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gatoratlarge

Culture and Wildlife Collide in Ethiopia

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gatoratlarge

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When I was invited to join several safari talkers on Chalo Africa's journey to Zakouma in Chad there were multiple options on the table.  (Group Trip Report to come!) The origination or entry point to N'Djemena, Chad and onward to Zakouma for our group---some were coming from Asia, some from Europe and some from the US---was through Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.  One option would be to extend the trip to Zakouma for a second week (which I'm sure would have been great) or what I chose to do which was to hop around Ethiopia and explore (for me) a fascinating new African country. 

 

It was to be my first foray into Ethiopia and I am so glad I decided to check it out.  It is certainly not your traditional safari destination like wildlife rich areas in East or Southern Africa, but I think having visited, it's an essential country to see to gain a fuller picture of Africa as a continent and as a rich culturally significant destination with very unique endemic wildlife and stunning scenery.  My itinerary was as follows:

 

I landed early morning from a long day and a half of flying---pretty miserable---Florida to Toronto---a few hours of fitful sleep in the passenger lounge and onward to Addis...

A late morning flight to Dire Dawa, then a hour drive to Harar, overnight at a traditional guesthouse X1

Next day back to Dire Dawa for return to Addis overnight at Sapphire Hotel X1

Charter flight next day to Mizan Teferi in the central Ethiopian Highlands for a six hour caravan long past the end of pavement near the town of Kibish in the Omo Valley for four night of camping X4

Retrace our steps back to Mizan Teferi to catch a charter flight over Gambella National Park in hopes of catching some of the Nile lechwe and white eared kob migration, then back to Addis at the Sapphire Hotel X1

Early flight to Gonder, drive onward to Simien National Park and Limalomo Lodge X2

Drive back to Gonder for overnight at Mayleko Lodge X1

Early morning flight to Lalibela for a night at the Maribela Hotel X1

Then the next day leave for flight to Addis (Sapphire Hotel) X1

Depart for N'Djemena, Chad X1

Charter flight to Zakouma at Tinga Camp X6

Homeward via charter flight to N'Djemena then via Addis onward to the US

 

I came home with my safari fix but also a greater understanding of the rich history and diversity of Africa and even the diversity of wildlife beyond the traditional safari.

 

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michael-ibk

Cool you started this Joel, looking forward to hearing and seeing more from your extraordinary Ethiopian adventures. Since I´ve heard a bit about it and seen some pictures I can promise everybody - this is gonna be awesome!:)

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gatoratlarge

First stop was a flight to Dire Dawa in eastern Ethiopia almost to Djibouti and then an hour or so drive to the medieval, walled city of Harar.  It's sometimes been described as the East African version of Timbuktu.  I re-read Paul Theroux’s travel book prior to the trip about his Cairo to Cape overland safari and he had some interesting stuff to say about Harar:

 

“Men are beasts all over the world... but lepers, hyenas, ivory tusks, and garbage; the complaining donkeys, the open drains in the cobbled alleys, and the tang of spices; the butcher covered with blood, raising his cleaver to split a furry hump and remove the smooth cheese of camel fat—and smiling crookedly to offer the fat as a gift; the moans of the people’s prayers, the dark eyed invitation to a shadowy hut, and the howls of “Foreigner!” — all these explained why Rimbaud had been so happy here. He had liked Africa for being the anti-Europe, the anti-West, which it is, sometimes defiantly, sometimes lazily. I liked it for those reasons, too, for there is nothing of home here. Being in Africa was like being on a dark star...”

 

Sounds like paradise doesn’t it?? :D

 

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We stayed in a traditional Harar Guesthouse which was basic but fine and an interesting experience.  Originally we were booked at the Wonderland Hotel but the day before our arrival we found out the owner of the hotel had gone to Addis to buy supplies but inexplicably died (!!!) As a result, the hotel was closed.

 

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My guide was female which I gathered was unusual for Ethiopia or for Africa for that matter.  She was good and showed me around her hometown with ease.  She took me to a private home for an Ethiopian coffee ceremony and I have to say that ordinarily I'm not a coffee drinker or lover but in this case I'm a fan of Ethiopian coffee.  We also may have chewed khat which is a mild narcotic very popular in this region and ate injera which is eaten all over the country.  

