Text and Photos by Dan Grec

Exploring Ethiopia

Tourism Creates Tension

Throughout my time on the African continent, I’ve seen thousands of AK-47 rifles. I have become very accustomed to them being a part of everyday life, though after only 20 minutes in Ethiopia I see things are very different. In stark contrast to what I’ve become used to, the men carrying the infamous rifles are not uniformed military men but just ordinary civilians using the rifles to guard their livestock.

Villagers in Ethiopia are seen carrying containers to get water

Approaching Lalibela, villagers are seen carrying containers to get water.

One group of men seems particularly friendly, so I stop for a closer look. All three greet me warmly, and, though we don’t share a language, I feel perfectly safe while crouching in the shade with the colorfully dressed tribesmen. It doesn’t take long before they notice my interest in the rifle, and before I know it the most notorious of all automatic weapons is thrust into my hands.

An Ethiopian local leading a mule

A Gelada Baboon spends some time with the author

The Simien mountains is a popular camping spot for locals. A Gelada Baboon spends some time with the author in the early morning while in Simien.

The elderly man moves the selector between “safe,” “semi-auto,” and “full-auto” while pantomiming the results, happy for me to put the rifle on my shoulder and look down the sights. Overall the rifle is much lighter than I imagined, and the stock is too short for my liking. I have often wondered if these battered old rifles are loaded, and so using hand gestures I ask the man to remove the magazine.

The camp spot in Addis Ababa was a parking lot of a hotel

The camp spot in Addis Ababa was a parking lot of a hotel where a glimpse of the modern city is seen.

Grinning from ear to ear he removes and shows me the fully loaded magazine, before cycling the bolt and showing me the round in the chamber. He clearly has no problem at all with me holding his loaded automatic rifle.

Into Ethiopia

I wave goodbye to my new friends and continue on the muddy gravel road before finally breaking out onto pavement, the first I have seen in Ethiopia. With less than 20 miles of range remaining, I’m happy to spot men pouring gas from grubby containers as I roll into the dusty town of Omorate, my legal point of entry into the country. At immigration, a friendly young man stamps me in and completes the requisite ledger. I stamped out of Kenya back in Nairobi, and at the time I guessed the date I would cross the border. I have to laugh when my passport is stamped into Ethiopia a day before it is stamped out of Kenya.

A map of Ethiopia and some surrounding countries

Ethiopia Quick Facts

  • CAPITAL CITY: Addis Ababa
  • POPULATION: 105 million
  • SIZE: 426,000 square miles (nearly double Texas)
  • LANGUAGES SPOKEN: Amharic (official), nine regional
  • CURRENCY: Ethiopian Birr
  • INDEPENDENCE FROM ITALY: August 26, 1942

Who knew the Jeep has so much in common with the time-traveling DeLorean.

Customs are happy to issue a Temporary Import Permit for the Jeep valid for 60 days, and the officer doesn’t seem concerned about insurance or other annoying legalities. I manage to exchange money and buy gas, which allows me to rest easy overnight in the crowded parking lot of a local restaurant.

The Mursi People

A few days later I drive high into the mountains and arrange for a mandatory guide who jumps in the Jeep for the afternoon. We drop a thousand meters in elevation and the intense heat hits like a wall just as we begin to see Mursi people on the side of the road and collect a mandatory security man, of course carrying a battered AK.

The Simien scout with his AK-47 bearing a smile

The Simien scout with his AK-47 bearing a smile; showing kindness is a universal language.

We drive directly into a small village, which is really only a collection of small mud huts in a rough circle. From the moment I step out of the Jeep, I begin to meet and interact with the people of the Mursi tribe. The Mursi are famous because the women insert enormous clay plates into their bottom lips. Sometimes the plates are over 10 cm across, making for a very striking and unique look.

