Friday, July 01, 2005

Cool Sanctuary in Biblical Mountains

FT.com -- Even before landing in Addis Ababa, the world's third-highest capital, I have a hunch that Ethiopia is going to be a country of incongruities. In the aeroplane I'm still only vaguely connected to the great copper girth of land spread below me - birthplace of Lucy's fossils, long-distance running and coffee. Two weeks on the ground amid its dusty cities and green swarthy highlands, and I know I'm right; at least about the incongruities.

Ethiopia has all the usual Out of Africa landscapes of single acacias standing like lone soldiers against blistering red sunsets, but if you go expecting staple African offerings - luxury in the bush, hot-air balloons, champagne breakfast with hippos - you'll be disappointed. A drastic reduction in the country's forest cover, now down to only a fraction of its original, combined with prolific hunting, has caused acres of forest land and most of its large mammals to disappear. The Simien wolf, gelada baboon and mountain nyala supposedly still roam Ethiopian highlands, although sightings are rare.

But Ethiopia certainly makes up for her lack of mammals with more than 800 species of birds, her umpteen languages, her countless ethnic tribes and her stubbornness. Ethiopians joke that they haven't experienced a single decade uninterrupted by war in their history. And while this might not technically be true, it does explain the intense political involvement of its people.

Ethiopia endured only five years of colonial rule under Italy (1936-41) and today Ethiopians are unreservedly smitten with their own culture and only blandly interested in faranjis. So much so that, in the past, foreigners were told to wash their shoes before leaving the country's shores because it was thought even the dust of Ethiopia was too precious to be taken away from the homeland.

So if you go to Ethiopia, expect to be confronted by non-ingratiating natives, dodgy infrastructure and spectres of famine and poverty. Go, because you'll get a glimpse of how the world might have looked when it began; because it holds all possibilities for revelation.

To reach this possible state of epiphany though, I'd suggest leaving the dubiously named Addis Ababa (new flower) with its profusion of pastry shops, signature blue Russian Lada taxis and suicidal minivans, and head straight for the Bale Mountains which lie in the south-east state of Oromia. You could take the local bus (if you have no issues with claustrophobia or motion sickness), or you could opt for the more comfortable option of hiring a car.

Either way, you'll pass a string of lakes, surreal landscapes of giant termite mounds, barricades of cacti, pyramids of tef grain and magnificent views of the Rift Escarpment. You'll also pass children with bands of brown fluoride stains on their teeth who'll call out "you-you, you-you", isolated Orthodox churches atop hills, and the Awash River, which Ethiopians consider the only "loyal" river in the country because it dries up at the border without entering neighbouring Djibouti.

Side excursions for bird-watching should be made to the Rift Valley Lakes Langano, Abiata and Shala - brown, silver and blue respectively. There's also Lake Ziway where you can observe the incredibly ugly prehistoric-looking abakoda birds. You could also take a dip in the therapeutic hot springs of Wondo Genet or stroll around the quiet lakeside city of Awassa nearby. Ultimately though, you must get to Dodola, which is 75km and three hours of unpaved road away from Shashemene.

Dodola, the base from where treks to the Bale Mountains are organised, is a dusty frontier town with colourful shops, decrepit ping-pong tables and a row of shoe-shiners lining its single, musty main street. To arrive here is to cross the threshold into a grainy black- and-white Western. Wiry men ride garis pulled by scrawny, ribbed horses, and the chronic dust billows up in thick clouds every time a vehicle passes by. Thankfully, the air smells more of eucalyptus and frankincense rather than gun smoke, but you still won't want to linger here indefinitely. On arrival, you should contact the Integrated Forest Management Project (IMFP), fix up a local guide and trekking route, and get set to be whisked into a landscape which can only be described as Lord of the Rings meets Alice in Wonderland.

Physically, mentally and spiritually, the mountains have always won all the prizes. But what strikes me most about them is that they are malaria-free, dust-free and a world removed from Ethiopia's small towns and cities.

The lower edges of the Bale Mountains are dominated by huge African Junipers and Spanish moss, and as you get into the sub-Alpine zone, there are vast tracts of heather, thyme, and St. John's wort. You can walk for miles watching shadows of clouds scale mountains without the sight or sound of a single person. Hillsides are speckled with bright torch lily, mountain streams, clumps of bamboo, caves, lichens, moss puffs, giant lobelia, magical enclaves with ponies, ferns, rocks - and then suddenly, a lone goat-herder will break the silence with a cry or a song, or a group of men with chiselled, biblical faces will ride by on their horses like the magi.

The route I followed began at Changetti (2,720m) and took me to the highest point, Angafu (3,460m). I stayed at five forest camps at Wahoro, Angafu, Adele, Mololucho and Duro, between 5-18 km away from each other, each with its own spectacular setting and view. Each hut sleeps 12, comes stocked with basic provisions, and has a separate annexe for a toilet and shower - crucial after a long day's hike. This is very much a DIY holiday: buy your own provisions, cook your own food, climb your own mountains, so to speak, but there's help along the way. Horses to ride are cheaply available and recommended. There's also a hut keeper who'll greet you with his brood of kids while your horses run up to the campsite to rest. He will make up your sleeping bags, rev up a fire, wash your clothes, and even kill and cook a small mammal for your meal.

After four days of trekking an average of five hours a day, two sheep feasts and one near-sighting of a nyala, I began to ponder again on the incongruities. I was in the third most populous country in Africa, yet the people of Bale had to ride miles to reach their nearest neighbours. I was in one of the poorest nations in the world, yet I had been shown unsurpassed generosity by people who had next to nothing to give. I was in a country infamous for famine, yet a man could still make his living by weighing people in the streets.

The incongruities run deeper. Ethiopians measure time unlike anywhere else, which allows them to truthfully advertise 13 months of sunshine, and also explains why they're still stuck in the year 1997. Old Ethiopian men insist on congregating in coats and sweaters to drink cup after cup of steamy, sweet espressos (buna) in the heat of the midday sun. Shoe-shiners seem to be well-employed in dustbowl shanty towns, while the invention of ceiling fans seems to have bypassed the country entirely.

When I get back to Addis, I'm taken to an Orthodox Ethiopian Church where Christianity is practised in much the same way as when it was first established. Devotees, covered from head to toe in white, pray at the windows, doors and steps of the church, never actually entering the inner sanctum until they are convinced of their worthiness. Ethiopia remains predominantly and unswervingly Christian in a continent converted by Islam.

Later, in the air, thinking about all I hadn't managed to see - the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela and Tigray which some say were built not by men but by angels at night, the old Fort of Harar, the spectacular Blue Nile Gorge - I caught sight of the green highlands of Bale rolling upwards like waves into an African sky. It reminded me that I had at least been allowed into one of this beguiling country's many sanctuaries.


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