“Travel to Ethiopia and become seven years younger…”


This much-touted slogan appears on every tourist brochure and poster that you see in Ethiopia and has its origin in the fact that Ethiopia runs on a completely different calendar system to the rest of the world.  While the rest of the world was celebrating the new millennium and some prophets of doom were predicting the end of life, as we know it, Ethiopia had just welcomed in the year 1992.  Ethiopia uses the Julian calendar and their new year falls on our 11 September each year.  The year falls seven or eight behind Western time so if you consider the year to be 2000 it will be 1992 in Ethiopia between 1 January and 10 September and 1993 between 11 September and 31 December.  This can all be quite an eye opener for the usual flat footed traveller, especially if you consider the fact that we left Kenya on 29 September 2000 and only a few minutes later entered Ethiopia on 19 September 1993.  Talk about a time warp!


The whole date debacle is only one of the many radical differences between Ethiopia and the rest of the African countries that we have visited.  Ethiopian time is completely different from Western time, the only similarity being that both systems run on a twelve-hour cycle.  In Ethiopia this twelve-hour cycle starts at 6am and again at 6pm as opposed to the Western system which starts at 12 am/pm.  So what the rest of the Western world considers to be 8am is actually 2am Ethiopian time.  Another difference is the fact that people drive on the right hand side of the road in Ethiopia and all the cars are of the right-hand-drive variety.  All this comes as quite a surprise when you first enter Ethiopia but only takes a couple of days to get use to.  Once you are into the swing of things you will find that things in Ethiopia happen at their own pace and with a very distinctive rhythm. 


Ethiopian entry requirements


To travel to Ethiopia you will need a valid passport and a visa.  Visas need to be obtained beforehand and are not issued at the border.  If you are flying to Ethiopia you will need to get your visa in South Africa before departure.  Should you be travelling overland however, the best place to get your visa is at the very efficient Ethiopian embassy in Nairobi, Kenya.  Visas are issued overnight and cost US$27.  You will also need two passport photos.  If you are travelling overland to Ethiopia you will be required to present a copy of your Carnet de Passage and driver’s license to be stamped by the embassy prior to the issuing of your visa.


Ethiopia does not recognise a Carnet de Passage and you will need to complete temporary importation documentation on arrival at the border.  The temporary import permit which records your vehicles engine and chassis numbers, is issued in quadruplicate and costs the princely sum of US$1.  The Ethiopian border officials are very thorough and will check that all details on the form match the actual numbers on the vehicle.  You will also be required to declare any valuable goods such as video cameras, lap top computers and cellular phones.  At the border you will also need to fill in a currency declaration form on which you declare all the foreign currency that you are bringing into the country whether in cash or travellers cheques.  Ethiopia is one of the few African countries that still requires a currency declaration and the purpose of the declaration is to discourage travellers from changing money on the black market.  You will be required to reconcile all currency exchange receipts with your declaration on departure from the country.  For this reason it is imperative that you make sure you hold onto your currency declaration and all your exchange receipts.  In practice though, if you are leaving Ethiopia through one of its more obscure land borders your currency declaration form will not be checked.


Motoring in Ethiopia


The farangi hysteria angle


Driving in Ethiopia is an ongoing challenge.  The first difficulty that presents itself is the fact that driving takes place on the right hand side of the road – a relatively straight forward task until you come to obstacles like traffic circles which require a complete paradigm shift from the normal driving we as South Africans are used to.  The second complication lies in the fact that the roads are very narrow and are often completely inundated with pedestrians and livestock.  It is not unusual for the road to be completely covered by pack donkeys, goats, horses, sheep and cattle.  Pedestrians seem to be completely deaf and often do not respond to hooting.  Almost everyone we have spoken to who has driven in Ethiopia has hit a pedestrian or animal sometime in their trip.  Luckily this did not happen to us but it is definitely advisable to get some decent third party insurance before venturing out onto the Ethiopian roads. 


