3,000 years of history in Ethiopia

Nowhere else south of the Sahara can you be immersed in such a rich tapestry of history than in Ethiopia. Since the royal visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon, a dynasty has ruled this nation, and this year I was back exploring some of the country’s most impressive ancient heritage. 

The towering sandstone cliffs and pillars surrounding the town of Gheralta, in the Tigray highlands of the north east, offer many of the most incredible scenes and historically significant archeology in Ethiopia. Housed within these mountain retreats are monasteries dating back to the 4th century, complete with original scripts and biblical scenes painted using natural berry and flower pigments. Orthodox priests maintain their epic vigil and religious routines, hermit-like on the tops of the cliffs. 

The monasteries are typically only accessible by foot and a visit often entails some quite strenuous hiking up the well-worn trails, where centuries of pious footfalls have left a sheen on the stony paths. It’s a stunning place to walk and to witness a special panoramic majesty. We admired the detail and rigor of the artists and engineers who crafted these structures over 1,000 years ago. Going in by helicopter allowed us to visit more churches in a shorter space of time, and also to access several that were completely off the beaten track. This flying with Phil Mathews, pilot extraordinaire, who knows every inch of this country, has to be some of the most breathtakingly beautiful on the continent.

I also finally got to the infamous Danakil Depression in June. Sitting below sea level, with its lava flows and salt caravans, the Danakil Depression is one of the harshest yet most spectacular habitats in Africa. Visiting here, we quickly understood why the Danakil tribesmen are undoubtedly some of the hardiest folks around.

By helicopter, we swept in over the kaleidoscopic mineral-stained earth, landing at several locations where it seemed the very core of the planet was bubbling to the surface. Volcanic flows that had remained for millennia beneath the Red Sea now simmer away in this most dramatic, blistered terrain. We found the salt-miners hauling out their bounty, and seeing them load their camels in this timeless way was moving. I wondered how few people in the interior of this country knew what it took to bring this cherished flavoring to their tables, and noted how almost unchanged this activity had remained for millennia.

The Lion King – in Kenya and in New York City

It’s 2am and from my bedroom here in my Mara home I hear the lion roaring. There is no other sound that evokes such a primeval sense within us; a reminder that this is an animal for whom primates are on the menu. Having spent countless hours over the past 25 years watching these apex predators, I now imagine this one, patrolling his or her territory in the African darkness, and feel privileged to live here where the wild things still roam free.

There is something about “Simba”, the largest of our big cats, that mesmerizes us. Ever since humans could record their feelings, lions have featured in our art, as evidenced by the life-size cave lions drawn in the 28,000 year old paintings at Grotte Chauvetin in France (https://www.ancient.eu/Chauvet_Cave/).

Today, we photograph, study, listen to, and watch these magnificent beasts; the fascination continues no matter where we are. Last month, in the heart of New York City and far from our home in Kenya, we took Ollie and Halina to see The Lion King on Broadway and at the movie theater. The artistry and storytelling inspired by our feared and revered feline friends are truly things to wonder at – although we still think the hyenas got a raw deal!

Over the years, I’ve been so privileged to share the joy of my guests when they see their first wild lion. Of all the places in lion country, the Masai Mara in particular is perhaps the ultimate location for spending time with lions. In Amboseli, as the local lion population has increased over the past decade, we’ve also had outstanding experiences in our private conservancy there, Kitirua. This lion recovery has been aided significantly by the fantastic conservation work being done by our friends at the Lion Guardians program. Recently, several of my safaris have had the special opportunity to visit the Lion Guardians camp in Amboseli and get some insights into how this unique and dynamic project operates. You can learn more about their work here (http://lionguardians.org).

My own safari work, as well as Steph’s carnivore research, have enabled me to learn so much about lions and the immense challenges humans face living alongside lions in the 21st century living. Sharing ideas and discussing issues related to lion conservation can bring even more to the experience of seeing one of the most impressive wild animals on the planet, which in turn will help us conserve lions, and be inspired by them, for generations to come.

Photos by Max Melesi, taken on safari with me in June, 2019.