More Adventures in Ethiopia The Roof Of Africa A Birding Adventure

Safety briefing eth

As we drove across the countryside, it was fascinating to study the landscape and scenery as it changed. Every area that wasn’t vertical was being cultivated, mostly for growing cereals at the lower altitudes, using stone walled terracing to squeeze every last inch of arable land out of the landscape. The villages comprised a small collection of huts surrounded by a hedge or boma made of poplar or eucalyptus trees or even tall slim cactus in particularly dry areas. Inside the boma, the huts varied slightly according to the regional design but were usually round with mud or stone walls topped off by a thatched roof. Close to the villages, rows of eucalyptus trees stood like soldiers on parade. These alien trees were popular because of their quick-growing habit and straight trunks which were used in building, scaffolding, fencing, and just about everything. And then there were goats and cattle everywhere. Mixed herds of scraggly-looking animals wandered along the roads and over the fields, loosely guarded by equally scraggly-looking tiny children brandishing sticks, their older brothers and sisters having already been pressed into farming or water-gathering duties. Rural life looked hard, particularly so for the women, a large part of whose day was taken up with simply collecting water from the nearest well or pump which could be several miles away. Somehow they managed to balance on their heads substantial jerry-cans of water which I would struggle to even lift, and walk barefoot along well-worn dirt paths with all the elegant grace and poise of a cheetah. In contrast, the men seemed to work equally hard at leaning against trees to make sure they didn’t fall over, the trees that is. Glad there aren’t too many trees at home in Llandudno or it might catch on!

Ruth with villagers Ethiopia 1

The population statistics for Ethiopia make for alarming reading. The average Ethiopian woman gives birth to six children, though there is a high death rate of 11 in every 1000. Despite this high rate of infant mortality, around 46% of the total population is aged less than 14 years old, and we could certainly vouch for the high numbers of young children we encountered throughout the country, most of whom seemed to be standing by the roadside shouting ‘You! You! You!’ as we passed. There is an average life expectancy of 50 years, with only 36% of the adult population being considered literate. Approximately 39% of the population lives below the international poverty line of $1.25 per day: life in Ethiopia can be hard and short.

Back to the birding however, and our next target bird was the Ankober Serin. After another cruelly early start, we dropped off our luggage at our next hotel while it was still dark without really seeing where we were to stay, and then drove on to the Ankober escarpment. Ethiopia does dramatic scenery extremely well. The ground just fell away beneath our feet as the plains ended in a sheer drop marking the edge of the rift valley. Miles below us, a patchwork landscape of fields stretched away into the distance. This was where the rare and range-restricted endemic Ankober Serin called home. Somewhere out on those sheer rock faces were a tiny handful of small brown streaky birds, and we hoped to spot them without slipping over the cliff edge. I must admit I was distracted by watching the significantly easier to see Gelada Baboons that were scrambling all over the vertiginous ravine as if they were taking a walk in the park. Technically not a true baboon, these shaggy Old World Monkeys spend the nights on the relative safety of the cliff face – you assume they don’t fall off in their sleep – and climb up onto the plain to graze like antelope on the grass shoots in daylight when they can keep an eye open for predators. Now as endangered as their Serin neighbours, not only is their habitat very restricted, but their pelts make excellent hats. At least that is what the locals think and they tried to persuade us that we should buy some. I’m sure they would keep you very warm in the bitter cold at this 10,000 feet altitude, but I’m equally sure they keep the monkeys warm too, and they fitted them so much better than us that we could easily resist the temptation to go shopping. The locals tried to persuade us to try on the hats, and as our tour leaders, Keith and Christian took it upon themselves to try some out for size. Instantly they both turned into James May, but before his hair went grey! For those of you reading this who are not familiar with this particular Top Gear presenter, famous for his long straggly unkempt hair, just imagine a dark brown lion’s mane on top of their heads and you won’t be far off! We took several photos – well, you never know when they might come in handy – and gave back the hats, making it quite clear to the locals that we weren’t going to support their hunting trade.

