Newsletter #11    23-February-1999   
Ethiopia and Sudan
(updated May-2000)

G'day Folks,

Very warm (45 degrees) greetings from Khartoum, Sudan. Yes, since our last newsletter we have crossed from the cool Ethiopian Mountain climate to the very hot and dry Sudanese desert weather.

Since leaving South Africa we have been running into Gunther and Ulrike, an Austrian couple travelling the same route and schedule. We had arranged to meet in Addis Ababa and then travel together to the Middle East.

Ethiopia is the first country where we have needed to drive on the right hand side of the road with a Right Hand Drive vehicle. Having driven in the US, the transition was very easy.

When we arrived in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, we looked into the best way to cross from Africa to the Middle East. It is possible to drive from Ethiopia to Djibouti and then ship to Jordan however this was very expensive and time consuming. We were told that the Ethiopia/Sudan border had recently opened so we successfully applied for a Visa to cross from Ethiopia into Sudan and Egypt. These two visas took five days to be processed much to our delight.

After getting our visas we headed east towards the Somali border to visit Harer, the fourth holiest Muslim City in the world. The countryside was very scenic and mountainous however the road was very rocky and slow and its here that we got our first puncture. Driving in Ethiopia requires a lot of attention as its necessary to avoid people walking on the road, people sleeping on the road, children darting across the road, goats, donkeys, cows, camels, rocks, potholes, broken down trucks, buses constantly stopping and passing on blind corners etc. etc. Sometimes the loads trucks carry are very amusing. For instance, we've seen fuel tankers with a goat riding on top or a taxi carrying goats, or fish hanging off the rear vision mirror.

The town of Harer was not as interesting as the drive itself. It is a stone walled city with a very Muslim flavour and reminded us of parts of Zanzibar and of Asia. We took an interesting walk through the streets and enjoyed the sights and smells of the spices and fresh produce that was on sale. Everywhere people kept calling Kienny "China". I think it’s rare for the Ethiopian people to see a Chinese tourist.

From Harer we returned to Addis Ababa to do some last minute grocery shopping. We also met Andrew, a British bikie who flew his motorbike from Jordan to Ethiopia and is riding to South Africa. Its here that we heard on the BBC and the VOA short-wave radio that fighting had restarted between Ethiopia and Eritrea after a cease-fire of eight months. The Ethiopian and Eritrean people have the same culture and religion and all Ethiopians we have spoken to are very sad that the Eritrean government has declared war on Ethiopia. Fortunately the fighting is restricted at present to the Ethiopian/Eritrean border and has not really affected our travels except that we were unable to visit Axum in the far north and visit Eritrea. All internal flights have been cancelled and international flights diverted to Nairobi. This has greatly reduced the number of tourists visiting Ethiopia. During our stay in Ethiopia we only saw a handful of tourists.

We headed north to Lalibella and Bahir Dar. What a magnificent drive!. This would have to be some of the most spectacular scenery we have seen in Africa. The terrain is very mountainous and the road from Lalibella to Bahir Dar averaged 3000 metres above sea level. We drove from escarpment to escarpment through deep canyons and over rugged peaks. The police and army at Kombolcha held us up for a couple of hours because we did not have travel permits which they felt we required due to the war. The day before, we had been told in Addis Ababa that we did not require a permit to travel this route. Eventually we were told we could continue. Our next challenge was to obtain a permit to buy diesel, or gas oil as its called in Ethiopia. Due to the war and the closure of Ethiopia's main shipping port in Eritrea fuel supplies have been rationed, as the shipping port in Djibouti cannot cope with the increased demand. This required us to visit a number of different government offices. All were very helpful and friendly but wanted to see our travel permit which we didn't have and were told we didn't need. After much persistence we were allowed to purchase fuel, having obtained a permit from the office of Ministry for Trade.

It has been said that if Lalibella and its twelve churches were in any other country it would be one of the great man made wonders of the world. Here the twelve churches were carved out of solid rock back in the eleventh century and are still used as a place of worship today. It’s like a living museum. We especially enjoyed visiting the churches at 6am on Sunday morning. There was a lot of pomp and ceremony, chanting, singing, reciting the scrolls in Ghese (an ancient Greek/Ethiopian language) and incense. The acoustics of the building added to the atmosphere. Later in the day we walked to a monastery high up in the mountains which commanded a good view of Lalibella and surrounding countryside.

We then travelled to Bahir Dar on the edge of Lake Tana which is the source of the Blue Nile. The following day we drove 30km's to the Blue Nile Falls and spent the morning around the falls. These falls were very good and in some ways better than the Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. We were the only tourists at the falls - very different to the hordes of tourists at Victoria Falls

The next day Andrew on his Tenere motorbike headed south while we headed north for Gondar. In Gondar, we had to throw away our second BF Goodrich All-Terrain tyre. After only 30,000 km's the tyre tread was peeling off. Africa is hard on tyres. We purchased two Michelin XZY tyres in Addis , which other travellers have highly recommended. We had a brief look around Gondar and our last meal of Injera, the staple diet of Ethiopians - the pancake tastes like rubber. However, the sauces can greatly improve the flavour if cooked well!. Gondar has one of the most interesting markets we have seen in Africa. You can buy everything from food, beads, recycled USAID and EU tin products, shoes made from old car tyres to 4wd leaf springs.

