“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view.”— Edward Abbey.
The quote above is most apt for what we were to experience in the next 24hrs. Wayne’s car was going like the wind and we were all brimming with enthusiasm and confidence. Anyone planning a trip like this had better gird their loins and be prepared for the inevitable ups and downs that will occur. I still cannot get over how lucky we have been. All our potential disasters have been within reach of help and with patience and determination (as well as more than a modicum of luck), these have thus far all been resolved. Long may our good fortune and optimism continue, why not?
The main focus of our trip, at least to my mind, had been the wildlife areas of East Africa. Now that these were behind us we had something of a testing time ahead. Ethiopia with its completely foreign customs, food, language and even script was indeed testing us. Thus far we had not experienced any of the extremes of stone throwing or hostile behavior others had described, but almost certainly these lay ahead. Ethiopians have a different attitude to tourists compared to what we had experienced thus far. It has been suggested that all the foreign aid poured into the country in the past had led to an unfortunate attitude towards faranjees. The people have become somewhat dependent on aid and regard tourists as a never ending source of handouts with a resultant loss of self-worth and personal pride. Every action has a reaction and I do wonder if all those proponents of foreign aid really understand the consequences of robbing people of their pride and independence. As a fellow, if privileged African, I feel that I have a right to comment freely on this sensitive topic. The constant cupped hands and cries of “you, you you, give me money/pen/Highland” are distressing. The sins of fellow travelers are being visited upon us. We have not given a single handout but have rewarded services rendered with appropriate generosity I hope. It is distressing to see that even mothers are encouraging their children to beg. Those that have given in the past have done nothing less than stolen a peoples’ pride!
Ethiopia generally does not cater for self-drive tourists and already we are being tested by the standards of accommodation. These standards were to prove to be the worst of any of the countries we visited. The cheaper hotels were not within our comfort zone. Perhaps the answer is to stay in mid to upper range hotels, but we prefer camping and sleeping in our own bedding that that of a even slightly unhygienic hotel. Unfortunately the high population density almost completely precludes wild camping as does the Ethiopian proclivity for crowding around you and not seeming to appreciate the need for any form of privacy. Outside reserves there are virtually no campsites and none of these have any decent facilities. Some of the locations to camp are absolutely sublime and these compensated for other shortcomings. Perhaps this must be accepted as the price to pay inorder to spend time in possibly the most scenic country we visited.
The other stressful phenomenon, very marked in Ethiopia, is the lack of regard for personal safety on the roads. The livestock wander relatively unsupervised on the roads and vehicles are treated as if animals always have the right of way. The careless attitude of the very many pedestrians on the road is perilous. They cross without looking, occupy large sections of the road and generally behave as if roads for constructed for the use of pedestrians and motor vehicles are the intruders. Beware if you should strike and kill a pedestrian. A German living in Ethiopia tells me that there is a high chance of 8 years in jail whatever the merits and that your embassy is helpless to assist, this was confirmed by others. Expats living in Ethiopia almost always use personal drivers to prevent themselves being placed at risk. Striking an animal can also lead to conflict. Apparently the best to do in this instance is to drive on, avoiding a mob confrontation and reporting to the nearest police station. We miss the smiling faces of East and Southern Africa and are beginning to have some resentment at the inflated prices being charged tourists even for the most basic of commodities. Haggling does not come easily to me and I am more than happy to pay my way, but if asked to “donate” funds to those less fortunate would rather continue doing this closer to home. Enough whining, the Ethiopian people on a one to one basis are very personable and even refined. They are very proud of their long history and ancient traditions and rightly so!
Ever since we had arrived in Ethiopia we had been experiencing intermittent soft rain, especially at night. We had been exceptionally lucky in that it had never been heavy or ill-timed enough to disrupt our plans in any way. However Anne noticed a slight water leak into our RTT on her side. To my horror I discovered quite a major problem here caused by the tough roads we had covered. Our fairly heavy 360 degree “ostrich-wing” awning was mounted on the side of the pressed metal aluminium casing of the RTT instead of on the roof rack. This mounting was tearing away with a good sized chunk of the aluminium casing coming with it. How to solve the leak and prevent the awning pulling away completely? Fortunately I carry quite a few webbing ratchet straps and 4 of these were deployed to crank and anchor the awning and mounting to the RTT casing and to the roof rack. I had originally wanted a very simple light awning but had been talked into this heavier one. First commandment of overland travel, keep it simple. No 2 is carry as little weight as is possible. Later I was able to seal this using a silicone gun.
