Simon Wilson Stephens


Simon Wilson Stephens

Coffee, Christianity with a hot pinch of salt

Every now and then I look at a map of ‘Safari’ or ‘Travel’ Africa to see where I haven’t been. One country has been nagging me for a while. Ethiopia. Asking those that know the country well, where is Ethiopia similar to, the reply has often been “Nowhere. It’s unique. Go there and see why”.

My Pre-conceptions. I must confess I caught myself thinking back to 1984, Live Aid, Bob Geldof etc… but that reflects more how our memories work than what’s happening 'in the now'. I’ve often looked at photos of the churches dug into the rock and wondered how they made them and why in this part of Africa?

My First Impressions. I travelled to Ethiopia in February, during the dry season, a good time to visit. Flying into Addis Ababa and on to Bahir Dar beside Lake Tana I looked down below me. It was brown, dry and dusty. A rugged mountain terrain with small, scattered settlements. Ethiopia has one long rainy season from April to August (unlike East Africa which has two). I’m told though, when the rains arrive, the country is dramatically transformed. As though a vast green, lush blanket has been thrown over it.

I was in Ethiopia for 2 weeks. Never long enough but I managed to cover a lot of ground.


Christian Cities of the North - Axum, Lalibela, Gondar & Bahir Dar. Trekking in the Simien Mountains . Living geology on Erta Ale . Down to the Danakil Depression . Up with the birds in the Bale Mountains . Coffee & culture in Addis .


My Abiding Memories.

Axum. In the small chapel beside St Mary’s of Zion Church, they say the Ark of the Covenant is kept. You’re not allowed it to see it, but I believe them. There’s a deeply spiritual feeling about the place. Over the other side of the road you can see the Obelisk of Axum. 160 tonnes of granite dragged over 4 miles from its quarry back in 400AD. How on earth did they do that?

Lalibela. Sitting peacefully in the rock hewn Church of St George with my guide, Destaw and his father in traditional white robes, one of Lalibela’s longest serving priests.

Gondar. Who says they didn’t know how to design and construct buildings in Africa that last? Emperor Fasilides certainly knew what he was doing when he built this magnificent Castle back in the 1600s.

The Simien Mountains. Geladas are Old World monkeys and not, as I originally thought, a species of baboon. They look very similar but are less aggressive and more accepting of their human ‘cousins’. I sat amongst a group of over 200 for over an hour. Quietly watching them scratch around for food, groom each other and the young ones playing hide and seek.

Erta Ale. I’ve always been fascinated by volcanoes but never had the chance to look into a live one. With a days drive followed by a 3-hour walk in the dark it’s an effort to get to the top of Erta Ale. But well worth it as you peer over the edge into the crater. Baking hot, orange magma bubbles and ripples just metres below you. It’s a stark reminder you are standing in the middle of the Rift Valley which is still very much alive.

Danakil Depression. Next time I’m frustrated with work I’ll think of the Afar men digging for salt to make a living. 125 metres below sea level; the hottest inhabited place on earth; temperatures reach 55 degrees by 10am; these guys still use axes, wooden levers and hand chisels to carve 7kg blocks of salt from the ground. And then camels walk for 3 days to transport the salt to market. It’s anyone’s guess how long this method of mining will last, as a new tarmac road has just reached the lakeshore. But the Afar are well known for 'not doing change’...

Bale Mountains. Seeing 5 of this National Parks, 6 endemic bird species in just 24 hours. The Yellow-fronted parrot eluded me, but it’s always good to leave with a good reason to return.

Addis Ababa. Café, coffee culture doesn’t get much better than in this capital city. Ethiopia is where Coffea Arabica, the coffee plant, originates. According to legend, the 9th-century goat herder Kaldi discovered the coffee plant after noticing the energizing effect the plant had on his flock, but the story did not appear in writing until 1671. Be careful though. I had a coffee at 4pm in the afternoon and didn’t sleep a wink that night. It’s delicious, but very strong.

If you're interested in traveling to Ethiopia just give me a call - 01328 738 534 or send me an email We can create an itinerary that is tailor made for you.