Guest blogged by Anne
Our trip to Ethiopia started somewhat badly when we landed in Addis Ababa only to found ourselves stranded at the airport, on Christmas Day (they celebrate the Orthodox holidays), with no money, no driver and the only telephone number we had just ringing. Fortunately an English gent (who happened to know the owner of the place we were going to), came to our rescue and put us in touch with Ethiopian Travels and Tours (ETT). ETT picked us up, spirited us off to a fancy private home for Christmas lunch and then organized a car and driver for us all on very short notice. After we decided that we weren’t being kidnapped, we were very impressed and grateful for the very friendly welcome!
Our primary destination for this part of the trip was Bale Mountain Lodge in Bale Mountains National Park but to break up the journey, we stopped at a massive fresh water lake called Lake Langano where we stayed for 1 night at a lovely, rustic lodge called Bishangari. The scenery is lovely and although we only had time for a short morning walk, we saw warthogs in their den, scrub hare, olive baboons, colobus monkeys and plenty of birds. The bird life in Ethiopian is astounding, there are more species here than in South Africa (863 species recorded, almost 10% of the total number of species in the world) and you see them everywhere.
Bale Mountain Lodge is situated in a spectacular and very remote spot in Bale Mountains National Park overlooking a meadow with the mountains towering over it. It is about an 8 hour drive from Addis the last 2.5 hours of which is on a rough road over the plateau. (Bale rhymes with Mali.) It is an intimate lodge (only 8 rooms) which manages to combine luxury with a casual, homely feel which we really enjoyed. It has only been open for a year, and was set up by a retired British army couple as a real eco-tourism initiative with the idea of involving the local people in tourism in order to encourage conservation. The Lodge guides were excellent and the resident ornithologist (James) is extremely knowledgable and showed us a bewildering array of bird species almost without leaving the parking lot. He also did a demo for us of the bird ringing programme which he runs at Bale which was fascinating. We also met some really good people at Bale, from the UK and the US.
The park itself is wonderful, especially good for birding and walking and of course the Ethiopian Wolves. The wolves are diurnal so you have an extremely good chance of a sighting. Bale is home to about half the world population which is around 400-500 (that makes them the most endangered canine in the world). They feed primarily on rodents (especially the giant mole rat) and live on the plateau which is all above 4000m and is basically only inhabited by some high altitude plants and mosses and a lot of rodents (they estimate 2 tons of rat per square kilometer).
There are an astonishing number of bird and mammal species which are endemic to the area – 16 Ethiopian endemic birds, 20 Ethiopian endemic mammals and 5 mammals that are ONLY found in the Bale mountains. I have listed some of the species we saw below. The park even has lions and leopards as well as some unusual species like black leopards and the giant forest hog but these are all very shy and we weren’t lucky enough to see them.
Some of the species we saw at Bale:
Mountain Nyala (endemic)
Menelik’s Bushbuck (endemic)
Big headed molerat (endemic)
Bale monkey (endemic)
Black and white colobus monkey
Starcke’s hare (endemic)
Ethiopian wolf (endemic)
White cheeked turaco
Silver cheeked hornbill
Thick billed raven
Wattled ibis (endemic)
Abyssinian black headed oriole (endemic)
Abyssinian catbird (endemic)
Blue winged goose (endemic)
After Bale, we drove back to Addis for one night, and then flew out early the next morning to Lalibela. We were picked up from the airport by TESFA, a community organization which organizes trekking in the area around Lalibela along the edge of the Great Rift Valley. TESFA has eleven campsites each of which is owned by a local village in a co-op type arrangement. The villages are responsible for providing cooks and local guides who look after the luggage (i.e. shout at the donkey) and sort out things like firewood. They also sell beers and soft drinks (ZAR9 per beer). TESFA also provides you with a guide for the whole trip, and our guide Getish was excellent, very knowledgable about all sorts of things and a nice guy to hang around with. The campsites are basic, just a few huts and a pit toilet, but the beds are comfy and the (vegetarian) food was delicious. There are a variety of different trek lengths and difficulty levels you can do. Ours involved a short walk on the first day to Aina Amba, a long 22km trek to Kurtain Washa, and then another shortish walk back to the main road on the third day. Luckily the trek was pretty flat because we were at about 3400m and uphills were a bit challenging on the lungs. Our trek followed the edge of the Rift Valley so we had these spectacular views of the 1000m deep valley to the left and pretty Ethiopian farmland to the right. We got to see the famous Gelada baboons on the way. It was market day on our last day, so we enjoyed our last hike in the company of all the villagers and their goods on their way to market. An all round excellent experience.
After the trekking, we had two nights in Lalibela itself to see the famous rock churches. There are eleven churches, all carved from the top down out of granite and sandstone. They were all built in the 12th century under King Lalibela in a period of about 23 years. The churches are in 3 groups and were originally all connected by tunnels although some of these have now collapsed. The churches are all still in use and at Christmas time, something like 80 000 pilgrims descend on Lalibela to celebrate. Everything in the complex is highly symbolic, and there is even a ‘River Jordan’ which has been carved into the rock. Each church is quite distinct, with a wide range of shapes and decoration and many of them are tiny. Although a bit bizarre, the churches are fascinating architecturally and well worth a visit.
Food at Bale was great but Western so our few days around Lalibela gave us a chance to enjoy some (very cheap) Ethiopian food. The staple dish is injera, a spongy flat bread which is made from teff. Injera is served with a variety of vegetable or meat stews (wats) on top of it. Meat is generally reserved for special occasions. You break the edges off and pick up morsels with your right hand. The stews tend to be delicious, with a lot of spices (especially paprika) and chilli. There is also a raw meat dish which I have been threatening to try but haven’t found a restaurant that serves it yet. Apart from injera, they also make a really delicious wheat bread as well as a type of flat bread like a pizza base. Wild honey is available in most places and is really good. Ethiopian juices are really more like blended fruit and are eaten with a spoon. Coffee is of course served everywhere (coffee arabica is indigenous to Ethiopia) and is thick and strong without being too bitter. Coffee is treated with a great deal of ceremony and you will often have the beans roasted on coal and ground in front of you in the traditional way. We will definitely eating more Ethiopian food in future.
Ethiopia was the country that many people were puzzled about when we explained our itinerary but it was also the one I was most excited about and it lived up to all my expectations. Since Ethiopian Air is increasingly becoming the best way for South African’s to get the east I am sure we will be back to see more of this amazing place.
It’s almost home time, with only a flight back to Addis and an afternoon and evening there before we fly back to Johannesburg on Sunday. Although it will be good to see friends and family, I will be very sad to end this adventure!
Note from David: it may be a while until the next blog post as I won’t be moving around much until April, as I’ll be spending just over two months skiing in Austria and France. I’ve got a short break in the middle when I’m hoping to travel around a bit, so I’ll put something up then.
Good budget accommodation in Addis Mr Martins Cosy Place
TESFA (the community organization) http://www.tesfacommunityguides.com
TESFA tours (the for profit company) http://www.tesfatours.com
(There seems to be some sort of dispute between these two, so although we were happy with the tour company, we would consider booking directly if we came back)
Bale Mountain Lodge http://www.balemountainlodge.com