When I landed after a short flight from Dubai, I reached Ethiopia as my final destination of my extensive journey. I’ve therefore made it to my Father’s Land. I never went solo traveling across this country before, although I’ve visited Ethiopia twice. But I was more determined this time!
Addis Abeba & Siddist Kilo
Flying from Dubai, I landed most logically in Addis Abeba, Ethiopia’s capital. It has been six years since I lastly visited. Although I recognized most of it, quit some had changed since. Addis Abeba is actively busy developing a modern city by constructing big sky scrapers (mostly funded by the Chinese). Being in Ethiopia always leaves me with a strange taste in my mouth. On one hand it is an incredible diverse and interesting country with lovely people and a delicious, healthy traditional cuisine. On the other, I felt like I had to be at high guard on most places which takes a lot of energy. Not that I feared of getting harmed, but pickpocketing, stealing and bribing is unfortunately common. Also patience must be your number one skill. You will need it for almost everything.
I spent mostly with family in the first few days and stayed most of that time in Siddist Kilo. This is the neighborhood where my father grew up. Siddist kilo still seems mostly untouched by time. Although there are some concrete buildings and roads, it’s still mostly a network of basic accommodations and small cobblestone streets. This is for me the most charming part of this town. Maybe because of this, the community seems very thriving. I would start my day most of the time by walking across the street and get a ‘Spriss’ (probably misspelled). This is a smoothie mixture of pure fruits. Mostly made out of Avocado, Mango and Papaya. But this mixture might change due to availability and season.
After about four days I decided to go to my own place, because I rather wanted to discover the city and its people more independently. During this time I got to know some very friendly locals and travelers via Couchsurfing and therefore gained much more information about Ethiopia.
When travelling around in Addis Abeba on a budget, minibuses are unavoidable. It seems like a well-functioning system, but can be very hard for tourists. There are always two people working in the minibus, the driver and the ‘collector’. The function of the driver is obvious. The ‘collector’ is making sure to collect the money and to shout the neighborhood the minibus is driving to. This last part makes it the hardest part. There are no signs on the minibus and stops aren’t marked. So there is no official overview of the total network. You just have to be knowledgeable of how this system operates and create a mental map. It gets therefore particularly hard when you need several stops when going to the other side of the city.
Two days later Danick arrived and we explored some of Addis for our self. I introduced her to my family, new friends and showed her some museums to give a better picture and knowledge about Ethiopia. Danick’s birthday was celebrated with my family in a traditional restaurant with some really spectacular dances.
The next day we took the bus out to Awassa to discover a portion of Southern Ethiopia.
Nowadays, more decent bus companies are popping up and driving through the whole of Ethiopia. These are busses were you can reserve a ticket, get a seat, provide water and a snack and play (annoyingly loud) Ethiopian movies. We took such a bus to have a quite comfortable five-hour ride to Awassa, a small, tranquil lake city to the south.
A big portion of the south is formed by a rift valley, where lakes are formed inside dead volcanoes. When leaving Addis, landscapes changed and you get to see rural Ethiopia pretty fast. Awassa is also an altitude drop of 600 meters compared to Addis. This means a warmer climate and more mosquitoes (plus a chance of malaria). Although there were many mosquitoes indeed, they luckily didn’t seem that aggressive.
The days spent in Awassa were relaxing. Especially compared to Addis, Awassa seems like an oasis of calmness. Besides, there is many wildlife (especially birds) and lush of greens. We saw the local fish market, tried out the many fresh juices you can find, had some delicious Italian food, went to a spa and a wonderful sunset boat ride. We couldn’t wish for a better Airbnb as well. The price was very competitive and the host very helpful (also to plan transportation for our next stop).
The next stop will Dinsho, a little town located just outside the Bale Mountains.
To get to Dinsho from Awassa, you need to pass Shashamene. Shashamene is known for its rastafari population, but, unfortunately, also for its high crimes. Even most Ethiopians try to avoid this town. We felt the tension once we had reached that place. In the town we needed to switch from bus station. This turned out to be quite a hassle. A lot of people try to get your attention and it sometimes felt very uncomfortable.
Once safe at the other bus station, we found quite easily a bus which went to Dinsho. Because the old busses won’t leave until they are literally full, we needed to wait for 1,5 hours to depart. Inside the bus we felt comfortable again.
