Haile Selassie

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

Visiting Addis

As I mentioned earlier, we needed to travel to Addis roughly every month and, after the first twelve months I got promoted and that meant that we gained access to an expatriate shop known as the Victory shop. Although this impressively named shop could only be compared with a small supermarket in Kenya, to be able to enter it was a moral boost to our remoteness and complemented our food needs. It also offered the option of buying several things in one place and even find some imported stuff.

Despite our newly acquired privilege, we continued to visit the Mercato, attracted not just by the food but also in search of handicrafts. Ethiopia is well known for its rather unique jewellery. Various silver crosses of different sizes, shapes and materials as well as gold ornaments of different kinds, particularly the rather large rounded earrings and other items are sought after by both Ethiopians and visitors.

Although we bought a few crosses and other silver trinkets, we were more interested in other kinds of crafts such as textiles and baskets, the latter in particular we liked a lot. So, while I attended meetings and did project procurement and other official tasks, Mabel spent many hours shopping at Mercato.

She bought lovely lengths of cotton material known as “shammas”. These are light weight shawls worn by women and decorated with coloured borders. There are also plain and heavier ones worn by men and used as blankets and even as shrouds.

She also bought a number of baskets of which I only have a few where we are now for you to see.

Tequyes. Baskets made of bamboo in southern Ethiopia mostly Gurage zone .

Amazingly, she was not deterred by the amount of strongly smelling rubbish that was strewn all over the place that included lots of human excrement as there were no public toilets available. She solved this inconvenience by wearing her gumboots and spending quite a time cleaning them on return! She walked with our “beggar chaser bodyguard” and both came back loaded with various shopping items.

While in Addis we also got to know the various restaurants as the food at the Harambe Hotel was truly poor. We sampled a few with various results. Eventually we narrowed them down to the great Italian Castelli where the antipasti, the spaghetti with gorgonzola and the tiramisu were truly excellent. Sometimes we also dined at the Greek-Armenian Club where we had a weak spot for the cold mint and yogurt soup and other delicacies of both cuisines. We also liked some of the local restaurants such as the Habesha and the Finfine but, because we ate local food in Bedele, we wished to change to other kind of food.

Regrettably, almost towards the end of our stay we were taken to a non-descript place by a friend who claimed that he had eaten the best chicken in Addis! We followed him and arrived to what looked as a family house. We were accommodated at one of the few tables available and ordered the only dish on offer: fried chicken and chips and waited and then waited a bit more. Eventually the food arrived but when it did, it was really delicious. As we could not remember its name, we started calling it the “Chicken Embassy” and returned to it whenever we felt like having a good chicken!

During one of the trips to Addis our car (a project Land Rover) died about 200km from Addis. After trying everything we knew to find what was wrong, we finally realized that the petrol was not reaching the engine. I recalled that, sometimes, I needed to punch the front panel of my Land Rover Series I in Uruguay to get it going again to the amusement of my companions that did not know that the electrical fuel pump was screwed on the other side of the panel!

So, we looked for the pump not only behind the front panel but all over the place and failed to find it. After that we thought it had fallen off during the journey, but we could not find where it should have been either!

Eventually, we gave up trying to do a DIY repair and stopped a lorry that towed us to the next mechanic we found while we speculated where the pump could be. The mechanic announced that these cars had the pump inside the petrol tank (a clever idea!) and that he needed to siphon the petrol out, remove the tank, open it and check the condition of the elusive pump!

After a few hours spent putting things apart, a loose wire was reconnected and the car re-assembled. Later on, I needed to take it to Addis to fit a new pump outside the tank! Anyway, we got the car going again but only for a few km before nightfall. Luckily, we reached the town of Wolisso and found a hotel to spend the night. The place, built in Italian style, clearly belonged to a gone era when travellers would find there all necessary luxuries. However, it was obvious that the revolution did not have room for frills and the place was clearly state-run and rather dilapidated.

