There are few roads in Addis as congested as Debre Zeit. That is saying a lot. This road is the main lifeline of Addis, connecting the land-bound capital with the port of Djibouti. As a result it is a maze of slow moving trailer trucks, with cars, donkeys and people dodging around them to get from place to place. During the recent construction, Debre Zeit road was even worse than usual, not, it seems, a pleasurable confusion by comparison.
From Meskal Square, Debre Zeit road is lined by shops, restaurants, and an increasing number of modern new office buildings. After a few kilometers you come to the aptly dubbed chaos square, next to the big grain silos, where a wide open intersection leads to interesting contests of will between impatient drivers. At rush hours a group of 6 harassed traffic cops manage to keep a semblance of control, but otherwise its every car for itself.
You have to negotiate the busy street for quite a number of kilometers, passing quite a number of shops and restaurants, and braving confusion square one of the worst of the many difficult squares in the city, then eventually reaching the little bridge at Akaki, which I consider the edge of town.
Past Akaki the vistas broaden and the lovely hills of the East appear. One hill on the right boasts a series of low military bunkers, and is said to house another ammunition dump.
About 20 km past Akaki you reach Dukem, nicknamed by my son as Duke Nukem after a popular computer game. Although it is a mass of trucks, donkeys and pedestrians, it has a couple of okay hotels and bars. Another 30 kilometers brings you to the outskirts of Debre Zeit and the turnoff to Siquala Mountain. There is a ridge of hills on the right, the furthest of which is Siquala, about 30 km south.
Siquala is one of the nicest day trips from Addis. It is a calm and forested volcanic crater, with an attractive and very holy crater lake. It is a place where you can enjoy a leisurely and scenic walk, and kick back onto the grass and lie looking through leaves up at the blue sky. Apart from crowded festival days there is almost no hassle. There are quite a lot of birds, including sacred Ibis, and Colobus monkeys or Guerzas (one time I saw none, another time eight). It is idyllic.
The Siquala monastery is said to have been founded by Saint Tekle Haymanot in the 1300s. It is a very holy place, and a popular pilgrimage spot for church festivals. It is also highly visible and easy to find in the days before roads and landcruisers. The water in the crater lake is strictly forbidden to all but ordained priests, who make careful use of the holy water.
At the top of Siquala, you drive into a shaded, if rocky, parking area. There are guards and beggars hanging about, and you are expected to pay 10 birr per person for the privilege of a visit. There are two churches, Gebre Medin and Beta Maryam. Theyre not all that impressive.
The attraction is the natural setting from the parking area. You can see a marvellous plain stretching far below.
The drive is tough. You need a four wheel drive with good clearance to get to the top. Although the gravel road going in is generally good for most of it, you run into some rough spots after the turnoff to go up to the mountain. The climb up is a nightmare of clambering slowly over rocks. It is a long walk up, but that is the alternative.
Having said that, we unexpectedly ran into a Canadian friend at the top with his little Rav 4 Toyota who had no trouble getting up. It is really worth it.
Past the turnoff to Siquala is the small city of Debre Zeit, although there is a struggle to have it renamed Bishoftu to reflect its location in the Oromo Region. Nobody seemed to pay much attention until fairly recently.
As you enter the city you pass by a series of lines of trees by the side of the roads. These are popular picnic (and chat chewing) sites, particularly on the weekends. You have to be careful as cars pull out unexpectedly from the side. The road is good so it is tempting to drive fast, but the many wrecked vehicles on the side are mute testimonials to being careful.
The city of Debre Zeit has several attractions. There are crater lakes with resorts. The old Ras Hotel on Lake Hora is being renovated by the business magnate Al Almoudi (very slowly), and should be very nice when completed. Foreign churches have also found the craters popular - both the Catholic church and the Protestant Sudan Interior Mission have built guest houses on crater lakes, and will rent space to outsiders when theyre not busy. I ended up staying at the Air Force Officers Club once, an interesting experience although I was disappointed not to find groups of drunken officers hanging out at the bar late at night they all seemed to go to bed early.
One pleasant addition to Debre Zeit is the Family Restaurant, which serves tex-mex food and is a popular brunch spot on the weekend.
As you leave Debre Zeit heading east you pass by the Airforce base on the right. It is big. I advise not driving in by mistake - the armoured car will get you.
The road past Debre Zeit is unexciting. Large bags of charcoal line the roads, and vendors give you half the price of Addis. The next town is Mojo, down a hill and across a picturesque bridge. There is a bypass which takes you directly to the road South - Lake Langano, Shashamene, Bale and the Far South.
There is an interesting place to stop and see crocodiles and hippos (if youre lucky). About 10 kilometers past Mojo you take a turn to the right at a big blue sign. Down the road about 12 kilometers there is a construction site, which is where you stop and park.
Unfortunately there is a crush of willing guides, and curious onlookers gather around and disrupt the experience (unless you wisely consider them part of it). This is an unfortunate reality in many spots close to Addis - there are a few birr to be made from guiding and plenty of people understandably chasing them. It would be nice if some community-based tourism planning and training took place, so that communities could get something and control the painful mobbing.
With a bit of patience and a walk down to the Awash River, you can enjoy lovely scenery and the excitement of wildlife viewing. Dusk is the recommended time. At 5 in the afternoon we saw about 11 crocodiles along a one kilometer stretch of river. Our eager company yelled loudly enough to drive them quickly under water from their riverside perches, and probably scared off any hippos before we could see them. It was nice anyway. I suspect early in the morning is also a good time.
Only a few kilometers east on the main road is Adama, formerly known as Nazareth. You descend down a desert-like hilly terrain onto the main street. It is surprisingly large and nice. There are several good private hotels, including a Bekelle Molla and a Rift Valley. The main drag is a predictable confusion of trucks, taxis and horse drawn garis. The city has been a major business hub for some time, and it has an air of faded glory. The boulevards are decorated with landscaped dividers, a bit worn but nice nevertheless.
Adama is a surprisingly nice place to wander around in. The market is large and colorful. There are a number of okay restaurants, including a pizzeria next to the Ras Hotel. The Ras has a large swimming pool which often has water in it. There is even a nice Al Mendi Moslem restaurant on the road to Sodere. But despite these attractions, I still dont understand people who go to Adama as a weekend getaway.
The second big turnoff to the south is here, which takes you to the hotsprings at Sodere (nice enough but not too clean), and the Arsi capital of Asela on the way to Bale.
Past Adama is the road to Awash Park, past the fruit stands at the fetchingly named Matahara, after a dramatic lakeside drive through volcanic stones. But thats another story.
Send your comments or questions to John Graham at firstname.lastname@example.org
WATCH FOR JOHN GRAHAMS UPCOMING BOOK ETHIOPIA, OFF THE BEATEN TRAIL TO BE PUBLISHED SOON BY SHAMA BOOKS.