An additional dimension to the whole driving saga is what Philip Briggs (Bradt guide to Ethiopia) describes as “farangi hysteria”.  Farangi is the Amarigna word for foreigner and the term farangi hysteria refers to the bizarre reaction of some locals (often kids and teenagers) to the presence of a foreigner in their midst.  Mostly the hysteria involves shouting and demands for money (most commonly “you, you give me money!”) but when you are a farangi in a car the hysteria can be a bit more sinister.  We experienced a couple of incidents of kids throwing stones and clods of mud at our car, banging our car and even one incident where an old man whacked our car with a stick.  The only way to counter this type of behaviour is to resort to copious amounts of waving.  When you wave at the kids they tend to forget their malevolent intent and drop their stones to wave back.  All this means that you have to add waving continuously to the list of other driving requirements.  Not easy, I can assure you!


Fuel, spare parts and mechanical assistance


Fuel in Ethiopia is exceptionally cheap.  Diesel costs around 2.30 birr per litre (around R1.95) which makes a very welcome change from the extortionate fuel prices we encountered in East Africa.  Petrol is slightly more expensive but is still a bargain.  Fuel is available almost everywhere and you will be able to fill up in even the most obscure spots.  We did however not encounter any spots that sold unleaded fuel.


Ethiopia is definitely the land of the Japanese manufactured 4x4!  If you are venturing north in a Land Cruiser or other Toyota vehicle you will not struggle to find spare parts in even the smallest villages.  You will also be able to find a whole host of mechanics to assist you should you get stuck.  If, like us you are driving a Land Rover, however you will need to give some thought to spare parts to take along, as there are no Land Rover spare parts available outside Addis Ababa.    Land Rovers are certainly not popular with the Ethiopians and by in large are only run by the NGO’s, a couple of Catholic missions and, of course, the British embassy.  We were unfortunate to have our clutch break in a minute village called Dilla, just south of Awasa, and had to have the part sent to us by bus from Addis Ababa.  You will however find that everything is available in Addis Ababa and the Land Rover dealership, Ultimate Motors, (N8 59 11.6 E38 45 00.2) is very helpful and efficient. 


Road conditions, road signs and distance


Ethiopia is an enormous country and the distances between main centres are huge.  Ethiopia is also incredibly mountainous and your travels will take you through and over the most gorgeous craggy mountains.  As a result, travel is slow and it is not possible to cover great distances each day.  We found that we kept calculating the distances between spots with reference to our Michelin map and our GPS and then discovering that we could not realistically travel even a third of the distance because the road wound its way back and forward over mountain passes.  Often two or three hundred kilometres took us an entire day to travel.  On the up side, however, the scenery and landscapes in Ethiopia are so breathtakingly beautiful that one hardly notices the slowness of the travel.  It’s certainly not the desert wasteland of popular perception.  There is also always a hotel in even the smallest places where you can pull in for the night if your journey takes longer than expected.


In most cases, the main centers are linked by tarred roads in various states of repair – some are relatively new and others are badly potholed.  There is, for instance, a tarred road covering the seven or eight hundred kilometres between Moyale and Addis Ababa and another linking Addis to Woldia.  Should you be venturing north to the historical circuit however you can expect to travel on dirt roads for the major part of the circuit.  Provided it is dry, these roads are generally in good condition and are used by trucks and busses.  The road between Gonder and the Sudanese border is in appalling condition and severely aggravated by rain.  If you are planning to travel this route it is imperative that you make sure you don’t hit it in the rainy season when the road literally degenerates into a slushy mud bath trapping trucks and unsuspecting tourists for weeks.


For additional fun, all the road signs are all in Amarigna and there are often not English translations so you need to be sure of your route, especially of the more obscure turn-off’s as there is no guarantee that they will be signposted in a language you will understand – if at all!


Internal flights in Ethiopia are relatively cheap and Ethiopian air flies to all the major tourist destinations.  If you have limited time in Ethiopia it is definitely advisable to fly from place to place as the distances are enormous and it takes a couple of days to drive from place to place.


