The bus trifecta – Lalibela to Harah, Ethiopia

When doing our research on Ethiopia, we found a lot of information about bus departure and travel times, but not much information on what the actual local bus experience was like. So here’s our account of the three day trip from Lalibela to Harar, vomit and all.

Waking in the pitch dark we make our way on foot with full packs downhill to Lalibela’s bus station (ok we give in and get a tuk tuk). After paying 50 birr each for extra baggage when buying the tickets yesterday, a young guy had flagged us down in the street to say he’d seen what had happened and it wasn’t right, we should ask for our money back. What a lovely bloke! So at 5am we track down the culprit and a brief argument follows during which we threaten to call the police. When that still didn’t work Matt threw his bags to the ground and pretended to grab a taxi to the police himself. This did the trick and our little schemer placed our 100 birr back in our hands. Bingo.

The Monasteries of Lalibela
Leaving Lalibela

Even with tickets a seat is not allocated on this bus, and it’s every man for himself when the station gates open. With Matt taking our large packs to be loaded onto the roof, Sarah dashes across the dirt car park with day packs in hand, fighting her way onto the bus in a flurry of long sticks and tartan blankets in what is the worst bus scrum to date. Once seated, it appears that the remoteness of Lalibela means this bus is happy to fill her up, flaunting the Ethiopian laws that state all passengers must be seated. With Matt tipping the baggage handler, our ticket sellers sees and demands a part of the cut, having probably already spent the extra 100 birr he’d made of us yesterday. Laughing in his face the baggage handler refuses, as far as we’re concerned, that’s just karma mate!

Typical 2nd Class Bus.
Typical second class Ethiopian bus, our ride for the next 3 days

As we sit waiting for the bus to depart, Matt awkwardly hands out biscuits to a couple of local farmers, sitting with their uniform of sticks and blankets, who’d been staring at us. Accepting the offer, they then proceed to inquisitively turn the packet over and over, before putting it carefully on the seat, unsure whether to eat it or toss it out the window when we’re not looking. And so starts our journey from Lalibela to Harar, three straight days of sunrise to sunset bus travel in second class.

Ethiopian scaffolding

With the bus packed for bursting point, sticks, blankets, elbows and arses are all over us, kind of like a bumpy, muddy, unwashed version of a peak hour London tube. We hit our first hurdle a couple of hours out of Lalibela when we hit a steep section of washed out dirt road. The bus pulls to a halt, all the men jump to piss, then half of them stand and watch as the other half get their back into it grabbing rocks and stones from the edge of the road to rebuild the washed out section. After about 20 minutes their done, the bus tackles the hill, then proceeds to keep driving, not stopping to let half the farmers back on who’d opted to walk up the hill. Luckily most of them had no luggage anyway.

Passengers using rocks to fill in the washed out road between Lalibela and Dessie…eventually it worked

After a couple of long, windy, sketchy hours we’re almost at the cross road with the town of Gashena when the driver slams on the brakes and kicks all standing passengers off the bus in the middle of nowhere. We guess this is where the police patrols start. If you’re prone to travel sickness, we’d suggest flying this part as the road, though now tarmac, winds spectacularly up, down, over and through mountain passes for the next few hours. Plastic bags are handed out and people start spewing all over the place. An elderly woman across the aisle from Matt sees fit to spew into her bag before tying it up and throwing it across the aisle at Matt’s feet. Not just once, but twice. She’s wasn’t at all pleased when it kicked it back at her. Again, weak stomach? Fly.

We pass trucks parked in a gravel riverbed where two huge washes collide, a dozen boys shovelling in unison. In Woldia, we eat lunch at a restaurant with bright pink plastic chairs as a chain of camels slink past. The local cows have awesome massive horns and there are goats enjoying the shade under our bus when we return. The conductor collects the tickets as we approach Dessie and promptly throws them out the window to scatter in the wind like confetti.

