We spent our first full day in Ethiopia in Addis Ababa, sorting out the logistics of the rest of the trip, meeting several people, and exploring the city a bit. Our official host for the trip is CARE Ethiopia, one of the key partners in the larger project (called Enhanced Livelihoods in the Mandera Triangle) that is funding our rangeland monitoring manual work.
In the evening, we met with Charles, the CARE Director of Pastoral Programs in Ethiopia. We decided to make it a dinner meeting and enjoyed yet more delicious food (a variety of lentil and vegetable dishes and injera) at a nearby restaurant. After a fruitful discussion with Charles, we sat back and enjoyed some traditional Ethiopian dancing (a lot of chest, shoulder, and neck pulsing to a strong beat – very nice!). Once again, we enjoyed the music and dance and the feeling of being somewhere totally new – very different from Kenya, disorienting and pleasing all at once.
The next morning, we were picked up from our hotel by Tegegn, the driver from CARE who has been tasked with taking us around for the next week. We headed eastward out of the city, passing through some of the highland areas around Addis. We were impressed by how green it was – field and fields of tef – the Ethiopian staple grain which grows in fields of lush grass. (Tef is the key ingredient of injera).
After passing the busy town of Nazaret, the road dropped steadily down into the Rift Valley. The temperature rose, and the road became completely dominated by large trucks carrying cargo containers. This, we learned, is the main road to Djibouti, where all Ethiopia’s cargo enters or exits at the port. (Incidentally, we were impressed by the quality of the road – much better than most roads in Kenya).
The landscape in this section of the Rift Valley was positively odd. There were large crater-like areas filled with chunks of black rock; it looked like a huge tractor had tilled them up. After some time, we passed by Lake Basaka, the northernmost of the Rift Valley lakes. Unlike any of the other lakes we’ve seen, though, the water in this lake was totally black. Not fit for drinking or irrigation, Tegegn told us!
By around 11:30 we reached the town of Awash. We were in time to speak with some of the CARE staff at their Awash office and get a brief orientation to the management issues in the region’s rangelands.
We then grabbed some lunch – our first dining experience in rural Ethiopia. I should mention that we are both vegetarians, and we had been warned by several people and our Lonely Planet guidebook that there is almost nothing for vegetarians to eat in rural Ethiopia. We brought a bunch of granola bars as emergency food and were prepared for the worst. So, we were quite pleasantly surprised when Tegegn ordered some tegabino shiro for us, and served on a plate of injera, this spiced lentil puree was quite tasty. We also discovered Ambo water – an Ethiopian mineral water that is advertised as “naturally carbonated” (something neither of us had ever heard of before).
Fortified with lunch, we set out with Alfanur, the CARE Awash field coordinator, to see some of the area. In our meeting before lunch, we had learned that there are two main ethnic groups in the area, the Afar and the Karyu. The Afar live in the areas east of the Awash National Park, while the Karyu live in the areas west of the park. We headed into the Afar land and quickly understood that the biggest management issue in these areas is invasion by Prosopis juliflora. Prosopis, or mesquite, is a hugely successful invader and problem shrub in many arid areas in the world, not just Ethiopia and Kenya. It forms extremely dense thickets of thornbush, with grasses rarely growing underneath.
After we visited some of the areas worst affected by Prosopis invasion, we drove further north up the Addis-Djibouti road, until we came to an area called the Alledeghi Plains. These vast plains are full of grass and wildlife – including, rumor has it, about 30 Grevy’s zebra. If this is true, this is the only extant Grevy’s population north of the very southernmost part of Ethiopia. Unfortunately, we did not see any Grevy’s; we were told they are quite hard to see unless you go there first thing in the morning.
What makes the Alledeghi Plains full of grass, in a landscape that is generally heavily grazed by livestock? Conflict. The Plains area is a buffer zone between rival ethnic groups, the Afar and the Issa (who are part of the Somali ethnic group). Can human conflict actually be good for wildlife? Sadly, it seems this might be the case – though obviously not in the long term.
Tired, we headed to our evening accommodation at the newly built Awash Falls Lodge in the Awash National Park. The “lodge” is really a series of huts right next to the impressive Awash Falls. The location was stunning, but some of the lodge’s amenities were still rough around the edges. Still, it was a beautiful location, and we quenched our thirst on Ambo water under the stars. We again ordered shiro and found another dish we could eat: firfir. Firfiris basically injera that has been broken into bits and tossed in a spicy, oily concoction called berbere.
Stuffed with firfir and shiro, we slept to the sound of the rushing falls.