Camping, accommodation, food and other important considerations


Camping is a veritable mystery to Ethiopians.  They just can’t seem to grasp why these farangis would want to stay outside – and in a tent!  Very troubling for the average Ethiopian.  As a result, there are very few campsites available.  Some hotels will let you camp in their grounds but often the price of camping is equivalent to that of a room and you will usually have to camp in the parking lot (if you have a roof top tent) or in the sordid dumping ground behind the hotel (if you are in a ground tent).  Consequently, the only places you will be able to camp is in the National Parks.  If you are flying to Ethiopia for a short visit there is certainly no point taking camping equipment with you, as you will find that there are very few camping opportunities available.


In northern Ethiopia en route to the Sudan we were forced to resort to some bush camping on the side of the road mostly because we had been unable to reach a village or town before sunset due to the bad road conditions.  Bush camping in Ethiopia is some of the best in the world from the perspective of the mind-blowing vistas and views that you can take in.  Unfortunately however, it is also some of the worst in the world because of the wholesale farangi hysteria you will experience.  No matter how clever we thought we had been in picking our spot to camp it did not take more than a couple of minutes for us to be surrounded by curious onlookers.  Most of the onlookers are quite harmless but the perpetual staring, pointing and “you, you, farangi give me money” can drive you to distraction.  Also, most of the onlookers do not feel that they are interacting with you so do not hesitate to point, burst out laughing and talk about you in loud voices!  We would not recommend bush camping unless it’s a necessity because, although it is perfectly safe, the annoyances are just too much. 


Hotel accommodation is abundant and very affordable in Ethiopia.  In most towns you will find a whole range of accommodation options ranging from government hotels to private hotels to the infamous locally run dollar-a-night dives.  For the best, self-contained room in town you will find that you will not have to spend more than US$30 or 40 per night for a double room.  You will however often be able to find excellent accommodation in the US$10 – 15 range (for a self contained double room).  If you are really on a tight budget you can find accommodation for US$1 – 2 per night but that will mostly be with a communal shower and toilet and a healthy dose of bed bugs! A lot of hotels do not have hot water although most of the up-market ones do.  You may also want to check whether the amenities (toilet, shower etc) actually work before agreeing to take the room for the night – we got caught out a couple of times! 


Ethiopian food is a feast and makes a welcome change from the maize, rice and beans that you eat with repetitive regularity in East Africa.  The local standby dish is called injera and is a huge, sour pancake made of tef.  The sourness comes from the fact that the dough is fermented for three days before preparation.  Injera is served with a sauce called wat which comes in various shapes and sizes but is usually very spicy.  You can also have injera with tips (roasted meat – usually goat) or with vegetables on traditional fasting days (Wednesday and Friday).  The Italians were only in Ethiopia for five years and that during wartime austerity but they certainly left their mark on Ethiopian cuisine.  Even the smallest towns have pastry shops where you can sample delicious bread, pastry and cakes.  You can also order a wide variety of spaghetti, lasagna, macaroni and pizza. 


Food is unbelievably cheap and you will be able to have a really decent meal for around US$2.  A plate of injera and sauce costs around 10 Birr (less than R10), as does a plate of spaghetti with tomato sauce.  A pizza with the works will cost around 18 Birr.  The beer of choice is Meta beer although there are a variety of locally brewed beers including Dashen, Castel (not at all like our Castle) and Harar.  Beer costs between 3 and 4 Birr and a cold drink (Coke, Pepsi etc) will cost around 2 Birr.  The Ethiopians make excellent cheap red wine which is available for about 20 Birr a bottle.  They also produce sparkling mineral water called Ambo (some say it tastes like Perrier although we were not convinced).


Food is so cheap that it is almost not worth cooking your own.  If you do decide to cook there is a limited variety of fresh veggies and fruit available along the roadside although we noticed much less available than in places like Kenya and Uganda.  Local shops sell some “farangi” goods like pasta, powdered milk, chocolate etc but you will be able to find all this sort of thing in Addis.


