How to get from Addis Ababa to Nairobi (or Mombasa) on public transport

Before we begin explaining how this trip went, our journey was:

Addis Ababa - Hawassa - Shashamane - Yabelo - Moyale - Nairobi - Mombasa

and there are a couple of things you need to prepare yourself for:

  1. It is a LONG WAY!
  2. It is uncomfortable (majority of the time)
  3. There are two Moyale towns - the Ethiopian one and the Kenyan one
  4. Forget about a good night’s sleep for a few days
  5. At the border there is no official money exchange office but the ‘black market’ money exchange is tolerated

There are other options to get to the border crossing, however we thought that this route would be the best and the cheapest for us.

- Watch Zach's Vlog about our journey! -

 

Day 0: Addis Ababa

Addis Ababa : Our journey from Ethiopia to Kenya began like every other ride in Ethiopia. The day before we headed to the Selam Bus office near Meskel Square and got our tickets. At the time of writing this, there is no option to buy it online, and even if you could, there are no guarantees that the internet will be working when you want to buy them. Sometimes the ticket office is empty and you get served straight away, and other times you sit there and wait with a group of people, not exactly sure what is going on. We purchased our tickets from Addis to Hawassa at 4pm the day before departure without any problems for 180 birr p/p.

 

Day 1: Addis Ababa to Hawassa / shashamane (by bus)

Leaving Addis Ababa at 6:30am - 5hr journey - 180 birr p/p

Our bus left Meskel Square at 6:30am along with all the other buses going to different parts of the country. We decided to stick with Selam buses as we had used them previously. The buses are reasonably new, big and quite comfortable. Everyone has an assigned seat and they give you a bottle of water and small snack.

Your larger bags go under the bus and the baggage handlers will ask for a tip - you don't need to give them any money, if you don't want to, as your luggage is included in your ticket price.

The road was good. Smooth the whole way and we arrived to Hawassa at 11am. Just the movies and music on the bus were extremely loud so a good idea is to have earplugs or try to listen to your own music, or you can just watch Ethiopian films!

Hawassa has plenty of options to eat and sleep and is quite a big town but as it turned out - we couldn't catch a bus from Hawassa to Moyale as everyone in Addis Ababa advised us (including the lady at an official government tourist information).

To make you journey less hassle-free, you should get off about 30min before Hawassa, in Shashamane, from where you can catch a bus to Yabelo (more information to follow below).

In Hawassa we stayed at the Paradise Hotel which was 300 birr p/n for a double room with bathroom - it was ok enough for just the night, we don’t recommend it though because the worker from this hotel, who was supposed to get us our bus tickets, decided to keep the money for himself. We felt a bit naive after all but we treated the hotel as you would a travel office, so we were very disappointed. Luckily the hotel's manager was there in the morning and we made him pay for our onward journey but we wasted a few hours and left with a sour taste.

 

Day 2: Hawassa back to shashamane & Shashamane to yabelo (by bus)

1. Leaving Hawassa at 5:30am - 45mins - minibus caught from the side of the road - 200 birr for the whole minibus for ourselves to drive extra fast to Shashamane to catch the bus to Yabelo in time

2. Shashamane to Yabelo - 7am Departure - 10 horrible hours - 180 birr p/p (this price included also the next day bus to Moyale)

The second day was completely horrible! We quickly found out that there is no bus that goes straight from Hawassa to Moyale despite being told on numerous occasions by people in Addis that there was. We had two options to get to Moyale:

a) take a local bus from Hawassa to Dilla, then a bus from Dilla to Yabelo and then a third bus from Yabelo to Moyale the next day

or

b) backtrack 45 mins from Hawassa to Shashamane and then catch a bus from Shashamane to Moyale (with an overnight stop in Yabelo).

