An Ethiopian road trip is similar to the ones we have in the Indian subcontinent. Expect smooth roads, broken roads, no roads, offroad driving, potholes, small hamlets and villages, eateries, beautiful countryside, and lots of all kinds of traffic: various different types of modes of transportation ranging from expensive cars, jeeps, vans, long-distance buses, jittery local buses, open trucks, donkey carts, foot traffic, and goats. People walk along highways carrying bundles on their heads, sometimes the road disappears in muddy streams, and donkey carts trundle patiently raising dust with their plodding hooves.

Small bunga style huts in the Ethiopian countryside

The Ethiopian road trip down south

I happened to do an Ethiopian road trip twice. Once it was in the north and the other time, I went by bus all the way to Jinka from Addis Ababa. While the northern part of the country was more organized with better roads and more vehicles on them, the highway to Jinka via Arba Minch was a pain. It was long, broken, and deserted. We hardly passed any other vehicle on the entire 10-hour drive from Addis and the Salem bus, despite being quite comfortable was not fast. The countryside, however, was gorgeous with bunga style huts, streams, greenery, and red earth. It became greener and lovelier as we drew closer to the Great Rift Valley and vast lakes dotted the scene.

Ethiopian countryside is lush and green

The mid-way town of Arba Minch

The Great Rift Valley of Ethiopia is a branch of the East African Rift that is slowly tearing the continent of Africa apart. The rift developed millions of years back and Africa will break into two continents millions of years later. However, what we have now are some gorgeous Rift Valley Lakes in that region. The Ethiopian Rift Valley lakes, out of which are eight are major ones, occupy the floor of the depressed rift valley and they are located between the two highlands. Since most of them do not have an outlet, they are alkaline and essential for the survival of the local people and fishing. These lakes are also hotbeds of many aquatic animals and migratory birds and though, I only saw the lakes Chamo and Shala, found them to be oases of peace. Somewhere in the middle of this valley of lakes lies the town of Arba Minch. Used mostly as a break-up point for Ethiopian road trip travelers coming from Addis Ababa, Arba Minch was forgettable. It was a little town full of tourists, touts, tourism service providers, shoeshine boys, beggars, and mango trees. Travelers usually rest here for a day or two before heading off to Jinka for Omo Valley, enjoy the cooler temperature, and visit the Dorze tribal community in the highlands.

Arba Minch town is midway between Addis and Jinka

Off to Jinka

My Ethiopian road trip comfort ended at Arba Minch. The journey took around 10 hours and I traveled slowly but comfortably with Salem Bus. The ticket buying process was also easy. I had simply gone to Meskel Square in Addis, bought two seats, and hopped on the bus at the long-distance bus ground. Arba Minch was a different story. Touts target you the moment you get off the bus and in retrospect, I feel that it gave a preview of how Omo Valley would be. Thankfully, my ordeal did not last long since I had befriended an Indian teacher who lived and worked in Arba Minch. He spoke Amharic, knew the local pace, and helped me hire a seat on a shared jeep to Jinka. These jeeps for Jinka, Awasa, and other places in the south wait for passengers outside the Arba Minch Tourist Hotel, and they depart once full. Thankfully, I did not have to wait long and thus began the second part of my Ethiopian road trip.

Seen during the drive to Jinka from Arba Minch

An Ethiopian road trip of 14 hours

It became hillier, greener, and wilder as Arba Minch receded in the background and soon in the distance, I could see the daredevil Lake Chamo fishermen paddling on their reed canoes amidst crocodiles and hippos. Incidentally, this is the area of the famous Crocodile Market, Africa’s largest natural congregation of crocodiles, hippos, fish eagles, and shorebirds. In Addis, it had been one of my travel wishes, but after the long Ethiopian road trip, all I wanted was a clean bed. So, I continued, sitting packed between sacks of produce, clucking hens, teachers, medical nurses, and women nursing babies on their breasts. The rain came in moody splashes throughout the entire journey, often obscuring the road ahead of us. Strange signposts in the beautiful Geez script went past and it seemed like an endless journey of green hills, goatherds, swollen streams, sunflower patches, and little hamlets. Jinka finally arrived with pouring rain and plunged in a power cut. The whole town was drowned in thick black when the jeep dropped me outside a hotel and I ran inside helter-skelter to save my backpack from getting wet.

A Lake Chamo fisherman seen from a distance

After 15 hours of discomfort, Omo Valley arrives

It turned out to be the excellent Nasa Pension which came with clean rooms, a comfortable bed, running water, and a lovely patio garden. The promised wifi did not work but the staff went out of their way to be helpful. Nasa did not offer food and beverage services and it took a few walks around the town to get my meals. While I was there, I found Jinka to be a sheer hell hole and until today, I cannot find any redeeming quality about that town. Powercuts made it difficult to walk out of the hotel after dark, the local boys eve teased, and loud music from the street bars made sleep impossible until late hours into the night. The tourism workers of Jinka, too, were unlike the ones I met anywhere in Ethiopia. While in the rest of the country, they were politely pushy to get your business, in Jinka, the local tour operators were unregulated, unprofessional, rude, and mafia-like. They spoiled my Omo Valley experience which did not come cheap and while it may be possible that I met the few bad ones who spoiled the image for the rest, I would recommend completely skipping any contact with the local tour operators in Jinka. If you wish to visit the Omo Valley, then hunt online for recommended guides, book their services, and make sure they smooth out all the hassles for you even before you arrive. Omo Valley is not a place where you can just drop in and shop around and getting someone preparing the trip for you makes your experience cheaper and stress-free.

Arba Minch Tourist Hotel shared jeep stand

Ethiopian countryside down south is full of flowers.

A weird midway snack of fried fish and vegetables,

Lake Chamo is one of the Rift Valley Lakes of Ethiopia

Seen during my Ethiopian roadtrip

A view  during my Ethiopian road trip

traffic seen during the ethiopian road trip

Follow the rest of the Ethiopia series here