It is late in the afternoon and the ladies are grinding corn for the evening meal while the men watch and play with smiling children running to and fro. My guide translates and explains the daily life of these people, which I gather is very basic subsistence living with a healthy dose of celebrations and parties at every excuse. It’s clear tourists have been visiting for decades, and I pay for everything from the mandatory guide and armed guard to taking photos of the individual Mursi. My guide says they now rely heavily on tourist money to survive and that it’s good for them, though I can’t help but wonder how they survived for 299,900 years before tourists came to take photos.

“Though I’m not at all scared or intimidated by the gun-wielding men, the whole interaction does not feel one bit friendly or in any way kind.”

The Simien mountains provided elevation climbs up to 14,081 feet at a high pass

The Simien mountains in Ethiopia provided elevation climbs up to 14,081 feet at a high pass, where even a patch of snow was seen.

As always I’m in complete awe of how tough these people are, scratching a living in such unbelievably harsh conditions.

Gas Crunch

Ethiopia is in the midst of a huge gas and diesel shortage, and I find myself with a slight problem. None of the stations in Jinka have a single drop, and I drove here expecting modern stations, so the Jeep is running on fumes. The situation is clear: I will not be leaving until I find gas.

Early the next morning I’m given directions to a decrepit station 10 minutes out of town. When I arrive, there are already at least 50 tuk-tuks and well over 200 motorbikes swarming the gas pumps. Unfortunately, I don’t see anyone actually pumping gas. Everyone is shocked to see me add the Jeep to the lineup, and they all confirm at least 20 times the Jeep runs on gas rather than diesel—it’s clear they have never before seen a gas 4×4.

A few of the men speak a little English and are happy to translate while everyone comes over to examine the Jeep and my story. I can feel the tension in the air, and as much as I want to take photos, I think better of it.

After a few hours the station owner climbs onto a pump to make a speech, and a friendly local translates snippets for me. The owner is trying to buy more gas, but is having a very hard time sourcing any, which means supplies are very limited. Today motorbikes will be limited to half a gallon each, while tuk-tuks can get one. There will be no filling of jerricans or other containers allowed. He explains this is to ensure everyone will receive at least a little, and we can all work together to get through this. He even mentions he will sell at the official price, rather than profiteering, which would clearly be very easy.

The Jeep is tucked into the trees in a camp spot found in Ethiopia

The Jeep is tucked into the trees in a camp spot found in Ethiopia.

This all sounds very reasonable to me, and it’s clear he’s doing his best in a tough situation. Quickly it becomes clear I am the only person present who thinks this way. Over the next hour I watch as virtually every waiting man verbally abuses the owner; screaming in his face, waving arms, and making it very, very clear what they think of his plan. Everyone is very clearly furious and bristling with anger, and it’s a display I have never before seen in all of Africa. I stand well back from the screaming and keep my camera locked away.

After almost four hours of waiting, I’m shocked when everyone starts revving their engines and screaming as the attendant begins to pump gas. Apparently, it was in the underground tanks all along. I understood we had been waiting for a delivery to arrive. It turns out we were just waiting for no reason. Because … Africa.

Now the true madness begins as everyone cuts the line, yells, screams, fills jerricans, and does whatever else they can to not cooperate and to make the whole process a lot slower and more painful for everyone. I’m forced to continually maneuver the Jeep to stop tuk-tuks from cutting me off. Of course, they still do, and I get yelled at on multiple occasions simply for trying to hold my place in line. When my turn comes, the owner graciously agrees I can have a full tank, which I’m extremely thankful for. Other men are not impressed, so I fill up and quickly leave before the abuse can swing in my direction.

Never before in Africa have I seen people treat each other so badly, and it’s disconcerting to know Ethiopians have no problem treating each other this way. I can’t help but wonder how I’ll be treated throughout the country.

Over the next couple of days, I push hard to the capital of Addis Ababa, making big distances on very bad roads. The extreme gas shortage means I’m forced to change my plans about exploring in the south of the country, so I just move on. In one town, I’m forced to buy 10 gallons on the black market for double the official price. It’s clear the attendants in the station pump gas into containers whenever the station has some, and then double the price when the station runs dry. In a larger city, I arrive just as the station receives a delivery from a tanker, and a full tank at the regular price is no problem.

