Thursday, March 29, 2012

the Dorze

The other feature of the South, and one you will hear much more about in the coming few days, is its ethnic diversity, unknown anywhere else: I saw it described somewhere as the last place where a variety of African tribes still live in their original setting. Well, everything within limits, of course.
The original setting comes complete with warnings of pick-pocketing – raiding is a second nature to the African tribe – and a remarkable Ethiopianisation of children, who have quickly emulated their northern brethren in asking for money, pens, caramellos and anything else, as soon as they see a feranji. Waving at the foreigner, and subsequently turning the hand to hold it out for a gift, comes naturally to almost every child, and quite a few grown-ups, along the road, and in every town and village of the south, just as it did in the north. But we are getting increasingly immune to it.
The first of the tribes we visited were the Dorze, a relatively small group that is mostly known for its construction capacity. They have, for 100s of years apparently, built fabulously tall houses, from a bamboo frame woven together with grass and banana leaves. Very attractive structures, all the more so because they do not require a central supporting pole inside, and can simply be picked up and put down somewhere else, should the family move, or should the termites eat too much of the bottom of the structure in one particular place.

(1, 2) Dorze houses are quite impressive structures, tall, and without central support

(3, 4, 5) inside they are pretty simple, and provide room for people, utensils, storage of food
(6) and heating is provided by keeping the animals inside - really!

All this makes the Dorze people a tourist attraction, and thanks to Dutch development aid, the village has established a smooth tourist reception and management system, centered around the local tourist guide association. In short, one is being dropped at one of the houses, taken outside and inside, shown a weaver (the community is famous for weaving), shown how they make food, and then guided towards the tourist shop where they sell the weavings, whilst you wait for the local food to be served – a kind of pancake with honey. Smooth tourist management, but every sense of authenticity is well and truly gone, of course. Still, the houses are impressive.

(7, 8) a well developed tourist industry, complete with sites selling the weavings for which the Dorze are, apparently, famous
What also makes Dorze attractive is its altitude, at 2900 m well over twice as high as nearby Arba Minch. The steep ascent – in our vehicle – provides not only nice views over the mountain slopes and the lake below, but it also crosses some real forest, with real trees, unheard of almost everywhere else in Ethiopia. Of course, since they don’t need wood for their houses here…. Altogether, despite the tourist management system, a nice half day excursion.
 (9) view of the village, or part of it
 (10) just to prove that there are real trees here, so high up the mountains - something we haven't seen for a while
(11) and the view over one of the rift lakes, obscured by a blossoming tree

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Arba Minch

(Right, having been almost three weeks off-line, it is good to see that nobody, save one, actually missed us, considered us killed, kidnapped, crashed or just vanished off the face of this earth. It is comforting to know that you all have such great faith in our travel abilities! I will now pick up again from the moment we head to the south of Ethiopia, after having returned from Somaliland - it means that you will be reading about our adventures a little longer, well after we have returned, but he, you wouldn't want to miss any of this, now, would you?)

With our return to Addis Ababa we have left a few things behind. One is the east, the predominantly Muslim part of the country. Another is long bus drives, and minibuses, and the associated haggling over fares and suitcases on and off the roof. For the remaining three weeks of our Horn travels we have upgraded ourselves to a private car with driver – not our usual way of traveling, but given the planned destinations, first the Omo Valley in the south and then the Danakil Depression in the north - two places where public transport is either almost, or totally absent -, we saw no other option than the car and driver. And a bit of comfort.
(1) the most common form of long distance public transport in South Ethiopia
To get to the south we drove to Arba Minch, and we entered a different country. Gone are the dramatic mountains, the steep valley and the basalt-covered plateaus, gone are the dry, treeless landscape and the small, minimalist hamlets. And at least immediately south of Addis Ababa, it seems that gone, too, is the abject poverty that we saw in the north, and even more so in the eastern fringes of this country. The land is much greener, the trees are more numerous, and much taller, the herds of cattle are much bigger – they are moving constantly, over the road, from their homes to the watering places, or to the grazing fields, guarded by small boys with sticks. The tukuls, the traditional round huts that we have seen in most of Ethiopia so far, here are somehow bigger, better constructed, and even decorated, sure enough a luxury only available to those who have a little more than the poorest of the poor.

(2, 3) especially in the mornings and late afternoons, many roads are clogged with cows, going to drink, or - literally - coming home; negotiating these is tricky, given the size of some of those horns!

