A wildlife, culture and traffic accident tour of –
thth20 October to 20 November 2007
Allan Richards and Steve Anyon-Smith
Ethiopia (n) – Anything but a large desert full of starving people
The Simien Mountains in Ethiopia’s north have gelada and Bale Mountains in the south have
Ethiopian wolves. Both these animals are endemic and I had long wanted to see them. Further investigation revealed a country rich in biodiversity, with over 800 birds and a long list of see-able mammals, many of which are found only in Ethiopia or difficult to see elsewhere. Bare-chested women played no part in the plan.
Looking for wildlife was the focus of our holiday but we were to visit some significant historic sites and could not help becoming fascinated by Ethiopian culture, food and firearms. A popular pursuit was Ethiopian Mythbusting, where the stereotypical views expounded by friends and the media at home were tested.
The wet season in Ethiopia ends at around the start of October so it is a time of green fields and happy critters. The 2007 wet season had been average or better, so our chances increased for seeing things where they are normally found.
We plotted an itinerary that took us to the far south as well as to the north of the country around Lake Tana and beyond. Thirty days was hardly enough but that is what we were told would be our visa limit. This turned out to be fanciful, just one item on a long list of fanciful things, but I guess that is why you have to go and find out for yourself.
I sent emails to about ten Ethiopian travel and tour companies to get quotes for tours based on our itinerary. Most of them replied with all but one trying to sell us expensive all-inclusive tour packages. We were surprised at the cost as food and accommodation are cheap, wages low and distances we were to travel were hardly exceptional. The largest cost component is vehicle hire, with 4WDs being essential. Our choice of Ethio-Der was a good one (see “Ethio-Der Tour and
Four line summary
Ethiopia is one of those countries that will be “discovered” by mainstream western tourism. Wildlife enthusiasts are already increasing and an erosion of western misconceptions of the country will occur. Ethiopia is sufficiently delightful and “different” for all tourists. I recommend it wholeheartedly. They may need to sort the accommodation sector though………
Itinerary (as executed)
D Date Activity hotel name 1 21-Oct Arrive Addis Ababa 0545, drive to Lake Langano Bekele Mola Hotel 2 22-Oct At Lake Langano, visit Abiata-Shala NP Bekele Mola Hotel 3 23-Oct Drive to Bale Mtns NP camp 4 24-Oct Birding at Dinsho and Gaysay camp 5 25-Oct Birding at Dinsho and Gaysay camp 6 26-Oct Drive to Sanetti Plateau - birding and game drive camp 7 27-Oct Drive to Harrena forest camp 8 28-Oct Drive to Negele Borena Green Hotel 9 29-Oct Birding around Negele Borena Green Hotel 10 30-Oct Drive to Yabello WS camp 11 31-Oct At Yabello WS camp 12 1-Nov At Yabello WS camp 13 2-Nov Drive to Arba Minch Swayne's Hotel 14 3-Nov At Nechisar NP camp 15 4-Nov At Nechisar NP camp 16 5-Nov Drive from Arba Minch to Wondo Genet Wabishebelie Hotel 17 6-Nov At Wondo Genet Wabishebelie Hotel 18 7-Nov Drive to Bishangari Lodge on Lake Langano Bishangari Lodge 19 8-Nov Drive along the Rift Valley to Awash NP camp 20 9-Nov At Awash NP camp 21 10-Nov At Awash NP camp 22 11-Nov Drive from Awash NP to AA National Hotel 23 12-Nov Drive to Debre Libanos - Debe Markos local hotel 24 13-Nov Drive to Bahir Dar, monasteries in Lake Tana in PM Papyrus Hotel 25 14-Nov Bahir Dar - Gonder with visit to Imperial Enclosure Goha Hotel 26 15-Nov Drive to Simien Mountains NP Simien Lodge 27 16-Nov Drive to Chenek camp 28 17-Nov Return to Simien Lodge Simien Lodge 29 18-Nov Around Simien Lodge and then drive to Gonder local pension 30 19-Nov Fly from Gonder to AA and home
20-Nov Leave AA at 0010
Ethio-Der Tour and Travel
If there is a country where using public transport would be impractical, unreliable, dangerous and downright terrifying, it is Ethiopia. It is not that there isn’t any public transport, but much of it does not reach its destination – at least not on the day of departure anyway.