 

(khat market)

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gatoratlarge


Of course the reason a lot of people visit Harar is to experience the surreal nightly ritual of the Hyena Man feeding a pack of hungry hyenas just outside the walls of the city.  My guide told me as many as 40 hyenas roam the alleys of Harar at night.  They haven't had a problem with hyenas and people and she said they typically scurry past, that they're actually quite skittsh.  The practice originates from a centuries old custom of feeding hyenas once a year in some sort of ritual but this modern version has taken place for at least 50 years.  It's a bit eerie to watch the hyenas skulk in and out of the shadows of the taxi headlights.  There are apparently two feeding sites, one Christian, one Muslim.  We went to the original site.  Scraps from the butcher shops of Harar are fed to the hyenas and it was only after the feeding frenzy had passed that I realized the ground I was standing on was in part the dried skins of camel carcasses!  There are many reasons given including that the feedings prevent the hyenas from taking their livestock.  Hard to know what is actually true.  None-the-less, it's an interesting experience:

 

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A walk around the cobbled streets of this predominantly Muslim city revealed many mosques (nearly 100) but the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Church was also present and my guide told me they live in peace and harmony together (she was Christian).  A lesson for our troubled world. We visited the palace of Haile Selassie and fed the yellow billed kites waiting for scraps outside the butcher shops near the markets.  The market we visited didn't seem to mind photos either.  It was a short visit but I'm glad to have put it on the itinerary.  In a perfect world I would have stayed another night but in my mind that would have been enough time.  Back packers though can spend as much as a week's time or more absorbing the exotic atmosphere of the city.

 

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Botswanadreams

@gatoratlarge Thanks for bringing me back to Ethiopia. Oh yes, to be so extremely close to the hyenas is a very interesting experience. 

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gatoratlarge

Can I edit a post after I've posted it?  I seem to have re-posted a few pics and it's buggin' me :D

 

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gatoratlarge

The ride back to Dire Dawa was along windy roads through hills and small mountains and included a drive through a town which was the main Khat market in the region which is quite popular in nearby countries as well.  Dire Dawa itself didn't seem particularly interesting although it is Ethiopia's second largest city with a population of about 250,000.  There was an interesting rail yard there and you can catch a train to Djibouti which looked like quite the adventure. My guide had been there and showed me some video of the ride.  We were allowed to ride the train around the yard as it collected the cars it would take to Djibouti....soon it was time for my flight back to Addis!

 

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The story goes this fellow had chewed too much khat when he somehow landed his truck on top of this building and somehow lived to tell about it!

 

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Here;s an animal!

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pault

Your guide looks (quite literally, with the colourful clothes) great. Excellent start and really nice photos, especially of the streets. I want to go there!

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Alexander33

What a wild, crazy (in a good way), and exotic adventure. Just reading your travel itinerary has left me exhausted — you were quite the trooper. I well remember Paul Theroux’s descriptions of Harar. His book Dark Star Safari is definitely a keeper. 

 

And the owner of your hotel died just before your arrival, thus causing the hotel’s closure?  I’m just shaking my head. Really? How did you go about finding the guesthouse?

 

Looking forward to your sharing more of this fascinating trip. 

 

Edited by Alexander33

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Kitsafari

I had seen some of your photos n they told an amazing adventure. So I'm really looking forward to riding along with you. 

 

Khat - hmm that explains the exotic and dreamy tone to your pictures! I love it!

Edited by Kitsafari

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gatoratlarge

 @Alexander33 Chalo was using an Ethiopian ground operator and so they had already taken care of the change by the time I landed.  There aren't many accommodation options in Harar so most folks stay in a traditional guest house.  I feel terrible for the deceased owner and family---never did hear exactly what happened.  And I never laid eyes on the Wonderland Hotel which online was given some tough reviews---as it was, the guesthouse was kind of cool to stay if just for a night.  The bathroom was detached and downstairs across a courtyard and I did hear what seemed to be a conflict between the barking street dogs and the whooping and trilling of hyenas for a while but overall it was a good night's sleep!