The lettering.
Coke and Fanta refreshments in Aramaic

We thank the young driver for his eclectic mix of Ethio-jazz and rock music, then attempt to buy tickets on the Selam bus to Addis only to find it’s sold out. We then try to buy tickets on the Selam bus from Addis to Harah and are shooed away like annoying flies. Our only option is the local bus from Dessie to Addis so we find the window and buy tickets for the standard 5:30am departure. Now we can assume if you’ve made it this far you’ve got a pretty tough adventurous streak, so we can recommend the budget friendly Henok Pension, near the corner of the main road and the road that comes from the bus station. A clean double room cost 100 birr (£3) though you’ll have to suffice with a simple shared shower and squat toilet, though they were cleaned every hour while we were there.

B+W of Town.
Addis Ababa

Our night in seedy, dusty Dessie was spent with Sarah sleeping and Matt heading out to watch the Manchester City v Chelsea in a first floor bar down the road, where he spent the night with a local health care worker who spoke English and his two non-English speaking deaf/mute friends. Using hand signals they all managed to converse, laugh and joke. When the power went out in the 64th minute, they had to listen to rest of the game with all the other locals in Aramaic as City won 3 – 1. Now dark, his three new found friends walked him safely home. We love this country.

The last bus back to Addis Ababa
Day 2 on the bus, still smiling

Even having a ticket with allocated seat numbers in Ethiopia does not always guarantee you’ll get those seats, as we discovered this morning. Squeezing into another packed bus we discovered people in our seats who refused to move even when the conductor told them to. With the guy actually laughing in our face we finally scored two seats together right behind him and his rude wife. But we got our own back. Even in the 35 degree heat, people in Ethiopia can’t stand to open bus windows. With the smell of unwashed bodies, sweat and vomit too much for us to handle, we yanked ours open, which then proceeded to jam. Watching the man in front of us try desperately over and over again to close it as he and his wife, sitting in what should have been our seats, complain loudly to the conductor, who also can’t close it, was payback enough for us. Particularly when it started to rain and they got wet while we didn’t. The rest of the drive was pretty uneventful though the psycho driver managed to spice things up a bit.

Weaver Bird.
Weaver bird which you’ll find all over Africa

Arriving in Addis we were dumped at a bus station in the far east of town which we didn’t even know existed. The bus to Harar leaves for another bus station near the market so go figure? Taking a taxi to Itegue Taitu Hotel, built in 1898 and Ethiopia’s first hotel, we score a budget room for 297 birr (less that £10). But not without drama. The hotel receptionist is rude, shows us a nice room for 343 birr then gives us the keys to a shit room down the hall with damp walls at the bedhead and a terrible shower. A stern word with the manager sees us moved to a cheaper though better room. Also while Wi-Fi is advertised, you only get 30 minutes free before being extorted out of your money for any additional time. The restaurant/bar area is nice though and has an old world kind of feel.

Bus tripping.
Bus trippin’ Ethiopian style

The Sky Bus office is located in the hotel, though unfortunately it’s not running to Harah the next day (Wednesday/Friday only). The bus to Dire Dawa, a transit hub for Harar, is also sold out. Leaving us with local bus #3 in as many days. Walking the half an hour  to Merkato bus station to buy tickets, we pass through a seedy area behind the fresh produce market, wading through inches of discarded vegetables made worse by the recent rain. At the bus station a tout starts hassling us though does help a little to find the right window, saying he wants nothing in return…then asking for a 50 birr tip when the tickets were less than 150 birr each!!! We gave him 10 and told him to piss off.

Recycle market
Nothing goes to waste here, recycle market in Harar

Dinner consists of burgers at KG Corner next door to the hostel, with tasty meat patties, good fries (for Ethiopia) and dry buns. They also sell local Gouder red wine which is passible, once you get through the first vinegary mouthful. The pizzas looked good and loaded so skip the burger and give those a go. Oh and don’t be surprised if some local kids come and stand by the front gate with handmade instruments and sing and dance, give them a little coin, at least they’re not picking your pockets right?

