Spot the beast 74

Checking my files I found this beast, one of my favourites. I am sure you will find as it is rather obvious.

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This “Spot” was just an excuse to show you how well this beautiful Greater Kudu male blended in the extremely dry environment of Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe.

Condors!

At the end of the year, taking advantage of a relaxation of the Covid control measures in Salta, we left our quarantine and travelled to the Calchaquí valley [1] for a well-deserved break from the routine of the farm where we had been since March 2020.

We travelled to a small town called Payogasta where we spend three nights exploring the Los Cardones National Park [2] and then continued to Molinos, travelling on the well-known national route 40 (RN40) that goes from North to South of Argentina traversing almost 5200 km and crossing eleven provinces [3] through the most amazing and changing landscapes.

The cardones (Echinopsis atacamensis) give the name to the National Park.

While in Molinos we visited the Brealito lagoon, a natural water reservoir, and the Acsibi caves, both near the small town of Seclantás. I will deal with these visits in due course.

We enjoyed our stay at the Hacienda de Molinos hotel and when we were due to depart, decided to enjoy an extra night and explore Angastaco, another small village 50 km further on on the RN40 towards Cafayate, the wine-producing area, towards the South.

The entrance of the Hacienda de Molinos hotel.
The patio of the hotel with a very old molle tree (Schinus molle)

We traveled to Angastaco with the expectation of visiting the “Quebrada de las Flechas” (the Arrow’s gorge), meant to be a spectacular sight. This northern section of the RN40 is a rather twisted murram road crossing mountainous terrain and we drove with care following the Calchaquí river on our left. Although along the river there is a green valley where agriculture is practiced (including vineyards), the dominating landscape is one of dramatic dry rocky hills of different colours that change with the light and where one hopes (against hope) to see condors after turning each corner.

Because of the Covid 19 situation, we were among the very few people moving through so our journey was very relaxed until, as usual, I heard Mabel saying “these are Condors!”. As usual, without seeing anything but the rather twisted road ahead, I stopped to look and I could see some tiny objects against the horizon on one of the hills that I took for rocks, until one of them moved and we got excited! There were indeed Andean Condors (Vultur gryphus) [4]

The condors as spotted by Mabel (they are on top of the hills!).
A close-up of our first view of the condors.

We stopped to watch them with the binoculars and to take a few pictures. There were about ten birds along the edge of a cliff and then she started spotting more flying above us until we realize that there were many.

Condors flying.

We advanced slowly to get a better angle on the birds on the cliff and then saw a large number of smaller birds on the ground and on a tree. These were Black Vultures (Coragyps atratus). We also saw a few Southern crested caracara (Caracara plancus) and other smaller birds of prey that I could not identify as they were quite far. Among the Vultures there were a few more condors and more were discovered by Mabel all around the area. So, we had hit a “condor jackpot”!

To give you an idea of what we saw, below I include a slide show.

We saw the remains of a carcass under the tree and decided to have a good look. We found a number of dead cattle, probably disposed off there by farmers as a consequence of the dry conditions in the area and this “cattle cemetery” attracted all the birds we saw.

We watched the birds for a long while while feeding until it was time for them to take off. The condors started first, followed by the Black vultures. The latter are super flyiers and gliders but they are no match for the truly majestic condors that, after the first few wingbeats they can go for long distances without the need of flapping their wings.

We enjoyed observing both vultures and condors after they had taken off while they glided up until they disappeared and then we decided to continue to Angastaco and have a look at the Quebrada de las Flechas. This did not disappoint us. The road snakes through a very dry gorge made of large pointed rock formations that extends for several kilometres. As I am not good with descriptions, the following slide show hopefully will reflect what we saw.

Despite the drama of the gorge and the beauty of the landscape that we traversed, nothing will make us forget our first close encounter with the magnificent condors.

[1] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calchaqu%C3%AD_Valleys

[2] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Los_Cardones_National_Park

[3] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Route_40_(Argentina)

[4] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Condor

A short video to show you more “action”.

A dot in a map

As I have already mentioned the Didessa valley, between Bedele and Arjo, was one of our favourite exploring spots over the weekends. After a few visits, during one of our walks along one of the smaller tributaries of the Didessa river, the Legedema, we saw a kingfisher flying fast as usual along the semi-dry riverbed.

