World Heritage–listed Harar is a place apart. With its 368 alleyways squeezed into just 1 sq km, it’s more reminiscent of Fez in Morocco than any other city in the Horn. Its countless mosques and shrines, animated markets, crumbling walls and charming people will make you feel as if you’ve floated right out of the 21st century.
The fourth-most populous city in Ethiopia, Dire Dawa usually elicits strong reactions. We think its colourful storefront, tree-lined streets, neat squares, and foreign influence (look for Arab, French, Italian and Greek styles in some of the architecture and design) are a refreshing change from the filthy disorder and lack of character in most Ethiopian towns.
Addis Ababa to Awash
The long stretch of road dropping from Addis Ababa down to Awash offers little to tempt tourists to stop. Debre Zeyit, near the start, has lakeview lodging, and Awash National Park at the end offers some modest wildlife watching and interesting geology, though, truthfully, both are missable.
There’s no love at first sight with Debre Zeyit, known in the Oromo language as Bishoftu. But turn off the highway and you’ll find a dishevelled necklace of maars (flat-bottomed, steep-sided volcanic crater lakes) strung around the town, and these make it a favourite playground for those escaping the capital for a weekend.
Awash National Park
Easily accessible from Addis Ababa, 756-sq-km Awash National Park is one of Ethiopia’s most visited parks. However, if you’re here for the thrill of staring slack-jawed at lions crunching through bones, you’ll be seriously disappointed. It’s much lower-key and ongoing incursions by Kereyu pastoralists have done little to help wildlife numbers.
Awash to Asaita
The lonely road north to Asaita crosses a hauntingly bleak landscape of parched plains, ferocious sun and barren scenery. Besides some occasionally beautiful vistas and a rifle-toting Afar tribesman or two picking their way through acacia scrub, there’s little to stop the perpetually curious spiralling into a freefall of boredom.
Babille Elephant Sanctuary
Despite considerable tree-cutting, livestock grazing, and land encroachment, judged by notoriously low Ethiopian environmental standards Babille is better protected than many of Ethiopia’s national parks, and the population of elephants (which some authorities identify as a unique subspecies, Loxodonta africana orleansi) has risen to around 400.
Valley of Marvels
The drive from Harar to Jijiga is quite beautiful. The best stretch begins about 4km past Babille where the road enters the Dakhata Valley, better known as the Valley of Marvels. Here, tall rocks have been sculpted into strange, often phallic shapes by the elements. The name oversells things, but the Valley of the Pretty Cool doesn’t have the same ring.
The clifftop village of Koremi, 19km southeast of Harar above the Erer Valley, is the largest of several villages of the Argoba, a deeply traditional people whose ancestors arrived in these parts in the 12th century. Unlike most of the Adare homes of Harar, the old stone houses here are unpainted and unplastered.
If you’re travelling on a Monday or Thursday, don’t pass this otherwise unremarkable village without taking a look at the livestock market, one of Ethiopia’s biggest, which attracts buyers of camels, cows and goats from as far as Djibouti and Somaliland. The market runs from about 10am to 2pm but because sales go fast it’s best to visit early.