23 – 6th September 2005 – Awasa, Ethiopia

Distance Cycled : 17,148km

The last update started with the words “welcome to Ethiopia – some welcome!  Since leaving Addis we’ve been subjected to some pretty hostile behaviour from locals who have thrown stones, spat at us and on one occasion, relieved us of 200 birr (15 quid).  As well as this, the words “faranj, faranj” follow us wherever we go, and hands are held out as another dozen voices chime in with “giv me za money”.  It’s all been a bit wearing, frustrating, angering and demoralising.  Anna has dissolved into tears several times and Luke, normally tolerant and mild-mannered, has chased and dragged miscreant children from their homes in order to teach them a lesson.

But thankfully it’s not been all doom and gloom – we spent a fantastic week in the Bale Mountains National Park, supported by a quartet of park personnel and a pair of very obedient horses.  Here we really did get off the beaten track and got to see some wonderfully wild flora and fauna.  Luke took a lot of photos and we’ve included more pics than usual so you can see some of it for yourselves.

Given that Addis Ababa lies about 2500m above sea level, we had an easy start to our journey southwards, swooping down past lovely green meadows, fast-flowing streams and stands of cactus and acacia.  Weird, black, turkey-sized birds called ground hornbills stomped about in the marshy fields, while innumerable donkeys and fat cattle trudged along the verges or munched from large rock-and-mud troughs filled with fodder.  Every few miles, a hamlet surrounded by a formidable cactus hedge appeared and, when the gate was open, we glimpsed muddy yards and thatched huts and half a dozen children tumbling towards us.  Up a rutted track in the town of Debre Zeyit we found a hotel perched on the rim of a crater, overlooking the deep and atmospheric Lake Bishoftu.  We just made it under cover before the afternoon rain came lashing down but rather less luckily it was still drizzling when we departed the next morning, enroute to a town called Ziway.

By now the landscape was looking stereotypically East African, with flat-topped acacias, rolling grasslands and a misty backdrop of dark blue mountains.  The cool air of Addis was replaced by a dessicating southerly breeze and our lips began to crack.  As the road rolled up and down and we heaved ourselves uphill as the tarmac shimmered, the twin lakes of Abiata-Shala appeared on our right.  We had decided to visit the National Park of the same name, where we hoped to see flamingoes, great white pelicans and gazelles.

Entering the park at the northern gate, we found ourselves on an indistinct, grassy track and so were not ungrateful when a couple of cattle-herders pointed us in the direction of the lake.  In fact they started jogging alongside us, which was mildly irritating but we are pretty used to this sort of thing and thought nothing of it.  It was only when the mud became too sticky to ride that we realised their numbers had swelled to five men, three of whom were carrying long spears.  These had been impressive at first, but now they looked threatening.  First the men suggested we leave our bikes and continue on foot to the lake, an idea we quickly dismissed.  With nothing but mudflats and midge-infested grazing land for miles around, we stood little chance of getting help from a passer-by.  We started back for the entrance, but the demands for gursha (tips) became more and more urgent and twice Luke’s barbag “came open”.  The toolkit also fell out of Luke’s saddle bag and was miraculously recovered from a clump of grass where it had obviously been stashed.  After half an hour of nerve-wracking progress we were nearing a village and suddenly the men barred our way, seeing their opportunity for quick cash disappearing as we neared habitation.  Without excessive violence, but nonetheless forcefully, they overpowered Luke and snatched the wallet, removing their “fee” of 200 birr – about 15 quid.  They seemed genuinely outraged when we told them they were thieves.  Obviously there is a fine line between extortion and theft in Ethiopia.  We returned quickly to the safety of the tarmac and gobbled down some nutella sandwiches to stop ourselves shaking, then sped on to a campsite on the shores of another lake – Lake Langano.  For once glad to be in a touristy haunt surrounded by plenty of wealthy Addis Ababans enjoying a weekend away from the capital.  It did get a bit noisy the next day, however, when a schoolgroup of 300 kids descended – with an escort of FOUR teachers!

