Travel in Ethiopia

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1. Posted by samsara_ (Travel Guru 5353 posts) 5y Star this if you like it!

Hi everyone

Looking to chat with anyone who has travelled in Ethiopia, particularly the Northern part of the country. I'll be there for 3 weeks in September/October. Visiting Axum, the Danokil depression and planning to trek in the Simian mountains - would be great to hear from anyone who has been to these places, or has other recommendations.


2. Posted by berner256 (Moderator 1481 posts) 5y Star this if you like it!

Yes, I've been to all of the places you've mentioned, spending a month in Ethiopia in both 2013 and 2014. It's one of my favorite countries; and I plan to be back.

I hired a driver to take me around the country. The first trip included a couple of internal flights to save time (between Addis Ababa, Axum and Lalibela), as I first visited the southern part of the country, which I found more interesting.

I liked hiking the Simien mountains; and seeing the Gelada baboons up close. I've been through Axum twice but didn't like it as much as Lalibela, where I spent a lot of time watching people worshipping at the rock hewn churches. It was an experience I will never forget.

I don't know if you're traveling independently or with a group. If traveling independently, it's better to join a tour from Mekele to the Danakil Depression. As I recently posted on another part of the Forum, I had to pay bribes to corrupt officials and police in Afar province to get in to the Depression and to get out. They threatened to jail my excellent driver, who has vowed never to return to Afar province. Check out some of my photos in the gallery.

If traveling independently, know that the Ethiopian government requires that you hire armed Army soldiers to accompany you into the Depression, along with a guide (see my photos). I hired four soldiers, including one to guard the vehicle when we hiked in the Depression. Protection is required as some tourists were injured, killed or kidnapped in the past. We slept near the Army camp. There are no hotels in the Depression; and the tour groups camp out. Elsewhere in Ethiopia, many national parks require that you hire a guide and an armed scout.

One of my favorite places in Ethiopia is Bale Mountains National Park (see photos). If you go, visit both sections of the park, particularly the one that's usually above the clouds. The hikes are amazing. Ethiopia is a bird watcher's delight.

Let me know if I can be of further help. Check out my travel maps for 2013 and 2014 to see where I went in Ethiopia; and to view some photos. Most of the photos of the 2013 and 2014 trips to Ethiopia are on another Web site. I can send you a link.

[ Edit: Edited on 26-Jul-2015, at 18:11 by berner256 ]

3. Posted by berner256 (Moderator 1481 posts) 5y Star this if you like it!

In Axum, don't forget to visit the local market, which is held on Saturday and Tuesday. It's very colorful. Also visit the nearby livestock market.

4. Posted by samsara_ (Travel Guru 5353 posts) 5y Star this if you like it!

Bob, thank you so much for this information.

The Danakil will probably be the most challenging trip I've done to date. I'm excited and apprehensive all at once! I will be travelling with 2 others and we are planning to go with a group for this one. One of the things that concerns me most is the temperature, which I've read can go up to 50C at the time of year we're going. How did you find it? Did you have to carry a lot of water with you? And did you take malaria prophylaxis when you were there?

We are going to Axum and Lalibela also - I can't wait to see the churches, although I hear women can't enter certain ones. bummer :)

I'm getting ridiculously excited about it, it's somewhere I've always wanted to go and now it's happening, I can't quite believe it. Looking fwd to checking out your photos here.

one more question: I've read the the ATMs over there don't recognise foreign credit cards, so it's virtually impossible to withdraw money there. Is that info out of date or still accurate?

Thanks again!

5. Posted by berner256 (Moderator 1481 posts) 5y Star this if you like it!

Evelyn, you'll have a wonderful experience. It's good that you're going with a group into the Danakil Depression. After I traveled independently into the Depression, I visited one of the tour companies in Mekele that specialize in trips there. At the end of my note, you'll see the description of the tour, which cost US$150 per person, all inclusive, early last year. I saved a copy of the itinerary, which I'll post below.

Yes, it's advisable to take antimalarial medication while in Ethiopia. I've used Malarone, which now is available in generic form in the U.S. (it's cheaper). I've had no side effects. I'm using it on my upcoming trips to Papua New Guinea and West Africa.

When I was in the Danakil, the temperature was about 43 degrees C. I was going to sleep outside, but there was a windstorm at night, kicking up dust. So I slept in the Toyota Land Cruiser with the window open on the opposite side of where the wind was blowing. I sweated a lot that night. Otherwise it was a dry heat, which was more tolerable than if it were humid. Clothes dried quickly as you perspired. Don't forget to bring a hat, or wear a Buff or shemagh scarf (check out YouTube to see how it's fashioned around the head). A Buff and shemagh also will protect your nose, mouth and eyes from dust and sand. I'll be using one when I camp in the Sahara in October.

Yes, women aren't allowed in the monasteries. And you'll find that women and men worship separately elsewhere. In 2013, when I visited Lalibela, there was a $50 fee to visit all the churches there.

