Situated on the banks of the Baro River, Gambella has the charming, somewhat run down, slightly passe atmosphere of a once active colonial town. And this is exactly what it is, for at the turn of the century it was a major river port that, through the Sudan, acted as an outlet for a substantial share of Ethiopia's rich coffee trade.
The establishment of a commercial station on the Baro was first envisaged as a step towards the formation of an inland shipping service linking that river with Khartoum, and more generally Ethiopia with Sudan and Egypt.
This move made sense to both Britain and Ethiopia. For Britain, then in control of Sudan, the proposed service offered an opportunity of opening up trade with western, and possibly also central, Ethiopia, which was linked by railway with Djibouti and almost entirely dependent on France. The scheme was more attractive because Ethiopia's natural riches were thought to be found primarily in the west.
Emperor Menelik, Ethiopia's ruler at that time, saw the project as an opportunity to develop trade in a hitherto isolated area, as well as a way of asserting his independence of the French colonial government in Djibouti with which he was then at loggerheads.
Menelik therefore agreed to give the British an enclave on the Baro River. The agreement was signed by the emperor and the British representative in Addis Ababa, Captain Harrington, in May 1902. It granted the British government of Sudan an area at Itang on the Baro River not exceeding 400 hectares (988 acres) 'to be administered and occupied as a commercial station' so long as Sudan was under Anglo-Egyptian rule.
Later study, however, showed that a position further upstream from Itang would allow boats to operate for a longer period of the year. An alternative location was therefore agreed upon. It became known as Gambella and was inaugurated as a port and customs station in 1907.
Steamers, which took seven days to sail down to Khartoum and eleven days to return against the current, were soon plying between Gambella and Khartoum, and Gambella soon grew into a major trading centre. It handled Ethiopia's export of coffee, beeswax, and, to a lesser extent, skins, as well as the import of cotton cloth, salt, sacks, various provisions, and liquors.
Unlike most Ethiopian settlements, Gambella was built to a plan with straight roads and strictly aligned buildings. These included the residence and office of the local British commissioner, for many years Captain J.K. Maurice; a sub-office of the Bank of Abyssinia, later the Bank of Ethiopia; and the dwellings of many foreign merchants, mainly Greeks. Beyond the compound there was an Ethiopian settlement clustered around the customs post and telegraph station, and the premises and warehouses of the Ethiopian Motor Transport Company.
The enclave reverted to Ethiopian rule after the independence of Sudan, and the shipping service to Khartoum that had operated for almost half a century ceased in 1955. The Ethiopian government has plans to reactivate and redevelop the facilities at Gambella and it is hoped that the river trade can be resumed, returning to this region much of its lost economic importance.
In the meantime, this sleepy town with its lazy, relaxed lifestyle dominated by the long noontime siesta holds many attractions for the traveller and is a convenient gateway to the broad vistas of the western Ethiopian plains.
Your trip west begins by taking Arbeynoch Street from Addis, which turns into the Ambo Road. Just as you get near the city limits, the road passes through a potter's village, where outdoor stalls and small shops display and sell decorative figurines and a fascinating variety of traditional household utensils.
Eighteen kilometres (eleven miles) from the capital is the Gefersa reservoir on the left, which supplies Addis Ababa with its water. Fed by the Akaki River and surrounded by small forests of eucalyptus trees, the reservoir is home to pelicans, cormorants, and Egyptian geese. Just before the reservoir, also on the left, is the Pineta, an Italian-type restaurant complete with bocci (bowls) pitch, which is well frequented by Addis Ababa residents on Sundays.
A few kilometres beyond the reservoir to the north is the modern Church of Saint Mary. Shortly thereafter, the main road passes through the village of Menagesha, which is in the depression between Mount Menagesha and Mount Sululta. In the village there is a motorable dirt track to the left leading to Maryam Church at the foot of Mount Menagesha. A small village of potters, whose ancestors settled here in Menelik's time, live a little to the right of the church and can be seen at work using traditional methods. The finished products are for sale.
The shape of an upside-down pudding basin, Mount Menagesha is said to be an ancient coronation place for Ethiopian rulers and is climbable from the Addis Ababa side after an hour's walk from the main road and a hectic scramble up the steep wooded incline. Alternatively, there is a track -less than an hour's walk - up the west side to the practically deserted monastery on top. The long grass and thick bushes provide plenty of cover for wildlife and birds.