Addis Ababa is a massive city with a modern centre, and I set up camp in the parking lot of a hotel before moving through the city ticking off jobs. I apply for and am granted two crucial visas for onward travel. I’m happy to hang out with fellow overlanders, including a Swiss couple I have not seen since Cameroon on the West Coast, well over a year ago.

Into the Mountains

I move to the north of the country, and after lucking out with gas on the black market, I ask if I can camp in the parking lot of a hotel. For $4 I get a great spot and access to a shower and water to fill my drinking tank. I’m excited to see the on-site restaurant and bar. After a minute, I realize this is a camping travel stop for locals. Hundreds of beds are set up in rows outside, each complete with their own bug net. Just as I sit down to order in the restaurant a few buses arrive and soon the restaurant is hopping with excited Ethiopians on the road. Many people come to my table to say hello and ask about my thoughts on Ethiopia and the world. The local dish of Injera is delicious, and of course everyone laughs when I try the seriously hot sauce.

The following day I encounter kids who throw rocks at the Jeep when I don’t give them money or candy in response to their begging. I have been warned of this and in fact Ethiopia is infamous for it among overlanders. I’m thankful none hit the windows, though one does take a good chip out of the paint on the rear tailgate.

The Simien Mountains

Again I’m lucky locating gas and manage to fill up at two different stations where nobody is waiting in line. It seems some regions of the country have plenty, while others have absolutely none. I’m happy to keep the main tank above 3/4, and I regularly stop at stations to ask.

“Overnight the temperature plummets and I’m shocked to be chilled to the bone even wearing all my cold-weather gear from Northern Canada.”

Nothing beats a sunset at Lake Tana in Ethiopia

Nothing beats a sunset at Lake Tana in Ethiopia.

My Swiss friends have found a brilliant wild camp in the foothills of the Simien Mountains, though when I arrive I’m not at all surprised to see them in the middle of an argument with a group of men carrying AK-47s. The head of the National Park somehow found them, and has come to stop us from camping here unless we pay for no less than eight armed guards and pay outrageous park entry fees for today and tomorrow. Although no maps show our current location as being inside the park, he will not negotiate. Though I’m not at all scared or intimated by the gun-wielding men, the whole interaction does not feel one bit friendly or in any way kind. I’m completely sick of arguing and yelling and I don’t want to deal with any of this. After going around for over an hour, we decide to just camp in the crowded parking lot of a hotel in town. And so we leave the scene, escorted by the armed men.

In the morning we stop at the ranger station to pay the mandatory park entry fees and discover our friend from yesterday is running the show. He quickly insists we must pay for two scouts, and again the arguing and yelling starts. The official park rules posted on the wall clearly state one guide can cover up to five people—and we are exactly five. With lots of arguing and yelling he digs in his heels and will not budge at all. Again, this does not feel in the least bit friendly or welcoming, and I’m starting to feel that I’m not welcome in Ethiopia.

Again sick of the arguing we pay the full price for two scouts and entry and extras, not a small sum. My scout is a very gentle elderly man with the requisite AK-47, though he does not speak a single word of English. Nevertheless, we get on well with smiles and hand gestures.

Now with our scouts on board we are finally permitted to drive into the National Park. The scenery is breathtaking and the warm sun beams down as we drive up on a rambling gravel track. In the early afternoon, we’re short of breath at 3,200 meters in elevation as we arrived at our campsite for the night, Camp Chennek.

Author Dan Grec holds the infamous AK-47

Author Dan Grec holds the infamous AK-47 after the friendly native men thrusted it into his hands.

From the second I turn off the engine the usual game starts. A confrontational man says I am not allowed to park or camp where I have stopped the Jeep and I must move. He insists I can only park in the official parking lot and doesn’t care that it is completely full. Even when I point this out, he has no flexibility and insists I move the Jeep.