Back to the Serin and someone, undoubtedly Keith or Christian, had picked out the tiny brown speck on the far cliff that was an Ankober Serin inching its way along the cliff face, obstinately hiding behind the occasional tussocks of grass that made it even harder to spot. Pretty drab it may be, but pretty rare too, so it had a special place our list. Apart from the hat-sellers, the inevitable bunch of children had found us, and they were gawping at our every move. Our hotel had supplied us with packed lunches, but it felt hard to eat a not particularly appetising roll with an unidentifiable filling when you are being closely watched by a handful of grubby and probably starving children. So we did the generous thing and unanimously donated our lunch to them. They timidly crept forward, snatched the food and backed off again to a safe distance to eat it, but they took only one mouthful before spitting it out and throwing it back at us. Just shows how bad the food must have been and gave a whole new meaning to MREs – Meals Rejected by Ethiopians!

It was dark when we returned to the hotel. We’d not yet seen it in daylight, so it felt like a game of Blind Man’s Buff as we set off in total darkness, stumbling along holding hands in crocodile file up a narrow footpath that wound its way around a hill as it spiralled up to the top, with our hands outstretched in front of us so we didn’t walk into anything. If only we’d had a torch! We reached a wooden door in a stone wall which encircled the hill, and paused to catch our breath, chests heaving. Had we arrived? No, this wasn’t it. Next we had some steep steps to climb. Glad we weren’t carrying our luggage! At last we reached a terrace and there was Christian who’d tracked down a paraffin lamp. This was the first of three levels of chalets, and the main hall and restaurant were still somewhere out of sight above us at the summit. Where on earth had Christian brought us? Rooms were allocated on the basis of fitness. Those who Christian thought could survive several trips up and down the mountain between meals and rooms without expiring were given the lowest rooms. Those who could only make the ascent once were coaxed up to the rooms at the top which were on the same level as the restaurant. Giving the illusion of fitness, we settled into our cosy little rooms on the lowest level and freshened up. It took us only seconds to get soaped up in the shower before the power went off and then we had a mad scramble to find candles, matches, torches and towels. Once dried and dressed, we took our torches and fumbled our way in the dark up yet more steps to the restaurant where candlelight shed a romantic glow over the scene. Supper was a breathless affair in the hall at the summit, surely an impressive building if only we could see it. Supper was also a slow affair. Presumably they had only candles to heat the food but when it arrived it was tasty and extremely welcome. There was safety in numbers we thought as we made our way cautiously back down the hill in the darkness to our rooms, but even with the combined power of several torches, the light was so dim that we all completely missed our chalets and found ourselves back down at the bottom of the mountain again. Never mind, exhaustion after this unexpected cardiovascular workout made for a good night’s sleep at least!

It was still dark when we cramponned our way back up for breakfast but again the single candle-powered kitchen took so long to rustle up scrambled eggs for 16 hungry people that it was well and truly daylight by the time we’d all eaten. And what a magnificent sight it was! This was the site of the former Ankober Palace and the hotel had been lovingly recreated by local craftsmen in the style of the original palace of Menelik II, who was the Emperor of Ethiopia until his death in 1913. Menelik II is seen as a bit of a hero in Ethiopia as he successfully managed to defeat the occupying Italian forces in 1896, the first time an African power was able overthrow a colonial invader. In fact, the Italians don’t seem to have made too much of a lasting impression on the Ethiopians beyond instilling a fierce pride in their own Ethiopian nationhood and the ability to cook good spaghetti.

The restaurant was rebuilt in the style of Menelik’s Great Hall: a raised wooden verandah running round the perimeter of the long hall while inside it, a high wooden ceiling was supported by enormous tree trunks and the whitewashed walls were covered with vivid frescoes. Outside, the commanding views were equally impressive, as we could see for miles over the Great Rift Valley, with a patchwork of pocket-sized fields below us and in the distance, the legendary Afar Plains. Sadly we didn’t have time to take up the Lodge’s kind offer of experiencing local culture through grinding our own corn and making our own injera as we had to cross those plains before nightfall.

