Next stop, Ethiopia

Wow, our seven weeks in Madagascar sure flew by but we are looking forward to our next and last three weeks exploring Ethiopia before heading home to Vancouver. We departed Antananarivo October 26th for a 4 1/2 hour flight to Addis Ababa. Tomorrow we head off for the southern Ethiopia part of our travels.

Addis to Hawassa

We arrived into Addis Ababa on the 26th, had a snack and had an early evening.

The next day we prepped for the next 9 days of driving, relaxed a little and then headed out for some very excellent traditional food and entertainment at a restaurant nearby. The food and entertainment was superb and we were looking forward to more good food throughout the rest of our journey.

Before hitting the road in the morning we needed to get a SIM card and data. When we arrived in Addis we figured we had all day Sunday to look after this and save time on Monday when we were heading off to Hawassa.

The only telecom provider in Ethiopia is Ethio Telecom (government owned) and they are not open on Sundays. Damn!

We were picked up by our Driver, Sophie, at 8:45 Monday morning and off we went to the Ethio Telecom office to get our communications lifeline organized. It was your typical government run organization and after 45 minutes of discussing our needs, a photo of me for their records, passport info and only 4 days of data (data plans work from the 1st of the month to the last day of the month, not for one month from the day you start). I left the office with 1Gb of data and was assured their network was 4G.

Traffic was horrendous and this city of 7 million is very spread out and suffering the same auto pollution and traffic issues (chaos) as most African cities. It was about 10:45 when we finally hit the outskirts of town.

We had three stops planned before our final stop for the night in Hawassa.

Tiya, an ancient stelae (grave marker) site and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Adadi Maryam, an ancient rock-hewn church and Melka Kunture, a prehistoric tool making site.

Luck wasn’t on our side. Melka Kunture was closed for “renovations” and a large funeral was being held at Adadi Maryam so we couldn’t visit that site so we had a short 1/2 hour visit at Tiya.

We arrived at our hotel just before sunset. We had a very late lunch so after we checked in we had a beer and some nuts, skipped dinner and decided to crash early after a long day of driving.

Hawassa is located on the shores of Lake Hawassa and our hotel room balcony had a nice sunset and early morning views of the lake.

The next morning we drove a short distance to the local fish market to check out the catch of the day then proceeded to a boat launch for a one hour “hippo viewing” tour on lake Hawassa, saw a few hippo heads and then headed back to start our journey to Arba Minch, our next stop.


Hawassa to Arba Minch

I forgot to mention in my previous post that the roads, so far, in Ethiopia are almost as bad as those in Madagascar and Zambia, sometimes just as bad so travelling relatively short distances takes time but the scenery is beautiful so it makes up for the bad roads.

After our hippo cruise we departed Hawassa and backtracked through Shashanane and made our way to Senkelle Swayne’s Hartebeest Sanctuary where we picked up a park ranger and went looking for the Swayne’s Hartebeest which is endemic to Ethiopia. The sanctuary is 58 and consists of wide open grasslands. The sanctuary, located in the Oromia region is dedicated to the protection of the Hartebeest which at one time numbered 3,000 animals but has dwindled to about 800 due to poaching.

After a total of about 10 hours of driving covering less than 300 km we reached Arda Minch just after sunset. Arba Minch is bordered by mountains and is home to two of Ethiopia’s largest Rift Valley lakes, Lake Chamo and Lake Abaya. Our lodge was perched high on a hillside and had amazing views of the lakes and the distant Nechisar National Park. We were disappointed we missed the view of the lakes with the sunset behind us but we did get sunrise views in the morning.

Our original plan was to take a two hour boat trip to view the abundant crocodile population in Lake Chamo but we have seen many crocs so decided to cut this portion out so we could hopefully arrive at our next destination before sunset and with some time to unwind from what we knew would be another long day of driving. It’s not just the condition of the roads that are a challenge. Some roads aren’t too bad but the roads are used as a walkway for herds of cattle and flocks goats and there are literally thousands of goats and cattle that block every step of the way along your journey.


Arba Minch to Konso

Today was a very interesting day. We were originally supposed do a two hour boat trip on lake Chamo to see crocodiles and hippos. After such a long day yesterday we had absolutely no desire to spend another 10 hours travelling so we ditched the boat ride (we’ve seen many hippos and crocs in our travels) and headed directly to Konso.

We arrived at 10:30 am and had three hours to relax before heading out to visit Gamule Konso Village, another UNESCO World Heritage site. The village is approximately 800 years old and is known for their wooden statues known as wakas which are erected in honor of dead heroes and respected members of the community. The village is circled and fortified by stone walls, some up to 5 metres tall. The Gamule village has three circular walls. As the community grew outside of the original wall, another wall was built to encircle the outside communities. It was an incredible site to see.

