Ethiopia in detail

Getting Around

Ethiopia is a huge place, and – due to the terrain, the distances and the condition of the roads – it can take a long time to get anywhere.

  • Air Internal flights are huge time savers. The national carrier has an extensive network and solid safety record. It’s usually cheaper to book your flight once in Ethiopia.
  • Bus Opt for the newer companies, which offer better service and more comfortable buses.
  • Car Though expensive, we recommend a 4WD with a driver. Having your own car allows you to stop wherever you want and saves time. The driver can also act as a guide-cum-interpreter. Also, some national parks can only be entered with a 4WD. Shop around and hire through a reputable agency.

Air

Ethiopian Airlines (www.ethiopianairlines.com) is the only domestic carrier, with a comprehensive domestic route service and a solid safety record.

It’s well worth considering a domestic flight or two, even if you’re travelling on a budget. While prices cannot be described as cheap, it does eliminate long, bumpy bus rides. If you want a window seat to enjoy Ethiopia's scenic landscapes from above, check in early.

  • Standard security procedures apply at all airports. The baggage limit is 20kg on domestic flights. Don’t bring bulky hand luggage as the interiors are quite small.
  • Most flights leave from Addis Ababa, but not all are nonstop, which means you can also jump from one town to another. For instance, most of the daily Addis Ababa–Aksum flights stop at either Bahir Dar, Gonder or Lalibela en route.
  • Buying domestic tickets from an agency on arrival in Ethiopia is almost always cheaper than buying them online from outside the country.
  • Booking early to ensure a seat is particularly important on the Historical Circuit and during major festivals.
  • Technically you should reconfirm all domestic flights 72 hours in advance. This is of course a very good idea, though we’ve never done this and have never had any problems. Still, it's far better to err on the side of caution.
  • Beware that schedules are occasionally forced to change due to weather or mechanical difficulties, so try not to plan an itinerary that’s so tight that it doesn’t make allowances for these changes.

Bicycle

Cycling in Ethiopia is a fabulously rewarding way to explore the country. If you want to cycle across the country, come well prepared with a sturdy bike, plenty of spare parts, a good repair kit and the capacity to carry sufficient amounts of water. New and second-hand cycles can be bought in Addis Ababa, but they are not generally the type of bike you’d wish to conquer the Historical Circuit with!

In the past, irregular terrain and brutal roads have scared off most adventure addicts and their bicycles – to that cyclist we saw about to climb into the clouds on the approach to the Simien Mountains, respect! But with today’s greatly improving road network it may just be the right time for you to give it a try.

  • Cyclists should show the usual caution when travelling around the country: never travel after dark, be wary of thieves and keep the bicycle well maintained. Brakes need to be in good working order for the mountainous highland roads.
  • Don't expect local drivers to keep an eye out for you – trucks, minibuses and other vehicles often come around corners on the wrong side of the road, so be vigilant and prepared to dodge sideways off the road at a split-second's notice.
  • Be particularly wary of dogs; sometimes it’s best to dismount and walk slowly away.
  • Cycling in the rainy season can be very hard going.
  • Punctures are easily repaired: just head for any gommista (tyre repairer) or garage. Many mechanics are also more than happy to help with cycle problems, and often turn out to be ingenious improvisers.
  • There are special customs regulation regarding the importation of a bicycle. A deposit must usually be left (amounting to the cycle’s worth) at customs at the port of entry on arrival. When you leave, this will be returned. This is to deter black-market trading.
  • Cycles are accepted aboard Ethiopian Airlines international flights. On domestic flights you’ll need to check first in advance as it depends on what type of plane is covering the route on that given day.
  • Finally, a few tips from a seasoned African cyclist: check and tighten screws and nuts regularly; take a spare chain; take a front as well as rear pannier rack; and pack a water filter in case you get stuck somewhere remote.

Boat

Apart from tourist boats used for sightseeing, there are very few commercial boat operations for getting around Ethiopia.

One exception, albeit one that is difficult to recommend, is the weekly ferry service between Bahir Dar and Gorgora on Lake Tana.

Bus

A good network of long-distance buses connects most major towns of Ethiopia.

Recently a new breed of bus has taken to the roads of Ethiopia and these ones actually are pretty plush (air-con, reclining seats, on-board toilets, TVs and even free snacks). The biggest and best companies are Selam Bus and Sky Bus. We strongly recommend that you pay extra to travel on one of these newer private bus operators. Apart from being much more comfortable, they rarely travel at night and are generally safer.

Otherwise, you'll find yourself at the mercy of the government buses and similar private services. A few things to remember:

  • One government bus association and around a dozen private ones operate, though you’ll rarely be able to tell the difference between any of them. The biggest differentiating trait between government and private buses is the predeparture rituals.
  • Government buses sell seat-specific tickets in advance and passengers must wait in line while the bus is loaded. After that’s completed, the queue is paraded around the bus before tickets are checked and the boarding barrage occurs. Private buses simply open the doors and start selling tickets to the flood of passengers as they cram in. Needless to say, private buses are usually the first to leave. They also tend to be slightly more comfortable than government ones.
  • Unlike most African countries, standing in the aisles of long-distance buses is illegal in Ethiopia, making them more comfortable (note that we’ve said ‘more comfortable’, which is a far cry from saying comfortable) and safer. On the longer journeys, there are usually scheduled 20-minute stops for meals.
  • In many cases when you arrive at the bus station there’ll only be one bus heading in your direction, so any thoughts about it being private or government become irrelevant. If you haven't booked in advance through one of the new private companies, your choices will be limited to whichever bus is leaving next.
  • Once on the road, you’ll realise that all buses are slow. On sealed roads you can expect to cover around 50km/h, but on dirt roads 30km/h or less. In the rainy season, journeys can be severely disrupted. Thankfully, new roads are spreading rapidly across the land and turning many troublesome dirt sections into slick sections of sealed road. Unfortunately this has seen an increase in road accidents due to speed.
  • Remember when asking about departure times that the Ethiopian clock is used locally (add six hours to get the Western time).
  • In remote areas long waits for buses to fill is normal – some may not leave at all. In general, the earlier you get to the bus station, the better chance you have of catching the first bus out of town.
  • The major drawback with bus travel is the size of the country. For the Historical Circuit alone, you’ll spend a total of at least 10 days sitting on a bus to cover the 2500km.
  • On most journeys with durations that last longer than one day, there are overnight stops en route (Ethiopian law stipulates that all long-distances buses must be off the road by 6pm, although in practice this is often ignored). In many cases you won’t be allowed to remove luggage from the roof, so you should pack toiletries and other overnight items to take with you in a small bag on the bus.
  • Smaller and more remote towns are usually served by minibuses or Isuzu trucks. They're usually faster and sometimes cheaper, but you take your life in your hands if you decide to travel in one.

