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Western Ethiopia - A view from our expert author
One of Africa’s great off-the-beaten-track loops, an area of intimate and lush green scenery broken into convenient day-sized travel bites by a series of well-equipped towns.
More than any other part of the country it’s the lush western highlands, all rolling hills, neat cultivation and dense montane forest, that subvert preconceptions about Ethiopia being a land of desert and famine. Despite its natural beauty, the western highlands lacks for a well-defined sightseeing route and boasts few organised tourist attractions, meaning the region is largely ignored by travellers. This, really, is half of the charm of western Ethiopia: one of Africa’s great off-the-beaten-track loops, an area of intimate and lush green scenery broken into convenient day-sized travel bites by a series of well-equipped towns.
The ultimate goal for any traveller heading west of Addis Ababa is the steamy riverport of Gambella, reached via a dramatic descent from the breezy highlands into the sweltering Sudanese border region. Set on the northern bank of the Baro River, part of the Nile drainage system, Gambella is both an atmospheric and fascinating destination in its own right, and more or less the end of the road insofar as public transport is concerned. The region can be explored as a loop between Addis Ababa and Gambella, which entails heading out to Gambella via Ambo and Nekemte, and returning to Addis Ababa via Jimma and Weliso, but it could as easily be done in reverse. Equally, those with limited time could restrict themselves to a short overnight loop through Ambo and Weliso via Lake Wenchi or travel more extensively in the highlands without actually going as far as Gambella.
There is regular public transport connecting the towns on both legs of the loop. During the wet season, the direct road between Nekemte and Gambella on the northern leg may be out of service; when this happens, you can get there via a road connecting Nekemte to Bedele on the southern leg which is tarred in its entirety with the exception of the 105km stretch between Nekemte and Bedele and the 25km section between Matu and Gore. The loop described in the following chapters is all but self-contained, in that there are few decent roads connecting it to other parts of Ethiopia. An exception is the upgraded road between Sodo and Jimma, which would allow travellers to cross between the Rift Valley and western Ethiopia without returning to Addis Ababa.
Most of the places described lie at an elevation of 2,000m or greater, and are thus relatively cool and moist. Gambella, which lies below the escarpment, has a hot, humid climate reminiscent of the east African coast and Lake Victoria hinterland.
An inviting taster for the western highlands and worthwhile excursion out of Addis Ababa is provided by the road loop that runs west for 125km from the capital to the bustling town of Ambo, then cuts southward for about 65km to the resort town of Weliso, 100km from Addis Ababa on the Jimma road. The focal point of this loop is the spectacular Wenchi Crater Lake, which lies to the east of the road connecting Ambo to Wenchi, and also offers some worthwhile indigenous forest reserves, a trio of attractive waterfalls in the vicinity of Ambo, and a hot-springs resort at Weliso. In a private vehicle, you could complete this loop in one long day, though this wouldn’t leave a great deal of time for sightseeing. A more realistic approach would be to take two or three days, planning on overnight stops at Ambo, Weliso or Menegasha State Forest depending on your budget and interests. There is plenty of public transport along the main roads connecting Addis Ababa to Ambo or to Weliso, the respective springboards for travel on to Nekemte/Gambella or Jimma/Mizan Tefari, but transport between Ambo and Weliso is more limited.