The Bale mountains
Next day we set out for the Awash National Park and the Awash falls. The descent down the mountain was mirrored by an increase in temperature. We stop for coffee at a road side cafe in Berkoji, the town where all the Ethiopian runners come from. Training in the mountain air and running everywhere from the time they first walk is good practice! We are traveling through fields of wheat and barley and maize, beautifully terraced and ripe for harvest. They terrace the hills to the very tip of the mountains, into all the nooks and crannies and the patchwork landscape is a work of art.
The road is busy, donkeys mules and horses are hobbled and grazing on the verge. The men are often riding, the women on foot wearing colourful dresses and scarves and occasional burkas carrying wood and children. The cars are slow and stop start and the burned out vehicles on the side of the road bear testimony to the frustrations of driving here. I am becoming less resentful of the chauffeur system.
In the Awash National Park we are assured we can camp in riverside sites. We find the entrance and pay the fees. We manage to dodge the compulsory guide as the guards at the gate are too lazy to insist and we drive into the game reserve. The terrain is scrub savannah and grassland with dense forest bordering the river. Game is sparse, some dik dik, an oryx, baboons and plenty of birds. This is another birding destination and we pass a few vehicles hosting birding tours.
We hoped to see some of the endemic animals like the Lesser Kudu and the East African Oryx ( which looks very like a Roan) but we are not in luck today. Again with the pressures of population and the lax security I think poaching is rife and the animal numbers may be under threat. Apart from baboons we never see wildlife outside the parks.
We drive direct to the camp site to find it, yep you guessed it, under water. The river is down in flood. We can see the top of the roof of the toilet block. So it's back to the lodge and the camping gear stays in the car.
The lodge is well situated overlooking the falls. We take some pictures and scrabble around the falls as the afternoon wanes. It's slippy and you definitely don't want to end up in that river. We can spot crocs on the banks downstream from the lodge lookout where a cold beer is waiting. We were keen to take photos from the lookout as the sun sets but it was getting late and we needed to check in. Our shared cottage was right at the end of the accommodation but the boys start to unload the bags at the gate and a string of porters appear to carry it down. All they needed to do was drive the cars down and unload at the cottage. I am miffed as time is ticking and the light is going and now we must organise all these porters (and of course pay them) and walk back and forwards to the cottage. I think I lost it a bit. At least that was Ian's diagnosis!
Everyone starts to treat me with care. Eventually one car drives down and Vicky gets the porters organised and we make it to the look out and a beer just before the sun goes down. I am still a bit grumpy. Golden light photography has been in short supply so far but I recognise it is, in part, that I am hot and tired after a very long day in the car. Long days in the car are inevitable. It looks good on paper, 200 or 300 km, how long can it take? But in reality we are rarely less than 8 hours in the car and often close to 10. Beautiful but draining.
The place is beautiful with benches and tables set up under the stars for supper and a graceful coffee ceremony performed next to us. So it is time to relax and forget the frustrations and appreciate the incredible beauty and diversity that is Ethiopia. Cold
We head north east towards Harar. We are excited. Harar has long been a dreamed of destination, steeped in history and legend.
The drive towards Harar shows a change of scenery. It remains fertile and with undulating hills but the terraces of maize and barley are interspersed with low green bushes that we are told is the psychoactive drug khat. This is now a major product of this area and has become the most lucrative cash crop. It used to be coffee but they changed to khat because they get more for it. The exploitation of small coffee growers by big cooperatives controlling coffee prices is a familiar issue that has threatened the viability of small coffee growers all over the world.
The khat is sold locally and is also a major export especially to Djibouti and Somalia, we are after all close to both borders. In the small towns we pass through we see big bales of khat being sold in the markets and many men and boys are sitting around and chewing the leaves. It is apparently a mild narcotic and mood elevator but when it wears off there is depression and aggression. The roads become more winding and in bad repair in places and we see a lot of accidents and old car wrecks. More than we have ever seen in Ethiopia elsewhere. We joke this is from driving on khat but, in fact, this turns out to be prophetic. The drivers are reckless and faster and we meet a Dutch couple in Harar who took public transport from Dire Darwa. The driver was chewing khat and informed them he could drive the road with his eyes closed. He was keen to demonstrate but they managed to talk him out of it!
