Climatically speaking, the world media’s perception of Ethiopia as a land of famine gives rise to impressions of a country without rain, cover or waterways. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Ethiopia constitutes the bulk of the Horn of Africa, and as such spans subtropical and tropical east Africa. The Ethiopian section of the Great Rift Valley runs north-east to south-west, from Eritrea to northern Kenya’s Lake Turkana, and much of the country’s northern, western, central and southern areas are dominated by a series of highlands collectively known as the Ethiopian Plateau.
As a result of its position and its varied topography, Ethiopia’s climate varies – broadly speaking - from tropical in the north eastern lowlands and south eastern lowlands to temperate and cool in the highlands. Temperatures in the tropical lowlands average out at around 27°C, while those in the highlands are dependent on altitude, and range between 16 and 22°C.
In general, the further west one travels, the wetter it gets, with annual rainfall figures ranging from as low as 140mm in the north-east lowlands to in excess of 2300mm in the south-west. Seasonal rains in Ethiopia are largely provided by the Inter-tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), which migrates up and down equatorial Africa, bringing rain to the northern highlands in July and August, and to the central highlands between June and September. Known in Ethiopia as the Kiremt, these are the long rains, and areas affected receive between 200 and 1200 mm per year. Shorter, less consistent rains – the Belg - occur in parts of the south between March and May, and in parts of the northern and central highlands between February and May, and provide an annual rainfall of between 100 and 750 mm. As the ITCZ moves south, another set of short rains in the south - the Bega – sweep briefly across much of central and south-west Ethiopia, bringing to the area between 100 and 300mm annually.
In Ethiopia, this variation in climate is traditionally divided into three main climatic zones: dega, weyna dega and kolla. The first of these – dega – refers to coldish, less than temperate zones with altitudes ranging between 2,600 and 3,200m. The second zone – weyna dega – is warm, wet and lies below 2,600m. The last – kolla – is drier (and much warmer) than weyna dega, and can be found in areas such as the Rift Valley. In addition to these, travellers will occasionally come across bereha and worch, both of which refer to Ethiopia’s more extreme climatic zones, the first to the desert habitats that border Somalia and Djibouti, the second to afro-alpine areas above 3,200m.
Unlike the majority of countries on our portfolio, the effects of climate upon wildlife are not a major consideration when planning Ethiopian itineraries. Ethiopia is not a known wildlife destination. While it supports an extraordinary range of flora, from tropical forest to acacia spotted plains to alpine meadows, its wildlife populations have long been hunted out, or reduced by disease, and remaining species are low in volume and possibly – for first time visitors – not the species of animal one might expect to see in eastern Africa.
This said, Ethiopia is home to a number of endemic and rare species, including the mountain nyala, the walia ibex, African wild ass, healthy populations of gelada, the Ethiopian wolf Ethiopian, andsupports low numbers of leopard, spotted hyena, lion, cheetah even, elephant, giraffe, hippo and buffalo, as well as reasonably healthy populations of several species of antelope. Of all Ethiopia’s areas, it is South Omo that – wildlife speaking – is most affected by weather patterns, and here game is best seen during the dry season (July through to August and then December through to February), when cover is sparse and the main water sources permanent.
Nevertheless, not even South Omo is about its animals. Rather - like the rest of Ethiopia - it is first and foremost about its people, its traditions, its breathtaking scenery. In this sense, then, when we think of the climate, and of how it affects Ethiopian itineraries, we think about the mechanics of travel, about comfort, movement and scenery, and hardly at all about the movement of game. In doing so, the country is best divided into two destination blocks: the northern historical circuit and the south.
The first of these, the northern circuit, is best visited between October and March, when it is relatively dry and travel that much easier. However, experienced travellers will often visit during the rains. Like Philip Briggs, author of Bradt’s Ethiopia , they are attracted to the area’s off season beauty: ‘I actually feel the rainy season is my favourite period, partially because there are fewer tourists at Lalibela, but above all because the scenery is so much more impressive when the countryside is green and well watered.’
The second of these, the south, is further broken down into the south-east and the south west, the Rift Valley constituting the topographical break between the highlands and the more arid habitats of the south, with altitudes well below 1500, the only anomalies being, first, a ridge of uplands lining the southern side of the Rift Valley and, second, the Bale Mountains.
If you are thinking of travelling east of Addis Ababa, then you will need to prepare for an increasingly arid habitat, a habitat that culminates - slightly north of the Rift Valley - in the Danakil Desert, where monthly precipitation levels flatline at around 40mm, and temperatures reach well into the top forties. The Danakil Desert and the borderlands south of Djibouti are best visited between November and March.
Meanwhile south proper - a great tract of land stretching south-west from Addis to the border town of Omorate in the South Omo Valley, fanning east between the Rift Valley and the borders with Kenya and Somalia, and finishing in Ogaden - is best visited during its two dry seasons, from June through to September, and between November and March.