We choose the option B - to backtrack to Shashamane so we only had to make one more stop on the way to the border. What followed was seriously one of the worst journeys we have ever experienced. We were the last to get on this old bus and that's why we had to sit at the very back. If you have ever spent long periods of time on a bus, you quickly realise how horrible the back seats are. We had to purchase 4 tickets in total because there was (without exaggerating!) 10cm of space between us and the seats in front of us and we had nowhere to put our hand luggage (normal sized backpack) with laptops and cameras, let alone our legs. The locals didn’t like that we were taking extra room and even though we paid for the extra space, they tried to sit people there, but there was physically no space to place people there and we kept our 4 tickets high up in the air, so they eventually gave up.

For the next 7 hours, we seriously considered getting off the bus, stopping any 4x4 car, and paying whatever it costs to take us to the nearest airport so we could fly to Nairobi. The road was baaaaaad. Unmade, potholes, sharp corners, speed bumps, cattle, people, old bus, overloaded bus, smelly bus, hot bus….you get our point. Everything that could be bad about a bus ride, was! The only thing we enjoyed were the views, but it was hard to appreciate it back in that moment of time :) 

The local bus from to Yabelo

Hanna trying to sleep on the road to Yabelo

The leg room in the widest spot on our back seat

After 7 hours of being in the ‘brace’ position, we finally hit some newly asphalted road (somewhere near the town Gedeb). From then on, we were still very uncomfortable in the bus, but we felt in heaven - we weren't hitting the ceiling with our heads anymore and we were actually able to drift off to sleep folded in weird angles.

We arrived in Yabelo about 5pm and found a little guesthouse just across the road from the bus station for 150 birr. There was a drop down toilet and a bucket shower (which felt sooo good after this long journey!). The town was like a big village. There weren't many western amenities there, but you could get a couple of creature comforts. We ate some samosas at a local place just around the corner that were pretty good…and freshly made and the locals were really friendly.

 

Day 3 (1st part): Yabelo to Moyale (by bus)

Leaving Yabelo at 6am - 3hr journey - price covered from yesterday’s ticket

After getting some rest at the little guesthouse we stayed at, we returned to the bus station to get back on the same bus from the day before. We made sure we were there first so that we could get better seats than the back ones. We sat right at the front and it made a massive difference to the quality of our lives! The road from Yabelo to Ethiopian Moyale is only a couple of years old and is one of the best ones in Ethiopia. The 3 hour journey passed in no time! We actually saw some antelope run across the road and some zebras grazing about 50 meters away from the bus (this was when we were crossing Yabelo Wildlife Sanctuary)!

The views past just before Yabelo and past Yabelo were beautiful

Hundreds of termite mounds (even a couple of metres tall!) on the way

The bus station in Moyale was within an easy walking distance of the border crossing - we were actually surprised that no tuk tuk drivers hassled us to drive us down to the border. Standing in the middle of the road and looking down at the crossing, you could see the border between Ethiopia and Kenya.

In Ethiopian Moyale you could find a bank and places to eat, but the only money exchange was the 'black market'. We had some birr left and needed to exchange them because once outside of Ethiopia, they become useless. We asked at the bank and the workers called up some man who arrived, offered us an average exchange rate (which we went with as there was no other option) and we got birr exchanged back to USD.

 

Day 3 (2nd part): Moyale - Ethiopia to Kenya Border Crossing (on foot)

Border Crossing - 20 minutes - Surprisingly no extra charges!

This was by far, the easiest border crossing we have come across to date. We organised our e-visas for Kenya about a week before and had them printed off ready to go. You MUST get an exit stamp from the ‘immigration office’ on the Ethiopian side before you can leave (it helps if you have your Ethiopian visa with you just to speed up the process). We then just simply walked across the little bridge to the actual fence, passed through to Kenya, and then walked up to their immigration office.

We filled in a quick form and the officer processed our passports and visas in 10 mins. We met two Israeli guys, Noam and Yair, who got an East Africa Tourist Visa at the border - they took no longer than 5 minutes more to get them. We weren’t sure if you could get a visa at this border on arrival, but you definitely CAN.

