When to go
The dry season runs from September through to March which is the best time to travel to Ethiopia. The long rains run from July through to the end of September. There are short rains in April and May called the belg which are nothing really to write home about. The weather dries up a little May/ June prior to the main rains beginning again in July. Southern Ethiopia follows a broadly similar pattern to Kenya with heavier rains in April, May and November.
Ethiopia Climate Overview
Climatically speaking, the world media’s perception of Ethiopia as a land of famine gives rise to impressions of a country without rain, cover or waterways. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Ethiopia constitutes the bulk of the Horn of Africa, and as such spans subtropical and tropical east Africa. The Ethiopian section of the Great Rift Valley runs north-east to south-west, from Eritrea to northern Kenya’s Lake Turkana, and much of the country’s northern, western, central and southern areas are dominated by a series of highlands collectively known as the Ethiopian Plateau.
As a result of its position and its varied topography, Ethiopia’s climate varies – broadly speaking – from tropical in the north eastern lowlands and south eastern lowlands to temperate and cool in the highlands. Temperatures in the tropical lowlands average out at around 27°C, while those in the highlands are dependent on altitude, and range between 16 and 22°C.
In general, the further west one travels, the wetter it gets, with annual rainfall figures ranging from as low as 140mm in the north-east lowlands to in excess of 2300mm in the south-west. Seasonal rains in Ethiopia are largely provided by the Inter-tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), which migrates up and down equatorial Africa, bringing rain to the northern highlands in July and August, and to the central highlands between June and September. Known in Ethiopia as the Kiremt, these are the long rains, and areas affected receive between 200 and 1200 mm per year. Shorter, less consistent rains – the Belg – occur in parts of the south between March and May, and in parts of the northern and central highlands between February and May, and provide an annual rainfall of between 100 and 750 mm. As the ITCZ moves south, another set of short rains in the south – the Bega – sweep briefly across much of central and south-west Ethiopia, bringing to the area between 100 and 300mm annually.
In Ethiopia, this variation in climate is traditionally divided into three main climatic zones: dega, weyna dega and kolla. The first of these – dega – refers to coldish, less than temperate zones with altitudes ranging between 2,600 and 3,200m. The second zone – weyna dega – is warm, wet and lies below 2,600m. The last – kolla – is drier (and much warmer) than weyna dega, and can be found in areas such as the Rift Valley. In addition to these, travellers will occasionally come across bereha and worch, both of which refer to Ethiopia’s more extreme climatic zones, the first to the desert habitats that border Somalia and Djibouti, the second to afro-alpine areas above 3,200m.
Unlike the majority of countries on our portfolio, the effects of climate upon wildlife are not a major consideration when planning Ethiopian itineraries. Ethiopia is not a known wildlife destination. While it supports an extraordinary range of flora, from tropical forest to acacia spotted plains to alpine meadows, its wildlife populations have long been hunted out, or reduced by disease, and remaining species are low in volume and possibly – for first time visitors – not the species of animal one might expect to see in eastern Africa.
This said, Ethiopia is home to a number of endemic and rare species, including the mountain nyala, the walia ibex, African wild ass, healthy populations of gelada, the Ethiopian wolf and supports low numbers of leopard, spotted hyena, lion, cheetah even, elephant, giraffe, hippo and buffalo, as well as reasonably healthy populations of several species of antelope. Of all Ethiopia’s areas, it is South Omo that – wildlife speaking – is most affected by weather patterns, and here game is best seen during the dry season (July through to August and then December through to February), when cover is sparse and the main water sources permanent.
Nevertheless, not even South Omo is about its animals. Rather – like the rest of Ethiopia – it is first and foremost about its people, its traditions, its breathtaking scenery. In this sense, then, when we think of the climate, and of how it affects Ethiopian itineraries, we think about the mechanics of travel, about comfort, movement and scenery, and hardly at all about the movement of game. In doing so, the country is best divided into two destination blocks: the northern historical circuit and the south.
The first of these, the northern circuit, is best visited between October and March, when it is relatively dry and travel that much easier. However, experienced travellers will often visit during the rains. Like Philip Briggs, author of Bradt’s Ethiopia, they are attracted to the area’s off season beauty: ‘I actually feel the rainy season is my favourite period, partially because there are fewer tourists at Lalibela, but above all because the scenery is so much more impressive when the countryside is green and well watered.’
The second of these, the south, is further broken down into the south-east and the south west, the Rift Valley constituting the topographical break between the highlands and the more arid habitats of the south, with altitudes well below 1500, the only anomalies being, first, a ridge of uplands lining the southern side of the Rift Valley and, second, the Bale Mountains.
If you are thinking of travelling east of Addis Ababa, then you will need to prepare for an increasingly arid habitat, a habitat that culminates – slightly north of the Rift Valley – in the Danakil Desert, where monthly precipitation levels flatline at around 40mm, and temperatures reach well into the top forties. The Danakil Desert and the borderlands south of Djibouti are best visited between November and March.
Meanwhile south proper – a great tract of land stretching south-west from Addis to the border town of Omorate in the South Omo Valley, fanning east between the Rift Valley and the borders with Kenya and Somalia, and finishing in Ogaden – is best visited during its two dry seasons, from June through to September, and between November and March.