Being in the presence of people who you fear is exhausting, and behaviour less threatening than we encountered at Abiata-Shala NP can be pretty distressing too.  We thought we’d be in for a tough ride from Shashemene to the highland town of Dinsho, the trailhead for treks into the Bale Mountains National Park.  So we headed for a resort called Wondo Genet for a few days R&R before embarking on the ride.  In the thickly forested hills above Wondo Genet, water bubbles out of hot springs (shepherds cook their food in the boiling water where it emerges!) and is then piped down to the resort, where it gushes out constantly into a big swimming pool and a series of outdoor showers.  We arrived at dusk and so it was dark and deserted when we went to bathe and we had four shower-spouts each – perfect!  The next day we spent the morning watching guerezza and vervet monkeys scampering between the tall trees and the flowering shrubs, and then two local boys showed us the way up to the source of the springs.  No spears involved – phew!

As soon as we turned off the silky-smooth tarmac at Shashemene, after leaving the hot springs, we had a feeling a hard time lay ahead.  The road seemed to consist of cobbles on a bed of silt and gravel, and was at first choked with donkey-carts and buses loading up.  It quietened down but then the road began to wind inexorably upwards.  As we rediscovered our lowest gears and accepted the gradient would mean slow progress, hordes of children began to plague us, shouting, grabbing the bikes and tossing stones in our direction.  By the time we reached a small town called Kofele, we’d had enough and sought refuge in a guesthouse with a big metal gate.  The owner slammed it firmly in the faces of the children we had “gathered”.

We were feeling a bit like pied pipers for evil children but our spirits rose as we went in search of sustenance…  First, we ducked into a dark little room with wooden benches, low tables and an earth floor scattered thickly with fresh-cut grass.  In this cool and sweetly aromatic haven, we ordered tea, and two glasses of scalding clove-scented liquid soon appeared…followed by a basket of aniseed-flavoured bread…followed by two tall glasses of something that looked like Coca Cola, smelled a bit like coffee and tasted, well, weird.  After we had chomped and had several wordless conversations (it is possible) with our smiling hostess, we got up to pay.  She said the tea was 25 cents a glass, so we owed her 50 cents – 3 pence.  She then absolutely refused to take any money for the other things, as though we were guests in her home entitled to tasty treats and not customers, so we left after more smiles.  Another dark little room (hi-tech plastic tablecloths here, though) provided us with dinner.  A steaming tray of injera topped with lentil stew, cabbage, spiced potato and carrot.  The young waiter seemed to notice we had gobbled the delicious potatoes quickly and he scuttled back to the kitchen, appearing moments later with an additional bowlful.  Once again, he charged us only for what we had requested and the bill came to 3 birr – that’s 20p!  We left him a “hefty” tip of 1 birr and he beamed.  Faith in the human race restored, we retired to the guest house.

From Kofele we enjoyed a flatter ride across brilliantly green plains, with wooded mountains ahead and icy-cold brown water rushing by on either side – the rain had started just after we were safely back in the guesthouse.  With the sun shining, horses cantering by and birds twittering overhead, you’d think it would have been idyllic, but the kids had other ideas.  A dozen horrors appeared from every field, tearing over the uneven terrain, stones flew out of each homestead and on every hill they caught us up and chased us, shouting, spitting, jeering and grabbing the panniers.  For the second time in 24 hours Luke, normally so even-tempered, lost his cool and put his bike down so he could race across the fields to catch the miscreants.  On one occasion, a mother retrieved her son and handed him over to be dealt with, but by and large the adults were equally to blame.  They seemed disinterested and uninclined to apologise or take responsibility for their children.  Grown-ups held out their hands to demand money, pens or “samthing”, and stood by to encourage or laugh when the children misbehaved.  It is hard to describe how demoralising and upsetting it is to be subjected to this kind of abuse, not to mention how dangerous.  In Addis we met a Spanish cyclist who had been hit in the head by a stone in northern Ethiopia – the wound required stitches.  We were suddenly glad of our helmets.

What makes these attacks even more inexplicable and angering is the fact that we haven’t encountered such hostility anywhere else.  In northern Morocco, a few kids threw stones but we haven’t encountered anything worse than calls of “white man, white man” and a bit of “buy this” or “employ me” hassle since then.  Bearing in mind northern Morocco lies eleven months behind us and that we’ve now travelled through fifteen African countries, this Ethiopian reaction is perplexing.

