Route: Our route took us from Addis Ababa south to Lake Langano, then south to Arba Minch, southwest to Turmi, and finally due west to the Omorate border.
Travel Distance and Time: 851 kms in four days from Addis Ababa to the Kenya border at Omorate
Insurance: We bought a COMESA and Ethiopian insurance at the Ethiopia Insurance Corporation in Addis. The COMESA will carry us through Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. The COMESA and Ethiopia insurance together cost roughly $275 USD. Bring cash, as they do not accept credit cards. We got an insurance card to stick on Toto’s windshield for travel through Ethiopia, but we’ve kept it on. There is a big emphasis here on “official” and “stamped” documents and we figured it would come in handy as more proof that Toto is well-documented by the authorities. Plus, it’s in Amharic, which no one (including us) can read. So it looks official and it’s hard to tell that it’s only valid in Ethiopia.
Borders: We flew into Addis and immigration and customs was a breeze at the airport. Also, people outside the airport were very friendly and helpful in getting us to the place where our ride was picking us up. Cost for the Ethiopian e-visa, which is valid only if you’re arriving at the airport, was $52/pp. (Side tip – go to Addis. It’s amazing).
We exited Ethiopia via Omorate, which is a very small and very, very remote border in the southwest. Steve decided to avoid the main Ethiopia/Kenya border at Moyale because of reports of local fighting in the area. An overlander last month needed a police escort. Ben and Diana made it through northbound with no problems earlier in the month, but Steve’s decision to bypass Moyale was a good one, because the border ended up being closed due to instability on the day we would have been scheduled to cross.
As we arrived in Omorate, a guy at a checkpoint just outside town asked to look at the TIP, but Steve said he’d only show it at the customs office. They waved us through, and it turned out that that was the actual customs guy (no uniform), who was disgruntled at us for not showing him the TIP at the town checkpoint. (We didn’t care – important papers get shown at the border offices only. Everything else should be a copy, or can be talked out of).
Immigration was smooth. Customs took a bit longer because they were confused that the car came in at Moyale but we came in at Addis. Since we had purchased the car from the prior owner in Addis, we had prepared by having Toto’s previous owner, Ben, give us all of his paperwork on the vehicle. He also added a copy of his passport with a note giving Steve “permission” to drive Toto out of the country.
This was the part we were most concerned about because at that point, even though we owned the truck, it looked to Ethiopia like Ben still owned the truck. We were a bit nervous that we’d get lots of questions about who it actually belonged to, why we were driving it, where the owners were, and so on. We had a story ready, 95% true, about driving the car for our friend who had to go back to the US for Christmas.
In the end, there was confusion about the car but it didn’t hold us up, and they didn’t ask any questions. They did call the Moyale border to confirm that Toto came in via that route, but no one noticed that the names on the TIP (Ben) and the insurance papers (Steve) were different. They never even glanced at the actual vehicle.
Roads: Roads in Ethiopia are largely good, but there are people and livestock everywhere, which makes for slow going. There is a strong roadside begging culture throughout the country, or at least the parts of it we were driving in, which is upsetting and exhausting especially because it seems accompanied by anger when you don’t respond. The road from Arba Minch to Turmi was good, up until the last 50km, which was a nightmare. We were tired, it was the end of the day, and Steve was faced with actual off-road driving (like, there really was no road) requiring the diff lock and low range in some places. It took us over two hours to go that 50km. If you’re headed to Turmi from this direction you absolutely need 4WD. The road is not recommended for motos, though it probably could be managed. There is an alternate road to Turmi from the north but it takes much longer. There are many small, traditional settlements along the road, which are fascinating. I didn’t take photos out of respect of the local people. There is cultural tourism in the area, but it has met with mixed reviews.
The road from Turmi to Omorate is AMAZING: it’s paved and in excellent condition, and is fantastic for making up the time lost on the rough 50km before Turmi. It took us less than an hour to get from Turmi to the border, which felt like a small miracle.
Police stops: Two – the first on the eastern ring road around Addis, where the officer asked to see Steve’s driver license and visa, and the second was just south of Omorate near the approximation of the Kenya border, where they checked our passport photocopies. No asks or solicitations.
