Out of Africa: A Drive through Ethiopia’s Rift Valley

There is nothing like driving through rural Africa. It was something I dreamed about ever since watching the 1980s film “Out of Africa” with Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. Call me a romantic but there is something utterly nostalgic and breathtaking about the countryside. Perhaps even more so in Africa where you take a step back in time to how things used to be.

In much of Africa, including Ethiopia where over 90% live outside of cities, rural life is life. Men, women and children tend to farms and herd livestock. Markets, business and life happens along the roadside. Modernity seems to have not yet reached this part of the world where water jerricans, mule carts, and manual labor are common. Electricity and running water is a luxury that few have. Bathing happens in the creeks. It is a world so unlike my own that everything I saw surprised me.

For this reason, I was always fascinating with our ventures into the rural parts of Ethiopia and sat glued to the window watching in awe and admiration. Instead of napping, I took photos from our moving Land Rover, trying to capture the heart and soul of rural Ethiopia. There was no way I could do its beauty justice especially since we did not have time to stop. Yet our drive from Addis Ababa, south through the Great Rift Valley to Hawassa had to be documented. The raw, aching beauty of Ethiopia spoke to me.


The Great Rift Valley splits the Ethiopian landscape apart leaving behind many circular crater lakes that are awash with hippos, crocodiles and lovely views like this hotel above.

African flowers

African flowers

Ethiopia flowers

Our entourage of six Land Cruisers left Addis Ababa early in the morning for our six hour drive south to Hawassa, where we would be based for two days during our trip with the International Reporting Project. Thankfully the roads were all newly paved and in good condition, unlike the rural, gravel roads we experienced driving out to the villages near Bahir Dar. The landscape was verdant, lush and tranquil just as I had imagined Africa would be.

Rural Ethiopia

We passed through small roadside villages and nondescript towns. Most farmers live in tukuls as shown below made out of grass and mud. They build their tukul around a small plot of land.

Tukuls in Ethiopia

Rural Ethiopia

Rural Ethiopia

The Rift Valley is very fertile and grows a wide variety of fruits and vegetables ranging from potatoes, maize and sorghum to onions, grapes and tomatoes. The Rift Valley even produces wine.
Rural Africa

There are few trucks in rural Ethiopia. The preferred method of transportation is by mule cart or on foot. Driving is a dangerous endeavor as you are constantly warding off goats, sheep and cows who walk across the road like they own it.



Rural Ethiopia

Rural Ethiopia

Life in rural Ethiopia occurs along the roadside. I was surprised to see young children sitting perilously close to the oncoming cars. Toddlers walked hand in hand without adults and even herded goats and sheep without supervision. It was not a sight I was accustomed to. Rural EthiopiaRural Ethiopia

The drive south to Hawassa passes through many nondescript towns and roadside villages. Since it was a Sunday, only men were out in the towns. Surprised I asked our driver where the woman were and why only men were out on the streets, walking around arm and arms or in groups. “Because the woman are home working” he replied.

Rural Ethiopia

Rural EthiopiaLife in the countryside revolves around harvest time. The land is prepared in the spring. Seeds are sowed in the summer and the harvest happens in late fall. Life is difficult and hard. Yet the sense of community remains strong.

Rural Ethiopia

Rural Ethiopia

Rural Ethiopia

Perhaps the most renowned town en route to Hawassa is Shashemene. Known as “the Promised Land”, Shashemene is the Rastafari capital of Africa. It was here in 1930 after Ras Tafari was crowned Emperor Haile Selassie that the Jamaicans founded a new religion called Rastafarian. You can see Rastafari billboards, posters and shops throughout the town and of course meet some fellow Ethiopian Rastafarians.

Rural Ethiopia

Once you leave the cities and small towns behind and enter the Great Rift Valley, you feel rather small and insignificant. It is absolutely huge.

Ethiopia Great Rift Valley

Ethiopia Great Rift Valley

Heading out into the Great Rift Valley

Rift Valley Ethiopia

Rural Ethiopia At first glance, the Great Rift Valley appears rather barren. Yet as you continue on through it, you discover that the valley is magnificently green. So green that it almost hurts your eyes.