It’s time for a short word about injera, the staple diet of Ethiopians and something we encountered at every mealtime. Injera is made from teff, a tiny cereal grain that is grown all over the country, and is served as a grey, flat, spongy and soggy pancake. Believe me, this is every bit as unappetising as it sounds, having all the flavour and texture of carpet underlay. If you are a foreigner, your injera will be served as a large circle of underlay on a plate, dotted with dabs of sauce called wat, in varying shades of brown or green, all highly spiced. For the locals however, the injera sometimes doubled up as both plate and tablecloth as a communal circle was flopped over a bare wooden table with the sauces slopped in the middle. Using your right hand only, the approved method of eating it is to tear off a piece and dip it into a sauce and eat it with gusto. Having tried injera during my previous business trips, I was already familiar with its cleansing effect on my digestive system and had no desire to eat it again. Alan, being a conservative eater by nature, wasn’t even going to risk tasting it so, capitalising on the legacy of those Italian invaders, we ate spaghetti every day. Sometimes spaghetti came with tomato sauce, sometimes with meat sauce, sometimes just with more spaghetti, but every day without fail, wherever we sat down for dinner we could be sure of a perfectly cooked dish of pasta. Ken, on the other hand, isn’t the sort to play it safe, and he worked his way through miles of carpet underlay each evening. However, one night the injera fought back and sadly for Ken, he spent 24 hours being so ill that he wasn’t able to leave his bathroom, quite something for a hardened bird guide with an iron gullet. And we didn’t even say, I told you so!

Keith and Chritian Eth

Now it was time for us to brave the Afar Plains. We’d heard much about this barren area and the fierce warlike tribespeople who lived here, and Christian’s briefing before we set off did little to reassure us. The fearsome Afar people have chosen to make the inhospitable dusty plains their home, far from other villages and communities, and they jealously guard their privacy. Unluckily for them, they are a particularly striking and photogenic tribe. They are tall and good-looking, and still wear their stunning traditional dress of white robes thrown dramatically over one shoulder for the men, and colourful drapes in red and blue for the women. Their good looks and adherence to their ancient traditions make them the perfect subject for photography, but they don’t like it at all. In fact they dislike it so much that in the past they have been known to shoot with guns at birders who’ve tried to take their photo. Oh yes, the one break with tradition for the menfolk is the addition of a machine gun over one shoulder and a bandolier of bullets over the other. So Christian told us all very sternly that as long as we were crossing the Afar plains, we weren’t going to stop, we weren’t allowed to use our cameras and we certainly weren’t to point our binoculars or telescopes anywhere near any people. All of which was going to make it hard to look for birds! Suitably warned we set off across the plains. Within seconds, we disappeared into a cloud of dust and that’s the way things stayed for the rest of the day. A fine red dust crept in under the door, through the cracks in the window, up through the floorboards and began to coat everything. It got in your mouth and made your teeth crunch; it got up your nose and made you sneeze; it got in your eyelashes and made your eyes water. Bramo the driver turned the wipers on full speed to try to clear a patch on the windscreen but he was driving through a red swirling fog, and we just prayed that the vehicle in front wouldn’t make an emergency stop. At a crossroads in the tracks, we encountered a gaggle of people. Surreptitiously we studied them from under lowered eyes, cameras firmly hidden in our rucksacks. The women were beautiful, clad in brightly patterned blue and red fabric which covered their bodies and over their heads like a technicolour shawl. The men watched us pass, standing tall and proud, barefoot and bare-chested with their white blankets thrown over one shoulder. Young and old, they carried their AK 47 assault rifles as easily as a walking stick. No sir, we weren’t about to mess with them!

Of course we had to make a pit-stop at some stage, and we pulled up close to an area of dense thorny scrub to provide a suitable bathroom. A distant settlement of Afar people was still in sight but hopefully we were far enough away not to pose a threat. All the ladies in our group dived into the bushes while the men stayed by the vehicles, looking for birds without bins and scopes. We emerged from the undergrowth to find the men enjoying close up views of Northern Carmine Bee-eaters carrying out circuits-and-bumps as they shot up from their perch atop the scrubby bushes to grab a passing insect before returning to the same perch to devour it and scan the sky for the next snack. This beautiful bird looked slightly out of place amongst the dust, a riot of colour with a salmon pink belly, brick-red back and turquoise face, all set off by a dramatic bandit mask across the eye, and a wickedly sharp bill. Then Christian suddenly gave a shout and disappeared off through the bushes. We all looked at each other? Was this an impromptu bathroom visit? No, we could still hear him calling so it seemed a good idea to follow him. Like a school crocodile, we scrambled our way in single file through the scrub to catch up with him. He was focused on a bush just in front of him. Around it buzzed a glossy apparition with an iridescent turquoise blue head and throat with a hint of a purple trim, and a shocking yellow body. Then we saw another and another and yet another: a rainbow of Nile Valley Sunbirds, what an astonishing sight!