Curious, we followed it and watched it for a few seconds before it flew away to an area where we could not find it. We thought it to be one of the tree species belonging to the Halcyon genus, probably the Woodland kingfisher (H. senegalensis). However, we believed that we caught a shade of blue on its breast and we kept our options open for it to be a Blue-breasted kingfisher (H. malimbica). We had watched both species while in Kenya, so we had some idea about kingfishers.

Once at home in Bedele, as usual, we checked the birds we had seen with the Checklist of the birds of Ethiopia [1]. We noted that, although the Woodland kingfisher was included, the Blue-breasted was absent. So, things started to look interesting and the situation required follow-up and we decided to go back at the next opportunity to have another look.

Although work postponed the visit, we eventually made it and looked for the bird, now alert to detect the salient features of the different species. We found it but it was not easy to approach because of the terrain. Despite this, after watching it for a while, we both agreed that we were looking at the unlisted, Blue-breasted kingfisher, its bright blue breast unmistakable.

Aware of the importance of a new species for the country, the next time we were in Addis, I contacted the Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society (EWNHS) to inform them of our find and to confirm that there was no other record of the bird that we did not know. They did not know of any other observation and they suggested that I should bring the bird to be examined, something I explained I would not do! I realized that I needed to break through their scepticism, and we returned to Bedele determined to get pictures that would prove our “discovery” without the need of collecting the bird.

At the next opportunity, we travelled to the Legedema river area and we spent hours following the bird from one end to the other of the riverbed, often crawling through sand, rocks, water and vegetation, only to find that it was either too far for my zoom lens or watching it taking off to the other end of the river before being able to take its picture. Then it was back to crawling towards the place it had flown to!

After a couple of days of walking/crawling along the river, under the amused watch of Mabel, I managed to take a few pictures that I thought could be decent enough to prove the identity of the bird and eventually convince the EWNHS that the bird was what I said.

A few “mates” to regain energy during the tough bird chase!

Although I had taken pictures the films still needed to be developed as in 1989 there were no electronic cameras. Because of the kind of film I used, the rolls needed to go outside Ethiopia to get developed and printed so I was not yet sure of the fruits of my work!

In comes our good friend Ranjini (from our Kenya days) that kindly agreed to receive the film in the UK, get it developed and choose what she considered as the best shots to get them enlarged to show the bird as clearly as possible.

A few weeks passed until we got a large envelope that contained the print negatives and a few enlargements that, although very bad from a photographer’s viewpoint, showed beyond doubt that the bird had indeed enough blue in its breast to qualify for a kingfisher of the Blue-breasted kind, a new record for Ethiopia!

I immediately sent the pictures to the EWNHS and they accepted the find. They also invited us to one of their meetings to present our finding. The latter was well attended by an interested crowd and they gave me a nice green tie with the EWNHS logo to recognize the find!

We wrote a Short Communication that was accepted for publication by Scopus in September 1989, a couple of months before leaving Ethiopia. It was published in May 1990 [2]. In it we explained the circumstances of our find and gave details of its approximate location, speculating that it could be also present in the Didessa river itself and/or its tributaries.

Our move to Zambia towards the end of 1989 took all our efforts and we soon forgot the kingfisher to focus on more important issues related to our new posting and the arrival of our children that left very little time for birdwatching or even thinking about it! Then, in October 1991 we received a letter from the late John S. Ash [3] that referred to our publication. I quote:

“…After living in Ethiopia for 8 1/2 years … It was … extremely interested to see your very interesting observations of Blue-breasted Kingfishers. I have to admit that at first I was sceptical but on looking into it further was able to convince myself that I had also come across the species not far from your locality, and then re-found an even older Italian record [4] which I had relegated to an “improbable” file many years ago.”

“… In commiserating with you on your loss of an addition to the Ethiopian list I congratulate you on rediscovering it and being instrumental in putting it on the map… I enclose a draft of a note I have prepared for Scopus and shall be most grateful for any comments you have on it…”

So it was that our belief of having “discovered” a new bird species for Ethiopia was dashed and it became a “re-discovery” of a bird that had been seen first in 1959 and subsequently misidentified as the Woodland kingfisher by Mr. Ash.

