Part of a trip from Kenya to Egypt, stopping along the way in Ethiopia, Somaliland, Djibouti and Sudan.


– first part of my visit to Ethiopia in November/December 2014 –

I am a victim of my own faulty planning. Originally, I wanted to head north in Kenya to get to Ethiopia overland through the beautiful region around lake Turkana. I had not properly informed myself about Ethiopian visa rules and while it is very easy to get a visa on arrival when flying into Ethiopia, it is impossible to get one at the border and near impossible to get a visa for Ethiopia in any other African country. I tried in Nairobi but failed. I am forced to fly. At Addis Ababa airport, they take 20 $, do not even seriously look at your passport and stick the visa in. Had I applied for a visa back home in Germany, I could have gone overland as planned.

Addis Ababa

I left home with not a single visa in my passport, I have to catch up. The Egyptian embassy is my first stop: “Yes, no problem with your visa.” “How long do I have to wait?” “Three days.” “Working days?” “No, just three days.” I leave, better wait two more days and apply over the weekend. Egypt is another country where I would get the visa on arrival flying in, but at the border I want to cross, I have to have it in advance.

The next day, I try Djibouti. Embassy staff is rude and tell me to try the consulate in Dire Dawa, maybe there. I can’t find the embassy of Somaliland. In case you wonder what Somaliland is, look at the map and you will see that Somalia is shaped like a seven. Most of the upper stroke of that seven is Somaliland. It is independent and stable but recognized by no one. I know the area of town where the embassy is, but not the exact location. I come across a sign “Embassy of Somalia” and follow it. As Ethiopia is in a dispute with Somalia, I guess they might have taken the embassy and given it to the Somalilanders. As I approach, the guard seems alert. He comes a few steps closer and starts with a clear “NO”, the next words are “Somaliland, Somaliland?”. I nod. Visiting Somaliland is okay, visiting Somalia totally out of question. He points me in the direction of the Somaliland embassy. As common with little visited countries/territories, I am warmly received and soon thereafter leave with the visa in my passport.

A pleasant embassy experience is Sudan. Tourists visas for Sudan are seriously hard to get but transit visas for 14 days do not require much paperwork. They do not come cheap at 93 $ but that is an amount I am ready to pay to visit a country whose head of state is under indictment by the International Criminal Court. I know that the visa usually takes 24 hours to issue but I take my chance and ask if I can collect it already in the afternoon. Please. They tell me to come back at 2 PM. Thank you.

Visiting embassies is not the only thing I do. In the morning, I head to the embassies but after I have done my “work”, I explore the parts of town I had to go anyway. There are many churches, the National Museum, the “Red Terror” Martyrs Memorial Museum, the Derg Monument or the Ethnographical Museum at the University of Addis Ababa which is housed in a former palace of Emperor Haile Selassie. I head to Mount Entoto, for the church and the old Emperor’s palace, a modest wooden affair. I have an outside look at the headquarters of the African Union, a gift from China. There is a lot of construction work going on all around the city. Soon, an above ground metro will grace Addis.

I go for a long dinner with Alexander. He travels the world with a special interest in indigenous peoples. In Ethiopia, he focused on the Omo valley where different tribes lead very traditional lives. He takes amazing portraits. Alexander did great work back then, and he does great work now. Just in between people have been starting to notice. His pictures have been published in the media and displayed at exhibitions in over 60 countries, including in National Geographic, GEO or CNN. One of his pictures has been displayed at the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues at the UN Headquarters in Manhattan.

There is a lot of visible poverty. Children begging in the street, people living more in a tent than a hut (but speaking English and enjoying a chat). In the centre, prostitutes line up in the evening. They stand there shyly and at first you ask yourself what all these women are doing here. A lot of them are Muslim, fully covered with headscarf and everything. I only get the story as one of them, by look and behaviour from another part of Africa, comes up and aggressively wants me to follow her to a place “where we can have fun”. At night, the street sellers are still out, the little stalls or just the things on the floor lit up by LED-flashlights. I meet a scammer on the street, who talks nicely to me, and invites me for a cup of tea. I know the trick, after drinking the tea they will come with an outsized bill and pressure you to pay it. As I tell him I have no interest in tea, he abruptly leaves. There is a surprising number of blind people and the infrastructure of Addis is not kind to them. There are also many signs, urging people to fully include impaired people in life: “See the person, Not the Disability”. Great to see. A deranged, naked woman roams the streets.