The highlight of your trip to Ethiopia will undoubtedly be the coffee which is served not only at the traditional coffee ceremonies but is a huge part of everyday life.  Every pastry shop, restaurant, hotel and roadside café serves a variety of different coffees ranging from the think dark black coffee to the milky macciato.  A coffee or macciato will cost less than 1 Birr in most cases as will a piece of cake, pastry or samoosa.  Coffee is served in little cups and is completely scrumptious.  If you are invited to a coffee ceremony remember that the beans are roasted, crushed and then brewed three times and it is rude to leave before the third cup is drunk!


Money matters


The Ethiopian currency is the birr.  One US dollar buys you about 8.25 Birr.  It is advisable to change money at the banks so that you can have the necessary receipts to make your currency declaration tally at the end of your stay.  There is not much of a black market but you will be able to find people to change money although their rates are only marginally better than the banks.  Cash dollars are best although you will be able to change travellers cheques at the major banks in Addis Ababa.  Credit cards are near useless except in the major hotels and it is not possible to get a cash advance against your visa or MasterCard.  It is possible to have money transferred to you by Western Union money draft.  This is a relatively simple process and only takes about 30 minutes (provided you have the money in the bank at home and someone to send it to you).  The only problem with such a transfer is that you will receive the money in Birr and will then need to buy US dollars at the Commercial Bank.  You will need a letter from Western Union proving that you received the money and will have to prove that you are leaving the country before they will let you buy dollars. 




Ethiopians speak Amharaic or Amarigna, an ancient Semitic language made up of 200 characters and which seems closer to hieroglyphics to the average traveller.  You will find some English spoken in Addis Ababa and a smattering in the provinces but it is not widespread.  Of course, all and sundry know how to say “you, you give me money!” and some of the kids no some pretty filthy English vulgarities which they use on you with great glee.  Check out the language section at the end.


Guide Books and reference materials


The best guidebook around by a longshot is Phillip Briggs, Bradt Guide to Ethiopia.  He covers every aspect of Ethiopian life and travel in detail and his book is a pleasure to read.  He seems to have got inside the heads of Ethiopians and explains lots of things about Ethiopian culture which are unfathomnable to the average traveller.  Its definitely worth a read and without it we would have been lost!  We also used the Lonely Planet, Africa on a Shoestring which was not in the same league – its badly in need of an update!  Our Michelin map, GPS Mapsource and Microcsoft Encarta World Atlas Maps helped us with planning our routes.


Our Ethiopian route


Moyale to Dilla


After having crossed the border and having exercised superior patience with the Ethiopian customs and immigration officials as they laboriously completed the necessary entry formalities, it was too late to continue in the direction of Addis so we decided to spend the evening in Moyale (N3 31 31.4 E39 03 11.2) and to press on the next day.  We stayed in a non-descript hotel (the one on the left about 1 kilometre from customs) which offered us a self-contained room with a cold-water shower and toilet for 80 birr.  Despite the lecherous manager we managed to have a really pleasant evening sampling injera, tibs and local beer.  The room was comfortable but nothing special but we were only too happy to be off the dreaded Marsabit/Moyale road.  Moyale has a couple of banks where it is possible to change money and there is also a petrol station where we stocked up on diesel.  Ethiopian Moyale is a lot nicer than its Kenyan counterpart so try to cross the border before nightfall!


The next morning we set out hoping to reach either Awasa or Sheshamene about 400 kilometres from Moyale where we hoped to overnight before heading for the Bale Mountain National Park.  The road north from Moyale is tarred although it is not in great condition and is pockmarked with potholes which made going slow.  The route takes you through one goat towns like Yebelo and Mega which may or may not have fuel depending on the last visit of the fuel truck.  It is certainly safest to fill up in Moyale.  About 80 kilometres south of Awasa and just outside the tiny town of Dilla we hit a bump, soared through the air and came down for a hard landing on the uneven tar.  As Nev tried to accelerate we discovered that none of the gears would engage.  We stopped and Nev tried to locate the problem.  It soon became evident that something serious was wrong and we weren’t going anywhere.  Luckily, another car bearing a very suave Ethiopian had stopped to help us and he towed us into town.  We consulted a local mechanic and he agreed with Nev’s preliminary diagnosis – the clutch had gone! 