 

@Kitsafari notice how I never actually admitted to chewing the khat in case of an employer reading my trip report! :D

 

After a night in Addis our group of seven departed the next morning for a much anticipated visit to the Omo Valley. Only we wanted to visit the Surma or Suri tribal people which required a good bit of custom travel. The Suri live on the western side of the Omo River and until recently there were  no bridges to cross.  The Suri get about 1000 visitors per year.  To get there, we chartered a flight to a town in the central highlands of Ethiopia and there, three land cruisers awaited for a six hour drive southward long after the pavement ran out.  I had expected a parched, dry earth, arid and desert-like but that's not what we discovered at all.  Actually, most of the drive the landscape seemed very fertile.  We passed coffee and tea plantations and always mountains surrounded us.  Frequently we saw guerezas or colobus monkeys hanging out in the trees and the occasional olive baboons, some quite large, crossed the road.  Only after we crossed a river did it seem to become a bit more arid.  We began seeing the cattle and herders along the road, naked but for a cloth draped over the shoulder and a long staff.

 

 

Here is the festive crowd that gathered around the plane :)

 

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Atravelynn

Great title!   Enjoying all the culture to start off with.  The khat accident is quite a sight and tale.

The hyena nightlife had to have been a really wild time.  You look 90% enthused and 10% apprehensive. 

 

Looking forward to the collisions yet to come!

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gatoratlarge

@Atravelynn collision may be a little harsh of a word -- "meets" maybe?  That might have been better word choice.  Had a busy weekend but will pick this up later today and try to make some progress :) 

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gatoratlarge

After the six hour journey (we picked up and were accompanied by armed guards---not that there's too much of a safety issue but with the proximity to the South Sudan and it's Wild West reputation, you don't take chances) we passed through a small town called Kibish and we knew we were close.  Soon we found ourselves at camp which would be our home for four nights on the banks of a seasonal river.  It was actually a wonderful set up with hanging showers which staff would fill with hot water when you requested it and a proper toilet that would self-flush when you filled it with water.  Our group of seven included a professional photographer completing her visit of all of the tribes of the Omo Valley, her cousin who would write the text for the coffee table book they planned to publish, @Sangeeta; @optig, and an American couple, Andy and Paula, who I regretfully do not know their screen names on here but also Safaritalkers :(  It was a delightful group to be with and our guide, KB, was exceptional and outstanding in every way.  We also had a local guide, Coco D,  that was made of patience and a real gem.  The chef, Addis, has to be mentioned as he kept us well fed and the food was absolutely amazing!  Local guards were also employed and made sure nothing walked away from our tents while away.  After a long day of travel we spent the late afternoon in the river bed next to camp with our cameras.  Children came down and we were enchanted immediately.  It was like we had found the Lost Tribes of Iman---natural models and beautiful people indeed.  But before sharing some pictures let me answer some questions:

 

Do they always dress like this?  The answer is no.  The body painting and face painting is typically done by the children and the young women.  The men do not participate.  Some of the older women have the lip plates but mostly do not paint themselves up.  I have read they only paint themselves for wedding ceremonies and other special occasions.

 

Do you pay them?  Even though the Surma are more difficult to reach and are less visited than the circuit of tribes on the eastern side of the Omo River, there is an expectation of payment and it's an opportunity for them to make some spending money -- five bihrr per photo or about 20 to 25 cents.  Each of us likely ended up spending a couple of hundred dollars during our visit to the Omo.  Cattle and AK-47s or Kalashnikov rifles are the local currency and the symbols of status but good ole cash money helps too and can be spent in the nearby town of Kibish.

 

As an aside, sadly the government has built a huge hydroelectric dam project and plans for large scale sugar plantations for the region.  I'm quite certain the Surma were not queried about whether this was what they wanted...they appear in the path of "progress" and their traditional way of life seems in doubt and in jeopardy.  Like the Baaka forest people of Central Africa to the Bantu, the animist tribes of the Omo are viewed as "less than" by government officials and it doesn't seem that they or their opinions matter.