It would take until the end of the afternoon till we reached Dinsho. Dinsho is a very small rural town with a population of about 1600 at an altitude of 3000 meters. This was a really “off the beaten track” experience, with almost no other tourists around. Luckily, people were noticeably very friendly. For only €6 a night we found a small pension. It’s very basic, but what else would you expect.
Our main purpose for getting to Dinsho was visiting the Bale Mountains national park. Next to the Simien mountains, this makes up a part of “the roof of Africa” (with the second and third highest peak of Ethiopia). It’s very easy to find a guide, which is also mandatory if you want to enter the park. At first camping would have seem interesting. But with temperatures around -2 to -8 at night and being more expensive than the pension, we decided to take day trips.
A day hike is a nice way to enjoy the park at slow pace. Here, we saw Mountain Nyala’s (endemic to Ethiopia), warthogs, monkeys and some other wild life. Not only could we enjoy the nature, it was also a pleasant experience to spent some time away from the bigger crowds. Because it is busy everywhere in Ethiopia. On the next day we decided to pay some extra and go with a car inside the park. This way, we could cover much more than by foot. At first, we drove on the high plateau of the Bale mountains (at an altitude of 4000 meters). The route to get there is very scenic and the plateau itself me a bit of the altiplano in Bolivia. It’s mostly a dry surface with some bushes and Giant Lobelias which can only on this altitude. This would also be the best place to spot the Ethiopian wolf. Probably the rarest carnivore of Africa. We have spotted two of the remaining 500 Ethiopian wolves. After the plateau, we decided to pay 30 euros extra and also visit the “jungle”, also called the Harenna forest. This was, without exaggeration, one or the most beautiful place I’ve visited so far. Like a green mystic oasis in a valley, but still sitting on high altitude.
The trip to the Bale Mountains was overall very worthwhile. The natural beauty is just immense. However, we did leave the place scratching some bedbug and flea bites away. And it’s a sad realization that the Harenna forest is shrinking at high pace which destabilizes the local eco-system.
After spending 10 days in Addis, I couldn’t help but trying to move again. An area which I haven’t visited in Ethiopia yet was the Danakil Depression. Also known as the most inhospitable place on earth. I booked a tour in Addis and went out to Mekelle by bus.
It took the bus 14 hours to get to Mekelle from Addis, partly because it went with a detour through the Afar region. I later came to know that on the normal and faster route, some road blocks occurred and therefore wasn’t that safe. Not that it felt very comfortable driving through the Afar region at first. This is a dry area were most people still live a nomad lifestyle, as you can see many tents scattered across. Some of these nomads were carrying big riffles. And having done some research into its past, it’s not know to be the most hospitable place. Once I reached the Tigray region, which is the Northern most province of Ethiopia, I had to pass at least three checks. Because of the unstable political situation, checks on arms are happening regularly. Especially in this area.
Tigray has been representing prime ministers from 1991 to 2018, while only about making up about five percent of the population. Therefore, for the rest of Ethiopia, the Tigray region is known the be the privileged one. From my personal perspective, I found Mekele a very pleasant city to be in. Not too crowded and felt very safe.
Because I didn’t want to get into another 14 hour bus ride, I went to the Ethiopian Airlines ticket office. Here is where I came to know Zenabu. We were both waiting to buy a plane ticket at the office when he start talking to me to help me out. As a former tour guide he showed me around Mekelle after I bought the ticket. Later I got invited to join with his friends for lunch. We had some very interesting talks about politics and relatives. I got to see some real Ethiopian hospitality. Because when Zenabu got to go to catch his plane, his friend and I went to the Martyrs’ memorial center. This monument and museum pays a tribute to the fighters who died or injured during the overthrow of the communist Derg regime in 1991 by Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Even though they overthrew the Derg regime, the statue and ambiance still had a communist appearance. This memorial center was in my opinion still a good piece of propaganda for the TPLF.
After only spending one night in Mekele, I was excited to start the 4-day Danakil tour. It all started with a drive from Mekelle to the Afar Region again. We quickly decreased on altitude (Mekelle is located on 2200 meters above sea level) and it therefore quickly increased in temperature. We left the Tigray region and reached the Afar region pretty quickly. Which just seemed like another world again. The Danakil area is known for being the year-round hottest and most inhabitable place on earth. Because I went in winter, I could still handle the temperatures which were around 38-40 degrees day time and 30 degrees Celsius night time. During summer time, temperatures can reach up to almost 60 degrees.
