Lower Omo, Ethiopia
By Bob Machus
I got to Ethiopia on Sept 16 and had ten days in Addis before setting out on a 25 day 600 Km raft expedition to the Lower Omo. Addis was great and the people are very friendly. It was part National Geographic special and part Road Rules and part Survivor.
We left Addis and drove to a nifty little lodge in the town of Woliso. The lodge had a large courtyard with fountain and palm trees, twenty-foot ceilings, and Vervet and Colobus monkeys in the trees. We stayed the night and in the morning played with the Colobus monkeys, which congregated near the natural hot spring swimming pool before we left for the put in.
On the way to the put in there was a disappointing, but thankfully brief stint in an Ethiopian prison. At the put in we were met by a group of about 15 boys who had evidently heard through the miraculous Ethiopian grapevine we were coming (it had been two years since anyone had been here to go rafting) who helped us unload our gear.
We rigged and pushed off to some semi continuous class III stuff. The river was VERY brown and looked over bank full. Gary said several times over the course of the trip that it was by far the highest he had seen it. Yohannes got about Â½ mile from the put in before high siding pretty dramatically. We had pretty unremarkable raft with a few exceptions.
We had a very exciting round of night rafting complete with 40-50,000 cfs crashing holes in complete darkness immediately followed by charging a beach covered with hippos and crocs because it was dark and we needed to camp. That was followed by a few of us staying up all night to defend the beach, as the hippos seemed to really want it back. Needless to say that was the most exciting/exhausting several hours I have had in a long time. We had a second round of night rafting a week or so later, but it was much less dramatic. Yohannes flipped on about day 8 and lost all of our bananas, saw, axe, Dutch over, groover screen, and several other things I
can’t remember now.
It rained and rained and rained for the first 10 or 12 days. Usually the days were pretty nice and it started the pounding downpours just before we made camp so that tent pitching and meal prep was a blast, especially since all cooking was over an open fire. Then all of a sudden the rains stopped and it was just hot as you might think it would get at about 5*N and 500m of elevation, it was great.
The bugs were occasionally pretty annoying, but no real big deal and not even a pale shadow of what I feared. For the most part the whitewater was pretty unremarkable, but there was one rapid, TseTse, which had what was if not the biggest and scariest hole I have seen, then definitely in the top three.
We saw hundreds of hippos, lots of crocs big and small, a few hyena, a bunch of AK-47s, and more baboons, colobus monkeys than I could count, but no lions, no zebra, no elephant and no snakes.
The tribes we saw were Bodi, Bacha, Mursi (our last camp was raided by these guys), Karo, and Hamer and visited a few villages of each. When we got to our takeout we had one the three vehicles that were supposed to meet us, so Gary, Robel, Curt, Hal and Judy left Eddie, Brian and I on the side of the river saying they would send a truck.
We spent a few days camped around our huge pile of gear chatting with AK47 wielding Karo men, eating catfish when we could catch it, and picking out wives and places for our mud huts in case we were left. On the third morning two trucks showed up for us and we started what was a bit of an epic drive from Dus Village to Addis.
The drive took two very longs days, covered 1000km, numerous river fordings,
and several truck break-downs, but we got to Addis last night around 8pm.
I can’t even begin to actually you what an experience this is. I can tell you what I have done and plan to do, but this is soooooooo supa-dupa kick-ass awesome cool I can’t stand. Every day is still better than the last, and with the exception of the Mursi, everyone here is so nice and
helpful and friendly.
So far no obvious signs of parasitic infestation or tropical disease, but as some of you know that can take months or years to pop up.
Ethiopia keeps getting better. I have evidently been adopted by an Ethiopian family, which is quite nice. No more staying in hotels, when in Addis, my home is now at Samson’s house. I am at Samson’s mother’s house right now drinking tella (homemade beer), which I helped make, taking a break from helping make injera (the pancake like bread that is the staple here). Today is Samson’s youngest sister’s birthday and tomorrow is their family reunion, I guess I get to meet all my new relatives. Each year the reunion is at a different family’s house and this year is their turn.
Needless to say it involves a great deal of preparation since all the food and drink is homemade, all day today will be spent making injera, doro wat, kai wat, etc. On Tuesday, I fly up to a town called Lalibela for a few days beginning my four-week tour of the north. I get back to Addis on November 27. I should have semi-regular email access so expect more updates. Now on to what has been keeping me occupied for the last two weeks or so.
