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Back in Addis after a fabulous few days in the Bale Mountains. The drive to Bale from Addis can be done as a loop, so we managed to add much more of Ethiopia into the trip. Whilst is can (theoretically) be done in a day, we took 2 long days each way. Obviously time had to be allocated to stopping for coffee several times en route!

The plan on the first night was to stop on Lake Langano – one of the Rift Valley lakes & supposed to be the only one Bilharzia-free. Given the temperatures in this area a swim would have been extremely welcome. However, after visiting every place we could find that had camping we decided to drive the extra 80km on to Awassa, where we knew of a good place. We had heard that Langano was not recommended & our experience absolutely confirms that. Every campsite was disgustingly filthy (toilets that hadn’t been cleaned for weeks at least), vastly overpriced or government run ‘resorts’ where the staff just don’t care & are incredibly rude – often all three combined. Whereas when we pulled into Awassa we were met like returning old friends, with the manager even coming out to the campsite to meet us & have a chat. And cold beer…

The drive from Awassa to the Bale National Park HQ at Dinsho is spectacular, with Itchy having to pull us over mountain passes well over 3500m (11,500 feet). Rural life here consists of farming maize & barley along with the usual large herds of goats & cattle. Road sense in Ethiopia is appalling (the worst of any country yet) & you have to be constantly on your guard for children, donkeys, cattle & elderly people lurching unexpectedly into your path. In fact the animals seem to have more road sense than the people – at least they cross with caution as opposed to hurling their bodies into the road at speed.

We passed through a couple of towns on market day – the road for miles before each full of donkey & horse-drawn carts carrying families into town for the big day & the towns themselves literally heaving with people.

The first night camping at Dinsho was beautiful. In the woods above the town we were surrounded by huge, snuffling warthogs – slightly disconcerting when you sneak into the trees for a pee in the middle of the night. Also in the woods were large families of mountain nyala, a beautiful antelope endemic to this area, & bushbuck. All were fairly happy with humans & allowed you to get quite close – I assume that’s a good sign that there is no poaching in the area. We braced ourselves for a cold night – the park rangers had already frightened off some other potential campers by telling them that it was going to get down to minus 8 in the night. Not us – we were going to brave it out… every piece of warm clothing was dug out from the depths of Itchy & soon after sunset I was looking even more like a Michelin Man than normal. After all that, the night was fine & I don’t believe it even got below zero. But that was judged from the depths of my hot water bottle-heated sleeping bag, thermals, gloves & wooly hat!

The following day we drove up onto the Senati Plateau, over 4000m (13,000 feet) and home to the rare Ethiopian Wolf – Africa’s most endangered carnivore. There are reportedly only 450 left in the world & tis region is home to 250 of them. A great debate had started between ourselves & Lore & Bram. Is it really a wolf? It looks more like a jackal and used to be called the Simian Fox. It’s Latin name is Canis (not Lupis).. so what is it really? Apparently this is quite a sensitive issue amongst the experts & if you make the mistake of calling it a fox (which I did) you will be jumped on from a great height. No doubt amongst the experts… it’s a wolf. That first day on the plateau we did see 5 wolves between us, but all at quite a distance & looking a lot like red foxes… did I just say that out loud???

On the plateau it was bloody freezing, even during the day, but absolutely stunning scenery. Arid & rocky dotted with hardy aloe plants & the odd tarn full of water, deep blue in colour. These small pools are home to the lovely blue winged geese who appear to spend their days fluffed up against the cold, with their heads firmly tucked down into their bodies. They even walk around like strange neckless birds, only extending their necks when absolutely necessary for balance or eating. Funny things.

We decided to camp that night on the other side of the plateau at Katcha Campsite, descending 2000m down a stunning escarpment into the Grimm’s Fairy Tale woodland of the Harenna Forest. Here we met up again with Ali, Richard & Chuck part of our Lake Turkana team. The previous night they had stayed in the Webb Valley, close to Dinsho & said it was fabulous – even if the temperature did drop to minus 6 at night. So the following day we drove back over Senati, early in the morning to try to see more wolves. But it was too bloody cold even for them & we only caught a distant glimpse of one, rushing off to find his puffa jacket no doubt.

On the way back to Dinsho you pass through the strange town of Goba. It’s an odd concrete-blocky sort of place with horsemen riding up the street & gave me the feeling of being somewhere remote & high, like one of the ‘stans’. Goba also seems to be the place to discover faults with your car. On the way up Bram had noticed & fixed a big coolant leak in Leopold as we’d stopped for a coffee. This time Clive discovered the source of a new transmission vibration in Itchy… the rubber coupling at the back of the prop-shaft was disintegrating. Strange – Clive only replaced it in November when he repaired the handbrake in Tanzania. Luckily he had kept the old one, as it was still in decent condition, & a quick repair was made back in Dinsho later in the day. The ‘new’ one was obviously a cheep replica – rubbish. Annoyingly it was one bought in UK that we had carried with us – not one bought in Africa, which you could forgive for being rubbish!