 

Our goal was to have a cultural interaction with them and not participate in what has been criticized as creating a "human zoo" -- our pre-visit view was that the people in this region are innate artists with an aesthetic talent unmatched anywhere on earth.  If you enter a village with cameras firing, you'll get just that.  A "pick me, pick me" scenario that's not enjoyable for anyone.  We attempted to be more sensitive than that...whether we were successful I do not know.  I do know that it wasn't all jockeying for photos...we were witness to the pastoral life that has played out for centuries sitting in camp along the banks and watching the people water their herds of cattle and goats in the pools of water below, while children splashed and swam in the shallows.  Young men swished and swashed with cloths, practicing the Donga stick fights that signals manhood while looking after their herds.  We watched the women grind the maize and watched two villages settle a grazing dispute holding a Donga which I will describe later...so my answer is I'm not sure the net effect of tourism...whether it helps or hurts...and frankly I'm not sure how much longer we'll have to ponder the question as the government makes plans for agricultural projects without the knowledge or approval of the local tribes...I do know that it was simply an amazing experience...one that I'll never forget...thank you @Sangeeta for making this possible as I know it took a lot of time and research!

 

Here are some of the Surma children and women we were privileged to meet:

 

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gatoratlarge

One of the surprising things I think I mentioned ealierwas that contrary to my "Ethiopia is a parched, drought stricken land" notion that I had---I think a lot of westerners think of Ethiopia like that from the news coverage of the terrible drought and famine a portion of Ethiopia suffered in the 1980's---the area of the Omo we found ourselves in was fertile and even somewhat green.  In fact, a couple of real "frog stranglers" (heavy thunderstorms with loud peels of thunder and flashes of lightning) occurred in the night and the chorus of frogs was at times deafening!

 

 

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Alexander33

This continues to be a fascinating report. Fantastic portraits!  

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gatoratlarge

@Alexander33 thanks!  I'm glad you are interested---doesn't seem like too many others are following my scintillating report! :( Perhaps not as interested in the culture as the animals or (the unthinkable) I suck at writing! :D  I will persist however till completion! :D

 

In between village visits we relaxed during the heat of the day and perhaps there along the river we were able to be the voyeurs we wished---not impacting the lives of the people around us but observing what they'd be doing if we weren't present at all.  What we saw at least in these instances was idyllic and charming...herders watering their cattle and goats in the pools of water in the riverbed, children splashing and swimming, some practicing the Donga with using their cloths instead of sticks---almost like a locker room towel snapping :D

 

 

Later in the week we were apparently scheduled to see the locals conduct a demonstration of what an actual Donga stick fight might be like, however, we learned on the second day that there was to be an actual (real) Donga that afternoon as two villages were settling a grazing dispute.  I had heard or read the government had banned Dongas but rules and laws don't always travel to the far reaches of their jurisdictions) We watched as the warriors prepared their bodies with clay and mud from the river to get ready for battle, and as the village approached with their village flag, the monotonous thrum of their battle song, the tensions were palpable...a Donga can actually be lethal as a stick brought ferociously down on the skull can crack it open!  The other village awaited down the stretch of road and across from the field where the local Dongas take place while storm clouds gathered over head...the warriors periodically letting out an intimidating scream whooshing the sticks in the air...as we followed behind they began trying to intimidate and psyche out the other warriors...young boys followed the warriors and the two villages began to gather in a circle to witness the fights...

 

Seemingly out of nowhere a man appeared waving a rifle in the air and shouting incoherently (at least to us)...he began gesticulating and yelling as the other men surrounded him and attempted to calm him down....this went on for a while until a gunshot went off!!!  We took our cue from the locals!  They ran in all directions!!!  I have to say our guide handled us masterfully and escorted us away quickly and assertively...he was awesome.  Cool calm and collected.  The shot had been fired into the air but no sense in taking undue risks...

 

After about 15 minutes the situation seemed to deescalate and the Donga began in ernest---but now the gathering storm clouds began to open up and the rains began to fall----soon the fighters were slick with water and so was our camera equipment---it did not relent and I began to worry about whether my camera could take the water (this needed to last for a couple more weeks---I had no other camera!)...as the fighters furiously swung their sticks, every now and then landing fierce body blows with a thwack!  There did seem to be a "rope a dope" technique to get in close to where the other fighter could not get the needed momentum to swing and land a critical blow...we retreated to the landcruisers which had pulled up to save our camera equipment...more gunshots were fired and we were headed back to camp post haste---such is life in the Wild Wild West!

