Tourists are allowed three months of using their international driving licence if driving their own vehicle, after which you need an Ethiopian one. This is rarely enforced and most overlanders we met hadn’t bothered with the convoluted process of obtaining an Ethiopian licence and had yet to encounter any problems – roll the dice if you so please.
For rental cars, most companies won't hire you a vehicle unless you have a local licence.
Fuel & Spare Parts
Fuel (both petrol and diesel) is quite widely available, apart from the more remote regions such as the southwest. Unleaded petrol is not available – the choice is between diesel and normal petrol (called Benzene in Ethiopia). Note that your vehicle’s fuel consumption will be 25% higher in highland Ethiopia than at sea level because of the increased altitudes.
While there are helpful garages throughout the country (ask your hotel to recommend one), spare parts are not abundant outside Addis Ababa. It’s wise to take stock while in Addis and acquire all that you may need for the journey ahead. Thanks to Toyota Land Cruisers being the choice of most tour operators, their parts are more plentiful and less expensive than those for Landrovers.
Most people hire a 4WD with a driver. Recent road improvements mean this isn’t always necessary, but since all tour companies only offer 4WD it’s something of an academic point!
- Despite competition between the numerous tour agents in Addis Ababa that hire 4WDs, prices are steep and start from US$180 per day. Most companies include unlimited kilometres, a driver, driver allowance (for their food and accommodation), fuel, third-party insurance, a collision damage waiver and government taxes in their rates; check all these details, and ask if service charges will be added afterwards and if there are set driver’s hours. Some companies allow you to pay for fuel separately. This is almost always cheaper than paying an all-inclusive rate.
- Know that prices are always negotiable and vary greatly depending on the period of rental and the season. Despite the hassle, you’ll always pay much less organising things yourself in Ethiopia (or dealing directly with a local company) rather than hiring an agency at home to arrange it.
- Drivers are mandatory – currently no agency offers self-drive 4WD outside Addis. These drivers can be very useful as guides-cum-interpreters-cum-mechanics. Although tips are expected afterwards, a nice gesture during the trip is to share food together (which costs very little).
- Though expensive, the chief advantage of 4WD hire over bus travel is the time that can be saved. Trip durations are at least halved and there’s no waiting around in remote regions for infrequent and erratic buses. Note also that some national parks can only be entered with a 4WD.
- Some Addis Ababa–based agencies have branch offices in towns on the Historical Route and can rent 4WDs, but only by prearrangement.
- Self-drive cars are only hired for use in and around Addis and even that is rare. If you’re still interested in hiring one to toot around the capital (and it’s hard to see what you’d gain from doing this rather than just taking a taxi), you must have a valid international driver’s licence and be between 25 and 70 years old. Vehicles cost from US$120 per day with 50km to 70km free kilometres.
- No companies currently offer motorcycle rental.
- On the outskirts of the towns or villages, look out for people, particularly children playing on the road or kerbside. Unmarked speed bumps can also be an unpleasant surprise.
- Night driving is never recommended, as the risk of accidents escalates considerably after dark. Shiftas (bandits) still operate in the more remote areas. Additionally, some trucks park overnight in the middle of the road – without lights.
- In the country, livestock is the main hazard; camels wandering onto the road can cause major accidents in the lowlands. Many animals, including donkeys, are unaccustomed to vehicles and are very car-shy, so always approach slowly and with caution.
- During the rainy season, a few roads, particularly in the west and southwest, become impassable. Check road conditions with the local authorities before setting out.
Ethiopian roads continue to improve at a rapid rate, but even so plenty remain unsealed.
- Roads in the south have generally improved hugely in recent years and even many parts of the Omo Valley are now accessible year-round even without a 4WD. However, there are still plenty of patches where potholes add a little bounce to your journey.
- Sealed roads head west from Addis Ababa and with major construction works underway, expect sealed roads all the way to Gambela in the not-too-distant future. Elsewhere in the west, many lowland roads can be diabolical in the rains.
- Decent sealed roads all but link Addis Ababa with most of the main towns on the northern circuit, but there are still some potholed sections.
- Harar and Dire Dawa, both 525km east of Addis Ababa, are connected to the capital with good sealed roads.
- Driving is on the right-hand side of the road.
- The speed limit for cars and motorcycles is 60km/h in the towns and villages and 100km/h outside the towns.
- The standard of driving is generally not high; devices such as mirrors or indicators are more decorative than functional.
- On highland roads, drive defensively and beware of trucks coming fast the other way, sometimes on the wrong side of the road.
- Keep a sharp eye out for a row of stones or pebbles across the road: it marks roadworks or an accident.
- Seatbelts are compulsory for the driver (but nobody else), but many vehicles don’t have seatbelts!
Bringing Your Own Vehicle
If you’re bringing your own 4WD or motorcycle, you’ll need a carnet de passage (a guarantee issued by your own national motoring association that you won’t sell your vehicle in the country you are travelling), the vehicle’s registration papers and proof of third-party insurance that covers Ethiopia.
Third-party vehicle insurance is required by law.
Thankfully, unlike some other African countries, which demand that vehicles are covered by an insurance company based in that country, Ethiopia only requires your insurance from elsewhere is also valid in Ethiopia.
Although not mandatory, we’d also recommend comprehensive coverage.
If you don’t have either, the numerous offices of Ethiopian Insurance Corporation (www.eic.com.et) sell third-party and comprehensive insurance.