So there we were, stuck in the one goat town of Dilla.  Not a Land Rover part anywhere south of Addis and to make matters worse it was a weekend.  Our saviour, Aermon, it turned out, worked for an NGO and made arrangements for a part to be purchased and sent from Addis by bus.  Until the part arrived though, we were stuck in the metropolis of Dilla.  We stayed at a locally run hotel called the Get Smart Hotel on the outskirts of town.  A double room with bathroom cost 30 Birr and was more than adequate although we suspected that the Get Smart was one of those euphemistic “hotels for men” that we had read about.  We ended up staying at the Get Smart for an agonizing 5 days and got to know Dilla pretty well.  There is a bank where you can change money and there are a couple of decent pastry shops and restaurants.  Dilla is certainly not a place you would voluntarily include on your itinery for future trips to Ethiopia.  Philip Briggs (Bradt guide) describes it as “unremarkable” and “of little tourist value”.  Skip it if you can help it but if you have to stay over, the Get Smart is your best bet.


Dilla to Bale Mountain National Park


After five frustrating days in Dilla, our clutch fixed we headed off for the Bale Mountain National Park.  The park is home to the world’s rarest canid, the Simien wolf as well as a whole host of rare birds, most notably the Lammergeyer.  In the park you will also find Africa’s highest all-weather road which crosses the Saneti Plateau (N6 49 35.6 E39 49 09.0) from Goba to Dola Mena.  At its highest point the road reaches heights of 4377 metres above sea level.  The park is really worth a visit.  Not only is the landscape and scenery out of this world but its cool highlands provide a welcome break from the mania of mainstream Ethiopia. 


The Park can be reached from Addis Ababa via Nazret (N8 32 18.6 E39 16 10.9)or if you are travelling from the south as we were you can get there via Sheshamene (N7 11 30.8 E38 35 26.3) and Dodola (N6 59 58.1 E39 09 00.8).  The tar road takes you from Dilla to Sheshamene where you turn onto a good dirt road that runs east in the direction of the Bales.  Sheshamene is a ghastly place, full of leering loutish youths and lots of farangi hysteria.  Its best to give it as wide a berth as possible.  It is however the best place to stock up on food and diesel for your foray into the Bale Mountains.  There are also a couple of decent pastry and fruit juice shops if you do happen to find yourself there for an extended period of time.


The Bale Mountain National Park has its headquarters at Dinsho (N7 06 06.8 E39 47 01.7).  Entrance to the park costs 50 Birr for 48 hours and 10 Birr for your vehicle.  You can camp at the park headquarters but there is also a lodge which provides relatively cheap accommodation.  Beds in a dorm cost 10 Birr pp per night and a private double room costs 50 Birr per night.  There is a kitchen where you can prepare meals and a wonderful lounge and fireplace.  The staff are more than happy to keep a blazing fire burning all day if you wish (and you may as it is decidedly chilly!).  The park staff can also organise treks on horseback or on foot into the mountains. 


We spent a glorious two days relaxing in the park after the horror of our experiences in Dilla.  One day was spent driving across the Saneti plateau where we took our Landi higher than it has ever been before and managed to catch a glimpse of two Simien wolves and a handful of Lammegeyers.  The heather and moorland landscape complete with winding streams, tarns and mist is definitely reminiscent of the Scottish highlands.




Bale Mountain National Park to Addis Ababa


From the Bales we headed on to the nations capital, Addis Ababa (N9 01 21.1 E38 44 06.2) which in Amarigna means “new flower”.  We had planned to break our journey with a night at the Sodere hot springs (N8 24 06.2 E39 22 48.0) which had been recommended to us by some other overlanders.  We arrived at Sodere late on a Saturday afternoon only to discover that the springs are clearly very popular with Addis Ababa weekenders.  The place was packed with busloads of people and had a decidedly holiday atmosphere.  As we were looking for a quiet spot to pitch our tent for the night we decided to push on for the last 150km’s to Addis Ababa. 


