Ethiopia Road Trip General Characteristics:
Ethiopia is both one of the most frustrating countries to travel, and also one of the most unique and rewarding. It feels like you are being transported into another dimension where life is fundamentally different. That is something increasingly rare in our quickly developing world. It is something worth traveling to experience.
The epitome of this difference is that Ethiopians use both a different time and date than the rest of the world. Ethiopia is approximately seven years behind the Gregorian calendar, so in September 2016, the Ethiopians welcomed the year of 2009. However, time is even more confusing because you use it daily. In Ethiopia, time starts with the sunrise, so an hour after sunrise it is 1am. This means a constant questions in Ethiopia is, “are we using my time or yours?” It is disorienting to suddenly not have a grasp on time, and always wonder about “the when” of what is being discussed.
Ethiopia is both related to and disparate from its East African neighbors on its southern border. While tribal customs in the Omo Valley are like those in northern Kenya and Uganda, and the vast natural landscapes of desert, rift valley lakes, and Afromontane zones are shared, the history and culture of Ethiopia distinguishes it. The teff based cuisine, Orthodox Christian traditions, large population, big industrial infrastructure projects, Italian cafes, communist architecture, monks in rock-hewn monasteries, history of Emperors, and Rastafarian community make it seem related to nowhere else near it.
Ethiopians are a proud people with a complex history and a society, about which good information is hard to get. Conversations are sprinkled as often with lessons, as contradictions and mysteries. Conspiracy theories explaining the alternative motives of aid agencies, famines that apparently never occurred, the death of the last Emperor Haile Selassie, and the true intentions of governments at home and abroad are part of daily life. All these interpretations of reality dovetail into a mystical past, in which leaders claimed descendence from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, angels finished architectural feats at night, and the country possesses the Ark of the Covenant.
Ethiopia is a travel experience where you are almost always in wonder of something unexpected. Whether it is the warm welcome into someone’s house for a coffee ceremony, or a taxi driver that wants to charge you ten times the price of a ride, and will not negotiate. Across the country men, women and children hold out their hands alongside the road, aggressively yelling, “you, you, you, money, money, money”. They seem to think that will result in you handing them some cash. It means that all travelers need a heavy dose of patience and understanding, but will always have an interesting experience to ponder.
In Addis Ababa you can eat some amazing Ethiopian food (as well as Italian), there is a cool art scene, and fun nightlife, but the museums are decrepit and there seems to be a dearth of worthwhile activities. Beyond the capital, most Ethiopian urban centers are bustling concrete blocks, which I did not dedicate much time exploring.
Driving across Ethiopia, besides the desolate Afar region, you rarely feel alone. Villagers seem to be mulling along every road, so you are constantly rolling along behind an aloof shepherd and his herd. There were villages in each of the five national parks I visited, and virtually no wildlife anywhere, besides in the Simien Mountains where we did see the Ethiopian Fox, Ibex, and the Gelada Baboons. Do not visit Ethiopia for nature, do it to understand how an ancient culture is finding its own way to adapt to a modern world.
If you are ready to deal with its challenges, Ethiopia offers some of the most impressive experiences in the world. The tribal cultures caught in a time in the Omo Valley, the Erta Ale volcanic lava pit and candy-colored lakes of Dallol in the Afar region, and the rock-hewn churches of Tigray remain some of my favorite travel experiences anywhere.
Ethiopia Road Trip Recommended Timing:
I road tripped in Ethiopia for 29 days and did not feel like I had enough time, so I would recommend a minimum of five weeks. It is a huge country. For example, it takes about four days to drive straight from the Omo Valley in the south-west to the Afar region in the north-east. Further, single expeditions like visiting the Danakil Depression take four days, and I would recommend at least two days in Simien Mountains National Park, and three days in the Tigray region. Once you do all that, you still have the whole country to see.
In terms of when to go, it depends on what you would like to see. It is a large country with varied elevations, meaning there are multiple weather systems which effect activities uniquely throughout the year. For traveling to the historical sites in the north, Ethiopian tour operators recommend visiting from October to March during the dry season. However, that is also tourist season, so prices are higher and places like Lalibela are bound to be crowded.
Many also advise avoiding the long rains in June to September. These rains can really make driving on the rural roads an extreme adventure. The rainy season in the Omo Valley in the south is around April/May, which washes out roads. However, May is when the Hamar tribe does their Bull Jumping Ceremony, which is reason enough for a visit. Further, prices are lower in the off-seasons when it is raining, and being in Ethiopia for Easter celebrations is quite a special experience. Whenever you visit Ethiopia there will be plenty to do, and if you are traveling a good portion of the country you will have to prepare for both hot and cold climates regardless of the month of your trip.
