By Land Rover Defender through Ethiopia

Ethiopia: The other Africa

Gorgeous, surprising but sometimes also maddening. Ethiopia is inimitable, never boring and very different from the rest of Africa. For overlanders who are tough enough, it’s a must see.

Text: Andrea Dijkstra            
Photography: Jeroen van Loon

'Stooooooooop! "With slipping tires we come to a halt, our faces squashed against the windscreen. Less than two meters from our bumper a fluffy donkey looks at us with its big Bambi-eyes. Then it skips on, as if it happens all the time. And indeed, in Ethiopia it does happen a lot. We thought traffic in countries like Lebanon, Libya or Egypt was difficult, but we have now drawn the conclusion that the by a hundred million inhabitants and at least as many animals overcrowded Ethiopia really is a challenge. Not only do you have to watch out for trucks, mini-vans and NGO cars driving around like maniacs, the hundreds of women moving about with fire wood and jerry cans on their backs, men who still don’t seem to master the herding of their cattle and children who smile and wave but also try to throw stones at your rear window. Most of your focus is on the fields, meadows and grasslands along the road where your eyes continuously gaze to spot another suicidal animal galloping down to cross the road just in front of your car. Because of these recurring emergency stops your odometer rarely goes over 30 miles per hour, despite the thousands of miles of newly by Chinese constructed tarmac. And it doesn’t get boring. In Ethiopia it never gets boring.

Slimy monster

To escape this ceaseless cacophony of human and animal madness, we settle down at Tim and Kim Village, a campsite in western Ethiopia named after the Dutch couple who runs it. After opening our rooftop tent under an immensely big tree and take a moment to enjoy the beautiful view over the huge Lake Tana, our attention is drawn to the many red, green and blue birds who continuously  touch down on the perches. While reading a book, I suddenly feel drops falling. Surprised, I look up, straight into something bloody that sweeps down and ends up in my neck. I jump up screaming while the slimy monster glides off my back landing on the chair. It turns out to be a gnawed fish over which two huge vultures are still having a fierce battle in the tree above me.


Loud Ethiopian music

During a walk along Lake Tana, we notice how gender roles are structured in Ethiopia. While smiling stark-naked boys push each other off reverse papyrus boats, their sisters walk carrying heavy jerry cans full of water back to their village Gorgora. Almost immediately we are surrounded by dozens of children dressed in rags trying to put their dusty little hands into ours. In order to escape the crowd, we slip into the local pub, which appears to be no more than a dark hut with two wooden benches, a closet, the bed of the owner and a curious chicken running around. The female manager, wearing a blue flowered dress, doesn’t sell beer and because her wooden china cabinet only shows bottles with suspicious coloured spirits, we play it safe and take a glass of Ouzo. At least we know that one from the Greek restaurant in the Netherlands. The smiling lady gives us a triple portion and turns on extremely loud Ethiopian music. She begs me to put on a similar dress which I reluctantly end up doing. Within five minutes the twelve square meters room is filled with dozens of hot bodies rhythmically moving their shoulders and necks. The crowd cheers in exultation, when we order a bottle of Araki for the Ethiopians who just entered. The local booze tastes awful, but we bite the bullet and after taking another nip, we start dancing as well. As Ethiopian dance isn’t exactly our cup of tea, we breathe a sigh of relief when after fifteen minutes we are saved by Ethiopia’s best known phenomena: a power cut. While waving goodbye to everyone, we leave the small hut and walk back to the campsite where we plunge into the unique Ethiopian silence again.

Pitch-black clouds

The following days we head further north, through the breathtaking Simien Mountains where the sandy roads have changed into small rivers because of the rain. The temperatures drop below ten degrees and our ears constantly keep popping by the rise and fall between 1000 and 3000 meters. Our Land Rover starting to emit pitch-black clouds is making us a bit anxious. But other overlanders already told us that this is normal when driving at such heights. Moreover, the Ethiopian fuel is not of good quality.

Holy place

In Axum we try to catch a glimpse of the chapel where the Ark of the Covenant should be. According to the Old Testament the golden case containing the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments was originally located in Jerusalem. But according to the Ethiopians the son of King Solomon and Ethiopian Queen Sheba took the ark to Axum. No historian or archaeologist can verify this because only a high priest is allowed to enter the chapel. Foreigners aren’t even allowed to enter the fence around the sanctuary and we are even less fortunate. Because of a ceremony in the adjacent church, the guard tells us we have to wait for three hours before we are allowed to enter the terrain. Instead, we head to the local, remarkably cosy, pub. We indulge ourselves with an always tasty and cheap injera, the national Ethiopian dish, which among less positive travellers also is known as the ‘damp bath rug’.