(4, 5)  round huts - tukuls - of a much more luxurious nature than we have seen so far, even decorated
On the way we pass the world-famous stelea field of Tiya – never heard of, but interesting enough, 12-13th Century stelea depicting the profession of the deceased who are buried behind it. Good for a few pictures, but difficult to place in historic perspective. Where in northern Ethiopia everything is myth, somehow fitting – or not, but at least you can debate it – within a greater complex of history and legend, the southern part of the country, everything south of Addis Ababa really, has only relatively recently be added to the nation-state. At the end of the 19th Century, emperor Menelik II expanded the Ethiopian territory, originally limited to the northern highlands, by incorporating the various sultanates in the east, like Harar, and by subjugating the southern tribes into the empire, too, not only the so-called Gallo – a troublesome people that is now called the Oromo people, and, incidentally, now consists of no less than almost three-quarters of the population (you don’t use the word Gallo anymore, it apparently means something like Barbarian, a really offensive term) – but also the many smaller, animist tribes in the border area with Kenya and South Sudan. Problem is that they do not really seem to have any history comparable to the great Amharic and Tigrayan north, or at least nothing written about. From all the books on the reading list, only Nell Westerlaken spends two short chapters, at the very end of her book, on Southern Ethiopia, all the others ignore the area completely.
(6) stelea field, actual graves behind the upright stone, and (7) one of the nicest carved stelea, that of a warrior
So, we entered a different country, different not only politically and historically, but also geographically. Ethiopia features significantly the Great African Rift Valley, a crack in the earth that doesn’t have an equal comparison anywhere else in the world. From north to south, from the Middle East (the Dead Sea) all the way to Tanzania, Malawi and Mozambique, this is where - who knows - ultimately over millions of years a new ocean separating continents may develop. South of Addis Ababa is the one of the most expressive part of the Rift Valley, in the form of a series of lakes, and a wide, flat valley, bordered on both sides by high mountains. And Arba Minch, or better even, our hotel in Arba Minch, overlooks two of those lakes.

(8) traffic on the road to Arba Minch

(9) and pumpkins being sold along the road, another sign of prosperity, some variation in the diet

(10) and one the rift lakes, from the veranda of our hotel - sunrise, this is, believe me!

Of course, any lake invites a little boat trip, no less if the lake supports something called the crocodile market. Obviously, you will first need to buy an entry permit to the National Park, and then rent a boat, somewhere else, and employ a mandatory guide. Our guide didn’t speak English, and didn’t know the names of any of the birds we asked him, not even in his own language, so that the boat driver could have translated. But the boat trip didn’t disappoint. No small islands with churches and monasteries, like Lake Tana earlier, but plentiful hippos, and a whole bunch of crocodiles, quite sizable ones, at a sand bank which is called – indeed – the crocodile market, despite nothing being traded there. The pictures, you will agree, are far more convincing than last year’s dolphins in the Mekong River. In addition, the lake shore is home to many birds, fish eagles, pelicans, herons, and a range of smaller ones – a true delight for the newly converted bird watchers in us. It didn’t matter that we almost burned to death, here – one of the things that hasn’t changed is the temperature, of course!

(11, 12) we were watching all the animals open-mouthed, and so did they!!

(13, 14) a bunch of hippo's - rather convincingly, I would say - frolicking in the lake

(15, 16) and "crocodile market", including a very courageous bird!

(17) plenty of water birds, of course, of which I have many more, and better, pictures, but this one shows both herron and pelican

(18, 19) and this fellow, an African fish eagle, we surprised during his breakfast, which he decided to take to safer regions straight away (just in case we were going to rob him of a headless fish)
(20) I temporarily forgot the name of this one, pretty bird
(21) but this is one hell of a baboon, happily munching a banana in the middle of the road to the lake

Monday, March 12, 2012


(NB: we are in Jinka, now, in South Ethiopia, and it is unlikely that I will be uploading much more, in the next few days, or even weeks. Internet is not what we think it is, here - forget about photos and the lot. So, enjoy this last installment for a while, until better times...)

There is really no pressing reason to go to Berbera, other than that there is nothing else to do in Somaliland (except visiting the Las Geel caves, on the way to Berbera). The country side on the 170 km drive from Hargeisa doesn’t change much, although by now there are less and less animals, only camels and goats, grazing in between the shrubs. We circumvent the occasional mountains, still with very little vegetation. And Berbera itself, well, the entry is perhaps even more depressing than the one into Hargeisa. And yet, yet… there is something magic about the town, in all its run-down, dusty form. The old town, with lots of old British colonial buildings, many apparently shot to pieces in the war with Somalia in 1988, at first seems mostly bolted up, a sort of a ghost town, but on closer inspection there are actually quite a lot of people living here, quite a lot of minimalist cafĂ© terraces, and – I have no idea where they came from – quite a lot of school children who surrounded us within minutes of us getting out of the car. I suppose we are a rarity, here, not many tourists make it all the way to Berbera.
(1) the road to Berbera, supporting a slightly more mountainous area, but still bone dry

(2, 3, 4) old colonial buildings, some badly damaged from the Somaliland independence war in 1988-1991, although the downstairs gallery is still in tact; (5) goats have a free for all in the destroyed buildings

Berbera is on the coast, but somehow the coastal strip is empty; apparently, nobody wants to live near the water front, too hot, too humid. Yet, the main business is fishing, the town supports many fishing companies, and has a small fishing jetty – you cannot even call this a harbor – where some men are mending nets. It also has a few restaurants, where we have the first real fish of the trip. Of course, outside town is the real harbor, much bigger, and the international airport, with the – apparently – second largest airstrip of Africa. Built by the Americans in the time Somalia still mattered as a pawn in the Cold War.
(6) Berbera Boulevard, somehow nobody want to be at the seaside - or maybe this part of town was also damaged in the war, and never rebuilt.