We had quite a long day’s travel ahead of us and made an early start. Wayne is not optimal in the mornings (just as I was at his age) and I am trying very hard to not be too demanding. We had had enough of tribes and took the tar road to Konso, skipped Konso and went onto Abre Minch and Dorse, ultimately heading for the wilds of Bale NP. The Konso people we passed along the route seem to have adopted western dress and we saw little evidence of anything traditional. However their terraced farming methods on the hillsides was interesting, as well as their huts perched on the hilltops. This was very reminiscent of Rwanda.
The road was tarred all along our route and there was little traffic. Closer to Abre Minch one travels along the western borders of the twin lakes, Lake Choma and then later Abaya which are part of the central Rift Valley lake system. There is extensive cultivation alongside these lakes, particularly bananas. We first drove to Paradise Lodge on the outskirts of Abre Minch where it has a magnificent view over Lake Choma from a bit of a height. This is a very smart lodge with all facilities including a swimming pool. They do allow camping on a fairly large square of grass opposite the swimming pool. Ablutions and hot showers are at the swimming pool and massage parlour. The restaurant was smart with reasonable prices and there are 2 ATMs were we drew Birr. We were a little uncertain whether to stay here in these somewhat luxurious surroundings or not. We felt that as campers we would stick out like sore thumbs and would not have much privacy. Make no mistake though this was several notches better than carpark camping. The camping fees were Birr 150 (US$8) pppn. We had also heard excellent reports of the outstanding views from the more rustic Dorse Lodge about 20km away and were in something of a dilemma when we again bumped into the Ethiopian tour guide, who had so kindly helped Wayne change his fuel filter at Turmi. He suggested Dorze Lodge as being more suitable for us, endorsing the fantastic view and the fact that being out of town would be more peaceful.
One takes the (double-lane!) road towards Addis Ababa and after turning off after 17km take an unbelievably steep and scenic road to Dorze. This is a good quality all-weather dirt road, winding through the forests in a series of switchbacks and hairpin bends. It was so steep that Slow Donkey was more comfortable in low range. We climbed from 1150m to 2250m in the matter of about 14km. We first drove past the very rough road signposted to Dorze Lodge to see what the camping was like at a traditional Dorze village a couple of km down the road. This community camp did not appeal to us at all, its title escapes me. Most of the accommodation is in crowded Dorze huts and there was only a small central patch of muddy lawn for vehicles and tents. We feared very little privacy here as there were many hangers-on. However it was apparently fully booked for the hutted accommodation and seems to appeal to tourists seeking an “authentic” Dorze experience. It had no view and we were unanimous that it was not for us. Disappointingly the Dorze people appear to have abandoned any form of traditional dress.
We drove the short distance back to Dorze Lodge. On the way you pass stalls selling the very colourful cotton weaving products the Dorze are famed for. We braved the narrow, bumpy, steep and muddy 1km road to the lodge in low range. It had begun raining rather heavily, the first rain to really be an inconvenience. Fortunately this later settled. This lodge is apparently owned by an individual, an Ethiopian, in Abre Minch, although the community do benefit to some extent it seems. It consists of a group of large and fairly well fitted-out Dorze huts, a communal lounge/restaurant and some very simple ablutions, cold showers and flush toilets which had seen better days. Here we camped more or less in car park conditions though Wayne pitched his tent right on the edge of the precipice, nothing like living on the edge! The feature of this site is its unbelievable views down to the lakes below, a drop of about 1km. This was billed by another traveler as the best view in Africa and it certainly is up there. The only campsite with equivalent views from a height that I have seen is Mucheni View in Chizarira NP, Zimbabwe. That is saying a lot. The camp attendants were very friendly and helpful. The only off putting factor was the number of hangers-on, but later they moved away.
It took us a bit of time to settle down at this cold and wet campsite, needless to say we did not avail ourselves of the cold showers. Once again we were the only people in camp and had a lovely supper with our table and chairs set up on the nearby viewpoint. Charges here are unusually dear, at Birr 200pppn (US$20), but if possible do not allow this to put you off. Although the rustic facilities do not warrant this very high fee, the views do.
Main, view from Dorze Lodge.
1. Meal with a view.
2. The campsite at Dorze Lodge.
3. Camping on the edge.
4. Dorze style building at Dorze Lodge.
5. Sunrise from the campsite.
6. Another pic of the view.