The way to Ethiopia
Getting from Kassala to Addis Ababa, the buzzing capital of Ethiopia, takes a minimum of two full days by bus. I left the hotel at 4am in order to catch one of the early buses to Khartoum that leave at 5am, because I aimed at getting to Gonder, a nice city four hours south of the border of Sudan and Ethiopia. I really didn’t want to spend a night in the border town of Metema which is infamous for its shabby joints and an according clientele. Everything went smoothly until we reached the border. The Khartoum bus dropped me in Al-Qadarif, a rickshaw brought me to the other side of the city where the bus to Gallabat, the Sudanese border town, departed just 10 minutes after my arrival.
At the border in Gallabat, I made the mistake of going to the Sudanese customs office first instead of to the Sudanese secret security office, which apparently has to be visited immediately after you get off the bus. But the Sudanese secret security wanted to keep their office secret, without a signpost or a sign on the building. A slightly agitated secret security officer showed me the way to his office and yet another form was filled in with details of my passport. After formalities in Sudanese customs, where my big bag pack was shortly opened and quickly closed, and Sudanese immigration office I was allowed to cross to Ethiopia, where very friendly officers from the immigration office welcomed me warmly.
When I finally reached Ethiopia it was 1pm and I wanted to have lunch in Metema. I was quite hungry, breakfast was at 5am. But none of the shabby pubs at the main road served anything but beer, schnapps and snacks. After one month in a conservative but friendly Sudan, where alcohol is prohibited, the mix of loud, drunken men and lightly dressed woman giving me frivolous smiles felt like being in Sodom and Gomorrah. I left quickly to the bus station to Gonder and on the way people were shouting at me and pulling my bag. I was relieved when we left the place after I got squeezed in the bus. It felt very different to my last trip to Ethiopia in 2016, which I enjoyed so much.
In Gonder I tried to buy a ticket for the bus to Addis Ababa that was supposed to leave at 5am the next day but the ticket office was already closed. I was told that I could buy a ticket in the bus before departure as long as the bus was not full. When I stepped out the hotel at 4:10am it was dark and cold. People were sleeping in the street next to dogs. When a tuk tuk came along, I stopped it instinctively, though the bus station wasn’t far. It turned out to be a very good decision. Few hundred meters down the road three drunkards were shouting at one another. In the next second, one got punched and fell down. My tuk tuk driver shouted to stop the fighting which distracted the assailants and gave the man on the ground a chance to run away. When I reached the bus station at 4:20am there was no bus and nobody was around. Talking to the tuk tuk driver I realised that Ethiopia is in a different time zone than Sudan and that in fact it was 5:20am. As the bus needs 13h to reach Addis, according to the schedule there was no later option that day and I had to spend one more night in Gonder. Fortunately, the bus next day was only half full and I could lay down on the seats in the last row. But with eyes closed, the winding roads made me feel seasick.
In Addis Ababa I stayed in a beautiful guest house called Abbabas Villa situated on one of the hills surrounding Addis. The hills give you the opportunity to escape the noise and pollution of the fast growing Ethiopian capital. Frew, an old friend of the host, was staying in the guest house this night and told me his story. He fled Ethiopia during the time of the Derg, the communist military regime that ruled Ethiopia from 1974 until 1987. He gave me a lot of insight into Ethiopian history and the life of a political refugee starting a new life in the US. Today, he still lives in the US but is engaged in various charity projects in Ethiopia. He was interested in visiting the tribes in Southern Ethiopia and joined us later for a couple of days in Omo Valley.
My wife Gosia arrived at the airport the next day at 1am. She has just finished her job in Lebanon and had a couple of weeks off before a new deployment in the humanitarian sector. Driving home through the sparsely lighted streets we had our first encounter with Ethiopian wildlife: a hyena was roaming the streets of the outskirts of Addis Ababa in search for a late dinner.
The palace of emperor Menelik II was built in 1889 and his generals settled nearby. Thus, a city began to grow quickly and became the Addis Ababa of today.
A donkey carrying teff, a grass grown only in Ethiopia for its seeds that are used for making Ethiopian national dish, injera.
The stelae of Tiya, which are listed as UNESCO world heritage site
One of the ostriches of Abijatta-Shalla National Park. Apart from birds, not much wildlife is left.
