African Dawns
Locals with Tony Evans, near Blue Nile Falls, near Bahir Dar, Ethiopia.

There are many dawns in Africa. There is the dawn that creeps over a valley of mist in Ethiopia on a still morning with only the bray of a donkey, chanting from 1000-year-old rock-hewn churches and the echo of the very beginning of the human species.

There is this dawn in Rwanda - more like someone just switched a light on - as we gather ready to trek into the mountains to see gorillas in their natural habitat. To see hands and fingernails, so like our own, their patience, and a glance that might be taken for recognition.

But strongest of all, perhaps, is the sense of political and historical dawn in all three of the countries included in Travel Directors' 28-day African Dawn tour.

For the journey starts in Uganda, travels on through Rwanda and culminates with most of its time in Ethiopia. Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia. It's too easy to play "word association" . . .

Uganda and Idi Amin and his atrocious rule in the 1970s; Rwanda and the genocide of 1994; Ethiopia and famines, particularly that of the mid-1980s, and 2003.

It shouldn't be so. Each country is well removed from these events, and they are arguably among the most stable of the 54 individualistic and distinctive countries of the African Union. Uganda, Rwanda and Ethiopia are examples of the dawn rising across that continent.

But tell people you are going on holiday to any of them, and the reaction is likely to be surprise. Say you're going to all three and it's probably seen as a leap of faith.

It is a leap taken by the 17 travellers on the tour - some from WA, all from Australia. They range from a well-travelled woman in her 20s to twin sisters in their 30s, plenty in their 60s and 70s, with the oldest an admirably robust and generous 82-year-old.

But their confidence in Travel Directors, and particularly tour designer and leader Tony Evans, is well placed, as these countries feel far removed from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade warnings for them. Tony knows how Africa works, and knows how to connect with local people who can make it work for travellers - particularly guides and organisers like Osborn Shedruch Kinene in Rwanda and Firew Ayele in Ethiopia.

It is expertise well paid for, along with Tony's research trips to plan and finely time the itinerary.

The travellers are a good bunch. There are two married couples. Some individuals have travelled together a number of times before - even living in different States and not seeing each other between holidays together, twin-sharing a room. There's a solo traveller in her own room. There are retirees from farms and business, and a coterie of teachers both working and retired - almost half the group, in fact.

In Uganda, the trip had started with three nights on the shores of Lake Victoria, then two in Queen Elizabeth National Park, with its hippos, crocodiles and birdlife.

From Entebbe, there's a flight to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda.

A couple of hours' drive out of the safe city, on smooth roads and past gardens that grow vegetables, in a cropped landscape of potatoes and pyrethrum, and it seems completely clean of rubbish and, indeed, once a month all Rwandans come out to clean their country, including, locals tell me, cabinet ministers and the president. Plastic bags are banned.

We are now at the appropriately named Mountain View Gorilla Lodge, with its rustic individual cottages and sitting area with a big open fire, ready to set out to the mountain gorillas. Ten families of gorillas can be visited by a maximum of eight people, and then for only an hour, so as to not interrupt them too much. It's well managed and organised and some of the US$750 ($820) goes back to the community, giving it income from conservation.

Visiting the gorillas in Volcanoes National Park is, to a large extent, what Rwanda is known for now - a bright and sustainable future.

But back in safe and spotless Kigali, the dark past is confronted. Tony and Osborn call the group together in the comfortable Kigali Serena Hotel, where we're staying, and tell how, during 100 days in 1994, up to a million Tutsi people died at the hands of militant Hutus in a planned genocide. Prepared, the group then visits the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre and other sites, and there's dinner at Hotel des Mille Collines, the hotel on which the movie Hotel Rwanda was based. Hotelier Paul Rusesabagina protected 1200 people throughout the 100 days. There were some rays of light in the dark days, and it has left the Rwandan leadership intolerant of corruption and crimes against women.

Time to change country, and the group flies on to Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. These are short hops - it's a couple of hours from Entebbe in Uganda to Kigali, and two-and-a-half on to Addis.

The flight, along with all the internal flights in Ethiopia (all between 40 and 90 minutes), are with Ethiopia Airlines - all internal flights are in the good Bombardier Dash 8.

Baggage handling is a feature of the trip. In moving between places, the travellers generally put their bags outside the door at one hotel and the next time they see them, they're in the room of the next hotel. Tony sets out early to airports and goes through the formalities of group check-in before his guests arrive.

Addis starts with a simple insight - up on Mt Entoto, looking down on the city, watching some of perhaps five million donkeys pass with their loads of wood.