However, in the light of our finding, in his paper [5] Mr. Ash revised his earlier observations and, luckily, he was able to contact Professor C.H. Fry that accepted our record for inclusion in a monograph of the kingfishers where a small green dot in Ethiopia is all we achieved after all our efforts! [6]

A dot in the map! The Blue-breasted kingfisher in Ethiopia. Credit: Print screen from BirdLife.org (Accessed on 6 January 2021). http://datazone.birdlife.org/species/factsheet/blue-breasted-kingfisher-halcyon-malimbica?gclid=Cj0KCQiA3NX_BRDQARIsALA3fIJHYxNCgl8BCtJoFkA4Z6wvIrYQS6M4Vhm_2CNWE_gSzcX48yh8stoaAvHFEALw_wcB

[1] Urban K. and Brown, L.H. (1971). A Checklist of the Birds of Ethiopia. Haile Sellassie I University Press. pp. 143.

[2] de Castro, J.J. and de Castro, M. (1990). The Blue-breasted Kingfisher (Alcyon malimbica) in South-West Ethiopia. Scopus 14: 22.

[3] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Ash_(ornithologist) and https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2014/feb/09/john-ash-obituary

[4] Toschi, A. (1959). Contributo alla Ornitofauna d’Etiopia. Ricerche di Zoologia Applicata alla Caccia 2: 301-412.

[5] Ash, J.S. (1992). An apparently isolated population of blue-breasted kingfishers Halcyon malimbica in Ethiopia. Scopus 16: 14-17.

[6] Fry, C. H.; Fry, K.; Harris, A. (1992). Kingfishers Bee-Eaters and Rollers. Editorial: Russel Friedman Books CC, Halfway House, South Africa Editors.

Spot the beast 73

While working on my next Ethiopian post that I promise will be interesting, I present you with this beast to see if you can find it. I must confess that it was difficult even for me to see it a few days after taking the shot!

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More pictures to give you a better idea of this moth:

Nuer’s oxytocin

As I mentioned earlier in this blog, the Nuer people are strongly linked to cattle in complex ways that are not always understandable to us. What I will describe here is part of this people-cattle interaction that ensures the survival of both in rather harsh conditions.

As with most cattle belonging to African pastoralists, they are of a placid nature and used to constant handling from an early age and milk is probably the most important commodity they produce although sales of oxen are also practiced by the Nuer.

As it is common practice the world over, Nuer cattle are milked after the milk let-down have been stimulated by allowing the calf to suckle briefly and then withdrawn. This action stimulates nerve receptors in the cow teats which induce oxytocin release within a few minutes. This compound, a, hormone causes the cells around the milk-producing alveoli to contract and squeeze out the milk, pushing it down the ducts towards the teat as well as dilating the milk ducts making it easier for the milk to flow down them.

On a visit to a Nuer cattle kraal we came across a very unusual sight, even for a veterinarian that had worked with cattle most of the time. A Nuer woman was blowing strongly, rhythmically and repeatedly into the vagina of a cow for about five minutes, taking rests in between as the effort needed was evidently great.

After the operation, she proceeded to milk the animal, obtaining about one litre of milk. After a while, the process was repeated an more milk obtained.

Enquiries about the practice revealed that the cow had aborted recently but that it was also performed on those cows which have lost their calves or are giving poor milk yields. I took pictures to document the practice and these are presented in a slideshow at the bottom as they are strong pictures that show the operation in great detail.

Later, at the laboratory I checked the literature for this phenomenon and did not find any records of it among the books I had at my disposal. However, I learnt that stretching of the cervix induces oxytocin secretion, increasing uterine motility and probably it also induces milk let-down, probably explaining how the curious practice works.

Years later, in 2010, checking through old papers and pictures I found the notes and prints of the oxytocin observation in Gambela and looked for it on the internet. I found several interesting references to the practice, including one by Wilfred Thesiger during his travels through Sudan [1] and several references to the practice of “cow blowing” in Wikipedia [2] where I learnt that it was quite an ancient and widespread practice throughout the world and that Gandhi stopped drinking cow milk after he came to know about the process known as “phooka” or “doom dev” in India that he considered cruel.

It was the comprehensive work of LeQuellec [3] on the evidence of the practice in ancient cultures that called my attention and prompted me to get in touch with him to discuss my observation. He was interested and encouraged me to publish the observations and so I did [4].

Although the physiological aspects of the practice can be explained, it still leaves unclear in my mind how early “milkers” linked the insufflations with milk let down and started to use it to their advantage. Is it that they have seen milk dripping at calving time? Or is it that they believed the udder to be the end of a continuous system which starts in the vagina and blowing through it will expel the milk? I still do not know.

[1] Thesiger, W. (1983). Arabian Sands. Collins. p.48.