For many people the first association coming to mind about Ethiopia is poverty. For the older generation, it is also famine. There was one in 1958, in 1973 and a massive famine, killing an estimated 1.2 million people from 1983 to 1985. The famous Live Aid concert was staged to fight that famine. Ethiopia certainly is a poor country, currently it is ranked on place number 173 (out of 189) in the Human Development Index but Ethiopia is also a culturally rich and a proud country. There is a reason why the headquarters of the African Union is located in Addis Ababa, and why the name of Ethiopia rings sweet in many an Africans’ ear: It is the only country on the continent that was never colonized.

I dare to say, that the main reason for that is its geographical location. Ethiopia is landlocked and the horn of Africa is just very far away as you have to circle the whole African continent. There were also no riches to speak off. This isolation changed with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and one country, Italy, took great interest in the region. With the canal, it was close from the Mediterranean, and Italy was late as a nation-state and late to the “colonial game”. In the 1880s, Italy started to expand from a port on the Red Sea, taking more territory under their control in today’s Eritrea. In 1889, borders were defined with the Ethiopian Empire and in 1896 Italian forces attacked Ethiopia. The outnumbered and badly prepared Italians were defeated. For the first time ever, a European Army had lost a major battle against an African adversary. As the scholar Molefi Asante explains:   

“After the victory over Italy in 1896, Ethiopia acquired a special importance in the eyes of Africans and black people all over the world alike, as the only surviving African State that successfully defeated a European colonial power in open battle. Italy’s government who had viewed them as an inferior barbaric race were brought to their knees and subsequently forced to recognize the African nation of Ethiopia as an equal. After Adowa [location of the battle], Ethiopia became emblematic of African valor and resistance, the bastion of prestige and hope to thousands of Africans who were experiencing the full shock of European conquest and were beginning to search for an answer to the myth of African and black inferiority as well as invoking a strong sense of Pan-Africanism in people of African-american origins who had suffered equally appalling injustices at the time and many centuries before.”

Italy attacked again in 1935 and occupied Ethiopia in a bloody campaign with hundreds of thousands of dead. They stayed until 1941. Still, Ethiopia never accepted Italian rule, the Emperor Haile Selassie had fled the country, appealed to the League of Nations for help against the invaders before settling in exile in Britain. Italy proclaimed the Italian Empire of Ethiopia but never controlled all the territory. Italian rule was never accepted by the powers of Great Britain and France, nor by the League of Nations. In 1940, Italy attacked British Somaliland and by 1941 British troops were sending the Italians packing. In May of that year, Emperor Haile Selassie returned to Addis Ababa. On the grounds of the University of Addis Ababa is the famous Stairway to Nowhere, it leads nowhere but has a step for every year of Mussolini’s rule since 1922. As the Italians left, the Ethiopians put a little stone Lion of Judah, a symbol of the country, on the last step. The Italian period was short, but it left a long-lasting legacy be it in architecture, in the way Ethiopians drink coffee or in popular foods.

Ethiopia also has a special religious history. Jews were and are living in the country, many of them airlifted to Israel in the 1980s. They had been separated from other forms of Judaism for hundreds or thousands of years. They follow rituals common at the time of the second temple. In their own story, they are a part of the tribe of Dan, that was led by sons of Moses. In the Ethiopian national myth, they came to Ethiopia with Menelik I, the alleged son of King Solomon and the (Ethiopian) Queen of Sheba. Her visit, and the exchange of gifts, is recorded in the bible. Up until their demise, the Ethiopian royals had claimed kinship with the famous Jewish king. The Lion of Judah, a Jewish national and cultural symbol was also adopted by Ethiopia. Whereas in most parts of Africa Christianity came with the colonizers, it had arrived much earlier to Ethiopia, being the state religion in the 4th century already. The famous churches of Lalibela are a manifestation of this long relationship.   