Camping: We camped south of Addis on Lake Langano at the Karkaro Beach Cottages, which allows camping on the beach. There is a restaurant and bar that serves American-style dishes, which struck us as strange in the land of amazing Ethiopian food. We had a very excellent coffee there in the morning before we left, and a chat with the young manager, who just finished his degree in tourism management in Arba Minch, and was eager to share information.
In both Arba Minch and Turmi we stayed at Emerald Lodge properties. At the Emerald in Arba Minch, camping was on a gravel pad adjacent to the restaurant, and included use of the showers at the pool, which was really nice. The patio at the lodge restaurant in Arba Minch has incredible views over the national park and the lakes. The Emerald Lodge in Turmi is just getting started, and we were the only people there. It is far less developed, but there is a bar and restaurant, and we were given the use of an empty cabin to shower in, which was fabulous. It is the property formerly known as the Evangadi Lodge, as noted in iOverlander.
The manager in Turmi was really excellent and accommodating. The only thing about the lodge in Turmi was that there are villages nearby and, where there are villages, there are goats. Goats don’t bother us at all – we like them – but they routinely jolted us out of sleep with their screaming. I kept snapping awake thinking that there were small children in distress nearby. Other than that, which was pretty funny in the morning, we would totally recommend this place.
One place we would not recommend is the Nechisar National Park near Arba Minch. We ended up there because of a wrong turn, but I noticed on the sign that we could enter the park for about 200 birr and then camp for 80 birr, which was much less than anywhere around. Plus, it’s a national park! The guy at the gate was awesome, and when we went to check in with the ranger station the young ranger was great too – full of info.
Then they told us that someone would go with us to our campsite for security. We didn’t think much of it, but a ranger with an AK-47 climbed in the passenger seat and told us it would be 500 birr for the camping. I figured we’d negotiate at the campsite, but as I rode along in the back of Toto it hit me – this guy was planning to stay at the camp and charge us 500 birr for it. I told this to Steve who stopped the car and asked the guy “look, are you staying at camp?” The guy said that he would stay at a ranger station nearby, for our safety. “We really don’t need that,” Steve said. “Also, the sign at the gate said 40 birr per person. We’re not paying 500 birr.”
“Ok, ok – 400 birr.”
“No, no, no, no, no” I said from the back. “40 birr for him,” pointing to Steve, “and 40 birr for me. That’s it.”
‘The sign at the gate said 80 birr for two, man,” Steve said.
“Sign? Yes, 400 birr.”
“This is bullshit,” I said to Steve. “Go back to the gate.”
Here’s the thing – I cannot stand being lied to or taken advantage of. It is the quickest way to make me apoplectic. Like, I get angry beyond belief. And at the end of a long, stressful day, I was over it. I didn’t care that we had just wasted an hour and would have to find a new place to camp – we were done with this place.
Steve was equally angry, and even more exhausted. He jerked the car back in the direction we came from (Toto does a mean 6-point turn) and headed to the gate.
“Camping?” the ranger asked.
“No, dude. We’re not camping.”
At the gate, Steve and the ranger got our of the car and Steve showed him the sign – 40 birr per person to camp.
“Yes, yes. 400 birr. That’s 400 birr, not 40.”
At this point, I came tumbling out the back of the car. I grabbed a huge stick and started gesturing wildly at the sign – adding up the numbers for this guy. For a second I thought that maybe he might have made a mistake, thinking that 40 birr was 400, but I realized that if that were the case he would have been charging us 800, not 400.
He looked from the crazy women in front of him to Steve. “Listen,” he said, “go back to the ranger station and ask. We will talk.”
If there’s one other thing that makes me angry, it’s someone trying to talk over me – trying to “reason” with my husband – when I’m the one doing the talking. Steve, luckily, knows this, and headed back to the truck.
“No we are not going back to the ranger station,” I said. “You go back to the ranger station. We’re leaving.”
“No,” he said, “go ask.”
“I am not asking anything. You are trying to rob us and I. Am. Done. With. This. Place.”
Now, price negotiation is part of the game. And normally I not only like, but even enjoy, the haggle. You’ll always pay too much, but people are rarely trying to out-and-out rob you. I never, ever accuse anyone of that, so for me to say it to this guy’s face was a big deal.
Steve was already in the driver’s seat, seeing no point in arguing. I opened my door, gestured for the guy to take his things, and climbed in.
Steve turned us away from the station and toward the exit gate.
“Wait,” the ranger said, “the station is that way,” he pointed away from the gate. “You’re going the wrong way.”
