Ethiopia is a beautiful country with bags to see, eat and do. It is also crazy at times and can be frustrating to the traveller not used to the African way of life.
In this post, I will write about my experience after spending four days in Ethiopia. I will write about some of the brilliant things I saw and will go into some of the mistakes I made so if you are to do a similar trip you won’t repeat them.
I travelled to Ethiopia after spending three months working in Cairo, Egypt. Ramadan had just come to an end and Eid was about to begin so I was keen to escape the madness of Egypt. Four days in any country is a very short amount of time to really get a feel for the place. However, I hope my experience in Ethiopia shows that it is possible to embrace the culture and see some fantastic sights in such a short time. During this trip, I travelled with a friend from the British Embassy in Cairo.
Planning and Flights
When planning what to do and where to go, as always, I came up with a few itineraries. http://wikitravel.org/en/Ethiopia is a great place to start and I often use this site to research any locations I am travelling to. The cheapest way to get into Ethiopia from Egypt is the Cairo to Addis Ababa flight. I flew with Egypt Air but Ethiopian Airlines also fly this route at a competitive price.
I travelled to Ethiopia during the wet season. The travel guides do not recommend this but I found it enjoyable after spending three months in the blistering heat of Cairo. I also found there were fewer tourists around which I found to be a bonus.
My plan was to get out of Addis Ababa fairly quickly to see the more rural areas of the country. The two stand out locations I had read about that I wanted to visit were Lalibela http://wikitravel.org/en/Lalibela and the Simien Mountains http://wikitravel.org/en/Simien_National_Park.
I decided I wanted to visit a less touristy location and do some trekking in the mountains so I decided to go to the Simien Mountains. Lalibela will have to wait for another day.
After landing in Addis Ababa in the early hours of the morning, we decided to get an early flight to Gondar. This was an internal flight with Ethiopian Airlines and was fairly cheap (£100 return). I booked this online as I didn’t have time to buy the flights at a cheaper rate in Addis but it was still fairly well priced.
After landing at the small town of Gondar in the early morning we jumped into one of the local taxis to go from Gondar Airport to Gondar town centre. It cost around 150 birr (approx £5.20 or $6.70) and took 30 minutes. It was easy enough to get a taxi and only took a little haggling to get him down to that price.
We asked to go directly to the bus station. The bus station is crazy! As soon as us “faranji’s” (the word used by the Ethiopians to describe a white, western tourist) stepped out of the taxi we were swarmed by locals trying to usher us into their buses and taxis. Having lived in Egypt for three months we were both used to being hassled by locals so took it in our stride. We ignored the crowd around us and headed to the biggest most battered bus. Our destination was Debark, the gateway town into the Simien Mountains.
The bus was full to the rafters. We were the only obvious tourists on there with the locals that use the bus regularly. It was really cheap to get the bus to Debark. We paid around 30 birr (£1.05 or $1.30) which was an absolute bargain. The bus took around 3 hours and was a great welcome to Ethiopia. The route from Gondar to Debark is a decent quality road with great views of the farmland and rural life.
Debark is the gateway to the Simien Mountains. We were keen to spend as little money as possible so didn’t book anything with a tour company as we felt it was unnecessary and expensive. Saying that we were both fairly experienced in hiking, spending time in the mountains and with African travel so if you are a beginner or slightly nervous it is probably best to book through a travel company.
We headed to the HQ of the National Park to check in and pay any mandatory fees. It is worth printing off your own maps of the Simien Mountains (just print the ones from google images, they are as good as anything you can get in the country) before you go to Ethiopia as the mapping in Debark is pretty terrible. The websites below have enough information between them to get you to Debark with a plan of what you want to do in your time frame. They also have the address of the HQ, possible routes you can follow and prices. We found the prices slightly inflated than those on the website but this is one of the frustrations of Ethiopia:
The town is small enough and the HQ is easy to find. If in doubt just ask a local but be prepared for them to try to sell you something in return for information.
We knew we would require a scout but we didn’t really want to pay for a guide. A scout is a local man who follows you around and carries a rifle. Initially, it felt quite unnecessary to have a scout but looking back he was definitely worth having. We felt the guides in the HQ were trying to rip us off, so we decided to head to our first camp with just a scout.
The Simien Mountains – Day One
As we were only in Ethiopia for four days, we had to maximise our time. We landed in Addis Ababa at around 0200 and by 1400 the same day we were in Debark, about to set off for our first day of hiking.
We did a short hike of around 20km to Buyit Ras. Buyit Ras lodge is a small brick building with three rooms and a few beds in it. The local girls that work/live there can cook up some rice or pasta for you for a very small price. They also sold some beers and soft drinks there. This is the perfect place to stay in the wet season for a budget traveller. For those with an unlimited budget, you can stay at the nearby Simien Lodge but this is very pricey when compared to Buyit Ras. Buyit Ras lodge was fantastic. There were beds with duvets (silky and scratchy but we didn’t care) and the girls went above and beyond to make us feel welcome. The whisky we had brought from duty-free was very well received here.
The walk from Debark to Buyit Ras takes you through the lowlands of the Simien Mountains. More beautiful views are found higher in the mountains but the lowlands have a different charm and appeal that shouldn’t be missed. You get a feel for how the local communities live in this area as you pass through farm after farm on a steady uphill climb. My trekking partner for this journey struggled with the altitude and the weight of his kit so you need to be at an above average level of fitness to truly enjoy the route.
