Saturday, February 11, 2012

Horses, heights, tibs and parting

February 11, 2012
Greetings from Hawassa! 
With sore rhomboids, hip adductors and tuchases, but otherwise intact, we return from the Bale Mountains after a 3-day horse trek through some of the most lovely parts of Ethiopia.

We had not planned this trip, but both of us had taken leave from our work in order to travel south to Kenya to visit Elliot's adopted brother, Kanikis, in Marsabit District. This is the son of Lekati, the Samburu Laibon who adopted Elliot more than 35 years ago, and Elliot has stayed in touch with him through the death of Lekati, Kanakis' initiation into manhood, marriage and beyond. We were to have left for Kenya last Thursday, but then found out that we both had to have yellow fever shots at least 2 weeks before crossing into Kenya, and El hadn't been able to secure one in Addis Ababa until January 31. So, we had to do something else while the yellow fever “cooked”. We had eyed the Bale Mountains, about two hours to the east, and their locally-run eco-tourism trekking and decided to give it a go, both of us with some hesitations about accessibility and our own durability. And then the day before we left, Marty was hit with some miserably sick patients who left her feeling at a loss with their care, adding a sense of irresponsibility to the mix. She also had a wicked cold, but we went anyway. And we are both glad we did. 
We will post a map of Ethiopia with our pics, because it may help. Our fellow Fulbrighter Assefa and his family visited us from Bahir Dar and kindly drove us the 25 kilometers to Shashomene (known as the town where Haile Selassie allowed Jamaican Rastafarians to settle, a settlement that still remains). From there we took a mini-van packed, as always, with eighteen people (in a van fit for 12!) for 67 kilometers to the town of Dodola at the base of the Bale Mountains. We located the Bale Mountain Hotel and checked in, expecting to spend the night there. But within 15 minutes of finding a room we were visited by Abdul, a guide from the Eco-Trekking cooperative, because Elliot had mentioned to the hotel staff that we were looking for its office. Abdul immediately a) said that we could go that afternoon; b) picked up a few supplies and c) started walking uphill with us. It was c. that presented a problem. Uphill. Usually the treks are by horseback but the abrupt start of ours meant that we were going to walk “only 11 kilometers” uphill that afternoon. Abdul sussed us up fairly quickly (and El's comment that 11 kilometers seemed awfully long in between puffs probably helped) and hailed a horse-cart driver-friend who took us in his cart up the first 5 kilometers and we walked-climbed the rest of the way. All we can say is that we didn't die. 
The land closely resembles Montana or Wyoming, with dryland grain farming and pasture-lands below the high mountains. It is populated by Oromo people who have been herding, traveling and fighting by horseback for centuries. It was the Oromo cavalry that beat back the Italians at Adwa in 1896, humiliating them thoroughly in one of the few African victories over European colonialists. They are striking people. Most on Bale are Muslim and, though many wear western suits, on their heads are turbans, creating a glorious picture as they gracefully canter and gallop over the hills or by the roadside. The women dress in dark long dresses and walk their pack-horses carrying water and goods for the market the many miles to Dodola. The houses have round straw-thatched roofs and animal corrals are made of intertwined branches and vines and in between children herd the goats, cattle and sheep. It is a very specifically Ethiopian Montana that often took our breath away. People seemed solemn but as soon as we greeted them with Oromo “Nagaa!” or even Amharic “Salaam!” their smiles would light our way.

That was the foothills. Then we climbed (with every one of our muscles protesting) into the forested mountains. The main tree species is the Ethiopian juniper, with large trunks and weeping needle-covered branches. The undergrowth is controlled by Oromo livestock that are scattered throughout the mountains. The forest is gorgeous - cool, green and quiet. We saw bushbuck (Ethiopian deer) and colobus monkeys (the glorious black and white ones with long white tails, they swing high in the forest canopy), a flock of wattled ibis and many pretty little unknown songbirds. 
The first night was spent in a tent in a camp named Changiti built by the German aid agency GTZ, which actually does help local people make some money. We aren't sure we could have made it another step, so were glad that combined Oromo/German wisdom did not make the first camp 12 kilometers rather than 11. We were on a mountain outcropping with valley on three sides. And cold! That was not a sensation we had had (except for Marty's trip to the States) in almost 5 months. The stars were glorious and the silence was remarkable. 
Next morning we were up and in the saddle for three hours to another camp, Wohoru, actually a house on an Oromo farm hamlet 10,000 feet high in the mountains at the base of one of the tallest of the peaks. It was beautiful, but the poverty and isolation of the people affected Elliot particularly. People live off raising and selling onions and their sheep and cattle. We asked the man who owned the farm what he made selling his onions, and it was about $80 a year. The Eco-Trekking helps, and we were conscious to buy a goat to be killed for tibs (an Ethiopian meat specialty) knowing that we would eat a small amount, and the rest of the meat and the money would benefit the 8-9 people living in this small hamlet. We didn't do a whole lot – we arrived before noon, and would spend the day there, so we read and took small walks, one to an area where local people keep wild bees and harvest their honey for confection and for Ethiopian honey wine, tej
Marty loved the beauty, but was affected not only by the poverty, but also by the altitude and lack of caffeine. Ethiopians drink coffee all day long in ceremonies but not to get out of bed in the morning, and we somehow never managed to communicate to Abdul that we were useless without morning Joe. A coke helped, something we rarely drink. Sleep didn't come easily for Marty (in part because the high altitude, above 10,000 took her breath away). But today's walk and horse-ride back to Dodola were worth caffeine-withdrawal and altitude dyspnea. By the way, we signed and scanned the visitor registration books at both of the sites and found that very, very few of the trekkers were over 35. If we could move, we would do a little strut. But we can't.

Back now to our lovely little 'guest house' apartment. We are about to go out to eat with friend Lemma, who will soon leave for the States. Just talked to Helen who assures us that there is no more snow on the ground in Massachusetts and tomorrow we will prepare to go to Kenya. 

 Nothing changes in our missing you. Friends and family have been great about keeping us up to date. Please stay in touch.

Marty and Lemma comparing birding experiences.

Children in Abdul's family in Dodola

Guide Abdul

Reading at first campsight, Changiti

Unmarked gravestones at Changiti

View of Oromo village in valley from Changiti

One of Elliot's "Oromo cattle" series

Saddling up to leave Changiti

Elliot on horse, ready to go.

Uphill on horse.

Abdul trying to get the kinks our of Marty's shoulders.

Children at Wohoru

Marty among goats at Wohoru

Very small goatherd at Wohoru

Marty examining elderly blind man's eye, Wohoru.

Preparing the goat.

Further preparing the goat.

Little boy chasing cow, Wohoru

Getting ready to ride, Wohoru.

It's really hard to take a picture while riding.

Marty and Abdul

Women winnowing in Dodola

View out of our over-packed minivan from Dodola

Washing the dust out of the undies.


  1. Wow! And you tell it so well. Love the post, love the pictures.

  2. hope to read your lovely stories from Kenya!