We hired a 1998 Toyota Landcruiser with driver from Ethio-Der. This cost $US135 per day. Our contact was Dereje, the owner of the company, who was the only internet-sourced respondent who quoted us a rate that we could accept. We selected Ethio-Der on the basis that they suggested we rent vehicle and driver only, and pay for the rest as we went. This ended up being significantly cheaper for us and less stressful for the tour operator as we could hardly complain about accommodation or food that we selected ourselves.
Ethio-Der provided, at no charge, tent and mattresses and cooking and eating irons. Getnet Bikila, our driver, also cooked food (expertly!!) and ran errands in villages for us while we were in camp.
Some of our accommodation was pre-booked as our visit was in the “high” season. High season in
Ethiopia means very little as the raw tourist numbers are very low. Nevertheless we were informed that there was not a single rental vehicle to be found in Addis Ababa during our visit.
We were very pleased with Ethio-Der. The vehicle was comfortable and had no major mechanical issues. We were particularly happy with Getnet. He never stopped being obliging. Aside from being a good and safe driver he was punctual, friendly, informative, totally unflappable and most importantly he was always happy to take us spotlighting!! He was happy to stop whenever we wished to look at wildlife and would often spot things we had missed. If I looked for more than a few seconds at something while he was driving, he would be ready to stop. I would unreservedly recommend Getnet.
Ethio-Der can be contacted at - firstname.lastname@example.org
Getnet Bikila can be found at – email@example.com
The good news
You will feel very safe in Ethiopia.
Ethiopian adults are honest, friendly and mostly happy folk. Nomadic cattle herders of the Afar variety are cold, cranky and armed to the teeth. It is generally a good idea to stay away from these guys. Thankfully they are rather rare and their habitat and movements can be fairly accurately predicted. Even the armed national park staff were scared of this lot. Fortunately it is legal to hunt them, and some of the neighbouring cattlemen actively do. This is reciprocated and it kind of goes downhill from there.
Otherwise even the meanest scruffiest looking dudes stuck in the remotest boonies nodded and smiled at us. To stop our vehicle in a remote village would invite an avalanche of locals wishing to shake hands and welcome us. If the women were topless, the likelihood of us mistakenly seeing birds right in the middle of their villages increased. Disappointingly, almost everyone not employed in tourism refused permission for their photos to be taken, even when small sums of money were offered, so I soon gave up on this. Pity.
I suspect that some of Ethiopia’s border areas are less safe but there was no good reason for us to go anywhere near these.
There are myriad ethnic groups across the length and breadth of the country but we noticed no change in the attitude of the people as we traveled about. Our tour gave us the opportunity to meet Oromo, Somali, Gamo, Guji, Sidamo, Afar, Kereyu and Amhara people.
Although AK47s and other weapons were commonplace we never heard a gunshot and were never threatened by anyone.
We were generally referred to as “Forenge”, a catch-all reference to anyone with white skin. There
was no intended slur in this, or at least as near as I could tell there wasn’t, but my knowledge of precisely two Amharic words may have let me down here. Other forenge were uncommon except in the north of the country. I preferred the south.
The bad news
Sadly, Ethiopian adults pass through a phase called childhood. Or at least most of them do. If I had my way some of the kids I met would have been fed to the reptilian occupants of the Rift Valley lakes or stuffed into aardvark burrows. To say that they could become nuisances is a gross understatement. By comparison, India’s kids are angels. I understand the concept of begging, even
moderately persistent begging. When threats of physical violence are needed to try to make it go away you know there is a problem. Almost every small boy and most of the small girls begged for something or other. Their rather blunt begging chants ranged from “you, you, you, you, you, you”,
“caramel, caramel”, “forenge, forenge”, “one birr”, to the ever-popular “give me money”. This
rather stuffed any chance that non-beggars might actually get something from us. Some of the kids got a boot up the arse for their trouble, particularly those throwing stones at the wildlife or cracking whips behind us. Despite all of this, I felt sorry for the kids. Most would never really experience a childhood.