The weirdest religious connection of Ethiopia though concerns Emperor Haile Selassie, its ruler from 1930 to 1974. His given name was Tafari and before becoming king he was known for a time as Ras Tafari. Ras being an honorary title meaning something like “head”, usually translated as duke. As he was crowned emperor in 1930, he made it on the cover of Time magazine with the article mentioning that “throughout the world last week Negro newsorgans hailed him as their own”. His official title was “Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah and King of Kings of Ethiopia and Elect of God” and this was seen as the fulfilment of the biblical prophecy from the Book of Revelation 5:5, where it is foretold that the Lion of the tribe of Judah will triumph. The Rastafari movement, an Afrocentric religion deeply influenced by Judeo-Christian ideas adopted Haile Selassie as the central figure of its ideology. He was revered as the second coming of Jesus and a living God. The day of his coronation is the highest holiday for Rastafaris. It was an unlikely fit; Haile Selassie in his palace did not really identify with his dreadlock wearing and marihuana smoking devotees. And I am not sure if an autocratic king, with a poor human rights record is a good fit for them.  

In the early 1970s, opposition against Haile Selassie’s rule grew stronger and the Wollo famine, where 40,000 to 80,000 Ethiopians died with the emperor seeming not to care gave ammunition to his enemies. Rising oil prices led to more discontent. He was overthrown in 1974 and replaced by the Derg, a Soviet-backed Marxist-Leninist military dictatorship. Ethiopia did not enjoy stability as there were several coups, uprisings, droughts and a war with Somalia. The Red Terror campaign of 1977-78 left up to 500,000 people dead. The famine of 1983-85 strengthened an uprising in the especially hard-hit northern areas. The Soviet Union stopped all aid in 1990 and by 1991 the EPRDF (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front) forces advanced on Addis Ababa and made history of the Derg. The EPRDF has a tight grip on the country ever since, deploying all the resources of the state to ensure electoral victory. Still, the new millennium has been mostly a time of improvement for Ethiopia. This also shows in the construction of roads. My two-year-old guidebook seems totally outdated, bus rides that it claims to take two days are now possible in one. There are even stretches of state-of-the-art highway, Chinese investments have made it possible.  

On Thursday, I finally deliver my passport to the Egyptian embassy. I can collect the visa the next Monday so it is time to leave Addis and head to the mountains.

Bale Mountains

I take a taxi to get to the bus station. For my plan to succeed, I need to take the earliest possible bus which is at 6 AM. I would never have found the bus at the absolutely dark and chaotic bus station without the help of my driver. He stays with me up until I sit on the bus. I am also glad, that I am travelling with a small 35-litre hiking backpack. The bus has no baggage storage and I can just squeeze the backpack between my legs. Shortly after noon, I alight in Dodola.

The Bale Mountains are the second major mountain range of Ethiopia after the more famous Semien mountains. They rise up to 4,377 metres at Tullu Demtu, Ethiopia’s second highest peak. For me, they are attractive as they are not too far from Addis and an ecotourism project has been established (German development aid) including a network of mountain huts. Before I can find the tourism association, they find me. I tell them I want to head to the mountains and I want to leave right now. In a richer country that approach would spell trouble, people would not be available, different plans had already been made but in a poor country, where vastly more guides are available than there is work, that approach works. Anyway, the project has no website, contacting them in advance would have been difficult.

We talk about the trek over lunch. I invite the guide and the project manager; it would be rude not to share and the whole meal will only cost a few dollars for the three of us. Ethiopian food is distinct. Some of it is delicious. I could never decide if I like injera, the sour bread that is a staple. Sometimes it is great, sometimes just too sour. Injera usually comes with a variety of tasty sauces, you take some bread, scoop up some sauce with it and put it into your mouth. After lunch we go shopping. We need food for three days. Abdi, my guide, wants me to choose. Difficult, he knows much better what food is available and how the cooking facilities look like in the huts. We are late, to speed things up a bit, we take a horse-cart to the foot of the mountains, at two or three places we need to walk besides the cart as the road is especially steep or especially muddy. We start to walk and soon find some beautiful black and white colobus monkeys in the trees. After a few hours we reach Wahoro hut on 3,300 metres of altitude.

