The views expressed in this blog are the author's own and do not reflect those of VSO

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Southern Ethiopia

Before continuing southwards there was time to visit Mount Entoto outside Addis, the highest nearby peak at 3200 metres and the site of the first palace of Emperor Menelik II, the founder of Addis Ababa (New Flower in English). The mountainside is almost entirely eucalyptus forest and many of the impoverished local women make a scant living by strapping huge bundles of wood, weighing as much as 35 kilos, on to their backs to trudge down to the city and sell as firewood. (The men prefer weaving apparently and I wonder why!). For the first time in Ethiopia I observed the complete and utter brutalisation of a group of people - seldom evident in the bucolic scenes we drove through outside the towns. There were no smiles or attempts to return 'salaams', only pleading and despairing faces with hands out for a few coins.
Wood carrier
Addis merkato (market) is a wonderful if edgy experience given the mud, the narrowness of the lanes and the number of hawkers and touts. It has the biggest recycling/junk section I have ever seen with mountains of used plastic containers for sale and lines of people crouched down selling broken and often ancient electrical parts for a few birr. There was a right/left shoe street where you could get a matching partner for the one you had lost or worn out. Talk about waste not, want not; it puts western societies to shame. Donkey gear street was one of my favourites with all appurtenances available for the equine aficionado. It was a leather sniffer's heaven. Basket bend had a particular fondness for circular injera containers of various designs. The cheesy spot did not have much variety - most of it a bit like fetta - but honey comb corner was fun and the coffee selling lanes seemed endless with massive sacks of it and nary a customer in sight. It is always sold unroasted and prepared at home. In one of the restaurants, we were regaled with frying pan roasting of the coffee as a precursor to Ethiopia's coffee ceremony, often presented at the entrance to restaurants or even at airports. We went to Tomoca to taste the finished product in what is considered to be the best coffee shop in the world. I love Rwandan Maraba coffee but have to admit that Ethiopia is still numero uno.
Coffee ceremony
Heading south to Awassa we passed through the town of Shashemene where, in 1963, land was given by Haile Selassie to the many Jamaicans who came to Ethiopia to live believing the former emperor to be the chosen one. The traditional version of the Rasta story is that at the time of his coronation in 1930, Marcus Garvey's 'return to Africa' movement had been established in Jamaica and many saw the new emperor as fulfilling a biblical prophecy that 'kings would come out of Africa'. Selassie was given divinity - the messiah of African redemption - and the new faith bore his former name, Ras Tafari (Prince Tafari). That may be true but another version elaborates. Haile Selassie visited Jamaica in the early 1960s after a long period of drought there. As he arrived it started to rain heavily thus proving his godliness. From that point on the faith really grew in Jamaica (which would perhaps explain the date of the Rasta community's establishment at Shashemene). Most agree, however, that it was only after Selassie's death in 1975 that the Rastafarians really took off aided and abetted by a certain Mr Bob Marley.
Some Jamaicans
Our new guide was called Mohammed, an irreligious Muslim fond of a beer. It's always interesting to travel in countries where Islam is the minority faith, like Ethiopia, as practitioners are not then subjected to the diktats often applied when it is the state religion. In the Bale Mountains area, however, the majority are Muslim but, said Mohammed, can't complain about the night-time racket created by the Orthodox churches! He had been given as guide for this part of the trip because it was his home patch and was supposed to know the wildlife hot spots. He was certainly a very good animal tracker and great, in particular, at finding the rare Ethiopian Wolf in its favoured hunting grounds on the Sanetti Plateau, the highest part of the Bale Mountains National Park. We saw eight in total with maybe a couple of repeat offenders. It was only on the bird front that he was clueless. He ended up being my pupil which is not really the way it's meant to go when you arrive in a new country and employ a local at some expense. (Kiprom in the north had been an outstanding guide and companion excelling in the skill of cultural interpretation).
Top of Sanetti Plateau
There are reckoned to be about 500 Ethiopian wolves in the entire country, effectively the world's rarest canid, with maybe 250 of them on the Sanetti Plateau surviving at around 4000 metres They live in family groups but usually hunt alone or in pairs. They interbreed with dogs and catch the same diseases like canine distemper and rabies from which 30 died last year. They feed predominantly on Giant Mole-rats which grow to 28 cm and, comically, spend their day periodically sticking their gopher like heads out of their holes and then disappearing quickly back down them again to feed on the roots and tubers which form the main part of their diet. We sat down in a sunny, wind-free spot and watched a wolf fruitlessly attempt to snare a mole-rat. I wonder what their success ratio is.
Ethiopian Wolf