[2] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cow_blowing

[3] Le Quellec, Jean-Loic (2011). Provoking lactation by the insufflation technique as documented by the rock images of the Sahara. Anthropozoologica 46, 65-125. See: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/232693395_Provoking_lactation_by_the_insufflation_technique_as_documented_by_the_rock_images_of_the_Sahara

[4] de Castro, J. J. (2011). Nuer’s oxytocin. Cahiers de l’AARS — N° 15, 27-28.

Spot the beast 72

On the road and without time to write the few final posts on Ethiopia, I present you with my last contribution for 2020 (although for some of you may be already the first of 2021) with my best wishes for the New Year during which I expect we will all avoid Covid!

Anyway, I found this at the garden and here it is. It seems straight forward but…

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Clearly, the ladybird was too obvious and a distraction! The real hidden beast is this small bluish-gren moth, a real delicate creature, well camouflaged among the leaves.

Spot the beast 71

Finally, after nine months at the farm, Covid 19 cases have decreased in Salta Province (Argentina) and travel restrictions were lifted, although still maintaining the usual precautions.

For a change of scene, we headed for the “Valles Calchaquíes” a string of valleys that go through Catamarca, Tucumán, Jujuy and Salta Provinces. Although I will probably expand on this in future posts, we are now at a place called Payogasta and in the garden of the hotel Mabel found this beast while checking the identity of some of the plants there. So, if it is a tricky “spot”, it is not my fault this time as she found it and took the pictures!

To the left of the yellow flower, there is a toad that was busy catching flies, its whitish mouth gives it away. It is raining in Payogasta, a very dry area. Because of this, a lot of animals usually not seen are now active, including the toads.

Gold rush

I am not very sure of how we got the idea of travelling to Yubdo to get some gold. The fact is that we decided that it was a good idea and my colleagues recommended it as “the place” to get “cheap” gold in Ethiopia.

Abera (not his real name), one of the workers at the laboratory, was somehow volunteered as he had worked at Dembi Dolo prior to coming to Bedele and he knew the area well. So it was that we took one day off, and we left for Yubdo.

A rather dry waterhole on the way to Nekempte

We took the road to Arjo town that we knew well up to there and then proceeded to Nekempte to spend the night before continuing to Yubdo the following day. It was a dirt road and the 108km took a while to drive and we got there in the afternoon. We were delayed as we stopped to watch a religious ceremony that was taking place near the road. It was rather colourful and we were welcome and also allowed to take pictures.

All I recall from Nekempte was that we stayed at one of the Ethiopia hotels and that the room walls were so thin that we could hear the conversations of several rooms around us!

The next morning, after a non-eventful journey, we got to Yubdo and went to the main hotel (another Government Ethiopia Hotel!) to see if they would have accommodation for us while Abera went for a walk to get an idea of gold prices as well as getting in touch with the contacts he knew from his time at Nekempte.

Yubdo has been the centre of gold and platinum mining in Ethiopia and when the Italians invaded the country, these metals were extracted commercially as the Italians recognized the potential of mining there. We were not aware of the history of the place until much later.

While we were finishing our hotel check-in, Abera returned and we discussed our next move. “We now go to a certain coffee shop where we will meet the seller and we look at the gold” he said. When I asked when, he replied that he had set up an appointment for 16 hs, about half an hour later.

We drove to the shop and followed Abera inside. It was crowded and rather dark. We sat at one of the small tables and ordered a cup of coffee and waited. After a few minutes, someone came and sat with us, after greeting Abera warmly. A conversation in Amharic followed and a small newspaper parcel was produced that contained a pinch of unimpressive yellow powder. We were told that were looking at gold!

Negotiations followed and, eventually, we reached a price that I have now forgotten but that was not the cheap bargain I expected! When I made moves to pay, the man stopped me and Abera explained that we needed to go outside the town and meet “privately”. It was then that I realized that what we were doing was not a normal transaction but something that looked a rather dodgy affair.

When I expressed my doubts about the issue, Abera reassured me that this was the way you dealt with these issues in Ethiopia and that there was no problem. I knew him as a responsible man so I decided to go ahead and drive to the spot of our rendezvous with the seller and parked the car just outside the town and we saw him coming towards us crossing the fields between us and the town.

As soon as we could, we exchanged money for gold and departed to avoid any problems as I was feeling slightly concerned, something that Abera found funny and enjoyed! I thne realized with some concern that we now had some powder that was still a distance away from a gold nugget or farther still from a gold ring, the purpose of the purchase!