We were tired so we dined on spaghetti and tomato sauce while we were “over served” by all the waiters of the establishment that did not have any other customers to look after!

The following morning, we were woken up by birds calling and the sound of what appeared to be monkeys screaming! We went out to look and realized that our hotel was immersed in a patch of green forest and that there were lots of birds and monkeys around us! The latter were the grivets Chlorocebus aethiops, the horn of Africa equivalent to the more common vervets (C. pygerythrus).

Walking in the park we soon discovered a large derelict steaming open air swimming pool rather overgrown with vegetation and, further on, another one inside a large hall that had also seen better days. We had just stayed at the Ethiopia Hotel (earlier known as the Ghion Hotel and today known as the Negash Lodge) that had been built in the 1930’s and that it was famous because it had been used as a holiday home by Emperor Haile Selassie, because of its natural hot springs which many believe has curative properties.

Although we continued with our journey the following morning, we made a note to return to spend more time in this hotel during our journeys to and from Bedele. We returned again and again to the point that we became rather well known to the staff that was always welcoming! We soon discovered that the hotel had a speciality, the so-called “Emperor’s Suite” that was room number one, near the entrance, in the internal patio, on the way to a closed pool that was functioning and popular with day visitors. We asked for it and, paying a small surcharge, we could have it!

When we entered, we could see that it had been a luxurious suite, with a sitting area with windows that opened to the surrounding lush vegetation, a large bedroom with a large bed and a truly oversized toilet. We felt like the former Emperor, if we ignored the neglect and smell of damp!

Once we entered the toilet, it had another surprise for us: the largest bathtub we had ever seen, almost the size of a small swimming pool! I opened the only and rather humongous tap and hot water -clearly coming from underground- gushed out. Clearly the tap was in accordance with the size of the recipient!

So, to enjoy our private pool, we hatched the plan of opening the tap to fill it up while having dinner. Immediately we hit a snag, the drain hole was also humongous and there was no plug! As the reception did not have one, we improvised one with an ashtray and a hand towel and went for dinner thinking that surely Haile Selassie had a proper stopper, but it had long gone.

To our surprise, when we came back the tub was still empty although the water was still running. Although the ashtray, being of hard plastic, was still there, the towel had gone “down the drain” leaving no trace as the suction power of the outlet was stronger than anything I had seen before. A look in the drain showed no signs of the towel! Luckily, our initial concern of having blocked the pipe forever were unfounded as the water was still running but we could not have our bath! This we managed the following night by using a small dessert plate and a stone that, although was not hermetic, it worked quite well! We paid for the “lost” towel and, fortunately, no questions were asked.

The bath was very soothing, and we slept well, probably partly the consequence of the sub lethal toxaphene fumes inhaled, product of Mabel’s bug control efforts prior to entering her sleeping bag. She steadfastly refused to get between the sheets! We were up early because of the loud bird calls and the screaming of the numerous grivets.

After breakfast we usually continued our journey either west towards Bedele or east to Addis. Either way we could not fail to admire the beautiful round Gurage houses along the road.

House being built.
Detail of a Gurage house. Credit: Pic of house: Cutaway Design from P. LeBel, “On Gurage Architecture”, Journal of Ethiopian Studies, Fall 1969.

These were not the usual straw huts, but proper large structures known as “sauer bét”. They are built with eucalyptus, bamboo, vine, and thatch. Red eucalyptus wood is resistant to termites, so the basic structure of a house can last for several years. Although without plumbing or electricity, the houses are meant to be cool during sunny days and can be warmed up with a fire in the centre of the house during the cold months.

Young Gurage coming to greet us.

Each Gurage house was surrounded by the ubiquitous false banana trees (ensete) from where the “kocho”, typical Gurage food comes from. Ensete is a drought resistant staple crop and we also saw some coffee probably for cash or domestic consumption.

We never failed to admire these houses whenever we travelled to or from Bedele.