The road from Nazret to Addis is new and is in very good condition although it does carry quite a lot of traffic of the truck and bus variety.  We arrived in Addis at dusk and set about trying to find a place to spend the night.  Driving in Addis is a veritable nightmare with its traffic circles, huge intersections, hundreds of taxis and incomprehensible road names.  Most streets in Addis seem sometimes to have up to three different names.  Often their true names are historical but they people have adopted popular names for them.  Often they are known only by their place on the mini bus taxi route (for instance arat kilo, which means four kilometres).  It is confusing to say the least.  By complete chance we found the Bel Air hotel (N9 01 51.3 E38 46 29.5) which had been recommended to us by a number of travellers and overlanders.  The Bel Air is a rather seedy affair but it is the best place in town to meet other travellers and to get information about roads and routes whether you are travelling north or south.  Camping in the garden costs 30 Birr per night and there are self contained rooms and rooms with communal facilities available.  The staff are used to travellers and go out of their way to be of assistance.  They can help with laundry, international phone calls, changing money and can provide advice on just about anything in Addis.  The hotel has a lively bar and restaurant which serves both traditional Ethiopian food and Western fare.  Weekends are very busy as the bar and restaurant are frequented by locals and often there is live music and that special brand of shoulder jiggling Ethiopian dancing.  Incongruously there is also a health club/gym on the premises.


If you decide not to stay at the Bel Air there are a number of good cheap hotels in the Piazza area.  The Piazza is definitely where it is all happening and there are hundreds of good restaurants, pastry shops, bars, supermarkets, and shops.  If nothing else, it is worth a walk just to see what’s going on.  Other gems are the two up market hotels in Addis, the Sheraton (N9 01 15.4 E38 45 33.6) and the Hilton (N9 01 08.0 E38 45 52.5).  Both provide all sorts of services including a foreign exchange bureau, business centre where you can email and fax, book stores where you can buy English magazines and newspapers and a host of restaurants.  Obviously though, the rooms are out of the league of shoestring travellers. 


There are a number of banks at which you can change money in Addis – the most efficient and, worth a visit just to see the exquisite building, is the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia which is colloquially known as the circle bank because of its circular shape.  Directly across from the circle bank is a “farangi” supermarket that is frequented by diplomats and foreigners alike.  They stock all sorts of standbys like cheese, salami, oats, pasta, chocolate, wine and have a pretty smart butchery.  The best place to check your email is the Ecas Internet Café in Bole Road (N8 59 41.1 E38 46 26.1) which charges 0.75 Birr per minute.  Although they are the cheapest Internet spot in town you cannot guarantee that you will be able to maintain a connection.  If you experience problems, try the Internet Café about 500 metres further up Bole Road which charges 1 Birr per minute. 


If you are travelling north, Addis is definitely the place to stock up on visas as most embassies are represented there.  We obtained our Sudanese visas (embassy: N9 00 22.0 E38 44 42.0) here without too much of a hitch (US$60, 2 passport photos and a letter of recommendation from your embassy).  The South African embassy (N8 59 32.3 E38 44 20.1) is also enormously helpful and a bit of a home from home. 


Addis Ababa to Lalibela


From Addis we headed north to Lalibela to check out the ancient rock-hewn churches.  The journey from Addis to Lalibela will take you about two days and the road winds and meanders its way over mountain passes and through some of the most spectacular landscape.  The road is tarred until Woldia where it is replaced by a good quality dirt road.  We spent our first night in the town of Debre Birhan (N9 41 02.3 E39 32 28.1).  There are a variety of cheap hotels in Debre Birhan, the only one which had a spot for us was the Tsegidera Hotel where we found a self contained double room with hot water for 25 Birr.  Another one to try is the next door Helen Hotel which is reputedly good.  Our second night was spent in the junction town of Woldia (N11 49 56.9 E39 36 12.5) where we stayed in the tourist class Lal hotel which charges 127 Birr for a self contained room with toilet, shower and hot water and which has a restaurant and bar serving western food.  You can also catch a glimpse of CNN on their satellite TV (or at least until they change it back to Ethiopian TV that is).