Ethiopia’s kids are not a reason for staying away from Ethiopia, but they provide an incentive not
to go back.
We identified 453 different birds and 52 mammals in Ethiopia. I spent the better part of a week in Thailand on the way home and although I kept no records of birds seen, the total count for the two countries would be well over 600. I added 15 mammals in Thailand for a combined total of 67.
We had copies of the Birds of Africa South of the Sahara (Sinclair and Ryan) and for mammals we
relied on local knowledge and the Field Guide to the Larger Mammals of Africa (Stuart and
Despite the distressing state of most of the national parks, there is still much see-able wildlife in Ethiopia. The country is quite mountainous compared to many in Africa, so with the combination of Afro-alpine and other high altitude habitats, rift valley lakes, savannah, broadleaf and other woodland, rainforest, cropland and semi-desert the biodiversity is understandably very high.
Bird life is prolific with many large fat things like bustards in high numbers in optimal habitat. I suspect that overall hunting pressure of birds is relatively low. We were more than happy with our bird sightings, and although we missed a number of the theoretically possible endemics, the ones we saw more than compensated. Who cares about larks anyway?
My favourite sightings included multiple close views of Prince Ruspoli’s and white-cheeked
turacos, wattled and black-crowned cranes, Arabian bustards (I just like the name!), and the parrots.
Mammals were diverse but the overall numbers were low. Visiting a particular site would almost guarantee a small suite of resident mammals along with the chance of a rarity or two, but only in areas where wildlife protection was higher than average. Aside from areas of habitat destruction, particularly so north from Addis, mammals have to compete with domestic animals almost everywhere – even in the national parks. Larger animals are hunted for food or just killed if they harm stock (by eating it), and introduced diseases take their toll. On the positive side, much of the country is sparsely populated and the vegetation is unfriendly - thorny and difficult to travel through. Smaller mammals seem to be doing okay in most areas.
Some of the mammals we spotted are endangered (walia ibex, Ethiopian wolf) or very difficult to see elsewhere (African wildcat, striped hyaena, caracal). Others were just stunning to sit with (gelada, hamadryas baboon).
Spotlighting in Ethiopia is very rewarding. Twice we managed ten mammal species during short “post-drinks” drives in the national parks (see diary for details).
Reptiles – one rock python, several large land turtles, Nile crocodiles, various unidentified agamids and geckos and that was about it for Ethiopia. Sadly I saw a few old sweaty white human reptiles in the streets of Bangkok.
Insects (annoying) – very few mosquitoes except at Nechisar NP, with no flies or leeches, and just 40 billion ticks. Fortunately for others the ticks were all in the one place and at the one time and all on me.
Insects (not annoying) – a biblical plague of grasshoppers in Awash.
Vegetation. For a country reputed to be a vast desert, we saw none of it. Awash NP was the driest area we found. This park is east of Addis and consists mostly of tightly packed thorny savannah. South from the Bale Mountains is the remarkable Harenna Forest. The most unusual aspect of this forest is that it is there at all and not removed entirely. It is primary rainforest and we drove through it for 50 kilometres without seeing a soul, save for the bits that are up to a couple of hours walk from either end. South from the rainforest was a drive of 150 kilometres to Negele Borena, all through thick virtually uninhabited woodland. From Negele to Yabello was another all-day drive through forest with just small settlements seemingly randomly scattered along the way. This whole region has the largest contiguous forest I have seen outside of South America. Take a look at
Ethiopia on “Google Earth” if you think I am making this up.
The plants above the tree line in Bale and Simien Mountains national parks are mostly herbs and shrubs, with the exception of the giant lobelia. A more unlikely plant is hard to imagine.