Making our way back to the vehicles, chattering in satisfaction, we found that we had company. A line of five white off-road jeeps had obviously been too tempting a sight to the locals so they had wandered over for a closer look. Covering our binoculars with our hands we watched nervously as Christian walked forward to meet the gun-toting Afar tribesmen. However, far from being fierce and unfriendly, they were curious to know what we were looking for and soon gathered around us nattering away to each other. Curiosity overcame their reserve as we set up a telescope for them to peer through. Clearly they’d never experienced anything quite like this before, and it was highly amusing to see them take a sudden step backwards in alarm as they found themselves suddenly face-to-face with something they thought was a long way away. The womenfolk kept themselves to themselves at a distance, but the men were open and friendly, and it would have made for such a good Kodak moment if it hadn’t been for Christian’s stern warning earlier to keep our cameras well out of sight.

We said goodbye to our new-found friends and headed back into the dust. The route was far from obvious as we wound our way across the featureless flatlands. How our lead driver knew his way across, we’ll never know but as the sun was beginning to dip, we joined something resembling a track which became increasingly determined to become a main road as it led us into the town to be our home for the next few nights, Metahara.

The hotel looked quite comfortable as we checked into our rooms. Up on the first floor, a wide veranda ran in front of all the rooms overlooking a small garden filled with flowering shrubs and slender trees. Our room was at the end of the row, a fact for which we were grateful once we realised that once darkness fell and the lights were turned on, the diaphanous curtains provided no privacy at all for the occupants. We headed straight out for supper. The only restaurant which was geared up to provide Western food for a hungry birding group was a short walk away as the endemic Stresemann’s Bush-Crow flies, but was an obstacle course for mere humans. Stumbling around in the feeble light of our pocket torches, we tripped our way over a railway line that cunningly lurked in the darkness between our rooms and our food. No matter, it is unlikely to have much train traffic out here, we thought. How wrong can you be! With supper over, we headed back to the hotel, trying to get our bearings in the gloom. Setting the alarm for another early start, we crashed in our beds.

2am. The sound of gunfire tore the night apart, and we rocketed out of bed. We opened the door a crack and peeked out through the gap to see what was going on. Single gunshots ripped through the darkness in quick succession from the left and the right. It sounded like we were in the midst of a Wild West movie and the baddie had just ridden into town. Crack, zap, crack, crack, zap split the night as two parties exchanged shots. Then, just as suddenly as it had started, it stopped. Silence fell as heavy as a blanket. We eased the door shut and huddled together under the bedclothes, shaken by what had just happened. Hope our guides weren’t out owling! We were all up early for breakfast the next morning, eager to compare notes and find out what had been going on, but Keith and Christian’s curiosity had beaten us to it and they’d already been down to the market to get the latest gen on the night’s adventure. In the night, a heavily-laden freight train had lumbered into town, heading for Addis Ababa. As it had stopped on the tracks just outside our hotel, local bandits had tried to force their way into one of the wagons to steal the goods inside. But unbeknownst to them, someone had given the police a tip-off and they lay in ambush for the highwaymen. The raging gun-battle had broken out as the police drove off the thieves into the night, and the train was eventually able to continue on its way with its precious cargo intact. We checked the ground thoroughly for telltale pools of blood and dead bodies, but were disappointed not to find any. And the cargo? What was so precious that it had given rise to such a loud gun battle? Apparently, it was a large consignment of DVDs heading for the high life in Addis Ababa. I guess some people will go to any lengths to get their hands on the latest DVD on bird ID! Or maybe it was footage of the final contestants of Ethiopia’s Got Talent!