“Abera” I said, “what do we do now, we need to smelt the gold”. “Yes”, he replied, ‘we now drive to a certain Woreda [1] that specializes in smelting gold”. My amazement (and concern) grew as we started driving there. The place was not too far, we entered and parked near some huts and Abera and the yellow powder went to have a talk with the Head of the place while we waited.

Getting to the Woreda. Note the yellow Meskel flowers in the foreground.

A few minutes later Abera came back and told us that we could go with him as this was the right place to do the smelting. We followed him and met the blacksmith, an old man that seemed very happy to see us and who directed us to a fireplace that looked as it had been used for many years, black walls, black floor and smoke coming out of a kind of open oven.

The man poured charcoal on the smoking embers and started to pump the bellows that were made with the hindquarters of a goat. Very soon the right temperature was apparently reached so the gold was placed in a small crucible and the blacksmith continued to pump while we waited, eager to see the results.

The smelting going on. The yellowish artefact on the left, near the man’s hand is the bellow and the gold was where the fire was. At the bottom left are a few other crucibles and near the kettle the green leaves can also be seen.
A look at our gold being smelted.

A few minutes later the man removed the crucible and cooled the melted metal down and showed it to us. There were two nuggets, a golden one and a much smaller silver one.The blacksmith announced that we needed to boil the gold nugget with some herbs for it to acquire the right colour, so he placed it in a small saucepan and added boiling water from his kettle and some green leaves. The gold was boiled in this kind of tea for about ten minutes.

While our nugget boiled, I remembered the tiny silver nugget and, through Abera, I asked what happened with it. I learnt that it was the platinum and that was the pay for the blacksmith’s work. I did not argue and focussed again on my nugget that was now outside the water and looking beautiful, but I thought rather small for its cost. I weighed 16 grams.

Without further ado, the blacksmith started hammering the nugget until he got a wire of about 25 cm long. He hammered both ends over a file to give it a reticulated finish. He then asked my wife to produce her ring finger and compared with a rounded stick he produced from among his tools. He decided on the size of the finger and twisted the wire four times until a simple but rather nice ring was born, made of pure gold, quite soft!

Rather relieved that we had our gold ring we left the Woreda and eventually departed back to Bedele truly pleased with the result. My wife kept it on from that day and did not remove it until the gold got so thin that it broke! She was clearly shedding Au molecules from that they on until the breakage occurred and, of course, it was no longer 16 grammes.

Mabel is now keeping it for our son’s wedding rings (if he ever needs them!).

A bad picture of a silver copy (of three twists) of the
original gold ring that had four.

Later, she had several admirers of the ring among jewellers she visited in Italy and some wished to buy it at all cost but she resisted selling it despite my strong encouragement to recover the investment!

[1] Woreda are the Districts in Ethiopia. They are composed of several Kebele or neighbourhood associations. Several Woreda make a Zone and several Zones a Region or State such as Oromia.

Spot the beast 70

To change a bit, I offer you a rather different “spot” today.

One of the main attractions of Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe (apart from the river, the light, the various campsites, the wild dogs, the elephants, the lions and I stop there naming just a few!) is to be able to walk through the park despite it holding the Big 4 (sadly the rhino is no longer there).

While walking is a great way to explore the park you must be careful as, often, you do not see the animals until you are too close for comfort and you need to be prepared to respond appropriately. This is one of the cases that seems incredible until it happens to you.

Imagine that you are walking there now, what can you see?

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What look like tree trunks, suddenly become legs and they start moving!

You had just disturbed the siesta of a large elephant and it is coming your way!

You realized that it is a bull elephant but the most important thing at that time is to back down slowly and start taking pictures through a zoom lens!

Sightseeing from Addis

As I mentioned in earlier posts, to travel in Ethiopia at the time we were there was very difficult. To the long distances to be travelled, the war situation demanded the “infamous” travel permits that were not easy to obtain. It was for these reasons that our plans to visit Axum and Lalibela as well as the Omo valley were not viable.

We did manage some travel although more restricted and this is what I will describe in this post. I present you with brief descriptions of the various trips we did.

Around Addis

Apart from exploring the city itself, we visited a few churches such as the Entoto Maryam and the Kiddus Raguel, two of the best known.

We found the Entoto Mariam (Mary’s) church in the northern part of Addis, in one of the highest hills around the city. The area was still well forested and densely populated and we could see lots of people walking about as well as the ubiquitous pack donkeys moving teff straw to feed their domestic animals.

