All the way through Ethiopia. From the beautiful hilly North, over Addis Ababa to the Kenyan border. Over high mountains, fascinating monasteries as well as magnificent landscapes. And the question: Is begging in Ethiopia a national sport?
After the last night in Sudan the Ethiopian border welcomed us like a slap in our face. Everyone without any exception was holding out their hands. The customs officers only wanted to do their job for additional money. The helpers, the kids and all the others were asking for money, pens, food, cloths, exercise books, etc. Only few kilometers from the border some kids were throwing the first stones at our car. Just a general explanation: Throwing stones at each other seems to be part of the Ethiopian culture in some areas and is not only meant for tourists who don’t want to donate something. We saw locals throwing stones at each other when they were angry. Even their animals got the stone punishment when they did something wrong. We were accompanied with the stone throwing almost on all roads until the Omo Valley in the South of Ethiopia. We in our car were pretty safe compared to motor bikers and especially cyclists.
Initially we were planning to drive all the way through to Lake Tana. However the procedure at the customs took quite long and we decided spontaneously to bush camp together with our biker friends Igor and Johannes in a beautiful hilly area about 30 km before Lake Tana. As soon as we parked our Toyota and the motorbikes more and more children eyes were staring at us silently and curiously. Even though it got darker and darker the children wouldn’t leave. However the later it got the more begging went on. At one point we were so desperate that we gave them bread, fruits and pens. We knew that this was the worst mistake tourists can make in a developing country. Successful begging will educate them to ask even harder next time. In our case it only rescued the evening because we got rid of them one by one. However the next morning at sunrise at 5:00 am the kids were back and asked more of the gifts we gave them the night before. In addition their hands were everywhere. We could not help but pack our stuff and leave without even having a cup of coffee. For the goodbye we got again stones thrown on our car. This was the first and last time we did bush camping in Ethiopia. We must add that the people in this area do not starve. There is efficient farming and enough to eat. Apparently begging became a habit.
Via Gonder we drove to the Simien Montains on that day. We reached our camp at 2800 m altitude after a very wild off-road tour. At the ticket office we had to hire a scout, because this is the national park rule. We were quite disappointed when we found out that the scout did not speak one word of English. He did not even react to our question “what’s your name”. Additionally he has not seen a shower for a long long time. In spite of freezing temperatures we were only able to continue our way with open windows. Nonetheless he was fully armed in order to protect us from wild animals or gangsters (we have seen neither the one nor the other). We also could not convince him to go inside a hut instead of sitting next to our car for the entire night at minus temperatures. The Simien Mountains were very beautiful with a magnificent landscape. We spent the next day’s surrounded by a wild, exotic, natural mountain beauty. Between capricorn’s, baboon’s, fern forests and palm trees we climbed up to 4430 meters.
Via Debark at the bottom of the Simien Mountains, we continued our way to Axum. We drove over adventurous but breathtaking passes, however terribly bad roads. In Ethiopia all streets are packed with people who are walking (everybody seems to be always on their feed and walking all the time). In addition little children were playing adventurously at the streets and waving wildly and excitedly at us while shouting “youyouyouyou” or “birr birr birr birr” (local currency) or “hello money”, etc. We were not even able to stop for one minute without being hassled by them. Little by little the streets in the North will be constructed (mainly by Chinese). We saw many women and kids working on the construction sites.
We managed to reach Axum in one day. Axum was the original capital of the eponymous Aksum Kingdom. Axum was a naval and trading power and ruled the region from 400 BC to the 10th century. Axum is up until today one of the most important and holiest places of the Orthodox Christians in Ethiopia. However we both did not find the city and the sights very exciting. After one day sightseeing of the up to 33 meters high stelae’s (their weight is more than 500 tons), the museum, few churches and the bath of the queen of Shaba’s we drove to the monastery Debre Damo. This monastery is situated on a rock plateau and can only be reached by climbing up the 30 meter upright rock wall. Only a leather rope holds the visitors. Unfortunately only men have access to this monastery and Viktoria had to wait at the bottom. Up there the time seems to stand still. It seems that not much has changed since the 6th century. Die small huts and the monastery however are nor very spectacular. However the view over the mountains all the way to Eritrea is breathtaking.
One day later we reached Lalibela. The rough drive went again on bad roads, over beautiful passes and magnificent landscapes (200 km took us 8 hours). Lalibela (also called New-Jerusalem) is known for their rock churches and is one of the holiest cities in Ethiopia as well as the center of pilgrimage for much of the country. The massive churches are very impressive. The few story high churches were built in the 12th and 13th century and were literally carved out of the rocks. Today the churches belong to the UNESCO world heritage sites. Lalibela was the first place in Ethiopia where we could relax a bit. A tourist development and education program thought the locals how to treat tourists – hence not to hassle them and not beg for money etc. That was a pleasure for us.