We saddled up and rode out of town in our trusty 4x4s. Today we were heading for Awash National Park just a short distance out of town. Arriving at the impressive gated entrance, we had the inevitable Ethiopian delay as we dealt with the paperwork. Or to be more accurate, fixer Solomon dealt with the paperwork while we amused ourselves watching Straw-tailed Whydahs coming down to drink at a dripping tap. Apparently the National Park was so dangerous that we were only allowed in accompanied by an armed guard, not that we were too reassured by the sight of his museum piece, a bolt-action Lee Enfield rifle. He wouldn’t have added much to his DVD collection the previous night if that was his weapon of choice. Still, if having a guard brought extra employment into the area, then we were happy to boost the job market. We bounced our way along rough tracks through the acacia woodland. Occasionally the convoy lurched to a halt as Christian hurled himself out of his truck and headed off through the scrub. We’d pile out as quickly as we could to follow him, and our Pied Piper led us a merry dance as we wound our way through the vegetation, making close acquaintance with the ‘wait a while’ bushes, so called because that’s just what you have to do as someone else unpicks your clothing from the wicked thorns that have hooked themselves into you.

We reached a more open stretch of grassland, and Christian made us all line up in a row. Much like beaters on a grouse moor, we slowly walked forward in a line, matching each other step for step. Suddenly a Harlequin Quail exploded out of the grass right at our feet. Swinging our binoculars like guns at a clay pigeon shoot, we got on to the bird, a handsome chap with a bold black and white face pattern and a rufous-coloured belly. Excitement had barely died down, when a Common Buttonquail did exactly the same thing, a cute dumpy little bird whose cryptic camouflage had made it invisible until we nearly trod on it. Add a Common Quail to the mix, and we were very satisfied with our beat and headed back to the vehicles to leave the birds in peace. We took a break at a little restaurant perched on the edge of a precipitous gorge, watching crocodiles lounging in the shallows of the River Awash far below us. Beside the restaurant, a line of almost pre-historic caravans stood roasting in the sun, the metal clicking as they expanded with the heat. Apparently you could stay here right in the heart of the park, but these dilapidated wrecks made our accommodation back in town seem obscenely luxurious.

Flushed with our success with the quails, we decided to try the same technique with coursers, only this time we were motorised. Our five vehicles lined up side-by-side at one end of a disused airstrip, and we headed off all in a row to see if we could find ourselves a bird. I wouldn’t like to say when the airstrip had last been used, but given the size of the bushes we had to dodge, it wasn’t any time recently. The drivers were having a whale of a time as they played chicken with each other to see how close they could drive to each other’s wing mirrors without actually touching. Then success! A rather alarmed Three-banded Courser shot out from a patch of shade under a bush and legged it over to the side of the runway. With nothing damaged other than his pride, we admired this handsome male as he soothed his ruffled feathers and stalked off indignantly into the undergrowth.

As our laidback armed guard followed nonchalantly behind us, we took full advantage of an opportunity to get out the vehicles and walk for a stretch in order to admire the beautiful waterfalls of the River Awash as it tumbled down into the depths of the gorge below. A quiet murmur grew into a full roar as we rounded a bend, and we gawped at the waterfall opening up before us. A hundred metres wide and some twenty metres deep, the green water surging over the precipitous edge to fall as white foam on the rocks below was mesmerising, all the more so because of the contrasting dry habitat around. The cooling spray created a microclimate and sprinkled our faces with a light dew which we soaked up like sponges. By now the fiercest heat of the day was past, and the temperature was pleasant so we were happy to amble along the tracks, looking for more birds. An Upcher’s Warbler confirmed its identity by its vigorous tail-wagging and a Buff-bellied Warbler and a Yellow-bellied Eremomela quickly added themselves onto our list. But though we were happy to while away the hours here, our guard was less so and wanted to get home for his tea. He kept trying to chivvy us back to the vehicles but we dragged our heels like a bunch of schoolchildren on exam morning. Then we heard a sound that stopped us all in our tracks. A roar. Not the roar of a waterfall but the roar of a big cat, a lion, to be precise. It roared again. Surely not, there weren’t supposed to be any lions around here, but another roar confirmed it, that guttural primeval sound of a male lion calling out across the savannah that raised the hairs on the back of my neck. There was no trouble getting us back into the vehicles now! But the guard had a surprise for us. We rounded a corner and came across another vehicle and a large cage, and there was a lion, a real, live, tawny lion, roaring into the night and twitching the tip of his tail from side to side in annoyance. Our ears hadn’t deceived us after all. He was a young male who was being kept here before being moved on to another reserve with more space and was calling as it was time to be given his daily ration of meat by one of the park wardens. Perhaps it was the remains of the last bird tour leader who’d refused to leave on time?!