From Woldia you head west on a dirt road to Lalibela (N12 02 06.6 E39 02 48.6).  There seems to be only one road to Lalibela although this particular road did not appear on any of our maps!  If you make enquiries in Woldia the locals will direct you to the right road.  From Woldia it takes about 4 hours to Lalibela.  The last 12 kilometres from the airstrip to Lalibela is newly tarred and total bliss after hours of bone rattling dirt roads.  In Lalibela there are various accommodation options.  The Seven Olives hotel offers camping at a whopping US$15 per night (double rooms cost about US$40) but if you are in a car with a roof top tent you will be relegated to camping in the parking lot.  You can reputedly also camp at the Asherton hotel but the camping ground is nothing more than a trash heap at the side of the hotel.  The self contained rooms at the Asherton look to be good value but their communal toilet facilities left much to be desired!  We eventually opted for the Lal hotel (N12 01 37.3 E39 02 26.2) where camping is allowed and the surroundings are better.  The Lal is happy for you to use one of their rooms so that you can have access to a shower and toilet.  If you are not camping their rooms cost 220 Birr for a double although you can negotiate a better rate in the off season. There are lots of places to sample local cuisine in Lalibela.  You may want to try the Blue Lal restaurant.  The owner, a very dignified Ethiopian lady, spent 10 years in France and apparently prepares French cuisine with ingredients especially imported from France. 

You will need to appoint a guide pronto when you get to Lalibela – not only to show you the sites but to keep the other official and unofficial guides at bay!  Your stay in Lalibela will be a nightmare if you don’t as you will be hassled to death.  Guides can be found at the National Tourist Office (NTO) at the Seven Olives hotel or you can appoint an independent guide or local kid to show you around.  We managed to find (quite by chance) an excellent independent guide called Asigna.  She was very knowledgeable and charming and charged us 50 Birr per day to show us around.  We can recommend her highly should you be going that way.  You will need about two days to see the eastern and western clusters of rock churches as well as the Bet Giorgis which stands apart from either cluster.  A ticket to visit the churches costs 100 Birr pp but is valid for your entire stay so you can visit the churches more than once should you chose to.  There are also a number of monasteries and cave churches in the area which are worth a visit.  These churches are not included in your 100 Birr entrance fee and you will have to pay extra to see them.  Make sure that you have a good stock of 1 Birr notes before setting off to visit the churches as you will find that you have to dole them out to people you take photos of, put them in collection plates etc

Lalibela was definitely one of the highlights of our trip – it’s the most mysterious, spiritual and historical place.  No visit to Ethiopia would be complete without taking in the churches and wallowing in the history and legends that surround them.  Just the sheer fact that they were carved by hand out of a solid mountain face is enough to blow your mind! 


Lalibela to Gonder


The trip from Lalibela to Gonder (N12 36 46.8 E37 28 02.7) takes a full day and, once again, the dirt road meanders through yet more gorgeous Ethiopian mountains and via Lake Tana which is the source of the Blue Nile.  If you have time you may want to head to Bahir Dar and the Blue Nile Falls and to check out the monasteries on the islands of Lake Tana.  Unfortunately we were running short of time by this stage and elected to head north to Gonder. 


Gonder is the erstwhile Ethiopian capital and like Lalibela is steeped in history.  The main attraction is the Royal Enclosure which contains Fasil’s castle as well as five other castles built by his successors in title.  Also worth a visit is Fasil’s Pool, the market, the Felasha village (a village inhabited by the last Jews in Ethiopia who were airlifted to Israel during the last famine), the Debre Birhan Selassie church and the nearby Simien Mountains.  Entrance to the Royal Enclosure costs 50 Birr per person and this ticket allows you entrance to Fasil’s Pool as well.  The local guides are not allowed into the Royal Enclosure (except as paying customers) but there are official guides who will show you around for a small fee.  You will have to pay a separate entrance fee of 20 Birr pp for the Debre Birhan Selassie church but the church is well worth a visit just to check out the stunning paintings on the ceiling and walls.