The Northern Historical Circuit
The northern historical circuit constitutes a 3000 km round trip, beginning in Addis Ababa and moving clockwise through Debre Markos, Bahir Dar, Gondar and Axum – its western flank – and peaking in Adigrat, before moving south again, through Mekele, Lalibela, Woldia and Kombolcha, and finishing back in Addis. There are plenty of places in between and off track, including – for example -the Simien Mountains, the Blue Nile Falls, Lake Tana and the Mesket area. While most of these are served by either tarmac or good dirt roads, a few areas of interest are accessed only by dirt tracks and paths, requiring that travellers use 4 x 4 vehicles, mules or – in some cases – foot.
The northern historical circuit as a whole is best visited between October and March, the long rains beginning in June, becoming increasingly heavy through July and August, before thinning out towards the September. Temperatures average around 16 °C. However, when looked at in more detail, the climatic picture for the northern circuit makes for more complicated viewing: the area is vast, the west wetter than the east, the north-east much drier, local temperatures and levels of precipitation dictated by altitude. Experienced travellers can pick and choose places of interest throughout the year – even in July and August.
At 2,400m, Addis Ababa is the world’s highest capital. Temperatures are extremely constant – 16 to 18°C – and precipitation levels range between a paltry 10mm in November to a reasonable but by no means impossible 280mm in August. Clearly, it is possible and – given its status and the fact that it is here that journeys to destinations throughout Ethiopia begin and end – necessary to visit Addis throughout the year, though July, August and some of September would be the months in which to avoid it rain-wise.
After Addis Ababa, and moving clockwise, the next place of real significance is Bahir Dar, from which it is possible to visit Lake Tana’s island monasteries and the Blue Nile Falls. At an altitude of 1840m, Bahir Dar is lower than Addis, and therefore warmer, with temperatures that range between 18 and 22°C. Precipitation levels rise significantly in June (185mm), peak at 430mm in July, are in the top 300s in August, fall to 300mm in September, and continue to hover at just below 10mm in October, all of which makes November through to April the best months to visit.
North – but roughly on the same line of longitude – is Gondar. At 2,120m, temperatures here are the same as those found in Bahir Dar, but the levels of precipitation peak in July and August at just over 300mm, making it slightly more manageable, but only just. Both middle to late June and early September are still very wet, May and October the buffer months, making the dry season reasonably short.
East and further north still, Axum is 2,100m high and – with an annual temperature range of 12°C to 18°C – a tad cooler than Gondar. However, the monthly pattern with regards to levels of precipitation changes, with the 200mm mark breached only in July. Either side, levels drop rapidly to just over 50mm, making Axum very easy to visit between late September and mid June – a significantly longer on-season, therefore, than the likes of Bahir Dar and Gondar.
At Adigrat (2,400m), the northern most point of the circuit, the mid-year rainfall spike is even less pronounced than it is in Axum, with just July and August managing to break into the hundreds (approximately 140mm and 155mm respectively), while the rest of the year sees levels range between next to nothing – 5mm – in February and 55mm in April. Again, temperatures are fairly constant, ranging from an average of just under 13°C in December to 19°C in April.
At Mekele, 2,500m high and a quarter of the way down the eastern flank, things are wetter, but only in July (200mm) and August (210 mm). They are also warmer (16-20°C), making October through to early June a perfectly reasonable time to visit.
Finally, there is Lalibela, half way between Adigrat and Addis Ababa. At 2630m, the average temperature range is approximately 14-18°C, and rainfall levels rise fairly gently between March and June (from 40mm to 70mm), before shooting up to the 260s in July and August. September is still reasonably wet (110mm), making October the beginning of a dry(ish) season that runs right through to mid June.
The Rift Valley
Apart from its northern and southern extremes (see below), the Rift Valley is subject to the same weather patterns as the north, the only differences being that the long rains begin earlier (late April), last longer (October), and that it is slightly warmer.
The South of Ethiopia
The east and south of Ethiopia consists of the Danakil Desert, the southern highlands (which includes Bale Mountains National Park), the Ogaden and the South Omo Valley.
The Danakil Desert, which includes the Danakil Depression, makes up the borderlands with Eritrea. With average temperatures of 35°C – there are days when temperatures exceed 48°C – and an average annual rainfall of between 100 and 200m, visits this far east make for hardy travelling indeed, and are best conducted between November and March, when temperatures drop to a sweltering average of 25 °C.
With an altitudinal range of 2013 to 4385m, and an annual rainfall of 1134mm, the Bale Mountains constitute the region’s wettest area. Rather, therefore, than experience – like the rest of the south – a double rainfall dip, the Bale Mountains are pretty much wet right through from March to October, and are best visited between November and February. Daytime temperatures at this time average out at around 16°C, while night temperatures hover between 2°C and 4°C, and can plummet to well below zero.
The picture with regards to the rest of the south is reasonably clear. The dry seasons occur from June through to September, and between November and March. There are two rainy seasons. The first of these – late March through to early June – is heavier, with the South Omo Valley and regions local to the Bale Mountains receiving between 200 and 250mm in April and the first weeks of May, the mid-south peaking at about 125mm, and Ogaden receiving 75mm at its very best.
This pattern – the further south-east one travels, the drier it gets – is just as true later in the year, during the area’s second set of rains, when between September and November the likes of Hagere Marian (just north of South Omo) peak at around 180mm (October), while Gode in Ogaden barely gets above 50mm. Clearly, travel in the mid-south and south-east is hard going, with temperatures soaring into the late thirties, the heat dry, the habitats extremely arid.
The South Omo Valley is also dry and hot, but, being in the Rift Valley, better watered and fairly comfortable during the dry seasons.