Thankfully, 30km into our third day along the road to Dinsho, we began to climb and leave the settlements far below in the valleys.  Even the most agile goatherds can’t scramble up 500m fast enough to hurl abuse/missiles.  The other side of the valley appeared as a patchwork of green and gold, the sun lighting up the haystacks and the neat farm huts.  Our road was in shadow, though, and despite the exertion we were soon chilly and anxious about the ominous grey sky.  The rain set in about midday, and became a ferocious hailstorm, so we sought shelter (of sorts) in the lee of a gnarled tree, where a shepherd was already huddled with his two children and rag-bag assortment of sheep and goats.  All shepherds in the highlands have big black brollies, which seem a bit incongruous at first but actually make good sense – mobile shelters from rain and sun.  After a shivery half hour, the rain eased to drizzle and Luke made a dash to the bikes for a packet of biscuits, which we shared with our new-found friends.  Another wordless conversation and more smiles.  Why can’t all Ethiopians be so friendly, then?

The lull in the rain was short-lived as we toiled higher and higher on the road, which was now churning with brown water, and entered a hushed forest of pine, the boughs draped with long, wispy lichens.  It was all rather dreary in the damp and cold, and the brief glimpses down into the valley only served to brighten our mood temporarily.  Our bikes, fully laden, weigh about 50kg and 40kg each.  When it rains and the road is untarred, we reckon we lug an extra few kilos of mud and water with us.  Small wonder that we found ourselves unable to cycle a single kilometre without a rest – sometimes we feel we are literally inching our way to Cape Town!  That day it took us five hours to cover 20km, and we reached the blustery pass – 3600 masl – at 5pm, having covered only 60km in total since leaving at 7.45am.

As we contoured round and down into the Geyshay Valley, the sun came out and a beautiful rainbow appeared.  A pot of gold seemed a bit too much to hope for, but we thought at least there might be a warm bed at the end of it.  Our hands and legs were wet and icy and the mud made for a hair-raising descent, but we believed we were nearly home and dry – our map said 10km more.  Dusk was approaching as we spotted a tin-roofed mosque and dropped down into a little hamlet – could this be Dinsho?  No, a man on horseback said, Dinsho is over there, 8km away!  We sped on, utterly exhausted but fearful of being out after dark and wanting, desperately, to lie down somewhere warm and dry.  As darkness fell, the tripmeter read 80km and no lights showed ahead, Anna began to despair and crack up.  Luke’s dynamo clogged with mud and we were forced to put on headtorches and continue on foot, pushing the sodden bikes through the blackness.  Suddenly some dim shapes crossed the road a few metres ahead and our thoughts turned to wild animals…and we quickened our pace!  After an eternity, some lights appeared, a dog barked and we found ourselves on the outskirts of Dinsho.  With 85km done and 12 hours after leaving Dodola, a guesthouse finally came into view on the left.  We all but fell through the gate and into a room, illuminated by a tiny green lightbulb.  Anna sat in a heap while Luke heated up water and ordered some food.  We washed in the room, which was soon warm and fuggy, and forced some injera and veg down before crawling beneath the blankets and passing out.  What a day.

Bleary-eyed and aching, the next day we cycled the remaining 2km to Dinsho Lodge, the Bale Mountains National Park HQ.  We met our guide, Kemal and, under his watchful eye, stocked up with provisions in a little grocery store.  It helps to have a bilingual local with you on a shopping trip – we managed to buy some of the spices that are used to infuse Ethiopian tea.  Hard to get your hands on if you don’t actually know what it is, let alone the Amharic words!  Then it was time to organise our stuff and convert our cycling shoes to walking shoes (by removing the cleats) – thankfully the lodge had a vast lounge with big tables and an amenable night watchman so we were almost packed up by the time we went to bed.

After breakfast next morning, it was time to meet the horses and our team.  Park regulations stipulate that you have to be accompanied by a guide and a scout, and then of course you need a horse-handler to, well, handle the horses.  We thought the third member of staff a bit over the top, given that there were only two of us.  We did also once go off trekking in Peru on our own with a horse so thought we might be able to manage…but regulations are regulations, it seems.  So we met Kemal, Alamayo and Kadir and were then introduced to Sefu, a trainee guide who wold also be coming along! : So our party had swelled to eight (including equines) by the time we left the lodge and began to climb gently up a valley filled to the brim with wildflowers and resonant with birdsong and flowing water.