Samson, his friends Dafar and Iyasu and I left Addis at about 8 am on Saturday and drove for about 10 hours to Dinsho where Bale Mountains National Park HQ is. I discover as Samson is warmly welcomed and introducing me that his father was the Warden of this park.
We spent the night at a hotel about 45km from Dinsho. We got up very early to drive up onto the Senetti plateau to see Ethiopian Wolves, the rarest member of the dog family in the world. The plateau in over 4000m above sea level and very lush, although at this time of the year, it was damn cold at night. There was ice in the ponds. We spotted a wolf and I managed to get within about 20m of him and got some cool (I hope) photos. We toured the plateau seeing all sorts of cool birds and more Ethiopian Wolves. We then headed to Sof Omar caves, which were about 4 hours away on positively, absolutely, undeniably the crappiest roads you can imagine. These are not crappy roads because they are out in the country; these are the roads of Ethiopian.
At one point we were traveling almost 100 km/h just pounding down this awful road skittering back and forth as we entered a small town. Just as we approached the flock of vultures on the edge of the road decided to take off. Not one, but two of them slammed right into our windshield. A vulture is a damn big bird and neither they nor the windshield (except for some small pieces) ended up in the car, but I have no idea why. We came to a screeching sliding halt as Samson was jerked out of his sleep (I don’t know how he does it) by the BAM, BAM of the two birds hitting the windshield. We all got out of the car and walked back to the birds. To our surprise they were both still breathing. One died pretty quickly, but the other got up, hopped around in dizzy circles for a bit, then stretched its wings and flew away. The windshield was totally crazed and caved in, so we pushed it out a bit put some tape and stickers on it to keep it together and on we went.
When we got to Sof Omar, we were met by the headman of the village who offered to take us through the caves. We went down to the river where there were lots of people bathing and laundering to see the entrance of the caves. The Web river just goes right into a cliff face. We walked about 150m into the caves until there was no way to go further without swimming. We could hear lots of bats and rushing water in the depths. Without our flashlights, it was totally dark and more than a little bit creepy with the water and bat sounds. We left Sof Omar for the 4 hour drive back to Dinsho lodge where Samson had arranged for a goat to be slaughtered and cooked for us. The warden fired up the sauna, yes sauna, for us as dinner was being killed and cooked. We sat in the sauna, drank beer, and had a great time. The tibs (the meal that was prepared from the goat) were very, very good. We stayed up much too late and drank too much around the fire discussing politics and religion.
In the morning at 5:30 we went on a little nature hike and saw lots of Mountain Nyala at about 30m, a few Menelik’s bushbuck, and lots of warthogs. Then it was another 10-hour drive back to Addis via a different and better road so that we could visit Iyasu’s wife and 71-day-old daughter. Iyasu’s mother-in-law insisted that we stay for a meal, which turned out to be the very best meal here yet. It was a positively delicious kai wat (spicy meat stew). We got back to Addis at about 8:30, but when I got to the hotel I found out they didn’t have the promised room for me. Samson kindly offered to let me stay at his house and get me to the airport since I was due at 5am to check in for my flight to Harar.
I took a flight to Dire Dawa and a taxi to the bus station, then a minibus up to Harar. This is a very Arabian place. There are many camels, and the population is very Muslim. The drive up to Harar was very pretty and, other than a four-wheel drift around a corner on the nicely paved road in a minibus chock full of people, uneventful. I went to my hotel, got a room and sat down next to some Americans to drink a beer. The reason I chose this hotel and the room I had was that I had heard that from this room you could see the hyenas trying to sneak into the ancient walled city while the local dogs did their best to keep them out. Sure enough, at about 2 am there was a huge outburst of barking and cackling right outside my window. The dogs and hyenas spent about an hour discussing whether or not the hyenas could come in. It was really cool to watch.
I spent a few days wandering around this old, old city which is a maze of narrow alleys. I visited the markets, and even took a taxi to the remarkably modern Harar brewery just outside of town. The highlight of this city however was the hyenas. There are just two old men remaining of the Hyena Men of Harar. There is an old legend about how the hyenas were responsible for a famine so some brave men took it upon themselves to feed the hyenas so that the famine might end.
For 35birr ($4) you can go to where these men feed the hyenas to watch and take photos. If you want you can even feed them, of course, I wanted to. I even fed them by holding a piece of raw goat on a short 4″ stick in my mouth. Having a wild hyena snapping food from about 4″ from your nose is just plain awesome cool, and their breath is not nearly as bad as you might think, but some of them sure are big animals. Occasionally they would get into a bit of an argument over who should eat next, and the sound they make is just like a cackling laugh. Hopefully the photos will turn out. I then braved the public transportation system by taking a public bus back from Harar to Addis.