You won't have problems withdrawing money from ATMs, particularly if you have a Visa debit card. MasterCard terminals are few and far between. I withdrew 4,000 ETB from the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia ATM in Mekele as well as in Dire Dawa. That's the maximum for any one transaction. My excellent and experienced driver, Zawdu Hailu, or "Zed," says ATM fees are lower at Commercial Bank of Ethiopia than at Dashen Bank, which I had been using in Addis Ababa. Bring cash to change money in smaller towns.

From the Simien mountains I went to Shire via Debark on a road built by the Italians 60 years ago. The road is akin Bolivia's Death Road. It took 7.5 hours to get to Shire. From there I went to Axum.

Travel in Ethiopia can be dusty; and if it rains, muddy. So make use of the shoe cleaners. You'll find them everywhere you travel in Ethiopia.

You'll also find that it's better to use the "bush toilet" than traditional toilets in public places. I once slipped and nearly fell in the dark in one toilet; and tried unsuccessfully to clean the bottom of my shoes with a stick. Zed told me to go to one of the shoe cleaners, who did an excellent job.

Following is the itinerary of one of the tour companies offering trips into the Danakil Depression. The words are from the leaflet that I saved.

"Day 1 - Mekele - Hamedela. Drive to Hamedela via Berhale. The Danakil Depression can be said to begin here. It is one of the most inhospitable regions of the world, but is nonetheless spectacular, full of eye-catching colors, as in the sulphur springs. The desert has several points lying more than 100 meters (328 feet) below sea level. You pass through the small town of Berhale where the camel caravans stop before they proceed to the northern highlands. En route you see many long camel caravans coming to the salt mine and others going out of the Danakil with their salt loaded (3-4 hours drive). Camp Hamedela.

"Day 2 - Hamedela - Dodom. We start early to Dodom (at the base of Erta Ale). Leave after an early breakfast, possibly at 6:30. This may be the worst road in the world. The 80 km distance may take about 6 hours passing through changing landscape of solidified lava, rock, sand and occasional palm-lined oasis. After you pass several small hamlets scattered here and there, Dodom is about 17 km from Erta Ale and it takes about 3 hours trekking. Early dinner around 17:00 and trek up to Erta Ale at 20:00 hours. Camels transport all the camping materials and some food (sleeping materials like light mattresses and mats and water) to the rim of the volcano, where we spend the night watching the dramatic action of the boiling lava. Erta Ale ranks one of the most alluring and physically challenging natural attractions anywhere in Ethiopia. It is a shield volcano with a base diameter of 30 km and 1 km square caldera at its summit. Erta Ale contains the world's only permanent lava lake. Overnight at the top of the mountain.

"Day 3 - Descend from Erta Ale around 9 a.m. Leave back to Dodom after any early breakfast, if possible at 7:00. You will reach latest at 10:30 a.m. at the camp, time to relax. After drive to reach Hamadela, a village of 500 people, we camp.

"Day 4 - Morning tour drive to Ragad (Asebo), the place where the locals mine salt, cutting it into rectangular pieces and loading onto camels. You drive ahead to Dallol and visit Lake Assal, an oily lake. Excursion to Dallol (116 meters below sea level, one of the lowest places in the world). Follow the camel caravans and walk with the Afar people. Drive back to Hamedela and proceed to Mekele."

Evelyn, after this trip, you'll probably want to return to Ethiopia. It's one of my favorite countries. Bob.

[ Edit: Edited on 28-Jul-2015, at 05:07 by berner256 ]

6. Posted by samsara_ (Travel Guru 5353 posts) 5y Star this if you like it!


I really appreciate you sending such detailed information, it's a great help.

It sounds like you really fell in love with Ethiopia. We are hoping for a similar experience :)

Papua New Guinea and West Africa sound equally exciting, have a wonderful time. If you haven't already read Paul Theroux's 'From Cairo to Capetown', I highly recommend for your next travel read.

Sincere thanks

7. Posted by berner256 (Moderator 1481 posts) 5y Star this if you like it!

Evelyn, I forgot to add that you'll love the food; and the coffee ceremony as well.

Many Ethiopian Orthodox Christians fast on Wednesdays and Fridays. They abstain from meat and animal products on those days, as well as Lent. So restaurants offer "fasting menus." A dish that's a favorite of mine is Shiro, which is made with chickpeas or broad beans. Eat it with Injera, the flat bread that aids digestion.

Happy trails!

8. Posted by samsara_ (Travel Guru 5353 posts) 5y Star this if you like it!

That's great to know. I LOVE food. I'll check our your suggestions. Coffee ceremony is high on the To Do list and I just found out there is such a thing as Ethiopian wine - rejoicing

9. Posted by samsara_ (Travel Guru 5353 posts) 5y Star this if you like it!

Your photos are truly beautiful.

10. Posted by berner256 (Moderator 1481 posts) 5y Star this if you like it!

Many thanks.

P.S. Don't forget to bring a torch or flashlight, as power can be intermittent.