A marabou waiting for the leftovers of the fishmarket on the shore of lake Awasa
Renting a Landcruiser is the only option to visit rural places in the far south – west, where only rough tracks lead to most villages. However, in Ethiopia you need an Ethiopian driving license if you want to drive yourself. As you can imagine, obtaining a license is rather difficult and I failed to succeed during my last visit. And finally, virtually no company offers a 4WD without a driver. Our style of travelling, i.e. hardly any planning and spontaneously deciding on where to spend the night caused some trouble during our last visit to Ethiopia. Most people, including Ethiopian drivers, like to know where they will go the next day. So the task was to find a reasonably priced car that won’t fall apart during the trip with a flexible driver who spoke good English. And we’ve been lucky to find Tsegaye, who is a very experienced freelance guide and driver owning a well-maintained Landcruiser. He has quickly come up with a tentative itinerary, but was fine with short-term changes that allowed us the flexibility we needed. If you’re looking for a reliable guide and driver with a car, I recommend contacting him: Tsegaye Shawul, email@example.com or +251 911 442 315, works also with WhatsApp
On our way to Hawassa, we visited the prehistoric excavations of Melka and the stele of Tiya. At the fish market of Hawassa a film team of South TV was making a documentary about lake Hawassa. Out of the blue, they asked me for an interview. I was asked for advice on how to increase fish production in lake Hawassa which has been going down in recent years. Having no clue about fishing or water ecology I recommended sticking to local low-scale fishing methods and working on waste problem that is prevalent to the whole Ethiopia, including lake Hawassa. Unfortunately, we didn’t manage to see the documentary on TV and there is no archive of past broadcasts on the internet, so sadly no one will ever have the chance to see this awkward interview again;)
From Hawassa we drove to Dodola, a small town near Bale mountains which was our starting point for a three-day trek through magical forests, traditional villages and seemingly endless plateaus. As everywhere in Ethiopia, one needs a guide as treks are not marked and even my favourite map app, OsmAnd, does not have all the tracks. Even though our backpacks were loaded with food, stove, tent, sleeping bags, our warmest clothes and of course my photography equipment, I insisted on carrying the bags ourselves and not renting a horse. When I hike, I want to be on my own, not with an entourage of porters and horses. Neither am I Louis XIV, nor am I going to the Mt Everest. The first day we hiked through a beautiful forest that looked untouched until we reached a camp where we slept at 3460 m. As long as the sun was shining, the temperature was pleasant, but after sunset it quickly got windy and the thermometer settled just a couple degrees above zero. I had to wear all my clothes while I cooked dinner in front of the tent.
One of the many Hagenia Abbysinica trees that were in blossom at the time of our visit
In the morning I did not feel well. I had a slight headache, no appetite and I was weak. I assumed it was a light case of altitude sickness and I thought that if I continue the hike slowly and focus on breathing, I’ll get better. However, after we reached a viewpoint at around 3700 m, I got really dizzy and diarrhoea that accompanied me a couple of days before came back accompanied by nausea. The hut we were aiming for was still 18 km away and briefly we’ve considered descending to another hut about 5 km away, but I decided to slowly continue to our original goal. Even though we’ve distributed some of the items from my bag to Gosia and our guide, I felt miserable and had to push myself every step of the way. When we finally reached the hut, I fell asleep immediately after pitching the tent and slept like a baby until the worried voice of our guide woke me up, asking if he shall help us prepare dinner.
When I woke up after a good-night sleep and peeked out of the tent at dawn I wondered if I really was in East Africa. The landscape was covered with a thick layer of hoarfrost, which explained why I had to wear almost all of my clothes to feel warm. Fortunately, I felt much better in the morning and I could enjoy the last part of the trek.
However, in the evening I got diarrhoea again and the next day I felt so weak that I couldn’t finish a walk across the 4100m high Sanetti plateau in the Bale mountains national park. The Bale mountains are roamed by the Ethiopian wolf, an endangered endemic species of only approx. 400. In the afternoon, after I took a nap in the sun I began to feel better, so we wanted to go for a short visit to the Harenna Forest, one of the few primeval forests left in Ethiopia which is home to many rare species like giant mole-rats, giant forest hogs and black leopards. The guide we had to take with us to visit the national park was not in favour of our idea saying that we cannot drive to the forest as it was too far. In addition, if we pay for only one day in the park, we are supposed to visit the Sanetti plateau only although the Harenna Forest is a part of the park. To visit Harenna Forest we should stay (and pay for) another three days as this is how it usually is arranged. After a lengthy discussion it was possible to drive to a trail in the forest. It did not come as a surprise that the drive took only 45 minutes instead of 2.5 h that the guide claimed it would. I was quite pissed off. Not only did we have to pay three times more for the compulsory guide compared to the price in four-year-old guidebook, but the guide wanted to shorten his workday by telling us lies. Nevertheless, we liked the short walk through the Harenna Forest and would have stayed a couple of days if we had more time.
Though it has many similarities with a fox, the Ethiopian wolf is much bigger and weighs up to 19 kg
The drive to Arba Minch took the whole day. As Ethiopia is three times the size of Germany, we spent a lot of time in the car. In addition, your average speed is around 40 km/h as you share the roads with cattle, carts, heavily overloaded trucks and kids who use them as playground. Arba Minch is situated on the shore of lake Chamo and lake Abaya which are separated by a land bridge called „the bridge of god“. Lake Chamo is famous for its huge crocodiles that do not even flinch when the boat approaches them while they bask in the sun at a sandbank called „crocodile market“. They share the lake with plenty of hippos.
I wouldn’t dare to cross the lake in one of the tiny boats local fisherman use. „Boat“ is an overstatement as the vessel in question consist of no more than three tiny trunks tied together. No wonder that 20 fishermen don’t return from the lake each year.
Next, we will head further south to pay a visit to the numerous tribes of South-Eastern Ethiopia