Before ending our day we visited Gesergio Rocks, also known as natural New York village. Erosion is an amazing artist.

Konso to Jinka

Today we set out for what we hoped would be a shorter drive to our next stop, Jinka but before leaving town we made sure to visit the local market which is held on Mondays and Thursdays.

The market is usually attended by four tribes from the area, the Hamer, Ari, Konso and Benna. They sell honey, fresh vegetables, shoes, cloths and of course the tourist souvenirs which overall were of very good quality but you still wonder if they were in fact made in a factory in Adis or Chi..

About 500 metres from the main market the men have a cattle and goat market. Very few women attend this, they aren’t really allowed but women who have been widowed are allowed to attend and continue the family business.

The area is a huge sand/dirt field with several groups of tribes with their animals milling about.

At the animal weigh station the men try to get their goats into slings and then hung on scales to determine their weight and asking price. The goats, although fairly docile animals don’t particularly like to be strung up.

The drive to Jinka was scenic and chaotic as usual. The road is good for a short distance and then littered with potholes. If you aren’t negotiating the pot holes then you’re negotiating the constant herds of cattle and goats.

Before checking into our hotel in Jinka we paid a short visit to a local Ari village. The day had been very rainy so the walking paths were quite muddy and slippery. The village was quite spread out so we only spent a short time visiting.

Jinka to Turmi

Departing Jinka we headed south and then west through Mago National Park to visit a Mursi tribe who had been relocated by the government and moved from the park to the surrounding hills and mountains outside of the western edge of the park.

Ten years ago and even up to three years ago the park had healthy populations of lion, leopard, elephant, bush buck, waterbuck and several other mammal species but because of severe poaching and hunting by the Mursi the few animals that survived have moved to Kenya so there is virtually no wildlife left except for a few guinea fowl and Dik-dik, a small antelope that lives in the bushlands of southern and eastern Africa.

The views from the mountains heading down into African savanna was spectacular but somehow sterile.

After ascending the hills outside of the park we turned onto the first side road we came upon and headed to an “authentic Mursi village” where we parked our vehicle essentially in a parking lot outside of a large fenced-in area.

Before entering the village we were told it would cost us 200 Birr for each camera and we could then take as many pictures as we like. This was to be paid to the village leader. Fair enough I guess.

We entered the village and were met by armed militia milling around, Russian Kalashnikovs hung over their shoulders. We were later told the villagers get quite drunk later in the afternoon and the militias are there to keep the peace. I’m really not so sure about that.

The village seemed to be set up exclusively for tourists. There were thatched huts scattered around a mud field, the women sat around making lip plates and everyone tried to sell you these painted plates. There didn’t seem to be any  indication of a functional village.

The Mursi women are known for their lip plates. The larger the lip plate the more attractive the women and the more dowry for the family when the marry.

Our guess is the people in the village make their way to this set-up village every day to sell their souvenirs and then make their way back to the actual village(s) they live in. It was a set-up and we could see it for what it was as soon as we entered the compound.

Later in the evening we met a fellow from Poland who did the same drive to the area but rather than take the first turn he went further and did visit a real Mursi village. He said it was full of cow shit and flies and was not a pretty sight. We would rather have seen that than the tourist trap we saw. It was a four return hour journey to make the visit.

The lower Omo River Valley has recently been damed and the filling of the reservoir behind Gibe III dam on the Omo River is holding back flows needed by some 200,000 indigenous people in southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya to sustain their food production and livelihoods.

The people of the Omo Valley rely on the natural flood cycles of the river for sustainable practices of flood-recession farming, fishing and livestock grazing. With the loss of the natural balance, harvesting and grazing areas have been reduced forcing the area tribes to move into Mago National Park which is creating conflict with the soldiers charged with protecting the park and the little wildlife that is left and there have been reports of deaths of these pastoralists because of this conflict.

Tourism is helping by supplying another revenue stream but with tourism comes serious challenges to balance a way of life without selling out to the almighty dollar.

The Mursi people have serious challenges however their journey could be a showcase of what can be done if the people can come together. A big IF!

No one should have to sell their dignity and be put on display to foreigners for a few dollars. I don’t know the solution but I do know mass tourism will only make matters worse for these people if they end up relying on welfare and then falling into a welfare trap.

A little bothered by the whole set up we headed back through the park and made our way to Turmi.


Turmi to Omorate, a visit with the Dassenech tribe and then back to Turmii

We arrived in Turmi late afternoon November 1st after another scenic drive and stayed at Buska Lodge which is located a few kms outside of town. Turmi is home to many of the Hamer people and although just a speck of a town it is the largest settlement of Hamer district. It is known for it’s Monday market where anyone and everyone in the Omo Valley descends to take in the colourful weekly event but alas, it was Friday when we arrived and we would be departing on Sunday so we missed all of the market action.