The ecotourism project has two project managers who organize the whole thing, there is a number of guides and there are five mountain huts. All the huts are close to some village and some of the villagers are responsible for the upkeep and the cleaning of the hut. In this way, the aim is that the fees paid by the tourists are spread into the community. I honestly do not remember the exact prices but the guides and the huts cost me something like 25 $ a day. You have to prepare your own food, but some huts sell some beer and soft drinks. There is a pit latrine and water is available from a bucket. It gets chilly at night, but my sleeping bag keeps me warm.

The landscape is amazing. We stay all day above 3,000 metres, there are some cows and we meet some of the herders. We pass tiny settlements before we reach Angafu hut (3,460 m) in the early afternoon. Abdi is a great guide and interesting to talk to. He wants to get on in life. He is from a small village in these mountains but now living in Dodola with his wife, taking classes at the local university. He reads a lot and he likes to discuss. We have no matches to light the cooker. The villagers are supposed to provide them but there are none and they don’t have any. Thankfully, later that day, another couple arrives and they carry a lighter. Beautiful stars grace the night-time sky but we see and hear no wolves.  

The next day, Abdi and I have a common project. The sooner we are back in Dodola the earlier I can move on to Awasa. He has some classes at university, that he would like to participate in. We leave early. On the descent, we make a brief stop at Abdi’s family. His parents, sisters and brothers are all there. As we come back to the valley, the farmers are all active in the fields. It is harvesting season. Hay is stacked to mushrooms on the fields and we have to make way for ox-carts laden to the brim. Back in Dodola, Abdi invites me to his home, his wife has prepared lunch. She has been to Saudi Arabia working as a maid and she soon hopes to go again. The money they pay is good.   

Awasa is famous for lake Awasa. The lake promenade grants easy access, has plenty of restaurants and makes Awasa popular with Ethiopian tourists. The whole city is full of Marabou storks, which are busy collecting branches from the flowering trees for their nests. The next day, I head back to Addis Ababa.


The buses congregate near Addis main square in the early morning. It is still all dark but the two companies are well organized. I am taking one of the new luxury express buses that swarm out of Ethiopia’s capital in every direction. The ride is pleasant, the road is good, a hostess provides snacks and we even stop for a lunch that is included in the ticket.

Dire Dawa has little of touristic interest but is home to a consulate of nearby Djibouti. I failed to get a visa at the Djiboutian embassy in Nairobi and in Addis Ababa. In Nairobi they just made it difficult, in Addis it was a flat no, try the consulate. It often happens, that the closer you get, the easier it is to receive a visa. But in this case, I am being told to go to Addis (a bus ride of a full day) and to apply there, at the embassy. I tell the officer that I spoke with the embassy and that they sent me to the consulate. I show no inclination to leave his office, this is my last chance and I will fight to get the visa. I marvel a bit about the beauty of Djibouti, throw in a few landmarks and tell him how disappointed I would be if I could not visit his country. The flattering works, I am being told to leave my passport and to come back the next day for collection of the visa. I head on to Harar, I rather come back tomorrow.

Harar is in the Muslim part of predominantly Christian Ethiopia. It has a beautiful old town (UNESCO World Heritage) with colourful houses and narrow lanes. Besides that, Harar is famous for its hyena encounters. Hyenas have been fed and have become used to humans. They come to a special place at the outskirts of town every evening. For a fee, tourists can be part of the game. You can, for example, take a little stick in your mouth with a piece of meat on it and you will be eye to eye with a hyena that will come as close as 15 centimetres to you. It is a special moment. I regret visiting the hyenas, I read later that several children had been mauled by hungry hyenas that had become used to and fearless of humans.

As I head back to Dire Dawa, there is a friendly guy on the bus next to me. He doesn’t speak much English but he understands that I am from Germany. After a while, he finds a funny joke. He will always murmur “Hitler” in my direction and then start to laugh as if he just did the funniest thing the world has ever seen. He repeats the stunt a few times. I give him a curious smile. Why bother if people are doing silly things. Time to leave anyway, I head to the border at Tog-Wajale, Somaliland is waiting.