A lot of the hotels in Gonder are a bit down at heel.  The smartest is the Goha hotel (N12 37 32.3 E37 28 17.6)which is perched on a hill overlooking the city.  Its pretty smart and the views are incredible but rooms cost US$40 for a double.  The government and private hotels in town leave much to be desired.  In the end we settled for a new locally run hotel called the Belegez Pension which promised hot water and flush toilets.  Rooms cost 60 Birr per night.  Unfortunately we had to shout, cajole and threaten to get our hot water (or any water at all) which ruined our stay there.  It’s a pretty nice spot provided they can keep the water supply going.  There is no restaurant but they do supply beers and cold drinks and are able to help with laundry.  There are plenty of local restaurants in Gonder.  We opted for snacks and macciatos at the Teleclub (below the Telecommunications building) which were cheap and nice. 


If you are heading north to the Sudanese border it is best to stock up on diesel and food in Gonder as there are only a couple of tiny villages en route and no guarantee of diesel. 


From Gonder we set off for the Sudanese border expecting to be in Khartoum in two days.  Our journey took closer to five days of blood, sweat, mud, tears and the most atrocious roads.  But that’s a different story all together………….


Summary of GPS Points…


Addis Ababa

N9 01 21.1 E38 44 06.2

Bel Air Hotel (Addis Ababa)

N9 01 51.3 E38 46 29.5

Dinsho (Bale Mountain National Park Headquarters)

N7 06 06.8 E39 47 01.7


N6 59 58.1 E39 09 00.8

Egyptian Embassy (Addis Ababa)

N9 02 48.7 E38 45 50.9

Hilton Hotel (Addis Ababa)

N9 01 08.0 E38 45 52.5

Ultimate Motors (Land Rover dealership – Addis Ababa)

N8 59 11.6 E38 45 00.2


N8 32 18.6 E39 16 10.9

South African Embassy (Addis Ababa)

N8 59 32.3 E38 44 20.1

Saneti Plateau

N6 49 35.6 E39 49 09.0

Sheraton Hotel (Addis Ababa)

N9 01 15.4 E38 45 33.6


N7 11 30.8 E38 35 26.3

Sodere Hot Springs

N8 24 06.2 E39 22 48.0

Sodere Hot springs (turn off from main road)

N8 24 13.7 E39 20 10.1

Sudanese Embassy (Addis Ababa)

N9 00 22.0 E38 44 42.0

Ecas Internet Café (Bole Road, Addis Ababa)

N8 59 41.1 E38 46 26.1

Ambassador Restaurant, Cinema and Nightclub (Addis Ababa)

N9 01 05.6 E38 45 13.0

General Post Office (Addis Ababa)

N9 01 09.5 E38 45 10.7

Debre Birhan

N9 41 02.3 E39 32 28.1

Mexico Square  (Addis Ababa)

N9 00 38.5 E38 44 41.4

Moyale (Ethiopian side)

N3 31 31.4 E39 03 11.2


N11 49 56.9 E39 36 12.5


N12 02 06.6 E39 02 48.6

Lal Hotel (Lalibela)

N12 01 37.3 E39 02 26.2


N12 36 46.8 E37 28 02.7

Goha Hotel

N12 37 32.3 E37 28 17.6

Felasha Village (Gonder)

N12 38 33.2 E37 28 37.1

Bahir Dar

N11 35 36.0 E37 21 12.7

Simien Gateway Viewpoint

N12 45 13.0 E37 32 15.6

Simien Mountain Viewpoint

N12 44 56.4 E37 31 41.1





Some basic Amharic or Amharigna……


This portion is with thanks to Philip Briggs, Bradt Guide to Ethiopia – without him we would have been lost!



Tadius / tenestalegn or salaam

How are you?

Denaneh? (male) Dananish? (female)

OK (used anywhere and everywhere and in any situation – a very useful word!!)



Awoh (or aw)


Aydelem (or aye)


Ibakih (male) Ibakesh (female)

Thank you (also VERY useful)


Where is the bus going?

Awtobus yetno?

What food is there?

Migib minaleh?

Is there a room?

Alga aleh?

How much does it cost?

Waga sintno?

What is the time?

Sa’at sintno?

What is your name?

Simih mano? (male) Simish mano? (female)