I was supposed to only go as far as Awash, which is a cool desert with a cool river to go on a raft trip, but that fell through so I rode the bus all twelve hours in a crowded bus. Once I sat in my seat it was pretty evident that none of the habeshas (Ethiopians) wanted to sit with the farenji (foreigner), fortunately the one who finally did was a cute Adare girl, rather than some of the other folks I saw. She slept much of the way on my shoulder, then would wake up, give an embarrassed giggle, and move away bit only to end up on my shoulder again.
On the night of November 1st, we had a going away night for a friend at the Zebra Grill. His flight out left at 5 am so he had to be at the airport to check in at the absurd time of 2 am and, as a result, planned on not going to sleep. We had lots beer, chicken and scotch, and I headed out because my flight to Lalibela left around 10:30 am, so I had time to get a decent night’s sleep. I got up and got a ride to the airport from Yohannes.
The airport here in Addis Ababa, especially for domestic flights, especially as the day progresses is an absolute zoo. I found out about this the first time I flew to Dire Dawa as I patiently waited about a meter behind the person in front of me. I was rapidly and repeatedly bypassed, as evidently Ethiopians have no concept of a queue. This is apparent in driving, banks, airports, etc. The line is more line a cattle chute in which there is an amorphous blob of people all generally aimed at the entrance, desk, clerk, or seat and rather eventually you get to the front. My Dire Dawa flight was very early and, as such, we were the only flight checking in, this was not however the case with my flight to Lalibela. The check-in lobby was absolutely filled with people, each one with approximately 4 times their baggage allowance and all vying for a very limited number of check-in clerks. I made my way to the front of the mob and checked in two hours before my flight. The flight left pretty close to on-time, only 20 minutes late. The flight went to Gonder first to drop off some passengers and pick up a few others. From the air the central highlands are really quite beautiful and even more than before I was aware that there is not a single arable or tenable parcel of land in this country that does not have people or crops on it. There is almost nowhere you can go where there are no people.
During the stop in Gonder, the passengers for Lalibela were asked to please keep their seats to speed the loading process and expedite the take-off. No more than 5 minutes later we were asked to please step off the plane, as there was a slight mechanical problem that needed to be fixed. We sat in the terminal for about half an hour and then were told that the problem might take a while so we would be taken to have lunch. It took about 30 more minutes for the minibuses to arrive to take us to lunch. It was quite a long drive as the airport lies outside of town. We drove past the remains of tanks and other war relics to downtown Gonder and up a long steep hill to the Goha Hotel, one of the many government owned hotel chains. During the bus ride I began talking to the Farenji girl next to me who, as it turns out, was from Britain and was living in Kenya working on a project to rehabilitate a mangrove forest. She and I had a positively rotten lunch at the government hotel. All the upscale tourist hotels have no Ethiopian food what so ever and their attempts at western food are awful. After lunch we went out onto the terrace of the hotel which was quite nice and commands a nice view of town. Once back to the airport it was just another 3 hours until we finally took off on a different plane that was flown in for us.
Lalibela is a very small town perched on some very steep terrain very high in elevation. It was rather late by the time I got there so I went on a short walk around town, surrounded by local children asking for money, soliciting themselves as guides, asking me to read some plea for money for their football club, reading club, etc. I
n the morning I went on a long walk up to the roof of Lalibela, first pestered by a pair of boys who gave me a pretty bad vibe, so I told them quite plainly that I was not going to pay them a single cent and that I would be much happier alone. After about ten minutes of tense silence, they finally gave up and left. I walked for another hour or so and was overtaken by another pair of local boys. These guys were quite nice. They were on their way home from school and talked to me for another hour or so and, then we got near the home of one of them, so they invited me in for lunch. The dark hut was about 4 meters across and populated by 3 cows, 4 small children and the uncle of one of the boys. Lunch was injera with awaze, which I was repeatedly invited to share so I had a small taste, which was very good, and thanked them for their hospitality. After lunch we talked for quite a while during which there was a brief rain shower and then onwards and upwards to the roof. Once back in town many hours later, I asked them if they knew any good official guides. I generally try not to hire school kids as guides as it encourages them to pester tourists and not to attend school. They found a guide for who I spoke with and arranged to meet at 6 am at the entrance to the churches.