Costs

Buses are very cheap in Ethiopia. Both government-run and private buses work out at around US$1.50 to US$1.75 per 100km. You will pay double or triple this for one of the newer private companies, but we think it's always worth it.

Reservations

  • For Sky and Selam buses, tickets should be booked as far ahead as possible (a week is a good idea).
  • Tickets for most long-distance journeys (over 250km) can usually be bought in advance. If you can, do: it guarantees a seat (though not a specific seat number on private buses) and cuts out the touts who sometimes snap up the remaining tickets to resell for double the price to latecomers. Most government ticket offices are open daily from 4.30am to 6pm. For short distances (less than 250km), tickets can usually only be bought on the day.
  • If you would like a whiff of fresh air on your journey, get a seat behind the driver as he tends to buck the Ethiopian trend of keeping windows firmly closed and keeps his window cracked open. Though on the flip side, if there’s an accident these are often the worst seats to be in!

Hitching

In the past, if someone asked for a ride in Ethiopia, it was usually assumed that it was because they couldn’t afford a bus fare and little sympathy was spared for them. Many Ethiopians also suspected hitchers of hidden motives such as robbery.

However, for some towns not readily served by buses or light vehicles, hitching is now quite normal, and you will be expected to pay a ‘fare’. Negotiate this in advance. The best place to look for lifts is at the hotels, bars and cafes in the centre of town.

  • Be aware that the density of vehicles on many roads is still very low in Ethiopia; on the remote roads you’ll be lucky to see any.
  • Know that hitching is never entirely safe, and it’s not recommended. Travellers who decide to hitch should understand that they are taking a small but potentially serious risk. Hitching is safer in pairs. Additionally, try to let someone know where you’re planning to go. Women should never hitch alone.

Local Transport

  • In many of the larger towns, a minibus service provides a quick, convenient and cheap way of hopping about town (from around Birr2 for short journeys). ‘Conductors’ generally shout out the destination of the bus; if in doubt, ask.
  • Taxis operate in many of the larger towns, including Addis Ababa. Prices are reasonable, but foreigners as well as well-heeled Ethiopians are always charged more for ‘contract services’. Ask your hotel for a fare estimate.
  • Bajajs (motorised rickshaws) are common in many towns; a seat in a shared bajaj across town shouldn’t cost more than Birr5. Hiring the vehicle for you alone will cost about Birr15 to Birr20 for the same trip.

Minibuses & Isuzu Trucks

  • Minibuses are commonly used between towns connected by sealed roads or to cover short distances. Legally they are not allowed to operate over a distance greater than 150km but plenty of drivers flout this rule. Some of these travel at night to reduce the chances of a brush with the police – or, during daylight hours, the driver merely swaps his papers halfway through the journey so as to confuse the police. Minibuses cost slightly more than buses, but they leave more often and cover the distances more quickly. A ride in one is also more likely to kill you! Avoid those travelling at night. You’ll usually find them at bus stations.
  • Some foreigners used to travel around remote regions in the back of goods trucks. The Lower Omo Valley was a popular place to do this. It’s now illegal and, contrary to travellers’ rumours that it’s in order to make tourists pay for organised tours, it’s actually for safety reasons – though yes, the rule only seems to be enforced on foreigners!

Taxi

In the towns, villages and countryside of Ethiopia taxis offer two kinds of service: ‘contract taxis’ and ‘share-taxis’. Share-taxis ply fixed routes, stop and pick people up when hailed and generally operate like little buses. They become ‘contract taxis’ when they are flagged down (or ‘contracted’) by an individual or a group for a private journey. The fare is then split between all the passengers in the taxi.

Though not really ‘taxis’ at all, minibuses, trucks, 4WDs and various other kinds of cars can all be contracted in the same way as contract taxis. Contracting a large minibus for yourself is seen as perfectly normal.

Before hiring a contract taxi, always negotiate the fare before you get in, or you may be asked to pay far above the going rate at the end of the journey.

Train

Although train was not a viable way to get around Ethiopia at the time of writing, it may well be by the time you read this.

Major train infrastructure projects are currently underway, with the following sections completed or under construction at the time of writing:

  • Dire Dawa–Djibouti Completed but of little use to domestic travellers.
  • Addis Ababa–Dire Dawa Largely completed and due to open shortly.
  • Addis Ababa–Mekele Under construction, but probably a few years off completion.

Travellers’ Lore

Once there was a dog, a goat and a donkey. They wanted to go on a journey together, and decided to take a bus. The donkey paid and got out, the dog paid, got out but never got his change, and the goat got out but never paid.

To this day, and whenever a vehicle passes, the dog still chases his change, the goat still scatters at the first approach, and the donkey just plods tranquilly on.

Ethiopian folk tale