I move to another location, and soon another man insists I can not camp or park there. This is now a familiar game from all across Africa, though I can tell my patience is wearing thin and I’m not at all in the mood. After a lot of angry back and forth and loud arguing with my friends, the local men are not being helpful at all. When I politely tell the lead man we can’t find a better option and ask if he can please tell us where it would be OK for us to camp and park, he replies, “I’m not here to find a solution.”

This is not the reception I was expecting at the official campsite of a National Park that we’ve paid a significant amount of money to enter. I, again, feel as if Ethiopians don’t want tourists at all, and that I am unwelcome in their country—a first for me in all my travels. Eventually we find a place to camp where nobody seems overly put out, and although they want us to move, we just refuse until they leave us alone.

Overnight the temperature plummets and I’m shocked to be chilled to the bone even wearing all my cold-weather gear from Northern Canada. In truth, the temperature only drops to about 45 degrees C, and I realize how acclimatized to the African heat I have become.

Walking around before sunrise I’m delighted to sit with a troop of Gelada Baboons as they explore the area. Typically baboons are nasty creatures that I avoid, but these are very placid, even friendly. With all their different facial expressions and wild hairstyles they remind me of the many chimpanzees I’ve spent time with.

After hiking to an impressive lookout we drive deeper into the mountains. After an endless series of switchbacks, we reach a high pass at 14,081 feet, easily the highest I have driven the Jeep. I can feel it is very much down on power, though otherwise it starts and runs as normal. The wind whipping around is freezing, and I even spot a small patch of snow in the shade—the only snow I have ever seen in Africa.

At this elevation I notice the front axle is leaking from the end of the axle tube. Apparently I unseated an axle seal during the roll over in Uganda. I can only hope the damage is limited to the seal, and I will have to keep an eye on the fluid level for the remainder of the expedition.

Tricky Times in Ethiopia

After winding down from the mountains and a huge resupply in Gondar, I move south and make camp on the shores of stunning Lake Tana to relax for my last days in Ethiopia. I have no problem buying gas, though my Swiss friends have a harder time locating diesel so they intend to catch up with me later in the day. When they finally do arrive they have bad news. Their vehicle was surrounded by yelling and screaming men who hit it with sticks hard enough to dent the steel and break headlight covers. They were terrified, although thankfully they were able to press forward without further incident.

In the next couple of days we learn of a nearby bicycle traveler who is hit in the head with a rock badly enough to require stitches, and then only a day later is violently attacked and almost has his entire bike stolen. Our host at the small campsite quietly mentions that a foreigner was violently beaten just a month ago in a nearby village, and after a decade in the country, she is leaving post-haste, vowing never to return.

Near Lake Turkana in Ethiopia

Near Lake Turkana in Ethiopia the author pauses to take in the vast landscape.

Ethiopia has been a very challenging country for me. In all my travels, it is the only place I have felt unsafe and, in fact, unwelcome. I hear an explanation that rural Ethiopians are sick of tourists because they bring large sums of money that all lands in the hands of educated city people running tour groups. So although the tourists are passing through rural towns the local people get none of the money. This, apparently, justifies their anger toward foreigners. Whatever the reason, I genuinely feel foreigners are not welcome in Ethiopia at this time, and unfortunately I can’t recommend it.

I feel disappointed that a country went this way, but feel helpless to do anything about it. On my second to last day, I’m waiting in a small town, sitting in the driver seat of the Jeep and watch as multiple men grab at everything on the Jeep, try to forcibly open the locked doors, and even try to open the gas cap. All of this while I’m clearly visible watching them in the mirrors. Even after I bury the horn, none of them stop. I’m furious they have no respect, and again, this is the only country where I have experienced this behavior.

For the first time in my life, I’m happy to see a country fade in my rearview.

Up next is a country I have been fascinated with after hearing countless stories from other travelers: Sudan.

For more tales of faraway travels, follow adventurer Dan Grec on YouTube and Instagram @theroadchoseme.

Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the September/October 2020 print issue of Tread Magazine

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