The Rift Valley

The Great Rift Valley, formed about 20 million years ago, is the single largest geographical feature on the African continent. Its gradual expansion has been accompanied by a large amount of volcanic activity: the valley floor is studded with dormant and extinct volcanoes such as Fenatle in Ethiopia.

The Rift Valley runs through Ethiopia from the Red Sea to the Kenya border.

In northern Ethiopia it forms the Danakil Depression, an inaccessible and inhospitable desert that dips to the lowest point on the earth’s surface.

Along with the historical circuit in the north, the southern Rift valley is probably the most touristed part of Ethiopia, with easy access on public transport and fair tourist facilities.


The Rift Valley is lower and hotter than the highlands, though in part of the Rift south of Addis Ababa elevations are around 1500m and temperatures are rarely uncomfortably hot. The bulk of rain falls between June and September.

Between Shashemene and Arba Minch you pass through the Walaita highlands, which are much chillier than other areas covered in this section. The far south is much hotter and drier than most accessible parts of Ethiopia.

How to get there

The easiest way to see the south, and the only reliable way to reach the Omo area, is in a 4×4 vehicle. Most safari companies in Addis Ababa can tailor trips to suit your requirements.

Apart from the Omo area, most places covered in this section are readily accessible by public transport. The main transport hub in southern Ethiopia is Shashemene, which is six hours from Addis by bus. Public transport along the main Addis-Shashemene road leaves in both directions throughout the morning.

Lake Ziway

Lake Ziway is the northernmost of Ethiopia’s Rift Valley lakes and an ideal first stop on a tour of the Rift Valley. The lake is notable for its scenic qualities – it is ringed by steep volcanic hills – and for a dense bird population. The large island of Tullo Guddo is clearly visible from the mainland. On the highest peak the church of Debre Tsion is quite possibly the oldest active monastery in southern Ethiopia.

The best access point to the lake is Ziway town, which lies on the main Moyale Road about 160 km from Addis. From Addis you can catch a bus direct to Ziway or one to Shashemene, which will drop you at Ziway. The journey will take three to four hours.

The Bekele Mola Hotel, set in small but attractive grounds, charges $US 4 for a large self-contained chalet with hot water. The Kasi Hotel, which is unsignposted opposite the Agip garage, has clean rooms for US$ 1.50 (using communal showers) and US $2 (private cold shower).

Ziway to Shashemene

The 100km ride between Ziway and Shashemene is yet another that can be done as a two or three hour bus trip, or stretched over a few days with stops at Lakes Langano, Abiata and Shala.

Lake Langano

Lake Langano is more developed for tourism than any other lake in the Ethiopian Rift Valley. The acacia-lined shore is of great interest to bird enthusiasts, and the setting is very pretty.

Without a vehicle the better hotel to head for is the Bekele Mola, which lies 3 km off the main Moyale road. Any vehicle heading between Ziway and Shashemene will drop you off at the turn-off which is clearly signposted opposite the entrance gate to Abiata-Shala. From there it is half an hour walk to the hotel.

The Bekele Mola Hotel has bungalows for US$ 18 and large self-contained rooms starting at US$ 7. These vary in standard from comfortable to very run down, so ask to see the room before you take it. Alternatively you can pitch a tent in the grounds for US$ 2. Note that the tap water at the hotel is definitely unsafe to drink.

Abiata-Shala National Park

This national park is set aside to protect the two Rift Valley lakes after which it is named. Although the lakes are separated by a mere 3 km of land they could not be more different in character. Shala, the southern lake, lies in a sheer-sided 266m deep crater and its surface is broken by small volcanically formed islands. In contrast Abiata is a large brackish pan, nowhere more than 14m deep. It is, on the whole a better bird lake than Shala.

The main point of interest is the difficult-to-reach Pelican Island, formerly a major breeding ground for pelicans. Also of interest are the hot springs on the north-eastern corner of Lake Shala.

However, the national park is also heavily encroached – livestock and people outnumber wild mammals and much of the woodland has been overrun by maize plantations.

Abiata-Shala is not the most impressive of national parks. If you are restricted for time it is debatable whether the park is worth visiting, especially when far more alluring parks beckon further south. For backpackers, however, the park is definitely worth devoting a day to.

Any vehicle passing between Ziway and Shashemene can drop you to the main entrance to the park. The obvious place to stay is at the Langano Bekele Mola Hotel (see above).


The sprawling town of Shashemene is the major transport hub in southern Ethiopia. It is the last place you’d choose to stay, but junction town it is, and if you spend a while in the south you may well need to bed down here at some point.

A good hotel is the ‘new’ Bekele Mola Hotel, which faces its older namesake and is good value at US$ 4/5 for a self-contained single/double with a hot shower.

From Shashemene it is possible to take two main routes. The first is a southward bound route which will take you to the Kenya Border. The second road is a south-western route that takes you to Arba Minch.

Shashemene to Moyale and Kenya

For travellers coming from Addis Ababa or the Rift Valley north of Awassa, the trip south to Moyale is a straightforward two-day journey with an overnight stop at Dila, a small town that lies 80 km south of Awassa and 420 km north of Moyale.

However you may want to spend some time at Lake Awassa, with its mountainous background. There are monkeys, hippos and birds to be seen.

The Awassa Wabe Shebele Hotel Number Two is a decent hotel with well-wooded grounds that dip right onto the lake shore. Semi-detached rooms are US$ 9 and bungalows are US$ 11.

Moyale is in effect two different towns which share a name but lie on either side of the Kenya-Ethiopia border. If you’re crossing through to Kenya border formalities are relaxed, though the border does close occasionally so check this in advance. On the Kenyan side of Moyale the Hotel Medina is about the best bet, though water is often unavailable.

Source: Ethiopia: The Bradt Travel Guide – third edition by Philip Briggs

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