The next morning we headed out to Omorate, about 25 kms from the Kenyan border to visit the Dasenech tribe, a pastoralist tribe living along the Omo River and are Ethiopia’s most southern people. Interestingly the Dasenech have a natural antipathy to eating fish. Eating fish is really a last resort in times of crisis. We crossed to west side of the Omo River in a dugout boat and walked about 500 metres to a traditional village comprised of small, flimsy domed huts that are reminiscent of the structures built by other desert pastoralists in the Sahara and Kalahari deserts.

The people were friendly and welcoming and had a small crafts section set up for tourist outside of the fenced village. No one hassled you inside the village which made for a far more enjoyable experience.

All of the villages we have visited have a village pub for the men to sit around drinking a really terrible looking home made beer. I was tempted to try it but my stomach suggested otherwise.


We wandered around the village interacting with the villagers. They were going about their daily routine and we felt completely comfortable and welcome in their village.

Shortly before leaving many of the villagers broke out into dance. The style is similar to that of the Masai Mara where the men jump quite high and the women bob to the rhythm of jumping. Joyce and I were both pulled into the dance circle to try our moves. We all had a good laugh.

We crossed back the river a stopped at a little riverside cafe for a cold drink and were entertained by a troop of Black and White Colobus monkeys.

On our journey back to Turmi there were many termite mounds lining the side of the road. This is not unusual however these termite mounds were not actually mounds but spires. Not sure of the reason for this but they were quite unique.

DSC09123In the afternoon back in Turmi there was a “jumping of the bulls” ceremony which is a rite of passage for young Hamer boy’s transitioning into manhood. The boys must run across the backs of seven castrated bulls which are covered in dung (to make them slippery) without falling. If they fall more than four times they must wait another year before trying again to reach their manhood. Another part of the ritual involves young girls being whipped with birch sticks. The women asks a boy to whip them on their backs and the boy obliges. It is believed the greater the pain the higher level of submission and loyalty they are showing to the boy and the scars left on their bodies are a symbol of the loyalty they are to receive from the men in return. The idea is at some point in the future the girl may need the young’s mans help and will show him her scars as if obligating him to provide the required assistance.

DSC09127We knew this would be happening at the ceremony and had no desire to see women getting whipped by men. We have seen the huge welts on the women’s backs and regardless of this being a cultural tradition, it’s probably time to stop this rather barbaric practice. We talked to several tourists who did attend and their observation was there were more tourists in attendance than tribal members and at 800 Birr admittance fee, it would seem this has become more of a cash grab than the continuation of a centuries old practice although as mentioned in our previous post, good or bad, their livelihoods are in turmoil and survival and cash is a strong motivator to continue to draw in the tourists.

We had a relaxing afternoon and then headed out for a short visit to a small local Hamer village. The village probably had a dozen or so family homes spread out over a fairly large area and the only people around were women and children and one or two older men. During the day the boys and men take their goats out to pasture and return in the evening but most stay away from their homes for long periods of time. As we were leaving the goats were making their way back home but no men or boys were in sight.

Turmi to Arba Minch and the Dorze tribe

It was a great drive back to Arba Minch. Rather than backtracking we took a different route that was far more scenic and a little more adventurous. We drove narrow gravel mountainside passes, crossed a couple of rivers and drove along dry riverbeds. It was a nice change from potholes and cows and goats.

When we arrived in Arba we took a left turn and headed way up into the mountains to visit a local Dorze tribe. Dorze means “weaver” and the tribe is known for their intricate weaving skills for both cloth and the large beehive shaped huts they live in. It was a bone wracking drive and we probably ascended about 1500 metres in one hour and we thought “this better be worth it”. Well, it was a setup. We entered the “village” and in front of us was a beautiful 6 meter hut intricately woven with bamboo with the front resembling an elephant. They are the most unique traditional structures in Africa.

DSC09161 (2)Inside looked comfortable with a guest bed and several chairs and sleeping quarters for the family and separate quarters for the livestock.

Outside we were treated to a display of bread making using fermented enset or false banana.

We then moved on for a taste of the locally made gin called Areki but as we were walking over to the “bar” we noticed several smaller weaved huts with numbers on them. To our surprise and disdain this place was a tourist lodge! We/I drank several shots of Areki each time making a “traditional” toast and were then met by the lodge owner who proceeded to try to sell us weaved cloth for the benefit of the community yada, yada, yada. We’d been had. We told him in no uncertain terms we didn’t appreciate his pressure selling tactics and immediately left ticked off that we were once again considered to be sucker tourists with lots of money and no brains.


