Our main tour of Ethiopia finished officially on the morning of 23rd January, when most of our group returned home, or moved on to other countries. We had opted to do the five-day ‘Harar extension’, giving us the opportunity to visit the east of Ethiopia. For this trip it was just the two of us, with a driver and guide.
Awash National Park
After our experiences with rough dirt roads in the north, we were relieved to hear that there was a tarmac road all the way to Harar. When told that our first stop – Awash National Park – was only 200 km from Addis, we thought it would be a short journey. But no: there were lots of heavy lorries on the road, causing a terrific amount of dust (we saw several ‘dust devils’ along the way) and making our progress slow.
We stayed overnight at the Awash Falls Lodge, which (as the name suggests) is the ideal place for viewing the Falls. Our ‘room’ was a cabin built of stone and bamboo, with fairly basic facilities. From the raised restaurant, you could see the Falls, but in the evening the tables were moved outside, and placed in a semicircle around an open fire – very atmospheric, especially as you could hear the Falls in the dark.
There were a couple of tame ostriches at the Lodge, which amused us by wandering around the grounds. Typically African, the restaurant had a roof but was open sided. While we were having breakfast, a large baboon, with a baby on its back, crash landed on our table, grabbed some of our bread and made off, spilling our drinks in the process. The staff quickly cleaned the table, replaced food and drinks and apologised profusely for the disturbance. But we didn’t mind – our only regret was that it happened so fast, we had no time to get the cameras out!
While in the Park, we did a couple of game drives; we saw oryx, gazelles and dick-dicks, but Awash is noted for its birdlife rather than its animals. We also did a short walk to the hot springs, which involved crossing some very swampy ground and some small streams, but fortunately we managed not to fall in.
From Awash it was another long drive to Harar. For the first half of the journey the landscape was flat, with just yellow grass and acacia scrub – quite different to the scenery of the north. After that we were back in the mountains, but we noted other differences as we passed through towns and villages. Unlike the predominantly Christian north, the people of the east are mainly Muslim, so we saw more mosques and fewer churches. The ladies wear very brightly coloured clothing, contrasting in style with those of the north.
Harar is meant to be the fourth holiest city in Islam. In many ways it is similar to an Arab city, with crowded markets and narrow winding streets. There is a low wall round the city, with several gates, but it is probably of little value for defence.
We spent some time walking through the narrow, winding alleys, with brightly painted walls to many of the houses. We saw the spice market, and the ‘recycling market’ next door. We went to the palace of Rastafari (future Haile Selassie), now a museum, and another house with exhibits about the French poet Rimbaud, who lived in Harar. Both houses were built by Indian architects, and had some good views over the city. We also visited a traditional house, which was decorated with brightly painted bowls hanging on the walls.
We saw the tomb of Emir Nur, which resembles a bright green Easter egg, and saw the outside of the Catholic church and the main mosque in the town.
In the evening we were taken to the spot outside the walls where the ‘hyena man’ feeds the local hyenas – a tradition developed to stop them coming inside the city. In the end there were five hyenas there, greatly outnumbered by the tourists who had come to watch.
Our final experience of Harar was unpleasant. On the day we left, we discovered someone had broken open our locked leather bag and stolen $430. We complained to the manager, who insisted it couldn’t have happened in his hotel, but changed his tune when we threatened to call the police. In the end he replaced the stolen money – but gave us Ethiopian birr in place of dollars.
Dire Dawa and back to Addis
From Harar we were taken to Dire Dawa, a large modern city with nothing of interest, except for a nice modern hotel where we spent most of our time on the internet.
The next day we drove back to Addis. This was a long 10-hour drive, which would have been longer except that we drove the last section on an ‘expressway’ (the first in Ethiopia) which was not officially open! It was a bizarre experience, driving in solitary splendour along a 3-lane motorway. We were only stopped once – and our driver blagued us through.
Harar was an interesting city, certainly, and we quite enjoyed our brief visit to Awash National Park. But was it worth all the driving involved? We had our doubts.