The region from Addis Ababa north to the Simien Mountains has next to no native vegetation left. It might be measured in a fraction of 1%. This was confirmed by flying over it.
Guides and scouts
One of the local rules when within “national parks” is that you need to employ a guide. The guides we were assigned, with two notable exceptions, knew far less about the country’s wildlife than we
did. Not only did we have to pay them (between 70 and 150 birr / day), they were conspicuous at meal times – with the predictable result that we had to feed them, and all the rest of the time they just got in the way.
The concept of having a guide is a very good one. It gives local people some employment and it should add value to the visitor’s experience. But these guys get little support in terms of equipment, training or even basic guiding skills. It could easily be turned around. I guess that just “being
around” foreign tourists is the best education they are going to get. In Uganda, where the guides are supported by the system, they are skilled, motivated and deserve tips – they don’t just assume
that being tipped is their right. In Madagascar, a country as poor as Ethiopia, the skill of the guides is astounding.
At Dinsho we had a fairly knowledgeable wildlife guide, Tilahun. Regrettably his name occurred in a past edition of the Lonely Planet guide so he thinks he is a celebrity. We started off being impressed by his help and knowledge but by the time we got rid of him and a growing army of unwanted and unnecessary support staff, we were staring to think of strangling him. I would not recommend him even though he is probably a good local bird guide.
At Wondo Genet we had Mekonnan, a real gentleman and the fount of all knowledge bird-wise in his local patch. His daily wage was very low, with the consequence of us tipping him well. Mekonnan is highly recommended. As you drive up to the only hotel in town he will see you and instantly know if you are a birdwatcher.
Most national parks required that you hire a scout. Scouts and guides were often indistinguishable in terms of their role or ability to carry it out. The only likely difference was the size of their guns. If guides were fairly useless, then scouts could be much worse. They were meant to guard the camp, but at least one of them ran the risk of being abandoned due to his attempts to try to prevent us from doing anything, like walking around, in case we hurt ourselves. He learnt to steer clear of me.
The Ethiopian Government apparently does not much care about its national parks. This was not always the case as clearly much (now aged) infrastructure was put in place under earlier regimes. Nowadays the parks are awash with farm animals and firewood collectors. Both these activities are illegal. Parks sometimes come complete with substantial towns and villages. 12,000 people live within the alleged UNESCO World Heritage Simien Mountains National Park. There are hundreds
of hectares under grain crops and locals move their stock anywhere they like. Perhaps the parks should be renamed “non-hunting areas” or “not too much hunting compared to everywhere else
areas”. Now you may think I am being a little harsh. Ethiopia is a poor country. But other poor countries, e.g. Uganda, seem to be able to do a superb job with their parks.
A park guide in Awash NP told us that a ranger had recently been shot and killed by an illegal cattle herder. The herder was back with his cattle, still inside the park, within a week.
The oryx herd in Awash has fallen from 1200 to 600 in three years. We were advised that competition from domestic stock and poaching were the main contributors to this disappointing statistic. Unless the Ethiopian Government starts taking an interest in a hurry, the future of its country’s parks is bleak.
Despite my unfortunate writing style where I spell out the negatives a bit too much, the foundation for excellent national parks in Ethiopia is still evident. The habitats are not so degraded that wildlife numbers could not recover. All it takes is some political will and local support.
Many believe that Ethiopia has no food. We heard of an Italian tourist who packed all his food with him from Italy in the belief that none might be found on his arrival. Ethiopia produces an enormous amount of food, with most of it being tastier than its equivalent in Australia. Eggs, tomatoes and bananas would lead the pack in the tastiness stakes. There are few chemicals or pesticides in use.
The local food speciality in called injera. Injera is generally served on a large stainless steel plate bigger than the largest pizza tray. It consists of an oversized fairly tasteless doughy pancake looking thing with masses of meat and / or vegetables piled on top. This is eaten communally with fingers only. This all sounds like a recipe for a number of disasters, with most requiring privacy and rolls of toilet paper. Significantly I managed only one out-of-stomach experience and it had nothing to do with injera. Personal hygiene levels in Ethiopia appear to be high.