With only two days left on our Ethiopian visas we drove west to Metema on the border with Sudan. This was also a very interesting drive. We descended two thousand metres to the hot and dry black soil plains. In the wet season this is cotton-growing country. At this time of year everyone was bagging the cotton and we saw many trucks, overloaded to the hilt, carting cotton to Gondar where it’s processed at the ginnery. We passed through immigration and customs 40 km's from the border and arrived at Metema late in the afternoon. We were too late to cross into Sudan and so camped in the middle of the road, 30 metres from the border. The border crossing has to be seen to be believed. The border is only open to tourists and so it's only used a few times a month. The Ethiopian Soldiers look 100 metres across the dry riverbed at the Sudanese Soldiers 24 hours a day. The local citizens cannot cross the border. When it was time to cross the following morning the Ethiopian Soldiers escorted us to the halfway point and called the Sudanese Soldiers. Everyone shook hands and we drove up the riverbank into Gallabat, the Sudanese border town. The bridge across the dry riverbed has been washed away and so 4wd was necessary.

It took us four hours to pass through customs and immigration. We had to wait at least one hour to register with the police before we were on our way. This is the first time we have spent more than an hour or so at any border crossing. Everything was translated into Arabic and done in triplicate. The road from Gallabat was no more than a 4wd track and would be impassable in the wet season, as shown by the picture opposite. The Savannah like countryside gave way to flat open country. The closer we got to Gedaref the wider the road became however the going was slow due to the corrugations. We arrived in Gedaref just before dark and stayed at the only hotel we could find which had secure parking. Apart from Zanzibar Island this was the first night where we stayed in a hotel room and not in our rooftop tent.

The next day while we were having breakfast, a policeman arrived to escort us to customs, the bank and the police station to get our travel permit. He must have got a tip-off that Aliens were in town! Again, everyone from the General to Police were very friendly. However, it still took five hours to complete the necessary paperwork although we had to allow for the fact that there were two vehicles and five people to process. Finally we left for Khartoum on one of the best bitumen roads we have seen in a long time. The countryside was perfectly flat and monotonous, similar to the countryside around Hay in NSW. The black soil was fertile and the land was extensively broad acre farmed. Just before dark we crossed the Blue Nile River and camped on the edge of a town next to a Women's Hospital. We had an audience for a short time but eventually we were left to sleep in peace.

We left early and reached Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, around 9am and are staying at the German Club. Khartoum is situated on the confluence of the Blue and White Nile and has one of the best I-Cafe's (Internet Garden near the Airport) we've seen in Africa. As you have seen Sudan is very bureaucratic and we spent most of today seeing the inside of more government offices. We were unable to complete the formalities for Alien Registration today but hopefully should finish tomorrow morning.

After a few days rest in Khartoum we will continue to follow the Nile River into Egypt.

We have been keeping very well and have thoroughly enjoyed our time in Ethiopia and Sudan. Ethiopian and Sudanese are very friendly, hospitable people and are probably two of the best countries we have visited. What we see and hear on the TV portrays a very biased view of two great countries. Khartoum would have to be one of the safest cities we have visited in Africa. People on the streets are very friendly and welcoming, especially towards Su-lin. The food in Sudan is great, easily the best we've had in Africa. This is also borne out in the fact that there are many well-built people in Sudan. We have been enjoying typical Middle Eastern food such as Sheesh Kebab, Falafel and Yiros. There is also plenty of good fresh fruit and vegetables grown locally along the Nile River.

Catch up with you in Egypt.


Geoff, Kienny and Su-lin Kingsmill


Peter Slewka provided the following update:-

Getting visas for the Sudan does not appear to be a problem at the moment. Americans can even get them. The easiest place appears to be in Addis Ababa. Nairobi would not issue tourist visas at all and the other embassies [except for egypt] were only issuing overland visas in exceptional circumstances. The road crossing at Metema/Gallabat is open. The Sudanese are building a new road from Gedaref - it will be a gravel road, but wide and with proper drainage! The Ethiopians are also improving the road from Metema to Gonder but they are way behing schedule and still need to complete a lot of  the basic engineering work. Apparently the goverments decided to improve the link so that the Ethiopians could use Port Sudan. In the rainy season, the improved bits are closed off and the old track has to be used. It was taking five days to get from Gedaref to Gonder in September. For us in early October it was a two day event barring any breakdowns.