Ali & Richard’s recommendation for Webb Valley was an absolute blinder. A stunning, dusty 2hour, 20km drive through remote villages, deep gullies & long, rocky escarpments brings you into a little hidden gem. Not well advertised, this is another area where sightings of the wolf/fox/jackal are common & was where we got our best sightings. A pack of 6 early in the morning, playing in the early sun & finally a beautiful singleton who was completely unperturbed by the cars & carried on hunting little mice & rats even when we got close enough for a decent photo. Well done Lore for suggesting that final little diversion :-)

And it was here that the debate amongst the expert naturalists in our group was settled – watching it at close range… yup, it’s definitely a wolf. Glad that’s settled then.

One last thing on Bale – the raptors are amazing. I don’t think I have seen anywhere else that has such a variety of birds of prey in such a small area. This rather rubbish twitcher managed to spot: tawny eagle, golden eagle, steppe eagle, lammergeier, auger buzzard, lanner falcon & a cape eagle owl… all in one glorious day :-)

We took a different route back to Addis from Bale – through Bekoji, home town to not just Haile Gebre Selassie but FIVE Olympic medallists, all long distance runners. So, for all you budding runners out there, you need to have been born & brought up at 2800m to increase your chances of winning an Olympic medal.

Searching for a place to camp that evening we, yet again, made the mistake of trying out a government-run ‘resort’ at Sodere. Met by the charming sister of our lady-friend from the Ethiopian Embassy in Nairobi, our polite protests that their charge of over twice the going rate for camping in Ethiopia for a filthy site with no working facilities fell on deaf ears. Pointedly looking the other way & blanking us (a particular talent of many Ethiopians in government posts) we were told to either take it or leave it. We left it. Now however it was getting to the end of a long & tiring day & we were going to have to risk driving into Adama/Nazaret (Ethiopia’s 3rd largest town) & hope to find a hotel that would allow us to camp in their grounds or car park. Yet again, when feeling a little grouchy about Ethiopia, we had our opinion swiftly reversed. Welcomed by warm & friendly staff at the Adama Ras Hotel we were given a nice spot to camp & were amazed to see the staff rushing around to bring us chairs and lay a camp fire for us. Later that evening we ordered a small whisky from the bar – instantly a table, adorned with table cloth, was brought out, drinks delivered with even a bucket of ice.

That evening Clive managed to put somewhat of a dampener on events by having a series of gushing nose bleeds. The first one being in the toilet of the restaurant & produced such a mess that even the locals ran away in fright when they saw it!! The following day, as we drove into Addis, the nose bleeds returned & had become quite frightening in their intensity. Only Clive’s nose could produce so much blood. For comfort we decided to stay in a hotel that night – choosing quite a smart one may have been a mistake however, as the bathroom looked like a scene from the Texas Chain Saw Massacre by the time we left, even after my best attempts to clean up. Yesterday we found an excellent clinic, by which time Clive had been nose bleed-free for about 8 hours, but we decided it would be best if he were checked out. Blood tests were back within an hour (beat that one NHS) & the doctor was happy that Clive is fit & well – phew. It was probably just a combination of the extremely dry air & altitude over the past few days that triggered it, along with the vast number of blood vessels that must be required to service Clive’s snozzer!!

After the doctor a visit to the dentist was made, where they took an impression of his mouth – replacement tooth being fitted on Saturday. A little worried about the fact that they took impressions of both his upper & lower teeth… are they going to fit him with a full set of dentures??!! I’ve got a series of ‘before’ & ‘during’ photos – wait out for the ‘after’!

At the hospital we noticed an extraordinary form of greeting used here. The usual one in Ethiopia is to bump your right shoulders together whilst shaking hands – men & women use the same greeting. This new one, when a man greets a woman, is for them to alternately kiss the back of each others hands, back & forth 5 times, followed by kissing cheeks, again 5 times. It’s quite an elaborate affair & it seems can then be repeated if desired. I hope no one tries it out one me – I would be lost by the 3rd hand-kiss. Just reinforces my opinion that Ethiopia is such a unique country in this continent. Women seem to be treated with more respect than in many African countries. Many are covered from head to toe (both Muslims & Orthodox Christians) which makes it even more extraordinary to see women in full face-veil riding a horse astride through rural towns. Culturally it seems to stand alone and this makes it even more fascinating to visit.

Tonight we are treating ourselves & have booked into the restaurant I mentioned in the last blog – the one overseen by the large Italian toad. I’m sorry, but I couldn’t resist the lure of a superb Italian food. I’m simply going to ignore the ridiculously annoying superiority of the staff & just gorge myself on anti-pasti, seafood pasta & wine :-) Report to follow….