by Dr. Hanna Rubinkowska

Wherever you are planning to go in Ethiopia you need to leave early, or at least what is early for European standards. It’s a bit tricky in Ethiopia, as you need to start at twelve o’clock according to the Ethiopian way of counting time.

In Ethiopia twelve is the time of sunrise and sunset, and on foreigners’ clocks this time of day is six a.m. or p.m. The country is situated not far from the equator which makes the difference between day and night only slight.

At twelve, all the buses start their journey. Traveling takes lots of time in this mountainous country. Moreover, after sunset roads are far from being safe and continuing the journey is not a wise habit.

Every hour is precious if you do not want your trip to last forever. Tourists usually have very limited time and in these circumstances it does not matter that Ethiopia makes you feel like staying for longer. The more so, that for a traveler reaching the destination is an obvious temptation.

Ethiopia the way NorthAll the travel guides recommend the so called “northern circle.”

This means visiting places located to the north of Addis, like the modern town of Bahir Dar.

Or to take a boat trip on Tana Lake and see paintings and treasures in the monasteries located on the islands there.

Also to visit the source of the Blue Nile and art-deco Gonder, to experience ruins of castles resembling something between Disneyland and Harry Potter’s school, or other fairy-tale buildings.

Then there is Axum, with its history and monuments spanning several hundred years of history B.C. and Lalibela with its monolithic churches constructed in red rock.

The travel guides also recommend to take the direction starting from Addis Ababa in the western direction and approaching east. Polish people love to do everything in a way opposite to recommended, and I also left Addis in the direction of Lalibela.

There were also other, more down to earth reasons for doing this, not just because of my rebel nature. Among them the fact that if you plan to visit southern regions after the northern circle it seems wise to take this direction.

Bahir Dar CityBahir Dar is the only spot in the northern part of the country where malaria is a danger.

Reaching Bahir Dar at the end of the first part of the trip allows you to start taking anti-malaria tablets in the end of the northern circle and continue when you go south.

Moreover, Lalibela is the most expensive spot in Ethiopia. If you start there, you spend less and less money with every place you visit in the country.

This gives you a nice feeling of constantly saving money which adds to the attractions of traveling.

To reach Lalibela from Addis Ababa is always a long journey through spectacular and dangerous mountains. However, the way you choose can provide you with less or more spectacular views.

Mountain Roads

Probably the easiest and shortest route leads through Dessie and Woldia.

Like everywhere in the country, there are Chinese builders who are responsible for the construction of the roads.

It is partially newly built, though in many parts there is still no hard surface.

On those parts of the road where the work has not yet been finished, you loose all the time which you managed to save on the already constructed part.

Another option is taking a side road, with no Chinese people working there, but offering unforgettable experiences instead. Even though Lalibela seems to be one of the most spectacular places in the world, spending some time on the way there is worth a while.

Ankober and Maqdela
Ethiopia is full of historical places, and there are also many of them on the way from Addis to Lalibela. Going in this direction there are at least two mountainous residences of Ethiopian royal settings. These can be visited if you have a good four-wheel drive vehicle and lots of enthusiasm to go quite deep off the beaten track.

Flora at MaqdelaThe two remote places are Ankober and Maqdela. The first, is situated in the central province of Shewa, 40 kilometers from the town of Debre Birhan.

It takes only half a day by bus to get to Debre Birhan from Addis. The final 40 kilometers is much more challenging if you do not travel by car.

There is an option of going further by bus, but it leaves the town early (only a slight chance of getting the bus the same day on which you started from Addis) and climbs the hills for another three hours before it reaches Ankober.

On the other hand, taking this option you experience being strongly enrooted in the passengers society by the time three hours are gone. This includes getting involved in long discussions in Amharic, even if you do not understand a word of the language.

Obviously, traveling by car makes it possible to reach Ankober without this experience, but instead quite fast and comfortable. The village is situated on slopes of the hills dotted with traditional Ethiopian round churches.

In the 19th century, a palace of powerful Shewan landlords was located on the top of one of the hills, the same Shewan dynasty which started ruling Ethiopia when Menelik II was crowned Emperor in 1889. The power remained in their hands until the fall of the empire in 1974.

For many years a bit of a wall which used to surround the palace was the only monument of the royal power, which could have been traced in Ankober.

However, Ethiopia is changing and not many years ago a traditional-style building resembling a palace was built again on the hill and “Ankober Lodge” was opened.

The site is still not functioning as a tourist destination and the lodge did not attract many tourists, but for those who decide to visit Ankober it provides a wonderful place to stay in a surrounding of a traditional Ethiopian village.

Another historical destination reached with the help of a four-wheel drive (up to a certain point) and by mule or your own feet, is Maqdela. This 19th century residency of emperor Tiewodros is located in the center of the Ethiopian Highlands.

We tried to reach Maqdela by car, but too much fresh air below our wheels persuaded us to go further on foot. You need at least three days to get there from Addis.

Dessie to Tenta
Tenta is a village situated about 17 kilometers from Maqdela and the furtherst point which is possible by car. Further there are mountains and an up and down bendy road which leads from Dessie to Tenta.

Mountain ViewThe road to Tenta provides breath-taking views which make one forget about being afraid of the bendy road.

Then there are the incredible precipices and challenging bends that make one forget about the beauty of the landscape.

Like always, in Ethiopia, when one is sure that nobody can live that high and in those rocky surrounding, one passes people on the road who walk from nowhere to nowhere, as it seems.

Village MarketplaceAnd then, when the car reaches the top of the world there is another surprise: a big flat area. What is more, it is inhabited.

After more ups and downs and a few more hours there is a marketplace…

Where do all these people come from to meet at the marketplace?

It seems like there is nothing all around.

It looks strange for European eyes… Surprising and beautiful. Above all, just beautiful.

Dr. Hanna Rubinkowska

Dr. Hanna Rubinkowska has plenty of travel experiences to Ethiopia and is a contributor to our site.

She has specialized in modern history of Ethiopia and currently lectures at Warsaw University, Department of African Languages and Cultures.

Dr. Hanna Rubinkowska (Ph.D.)

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