Red meat and chicken is generally not as tender as that in the West. One look at the life of the donors would tell you why. No pampered beasts or chooks here. Meat dishes in restaurants were always accompanied by a forest of toothpicks.
The quality of the food and its ability to be assimilated in a pain-free way was a highlight of our trip.
Hotels and campsites
We camped most of the time but also stayed in a wide range of hotels, pensions and fancy lodges. Campsites in national parks cost about $US2.50 per night. The cost for the rest varied enormously – from $US6 to $US110 per night. Price did not predict value, either in terms of the amenities offered, the quality thereof or the hotel location. The cheapest hotels were just as likely to have hot water, or for that matter any water at all, quaint things like electricity or candles, toilets that flushed or doors that could be opened. The most expensive places (Simien Lodge and Bishangari
Lodge) were in the stupidest locations, whilst the cheapest were quieter and often cleaner. Good local hotels (the ones that foreigners don’t stay in) were the best value.
Campsites within national parks were sited in scenic locations, they were generally near running water, but offered no other services. For our visit they were attractively abandoned. We only saw other campers twice. Camping is recommended.
The weather was perfect. In 30 days we did not produce a raincoat or umbrella once. Temperatures oranged from –5 on the Sanetti Plateau in Bale NP to the low thirties in Awash NP. Generally the conditions were such that it was rarely uncomfortable to be wandering about in the middle of the day. The air was much less smoky than in many African countries. October / November would seem to be an ideal time to visit.
Beer, Wine and Coffee
The good news is that beer is cheap, reasonably tasty and widely available. There is a fair selection of brews, although they taste quite similar. We preferred Dashen or Bedele, although neither would win an international award. The beer is always in bottles and these carry a deposit. We never found out how much the deposit was, but highly trained hotel staff would scrutinise each returned bottle for the slightest defect. The search was generally confined to the top of the bottle, but a poorly aligned label, general scruffiness or a bad vibe would see the bottle rejected. No amount of stonewalling could sway these skilled professionals once they had made a decision. I scanned one guy’s skull for evidence that he had been sconed by bottles from frustrated customers.
There is local wine but some Europeans told us it was crappy and warned us off it. We took their advice, as they would know a good deal about crappy wine.
Coffee is making my trip report debut. Ethiopia invented the stuff. We can attest that it still grows wild in the Harenna Forest. There is no doubt that the Ethiopians know a thing or two about brewing and drinking coffee. Not only is it rich, tasty and inexpensive, the people have heir own version of the Chinese tea ceremony for their coffee. The ceremony is as rich as the coffee itself. I
am struggling through some instant stuff as I type this and it just doesn’t cut it any more.
Roads and traffic
Don’t be scared of the people, don’t worry about the food, fear not that somebody has drank the country’s last beer or coffee, but be very concerned about going anywhere near a road.
Ethiopia takes the developing world’s laissez-faire attitude to road safety to a level of its own. It is
not the number of vehicles that is the problem – all of them could cross the Sydney Harbour Bridge
in a day. (Although this assumes they could be made to operate, but that’s not the issue here). Ethiopian people apparently utterly fail to understand that all the multicoloured splatter patterns on the road surface were left there by their relatives. They remind me of the childhood story of the kid
putting his hand in the flames to see if it will hurt. They have no personal experience being
squashed by a truck so they don’t see a need to move when one comes rumbling along. We saw the horror and disbelief of the people after a schoolgirl died, squashed by truck style.
No pedestrian ever looks before crossing the road. They often have to be nudged to get out of the way. But pedestrians are only part of the problem. The moving traffic does not recognise the threats posed by the other moving traffic, farm animals or robust static roadside objects. The likelihood of seeing the remains of a truck accident on any given day is 100%, with our record being six in one morning. We reckon that at least three were fatals. “Isuzu” is a popular choice for
truck accidents. Locals call Isuzu “Al Qaeda”.