Danakil is very interesting geologically wise. It is believed that this part of the earth will be first split off from the African continent. At the first day we went to the salt lake “Lac Assal”. This is a shifting lake based on the direction of the wind. The water comes underground from the red sea. This lake is located about 130 meters below sea level (one of the lowest places on earth). Driving here it felt like a little flashback to Salar the Uyuni. Our camping site was nearby, were we slept outside on little wooden beds. The only problem was that there was a lot of wind at night and therefore couldn’t sleep that well.
On the next day we went to visit probably the most impressive place, Dallol. This place is known for its sulphur and colorful landscape. It really felt like being on another planet. Second destination were the salt mountains. Because of wind and very little rain, salt forms on top of each other which will eventually create a mountain. This night we slept at a guesthouse in a little village. While sleeping with a mattress on the ground, it still felt very luxurious compared to last night. The village we stayed at was interesting as well. I decided with a few others to walk around town. In the hour we spent there, I think we attracted at least 40 kids. Being tourist with a background of four different continents, I admit, it must have looked funny for the kids.
On the third day we could rest in the morning and went to see Erta Ale later. Erta Ale is the largest permanent lava lake on earth. The drive to get to the base camp was very tough though. After dinner, at 7pm, we hiked for three hours to reach the top of the volcano. Unfortunately, the volcano wasn’t very active or couldn’t see much magma. Actually saw mostly smoke. This was going on for the last three months. Here is a video of how impressive it actually can be: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3pyiag3a9AE. Still it was very impressive to be here. The entire surrounding is made up of hardened lava fields. It was a short night of sleep on the of the volcano. Every now and then somebody had to cough because the smoke from the volcano will reach your lungs.
We hiked back on the volcano once more early the following morning to experience the sunrise. After sunrise back to the camp. The last stop was at a salt lake with hot spring where we could relax and swim for a while. The lake was that salty that it was easy to float.
These four days were really interesting and special to witness to say the least. It was pretty also quite exhausting because of the little amount of sleep. One big disadvantage are the mountains of plastic you would see on this journey. Nevertheless, felt really glad to have done it and experience such a special place.
Harar, ‘the city of peace’, is unlike any other city I’ve experienced in Ethiopia. Unlike most other cities in Ethiopia, Harar is pretty old. Until 1887 it was forbidden for white people and non-Muslims to enter the city. A non-Muslim who managed to enter was Richard Burton. As an Englishman he learned how to speak Arabic, dressed like a Muslim and with some make-up he managed to enter the city. When Ras Makonnen, former ruler of Ethiopia, conquered the city in 1887, he opened the gates for every visitor.
The old city of Harar is made of narrow alleyways. And recently, more houses are getting painted, which gives a colorful vibe. Because I arrived late on the first day, I didn’t do much. On the second day however, I spent a full day with Mikiyas (aka ‘skinny boy’ as he likes to call himself). Mikiyas is a very knowledgeable guide and a very friendly person to hang around with. He doesn’t eat any animal products as well, probably because he’s Rastafarian. This made it very easy to point out plant-based food for me around the city. He provided a lot of information when we walked through the city. Although most of the city is crowded, it felt pretty safe. Pickpocket isn’t that common here I guess. Like most other places in Ethiopia, you attract a lot of attention from locals, especially the kids. But this was most of the time very friendly.
After having done a full tour and tried some local foods, we were going to the hyena ceremony at night. Nobody knows how old this tradition exactly is, but it started off to please the hyenas in times of hunger so that they won’t attack the livestock or villagers. The hyenas were actually more shy than I thought, so the nerves I heavily felt before were gone once I was there. When the hyena jumped on my back however, and gave me a ‘massage’, was a moment of great excitement.
Because I really enjoyed the time I had with the guide, and I wanted some rest, we went to the countryside together. I wanted to see some fruit farms, but visiting a farm is a bit harder than it seems. On this part of the countryside, tourism is non-existent. Therefore, you have to be cautious and ask the owner of the farm first before you can enter these fields. Competition is high among the farmers and with most of the khat being produced here, a lot of money is involved as well. We eventually saw a mango farm, but unfortunately it wasn’t the season to pick some fruits. Nevertheless, it felt really relaxing and special being on the countryside. A special moment was also when a caravan of camels passed through the mango trees.