Entoto Mariam (Mary’s) church.

The church was built in 1877 by Emperor Menelik II. His wife (Empress Taitu) is buried there and the tomb is known as “Shera Bet”. Eucaliptus trees are quite common in the highlands of Ethiopia and it was near this church that the first one was planted!

There is a museum right next to the church where some of the personal belongings of Emperor Menelik II and Empress Taitu are displayed for visitors to see. Some of the historical items include traditional clothes, crowns of Emperor Menelik II and Empress Taitu, their royal bed, different jewels owned by the royal family, and a mirror presented as a gift from Queen Victoria to Empress Taitu.

We visited the octagonal church on a Sunday but refrained from entering it or visiting the spring that produces “holy water” nearby where sick people go to get cured with the assistance of the church’s priests for respect to the believers present there. Unfortunately, the museum was closed. We walked about the church grounds and caught sight of the remains of Menelik’s palace that looked rather unimpressive!

Although we inspected the various eucalyptus trees present around the church none, in our judgement, could have been the first one. This tree was brought directly from Australia and planted there. Another interesting item we missed!

After enjoying the view of the city below we continued our tour and went to another church, the Kiddus Raguel, also well known and it too found on the Entoto Hills about 2.5 km away. This church is the oldest church in Addis, also built by Emperor Menelik II, who also founded Addis Ababa, about 140 years ago. This church, unlike the octagonal style of the previous one, is hexagonal, the same as many other Orthodox churches found in Ethiopia.

Kiddus Raguel church.

We were able to enter the building as, by the time we got there, mass had ended. There, the inner part of the church,where mass is celebrated was secluded by curtains and a few panels decorated with well preserved hand paintings that were centuries old.

The Nile Gorge

The Abbay River originates in Lake Tana, about 500 km and a ten hour drive (today) to the northwest of Addis. The river runs through Ethiopia and it becomes known as the Blue Nile when it enters Sudan on its way to join the White Nile -coming from Lake Victoria- north from Khartoum area. These two are the major contributors to the Nile River that ends in the Mediterranean Sea in Egypt and, interestingly, both originates in lakes.

The road to Lake Tana and the Blue and White Niles. Map of Nile gorge: Credit Nicolás Pérez, CC BY 2.5 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

As mentioned earlier, travel restrictions did not allow us to visit Bahir Dar, the city located at the southern tip of Lake Tana but, as a consolation, we could see the Nile river at an area known as the Nile Gorge.To get there we took the road to Bahar Dar road and drove for over two hundred kilometres through the highlands (over the Entoto mountain range). At about two hundred kilometres the scenery opens up and you have a most magnificent view of the river that, shining blue, runs about one thousand metres below!

The Nile Gorge.
The winding road down the Blue Nile gorge.

Over millions of years the river has carved this deep and wide valley through the mountains that many people compare (as usual!) with America’s Grand Canyon. Although I have not been in the latter, what we saw was a truly vast canyon that run for as long as the eye could see and through which, for the first time in our lives we could spot the amazing bearded vultures, also known as lammergeiers (Gypaetus barbatus).

A bearded vulture or lammergeier. Credit: Richard Bartz, Munich aka Makro Freak, CC BY-SA 2.5 , via Wikimedia Commons.
A great close-up of a bearded vulture. Credit: No machine-readable author provided. Else assumed (based on copyright claims)., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

We watched the birds for a long while as they caught the thermals to climb high above us as we had seen vultures do very often. However, the gorge also allowed us to see them glide below us while they gained altitude and then climbed quite close to us on their way to great hights. A truly magnificent sight.

Spotting the lammergeiers was almost as amazing as spotting a stretch of road ahead of us that luckily we did not take! It was a true road to nowhere, part of an attempt at climbing the mountains gone wrong that ended abruptlly, allowing you to take the jump to the bottom of the gorge! I am not sure what happened there but I took a picture to prove it.

The road to nowhere!

The Ethiopian Rift valley

The trip from Addis to Shashamane through the lakes.

From Addis to Debre Zeit (Bishoftu in Oromo) was 47 km following the A1 road. It was a very popular recreation for day trips or weekend escapades from Addis at it offered warmer climate by being lower (1900 m). It was surrounded by several small lakes of volcanic origin such as Bishoftu, Babogaya, Hora, Magarsa and Kuriftu where some hotels offered decent accommodation. The Veterinary Research Laboratory was located there as well as a field station belonging to the then International Livestock Centre for Africa. The latter sited at lake Babogaya, green and volcanic.