“Nope, sorry. We’re not going to the ranger station,” Steve said. “We’re leaving.”
And we left. It’s funny now, but at the time, exhausted as we were and sick of being taken advantage of at every turn, I was done. We love national parks and would have loved to have supported the conservation efforts at this one, but future overlanders take note: you’re going to get hosed here.
And we learned a lesson – get the price upfront and don’t take any bullshit from anyone.
Finally, a note on safety. There are many places where security is a big deal. This didn’t seem like one, but maybe it was. It was never fully explained to us – whether this was an anti-poaching measure or some other kind of personal security. In the end, we never felt unsafe anywhere in Ethiopia.
- Playing Frisbee with kids at Lake Langano. At Karkaro beach we dug two Frisbees out of the back of the Defender. Ben and Diana had been using them for plates, but since we had our camping gear we didn’t want to hang on to them. We saw some young boys, about our nephews’ age (around 10) playing and fishing in the water so we walked to the shoreline and tossed a few back and forth to each other so they could see. Then Steve made eye contact with one, tossed him the Frisbee, and that was it. We must have played for 30 or 45 minutes. The kids had a great time, and so did we. One was really good – naturally athletic and not afraid of the disc. He was so confident that he rooted himself to the spot – no diving for lousy tosses for this kid. When they had to go Steve took some photos, which I love: in the one with me they’re standing a bit off to the side, but in the one with Steve two of the boys lean their heads together and the third has his arm wrapped tightly around Steve’s waist. They tried to give us the Frisbees back, but we told them to keep them. It was one of the highlights of the trip.
- Flowers, not flour. We’re traveling with a 10-year-old sourdough starter from Austria. Ben and Diana got it from a friend and, reading of our love of bread, they very generously gave us some of it. They’re calling the starter Hermann, to which Steve has added de Brot, seeing as it’s Austrian. Hermann de Brot is a quiet travel companion, but he needs to be fed and we could not find flour anywhere. At Turmi we asked the manager at the lodge, explaining that we needed some flour – not maize flour or teff flour, just wheat flour. I made the kneading motions with my hands and the manager nodded and said they had some. Steve and I looked at each other with joy – Hermann de Brot would live! – and sat down to wait in the bar while the manger sent some staff to the kitchen. So we thought. About 5 minutes later they came back in, arms loaded with pink and yellow flowers freshly cut from some nearby tree. We were astounded and burst out laughing. They smiled, pleased at meeting the request. We thanked them profusely, offered payment (which they refused) and then went back to the tent giggling. I think they thought we were on our honeymoon. That, or they’re used to batshit crazy requests from overlanders. Still, the flowers prettied up the campsite nicely, and in the end we did find some flour for Hermann, who seems to be doing fine.
General comments: Ethiopia has a reputation for being rough on overlanders. One guy said that when he finally crossed out of the country, he got out of his truck and kissed the ground. In Uganda, we were talking with someone who said, “oh, you drove through Ethiopia? How many rocks were thrown at you?” Our experience wasn’t like that, but it has certainly been the most difficult country we’ve driven in. The roads are fine, but in some places there is a strong anti-foreigner sentiment that manifests in things like kids throwing banana peels or spitting at the car. There were lots of hand gestures that we couldn’t understand but were easy to interpret as less-than-friendly. There is a very strong, entrenched begging culture. Many people (the littlest kids included) would ask for money – the refrain is “farangi, give me money, give money, give money” – and then get upset when we didn’t. One kid made slashing motions across his neck as we passed.
Less threatening, but still tiring, were the many sharp whistles as we drove by, the shouts of “you, you, you” trying to get us to stop (and the angry looks when we didn’t) and people constantly approaching the truck and leaning in to see if we needed “help”. You get the picture. Add that to the general craziness of slow driving on roads filled with people and livestock and it’s physically, mentally, emotionally, and psychologically exhausting.
All that being said, we don’t regret the drive. The people we could actually meet and talk with were more than kind (see interesting experiences). There is a definite remoteness we noticed in Ethiopians that we don’t feel in other places in Africa, but that reminds me a bit of people who grew up on the east coast in the US. They’re nice, but they’re not going to go out of their way to interact with you, and they’re not going to act like your best friends when they do. We might have felt uncomfortable at times, but we never felt unsafe.