Ethiopia is the land of coffee, the land of culture with more than 80 tribes and the land of many highlights such as the Danakil, Bale Mountains with the endemic Ethiopian wolf, Simien Mountains, the rock churches of Lalibela and many more. A perfect place to spend some time to see all these wonders.
On March 25th 2019 or 2011 for Ethiopians, we entered the country through lake Turkana. Entering the town of Omorate we were welcomed by dozens of people that were interested in us and our car. A friendly guide picked us up and brought us to a campsite nearby to relax from the long and tough journey of lake Turkana.
“Ethiopia uses the Coptic Calendar which puts it years behind the rest of the world. The difference in year numbering is believed to be because the Ethiopian Orthodox Church disagrees with the Roman Catholic Church about when Christ was born.”
Driving up the country to the north we have always been friendly welcomed. Men were most of the time waving, while women just simply screamed, like we were famous popstars. You get used to being popular. Sometimes we stopped in small villages and then dozens of people came to our car, out of curiosity, to have a talk and see us up close. A big group of around 40 people would surround our car, which can be overwhelming and sometimes scary, but we have never experienced any ill intent towards us, until the 8th of April.
With our visas of Sudan in our pocket, we were driving on the A2 up to Mek’ele enjoying the scenery. Rolling green hills and farm land with small picturesque villages in between. A perfect backdrop for a nice road trip.
20 km before Debre Berhan, we were stopped by police. They wanted to check our vehicle. Happened to us before and most of the time it is a routine thing. Of course, we asked the obvious question if there is something going on ahead. The police replied that there was no problem and that we could continue our trip.
Before we entered the town of Debre Berhan we saw rocks and burned furniture on the road. It didn’t block our way, but it gave us a bit of concern. Only when we finally entered town, we saw that there was something seriously wrong.
In most countries in Africa it is a common sight to see many people and animals on the street, walking to work, doing business or just standing along the road to talk with each other. What we saw was hundreds of people blocking a 4-lane road and were surrounding a truck and a car. We knew this was wrong, but we were so flabbergasted that it took us a minute to realise that a small group was running aggressively towards us with sticks and bats in their hands.
Inge pulled the car in reverse, but other people throwed rocks on the road to block our way. Marty ran over the rocks with ease and Inge turned the car around to drive away. Only when police officers surrounded
our car, their guns locked and loaded to shoot our tyres, we realised there was no way out and we pulled over. In just a moment, our
car was surrounded by hundreds of angry people. They asked us to get out of our vehicle, but we told them that we were scared and wanted to stay in. Upon requesting the police if we could get some space, they motioned the people to step back. After a few minutes of talking with the police they told us to not go back, but move on to our destination, Mek’ele. They didn’t give us an option really.
Afraid, but relieved we continued our journey through the city. We now had a clear view of the city, which looked more like a war zone. All shops were closed, roads were blocked with truck tyres, big rocks and things that was lit on fire. Windows were smashed, cars were demolished, trucks get stuck because of their flat tires and groups of men were patrolling the streets and aggressively looking at us, sometimes even blocking us.
We were still processing all what we saw, when we entered the last curve. The road was now blocked on both sides and there was no way to go over it. Big groups of people were taking shelter of the rain at shops close to the road. Only when they saw us, they ran out of their hidings, towards us, with sticks and stones. For us there was no way back, only forward and Inge found a small gab as the road blocks on both sides of the road weren’t placed on the same line. Reducing speed meant that crowd could get closer, but this was the only way to cross the side curb to get from one side of the road to the other.
With big stones in their hands they attacked and damaged our car and smashed on of our windows. Luckily Marty took all the beating which gave us that moment to pick up speed again and drive out of the city. Only after 20 km, we were brave enough to stop and take a breather in close vicinity of police and military.
Shocked and in tears we told our story to them, only to hear that going North would be even worse than what we have experienced just now.
