Slow Travel Around Ethiopia

Slow Travel in Ethiopia

I heard the other day about a group of Israeli friends that, with six months of traveling around Ethiopia ahead of them, decided upon a bhajaj (a covered, three-wheeled motorbike) as their mode of transport. Really… it’s true. They’ve bought a bhajaj and will bumble their way around this country at a magnificently slow pace.

I’m not sure this is something I could do (or recommend, having spent four bumpy hours bumbling around Akaki wetlands in a bhajaj), but as someone that’s embracing slow travel in Ethiopia, I’m certainly toasting their efforts. When I first arrived in Ethiopia, there was an air of mystery around how you could explore this country without a car. It seemed you had three options – buy a car and do it yourself, hire a private driver, or go with a tour company. With the former wildly out of reach, private drivers costing a lot, and the latter not quite my cup of tea, I needed to work out public transport.

And it turns out, it’s more than possible; you just need to approach it with no time constraints, low expectations for space, reckless abandon, an expectation that something will break at some point (on the vehicle, not on you), and patience. The latter is where I generally fail.

Slow travel in Ethiopia comes at a number of different ‘classes’ – starting at the bottom (not counting the bhajaj), you have the clapped out mini bus. These go on long journeys and tend to leave from a few bus stations around the edge of town. With a few key roads heading out of Addis, this generally means your journey will start from Kaliti if you’re heading South or East, and Autobus Terra if you’re heading North or West. Check before leaving though – I’ve ended up at the wrong station before. It’s annoying. Unfortunately, there isn’t really anywhere to check, other than just asking people.

These buses leave when they’re full, and will fill every seat available, including chickens on a lap or goats on the roof. Being last on means you’ll leave straight away, but could face up to six hours perched on a wooden stool. Speaking from experience… this is far from ideal! The bus will drive fast, you’ll stop regularly for paperwork checks, and traditional Ethiopian music will more often than not be the soundtrack to your journey. The lack of control over time is annoying, but perhaps that’s something I should be more used to by now? Fellow passengers will laugh at your Amharic, want to know all about you and discuss anything from injera to politics. These buses are my favourite for experience… but you have to be in the mood for them, for sure!

Bus in Ethiopia

The next class up includes the more official-looking colourful school buses…they leave from the same bus stations, but are slow. Due to their size, you can wait up to two hours for them to fill and leave, and when you do, you literally crawl and drag yourself up hills, being overtaken by everyone. Probably the Israeli bhajaj included. Perhaps that makes them safer, but for someone as impatient as me, they’re painful!

And then you’ve got the gold standard – Selam Bus and Sky Bus. These two coach companies do a number of set routes, usually 6-12 hours long, and they’re more than worth investing in (and the investment is hardly much, at 300 Birr). You’ll be leaving before dawn but you’ll have your own seat, bottle of water, and snack, and it’s a pretty safe and smooth journey. The Sky Bus website lists routes, times and prices online, whilst the Selam Bus office is in Meskel Square.

Now that I’m over the fact I won’t be driving myself around Ethiopia with any CD, AU or AO plates anytime soon, I’ve learnt to embrace slow travel. The longer you live here though, the harder it becomes. At first, it was an adventure. Now, I just want to get to my destination.

Generally though, slow travel wins on cost and experience. I truly believe you see so much more of Ethiopia when you take your time and travel at the same pace as everyone else. You can’t do it all the time, but if you invest time in slow travel, you’ll get an atmosphere and experience that shows you the best (and worst) of Ethiopia, along with some heart-warming respect from your fellow squeezed in passengers!

Warning: It wouldn’t be right to leave this article without including a personal safety warning that travelling by road in Ethiopia comes with risks. Roads are poor, drivers can be careless and many will drive too fast to fit in more routes and income in a day. Whilst new expressways are being built, they don’t mean drivers are driving any more safely and when you see a crash, it’s a horrendous reminder of just how vulnerable you are in the small mini-buses. I’d never travel at night (leave at 5 am to be somewhere before dark) as drivers can be high on chat or drunk, and headlights aren’t good. This is the time when driving yourself or hiring a private driver/tour company of course gives you slightly more control over your safety. If travelling with children, I’d no doubt abandon any idea of slow travel, and invest in a driver.

Written by Adam Fenton