After the rain and cold it’s a peculiar experience to see the temperature rise to 50 degrees only hundreds of miles from Axum. We descend for five hours over a tough offroad track full of sharp rocks to the Danakil Depression, the hottest place on earth. After getting our left rear tire punctured we immediately get the chance to experience what it’s like to change a wheel in a convection oven. While sandblasted, we burn ourselves while using the red-hot tools. Exhausted and covered in sweat, we jump into our car, suddenly extremely happy with our air conditioning.

At night we stay in a village called Hamed Ela, a collection of huts made of branches covered with plastic. The Afar live here, nomads calling the sweltering depression their home. With a temperature of 37 degrees Celsius at night, we still find it difficult to fall asleep in our roof tent.

When we get up at 5 o’clock in the morning, we first have to retrieve three armed soldiers. Due to lack of space two of them have to sit on the roof of our car. The Danakil Depression, largely a salt lake located close to the border with Eritrea, is still a hotbed of simmering conflict. Since five tourists were abducted and killed in this area in January 2012, the Ethiopian government has increased security significantly.

Driving over the salt plain, we are amazed when we see a trail of hundreds of camels passing us by. It took seven days for these camel caravans to walk from the Ethiopian highlands to the Depression. Munching and blinking their eyes with long lashes the animals seem to stare at us surprisingly. A few kilometres further away the caravans stop. Hundreds of Afar men are cutting salt blocks from the plain and loading them on the grumbling animals. The heat is unbearable and some of the still unloaded camels are lying around with their heads resting onto the salt.

We continue to the 130 meters below sea level located Dalol, where one of the soldiers stays with our car for protection and the rest of us climb onto the mushroom shaped salt rocks. A landscape of ochre coloured cliffs holding bubbling green yellow sulphur lakes stretches out behind it. Together with our guide we carefully walk between the lakes. One wrong move and your foot will crack through the crunchy crust and you will be cooked. Everything bubbles and simmers and in some places white steam even comes out of the ground. Because of three tectonic plates slowly moving apart the inside of the earth is coming out. Despite us covering our mouths and noses with scarfs, the penetrating sulphur smell makes us gasp for fresh air. At the same time the spectacular scenery is amazing and for a moment it feels like we’re standing at the end of the world.

Vertical cliff

A few days later we gasp for air again, but this time because of high heights. In the Canyon-like Tigray mountains, that houses 120 Orthodox Christian rock churches, we’re planning to visit the church Abune Yemata. But this sounds easier than it is. First we have to find the priest who’s the only one carrying the key of the church. Fortunately, we bump into the man, dressed in white robe and turban, at the nearby river where his cows are drinking. While his fellow villagers passionately kiss the wooden key he wears on a cord around his neck, it takes us nearly half an hour of negotiating to agree on a moderate entrance fee. Together with the priest and three ‘assistants’ we start the climb courageously. But ten minutes later when we face a vertical cliff, I squeak: ‘Is this really where we have to go up?!’ After having taken our shoes off, I put my hands and feet in the timeworn holes in the wall, as directed by the assistants. Unsecured and without ropes I slowly climb up. But when my hand slips from one of the holes, both my legs start trembling. I catch my breath as headlines of a Dutch traveller fallen to death in Ethiopia run through my head. However, one of the helpers pulls my hand to another hole, I find my grip and after a deep breath I can climb further.

Upon reaching the top I’m astonished by seeing the 70-year-old priest patiently waiting for us. With adrenaline still pumping the stunning view from the top of the tiny plateau literally takes my breath away. Surprised, I look right into a cavity filled with skulls and bones, which appears to be the honourable destination of the predecessors of our priest. He beckons us to follow him on a narrow ledge right beside a staggering, gaping depth, but smilingly tries to keep us from looking down. Once at a wooden door, which again is abundantly kissed by the assistants, the priest claims another 50 birr (2.50 euros) before he will open the door for us. We agree while sighing and step inside the dark room right after him. While getting used to the dark, the walls and ceilings appear to be fully covered with colourful frescoes. We are very impressed with the good condition of these ancient paintings and even more so about the way believers have carved churches out of rocks at these inaccessible places and still, even at old age, climb to these churches.


Mystical journey of discovery

Just as special are the churches in the remote Lalibela, which is only reachable by a beautiful dirt track running alongside mountains, grasslands and thatched huts. Once in the mountain village, at first glance you won’t see anything of the cathedral-like structures. This is because these buildings are completely underground, carved out of rocks and yet still freestanding because they are surrounded by slots. Because it’s Sunday we get the chance to not only admire the unimaginable structures but as well the thousands of Ethiopians dressed in typical white shawls. Dozens of people ecstatically kiss the doorsteps, floors and doorways of the churches and some constantly bend forwards while reading small faded Bibles. One man even lays his cheek against one of the walls for more than five minutes. And a priest, dressed in a robe stitched with golden thread, recites solemnly from a Bible which is placed on a stand. Strolling through the corridors linking these churches, we imagine ourselves centuries back in time.

