It’s hard to remember everything I’ve done or where I’ve been, but the food has been a memorable part of this trip. Eating only with your right hand and drinking coffees while being choked out by burning incense has become a daily affair, and the places and people I’ve shared these moments with are just as unforgettable.
Besides being one of Africa’s largest countries, second only to Algeria I think, Ethiopia was also a complete diversion to my Arabic/Muslim themed journey. Filled with Orthodox churches and a very active Christian community, Jewish Ethiopians also consider themselves ‘Beta’ Israel. I was confronted with an unfamiliar language and an undecipherable alphabet; I felt like I had crossed a new frontier into an unknown world, yet thrilled to be in Africa again. Each corner of Ethiopia had a different Africa – the far east is filled with Somali Muslims, the south to West with big mountains and big game animal parks, the northwest bridging into Sudanese desert plains, the Egyptian influenced north, and the northeast blocking out their most familiar African brothers in Eritrea. There were highlands, lowlands, active volcanoes and lakes, making even the climate different in each area. I woke up my first morning in Ethiopia to the sound of birds singing and opened my eyes to a tree filled with purple flowers, the first time in a long time that either had happened.
I could easily have spent 3 months just traveling in Ethiopia, and still I’m not sure I could have reached all those places. The distances between spaces are never ending, and filled with little villages in between to stop and visit, so one could make dozens of destinations out of every journey and I’m not sure where the road could end. Its possible to travel in circles or take a different route back, and public transport and hitchhiking are cheap and easy… but very slow. English was less common, Arabic useful only close to Somalia, and the Amharic language was difficult to absorb, especially in written form. I managed to finally memorize ‘thanks,’ the 6 syllable word ‘amasakanalo,’ and a few numbers, but charades got me a lot further.
My travel route was from Wajaale, on the Somaliland border, to Jigjiga, the capital of the Somali speaking province in the east, and onto Harar, considered by some the 4th most holy city in Islam. It has a walled old town filled with windy pedestrian alleys, and strangely enough a high concentration of pubs and Harar beer consumption. The local tourist attractions include feeding wild hyenas after sunset and visiting the livestock/camel market where locals expect you to pay an entrance unless you’re really there to buy a goat or something. I met a handful of other travelers there, who always seemed to be coming from or going to the same places, and the degrees of separation between me and Ethiopian couchsurfers or even a traveler I met in Jordan was never more than one.
I traveled some days with a Belgian woman named Debbie, and together we left Harar and visited the little village of Hirna, where a Canadian raised Ethiopian Somali girl greeted us in perfect English. We carried onto Awash Saba and shared our hotel with another traveler from France, who hitchhiked a semi-truck with us to Adama. I carried onto Addis where I couchsurfed with a French guy from Cote d’Ivoire who liked to Salsa dance, and managed to get a visa from both the Sudanese and Saudi Arabian embassies.
To go south seemed a little unsafe and the north seemed too far away, so I went to Lake Tana in the mid-west of Ethiopia. Bahir Dar wasn’t as interesting as I’d hoped, but a boat tour on the hippo-filled lake to some island monasteries was a highlight. On the northside of the lake was the car-less, chicken-filled village of Gorgora, where a Dutch woman has opened the most serene, idyllic tourist retreat called Tim and Kim village. I ‘camped’ there by tying my hammock in some trees before carrying onto nearby Gondar. It was a lovely, hill-perched town, with a UNESCO site of six castles, and my gateway to the Sudan border. It was tempting to stay a little longer in Ethiopia, carry onto the more touristy places in Axum or Lalibella, but its also nice to save something for next time, especially since I was smart enough to get a multi-entry Ethiopian visa.
When I was researching a trip around the horn of Africa, information was hard to find, and all outdated. Google, Lonely Planet and most other travel guides didn’t offer much help, since I needed to find out if and how it was possible to get visas and cross land borders. After a few weeks of traveling these routes, here’s what I found out, but keep in mind this might only stay relevant for a few months.