Traffic in Ethiopia

Another 5am wake up call sees us run to our pre-organised taxi in a pre sunrise torrential downpour. Soaked and miserable we dash through the muddy bus terminal gates to join the locals undercover. Matt heroically volunteers to meander among what feels like hundreds of identical green and white buses, looking for the one with our number on it. Finally locating it, Sarah grabs the day packs and secures our seats inside while Matt waits under the shelter until the rain passes and the baggage handler arrives (a routine we now had down to an art form). That all done, we the proceed to sit in the station until past 7am while the bus leaks like a sieve. Already soaked to the bone, we spend the wait reminiscing about the Porkchop days when we could wake up in the pouring rain, cook breakfast, have a coffee, get dressed, wash up, make the bed and hit the road all without leaving the van.

The last bus back to Addis Ababa
The bus from Addis to Harah

The trip from Addis Ababa to Harar went a  little something like this…

  • 7am we depart, everybody is given a plastic bag of local bread rolls.
  • 8am we finally clear the outskirts of Addis.
  • 10am our first tire blow out occurs and is changed in under a minute.
  • 11am we stop for lunch.
  • 12:30pm a troop of baboons arrive for a roadside buffet, chasing us down the highway as the locals toss their leftover bread (still in the plastic bag) out the window.
  • 1pm we stop for fuel in Awash.
  • At 2pm temperatures rise as we hit the dry desert region of east Ethiopia and the brightly dressed women of the Oromo people, their layers of brightly beaded necklaces and domed huts made of earth, wood and whatever plastic sheeting can be salvaged from the roadside adding colour to the bleakness.

About town
Harah by the light of day

  • 2:30pm we see evidence of the late arrival of the rains, passing struggling crops and decaying bodies of cows and goats.
  • 3pm we pass two overturned trucks
  • 3:10pm we reach a section of highway with speed humps every 200mts. This obviously didn’t slow the two overturned trucks.
  • 3:30pm we stop in a small town to buy chat from the roadside, with women reaching in the windows to try and make a sale.
  • By 4:30pm, fed up with the windy mountainous roads, we question why they haven’t just politely asked the Chinese to build them a tunnel.
  • 5:30pm we make it to Kobo where chaos reigns when we’re all kicked off the bus and bundled into minibuses headed for Harar.
  • At 5:40pm we’re crammed into the back seat with a dozen locals of all ages saying hello through the window, pushing their way to the front to laugh at Matt’s eyebrow ring and take turns comparing skin colour with Sarah’s pasty white arm.
  • By 6:30pm we’ve still not arrived, despite our drivers kamikaze efforts, but the afternoon thunderstorm has and our bags are swiftly rescued from the roof by our friendly driver.
  • At 7:30pm we finally arrive in Harah, check into the best hotel in town and discover there’s no running water. We grab a beer.
  • By 9pm we retire to bed to discover our pillows win the lumpiest in the country award, but thank god those last three days are over.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the end of that.

Tips for long distance buses in Ethiopia

  1. Pretty much every long distance bus, whether Selam bus, Sky bus or local bus, leaves at 5:30am. You’ll want to arrive early to ensure you get your luggage on the roof and secure your allocated seat when taking the local bus. Especially true as some buses don’t give allocated seats.
  2. Ethiopian law does not allow standing passengers, and buses are only permitted to drive during daylight hours. The only exception we found was the bus from Lalibela to Dessie, which took standing passengers along the dirt road up to Gashena. We can only assume this was because there’s no other way for the locals to get around and police don’t patrol this section. Buses are regularly stopped by police.
  3. If you’re a couple, when buying tickets for a local bus be aware that some buses have bench seats in a 3-seat-aisle-2-seat configuration. You can ask the ticket guy to give you the 2-seats if you don’t want to risk sitting next to somebody who vomits.
  4. Do tip the baggage handler who loads your bags onto the roof, ask a local what the correct fee is.
  5. DO NOT pay extra for baggage. Unless you’re taking 5 bags of chickens you should only have to pay a small tip to take a big backpack.
  6. People will vomit. Even on the posh buses.
  7. People hate opening windows. They’d prefer to sit in a stuffy bus throwing up the entire ride than get any fresh air. Nobody could ever explain to us why.
  8. In theory, all long distance buses will stop for a 30 minute lunch break, usually at a cheap local restaurant. Some make a brief breakfast stop but don’t count on it, especially if road conditions are bad, they will want to make up the time.

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