Ethiopia has the highest vehicle death rate in the world. It also has
the highest road death rate, a definition which includes pedestrians
on the road. As discouraging to travel as they may be, the hazards
must be stated. Roads are by far your biggest threat when travelling
in Ethiopia. Another statistic to hold on to is that three quarters of
fatalities happen on the Addis Ababa – Nazaret stretch of road. To
minimise your risks, I suggest travellers avoid using any of the
hundreds of Toyota Minibuses on this road: they are small, flimsy,
crammed and the driver tends to see himself as chat chewing Ayrton
Senna. On this particular road, travelling by regular bus is safer
because they are chunky and slower. This road is straight and has no
cliffs (not so in the highlands), meaning that the old tyres and
twisted suspension are not so potentially horrific. Travellers on
private 4×4 Land Cruisers should be especially aware on this road too.
Expect the most dangerous overtaking and be ready to turn on to the
gravel at any time.
Travellers on rented 4×4 Land Cruisers should also check their
vehicles before agreeing to it. Ask for another one if necessary.
Things to look out for include:
Tyres: Don’t be surprised to see they are from different brands and
threads. That’s not a big problem as long as they are not worn or
cracked. Demand that the tyre be changed if necessary. Even better,
when contacting tour operators via internet, I suggest you
specifically demand tyres in good condition. This can save you time
when you arrive in the country.
Suspension: stand in front of and behind the 4×4, at least 5 metres
away, and make sure the car is not tilted. If it’s only by a fraction,
at least bear this in mind when loading luggage and fuel jerry cans on
Chassis: while checking for a tilted suspension, check that the front
wheels and the rear wheels are in line. This is a serious risk when
fully loaded on rocky roads. Never accept a vehicle that has a twisted
chassis, not even by a margin.
Driver: All tours are divided in convenient one day travels, be it the
Northern Circuit or the Lower Omo Valley. On asphalt the driver has no
reason to travel beyond 90 km/h, on pista or gravel take it down to 60
km/h if it’s in good shape and 40 km/h if it’s loose soil or has
potholes. Keep your driver in check, I have seen horrific accidents
involving Land Cruisers with tourists where the sole cause has been
excessive speed. Also, local drivers find it irrestible to overtake as
soon as a slow car is in front: if he’s overtaking dangerously, as
most do, make it clear that you won’t take it, that you don’t care
about his driving skills (‘I have experience, don’t worry’…) or the
fact that the truck in front is going at 20 km/h. And for goodness
sake, don’t follow the Ethiopian way and put your seat belt on.
Always. Which makes me think: check the seatbelts work before agreeing
to the Land Cruiser!!
On public transport, be it wacky Lada drivers in nightime Addis Ababa,
minibus racers or large bus captains, your power of negotiation is
lower. But there are ways to get around this. Sit as close to the
driver as you can. In minibus journeys, particularly between towns,
ask to sit in the gabina or front part. If the gabina is full, ask
gabina ebakeh, bedemb eke felalew, ishi? This means ‘in the front
please, I’ll pay a bit more, okay?’. An extra 10 birr is enough and
worth every cent. The first advantage is space because you’ll be less
crammed. If you’re next to the window, you get to keep it open or
closed, a privilege you don’t get when sitting in the back with eight
or ten people. You also get better views and the chance to happily
suggest to the driver to chill out: the magic word is tara gaga
friend… ‘slow down pal’. As he’ll be chewing chat anyway, why not go
along and buy him a plastic bottled Pepsi to win him over to you. It
may sound frivolous, but it works.