Nearing Moyale

Nearing Moyale

We continued walking past the immigration office and showed the final security officer our passports with stamps in them and we were on our way.

We are not sure if we just got a good day at the border, or if it’s always like that. No one scanned or checked our luggage and the whole process went surprisingly smooth.

After the successful border crossing, we had about 3-4hrs to kill before any of the buses left for Nairobi.

 

Day 3 (3rd part) & Day 4: Kenyan Moyale to Nairobi (on the Overnight Bus)

Leaving Kenyan Moyale to Nairobi at 3:30pm - 12hr overnight journey - 2000 Kenyan Shilling p/p

All the buses that you need, to get to places in Kenya from Moyale, leave from the front of the little offices/shacks which you will find without a problem after crossing the border. You can easily walk there. 

We got conflicting information on how long the journey was going to be, but we were certain that it would take somewhere between 12-15 hours all up. Not ideal after already spending ages on pretty average buses in Ethiopia, but we decided to go for it. Moyale didn’t look like the most appealing town to spend a night in and we didn't want to waste time.

Again, we had assigned seats, our big luggage went underneath (wrapped up in this white hessian sacks with our names and destinations on them) and this time there was plenty of room for our daypacks to be stored inside the actual bus on the top shelves. After getting comfortable, and thinking just for a second that this leg of the journey might not be that horrible, the bus literally shot off... Not a second later, we we friggen racing down the windy road at a million miles an hour. The good part was it was asphalt and in pretty good condition, and there were actual working seat belts. However, there were couple of things that kept us awake for the whole 12 hours:

  1. The sets of speed humps every 20km or so that our driver decided to only slow down sometimes. It was pretty brutal when we hit them.
  2. The insistent loud music on the bus and bright blue lights inside.
  3. The police checks! Police boarded the bus on at least 10 different occasions and checked everybody’s passport or IDs, approx. every 1.5 hour of the journey.

The combination of these three things made it extremely difficult to sleep for more than 20 minutes at a time. The bus stopped about 4 other times on the way. Each time we had no idea how long we were stopping for, so we felt like there was really no opportunity to have something to eat (we probs would’ve puked anyway had we ate and then got back on the speed bus)

Eventually we got to Nairobi at about 3:30am, so our journey took 12 hours. The bus pulled up in a pretty dodgy area, so as soon as we got our bags, we decided to splash on an Uber to take us straight to the train station (as we were heading for Mombasa). We really love using Uber whenever we can because it feels safe and familiar. We know who is coming to pick us up, we have a record of our journey somewhere, and most importantly we know that we are getting a good rate - plus if you tell the local taxi drivers a ‘friend’ (we advise against saying ‘uber’) is picking you up, they tend to leave you alone. The uber took about 40 mins and 475KSH to take us from the bus depot to the new SGR Nairobi Train Terminus (which was difficult to find but we found it eventually).

 

Day 4: Nairobi to Mombasa (by train)

Leaving Nairobi to Mombasa at 8am - 5hr Journey - 3000KSH p/p for 1st Class (or 900KSH for 2nd class p/p)

The new train line (SGR) in Kenya from Nairobi to Mombasa has been operational for a few months now. It opened on the 31st of May 2017 and is brand spanking new! We love travelling by trains, so we were really excited about this part of our journey.

1st class of the new SGR Nairobi to Mombasa train

 Zach on the SGR Nairobi to Mombasa train

Zach on the SGR Nairobi to Mombasa train

Our excitement nearly turned to disappointment though. On the way to the station, our uber driver was saying that you have to book your ticket in advance, and that the train would definitely be sold out. Unfortunately, only Kenyans can buy tickets online at the moment and there is no option for foreigners except for going to the station in person (which we couldn't do as we just arrived to Nairobi).
We were pretty shattered by this news, because we thought it meant another 10 hour bus ride was coming up for us to get to Mombasa on the coast. Nonetheless, we thought we would risk it and still went to the station at 4:30am in hopes that surely there would be some tickets left and we could get on the train.