The rock-hewn churches are quite amazing. There are 12 churches in the town of Lalibela, which have been carved down into the bedrock. Some are quite huge and ornate others are more plain and compact. The tour guide was very knowledgeable. Many of the churches are covered now by a scaffolding of wood and tin as they are suffering from the elements. This detracts a bit, but there are plans to build a giant dome over the whole church complex. I suspect that this project is a long, long way off.
Lalibela is famed for its honey as well and of course where there is honey there is tedge. I went to a local tedge bet with the boys who took me to their house the day before and bought them dinner and tedge. The third day I had nothing really to do, having scheduled one day too many in Lalibela. The mob of “guides”, beggars, etc, who assaulted me, whenever I left my hotel, kept me in the hotel compound most of the day. The one or two times I emerged to go to a restaurant or to the airline office to reconfirm my flight were trials to say the least. When I went out for lunch the restaurant I was heading to was in plain sight 200m across a football pitch. Perhaps 20 “guides “asking” Mister besieged me! Where you go? I take you there!” I ignored them, which can be difficult, and when I got to the cafÃ© each and every one of them wanted to be paid or felt deserving of a tip having safely shepherded me across the perilous football pitch. I had my lunch of shiro and injera surrounded by a mostly quiet, but staring audience. As I undertook the epic journey back to the hotel compound, I was pestered by the guides again, so I sat in the garden and read a book and left early the next morning to Axum via airplane.
The check-in procedure in towns outside of Addis is much the same as in Addis, but since there are only about 50 people at a time checking in, it is much easier to accomplish. Axum is a much lower, drier, dustier place than Lalibela, but a much bigger town. There are many old pillars of stone (stelae) here in a few concentrated areas. Some are as high as 23m and beautifully carved, others are perhaps 2m high a just a very rough-hewn sliver of stone. There is also a neat old ruined palace, The Queen of Sheba’s Palace.
At my hotel I met another farenji named Raf from Belgium. We went to the Stelae Park together and shared a few meals. Outside of Axum is a monastery called Debre Damo. In Axum it is difficult to go more than 30m down the street without someone asking you if you want to visit Debre Damo. “I have a nice car and will give big discount.” I knew that I wanted to visit Debre Damo, but it is about 4 hours one way on the apocalyptically bad Ethiopian roads and the cost for a car in Ethiopian is $100/day. I talked Raf into perhaps going if we could find another person or two to share the cost. I tracked down the guy who seemed most likeable in his offer of a car and told him that if he could find another farenji or two, we probably had a deal. He found a Swiss guy named Erich at the Africa hotel and lowered his price to 750birr so we planned to go to Debre Damo the next day at 5:30 am. We got a good start on the day and as we headed north we passed many more old war relics; Artillery pieces, tanks, armored personnel carriers, etc. The spectacular mountains north of Adwa have been the site of many famous battles in the course of Ethiopia’s history. We finally crested a pass after 3 hours of kidney pounding driving and looked across a Grand Canyon-like valley with high towers and cliffs all around. Near the center of this valley our guide pointed out a high cliff bound mesa as Debre Damo.
Once we got to the base of the tower we could see some monks on the top and at the gate to the monastery. To get into the monastery, the monks toss down a “rope” of cowhides sewn into a flat ribbon about 4 inches wide, and another that is braided with hair and leather into a “rope” about 2″ in diameter. The ribbon is tied around your waist and using the round rope, you haul yourself up, occasionally being yanked by your waist, a sheer 24m cliff and through a small rock and wood portal. Once through the portal a tiny wizened old man wrapped in yellow laughingly greets you and welcomes you to Debre Damo. It is then you realize that this guy has just hauled not only you up the cliff, but then two much bigger heavier guys also. From the portal it is a short walk up a step path hewn into the side of the cliff to the top of Debre Damo. The views of course are amazing, but the size of the monastery complex is more of a surprise. There are many, many buildings of dry stacked rocks with very little wood. There are huge holes carved into the top of the plateau to serve as water reservoirs, and cows, sheep and goats. Everything on top of this plateau was hauled up the same cliff. During our tour, we pay the 50birr entrance fee and get to visit several churches and many of the monks cells; one we had a lunch of tella (homemade beer) and some pieces of bread that were just as hard as you might think a piece of bread would get left on a shelf in the desert for a decade or so. We also learned that the proscription against women extended even to the livestock. At the end of our tour, we arrive back at the cliff top for the journey back down the ropes. The previously laughing old monk was now quite seriously asking for 20birr for hauling us up and letting us down the cliff. Having paid this exit tax down we went to the waiting Landcruiser and our 4-hour journey back to Axum. The visit to Debre Damo was one of the very best “tourist” things I have done here and my story doesn’t even begin to tell how cool it really was. The morning after Debre Damo I woke up early, spent an hour getting one email out, and caught a bus to Shire on my way to Debark and the Simien Mountains.