Debre Zeit still had trees -a rare sight in Addis- as well as many interesting water birds and from there we could continue driving south and then take the A7 that took us to a number of interesting larger lakes located in the Rift valley. As you drove you would first come to the 180 km2 Koka reservoir (also known as lake Gelila) that was in fact product of a dam built on the Awash river. From then on, a string of lakes that reminded us of those in Kenya, followed.

The freshwater lake Zway or Lake Ziway (Oromo: Lake Dambal) came first at just over 100 km south of Debre Zeit. The lake is fed primarily by the rivers Meki and Katar, and is drained by the Bulbar river which, in turn, enters lake Abijata further south. It is believed that the Ark of the Covenant was housed at a monastery on its shores during the 9th. century. Although we did not find the monastery, we had a good time watching birds such as pelicans and the numerous hippos that inhabited the lake. It has an estimated area of 440 km2 and 30 km long (three times lake Naivasha in Kenya).

Further south there were lakes on both sides of the road: Langano on the left and Abijata and Shala on the right. The latter was alkaline and covered 205 km2 and a maximum depth of 14 m. Like Magadi in Kenya it hosted a soda ash operation in its shores (the same as in Shala and Chitu lakes nearby). We saw lots of flamingoes there but nothing in the level of Nakuru or Bogoria further south, in Kenya.

A satellite view of lakes Langano (pale brown on the right), Abijata (green) and Shala (blue). Credit of NASA / Public domain.

Lake Langano, located to the east of Lake Abijata at an elevation of 1,585 m is of similar size but filled with fresh water to a maximum depth of 46 m that it catches from a basing as large as 1600 km2. It is drained by the Hora Kallo river which empties into Lake Abijatta. Lake Langano is the only freshwater lake in Ethiopia free from Bilharzia (Schistosomiasis) and therefore a popular venue with tourists and city-dwellers that ignore the possible crocodiles!

Although fresh, its water is not clean looking but rather brown because of the high mineral content that many believe gives its waters healing properties. As expected, there were a few resorts around the lake that had increased in number today and from where water sports were practiced. Some wildlife was present there including hippos -not seen often-, monkeys and warthogs and numerous water bird species.

On one occasion, while walking along the shore we saw that the waves broke through water full of flotsam. As we had not seen this in a lake before, we came close for a better look that revealed that, in fact, they were pumice stones, very much like the ones we buy in the chemist to rub our heels with! Of course we collected a few that we still keep. When writing this piece I learnt that pumice is created when very hot rock is violently ejected from a volcano under intense pression and the foamy structure of pumice takes place because of concurrent rapid cooling and loss of pressure. It is infact volcano solidified foam!

An unexpected find in the journey to the visit the Langano-Abijata-Shala lakes were the crocodiles. These were not seen basking at the shores of the lakes or swimming but crushed on the road while trying to move between lakes! It was a real road hazard as some of them were really large and occupied the whole width of the road!

Shala lake, with a surface area of 329 km2 is the deepest of Ethiopia’s Rift Valley lakes reaching 266 m. It is surrounded by sulphur hot springs boiling away and smelling like rotten eggs. The land around the lake is criss-crossed with cracks due to erosion and earthquakes. Pelican island in the south host a colony of the beautiful great white pelicans and other birds such as lesser and greater flamingoes.

More lakes are found further south and east of the Bale mountains. These are Awassa, Abaya and Chamo and, further south lakes Stefanie and the Jade sea, lake Turkana. We never reach these lakes but stopped at Shashamene Zuria, an interesting place as you will see.

Shashamane Zuria [1]

Driving towards the lakes we were quite surprised to find Rastafarian-looking people walking towards the South. Then we learnt that their goal was a place called Shashamane that, for some reason was the Mecca for these people. We decided to pay the town -located 22 km from the southern tip of lake Shala- a visit.

We did not find the town anything special, apart from the community of Rastafarians that resided there as it was regarded as a “patch of Jamaica” in Ethiopia. It was more an issue of learning its history.

In the 1950s the then Emperor Haile Selassie I donated about 200 hectares to African Americans who were victims of racism and injustice after being exiled and forced into slavery in the USA. Jamaicans learnt about this and they a started coming so the Rasta movement started. The name Rastafarian derives from “Ras Tafari Makonnen”, the title of Haile Selassie I before he became Emperor and the latter still plays a major role in the Rasta culture [2]. The red, green and yellow colours of the movement are those of the Ethiopian flag.