(7, 8) there is a harbour, with some ships that will never move again, and for the rest rubbish, rubbish and birds that love the rubbish - the main port is further to the left, out of sight

(9, 10) fishing is the main industry here, and is being attractively advertised - as in Hargeisa, this gives some colour to the otherwise rather grim town

Our driver, who is from Berbera, doesn’t understand why we are so interested in the old town, and wants to show us the new town. So we oblige, only to realize that we cannot actually distinguish between the two. Same dirt roads, same dust, same run-down houses, only difference is that the buildings are single story, as opposed to – collapsed – two story buildings in the old town. After an hour or so we have seen all there is to see, and we resume the return trip, another three hours of desolate country side.
(11, 12) some of the doors and windows are still relatively well maintained - I am sure the lattice work is original

 (13, 14) despite the illusion of a ghost town, there are some people, school girls who love the attention of the photographer, and women selling I-don't-know-what, on a street corner

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Las Geel

All this adventurous, hardship travel to Somaliland had one major objective: visiting the rock art galleries of Las Geel, some 50 km outside Hargeisa. I have seen many rock paintings, in India and in especially in Southern Africa (beats me why I never went to Lascaux in France, need to correct that one of these days), and I have always enjoyed it. Knowing that you can only see this here, in situ, you cannot transport them to any museum around the world; the magic and the mystery of the makers, long-dead shamans who painted this thousands of years ago, likely in some ritual to entice the gods to bless the hunt, or the harvest; the romance of the caves, of sitting there looking out over the plains below, like others must have done, too, that same thousands of years ago.
Getting to Las Geel involves hiring a car and a driver, and an armed escort – whether this is for protection, or to provide an additional financial stimulant to the economy, I don’t know. As customary in Somaliland, we first needed to fuel, then put some more pressure on the tires – you could not possibly have anticipated that ahead of the departure, of course. Driving is a bit of a challenge: despite having been British, they drive on the right… but somehow, most cars have their steering wheel on the right, as well! I haven’t worked out why, other than that cars with the wheel on the right seem to be cheaper (?).

(1, 2, 3) the country side along the road to Las Geel is possibly even dryer that what we have seen so far, supporting meagre huts only, and charcoal seems the only viable business from this land.

Our driver spent the first hour and a half mostly on his mobile telephone, except at the police check points, where he knew all the right people, and managed to get us through without once showing our special permit – another financial stimulant – or passport. Closer to the site, we turned onto a dirt track, which we followed for some 20 minutes, until we reach one more police check point. Surreal, this, absolutely in the middle of nowhere, a metal bar across a dirt road, and a police man who was not going to interrupt his conversation on his own mobile phone to let the one car he would see today through. So we waited five minutes – anyhow, our driver was also on the phone -, and then finally common sense was regained, permit inspected and one copy confiscated, and we could proceed. Another 10 minutes further we arrived at a small site building, where we woke up the care taker, who turned out also to be the guide. And who immediately got onto his mobile phone, too, and kept on talking well after we had reached the first few shelters. What is it with these people and mobile phones?
(4) this is, for sure, the only police check point that is being anounced in Somaliland, on a dirt track to the Las Geel cave paintings

The Las Geel site has been “discovered” in 2003, as a pristine site, unaffected by human destruction in the form of graffiti, and unaffected since, because, well, the site is in Somaliland. Like in Zimbabwe, the caves are in weathered granite hills, something we had noticed already on the way, a change in landscape allowing the occasional granite hill to stick out of the otherwise flat desert-like surface. There are over 20 shelters, of different size and depth, of which mostly the roofs have been painted, predominantly in red and white, with occasional brown-yellow, and, very rarely, black pigments used, too. The subject matter is cows, and humans, and cows, more cows, and some more humans, and a few dogs. I also found one giraffe, and one gazelle, but obviously, this was a site inhabited by pastoral people, not hunters – which suggests that it is probably not very old. Carbon datings suggest life in the cave took place almost 5000 years ago.

(5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10) the main granite hill that contains the shelters with paintings, a few examples of the paintings - like a ceiling with multiple cows and humans in different colours, a wall with monochromatic cows, a giraffe, and a cow with two human figures under it -, and the view from the cave.

We explored the various caves for well over an hour. Wonderful experience, warmly recommended (if not in Somaliland, then somewhere else, perhaps more accessible, but go and see rock paintings one day, it is well worth it).

(11, 12) and an unexpected bonus, two dikdiks - a very small deer species - and a gazelle, somehow they manage to survive in this unforgiving landscape; our first real wildlife on this trip