The scout spoke very little English but was more than capable of directing us to Buyit Ras. We paid for his accommodation and also fed him throughout the trip. I am not sure if that is what you are meant to do or not but I felt like he was one of “my men” so we had to keep him fed and watered. In all honesty, we were more like his men but our Faranji status made us feel like we should look after him.
That day we only trekked for an afternoon but it was still tough going. Often tourists that are short on time get a vehicle to take them all the way to Sankaber lodge but I would not recommend that. The lowlands were a real delight and I would highly recommend a day of hiking through them.
The Simien Mountains – Day Two
Our route for day two was to go from Buyit Ras to Sankaber lodge. This is a fairly steady 20km of trekking. We were pretty hungover after drinking two litres of Jameson whisky between two of us and plenty of local beers (St George beers go down well after a long day of trekking). Still, we got up at 0700 ready to tackle the second day of trekking. My trekking partner was feeling pretty stiff and couldn’t carry his kit for day two. Rather than carrying his kit again, he paid a local Ethiopian to use his pack-horse. He actually paid for two horses. One horse for him to ride and another to carry his kit. Seeing as we had a couple of horses I also offloaded my heavy rucksack and put it onto the pack-horse.
If you are on a tight budget I wouldn’t recommend getting a horse as it ended up costing around 1500 birr (£50) for the day for two horses. I am sure it is possible to get them cheaper but there was only one guy in Buyit Ras that had horses for us to use.
The views from Buyit Ras to Sankaber are stunning. One of the best parts of the whole trip was coming across a huge group of Gelada Baboons. They are huge monkeys and it is a brilliant experience. It is amazing how close you can get to them without them showing any interest in you.
During your time in Ethiopia, you will often get young children trying to sell stuff to you. I saw them selling things from umbrellas, home-made slingshots, other handicrafts and bottles of fizzy drinks. I bought a slingshot for around 10 birr but it is down to you if you want to buy something. Our scout often told the kids to clear off in Amharic which did the job of stopping them from following us.
Once we arrived at Sankaber lodge we explored its vast grounds. Apparently, it is the largest and best lodge in the Simien Mountains. We moved our kit into our sleeping room and had an afternoon of rest. The room was fairly large with 12 single beds and bedding. We didn’t travel with sleeping bags and didn’t need them at any point of the trip.
We were told that there was no food available in Sankaber but we found this to be false. With some persuasion, we ended up getting hot drinks, an evening meal of rice and a breakfast of bread and porridge. It cost a lot more for food in Sankaber than Buyit Ras but there was no other choice. A more switched on traveller would bring enough food for the whole journey. Us un-prepared Yorkshiremen did not do that and paid the price.
Day Three- Back to Gondar and Sickness
As we were short of time we couldn’t push out another day of trekking. We did get to see the ever so impressive Jinbar Waterfall. Do not miss this. It is simply stunning.
We hitched a lift back to Gondar with an American couple who had planned and paid for their trip to the mountains through a tour company. It made it very cheap for us to get back but was just a bit of good fortune.
We spent the rest of the day and night in Gondar. That afternoon we took a stroll around the vibrant town of Gondar. Lonely Planet told us to visit the castle so we did. We even paid for a tour guide to take us around for an hour. If travelling on a budget, having a guide isn’t necessary.
The American couple we hitched a lift back with recommended that we visited the Debre Berhan Selassie church. This is a beautiful, small and ornate church. Well worth the trip to the top of the hill to view it.
In the evening we went for some food at the three sister’s restaurant and then went to watch some Ethiopian dancing. If you have never seen Ethiopian dancing it is well worth a visit to a local bar where dancers will often be performing. The best way to find out the top place to go is to speak to the locals.
It is best to forget the last 24 hours of the trip. Like many people who visit Africa I got some D & V. Actually, we both did. That was us written off for the next day. The fourth day was spent getting an internal flight back to Addis then getting a flight back to Cairo. We won’t be the first and we won’t be the last tourists that get sick in Ethiopia. I’m not sure exactly what caused it but after 24 hours I was pretty much back to normal.
What to bring?
We were both woefully unprepared for this trip. I had limited clothes that were suitable for trekking in the wet season in Ethiopia. We had not really planned on coming to Ethiopia so the only clothes we had were for the Cairo summer. I stopped in a local shop to buy a semi-waterproof jacket and got absolutely ripped off as I had to pay faranji prices. I ended up paying 1300 birr for this pretty rubbish jacket.
Top tip. Bring everything you need with you.
I would recommend bringing:
- At least a few hundred US Dollars. Most nationalities need to buy a visa at the airport which is actually pretty easy. Change currency to Birr at the airport.
- 1 x rucksack
- Decent, sturdy shoes for rough terrain. I used some trail running trainers and these were sufficient.
- 1 x lightweight sleeping bag
- 1 x lightweight roll matt
- 1 x lightweight waterproof jacket
- 1 x warm layer
- 1 x t-shirt
- 1 x pair of shorts
- 1x trousers
- 3 x pairs of socks
- 2 x 1ltr water bottle or camelback and water bottle
- 1 x Tupperware box (always good for carrying food)
- 1 x lycra undershorts (I find these to be more comfortable than boxers and they prevent chaffing)
- 1 x head torch
- 1 x jet boil or stove
- Electrical stuff with appropriate chargers, solar chargers or power packs
- Camera for those amazing views
This is a rough and ready list but is a good start. Don’t pack too much. Keep the weight down where possible.
We had a great time in Ethiopia. I would love to return to the country as there is so much more to see than the snapshot I can provide here.