Ethiopia’s new railway opens up stunning lesser-known destinations
Ethiopia has seen significant economic growth in recent years, leading to great improvements in life expectancy and living standards. Now the country boasts the first electric transnational railway in Africa, running from Addis Ababa to neighbouring Djibouti. As well as facilitating land-locked Ethiopia’s access to the Red Sea, it has helped to open up destinations along the route that have previously been off the tourist track.
The Chinese-designed and financed system begins in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s sprawling capital in the highlands bordering the Great Rift Valley, where it’s believed that the first humans originated. As well as being one of only two African countries that was not colonised, Ethiopia has one of the world’s oldest Christian traditions, a heritage embodied by the city’s many stunning churches.
The passenger train was inaugurated in January 2018 after some delays. Covering 466-miles of arid and beautiful landscape, it opens up alternatives to Ethiopia’s more well-known northern attractions of rock-carved churches and mountain landscapes. The train line is the first stage of a network that is intended to span 3,000 miles.
Taking passengers through rural scenes populated by livestock herders and mounds of harvested teff – an ancient, staple grain from the region – the route cuts through Awash National Park, a rich wildlife reserve comprised mainly of acacia and grassland, with the occasional volcano.
The line’s midpoint is the city of Dire Dawa, Ethiopia’s second largest and a major transit hub for the country’s exports. From here, a 30-mile minibus ride takes you to the fascinating walled city of Harar, characterised by maze-like alleys, traditional houses and numerous mosques, including the Jamia Mosque, built in the 16th century.
Some Ethiopians consider Harar to be Islam’s fourth holiest city after Mecca, Jerusalem and Medina, and the city was listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site by virtue of its unique architecture, reflecting its inhabitants’ African and Islamic culture.
To the north of the railway line on the Ethiopia-Djibouti border is Lake Abbe, a salt lake that is one of a chain of six connected lakes, including lakes Gargori, Laitali, Gummare, Bario and Afambo. It is famous for its otherworldly landscape of craggy limestone towers formed by erupting hot-springs, at the point where three tectonic plates converge.
Across the border in Djibouti is Lake Assal, Africa’s lowest point, at over 150 metres below sea level – beautiful sight featuring dormant volcanoes, black lava fields and turquoise water. This crater lake is the largest salt repository in the world.
In the dry part of the lake, locals still harvest salt in the traditional manner, using axes. The slabs are loaded onto camel caravans, and taken across the scorched desert on a journey often lasting weeks. Miles to the south-east, the train line’s path through the desert towards Djibouti City tells of a more connected future. But for now, this arid landscape still feels a million miles away from modernity.