Rural Ethiopia

More produce stands line the roads as farmers try to barter and sell their stock.

Ethiopia Great Rift Valley

Produce stands along the road

Rural Ethiopia

Rural Ethiopia

Rural Ethiopia

Alas, there is nothing but raw, eternal beauty that Ethiopia is known for….

Rural Ethiopia

It was so hard to leave. The beauty and culture were surreal. Yet I also learned through my visits with non-governmental organizations, hospitals and rural health centers that there remains a lot to be done regarding maternal and newborn health in Ethiopia. Much poverty and hardship remain.

I was in Ethiopia in June as a reporting fellow with the International Reporting Project. To see all my stories from the trip, click here. My stories are a mix between photo essays, culture, travel and newborn and maternal health (which is what I was primarily reporting on in Ethiopia). 



  1. Absolutely astounding Nicole. The photos of the carts piled high leave me wide eyed. I so appreciate you taking me to a spot I may never see and capturing it with your amazing photos.

  2. I really love your extensive footage of the trip through Africa. These pictures really do make me want to visit Ethiopia and it’s stunning nature 🙂

      • I think going to Africa is always something very special. The culture differs so much from what have in Europa or America. I’m really looking forward to seing as much of possible when visiting Africa for the next time.

  3. Sas

    Stunning photos once again Nicole, you have a talent for capturing life through your images. Oh, and the goats generally do own the roads. I learnt that when I lived in Greece – they wouldn’t even move for our double decker buses 🙂

      • No, we did not get to climb Kilimanjaro on that trip and I’m kind of mad now that we didn’t do it while we were right there. We were in its shadow a number of times while near Arusha. It’s on my list, too! I’ve hiked to Everest base camp on both the Nepal and Tibet sides, so I figure I can hike 1000 feet higher and do Kili! I love reading your blog; keep up the great work!

      • Thanks! I did the Annapurna Circuit trek and would love to see Tibet. I fell in love with Nepal. I’ve wanted to do Kilimanjaro ever since my dad did it 15 years ago. It just hasn’t worked out yet. I’m worried too that it may be too crowded as I don’t like hiking with hordes of people. 🙂

  4. Summii Diina

    The ” promised land” kkkkk. Shashimane means ‘ house of Shashe ” not Jamakan land. This Government has got $ 60 billion in aid and debt relief since it comes to power , why the life of those people are`t changed? What type of reporting is this? I think it is not “international reporting project” as dubbed but picture shopping project.

  5. Tas Harsi

    Thank you very much for bringing my childhood memories, it looks the same as I left it 40 years ago except for the new roads.

    • So glad you enjoyed the post and photos. I was shocked at how many new roads are being constructed now by the Chinese in Ethiopia. It will significantly improve life and health care for many. Now so many women have to walk on foot miles to get to a hospital to deliver. As more paved roads get built, it will be much easier and will save lives. Ethiopia is a beautiful country.

  6. Rahel

    Great stories and pics! I am wondering however why Zuway, Shashemene and Hawassa are 6 hrs drive from Addis Abeba? The furthest is Hawassa and about 300km unless you were counting stop overs for coffee, wine and photography!

    • Yes, I’m sorry! We did stop for lunch in Ziway and did a coffee stop. I should have been more clear! 🙂 It is a very beautiful place. Hawassa was very nice too with the lake and the monkeys. We saw a Muslim wedding ceremony at our hotel the night we arrived and it was lovely. We also toured the new hospital being built there which will be much needed since the regional health center is very overcrowded and not enough beds.

  7. Abeba

    Thanks for showing the beauty of Ethiopia to the world through your pictures! just wondering, have you gone to the Northern part of Ethiopia to see the Semien mountains, and historical cites like the town of Lalibela, Axum and Gonder?

    • Thanks for the comment! I have not been to Northern Ethiopia and I have heard it is breathtaking. There is so much to see in Ethiopia. It is so beautiful and I think a lot of people don’t know how special it is. I hope to someday be able to return and see more. It is a wonderful place.

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