I started in Djibouti and traveled overland first across the Loyada border into Somaliland, then from Hargeisa to Ethiopia via the Wajaale border. In Djibouti, there is a Somilland embassy (between the Sheraton Hotel and Ethiopian Embassy) that issues single entry visas in 24 hours for $31USD (payable in local Djibouti francs), but the Somaliland land border with Djbouti also offers the visa on arrival for the same price and it only takes a few minutes. The actual crossing may take a lot longer since even Somalis and Djiboutis need the Somaliland visa, and they like to refuse to pay and be detained by an armed guard for hours until someone gives in (either they pay or they get let off in each situation).
There’s an Ethiopian Embassy in Djibouti that gives single or multiple entry visas within 24 hours, and you must have it before traveling overland to Ethiopia. In Hargeisa, there is neither a Djibouti or Ethiopian embassy, so if you enter Somaliland without getting your visas first in Djibouti or Addis, you wont be able to leave unless you fly out of Hargeisa.
As for the actual travel, Djibouti to the Somaliland border is less than an hours drive, but its possible to buy a ticket (from some khat dealers and money changers on 26th street close to the police station) from Djiboutiville to Hargeisa. You show up between 2:30 and 3:30, and a beat up old truck leaves around 4 with 6 passengers and some cargo, drops you at the border, and a Somaliland Land Cruiser takes over the load. Then you wait hours for the border process (I was accidentally grouped in with my fellow detained non-visa holding passengers before I realized I could leave the guy with a gun and sit more peacefully by the shops selling cold drinks and some home-made food from make shift tents) to finish, and continue overnight along a bumpy 400km+ sand track (its hardly a road) which takes more than 12 hours. We had to rescue 3 other land cruisers who had gotten stuck in the sand, and near the end of the trip, when a proper gravel road appeared, we had to dodge alot of road kill – a dead donkey, dead camels, and an entire family of dead cows.
Then you’ve reached Hargeisa, Somalilands capital, whose city center roads are still nothing less than bumpy dirt tracks. Dust gets blown on you and everybody and everything all the time, but there is a decent paved road going north (to Berbera 150km) and south to Wajaale, the Ethopian border. Its a $5USD bus trip, 100km in under 2 hours, and the border was a bit easier to pass, although the immigration offices were well hidden among the other shops and shacks along the road. From Wajaale, you can travel to Jigjiga and onto Harar within the same day, budget another 3 hours and $3 for each bus (less than 100 birr).
Doing the trip the other way, Somaliland – Djibouti – Ethiopia, remember you must first have a Djiboutian visa or fly into Djibouti from Somaliland. Then there is a direct bus between Djiboutiville and Dire Dawa in Ethiopia (very close to Harar) which travels either early morning or late afternoon and takes all day or all night. I saw the ticket office somewhere on the south end of town on a main street, but don’t know the street name (they’re usually not marked in Djiboutiville, but asking around led me quickly to the place).
If you’re flying in or out of these countries, Ethiopia offers a visa on arrival in Addis Ababa airport, but only a 1 month single entry visa (around $50USD). Getting a multiple entry visa is only possibly in an embassy outside of Ethiopia prior to your arrival, or extending your visa once you’ve arrived. Djibouti, like on the land borders, also offers a visa on arrival for international flights. It costs $6o for a 3 day transit visa, and $90 for a week or more tourist visa. I’m still unsure about the Hargeisa International airport in Somaliland, but it seems flights (i.e. Jubba airways) are usually delayed or cancelled going in or out, there isn’t a mandatory exchange of $50 USD upon arrival or a departure tax, but it also seems the visa on arrival may not be available but in theory it should be.
If you’re interested in traveling to any other nearby countries, keep in mind the land borders between Ethiopia and Eritrea and Djibouti and Eritrea are currently impassable. There is no Eritrean embassy in Djibouti (its been closed for years despite information online saying there is one), Ethiopia or Somaliland, and the only way I’ve heard of people traveling overland is through the Sudan-Eritrea land border. Only Italians and Sudanese can travel visa free to Eritrea, but getting a visa would be hard anywhere in Africa (Europe is a better bet). Traveling south from Somaliland to Puntland or Somalia doesn’t seem easy either, especially since you need a Somalian visa to get out of Somaliland but there’s not Somalian embassy in Hargeisa. Although you used to be able to buy a Somalian passport in Somaliland for $60-75USD!