The station opens at 6:30am so we had to wait outside in the carpark, in the luggage screening area, until they open up. We were the only people there when we arrived, so we were feeling confident of getting the tickets. Then, at about 5:50am, the people started turning up!

With every passing second, more and more people started lining up. Luckily, we were first in line, so as soon as we were allowed through, we went straight to the ticket office to try our luck. We decided to split our money between us, just in case we got separated and one of us got there before the other. And, thanks goodness we did. They split the luggage check lines into men and women, and let the women go through first. So I had to wait, whilst Hanna raced out the blocks to try and get tickets.

By the time I got through (some 5 minutes later - which seemed liked a million minutes) I had no idea where Hanna had gone. I walked over to where the people proceeded through to the platform, but when I got to the gate and said ‘I don’t have a ticket yet’ I was quickly directed to the ticket office. That’s where I found Hanna. 

Luckily, there were still some 1st class tickets left! All the cheaper 2nd class tickets were sold out. So we paid more than we wanted to, but we managed to get on the train.

The train ride was extremely pleasant and comfortable. For ‘1st Class’ there wasn’t really anything special about it, maybe just some extra leg room. We had a pretty good meal in the restaurant cart (not included in ticket price) and were able to catch up on a bit of sleep. Along the way we even spotted some elephants about 200m from the track!

 The SGR train from the outside

The SGR train from the outside

The SGR Mombasa train station

After arriving in Mombasa train station, we had had enough of buses, so opted for Uber again, as it was supposed to be only about 5 USD to get us to Mombasa. Again, we told taxi drivers asking around that a ‘friend’ was picking us up because they wouldn't stop hassling us otherwise. Apparently, Uber is not allowed in the carpark area, so sometimes you have to walk up the hill to the side of the carpark entrance. The phone reception is really bad near the station, so it can be a challenge to communicate with your driver - we must have got lucky, because ours turned up 5 minutes after booking him (even though the app said he was 30 mins away… :)

 

day 4: Mombasa to watamu

Mombasa - Watamu - 2hr journey by Uber - Approx 5000-6000KSH (or 3-4 hours by minibus for 400 ksh p/p)

Watamu is 2 hours north of Mombasa, with a single road connecting the two towns. The traffic can get pretty bad in some spots, but we had no delays. You can opt for an uber (4500-5000ksh) or catch a local bus (400ksh p/p) to get you there. We reccomend picking up what you need in Mombasa because Watamu is a small beach town, with only a few local shops.

 

to sum up

The whole journey was really difficult and we don't think we'll ever do it again but it's done and dusted - we experienced so many things in these 4 days and will now find any average bus seat to be super comfortable! The Addis to Mombasa overland journey was truly hard work, and at times we had wished we had just flown. In saying that, we have done it now, and it doesn’t seem that bad anymore - we feel like we accomplished something by doing it and we definitely did go off the beaten track :). If we had to do it again, we would split the journey up over 5, 6 or even 7 days, and definitely avoided going anywhere near Hawassa to Yabelo road, but who knows if the Arba Minch road is any better... We think the journey is possible if you go from Addis to Arba Minch then Yabelo, but it may be a few hours longer - but if the roads are good, it is totally worth it.

 

By the Numbers

Kilometers covered =  over 2100

Days travelled = 4

Buses = 5

Trains = 1

Ubers = 2

Highlight = SGR train from Nairobi to Mombasa

Lowlight = the 7 hours of Hawassa to Yabelo road 

Total money spent (inc. accommodation) = 1,440 Birr and 16,000KSH = approx. 207 USD for two of us;
(to compare it: flights for 2 people from Addis to Mombasa = approx. 430 USD)

 


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How to get from Addis Ababa to Nairobi or Mombasa on public transport - Comprehensive Guide by HandZaround