Arrogant look

Bush camping, unfortunately, isn’t easy in the overcrowded Ethiopia. We manage several times to find a nice spot by searching for one at dusk. But just when we’ve opened our rooftop tent in a valley behind some saplings, two warriors of the Oromo tribe notice us. The suspicious men dressed in loincloth and armed with Kalashnikovs slowly come closer to have a better look. But as soon as they see that we are two innocent faranjis - whites – they relax and thirty minutes later they even ask if they can sleep at our camp site to protect us against hyenas. They sleep the whole night lying side by side on a small blanket next to our car. The next morning they take us for a glass of fresh milk given by one of their cows. On our way to the herd we are suddenly in the middle of an exciting hunting scene when one of the warriors sneaks through the tall grass and points his Kalashnikov at something invisible. However, after a few seconds he lowers his weapon. Instead of a hyena it appears to be a wild boar, which these Muslims don’t eat.

A few days later, when we bush camp under an old tree in a large valley, we are not received in the same hospitable way. It turns out that we’re camping on the exact route to a local school and in the morning at least fifty children gather around our car begging for a pen, book, plastic bottle or t-shirt. We’ve already visited many poor countries, but the way children demand a pen and how even grown men, while carrying a bag of flour on their shoulders, hold up their hands, is new to us. The thousands of Western development organizations, whose signboards can be seen next to the road at each village, probably play a role in this. And passing by the endless green grasslands and fields we every time wonder how it can be that this country has food shortages.

Face to face with a hyena

A couple of days later we stand face to face with a hyena, but this time for real. Harar, a city close to the border with Somalia, has had a remarkable tradition for centuries now. Every night on the outskirts of town people feed the hyenas so they won’t attack the citizens. Strolling through the picturesque alleys we soon find the so called hyenaboy who attracts the timid animals with his high cry. While the dotted animals come closer, we remark how relaxed the citizens pass by the predators. We too get the change to feed them, which proves to be a thrilling experience. While sitting on your knees, they appear to be very big abruptly pulling and tear the meat from your small stick.

Monkey business

When we visit the Awash National Park, we suddenly understand the expression ‘monkey business’. As we set out by foot in the afternoon to have a quick look at one of the camping spots, a baboon family appears to have taken up the spot. In no time a male monkey leans against our car door. Luckily we were clever enough to close our windows. But the next morning we are less focused. During breakfast all of a sudden more than thirty squirrel monkeys are gathering around us. A mother monkey with a baby monkey stuck to her belly grabs our expensive Dutch cheese and climbs into a tree. They literally try to steal everything. There is no other option than to continue our breakfast inside the car, while the monkeys are sitting on our bonnet giving us the dirty look.

After some rest and a couple of nice tasty beers and snacks at the campsite of Wim's Holland House in the capital Addis Ababa, we drive hundreds of kilometers south where steep mountains and grasslands change into fresh palm tree forests. On the side of the road, more and more children show up with baskets full of mangos, pineapples and bananas. We take a dirt road towards the famous Omo Valley, where dozens of indigenous tribes are still living a very traditional life. Best known and most commercial are the Mursi, famous for women with stone plates in their lower lip. But as we don’t like to donate dozens of euros or having to pay for each picture, we drive towards the region of the slightly less touristic Hamer people.

In the area we meet an Ethiopian boy who works for a local school and offers to show us around and translate in the neighbouring Hamer villages. In the first village a Hamer woman immediately starts checking her red clay haircut in one of our side mirrors. When she expresses the fact that she’s hungry, we give her a piece of bread. But she gazes at it, clearly never having seen this before. After we take a small bite, she carefully starts tasting it as well. A little further down we bump into a women with shiny breasts carrying yellow jerry cans who tells us that she’s going to brew local sorghum beer for a wedding a couple of villages away. She wears thick metal bracelets around her muscular upper arms, a goatskin decorated with beads, and her whole back is full of scars, probably because of the controversial floggings during the traditional cow jumping. Boys have to manage to jump over cows standing lined up a row. When they succeed they will be recognized as a man and women will beg to be whipped to show their love for the men.

Although it’s interesting to see these people living in their two floors huts, where the only way of entering is by crawling in, at the same time it feels a bit like going to a circus. In the end we do pay a few dollars to compensate for our visit. Then we drive to Omorate, the muddy border town where that day we are the first getting our passports stamped. After crossing many dried up riverbeds for half an hour, the landscape starts to be drier. After a few miles we have to show our exit stamps to the Ethiopian border police housed in a rickety building. No flag, no barrier. Nothing indicates that we are entering Kenya. The immense Lake Turkana looms in the distance. We are just in time to see the beautiful orange sunset. While enjoying the silence which we lacked so much the previous few weeks, we say goodbye to the crowded but ever so beautiful Ethiopia.



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