Our favourite truck accidents were:
; Truck versus six camels (don’t try to imagine six dead camels on the road)
; Truck versus two other trucks (no winners here)
; Semi-trailer loaded with live cattle versus road (not pretty and it was a bit smelly when we
; Toyota Landcruiser versus bus (seven dead in the Toyota), and
; Truck versus dozens of dogs (this was assumed by the number of flat dogs seen in one
morning on the road between Debre Markos and Bahir Dar).
Paradoxically the safer roads were the unsealed ones. Travel speeds were lower and most accidents tended to be single vehicle ones. Our driver preferred to be on unsealed roads as the chances of re-acquainting himself with his living family were higher. Ex-pats we met would ask us which roads we were using as we set off in the morning. If we mentioned a sealed road, their eyes would roll around and they would become wobbly.
As for us, we killed nothing of consequence. We bumped a few farm animals and the odd local, and that was about it
Ethiopia is blessed with stunning scenery. The combination of the volcanic Bale and Simien massifs, the Rift Valley lakes, the Blue Nile Gorge and Lake Tana and its history meant that we did not run short of photo opportunities.
One very positive aspect of travel in Ethiopia is the lack of fences and private land ownership. Not only does this mean that wandering about is easier, but the landscapes are not corrupted by wires running everywhere. There are no signs that say “keep out”. You are as free to roam as the local children allow (see “The bad news” under “Ethiopian people”, above).
th20 October 2007
Oddly and uniquely my friends and workmates gave me going-away cards and pre-birthday gifts. My take on this was that there was a high expectation that I wouldn’t return. I can’t ever remember so many people asking, “Why are you going there for?”
So after a nervous build-up I found myself at Sydney Airport feeling very excited about my holiday. Joining me was Allan Richards, a friend and recently retired workmate who understands what it means to travel with me….
We flew with Thai Airways at 1600 to Bangkok on a 747-400. The flight was full but the service was wonderful.
We arrived in Bangkok in the middle of the night and transferred to our Ethiopian Airways 767-300 to Addis Ababa. Or at least we would have if the plane had turned up. When it eventually arrived there were more people than seats with most seats having been filled from the plane’s first
sector originating in Hong Kong.
Ethiopian Airways has an excellent safety record and has the largest network in Africa. We paid $A1400 + taxes for our tickets and thought there must have been some mistake – the tickets were
so comparatively cheap.
The flight to AA was entertaining. We represented 50% of the white monkeys on the plane. The food was good, the service fair and the in-flight entertainment included a lady who collapsed in the aisle and started screaming. There were a number of calls for “a doctor on board”. I was praying
that the lady either got on with it and expired or whatever it was that the screaming was leading up to, recovered completely or realised it was all a terrible dream and shut up. The last thing any of us wanted was an unscheduled stop. An arrogant off-duty Iraq-serving American presented himself as a medical person and had a look at the now barely conscious female. Or at her tits at least. I don’t know what happened after that as my two sleeping pills took effect.
st21 October 2007
The expected horrors of AA Airport were absent. Various websites and travel guides explained that getting a visa on arrival required all sorts of expensively acquired things, like yellow fever injections and certificates, multiple passport photos, wads of money and well-written itineraries. And a visa, if they deigned to give you one, would be for 30 days only.
When we got off the plane at 0545 we were almost alone. Everyone else was transferring to other destinations. We woke up the “visa on arrival” gentleman who took $US20 from each of us (not the $US100 the government website talked about), gave us a visa for 60 days and dismissed us without any further questioning. Presumably he then went back to sleep. It was too early in the day for any customs folk so we were soon out in the street.
Addis Ababa is unexceptional. There is a typical mix of architecture - old and new, tall and squat, rustic and rusty. The traffic is okay. There just isn’t enough of it about to be a real hindrance.
Traffic signals are uncommon.