Gladstone Robinson was the first Rastafarian to settle in Shashamane in 1964 and when we were there, there were a few hundreds residing there although their land had been reduced to just over 10 hectares by the Mengistu’s regime. It was an interesting visit that increased our knowledge of the Rastafarian movement.

Awash National Park

An eye catching sign on the way to the Awash National Park.

A couple of times we headed towards the East of Addis in search of the Awash National Park, located in the southern part of the Afar region of Ethiopia. At 225 km from Addis the park was quite easy to reach and enabled us to visit it over the weekends.

Entering the Awash National PArk.

Much further North is the Danakil depression, famous for being 100 m below sea level, one of the lowest and hottest places on earth. The Danakil area was explored by Wilfred Thesiger that wrote some very interesting books about his esploits there [3]. Unfortunately, this interesting area was out of reach at the time so we could not visit it and remains one of the places I would love to see.

Sketch of the Awash National Park (as I recall it).

The park, set up in 1966, is at the southern tip of the Afar Region and it has an area of about 800 km2 and an average altitude of 900 m. The south boundary of the park is formed by the Awash river which swings North soon after leaving the park and eventually disappears into the Afar (Danakil) region. In the middle of the park is the dormant Fantale, a dormant volcano reaching a height of 2007 m at its top.

It had large areas of Acacia woodlands with patches of grassland. The Addis to Harar road divided the park and separated the Illala Saha Plains to the south from the Kudu Valley to the north. In the south of the park the Awash River gorge had amazing waterfalls that, together with the Awash River gorge are the dominant features of this part of the park.

We stayed in bungalows located near the park headquarters but I fail to remember the name. The place offered a most magnificent view from the park headquarters. We thoroughly enjoyed watching while on the other side of the gorge cattle people were going about their business, going out of the kraals in the morning with the bells of their cattle sounding loudly and returning in the evening to spend the night under the protection of the thorn enclosures. Again, a sight that brought me back to my time with the Maasai in the Transmara.

The spectacular gorge of the Awash River as seen it from the park headquarters.
An enlarged view of the gorge to show a settlement and a cattle kraal from where the animals will go in and out on a daily basis.

There were not many roads at the park, but we managed to go for game drives during which we spotted a few animals such as East African oryx, Soemmerring’s gazelle, Salt’s Dik-dik, Lesser and Greater Kudus, Warthogs and Olive Baboons. We also saw interesting birds that included the North African ostrich and the Abyssinian ground hornbill and Abyssinian roller to name some of the rarer ones.

Of great interest were the Hamadryas Baboons (Papio hamadryas) [4] that are rather unique and present in large groups. These baboons are native to the Horn of Africa and the southwestern part of the Arabian Peninsula. The most striking feature of these baboons was the silver and white mantle that the males had while the females do not have it and they are brown all over.

During the drives we caught sight of the nice waterfalls and in one of our visits the river was running fast and this added a touch of drama to the sight. We spotted a few crocodiles but we needed to work hard for them and the same happened with the hippos that were there but more often heard than seen.

We also visited the northern part of the park that consisted of a 30 km drive from the main road to reach the Filwoha area and its well-known Hot Springs. This is Afar country and during the drive we saw a number of herdsmen with their beautifully looking cattle.

On arrival we met the Afar (also known as Danakil) people that resided in the area and that offered their services to guide us to the springs that we declined. They were truly fierce looking, a fact that concurs with their warrior reputation. As usual, for respect (and fear this time!) I refrain from taking pictures of them.

An Afar (Danakil) warrior. Credit: Élisée Reclus, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The springs looked beautiful and refreshing in the severe heat. Their water was of an amazing turquoise and they were framed by doum palms. I must say that they were very inviting but they were not as refreshing as we thought. They were very hot, particularly one known as the “Emperor pool” in which it was almost impossible to keep your hand inside it for more than a few seconds! If it was used by an Emperor, it must have been a tough one!

[1] There is a movie called “Shashamane” produced in 2016 for those interested in following up the subject.

[2] The term “Ras” means a duke or prince in the Ethiopian Semitic languages; “Tafari Makonnen” was his personal name.

[3] Thesiger, Wilfred (1998). The Danakil Diary. Journey through Abyssinia 1930-34. Flamingo publishers. 240p.

[4] For more on this species see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamadryas_baboon