The Four Sisters restaurant
The Fours Sisters of Gondar, who have the self-named restaurant

"Ethiopia has history, nature and culture," says guide Firew Ayele. "The problem is that this was known as a country of drought and famine." The very word "famine" still, decades later, provides too easy a couplet with the word "Ethiopia".

But, as Tony Evans points out, it was one moment, in a certain time, in a certain place. Even in 1974, the whole of Ethiopia was not affected.

This is a country rich in agriculture and fresh produce, and which has been irrigated with the help of Israel and its technologies.

"We have enough land and enough water," says Firew. "We have the longest river in the world, the Nile, and 13 other major rivers running all year." And an ancient history in horticulture.

At what better point to introduce The Four Sisters …

For here in the northern town of Gondar, two and a half years ago, four sisters opened a restaurant, and simply called it after themselves. The Four Sisters specialises in Ethiopian cuisine and culture, but also has European dishes.

The sisters go shopping around the town for produce, and take us visitors with them -from the butcher to the chick pea seller in the street, from the women in the little vegetable store to a walk through the busy, dusty markets.

And then we are back at the stylish restaurant building, with its main dining area with a ceiling painted in vibrant Ethiopian style, and its outdoor settings.

The hard working four sisters are Tena, Helen and Senait Seraw and Aden Atenafu. But their mama - Mama Seraw - the matriarch of the family, is still making the traditional honey wine.

We stand and watch her (the honey and wax is put in water and left for seven days with hop leaves), as big, round injera breads are made from teff, an ancient grain, or millet flour, on a flat plate over an open fire.

Staff and the four sisters wear the traditional dress of Gondar (long white dresses, with embroidery) and come out to sing and "shoulder dance" for diners.

After years in the police force, Tena, the oldest sister, is now restaurant director and accountant; Helen had been working for seven years in a major hotel in Gondar, and is now responsible for training and staff development; Senait also owns and runs a coffee shop in Gondar; and Aden is also studying engineering at Gondar University.

But visitors see all in the restaurant, on the floor.

As Firew points out: "Where else do you find owners who are waiters in their own restaurant?"

One sister is also in the police force, and the youngest has two degrees, in sociology and engineering.

"It's Woman Power here in Ethiopia," Helen smiles.

The restaurant is now one of Gondar's most popular - in fact, it is proving one of the most highly rated in Ethiopia.

Ethiopia is surprising. There is culture and landscape and it's comfortable. Ethiopians are intelligent, sophisticated and hard working.

It is remarkable for never having been colonised by a European power, and I do see this as significant in the national character. White people are neither fawned over or resented - and I like that. There is nothing subliminally wired into the history of Ethiopians.

As Tony says: "If people come one, they come two or three times. Or more."

FACT FILE

Firew Ayele's company, Across Abyssinia, has packages and group tours but also caters for individuals, couples and small groups. They can follow Across Abyssinia's itineraries, or amend them. But in looking at the website, consider the Northern Historic Route (14 days on road, or eight days flying). Visit adventureabyssinia.com, email info@adventureabyssinia.com or call +251 911440145.

Days in Ethiopia are part of Travel Directors' African Dawn tour - a 28-day journey through Uganda, Rwanda and Ethiopia from January 4 to January 31, 2015. 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 - the cradle of civilisation. 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 US$750 permit to visit mountain gorillas in Rwanda, visas. 9242 4200 and traveldirectors.com.au

Qatar Airways flies daily direct between Perth and Doha and connect to Africa, among its 130 global destinations. qatarairways.com/au and 1300 340 600

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