We drove from Lalibela to Bahir Dar at Laka Tana after two days. Bahir Dar is a very green, nice and exotic village situated at the South of the lake. Lake Tana is known for the island monasteries of the Christian Orthodox Church from the 14th Century. We visited three of these beautiful monasteries. The colorful pictures demonstrate the religious story. According to our tour guide the majority population was illiterate in the 14th century and the picture facilitated the communication of the religious story. Apart from the monasteries we especially enjoyed the soft boat ride. We even saw a hippopotamus on the way.
We were able to drive in one day from Bahir Dar to Addis Ababa on a relatively well kept tarmac road. At Wims New Holland House in Addis (GPS coordinates N9 00.589 E38 45.318) we were very happy to meet our friends from England, Dee and James and our biker friends Igor and Johannes again and celebrated Christmas together. Wims the owner is Dutch and has a solution or answer for any problem or question. In addition Wims New Holland House is an overlander camp were all people meet who are on the way to North or South. We also met further interesting people, on their way to South Africa.
Addis Ababa was packed with running errands. We got the visa at the Kenyan Embassy (GPS coordinates: N9 01.945 E38 46.994), the Commessa Insurance for our car (GPS coordinates N15 35.851 E32 31.624), the stamps for our Carnet de Passage at the Customs and Road Authority (GPS coordinates N9 00.874 E38 47.969. That was the only chance to get the administrational work done as we drove the Turkana Lake route and there are no customs hence no proper border. In addition we filled up our food stock and we could not believe to find Italian specialties in almost all shops we went, e.g. Panetone, pasta, mortadella, parmesan, etc. Good for us, that the Italians left their colonial tracks thoroughly and substantially. We were anyway surprised to get fresh vegies and fruits all over Ethiopia, sometimes also in small villages. We might have been lucky to be in Ethiopia at the right time for fruits and vegies. At an altitude of 3000 meters farmers even sold us their carrots at the window of our car. These were the best carrots we ever had.
One day before our departure we did a short interview with two employees of the Institute for Sustainable Development. The development project has the goal to spread and implement “best practice” technics among farmers. Because of the climate change farmers have to change their methods in order to produce more effectively and in order not to starve. This is especially important as more than 85% of the Ethiopians are working in farming. Farming goods are also one of the most important export goods.
After three days Addis Abeba we were heading off to Omo Valley. We drove via Butajira and Sodo. The streets were very good for a change. In Konso we were very lucky with our accommodation. We stayed at a fantastic lodge close to Konso in the middle of the countryside (GPS coordinates N9 00.874 E38 47.969). The owner is half Swiss and furnished the lodge with an interior design from Yemen and local fabrics and materials. In the evening we had a fantastic dinner at his restaurant.
We continued our way to Tumi the next day because we wanted to celebrate New Year’s Eve with all the overlander’s we have met at Wims in Addis. And it was a good idea because we had a lot of fun with a group of twelve people. Unfortunately Michael and Jeldau from Holland were a bit late because they had two flat tires about 40 km away from Tumi. When we heard about that at about 20:00 h two people of our group organized replacements and “rescued” them immediately.
Omo Valley has not only magnificent landscapes, but there are also some of the most fascinating and colorful ethnic tribes in Africa. However the tribe villages are very touristy and it rather feels like a visit in a zoo. Beside that tourists can only go there with a scout and a tour guide for a hell of a lot of money. They charge additionally to the scout and tour guide fees, entrance- and photo fees. We decided not to go to these villages as we are on the way towards South and we will see many more different ethnic tribes for free. So we only stopped by at one “Hammer-Tribe” village spontaneously and saw some more people of different tribes on the road on our way to Kenia.
The border crossing to Kenia went very smooth and was done within ten minutes as we already did all the formalities in Addis Ababa.
In summary we can say that we really enjoyed the beautiful, fascinating, hilly landscapes of Ethiopia in spite of terribly rough roads. However the Ethiopians were really a hassle. As already mentioned the locals even greeted us with “Hello Money” or with “You have to give me money!” It seems like that the people got really used to help from outside and this might be the reason why they are begging everyone that does not look like an Ethiopian. No doubt the country is very poor. Many people live and conduct their farms like 3000 years ago. We have not even seen one tractor on our way from the North to the South. The farmers were all working with wooden pitchforks and animals like bulls or donkeys. There seems to be something wrong with the development aid in Ethiopia. It seems like that Ethiopia gets more development aid support than all the other African countries. We saw in every single village (even the smallest village’s) minimum one sign of a development aid project. You can definitely find every possible development aid organization in Ethiopia. In Addis Ababa one of the best and most expensive hotels Africa’s is located. We have heard that employees of development aid organizations stay there. In addition these employees cruise around with the latest models and the most expensive four wheel drive vehicles. It is difficult for us to understand why in the east side of the country one of the worst starvation catastrophe is going on right now in spite of successful harvests and a sufficient rainy season. We did not travel to the east side of the country because of the very bad roads as well as we did not want to get too close to the Somalian border for security reasons.
- The fascinating landspaces of Ethiopia
- The magnificent beauty of the Simien Mountains
- The impressive rock churches of Lalibela
- The lovely and exotic village Bahir Dar
- The beautiful island monasteries on Lake Tana
- The various colourful ethnic tribes at Omo Valley