Old Cities and Elephants: A Journey to Eastern Ethiopia

Schedule changes due to election-related security concerns shortened the time we had available to explore Ethiopia so we opted to head east to Harar. We chose this because the old city of Harar has several different sights and activities that don’t require constantly changing location. We decided to take the bus there and fly back from nearby Dire Dawa.

Selambus buses depart at 5:00 AM from Mekele square in Addis Ababa making for an awfully early start, but the ride itself was actually pretty amazing. Early on we crossed through the Great Rift Valley which was pretty spectacular, and we were constantly passing through little villages and by various animals. We spotted several troops of baboons and a plethora of different birds, including flamingos. There were three stops, one of which was at a restaurant for a late lunch. The others were just short roadside stops for bathroom breaks.

The nice thing about an early departure was that it got us to Harar at a decent hour. We had booked a guesthouse in a traditional Harari house within the old walled city ahead of time, and they had sent a local to meet us and guide us to it. Good thing too, as it was down a maze of streets and alleyways.

The house itself is beautiful and basically everything in the main living space has purpose and/or meaning. There are five levels of seating within the living space. The highest one, which is beside the door, was reserved for when the king visited the house. The door was made large enough that he could ride his horse inside, rack his spear beside his seat, and step directly from his horse to his platform without touching the ground. Surprisingly, the lowest platform was reserved for those who had a physical handicap, making it easier for them to seat themselves unaided. Second highest and situated at the back of the room was the platform reserved for the home owner and head of household. Family members and friends would have been spread between the remaining two based on their standing within the company present.The house itself was built of limestone to keep it cool and was surrounded by a walled courtyard.  Above the door there was a rack with a carpet on it. This indicated that a marriageable aged daughter still resided in the house. When she marries, the carpet will go with her to her husband’s home.

By the time all of this was explained to us and we had been shown to our room – the upstairs, inside room – it was getting close to dinner. We headed out of the old city and up the main street in search of food, wifi, and an internet cafe. We found all three but sadly, none of them were all that good. By the time we finished sending one email at the internet cafe it was dark and a huge thunderstorm had closed in on us. May/June is the beginning of the rainy season in Ethiopia and we were treated to a pretty solid display as we scurried off back to our guesthouse.

The next day we opted to pay for a guided tour of the walled city. Harar is a maze and while we enjoy exploring those kinds of areas alone, the lack of English signs etc. meant that we would not understand most of what we saw. Unfortunately, before we could start our tour we had to change accommodation. We had only booked one night – our policy since a couple of bad experiences in Vietnam – and the rest of the nights were booked up. We spent the morning searching for a decent place, close to the old city, that had wifi  so that Tamara would have an easier time with her courses. Unfortunately, the only place that we found that fit all of this was the Ras Hotel, which was a lot more expensive than most of the other accommodation. Either way we just happy to get settled in and on with exploring.

Harar is a historic trade centre and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is also considered by some to be the fourth holy city of Islam with over 80 mosques inside the old city itself. It has well over 300 alleys and a plethora of markets divided based on the items being sold. Until the late 1800s, it was a kingdom in its own right and it retains a strong sense of independence today. We visited the city just before Ramadan. This is significant because at the start of Ramadan, most Muslim families will paint the outer walls of their compounds white. At the end of Ramadan they will paint them in a variety of bright colours, giving the city the colourful appearance we were able to enjoy.

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We took a couple of hours to eat dinner and explore part of the city on our own before meeting our guide just before sundown to go see the hyena man. Historically, the villagers fed the hyenas during droughts and the tradition has now become something of a tourist draw, where you can watch the hyena man call them in, feed them, play with them, or even feed them yourself. We are usually against any sort of wild animal feeding, but we convinced ourselves that this was a longstanding tradition so we should check it out. Only Tamara was able to feed the hyenas, but it was actually pretty cool to see.

The following morning, we headed to the Babille Elephant Sanctuary with four other travelers we met on the bus to Harar. They had managed to organise a van and guide for much less than the prices we had been quoted. Travelling in a group – especially a group you don’t know well – can be a little tricky, and they were all about getting the best deal and the hell with prior agreements and respect for locals. Not exactly how we prefer to travel, but overall it was a good day. After getting to the sanctuary, picking up the two mandatory armed scouts, slogging the van through several mudholes, and pausing for an African traffic jam, we dismounted in the area where the elephants were last seen and headed into the bush.

Finding the elephants was quite a challenge and required the two scouts, help from a local man and kids, and a lot of walking. It was nice to get up and moving though. In the end, we located the elephants after we heard shots from farmers scaring them away. Our scouts would not take us at all close to them because these elephants apparently get very aggressive after they have been scared by gunfire so we only ever really saw elephant butts at a great distance.

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We had originally planned to stop by a village market on our way back, but we spent too much time in the sanctuary, so we only paused in the Valley of Marvels to check out some balanced rocks before heading back to Harar.

Our final full day in Harar was pretty laid back. It rained on and off so a lot of it was enjoyed from inside cafes. We did wander through some of the old city, exploring the parts that were not on the tour and doing a little shopping, but for the most part it was quiet going.

We had planned to take a minibus from Harar to Dire Dawa – the regional transport centre – to spend a day exploring cave art in the area and then fly back to Addis Ababa after two nights in Dire. As it turned out, Blake was on his way to being very ill the last morning in Harar, so we hired a private car to take us to Dire Dawa for 600 Birr. We also reserved a slightly nicer hotel than we would usually have because it’s horrible to be sick when facilities are not up to snuff. Blake spent most of a day and night with a brutal fever and was still far from recovered by the time we headed back to Addis, so our trip to the east ended with a bit of a whimper instead of a bang and we will have to wait to see cave art.


The only domestic air carrier is Ethiopia airlines. It used to be that it was much cheaper to purchase tickets once you were in country rather than online. Now this appears to only be the case if you are either an Ethiopian resident, or if you flew into the country on Ethiopian airlines. We are not sure how much the discount would be, but for those planning a lot of domestic flights it would likely be worth it to find out and decide if you want to ensure that you come into the country on Ethiopian Airlines to gain the discounts.

It’s worth noting that large signs proclaiming free wifi on restaurants or guesthouses only means that they sometimes might have a weak wifi signal if you stand on the table with your head cocked at 43.2 degrees facing northeast. If wifi is important to you, ask if it’s working before settling on a place.

During the dry season and early wet season many hotels will not have constant access to water. It may only be available in the evening or morning. Again, ask before choosing a place and, if that is the case, try filling some buckets while the water is on so you will be able to flush toilets or have a sponge bath if necessary.

Hyena feeding – or even just watching the feeding – costs over 100 Birr per person.

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