Off to Ethiopia in a couple of days. This trip, 28 days, of which 16 will be spent in Ethiopia and 8 in Kenya's Masai Mara, was fun to put together and is a wonderful example of changing horses in mid-stream and surviving the swap. When we traveled in South Africa 2 years ago we knew that we wanted to return to africa and left the idea to marinate while we got on with other things. However when Aeroplan issued its misguided policy change that required airline travel points to be used within 7 years of issuance or lose them, we were forced to act. Between us, we had over 400,000 points that were issued more than 7 years prior to the policy start date and they would all have been lost had they not been used by the end of 2013 and so last winter, with some urgency, we began to think about what a trip would look like.
We knew that we wanted to see the Serengeti and/or the Masai Mara but didn't know much more than that, so back to Susie and Rich Prangley at African Avenue who had done such a fabulous job of planning our South African trip. Susie, in the final stages of pregnancy with their first babe, put a trial itinerary together which had us renting a car and self-driving through Namibia and then flying to Kenya for some time in the Serengeti. Lots left to be decided and many details to be worked out but it felt as if the skeleton was workable and we were comfortable that with some fine-tuning we could build a good working plan. Our tickets had to be booked by Dec 31 in order to use aeroplan points but when I learned that the trip could be taken after Dec 31 as long as the tickets were booked prior to that date, time pressures ceased to be a problem. Then a monkey wrench in the works.
We were invited by a very good friend to dinner and a talk by Naomi Duguid, an intrepid traveler, photographer and cookbook author who has written a number of fabulous cookbooks chronicling her travels and built around local recipes. We have collected them all; Hot Sour Salty Sweet: A Culinary Journey Through South-East Asia; Seductions of Rice; Flatbreads and Flavors; Mangoes and Curry Leaves; and Beyond the Great Wall: Recipes and Stories from the Other China. So when we were invited to hear her talk about her latest book, Burma: Rivers of Flavor, we were very much looking forward to it since we have traveled to Burma a number of times over the last 15 years, loved it and were keen to hear her talk about her experiences.
I was fortunate to be seated next to her at dinner and we had an interesting conversation about places that we had been and places that we would still like to get to. I then asked her the fateful question; "Where in Africa are you most attracted to as a place to visit or re-visit?" and her answer naturally was... Ethiopia. She had visited it and was glowing in her praises of the country and the people. She went on to say that she had not spent as much time as she would have liked and would love to get back and spend more time. I gathered that it ticked all her boxes; geographically diverse country; fascinating peoples; long, rich history; very rich cultures; not yet westernized; and in the throes of change. A place to be seen, much like Burma, sooner rather than later. The damage was done and our previous ideas about our trip flew out the window, now replaced by Ethiopia.
Susie was very gracious about the change of plans and while pleased to try and help, had not worked in that part of the world and so tried to find someone for us who was more knowledgable about the region. This process took some months as we dug around to try and find someone who knew the region well and with whom we felt comfortable. At the same time V found a photographic safari run by David Lloyd, a very well-known wildlife photographer. He was planning to run a couple of week-long safaris out of a small tented camp in the Masai Mara, limited to only 6 people, and intended for photographers. The timing was perfect, March 2014, and he had 2 spots still available which we immediately grabbed. So, we have a week in the Masai Mara for the last week in March and V's mother's 101'st birthday on March 3, which we absolutely can't miss, bracketing the front of the trip. We needed to create an Ethiopian itinerary between the birthday and March 22 when we meet David Lloyd in Nairobi.
Our research to find a travel planner who knew the region quickly fell into two piles, travel organizers who were located in the UK or North America who were reported to be reliable, with good reputations and who were available for phone chats to discuss plans and itineraries and planners who were resident in Addis Ababa, were not easily available from NA but would be from Ethiopia and who did not have the references and marketing machinery of the UK/NA companies. I put together a trial itinerary with locations and hotels based on TripAdvisor suggestions and asked a couple of UK/NA companies to quote on the cost of booking a car and driver for the trip and reserving rooms in the hotels on my sample itinerary. I also spent some time digging around on TripAdvisor for recent travellers to Ethiopia to get some idea of their experiences and narrowing down the list of Ethiopian-located travel organizers who seemed to get the best reviews and highest ratings. I then submitted my trial itinerary to a short-list of these and asked them to quote on the trip.
Not surprisingly there was a significant gap between the Ethiopian and the UK/NA quotes but more surprising was the size of the gap. For the exact same hotels and level of service, all with local cars and drivers, the difference between the two sets of quotes was on average between 30% and 40% more to book through UK/NA firms. At that point it was a no-brainer and so we are going with a company called Amazing Ethiopia which seems to be highly thought of by TripAdvisor travellers.
Here's our itinerary. The Classic Historic route and the Omo valley
By coincidence a couple with whom we are friends has recently returned from an Ethiopian trip whose itinerary shared some of the same components as ours. They could not say enough good things about their trip and spoke very highly of their guide who they thought made all the difference in creating a really worthwhile experience which allowed them to feel that they were more involved and closer to the cultures than would have otherwise been the case. I got in touch with the folks at Amazing Ethiopia and since their guide was freelance, they made arrangements to have him be the guide for our trip. So on Tuesday, off on the start of the adventure and really looking forward to it!
Special thanks to Naomi Duguid for lighting the fire and inspiring the trip and to Eleanor and Diane, the recently returned travellers, for their help and advice.