For more in-depth information on Ethiopia’s Weather and Climate: Journeys by Design: Ethiopia Climate
Ethiopia Road Trip Driving Tips:
Now is the perfect time to drive through Ethiopia as the major highways are newly paved, but Ethiopia still has very few cars, so besides in Addis, there is very little traffic anywhere. That being said, the roads are mostly used for walking and herding animals. Right after dawn, and just before dusk is animal rush hour on the roads, and you can expect to roll slowly through never-ending villages behind masses of animals, as herders abandon them to gawk and beg.
In over a month of travel we did not have any issues with the police, in fact we were only stopped once. We were never asked for a bribe. However, travel can be slow once you leave the major highways. Roads in the Omo Valley are mostly dirt, and wash-out in the rainy season. Highway 22 between Bahir Dar and Weldiya is dirt, but in fair condition in the dry season and can be done with-out 4×4. The section of highway between Dilla and Finchawa on the way to Moyale is still full of potholes and slow going as well. It is also good to double check maps, as some notable road signs are misleading.
In a couple instances we had young boys throw rocks at the car, so be aware of that, and also more alarmingly, frequent occurrences of both animals and people run out into the road in front of the car. This means you have to drive slowly everywhere there are people, and driving at night is extremely dangerous.
Remember that Ethiopia does not give visas at land crossing borders. So you can either fly in (visas on arrival are available for many countries), and try to rent a car in country, which will be expensive as there are not many available. Or you can get your visa before you go. However, they will only issue you a visa in a country where you are resident. So, for example, if you are coming from Kenya, you can only get an Ethiopian visa at the Ethiopian Embassy in Nairobi if you are a Kenyan resident. If you are not, you need to get it from your home country, before you embark on the trip. This can require careful planning as they will want to know your travel dates, likely far before you know them.
We entered Ethiopia through Omorate in the south, which sits on the western side of Lake Turkana. It is wonderful as you arrive in the Omo Valley. However, do so at your own risk, as this is as big an adventure as you can find. Coming north from Kenya the roads wash-out during the rains (notes from our journey here), and even if you manage to get to Todonyang, there is no road across the border to Ethiopia. You have to follow tracks through the vast marshlands to the north of the lake, and can expect to get stuck if there has been rain (we did). The Ethiopians are currently building a major highway down from Omorate to the border on their side, but there is still much work to be done on it.
Importing the car was easy though. Customs takes a long time, but gave me an import permit for the length of my visa. It is worth reviewing it though (even though it is in Amharic), as they filled in details without asking me, like the border through which I planned to depart. That caused a major delay when I was leaving.
Ethiopians mostly all still use diesel, as there are still not a lot of personal cars, and most of the vehicles on the road are big trucks. So if you are driving a petrol car, I recommend having a jerry can with you basically everywhere outside of Addis. It is common to go to three to four petrol stations before you find one that has petrol. Also, be very careful, because Ethiopians call it benzene, like the Italians. So, ask for benzene, not petrol, to avoid any confusion, and it would be wise to put a little sticker on your fuel cap noting your fuel type.
Further, remember that the Ethiopians drive on the right side of the road, so if you are bringing a vehicle in from East Africa (besides Rwanda), your steering wheel is on the wrong side, and passing can be difficult on highways.
Finally, if you are planning to visit the Danakil depression, which you should, you might want to think about not taking your vehicle. Going to the colored lakes of Dallol involves driving over rough salt flats for hours, and if there is water on the flats, that will splash up and into your car and can cause corrosion. Further, the road to Erta Ale, is billed as the worst road in Africa. It is not, but it is pretty bad, with a lot of sharp volcanic rocks to grind over, and it is a pretty solid recipe for losing a tyre or four. Even if you survive those challenges, the heat can climb into above fifty degrees Celsius, so bring a lot of fluids for you and your car, make sure the air conditioning works well, and calculate your fuel consumption based on using it the whole time.
Ethiopia Road Trip Resources:
I found the Lonely Planet Ethiopia 5th Edition marginally helpful, but often out of date. It is not necessarily their fault, it is just that Ethiopia is undergoing a period of constant change, and lodges and restaurants are constantly, moving, shutting down, and changing names. Double check information whenever you can. Your best information is going to come from the people living there. Here are recommendations for some reliable sources that all offer great services.
- Ethio Travel and Tours offer some of the best value for your money. They offered us prices much lower than anywhere else we could find for the Danakil Depression, and provided a fine service. They also guide tours elsewhere.