Arba Minch to Lake Lagano and Abiatta-Shala National Park then back to Addis Ababa

We departed Arba Minch on November 4th and made our way north Sabana Beach Resort on the shores of Lake Lagano.

It was a windy cloudy and cool day, the lake was very brown, foreboding and uninviting and the scenery was limited so we didn’t take any pictures.

We spent the night at the lake and then made our way to Abiatta-Shala National Park with the drive having some beautiful views of lakes Abiatta and Shala.

Shala lake is a soda lake and it is the deepest lake in Ethiopia. It can host thousands of flamingos but when we were there only a few dozen hung around the shoreline.

The park itself has a population of Warthogs, Ostrich and Gazelle and near the lake side were some thermal hot springs.

Finishing up at the park we made our way back to Addis Ababa for a short overnight stay before heading north to Lalibela.

In all we traveled 2,376 kms over 9 days through southern Ethiopia in an uncomfortable Toyota Landcruiser with our driver Sophy.

All of our accommodation was comfortable and generally 3+ star.

Although we had many long driving days it was still a great adventure however I think stretching the itinerary by 2-3 days would have made it a little less rushed feeling.



Northern Ethiopia, Addis Ababa to Lalibela

A smooth mid morning flight took us to Lalibela via Gondar. We arrived around noon and our driver and guide who were supposed to meet us didn’t. Good start.

We eventually secured a ride to our accommodation and were met by Hilo(sp), our guide for the rest of the afternoon and all the next day. He was apologetic, there was a mis-communication and he was really sorry. We easily forgave him and he turned out to be a blessing. He was an expert in all things Lalibela and area and is an icon in his community due to his past foray into local politics and his earlier involvement in social work with the local women and children. His history in the village is iconic in that his grandfather was the head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Christians in Lalibela, one of the two holiest cities in Ethiopia. He was the man.

Lalibela is famous for it’s UNESCO designated World Heritage rock-cut monolithic churches and the whole area in and around Lalibela represents a legacy of the medieval and post-medieval civilizations in Ethiopia dating from the 7th to 13th centuries.

The churches are quite incredible. Chiseled, I suppose by thousands of workers, they cut mostly granite rock to carve out these incredible buildings.

It is mind boggling to try to understand how this was done. Like many amazing temples in India and elsewhere, it was not done overnight but in many cases, 15, 25, even 50 or 100 years to complete. Amazing.

We visited four of the five northwestern clutches of churches in the afternoon, Bet Medhane Alem, Bet Marymam and Bet Mikael & Bet Golgotha.

Some of the walks were uphill and we noticed how out of breath we were. Lalibela is 2,500 metres above sea level, 8,200 feet so the air was much thinner than what we were used to. Our lodge was situated on a hill and of course our unit was located downhill about 50 steps and a long steep walkway. We were exhausted just walking up to breakfast. I know, boohoo but you do feel the elevation difference.

We had the next day to visit some of the other sites in the area so the next morning we drove 45 km to see the Church of Yimrehane Kristos, an 11th/12th century Ethiopian Orthadox church built of stone and wood and set in an entrance to a natural cave which is now unfortunately walled off due to, well, bad robber guys stealing all of the treasures stored in the cave monastery.  The scenerary on the drive to the site was exceptional.

Big walls really reduce the visual impact and the overall impression you have. Although the the inside was incredibly interesting, you couldn’t help but imagine what the whole surrounding area would look like if there wasn’t this big wall covering the entrance to the cave. The site was very interesting but a bit of a disappointment due to the walls at the cave entrance.

We made our way back to Lalibela and stopped for lunch at an old Scottish ladies very eclectic restaurant, Ben Abeba, located on probably the best view point in all of Lalibela. The views of the surroundings were spectacular and the shepherds pie we had was pretty good too.

Our final stop was a visit to the three southeastern clutches of churches, Bet Gabriel-Rufael, Bet Amanual and the famous Bet Giyorgis, St. Georges Church. Chiseled out of solid granite it is an example of the human labour and dedication that was required to carve these monumental structures out of solid rock.

We were standing on the granite surface facing The Church of Saint George and I tried to picture how it all started……

Out on the rock was Ismailiya, a young man with his chisel and a crude form of hammer in hand. He had a plan and he started chiseling.

Little bits of rock flew off with each hit of the hammer. Some stuck to his sweaty brow but he was determined.

The next day, his ears ringing big time from all of the steel-to-rock hammering he heard a greeting and then a question from one of his friends.

“How’s it going Ismailiya, how are you? Great, how are you he replied. “Good, what are you doing?” Chiselling a church out of solid granite to show my love and dedication to um, well, the church and stuff. “Making progress?” Yes, very much. “How much longer till you figure you’ll be done?”

Oh, about a thousand years…”