Monday, June 1, 2009

Breakfast with Hornbills - Rift Valley Adventure

June 21 2009

A weekend out of Addis! Bliss; unfortunately the stress that flows away once out of the city returns on the drive back. Heading out of Addis for the Rift Valley and, in our case, Lake Langano, means driving around 96 miles of the road from and to hell. It’s the main route in and out of Addis for the coastal ports in Somalia (Gulf of Aden) and Kenya (Indian Ocean). Enormous overloaded semis plus trailers careen wildly along, little attention is paid to lanes, signals or anything else on the road and the anything else means people, donkeys, goats, camels and cows along with the feared Blue Donkeys (ancient mini vans that serve as a form of mass transit) and hapless individuals in private vehicles. Hitchikers pile onto the tarp covered loads on trucks and appear to sleep through their journey – numb with fear perhaps! Because my son had additional houseguests, I opted to ride with friends also making the trip to the lake – the fact that Mike is a former British Army tank officer was a bonus for me.

Our destination was English Cottages on Lake Langano. Seems that many years ago the government gave lakefront property to various nationality groups, English Cottages, American Camp remain. The lake is one of several in a chain of volcanic formed lakes along the Rift Valley. It’s backdrop are the Blue Arsi Mountains, a stunning 12,000 or so feet high. Langano is one of very few Bilharzia free lakes in Ethiopia and so safe for swimming. It’s also the color of a cup of tea with milk due to the constant stirring of the dark brownish/black sand that rings it.

The drive in (when I dared to open my eyes) once out of Addis leads through agricultural areas and the further away from Addis, the more primitive and desolate the surrounds. Traditional mud walled round huts thatched with conical palm frond covered roofs formed small clusters within a crude fence of thorn bushes intended to keep domestic animals in and wild ones out. Children squatted in the dirt playing with sticks; very young boys (looked under 5 to me) alongside the road were in charge of herds of goats, cows or donkeys that scavenged amidst the dust for anything to eat. Men beat dry corn stalks to reduce them to a sort of powder – not sure if this was intended for cattle or human consumption. Also saw other green leaves being similarly pulverized by hand. Everywhere the daily chore of getting water was in your face evident. Donkeys straining to pull rough wooden carts were loaded with yellow containers (the sort of container we’d use as a spare gas tank); trailing behind the cart, women and children both carried additional buckets or bottles of water. In one village I saw women in the damp riverbed digging with sticks to reach a source of water. This daily and necessary ritual was so obviously a way of life that I was humbled by how much I take for granted.

Another daily ritual is the gathering of wood to make charcoal. Women, bent almost double with a load of wood on their back were a common site. Trees are scarce and stripped of branches to meet the need for fuel for cooking. Charcoal vendors sit alongside the road. Animal dung is collected, formed into patties and stored in round piles, covered with palm thatch (look a lot like mini houses) and harvested for fuel.

A few years ago, before our economy tanked, Ethiopia embarked on a new enterprise – that of flower growing for the markets of the western world. Chances are that bunch of out of season flowers bought as a hostess gift came from this Rift Valley area. Now, with demand down, many of these massive greenhouses stand in early stages of decay. It was difficult to see the source for the massive piles of tomatoes and watermelon piled under tarps along the side of the road; I assume the fields to be further back. I was puzzled as to who was the intended customer and was told that the giant lorries that hurtle this road stop, purchase by the crate load and re-sell to the street vendors in Addis.

Everywhere, the poverty is devastating. Ethiopia, at the last census was thought to be around 72 million, a conservative figure. USAID people I’ve talked to say it’s closer to 90 million, compare that to 7 million in Zimbabwe. Outside governments and aid agencies here creep at a snail pace to effect change; clean, running water, a key step in health issues is one problem being tackled. Hunger, delivery of health care and overpopulation too are high on the list of “we’re trying to make a difference”. As far as I can tell, agencies are attempting to involve local populations in leadership in problem solving and Kate who works for the British Government in implementing self-help programs spoke of small pockets of success but admitted that the task was overwhelming at times.

Once at the lake (and the final approach is around 7 miles of none road – four wheeling essential as we climbed in and out of mini craters) is a haven of peace and a birders paradise. Our British friends had reserved one of the two English Cottages. Built in 1978 the structures and interiors are a step below rustic but perfectly serviceable with a basic kitchen. We hauled in everything from water and TP to cooking gas. My son and daughter-in-law (Benjamin and Annie) had made much of the relaxation aspect of visiting the lake and they make the trip at least once a month. After only two weeks in Addis I fully understood their use of the word “relax” once unpacked, cold glass of wine in hand and toes in the lake. It is essential I think to these young people working here that they have a place like this to re-charge batteries and gain some sense of peace. Another couple working here told me that they have to leave Ethiopia every three months or so in order to continue working here.

As a birder I found Nirvana at the lake. From under the shade of an Acacia tree I sat with bird book and binoculars and in short order had seen more new birds that on any other foray anywhere. An adult pair of Red Hornbills were teaching a young one to fly; a Gigantic Pelican fished close to shore; half a dozen or more Pied Kingfishers worked the water; the Ethiopian Cliff Swallow (gorgeous bronze and emerald) darted between lake and cliffs; at least three varieties of Sunbirds worked the tree for insects; weaver birds busied themselves improving nests and on the hillside, enormous Guinea fowl strutted. I’ll get my notes together and write more of the birds as I identify them.

Sunday, the ride back was even more hazardous in that it was market day and herds of sheep, goats, cows, oxen and camel wandered along side the road and spilled into the lanes with little warning. At one point we passed a troop of baboons foraging. I noticed the occasional tomb alongside the road decorated with pictures of epic warriors and was told they belonged to the Oromo people, one of the indigenous tribes. At another slow down point in the road a group of women dressed in red and white robes clustered at the side of the road chanting and thrusting crosses and framed pictures of Christ at passing cars; they were a sect of Coptic Christians. In small villages, groups of men sat under the shade of the rare tree and conferred, smoking. Homosexuality is taboo here to the extent of real persecution under the law and yet men walk around hand in hand and arms draped around one another’s shoulder showing open affection.

Back now in Addis, I walked to work with Annie this morning and on the way back stopped at Kaldi cafĂ© – a kind of deja vue experience. The logo is so obviously a play on Starbucks and the interior, if you shut out the chaos of Bole Road, as comfortable and familiar as my own corner Starbucks in Tucson – coffee was better though here.

If you enjoy reading this blog and our articles in, please help us to continue by supporting our advertisers and affiliates. Just click through on the ads and see what they have to offer.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Let's talk....Give us your comments

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.