We see Emperor Haile Selassie's tomb in Holy Trinity Cathedral, which played its part in the 1935-1941 Italian occupation of Ethiopia, and is still very much a focal point of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

But the African Dawn tour is timed to coincide with Timket - the celebration of Epiphany to commemorate the baptism of Jesus Christ in the Jordan River.

The group leaves the swish Hilton Addis Hotel in the dark, and as the African dawn begins to colour the sky, is already ensconced in the centre compound where the most senior clerics of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church bless water that is then pumped over a crowd of thousands of believers. Christianity was officially accepted as the country's religion in AD340 - a long and intense history.

And yet, the National Museum of Ethiopia in Addis is also the home of the oldest examples of our ancestors - the skeletal remains of Lucy, a hominid which lived 3.2 million years ago, and Ardi, 4.4 million years ago, both found in Ethiopia.

Creationism and evolutionism side by side.

A short flight to Bahir Dar and we are at the rustically swish Kuriftu Resort and Spa, on the banks of Lake Tana - more than 80km by 60km and nearly 1800m above sea level.

One of the features of the tour is that travellers see the sources of both the White and Blue Nile rivers. As part of their economic dawn, Ethiopians like Firew have willingly contributed towards the building of the biggest dam in Africa, in a deep rocky section of the Blue Nile, which is 26 per cent complete and will, they say, produce 7000 megawatts of electricity - three times Ethiopia's needs, so plenty to export, initially to Sudan and Egypt - without significantly impeding the flow of the river to other countries.

There's boating and market shopping to be done before the drive on through the Ethiopian country to Gondar, in the Simien Mountains, where we end up in the middle of a big troop of rare gelada baboons, and enjoy an exclusive dinner at the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Gondar Castle, founded in 1935.

The meal and dancing are put on by Tena, Helen and Senait Seraw and Eden Atenafau, of The Four Sisters restaurant.

The days are punctuated with information, good meals, camaraderie and shared moments.

Certainly there is the dawning of new friendships among the group.

So, Travel Directors' African Dawn tour might be appropriately named but there are two sunsets worth mentioning, too.

For one we are at the extraordinary Ben Abeba restaurant in one of Ethiopia's holiest towns, Lalibela.

We look out over a landscape that has been shaped by the human hand, through countless hundreds of years of subsistence farming, and a hillside blessed with 13 churches carved in the 12th and 13th centuries from the rocky range, by perhaps 14,000 people in just 23 years.

The second is in Axum, which was the capital of the Axumite kingdom, before Ethiopia became what it is today.

Below, gradually lost in the dusty haze of a mellowing, golden evening, is this scene:

. . . _ to the left is a chapel which, it is believed, contains the original Ark of the Covenant - the actual chest containing the tablets of stone on which God inscribed the Ten Commandments. _

. . . _ to the right, the Queen of Sheba's bath. For there is a school of thought that, 1000 years before Christ, she ruled from here, part of an Ethiopian dynasty. _

. . . _ to straight ahead in the now-pastel evening, are the biggest single stones erected anywhere in the world - the obelisks of Axum's Stelae Park pointing skyward in the burial ground of great rulers of Ethiopia, and placed there from the 1st to 10th centuries. _

. . . but after every sunset comes another African dawn.

In the queue at Addis Ababa airport, on the way home, I am behind young girls, clearly from all over Africa, who have been attending meetings of the African Union, which is based in Addis. They carry bags with the slogan: "The Future Women and Girls Want in Africa."

And one has another bag which simply states: "New Dawn Africa."

  • fact file *

·Travel Directors' 28-day Dawn of Africa tour visits Uganda, Rwanda and Ethiopia from January 4-31 next year. It's a mix of diverse experiences and sights, from Lake Victoria and the source of the Nile in Uganda, to the rare mountain gorillas of Rwanda and on to Ethiopia. It is $18,880 per person, twin share, and single supplement is $3250 per person. The cost includes economy- class international airfares, all internal flights in Africa, accommodation, meals, Travel Directors tour leader and local guides, entrance fees, the $US750 ($820) permit to visit mountain gorillas in Rwanda, visas.

9242 4200 or

·Qatar Airways flies daily direct between Perth and Doha and connects to Africa, among its 130 global destinations. or 1300 340 600.

Uganda, Rwanda and Ethiopia are examples of the dawn rising across that continent.

Stephen Scourfield was a guest of Travel Directors and Qatar Airways. Take cover Ethiopia is notoriously drought affected but elaborate umbrellas are common and have great significance in the country. Read more in Stephen Scourfield's story in Thursday Travel on March 27.

The West Australian

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