Trip to the North with my parents;
I would spent the final two weeks of Ethiopia and my trip with my parents. When my parents arrived on the 6th of February early in the morning, I picked them up from the airport and would show them Addis Ababa in the next three days. By now, I knew quite some of the city so it was easy to show them around. We visited several museums, but mostly, it was about visiting family in Addis. My mother was really enthusiastic to see Ethiopia again. This is her second visit after 30 years. After I bought bus tickets for Saturday to Bahir Dar, we were set to start our trip to the North. Bahir Dar and Gondar were places I already visited the previous time I’ve been to Ethiopia. But it doesn’t lose their interest to visit them twice. To get rid of the city pollution in Addis was the biggest relief!
From Addis to Bahir Dar turned out to be an 11-hour bus ride. Although the ride was pretty comfortable, we all felt exhausted by the time we reached Bahir Dar. Therefore, we fell asleep almost immediately after an early dinner. A must visit in Bahir Dar is the Blue Nile falls.
On the next morning, we will cross Lake Tana by boat to our next stay on the other side of the lake. During this trip, we will visit several monasteries located on the islands and peninsulas in between. Another mandatory thing to do when you are in Bahir Dar. The churches on the islands are dating back from around the 14th century and are constructed in a circle shape. But the most interesting part are the paintings. They are well preserved and tell typical biblical stories with Ethiopian looking characters.
Instead of going back, we were heading to our next stay on the other side of the lake in Gorgora. Once we reached the lodge a couple hour later, we noticed this was quite an oasis. Sleeping in traditional build houses, located alongside the lake with many trees, flowers and birds, relaxing was an easy objective. Besides reading a book, we also hiked a bit around through the hills and village nearby and went for a relaxing swim inside the lake.
It was also very interesting to the owners story. She is a Dutch women who went to Ethiopia 18 years ago and start running this project with her former husband. It seems like an idyllic place, but running such a lodge with an NGO is very hard. And made it sometimes quite impossible to manage with the local authorities.
After three very relaxing days we had to move on to Gondar, a historical city an hour drive away.
I remembered Gondar as a pleasant town since I was there 6 years ago. Now we got bothered a bit more when we walked down the streets.
We hired a guide for the full day. Her name is Selam and was a very pleasant guide to have. She told us a ton of information about the history and the sights of Gondar (way more than I’m able to remember). One funny fact that I can recall was that a 17th century emperor from Gondar, implemented one of the first animal rights. This rule was that if you loaded your donkey with too much weight, you should carry that weight yourself (to feel the animal suffering). This law was so progressive that it isn’t even of use today.
Debark would be our final destination in Ethiopia and what a way to say goodbye! This town is the main hub to enter the Simien Mountains (Ethiopia’s most popular national park). We would have two days in the park, but were sleeping in a brand new hotel in Debark.
On arrival we went to the tourist office and you will get a guide and a scout appointed. They would be with us for the two days. I guess we were lucky with both, as they were very enjoyable to hang around with. After arranging all the required stuff, which happened pretty quickly, we headed out for the park. We were heading for a 10km hike on the first day. During this hike we saw some beautiful cliffs, local flowers and already met the Gelada baboons. Gelada baboons are endemic to Ethiopia and most of them only live in the Simien mountains. These baboons are very tame. You can sit only two meters away from them and they would just mind their own business. It’s actually entertaining to watch them do their own thing.
On the second day we hiked for about 14 km alongside even more impressive cliffs, with drops over 1000-1500 meters. Also this time we met Gelada baboons. But this time it was a group of at least 300. They are able to live with a group up to 300 or 400. I was even more impressed when the guide explained how they sleep. They hang on the cliff at night to sleep in order to avoid contact with predators like hyena’s and leopards. After a heavy but rewarding walk we returned to the hotel. The next morning we would head to the airport of Gondar and fly to Addis. With our short period in Addis, we would have a final dinner with my family before flying out with our connecting flight to the Netherlands the same night.
Therefore, my year long journey had come to an end. I’ve accomplished something of which I wasn’t entirely sure I was able to. This has been the most interesting, knowledgeable and adventurous year of my life so far. Of course I’ve changed during this journey, but this change is really hard to put into a few words. General perspectives on life, environment and societies has been shifted. Getting along in total different societies, I got to experience firsthand the positive aspects and appreciate different ways of living. In short, I can say I’m really thankful for everything this year brought me, the positive and the harder parts. Who knows what future adventures I will take, but for now, that’s it that’s all!