I arrived in the tiny mountain town of Debark at about 2 in the afternoon, after a 6 hour bus ride from Shire. This drive was absolutely amazing as the road followed an incredibly winding way up and over several sets of ridges. The tight switchbacks often forced the bus to back up and many times a significant portion of the bus hung out over thousands of feet of cliff. As I got off the bus in Debark there was, of course, an assault by perhaps only 15 helpful young “guides” and luggage carriers. After snatching my pack back from the most aggressive of them and convincing the others I could in fact carry it myself, I headed to the nearest hotel with a fence around their terrace and went in. Once inside the New Berhane Hotel I ordered a beer and wrote in my journal for about 20 minutes while most of the crowd dissipated. I looked up from my book to see only one guy still sitting across from me so I started to talk to him. His named was Yohannes and he proved to be quite a nice guy and helped me in several ways in Debark. We talked about what I thought I would need in the mountains and what he thought I would need in the mountains. I got a room at the Berhane for 15birr, stashed my gear and headed out into Debark for a look around.
I went down to the park headquarters at the far end of town. I talked to them for a bit, and returned via the main road, poking my head into the tourist hotels to see if there were any farenjis about who wouldn’t mind me tagging along on their trek to share the costs. As in all the parks in Ethiopia you must take a “scout” who brings along his rifle, here they cost you 30b a day. In the Simiens they also highly recommend a guide (75b/day). Most trekkers also hire mules (20b/day) to carry their packs and mule handlers (20b/day). I had decided that if I could not find anyone to share with I would take a scout and a mule & handler and go for six days. I had kai wat for dinner with Yohannes and went to bed.
In bed I did not however get to sleep as it turns out that the New Berhane Hotel is the closest thing to a nightclub in Debark and is quite loud. After an hour or so, I got out the earplugs and had a great night of sleep. In the morning I got up and walked down to the park headquarters with my books and sat waiting for some farenjis to arrive. I was there about an hour when Yohannes came to me and said “two farenjis come”.
Indeed two farenjis did come, two blond European looking girls. I walked into the office and eavesdropped on their conversation a bit, but as it was in Dutch I didn’t really get much. I interrupted and asked if they spoke English and if they wouldn’t mind me joining them. The girl I spoke to seemed a bit shocked by this suggestion and said she would have to discuss it with her friend, I said that was fine and that I would be waiting outside.
About ten minutes later they came to say I was welcome to join them, but that they wanted to leave within the hour. I headed back to my hotel, buying the little bit of food I figured I needed for 5 days along the way. I was packed and waiting when they arrived. Ylva and Marlene had a Landcruiser to drive them up the mountain a ways, so we loaded up and off we went.
We passed many gelada baboons on the way, but since my camera was in my pack I didn’t get any pictures then. We drove to Sankaber, the first campsite, made camp and then I went on a run. After dinner it was early to bed, bundled up in all my clothes as we were at 3300m. It was a VERY cold night, and in the morning there was a lot of ice on the inside and outside of my tent.
We packed up and walked to the second campsite of Geech. It was about a 5-hour walk. We passed some amazing viewpoints and an incredible 900m falls. Geech camp is at about 3600m so of course the night was colder. I did a better job of heat management and wasn’t quite as cold, thank god.
The third day we hiked to Chenek camp, an 8 hour walk. We went via a place called Imet Gogo where you stand out on a finger of rock about 900m high with spectacular panoramic views all around. We also saw some Walia Ibex (a very pretty endangered mountain goat species), and Lammergeiers (cool raptors).
Just before we got to Chenek we saw more Gelada baboons, but they were very uncooperative. There is a cliff near Chenek called Korbete Metia where some local officials were tossed down the 300m cliffs during the communist times. Chenek is also at 3600m and soâ€¦.cold. Did I mention to any of you I was coming to Africa to escape the cold? This was now my 5th night camping below freezing! The following day was a pretty long hike (10 hours) back to Sankaber camp, and then a VERY long day back to Debark (around 28 kms). This was an amazing trip! The mountains and wildlife were great, and the company was fantastic. We stayed up late talking every night by the fire. When we got back to Debark we went to our respective hotels to shower and clean up and then met for a dinner of doro wat, yummy!. The next morning Ylva and Marlene had a Landcruiser to take them to Gonder, so I went along in spite of the fact it was about $8 instead of $2 for the bus.