(Incidentally, if you’re reading this because you’re planning your own trek in the area, we’ve added a page of useful practical information here.)

As we left the last few thatch-roofed houses behind, the first drops of rain started to fall.  Before too long, the view disappeared and the wind picked up, blowing sheets of hail into our faces.  We stopped for lunch during a brief lull in the downpour, but didn’t fancy sitting around for long…  We continued, negotiating tricky crossings of swollen streams (the “path”, in fact, now resembled a stream more than anything else), and were soon glad of our fleeces as well as waterproofs.  When it got really bad, we all huddled together under the shelter of three umbrellas carried by Kemal, Alamayo and Kadir, and waited for it to pass.

Looking on the bright side, the Finch’ Abera waterfall, our initial target for the day, was a pretty spectacular sight with all the extra water, and by the time we arrived the rain was easing off.  The normal crossing below the waterfall was far too dangerous, and given our soaking-wet state we soon agreed with Kemal’s suggestion that we continue upstream to find a crossing point and head for Sodota, an hour or so further on, where we would find some rudimentary shelters and plenty of firewood.

In typical Ethiopian fashion, the sun was shining brightly by the time we found a not-too-deep spot well above the waterfall where we could cross.  The horses didn’t seem to mind, but we certainly felt the icy chill of the water and were looking forward to getting our clothes dried out!  Sure enough, before too long we came to a group of thatched tents surrounding a lone building and were greeted by the caretaker, employed by the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Project to keep an eye on the packs in the area.  While the scout and horse-man set about collecting firewood, we chose the driest-looking shelter and were soon enjoying a few cups of spiced tea and waiting for our dinner to cook.  The boil-in-the-bag curry was excellent, but we’d forgotten how long rice takes to cook at altitude (by now we were nearly 3500m up) so that was a little chewy…

As soon as the sun went down we were more than happy to take refuge in our sleeping bags (thanks RAB!), especially with a 6am start to go looking for wolves planned.  Kemal had told us that several packs lived in the valley nearby, and we were keen to spot them – so we braved still-wet shoes and socks and the chill of dawn, and put on every item of our (now thankfully dried-out) clothing.  The wolves apparently wake up hungry after a cold night – they hunt during the day as that’s when their favourite prey, giant molerats, is active – so early morning is supposedly the best time to see them.  For the first hour or so, we were rewarded only with a beautiful sunrise (and the welcome warming rays!) and plenty of birds, but then Anna spotted something moving across the valley, and a look through the binoculars confirmed it.  These wolves (Canis simensis, also known as the Simien fox) are the world’s rarest member of the dog family, and scientists reckon that fewer than 1000 remain, mostly in the Bale mountains (there are a few in the Simien mountains in the north of Ethiopia where they were first recorded).  Although the wolves are one of the main attractions of the park, there are dozens of other mammals, birds and plants which are endemic to the park, or to Ethiopia – including the mountain Nyala, giant molerat, Bale monkey, black-headed siskin and blue-winged goose.

Quite remarkably for such an endangered animal, the wolves let us get surprisingly close before disappearing among the rocks – though not close enough to get any decent photos!  By the time we got back to the camp at 8am, the sun had reached the valley floor and we gradually removed a few layers of clothing as we drank tea and devoured breakfast.  By 9.30, the horses were loaded up and we were on the move again – taking a slightly altered route up onto the plateau as a flooded river blocked our original route.

As we started the steep climb onto the Sanetti plateau, another lone wolf was spotted, and allowed us this time to get close enough for a couple of photos.  The path became steeper still as we crossed the 4000m contour and reached the plateau edge where we enjoyed the views as we ate lunch.  Fortunately the weather gods were on our side today and the sun stayed shining…

After a night at a camp called Wasama, rather nettle-choked but close to a crystal-clear and icy stream (we had a very brief wash!), we continued across the plateau.  Wind-blown and devoid of even a solitary shepherd hut that might have identified this as an Ethiopian landscape, we could have been in a remote corner of Scotland!  Even the silver-grey slopes looked like scree from a distance, until we realised it was down to a dense covering of helichrysum – occasionally delicate, papery pink flowers and buds burst forth from the low-lying bushes.  Up on the wind-whipped plateau, there was less wildlife in evidence but it was certainly exhilerating and by now the altitude was, literally, breathtaking!  By late afternoon, a line of strange rock-fingers had appeared on our right and we gladly took shelter from a brief downpour – having got the tent up just in time.  It was a lovely spot, the weird rock formations were, we learned, the remains of an ancient lava flow.  Kemal later told us that he had spotted a couple of Klippspringers (nimble, rock-climbing antelope), although we missed the action this time.