So, no option to go North and for us no option to go South we were now stranded. Luckily the police and military helped us out and would organise a military escort back into Debre Berhan. One car loaded with armed military and an armed guy in our car we drove back to our personal hell. It was the only way.
Upon entering the town, the big group of people walked towards the cars, stopped us but they had respect for the military presence, was enough to get through. We had to make a detour to prevent escalation as to many people where on the road. Halfway through the city the military told us to stay in a hotel in town. Tomorrow morning, they would bring us further to Addis Ababa. Where they out of their minds? No, we wanted to continue further, but unfortunatly the road was blocked and even the military didn’t want to take this chance.
There we were, in the middle of that crazy town, with a damaged Marty, locked in a hotel with other foreigners, that didn’t went outside the last 40 hours, waiting until it would be safe again to hit the road. Swapping stories and checking on the internet we finally found out what was going on.
“Ethiopia’s north central part along the Addis Ababa-Dessie road is reduced to a conflict zone after a group of armed groups opened war on residents in several towns. The armed groups were highly organized and had employed group weaponry and explosives apart from individual assault rifles like AK 47. Dozens of people are believed to be killed and dozens reportedly taken captives by the armed groups. The conflict has causes road closure along this route.
Until now it is not clear which political identity these groups belong to. Sources in social media claim that the armed groups are militant wings of the Oromo Liberation Front.
The next day, early in the morning, it seemed peaceful on the streets. We tried to gain as much information as we could, but nobody could give us a proper status update. We received news that in towns along the road to Addis demonstrations would start, but drivers on the road told us that it would be safe. What we knew for curtain was that we could safely exit Debre Berhin and that cars and busses were driving again to Addis Ababa. We didn't want to wait until the city was fully awake so we packed our bags and hit the road. With our heart in our throats we left the hotel. People were already on the streets again, although not in big numbers. Luckily the road was clear which made it easy to quickly get out of town.
In the next town, we already saw people forming groups again. And even here it was clearly visible that people had demonstrated as small road blocks were lying on the side of the streets. We stopped when we saw police and asked if it would be safe to continue. With an urgency in his eyes he told us to continue quickly, so we did. When we reached the next town it already looked more peaceful as kids were going to school and shops were open.
The more we drove to Addis Ababa, the more peaceful the towns and streets were. It looked like business was going as usual. After 1,5 hours we reached Addis safely, which gave us the relief to relax.
It is unfortunate that we were in the wrong place at the wrong time. If this didn’t happen to us, we would still be traveling through Ethiopia. For now, we have lost faith in the friendliness of the people and we can’t trust the police to give us trustworthy information. We know for sure that we will come back and explore the beautiful northern part of this country.
Keep in mind that we only want to share our story as we would find it very unfortunate if other travellers would meet the same faith. We do not tell you not to go, as Ethiopia is a beautiful country.
What are the new plans?
From Ethiopia we were planning to continue to Sudan. We already received the visa’s, but demonstrations escalated, and the current president Bashir has been dethroned. Besides, the country has closed its borders for now and no traffic is allowed to come in or go out (the moment that we post our blog, the border should be open again). That is why we have changed our plans and are driving back to South Africa.
After 1 year in Africa, we will close our amazing journey @AfricanBurnFestival, in South-Africa. Cape Town would be our next destination where we will repair our trusted friend ‘Marty’ and make plans to ship it to Montevideo, to new countries, new cultures, new activities, new climates, new food and new adventures in South America. We can’t wait!
If there are other overlanders that want to ship their car or bike to Montevideo, from Cape Town, please let us know. We are open to share a container with you, which will save costs for both of us. We are planning to ship the car at the end of August 2019 with the boat that will take 45 to 50 days. Duncan, from African Overlanders, will arrange this for us. He has a lot of experience in shipping cars and bikes all over the world.
Want to know more? Check our website or our new blog. And if anybody has tips & tricks for South America, we would appreciate it if you sent us a message.