiopia’s Omo Valley in luxury may once have been a contradiction in terms. Yet modern-day Ethiopia enables a private tailored trip with driver, guide and Land Cruiser, sumptuous meals in spectacular locations and luxurious lodges. Far from the mass famine that blighted the landlocked nation in 1985, crippling Ethiopia’s image for decades to come, it is now becoming a magnet for intrepid and wealthy travellers with a spirit of adventure. Capital city Addis Ababa and southern city Bahir Dar are taking flight through foreign investment, technological advances and tourism. Yet Ethiopia’s real luxury is in its discretion. Hovering under the radar with a geographical location that throws most off the scent, its seclusion is a seduction.
Beautiful boutique lodges pepper the country. With a focus on natural materials they luxuriate in African nature at its truest. Aregash Lodge in Yirgalem features a handful of spacious Tukul hut-designed villas, cocooned within Sidama’s famous coffee plantations. I’m treated to a dawn trek through lush forest, leaping across a valley stream where locals bathe, to an impromptu football game with a village boy who beams in disbelief. Then back to the lodge for a breakfast of steaming hot porridge and spiced tea amid raucous birdsong and epic valley views.
Dissected by the Great Rift Valley, northern Ethiopia is wildly contrasting. Abundant in archaeological, cultural and natural riches, this is one of the African continent’s masked treasures. Awakening at a hilltop lodge, I have enviable views of a stellar sunrise over Aksum’s 1st century BC monolithic stone Stelae. A dawn stroll through town unearths a mystical procession of thousands bedecked in white scarves; an entire town marching to church. There, elders are deep in prayer and bells whistle in the wind while an Orthodox priest’s haunting Amharic chanting resounds. The iconic rock-hewn churches of Lalibela are a short flight from Aksum. The 12th century Church of St George appears as a Greek cross carved into enclosing rock below. Each church is laden with age-old religious manuscripts.
Another scene that’s changed little in millennia is the awe-inspiring Simien Mountains. They are a 600-million-year-old volcanic massif of deep gorges intermingling with brooding undulating peaks. Simien Lodge crowns the extensive summit. At the height of secluded wilderness for any bona fide explorer, trekking here is among the best in the world.
In contrast, it’s the stillness of Lake Tana, source of the Blue Nile, that’s captivating. I board a private boat to sail vast placid waters teeming with birdlife. Reclined on the shaded decking, a papyrus reed boat drifts past with a single fisherman rowing miles from land. Disembarking onto miniscule shrub-shrouded islands, churches from the 13–16th centuries are dispersed like hidden jewels on the waters. Each is embellished in vivid frescoes and priceless artefacts from the dawn of Christianity. Back ashore, Kuriftu Spa Resort is deluxe Ethiopia personified. Generous suites are replete with plush terrace day beds, sofas and log fires, offering sweeping lake vistas for sundowners. Its spa is a major pull as travel mileage is eased and knots kneaded by the best.
The select group of visitors to Ethiopia are granted access to an understated yet overwhelming experience, without a hint of mass tourism. In the travel world, that is luxury redefined.