Rare wolves, primates galore, exotic cultures make Ethiopia a fascinating destination
Mursi men display their fighting sticks. Tom GiesWe’re driving on Africa’s highest all-weather road on the Sanetti Plateau when we spot it: an Ethiopian wolf, arguably the world’s rarest, most endangered canid. We stop and have a good luck for a few minutes from about 50 feet away at this beautiful creature that looks somewhat like a Canadian fox. All too soon, it ambles off, leaving us delighted with this sighting and looking forward to returning to the plateau in a few days with a guide.
We’re on an independent 24-day visit to Ethiopia, some of it with a rented vehicle and driver, which we’ve decided isn’t long enough to see everything of interest. So my traveling companion – an Alberta wildlife biologist – and myself decide to pass on the popular northern part of the country that most tourists visit and concentrate on central and southern Ethiopia.
The highlight of the trip is the delightful Bale Mountain Lodge, which we check into midway through our journey after our first spotting of the wolf. The environmentally-friendly lodge is an absolute treat as we’d been staying in much more modest lodgings. Host Yvonne Levene welcomes us and we set up our schedule of guided walks and drives. The gorgeous mountain setting features delights such as olive baboons frolicking in the meadow beyond the breakfast veranda.
The next day I rest rather than join the early morning birding walk but eagerly join the post-breakfast search in the Harenna forest for the endemic Bale monkey. For a few hours, we walk along mountain trails, enjoying the views, skirting cliff edges, refreshed in the cool air. Near noon, the guide suggest we return to the lodge, reminding us that some visitors never see the Bale monkey, or the wolf, for that matter. But as soon as we clamber into our vehicle, we spot a troop of the shy monkeys and observe them for about half an hour.
Around the lodge, we take some short hikes, including one to a small hydropower plant with Yvonne’s husband Guy constructed nearby to power the lodge.
Dinners feature hearty, tasty meals with drinks and conversation with the eclectic mix of guests, including an Englishman who we help celebrate his 75th birthday. He puts us to shame by hiking and drinking more than us.
The next day, we return to the Sanetti Plateau. We drive and walk about in our MEC fleeces, gloves and toques as it’s single-digit temperatures with a chilly wind. We observe three single wolves at a distance before lunching at a research station. After lunch, we’re rewarded with a close viewing of a wolf hunting rats. After a while, the wolf heads off to join two companions in the distance, where we watch them play.
Remote traditional villagesWe’re also more than pleased with another highlight of the trip: a visit to remote Mursi, Hamer and Karo communities in the southeast, some not far from South Sudan. This is classic Africa, where villagers live and dress as they have your centuries, but supplement their spears and fighting sticks with AK-47s.
At a Mursi village two hours down a rough track from the town of Jinka, we’re shocked to look into some huts that have only animal skins on the floor. But the proud Mursi, whose women still wear lip plates, aren’t as poor as they appear to our Western eyes. They have large herds of cattle, which is how they measure their wealth.
A Hamer market in Turmi, on the other hand, features produce from their agricultural ventures. We’re fascinated by the traditional body scarring of the Hamer, the women’s fringed and ochre-coloured hair, and the ornately fashioned copper necklaces that married women wear. Likewise, we observe elaborate body painting at a Karo village the next day. Villagers gather for our visit above the scenic Omo River.
Visits to these villages require about a $50 fee to the chief, which is shared throughout the village. Some individuals also ask for a fee of less than $1 for a few photos.
Feeding hyenasAnother delight in Ethiopia is the ancient, mainly Muslim city of Harar. This walled city with its narrow, winding alleys is quite rightly a UNESCO World Heritage site. We visit both a traditional home, which is cleverly designed to retain the coolness of the night, and a house dedicated to French poet Arthur Rimbaud, who gave up poetry in his late teens to deal guns and other merchandise in Harar for more than 10 years in the late 1800s. We also visit the nightly feeding of the hyenas where several visitors hand feed meat to the massive wild beasts.
Awash National Park is definitely worth a visit. At Awash Falls Lodge we gaze out over scenic waterfalls and walk down a path to observe crocodiles. Vervet monkeys attack our vehicle. We see dik diks, warthogs, kudus and more.
At Doho Lodge, close to hot springs, we chat with other travellers. We hear a commotion but don’t learn until the next day that a man was bitten by a cobra. Apparently he spent the night in hospital but made a full recovery. Later in the day, we stop our vehicle to view Hamadryas baboons up close.
Eager to see gelada monkeys, which look a lot like baboons, we venture two hours north of Addis Ababa to Portuguese Bridge. After a short search, we spot and follow at a distance a troop of about 20 of the majestic primates. They split into two groups and we photograph them as they graze in a meadow. Later, they will return to the nearby cliffs to spend the night in safety. As a bonus, my travel mate spots a Lammergeier vulture gliding above the valley.
Ethiopian Spirit For travellers there are political, infrastructure, and banking challenges. But the Ethiopian spirit is well positioned to overcome these issues. One night I was awakened at 3:30 a.m. by another tourist in medical distress, including severe dehydration. I ran to the restaurant but no one was there. A security guard took me to a compound where a bleery-eyed waiter quickly handed me his personal bottle of water. I thanked him and offered him some money as payment, which he refused, then as a tip, which he also refused. Over the next few days, many staffers inquired about the tourist’s health. This is the Ethiopian spirit; these are good people.
Moving beyond the legacy of famine
Ethiopians are intensely proud of their status as a nation that was never colonized. And the country is working hard to shed its reputation from the 1970s and 1980s when widespread starvation was broadcast around the world. While the drought-induced famines are undeniable, a visit to the sombre but compelling Red Terror Martyrs’ Memorial Museum in Addis Ababa reveals that the horrific death tolls were partly the result of political machinations.
The 1973 famine was largely ignored by Emperor Haile Selassie because the drought was mainly in areas that were revolting against his rule. When a BBC documentary aired footage of starving Ethiopians juxtaposed with images of Selassie feeding his pet lions and dogs large steaks, the die was cast. Selassie was overthrown by the military the following year.
Our guide at the museum supported the Emperor’s overthrow. But he notes that “the revolution quickly ate its own.” After executing dozens of high-ranking officials of the previous government, a brutal power struggle took place within the pro-Soviet junta. Soon, Mengistu Haile Maryam emerged as the leader. A “Red Terror” ensued in which at least 50,000 Ethiopians were slaughtered, according to Amnesty International. Other reports suggest the toll was exponentially higher.
Our guide’s voice quivers as he describes the tortures, the targeting of children at anti-government demonstrations by sharpshooters, their parents not allowed to collect their bodies for days, and then charged for the bullet that killed them. It’s now widely acknowledged that when drought hit Ethiopia again in 1985, Mengistu ordered that anti-government areas would receive no aid. One million starved. When the Soviet Union imploded in the early 1990s, so did Mengistu’s rule and he fled to Zimbabwe where he still lives.If you go:
Bale Park Lodge, prices start at US$190 per person single, including all meals, local beverages including wine and beer, and at least one daily guided activity
Other upcountry lodges and hotels, $30-$60 per person single, including breakfast
Ethiopian Impressions, Toyota Land Cruiser with driver/guide Tesfaye Gebreselassie, $150/day
PHOTO : Mursi men display their fighting sticks.
SOURCE : THE PROVINCE