Africa - through Ethiopia's ancient land by bus

by hubris

Ethiopia is one of Africa's most enticing destinations and one of the world's last great exotic spots. Travelling through by road reveals the its best kept secrets and makes your trip unforgettable

It is fair to say that most people who visit Ethiopia do not travel by bus. The country has an incongruously modern national airline that can whisk people from destination to destination smoothly, comfortably and quickly. For so many travellers time is limited, meaning they feel an unspoken urgency pushing them to cover distance in as short a time as possible and pack in as many sights as they can. This is a country of destinations; it is also vast. Covering over a million square kilometres, Ethiopia is jammed full of historical sites, stunning landscapes and a culture that is bewitching and peculiar. The problem is flights can get you from place to place efficiently but they also drain away something integral and exciting; the very thing that makes Ethiopia what it is.

Most guide books describe this country in terms of its grand locations and link these together as ‘the historical circuit’: a broad circular sweep of the country north of Addis Ababa that takes in Bahir Dar, Gonder, Axum and Lalibala. At each of these sites there are monuments to a rich and unique historical culture, distinctively Ethiopian, breathtaking and bizarre. It is no wonder that visitors try to cut out the time in between.
Nonetheless, to stay away from the roads is a big mistake; to travel through the landscape is to get a feel for the size of the country, to see things you never went out looking for and, most important of all, to travel among the country’s residents.

The country's thriving heart: Addis

Addis Ababa is an embarrassment of riches, at least when compared to the rest of the country, which one has often got to work at in order to gain the most. Budget travellers congregate around the piazza area, perched on a hill in the north of the city and home to two popular hostels: the Wutma and Baro, both of which are comfortable and clean options, costing around £3 a night. However, the Baro Hotel is marginally superior for its communal atmosphere and sunny outside seating. In spite of what you will be told, and read elsewhere, it is easy from this hub to arrange to be aboard a mini bus headed north out of the city. Asking the hotel staff or other guests will soon lead you to someone who knows someone, and a small cash deposit can secure a place.

In a country so strange and apparently hostile to non-flyers, it is an immense thrill to be on a small vehicle racing out towards the suburbs of its capital. As the sun comes up over the landscape (it is an early start, as most of the people aboard have an immense journey ahead of them) the buildings have disappeared, leaving grass banks to fall away at the roadside. Ethiopia’s natural grandeur emerges quickly whenever you leave the capital, and the road north to Bahir Dar has some particularly stunning mountain passes. Once you get to Bahir Dar, make a beeline for the lakeside and stay at the Ghion Hotel, where staff can arrange your trip out to the monasteries on Lake Tana while you soak up the relaxed atmosphere and enjoy the beautiful gardens.

On the road

Once away from the capital, getting from place to place becomes a little easier, so long that is, as you acclimatise to very early starts and dispense with the idea that it is possible to plan very much in advance. Broadly speaking there will be one bus a day and that will leave early from the town’s bus station. By all means ask about departure times in advance, but there is no substitute for turning up at the bus station before dawn, this will often be the only time some bus stations show any sign of being busy.

With time, a ritual that will quickly become familiar to anyone who decides that overland is the way for them to get around: the lunch stop. Almost every town in the country seems tiny, but some of them particularly so. This is nowhere more true than in the places that we pull over to eat. You don’t speak Amharic and you’ve never done this before but it doesn’t matter, the purpose of the hiatus will be communicated to you somehow. The menu will always be broadly the same, various Ethiopian foods served atop the fermented injera bread that is ubiquitous, at a roadside cafe that seems to cater exclusively to customers on the move.

The roads around the country vary in quality. Between Addis Ababa and Bahir Dar, you cruise along a tarmac strip that seems a little basic; enjoy it while it lasts. Somewhere to the north, toward Gonder, the road becomes a track, a rubbly and inconsistent trail that seems designed for anything but a four wheeled vehicle.

Bus travel in this country is a commitment; everyone is in the journey together and can expect to bear an equal load in the case of incident. This may involve sharing the bus with manic screaming young mothers, or politely refusing the stimulant leaf chat, which is offered up for mastication. On one trip toward Bahir Dar, the bus was stopped for speeding and then requisitioned when the driver refused to pay the bribe demanded to get it back on the road. A replacement was eventually forthcoming, but this developed a puncture and all passengers piled out to see how they could help.

In spite of its name, the historical circuit is not best navigated in a loop. It is virtually impossible to travel south east from Axum. Instead, travellers for Lalibela are advised to go back the way they came and take a bus due east from Bahir Dar. To Lalibela from here will take two days, although there is no guarantee even of this. The road is winding and dreadfully surfaced although, as of late 2008, Chinese contractors were present laying great lengths of tarmac. Our bus stopped at the halfway point Gasheme, only to depart with the vague explanation that insufficient numbers of people were headed in our direction. What followed was a night in a tiny but peaceful roadside town that you could walk from end to end in fifteen minutes.

The following morning we rose early and were delighted to find a lorry to take us north to Lalibela. This rides along a final deserted stretch on the road to the famous ancient city. Speedy and efficient, the lorry is stopped when an approaching bus refuses to give way (to my mind, an articulated lorry wending its way down a steep narrow road ought to have priority). The vehicles stop within feet of one another and our driver gamely derides his opponents in (expletive?) Amharic.

This, it turns out, is a big mistake. The entire population of the bus troops off and turns instantly into an angry baying mob, brandishing (and this is no word of a lie) large rocks and steel bars. Our driver leaps out and we watch dumbly on. I briefly consider stepping out to show this mini army that "look, it's us, the silly tourists, we mean you no harm", but if I am honest, I am paralysed with fear. The lorry survives the incident, but we still have the opportunity to watch a flat tyre being replaced before we arrive. After such exertions, Lalibela's ancient rock hewn churches are not only an essential sight, they are also a sedative. Be sure to take in the marvellous breakfast at the Blue Lal Hotel Restaurant to get your day off to the right pace. Equally calming is the monastic Mini Roha Hotel, which has an oddly comforting quiet.

Homeward bound

The journey back to the capital is a further two days, although headed toward this centre of gravity, the traveller can be a little surer that the service will run its full course. A bus wends through the staggering (and frequently perilous) scenery to Dessie, a charming and welcoming town that ought almost to be regarded a destination in its own right. Due to the bends in the road, most of the passengers seem to become sick; it is an eventuality prepared for by the bus’ conductor, who has a ready supply of plastic bags. These are handed out to some third of the people aboard, who promptly and noisily vomit into them. This may seem bemusing if you have spent the last few weeks becoming fully used to this way of getting about.

Addis Ababa will never look the same once you have taken the time to get out in the country in this most colourful and eccentric of styles. The luxuriously surfaced roads and complex network of intersections is a world away from seemingly endless dirt trails. Now you are back, treat yourself to a visit to the Sheraton Addis. You can't afford to sleep there perhaps, but the building is fantastic and you feel a world away already. What is more, it has the country's only cash machine and a buffet meal at one of the hotel's many restaurants is surprisingly affordable. It is this rush of relief that makes the return so enjoyable, and the previous weeks’ moving so worthwhile. There will be hardships along the way, but resist the temptation to fly, or even to hire a 4x4, and the rewards will be immense.