Harar is a historic Muslim walled city, the fourth most holy city in Islam. It used to be closed to non Muslims and Sir Richard Burton, all round victorian explorer and adventurer was the first non Muslim to travel there in 1854. This was on the first leg of his first expedition to discover the source of the Nile with John Hanning Speke.
This initial expedition ended in disaster after a vicious attack by Somalis in which he suffered a javelin injury through his face which left him scarred for the rest of his life, dramatically reenacted in the movie The Mountains of the Moon. The city was taken by the Italians during their rather abortive efforts to colonize Ethiopia in the 1930's. they established a garrison there which later became a military academy and Nelson Mandela trained there during some of his exile years.
As we approach the city it is initially a disappointment. Instead of an aged scenic walled site we find the usual sprawling mass of urban jumble and chaos but as we slowly push through the new town we finally enter the walls of the old town. This is more like it . Narrow streets lined with tailors shops. The tailors are sitting on the side walk with old peddle singer machines running up garments. It is a city renowned for weaving, basketry, coffee and book binding. We have secured a room at an old Harari guest house but as we plunge deeper into the cobbled alleys we are brought to a halt in a courtyard.
This really is the old town and the roads are too narrow for cars testifying to its ancient lineage. A young deaf boy runs up to escort us to the house and we follow him down winding alleys with our gear. There are people sitting on the street corners all chewing Khat. They appear to be in a daze and you often have to step over them in the narrow passages. Chewing the khat eventually cause the teeth to fall out and the old men can be seen pounding the leaves with pestle and mortar when they can no longer chew. The road and their clothes are spattered with dried green spittle. It is legal but not tempting and does not look good for community productivity.
Our guesthouse is through a narrow door which opens onto a charming courtyard. The house surrounds the courtyard and is a traditional Harari house built of timber, mud and straw, over 240 years old. The walls are 50 cm thick keeping the rooms cool and constant in temperature. Leaving our shoes outside we enter the main living room which consists of a mosaic of broad steps covered in carpets and cushions which represent the seating hierarchy of the household. The head of the house at the top and, surprise, surprise, the females and servants at the bottom. There is a honeymoon bed in a curtained alcove but we are lucky to get a proper bedroom in a more modern annex. Vicky gets the love suite. There is a screen with a slot where food was posted through during the honeymoon when the bride and groom stayed confined to bed for days! Privacy was a bit sketchy though as the inlaws were never far away! The wall is decorated with baskets , many of these are mother in law baskets woven by the bride to be for the good opinion of her future mother in law. Weaving and basketry are traditional Harari crafts.The girls must learn how to do the intricate weaving before they marry. Many of the bowls in this house are generations old.
There are small niches in the wall for crockery and a rack over the door where carpets are stored. This shows how many girls of marriageable age are in the house as they will each take a carpet as part of the dowry. There is a spear near the door which can be easily reached to protect the household in case of threat.
We head out with a guide into the streets and tour the radial architecture of the city. The old town is laid out with 5 main streets radiating from a central square and then winding alleys between. Some are so narrow it is necessary to walk single file. The market at the eastern gate is rambling and packed with every spice you can imagine. Frankincense paprika Danekil salt, cumin and many herb teas. The air is heavy with the intoxicating scents. Photography is again challenging. The people are not happy to be photographed and often will hide their faces or turn away, especially the older women. Even general shots are frowned upon. If there was ever a place for a secret camera it is here and Dudley tries some surreptitious unframed shots from the hip but the shutter sounds like a pistol shot and so it is hardly inconspicuous. We are trailed by the children calling the ferangi song. Usually in good humour but occasionally with some hostility, they are certainly persistent.
From there we visit the governors house, now a museum, with dusty but interesting exhibits. There are many old books including an early copy of Richard Burtons Footsteps in East Africa. Scholars can come here to study. There is an extensive coin collection. Harar was one of the few places which minted its own coins and much of the history can be traced through them. They have been found as far away as China.
