Travel: Driving Mountain Roads In An Alfa Romeo Is Not A Bad Way To See Ethiopia

Driving Mountain Roads In An Alfa Romeo Is Not A Bad Way To See Ethiopia

By Jethro Bronner
April 3, 2017

Photography by Jethro Bronner

This is a continuation of Jethro Bronner’s epic journey in a classic Alfa Romeo. Read the previous entries here: Introduction, South Africa, Zimbabwe, ZambiaTanzania, and Kenya

After an epic 14-hour drive from Nairobi through the desert to Moyale, I made a last minute crossing into Ethiopia. I parked my car at the customs compound and made my way to the nearest official, who promptly sent me to Immigration first. Immigration was in another compound across the road, where I waited for the only official to check over my visa, which had been very difficult to get. After a stern lecture about being out of Ethiopia within two weeks, I was sent back to Customs, which of course by that time had closed for the day. I was told to return at 8AM the following morning.

After a night in the world’s worst hotel, I returned to Customs to collect my car, and was back on the road in no time. I had been told that Ethiopia had some great roads, and that the tar was brand new and was that way all the way to Addis Ababa—and so it was for most of the morning. But a couple of hours later, the lines on the road disappeared (always a bad sign) and soon the smooth tarmac became a shattered, potholed, car-destroying wreck. 

Just beyond the town of Yabelo the road became so potholed that I was forced to drive in first gear, creeping slowly over massive bumps and holes in the ruined surface. Once again I feared that I would punch a shock through its mounting, or destroy a tire, or smash the gearbox open on the edge of what I can comfortably call a crater. For 180 miles, I crawled along the broken road in 1st and 2nd gear.

After 16 hours, I arrived in Awassa and made a straight line for the nicest hotel I could find. I hauled my heavy luggage into the lobby of the Haile Resort, sometime around midnight. I was covered in two days and 30 hours’ worth of desert dirt and grime. A few minutes later I was in a beautiful room with a view, and importantly, a shower that made the trials of the previous two days feel dreamlike—or nightmarish—in contrast. In the morning I was served coffee from a silver pot by a man with white gloves and a waistcoat. The change from the previous day was stark.

After filling up with fuel, I had an easy morning’s drive to the capital city, Addis Ababa. For most of the way there, I drove along a perfectly smooth new highway, which ended just shy of the city. Addis is a huge city in the mountains, so navigating around it is pretty tricky. The ring road is incomplete, and I passed the last offramp and ended up on an abandoned stretch of road, used by the locals for sports, and had to reverse back up the highway while being shouted at by some angry footballers. I didn’t linger, and at 6AM the next morning I was climbing the hills out of the north side of the city, which was a beautiful start to the day.

Addis Ababa to Bahir Dar is a long drive over some truly stunning landscapes. The Blue Nile Valley is a spectacular spot for a day’s driving. I spent an entire afternoon tackling mountain pass after mountain pass, and 300 miles later I was in Bahir Dar, a pretty town on the shores of Lake Tana, at the source of the Blue Nile.

In Bahir Dar I got the only puncture of the trip so far. In the morning my car was sitting, rather sadly, leaning over with a flat tyre on the rear driver’s side outside the hotel. I changed it out for one of my two spares, and then headed up the road for the nearby ancient town of Gondar. It had been a long couple of days. Ethiopia is not an easy country to drive across as a solo traveller, but it is stunningly beautiful and fascinating. The roads often changed from shockingly bad to as good as you could ever dream of. Gondar was my last stop before heading to The Sudan, one of Africa’s most notorious countries. I’d heard so many stories about The Sudan from other travellers—I was excited, and nervous.

I spent the evening giving my car a quick once-over in preparation for the difficult road ahead. It had struggled with the thin air and low octane fuel earlier, so I adjusted the ignition and checked the air filter. In the morning I joined up with a small convoy of overlanders I had met in Bahir Dar and we headed back down the mountain road towards The Sudan and the desert.

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Pier Paolo Garofalo
Pier Paolo Garofalo
6 years ago

I visited Ethiopia for a few days. For an animal’s lover like I am, it was a true nightmare: the cruelty on donkeys, overloaded, whipped till almost death, left to hyenas when they are wounded or too weaks to work, showed to me almost every mile, cancelling the pleasure of the “ride” with a Toyota Land Cruiser, the Africa’s Queen.

6 years ago

I’ve stayed at the Haile Resort on a couple mission trips. And Addis is one of my favorite cities in the world. Ethiopia is full of kind and beautiful people.

John Montesi
John Montesi
6 years ago

I love this series and always look forward to the next installment! I am always surprised by the rugged solitude you can find in America if you look hard enough.. I can’t even imagine some of the spots and situations you find in Africa. Cheers!