- Gheralta Local Guide Association guides people up to Abuna Yemata and Maryam Korkor (rock-hewn churches in Tigray). They also offer a multi-day trek through a series rock-hewn churches, which sounded fantastic. They are a community association and it is required to use one of their guides when visiting the churches in the area. We found the guides here to be helpful and enriching to the experience. You can contact Haile Weldegerima +251 91 426 3799
- If you make the effort to meet Migbaru Tshaey while in Ethiopia, he will not only be a great help, but you will probably make a friend for life. Migbaru is a guide and fixer, who works super hard to get you the best value out of your experience. He will help you understand Ethiopia, and ensure you have a great trip. He is based in Addis Ababa, and can be reached at: +231943802658 or try him on Facebook.
Ethiopia Road Trip Favorites Experiences:
Wilderness: The Erta Ale volcano is super impressive. Go camp on its rim, and feel its heat on your face. Although, not at all on the same level, but cool none-the-less, the hot springs in the northern sector of Awash National Park are a true paradise for the adventurous. Good luck finding them though.
Adventure: Free climbing the rock pinnacles in the deserts of Tigray will blow your mind. After your hands stop sweating, and your body stops shaking from adrenaline, you will arrive at rock-hewn sanctuaries hidden in the tops of the pinnacles. Do not miss Abuna Yemata, and also try climbing the rope up to Debre Damo. For the latter one though, unfortunately the monks only allow men to climb-up. These climbs are not for the faint hearted.
Relaxing: The Gheratla Lodge in Tigray has a chic desert charm, delicious family dinners, a friendly host, and comfortable rock lodges.
Local Culture: The Omo valley is amazing. The Hamer tribe has multiple bull jumping ceremonies around May. Try your best to go see one.
Culinary: The Ben Abeba restaurant at Lalibela. Order the doro wat 24 hours in advance. Tibs and shiro everywhere are delicious. Ethiopia probably has some of the best food in East and Southern Africa, only rivaled by the seafood in Mozambique and Namibia and the braai in South Africa.
Ethiopia Road Trip Travel Difficulties:
Ethiopia is a reasonably safe place to travel compared to its East African neighbors, however, pickpockets in crowded urban areas and the occasional bout of civil unrest are definitely issues to monitor. English is not widely spoken, but usually you will be able to get around with some key words and gestures. Ethiopia is a cash economy, so besides high end hotels and tour companies, you should plan to pay everything in cash. There are banks/ATMs in cities and mid-sized towns so it should not be an issue if you plan ahead.
The tourism industry is still just developing, and is far behind its East African neighbors. Ethiopia boasts many National Parks and UNESCO heritage sites, but you are often left wondering what is being protected as there is very little of interest to see. There little wilderness left, and even less wildlife. Accommodation is still sorely lacking throughout the country, especially given how amazing some of the attractions are, so prepare to hunker down in some hovels if you are traveling on a budget. The bright side is that the hovels are cheap, as is local food, which is often delicious.
I had some of the worst guides of all my traveling days in Ethiopia, part of the problem seems to be a combination of lack of training and an absence of interest. Further, many of the guides we hired, were required by the government/local community, so they were much more of an employment tax on travelers than a service.
It is a pleasant surprise when your guide speaks English well. Many guides give you the feeling they have just memorized some passages from a history textbook, inserted some debatable facts and figures, and are bored with their job. It just is what it is.
Of course, good guides are available and I have listed the ones I found in the Resources Section. Otherwise, the easiest way to get a qualified guide is to buy a tour, but I was regularly flabbergasted by the prices tour companies were charging. So, if you are looking for a good guide, be prepared to pay a healthy premium for one.
Making deals in Ethiopia is routinely difficult. Locals will often quote a high multiple of the normal price to you because you are a foreigner. While this is common in many countries, the difference in Ethiopia is that they will then refuse to bargain, presenting you with a “take it or leave it” attitude. It can just be frustrating, but can sometimes be circumvented by having a local person negotiate for you.
In the last year or so, SIM cards have become widely available, but coverage is still being upgraded for this massive country. So, you can only expect to have an internet connection in the major urban areas. The only carrier for now is Ethiotel, and they have two SIM cards. For internet I recommend the 3G SIM card.
Ethiopia Road Trip Wish List:
- Visit the ancient city of Harar and meet the Hyenas there at night.
- Go to the singing wells of the Borana tribe.
- Trek through the wilderness in the Bale Mountains National Park.
- Spend some time understanding the Rastafari culture in Shashamane.
Have I missed anything? Email me (Mike@nomadicnature.com) and I will review it for inclusion!