To maintain the viability of the wolf population - also known as the Simien Fox from the area where it is also found but much more difficult to see - it has been necessary to curtail human activity in the park. Unlike the Simien Mts National Park, a lot of cattle and sheep, and the dogs that accompany them, have been removed from the plateau although many farm animals are still present. It was not uncommon to see a man on horseback riding across the moorland landscape presumably to check on his livestock. The scene was reminiscent of Scotland apart from the Giant Lobelias, the cowboys and the absence of haggis.
Sanetti Plateau moorland
We reached the bitterly cold plateau summit at 4377 metres where we saw two species of hare, a rock hyrax and a wee man sheltering behind a walled wind break and whose job it was to protect the transmitter at the top from falling into enemy hands; he was a kind of Ethiopian lighthouse keeper I suppose. There were raptors galore including a Golden Eagle in one of its few African haunts. Who can blame them as it must be a bird of prey paradise? Everywhere we went small rats and field mice scurried for cover or chased each other for cuddles. We also saw one of Africa's rarer crane species - two pairs of the exquisite Wattled Crane which is also one of the world's biggest at 120 cm. The lakes (or lochs!) were full of European ducks on holiday including Shoveler, Pochard, Teal and (my favourite) Ruddy Shelduck.
Traditional hut dwelling near Sanetti Plateau
Down on the other side of the plateau is the Harenna Forest, the largest intact forest block in Ethiopia and the largest protected Afro-alpine forest on the continent. The lichen-draped trees, some hundreds of years old, look much like the beech forests of Victoria and Tasmania. Wedged between the plateau and the forest is a remote Muslim village dependent of stock farming and wood collecting, and living in round mud huts thatched with straw and protected from the elements by bamboo fencing. The government, it is said, wants to move the whole village to a location lower down because of the threat they pose to the fragile Sanetti Plateau and Harenna Forest. On the way back over the plateau we stopped to look at those charming little antelopes known as klipspringers which are unique for walking on the tips of their toes.
Elsewhere in the Bale Mts we got to see the very rare (that word again!) and striking indigenous antelope known as the Mountain Nyala as well as Menelik bush buck, Mountain reedbuck, warthog, olive baboon and bush duiker (a kind of dwarf, forest antelope). The birds were good but it was frustrating because, with very few exceptions, unless I knew what it was or could work it out from the family and its 'jizz', then Mohammed was of no help. He had the habit of interrupting when you were looking at or trying to decipher something interesting to point out one of the few common birds he knew. (By the way, there's nothing wrong with that in the right circumstances!) This is disappointing as birdwatching in Ethiopia is a significant tourism industry and yet there are apparently only three professional birding guides in the whole country! At Wondo Genet, well known for its birds and its hot springs, there is a cooperative of nearly 20 young bird guides who have, mostly, trained themselves to identify and show birds like Yellow-fronted Parrot, White-cheeked Turaco and Spotted Creeper to passing tourists. Their initiative is helping to protect the large trees of that area, under tremendous threat from de-forestation.
Mohammed, bird guide (right) and child helper
We visited several lakes including the very popular Lake Awassa next to the eponymous university town. Young couples walked hand in hand by the lakeside in displays of affection not seen in other parts of the country. Hotels are springing up in Awassa to appeal to the middle classes of Addis keen to get away for a weekend. Blue-breasted Bee-eater, Northern Carmine Bee-eater and Abyssinian Roller were highlight birds from this part of the trip. The Rift Valley lakes of Langano (where we stayed), Abijatta and Shalla are all very different from each other. Lake Langano is medium depth and reddish brown in colour; Abijatta, which was where most of the shore birds were, is shallow and brackish and entices lots of Greater and Lesser Flamingos; Shalla is extremely deep and blue and was once a volcanic crater. It has several bubbling sulphuric hot springs which the cattle know to avoid.
Back walking prayer leader in Awassa
The rift valley is the bread basket of Ethiopia. Everywhere were almost biblical scenes of agricultural activity as oxen moved in circles to thresh the wheat. Elsewhere people winnowed the grain by throwing it in the air to discard the chaff; and always little children came rushing out of fields of wheat, barley and tef to wave and smile (and, yes, to occasionally throw stones which I chose to interpret as another form of greeting not necessarily aggressively intended). And then there were the animals. They completely dominate the roads, always in mixed bevies (I've already concocted the word 'flerds') of donkeys, horses, sheep, goats, cows and oxen. Life - energy - action. Table football ruled the roadsides (so much livelier and less sleazy than pool) and Rastafarian centre Shashemene even seems to have secured a lot of ping pong tables for street use. Apparently Bob Marley was a good player or did I just make that up?
Haystacks in Rift Valley
Our last night in Addis was a beauty with an outstanding Ethiopian meal at the Habesha 2000 restaurant which locals as well as tourists frequent. The dancing and music were excellent and participatory although Stella did all the hard work. The evening was not at all tacky as some of these events can sometimes be and which I had worried about beforehand. I really like Ethiopian music - just as long as it's not the variety coming out of an Orthodox church at 3 o'clock in the morning!

p.s. We saw over 20 of the endemic or semi-endemic (includes Eritrea and Somalia) bird species.

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