 

There is a bit of nudity as some folks in the Omo don't wear clothing---so avert your eyes if this offends---After a few days in the Omo you kind of don't even notice but it's hard to photograph without catching the occasional naked person...

 

 

Scenes from the Donga:

 

 

 

 

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gatoratlarge

I neglected to mention why the man with the gun was so angry---he was convinced that someone he saw from the neighboring village had stolen some of his cattle---this is taken very seriously as cattle are very important to the Surma culture.  This is what triggered the drama...

 

Here are some more pastoral and pleasant videos of the Surma children singing, dancing and splashing in the pools:

 

 

Lastly, this little child was already hard at work grinding corn---no child labor laws in the Omo!

Before we headed back to Mizan Teferi for our charter flight back to Addis, I thought you'd like to see a bit of the terrain as we traversed the muddy roads leading to Kibish.  We had many wonderful sights and sounds and experiences over our four days in the Omo but we were not done yet...before returning to Addis Ababa, @Sangeeta had planned a special flyover of Gambella National Park to see if we could spot by air the 2nd largest migration in Africa behind the Serengeti and Masai Mara wildebeest migration, the million animal white-eared kob and Nile lechwe migration.  We hoped to catch them before they made it back over into inaccessible South Sudan...Gambella is a marshy park with little to no road access, only through the air might we be able to see this event...stay tuned! :D

 

 

Edited by gatoratlarge

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michael-ibk

Wow, you really were far out there! Fascinating pics and videos. Was that a serious battle when you were videoing them? Very dangerous trip for you, first you are almost shot at, and worse still to come in Chad!:)

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gatoratlarge

@michael-ibk Well, we took solace in the fact they weren't shooting at us but we had no intention of getting caught in some cross fire! :D  Yes, that was an actual Donga stick fight in the video---to get some pictures when the rain wasn't coming down in buckets we asked for the demo to go on a couple days later and it was an entirely different atmosphere with protective gear, a lot of laughing and joking---like the World Wrestling Federation---not that professional wrestling isn't real!! :D

 

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Kitsafari

Fascinating! I'm afraid I'm one of those who have this apprehension and concern about visits to villages or tribes turning into something commercialised or awkward and putting myself in an uncomfortable position where I have to force myself to say no, I'm not interested in buying because I really am not since I've stopped collecting momentoes years ago from all my travels. 

From all accounts though, the Surma trip was everything but that. That dongo fight was fierce! and the kids' geuninely enjoying the singing and dancing. and Oh the beautiful art pieces they create on themselves are just awesome. It's sad that all over the world, the government's commitment to a national development and economic modernisation often involves tribes being pushed out and marginalised. On the one hand, one thinks they should be allowed to keep their ways, on the other hand, an improvement in their quality of lives would benefit them in the long term (like health) as well. It's a huge dilemma. 

and don't you ever worry about your scintillating (yes it is just that - nudity! drama! violence! love!) report is not being read. those who do, truly appreciates your TR which educates and informs, and just sharing your experiences is pretty cool. 

You do get around, you know!

Addis was on the road again with Sangeeta! his food is just amazing. did he bring along his chef's attire and hat?

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gatoratlarge

@Kitsafari thank you!  Yes he did---he looked very dapper in his dress whites out in the bush...and what he was able to create was pretty incredible.  We didn't know in advance but Paula's birthday fell during our stay so he dug an underground oven and baked a pineapple upside down cake to celebrate!  It's amazing what he can do!

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Alexander33
7 hours ago, gatoratlarge said:

@Alexander33 thanks!  I'm glad you are interested---doesn't seem like too many others are following my scintillating report! :( 

 

Their loss. 

 

7 hours ago, gatoratlarge said:

I will persist however till completion! :D

 

My gain. 

 

 

7 hours ago, gatoratlarge said:

 Perhaps not as interested in the culture as the animals or (the unthinkable) I suck at writing! :D  

 

 

Deinitely not the latter, and I’d be incredulous if it were the former.