We enjoy a coffee ceremony by the side of the road, observing the process from roasting to grinding to brewing and helping the young barista with pounding the beans. A deceptively heavy job. To enjoy your coffee in Ethiopia you need to be patient for the full ceremony and wait for the brew to be heated and reheated to optimal infusion. This takes at least 30 minutes but is a welcome break from the heat and sore feet.
One of the iconic customs in Harar is the feeding of the hyena every day at dusk. The legend has it that the custom originated during a famine when the starving hyena began to attack livestock and people and so feeding of the hyenas began to protect cattle and children. In one version of the story, a pure-hearted man dreamed of how the Hararis could placate the hyenas by feeding while another credits the revelation to the town's Muslim saints convening on a mountaintop. The anniversary of this pact is celebrated every year on the Day of Ashura, when the hyenas are provided with porridge prepared with pure butter.
It is believed that the hyenas' clan leaders will taste the porridge before the others. Should the porridge not be to their liking, the other hyenas will not eat it, and those in charge of feeding them make the requested improvements. How the hyenas eat the porridge is believed to have oracular significance; if the hyena eats more than half the porridge, then it is seen as portending a prosperous new year.
Should the hyena refuse to eat the porridge then the people will gather in shrines to pray, in order to avert famine. Anyway, whenever the practice started it has been going on for over five centuries and is documented in Sir Richard Burtons journals.
2 families are currently responsible for this task and it is said that it is passed down the generations. There are 2 feeding points just outside the old walls. Every night they take meat offel and feed the hyenas by hand. When we arrived for the ceremony there were only four hyenas. Apparently there had been a big Muslim festival with a lot of meat slaughtered over the last few days and so the packs had eaten well and scattered. The hyenas looked softer than our wild hyenas and they were fed with meat by hand or at the end of a stick and took it quite gently. The feeder even put the stick in his mouth and he guided tourists to do the same. Not us I may add. I don't want my face bitten off. He called and talked to them continually with a high pitched keening which they seemed to recognise.
There are many hyenas in and around Harar , both inside and outside the city and when you walk at night you may see shifty shapes slinking down the alleyways especially by the restaurants. They are also heard to call through the evening. They provide an excellent organic refuse removal system and , together with the kites and vultures, keep the city clean. The downside of this domestic relationship is that we saw quite a few hyena carcasses on the roads where they had been hit by cars at night. As we were leaving and arriving in Harar they were the most common road kill.
Our next stop is an unscheduled return to Addis for the immigration visas. We added this to the itinerary rather abruptly after the visa fiasco on arrival and it has tragically cut a day from Harar and from Axom. Still we must do what we must do and we head back to the big smoke.
An early starts gets us back on the road for the long drive. We head to Addis via a lake we have been assured holds flocks of flamingos but after meandering rather aimlessly through fields and villages it is clear our drivers don't know where we are headed. There are a string of crater lakes down the Rift Valley and it seems they have no clue which one we want. Well ,to be fair, neither do we. Eventually we reach a farming cooperative close to a lake but cannot get close to the water. There are no flamingos but a line of white can be seen bordering the far bank and through the binoculars we see a huge collection of Maribou storks, easily the most we have ever seen in one place, perhaps a 1000 or more. We can get no closer and so we cut our losses and turn for Addis.
Although only 40 km it takes another 2 hours on congested roads with maybe 5 lanes of traffic manoeuvring for space on a 2 lane highway. It is back into people, fumes, rickety scaffolding and incomplete high rises. We find a hotel close to the immigration department ready for an early start. Walking there next day we run the gamut of pickpockets and over familiarity. The department of immigration lives up to expectation, it is a chaos of offices, stamps, fees, and queues. Predictably the serious nature of the business is reflected in the time it takes to achieve the goal. In our case, despite endless patience, we are told we may only receive our new visas in two days. It seems it takes time to stick stickers in passports. Pity they would not let us go back to the airport where it only takes 30 minutes. The itinerary is pushed further back and the sights of Addis call.