Verdant Ethiopia surprises Jim Eagles.
The most surprising things about Ethiopia are not its ancient rock-hewn churches and colourful tribes but its remarkable beauty and, I suppose, the widespread anger at singer Bob Geldof.
The image we have of Ethiopia is one of famine, of a parched landscape populated by starving people and a few emaciated cows, of a land without hope. When I told friends I was going there most asked, "Are you taking food parcels?"
The reality was totally different. I arrived not long after the end of the rainy season, to a verdant landscape covered in a patchwork of different crops. Indeed, at one spectacular viewing point one of my fellow travellers was moved to say, "Tuscany, eat your heart out".
The agricultural techniques may have dated back to biblical times - ox-drawn wooden ploughs carving a single furrow or wheat harvested by hand then trodden by stock to thresh the grain - but there was no doubting the fertility of the land.
Everywhere we went, the roads were lined with herds of cattle, sheep and goats being driven to grazing, women laden with bundles of freshly cut grass or wagons carrying miniature haystacks of fodder, and donkeys or small horse-drawn carts piled high with vegetables.
The villages mostly had thriving markets with stalls selling an array of crops, and restaurants where some of the meals were excellent and all provided plenty to eat.
There were lakes and rivers - not least the Blue Nile with its magnificent falls - full of fish and thronged with colourful birds. And in the mountains there was spectacular wildlife ranging from stately mountain nyala and haughty ostriches to herds of bleeding heart monkeys and flocks of ugly marabou storks.
Of course, there were also areas of unproductive desert, there's no doubt that in areas where the rains fail food production collapses and there are certainly people living in what we would consider poverty. But what I saw during my month-long sojourn was a fertile country where no one seemed to go hungry.
However, I soon learned not to mention my surprise at this to locals because it inevitably provoked an outburst about the 1984 Band Aid Concerts held to raise money for famine relief and, in particular, the Bob Geldof song about Ethiopia as a place "Where nothing ever grows, No rain nor rivers flow".
"That told the world that this is a land where there is always a famine," exclaimed one of my guides.
"It has caused great damage. The famine that year was caused by the civil war. The then government wouldn't allow supplies of food to go to the rebel-held areas. In normal times we produce plenty of food. We export it."
I learned, instead, to enjoy the glorious landscapes and wonderful wildlife, take pleasure in the cheerful locals, lap up the great beers and good food ... and resign myself to returning home from the land of famine having put on weight.
Getting there: Emirates has flights daily from Auckland to Dubai (via Australia) with connections to Addis Ababa.
Further information: Auckland-based Grassroots Travel offers group trips to Ethiopia.