Back at the hotel, we were greeted by a blackout – once more there was no electricity, just the romantic flicker of candlelight. Somehow our trusty railway restaurant managed to rustle up some food for us, but relocating our hotel in the pitch dark was disorientating as we headed off down the railway tracks in the wrong direction! The next morning we awoke at 4am to a horrendous caterwauling. Was it someone being stretched on the rack? No it was coming from the church next to the hotel. The call to prayer was very persistent and the howling wail continued as we rose bleary-eyed and dressed in the dark again before staggering across the railway tracks for a wake-up cup of tea. Hordes of people dressed in white robes thronged around the church and peered through the gates into the inner sanctum. Now, live and let live is my motto when it comes to religion, let every man worship whatever god or gods do it for him, but perhaps sleep and let sleep would be a better motto for spreading world peace. However, fed and watered, we left the worshiping crowd and headed out in search of more birds.

Ethiopia amazed us by how close we could get to the birds. There is no hunting in this country, it’s against their religious beliefs so a deep respect for wildlife is part of their culture. Even birds as large as an Abyssinian Ground-Hornbill, an impressive black beast almost half a metre long, with blue facial skin and a large casque, will strut along the ground close to human habitation with little fear, even though one is probably big enough to feed a whole family for a week! In fact, these birds seemed totally fearless, and we laughed to see a pair stalk regally right through a petrol station forecourt. Wonder if hornbills run on diesel or unleaded?

This morning Christian took us to the moon, or at least that’s what it looked like. A vast sea of lava had spread from the nearby volcano of Fantelle and left a bizarre landscape of misshapen black volcanic boulders that spread across the landscape as far as we could see. Not a single bush, shrub or tree broke up the jungle of angular rocks. Surely there couldn’t be any birds in this hostile habitat? But there were, and they were special birds too. Sombre Chat was restricted to just this particular spot, though the confusingly similar-looking Blackstart was also found here as well as more widely. However, this was a real test of our attention to detail as the two birds were both small and inconspicuous, they were both grey so they merged into their background, and they were nearly identical in looks and behaviour. A Blackstart was the first to be seen and we all took a good look at it. Then Christian and some of the group picked their way out onto the lava field to look for the rarer bird. The footing was treacherous: the rocks were razor sharp and ripped their hands as they scrambled on all fours out across the moon. Alan and I were more circumspect: a broken ankle at this stage in the year would severely hinder our bird race, so along with fellow birders Oz and Gail, we stayed on the raised causeway of the railway track and from this elevated viewpoint we watched their progress through our binoculars. This was a good move on our part, as we watched a small speck of a bird led them a merry dance round in a big circle right back to where we were standing. Sombre Chat perched upright on a boulder just feet away from us, and found himself on The Biggest Twitch list.

The scenery on the other side of the causeway was much friendlier and we birded the Beseke Crater Lake. The water’s edge provided us with a flurry of new waders such as Little Stint, Temminck’s Stint and Kittlitz’s Plover. Being a huge wader fan, Alan was in his element but then a rather unpleasant smell sneaked into our nostrils though and wouldn’t let go. Something smelled very dead, and we didn’t have to walk far before we saw the source of the stench. The corpse of a hyena was lying out in the open, swollen with gas and bizarrely, it had a rope around its neck. Who had done this and why had they chosen to leave the body here? These weren’t questions to bother the Lappet-faced Vultures who stood on top of the corpse. Unable to break through the tough hide, they were waiting for the gases to cause the taut skin to explode and in the meantime, they contented themselves with picking out the eyes. Yum, yum! The smell and sight was appalling but somehow, strangely addictive as we took photo after photo of the gruesome scene, and had great difficulty in tearing ourselves away!

Back at the hotel in Metahara, we found ourselves facing a double whammy. Not only did we not have electricity, but now we had no water either as it couldn’t be pumped into the town because of the power cut. So it was a dirty and rather smelly group who made their way over the tracks to dinner, and we packed our bags by candlelight ready to move on the next day.

Of course a wonderful way to see more birds is to join one of our Birdwatching Trips and learn a lot about the birds you are enjoying too. We have tours suitable for all from beginners to experienced birders that are seeking particular species. Just drop us a line here and we can arrange a perfect custom tour for you!

We look forward to enjoying wonderful birds with you as soon as it is safe.

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