 

I’d love to make this trip — well, okay, maybe at a bit slower pace, but still, this is “out there” — at least to me. I’ve long wanted to spend time in the midst of the people of the Omo Valley, but, like Kitsafari, I’ve had concerns about whether it would be commercialized and artificial. It certainly doesn’t seem overly so from your descriptions. (And, yes, I will confess that I would take a certain degree of satisfaction in seeing the wide-eyed, slack-jawed reactions of friends and family when describing the experience — “Couldn’t you have just gone to Paris?”). 

Edited by Alexander33

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gatoratlarge
15 hours ago, Alexander33 said:

I’d love to make this trip — well, okay, maybe at a bit slower pace, but still, this is “out there” — at least to me. I’ve long wanted to spend time in the midst of the people of the Omo Valley, but, like Kitsafari, I’ve had concerns about whether it would be commercialized and artificial. It certainly doesn’t seem overly so from your descriptions. (And, yes, I will confess that I would take a certain degree of satisfaction in seeing the wide-eyed, slack-jawed reactions of friends and family when describing the experience — “Couldn’t you have just gone to Paris?”). 

 

It certainly can get a little hairy and payment is expected, but we worked out a pretty good system.  CocoD was the local guide that was a part of our team.  KB took care of the professional photographer and her cousin who were with us---we gave them (the guides) the money and so after taking pictures we pointed out who we photographed and they paid them.  It was a pretty good system and worked pretty well...for the most part! :D

 

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gatoratlarge

Before I leave the Omo Valley I thought I would post one more picture.  To me, it's powerful. 

 

As Latika, the professional photographer in our group, was downloading her pictures and videos onto her computer at the end of the day, some of the guards were watching the process.  When one of the guards saw himself in the the video, he began to cry.  Was it the first time he'd seen himself on film?  I don't really know  but it was emotional for him.  Two of the other guards have their arms around him in the picture.  It's that human connection that makes travel so worthwhile...

 

IMG_7703.thumb.jpg.efd96472355182280ce8ccb309505d67.jpg

 

We soon were to make the muddy six hour trek back to Mizan Teferi and the charter plane awaited.  We actually beat the plane to town and had a nice lunch at a hotel and returned to the airstrip.  The arrival and departure of the plane was met with the same fanfare and excitement as our arrival seemed to stir with the police whacking back the crowd with a stick.  It seemed rather mean but as soon as the police made their way down the line thwacking all the way, the crowd moved right back closer to the plane, many of them posing for pics with their cell phones, with the plane as the back drop.

 

From Mizan Teferi, we took off over the highlands of central south Ethiopia and headed west toward the South Sudan...after an hour or so we began to hone in on Gambella National Park where we were really "winging it" with simple coordinates.  The pilot was the actual owner of Abyssinian Air Services and was quite a skilled pilot.  I think he personally took the gig because it was his plane and he wanted the adventure!

 

Our goal was to intercept the migration of a million white eared kob and nile lechwe before they made their way back across the border into South Sudan.  but I honestly had my doubts...@sangeeta was quite keen and enthusiastic about it, but privately, I thought it might be a big disappointment flying over the marshes and swamps in a plane with no animals below.  I've flown over many a wildlife rich areas in a plane and not seen much from above...Other than by plane or helicopter, Gambella is considered largely inaccessible.

 

After announcing that we were flying over a portion of the park we located the Baro River  and began to fly low----large crocs dozing on the banks of the river scrambled into the water, birds with large wingspans took to flight (Goliath herons or shoebill storks?  Gambella is home to both)...a couple of black Cape buffalo began to run across the plains as well...this was getting kind of interesting...then it happened....we spotted great herds of white eared kob and lechwe, the noise of the plane set them to running...our plane full of skeptics (was I the only one?) erupted in cheers!  We whooped and hollered (was it fear?) as the plane plunged into what felt like some precariously low positions...the pilot was showing off now...we had attached a GoPro to the wing before we left Mizan Teferi and were briefed on how to open the window of a moving plane without smashing it as well...the window came open in the back and we made several more passes before turning toward Addis Ababa...the entire crew was exhilarated and thrilled...we'd seen something few had ever laid eyes on...Africa's second largest migration!

 

My camera skills do not do it justice and you may have to pause it to catch the antelope on the run but it's certainly a sight I will never forget!  And the kob and lechwe are two of the most beautifully marked antelope I've had the privilege to see!

 

 

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