Dirk Bernhardt provided me with the following:-

In Metemma only customs and police check, you must do the immigration work in Shehedi, about 42kms into Ethiopia.  You can sleep at the Sakbesak Hotel. The immigration and customs cost US$1 (one).  YOU DON'T NEED A CARNET!!

The street to Azezo is no problem, if it rains you may have to cross 2 to 3 creeks.

Also, you can change TCs in Ethiopia at every Commercial Bank with good rates.


The following news report was published in the Addis Tribune on the 31-Dec-1999:-

Ethiopia and Sudan have agreed to open to traffic the road that links Azezo, Metema and Gedarif. According to reports, this agreement had followed a meeting held between the two parties by high-ranking officials of transport and communications. The construction of 118 of the 175km road running from the Ethio-Sudanese border to Gedarif has been completed. The construction of 50 of the 187 km road from Azezo to Metema has been also carried out. Conditions are being also made more conducive to the construction of the Humera-Shewak and the Asossa Dimazin roads. The construction of the roads would enhance commercial relations between the two neighboring countries.


Getting a Sudanese/Egyptian visa in Addis Ababa

We got our Sudanese and Egyptian visas in Addis Ababa. The Egyptian visa took one day and cost US$30. An Ethiopian foreign exchange bank receipt was required and payment was in Ethiopian Birr.

Our Sudanese visas took four days (it took another overland group two weeks to get their visa), costs US$60 and required a letter of introduction from the Canadian embassy in Ethiopia (the Canadian embassy handles Australian affairs in Ethiopia). Payment in US Dollars is required. Ask for a four weeks visa as it’s expensive and time consuming to extend your visa in Sudan.

Getting an Ethiopian visa in Khartoum

We got our Ethiopian visa in Kenya and the procedure was straightforward. Other travellers have reported that you need to show an air ticket to get an Ethiopian visa. If possible get your visa before arriving in Sudan. Otherwise you will need to buy an air ticket to get your visa and then cancel the air ticket.

Road details between the Sudan and Ethiopia

The road between Khartoum and Gedaref is bitumen. Once you leave Gedaref the road continues to deteriorate all the way to the border town of Gallabat. The road starts out to be a formed corrugated gravel road and ends up as a little track through black cotton soil country. In the dry when we were there it was fine, however in the wet season this road would be atrocious if not impassable.

The Sudanese border town is Gallabat and the Ethiopian border town is Metema. A small creek divides these two villages (too small to be a town). When we were there in the dry season this creek was dry but in the wet season this must flow as the concreted creek crossing is partially washed away.

From Metema, it’s 40km to Shahede where formal customs and immigration is done and then another 200km to Gonder, the first big town you'll get to in Ethiopia. The roads are better on the Ethiopian side however it is rocky, hilly and slow going. There are three or four big creek crossings and numerous small creek crossing which would be a real problem in the wet season. Despite this, we did the trip from Gonder to Metema including customs in Shahede in one day.

You should carry enough fuel to get between Gonder in Ethiopia to Gedaref in Sudan, a distance of around 400km.

There is no trade between Ethiopia and Sudan so the actual border crossing is seldom used and sees little cross border traffic.

A description of Sudanese paperwork when travelling from Ethiopia

When you get to Sudan remember that it’s very bureaucratic although everyone is very friendly.

You will need at least eight passport photos for Sudan. Two for your visa and around six for various permits when you reach Sudan.

At Gallabat, the Sudanese border, you will need to pass through customs, immigration and then register with the police. Customs will collect US$2 for road tax. Have your money ready as customs may want to count all your foreign currency. This took us four hours for two vehicles and five people. At Gedaref the police were waiting for us at the hotel when we went for breakfast. I don't know how he knew we needed him. I can only assume the hotel rang the police. This was very convenient as the police escorted us to all the different government departments and acted as a translator. VERY CONVENIENT. First we had to go to customs house to obtain a currency declaration form which is required to exchange money. They will probably want to count your money again. You then need to go to a bank and change some money and then go to the police station to get a travel permit which costs about US$30 per person. We asked and got a travel permit for Gedaref - Khartoum - Wadi Halfa which saved us from getting another travel permit in Khartoum. You will need two passport photos per person. The formalities in Gedaref took us five hours so have a good breakfast and bring along a good book.

In Khartoum we went to the Tourist Office and obtained a photo permit costing around US$0.25 which allowed us to take photographs freely .We purchased a permit to visit Meroe (Royal City) near Atbara and Jebel Barkal near Karima for US$10 per person payable in US$. This office is behind the National Museum. You will also need to register at the Aliens Office. This will cost US$2.00 per person and required a photocopy of the first page of your passport and the immigration stamp you got in Gallabat. There is a photocopy place at the Aliens Office which costs about US$1.00. The registration form will also require a stamp from your hotel. This means that you will need to visit the Aliens Office twice. They will then stamp your passport and travel permit. All this is very quick taking around fifteen minutes. All these formalities took us six hours over two days.

See Sudan/Egypt Newsletter #12 for more details on Sudan.