Our fourth camp was possibly the most scenic – situated high in a valley overlooking Garba Guracha lake just below the western edge of the plateau – and the day’s walk to get there yielded further sightings of the Ethiopian wolf, blue-winged geese, and beautiful, white-breasted Augur buzzards, as well as stunning panoramas across the bleak plateau itself.  At the campsite itself we watched two golden eagles soaring along the edge of the nearby cliffs.  The pair wheeled and corkscrewed through the air, elegant and graceful and oblivious to our rapt presence hundreds of feet below.

Another cold night preceded a shortish day, dropping down into the Worgona valley, stopping en-route for lunch by a burbling stream.  Again, the campsite was a good spot for wildlife and we watched several endearing giant molerats which look a lot like flat, under-stuffed teddy bears, and bright yellow siskins, and caught a brief glimpse of a majestic lammergeier.

After all this, we had mixed feelings about the last day – we were definitely looking forward to a wash and a warm bed after 6 days of wild camping, but at the same time dreaming of coming back for a month-long trek.  We felt we’d seen a lot, but Bale definitely kept some treats for a further visit – serval cats, bushpigs, honey badgers, leopards and loads more birds are just some of the more elusive inhabitants…  A closer look at the wolves would be nice too.  True to form, the weather stayed mainly bright for our last day on foot (apart frm the first, wet, day, the rain had mainly come in short bursts after we’d set up camp each day).  More Augur buzzards soared overhead as we made our way back through the vegetation zones, first picking a route through a valley choked with huge heather bushes, then strolling across plains liberally dotted with red-hot-poker plants before dropping down into the main valley towards Dinsho.
pic204Footsore and decidedly smelly, we returned to the lodge on 31st August.  The first thing we did was ask about the on-site sauna!  Despite a lack of hot water or heating, there was indeed a little wooden room with a wood-burning stove and barely an hour after the warden had sent someone to buy a bundle of firewood we were luxuriating in the steamy heat.  The door was rather ill-fitting so we shoved some firewood under it as a draught-excluder and clambered to the uppermost “shelf” to avoid the icy breeze.  It was so relaxing and we were tempted to bask all afternoon but eventually the firewood dwindled and we had to brave the icy showers, which we wouldn’t recommend to anyone with a heart condition!

Steeling ourselves for the bad road and the onslaught of stones and spittle, we began our return journey to Shashemene. The road to Dinsho is a bit of a dead end so it was a case of retracing our wheelprints for 160km…a fact that had not served to encourage us when we toiled up the pass on the way there!  We managed the ride back in two days rather than three, the wind and the gradient being in our favour this time!  It was less wet and more enjoyable, although the kids were just as bad and Anna was hit in the ribs by a sizeable stone.  Twice, a troop of baboons (slightly better-behaved than the human rabbles) crossed the road, and we saw guerezza monkeys swinging through the pines as well as a multitude of birds.  We cleared up the mystery of the shapes in the dark, too – lots of warthogs rootled by the road just after we left Dinsho, so they were wild animals and not a hallucination!  Nonetheless, it brought tears of relief to our eyes when we finally rejoined the tarmac at Shashemene around teatime on 3rd September.  We had another reason to celebrate too – 400 days on the road!

After a day off in Shashemene, we made our way down to Awasa – 25km down the road and a mere hour of cycling.  It felt good to be on silky tarmac once again and even the headwind failed to dampen our spirits!  Awasa is an ornithological goldmine – at every turn a bright kingfisher perches on a stalk, jacanas delicately alight on lily-pads and casqued hornbills raucously clump about in the treetops.  We’ll let Luke’s photos show you the rest of the avian extravaganza.  Within a week we should be nearing the Kenyan border and it will be goodbye to Ethiopia, a country we have come to both love and hate over the last five weeks.  Then it’s a long, lonely road through the “Black Desert” once we are over the border.  Wish us luck and an absence of punctures!


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