Editor and author Aida Edemariam takes a family road trip from Addis Ababa to Hawassa, discovering nature, wildlife and history along the way
"Watermelons! Watermelons! Watermelons!” We are on the road to Bishoftu, just before Christmas, which is also, it seems, watermelon season: great mountains of striped green globes are piled onto straw mats every few kilometres along the road. Finally, we have to stop and get a few, and they roll around the floor of the car, cool despite the increasing heat.
There are all sorts of trips one can take when visiting Ethiopia, and more appear all the time – community treks in the Simien mountains; foodie’s tours of Addis; the historic route, of course (Axum, Lalibela, Gondar), to which there are myriad guides and tours – but if one is travelling with small children, especially children unfamiliar with Ethiopia, some of these experiences will go down better than others.
And this one, a guided tour of Rift Valley lakes, arranged by Ethiopian Holidays (the Rift itself, as our knowledgeable guide, Alene Mirayo, points out, begins much further north, at the Red Sea, and continues down into Kenya), is ticking lots of boxes. There’s all the fruit and vegetables – watermelons, of course, but also papaya, mango, bananas, sugar cane, fresh chickpeas to pick and pod — I had remembered how tasty these were, from my own childhood, so when Alene jumps out to ask a farmer if he has any, they’re picked straight out of the ground and handed over.
Then there are the animals: zebu and sheep being driven to market, ragged lines of camels picking their way through the fields, patient donkeys, clattering, bouncing horse-drawn garris. And chickens, lots of chickens — piled in coops, hand-carried by small boys to market, or tied to the roofs of cars.
Just outside Bishoftu, our calm driver, Mulugeta Demissie, stops at one of the many nurseries that front onto the main road. They’re packed with a vast variety of plants – everything from small succulents and lush flowering ground-cover to fan palms, bottle-brush, neem and flame trees. We buy a coffee tree, as a gift. (At Modjo, a small town not far away, there is an attraction for families). In the fields, more oxen are threshing the recent harvest, and crops of garlic, onions, kale, are dark green against the dry-season dust. We’ll leave the volcanic crater lakes of Bishoftu for another trip, another day.
On the road again, past vineyards, past the lake formed by Qoqa Dam (built with war reparations from Italy after the second world war; once wide and deep, the reservoir has become increasingly sedimented, and is, further, being taken over by invasive South American water hyacinth), to Lake Ziway, where we bounce down an unpaved road and then get out of the car.
Already this feels very different from Addis and even Bishoftu: it’s warmer, for one thing. But also there are the birds: marabou storks everywhere, stalking through tussocks of grass like old, not especially well-disposed lawyers. African fish-eagles watching beady-eyed from the tops of trees, then taking off, wingspans like small airplanes, to hunt. Egrets, and hosts of smaller birds. A few flamingos inspect the still water (the place to see them properly, in their pink thousands, is Lake Abijatta, not many kilometers away). And at the end of the road there is a jetty, and the main lake, calm, reeded at its shores, smelling faintly of fish. There are islands in the distance.
The story is that the Ark of the Covenant, now in Axum, was kept on Tullo Gudo island for 70 years, brought down from the north by priests fleeing the 9th-century wars of Queen Yodit. Lunch is in the stylish quiet of Sabana Lodge, looking down at the brown water of the Lake Langano, one of the six Rift Valley lakes wholly within Ethiopia.
Vivid birds fly among the tables, hopeful for scraps, and in the garden four slow tortoises bask in the sun. Down at the lakeshore, there is a playground, and volleyball net, and a floating swimming platform complete with slide. As this is the only one of the lakes in which it is possible to swim (we are told it’s free of bilharzia), we take full advantage.
We drive through the busy crossroads town of Shashemene, past gated, wealthier houses, Bob Marley murals and T-shirts (Emperor Haile Selassie donated a plot of land to black people and especially Rastafarians across the world who had supported Ethiopia during the second world war; many still live here); half an hour later we arrive among the wide roads and tree-shaded sidewalks of the city of Hawassa, set on Lake Hawassa, another freshwater Rift Valley lake.
There are many places to stay in this thriving town, but we are in a room with lake views at Haile Resort, one of a chain of hotels opened by the retired world record distance runner and Olympic gold medallist Haile Gebrselassie. Not only lake views, but views over an infinity pool, a vast old sycamore, and west, over the reeded water into the sunset.
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First thing the next morning, we are at the fish market. The catch has already been hauled in and the wooden boats pulled up onto the shore, where boys sit sorting the nets ready to cast out again late that afternoon. Storks stalk among them, tall as tall children, and egrets, and more fish-eagles, looking for the remains of tilapia (the main catch, of which each boat can bring in anything from a handful to 150 every morning), and of catfish. A flotilla of pelicans arrives, too, hovering watchful, but somewhat more kindly, in the water around the boats. On one side of the market, under the shadow of Tabor Mountain, is a mess of men fish-gutting; at the center the fish are cleaned, often for restaurants but also for the row of nearby lean-tos in which women tend bubbling pots of fish stew for sale.
Next to the market is a waterfront park, and so we stroll through huge old trees loud with birds, Zambian squirrels, grivet and guereza monkeys — some of whom are habituated enough they will jump up on your head or shoulders for a snack. But the undeniable highlight of the day is the boat trip we take in the late afternoon. The boatman motors out through a path cut in the reeds, past silent men patiently hand-fishing alongside tall cormorants doing more or less the same thing, into open water and toward a different section of shore.
And there, dark knobbly shapes in the water, are hippos: five or six of them, two of the adults supporting a small baby hippo on their shoulders. They dip out of sight, rise again elsewhere, huff when we get too close; the boatman cuts the engine and rows, and we bob on the water, thrilled (and some of us, aware of how big and wild they actually are, slightly scared), watching them.
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We take a different route home, turning left at Ziway instead of toward Langano. It’s an intensely windy day, the dust picked up and swirled across the fields and roads so it’s hard to see a thing – but this is so unusual a state of affairs that it makes the news. The sides of the rift are occasionally visible as insistent small cliffs at the side of the road, and at once the car is climbing a winding road, and up into the highlands. Here we get out. The wind howls across the plains and threatens to knock us over. The ground is rocky, rubbled with black.
Alene picks a couple of stones up and demonstrates. It’s all volcanic, but some of it has been heated so much it’s light and porous, like charcoal made of stone; some of it is dense shiny obsidian that when knocked with another piece of obsidian splits easily into sharp shards usable as weapons, as knives, as fire-starters. This is what the first hominids who walked these plains did, millions of years ago, and what shepherd boys (as Alene himself was, before he put himself through school and tourism college) still do.
After lunch at the town of Butajira, we drive across the plain. The landscape is strikingly different here from that through the Rift Valley. There’s more eucalyptus, more grasses, the air smells different: classic Ethiopian highlands. Not counting the holy mountain of Zuqwala, a huge extinct volcano topped by a crater lake which towers in the distance, there are at least three main points of interest between here and Addis Ababa: the Tiya stelae-field, the rock-hewn church of Adadi Mariam, and Melka Kunture, an important Stone Age archaeological site and museum.
We haven’t time to see all of them before dark so we plump for the first two, and, for the adults at least, they are hugely rewarding. (All are accessible as day trips from the capital). Tiya is a world heritage site consisting of 36 stones, most engraved, marking the resting-places, about 700 years ago, of men and women buried in the foetal position; the setting is high and beautiful, and the whole area has an old, quiet power.
Adadi Mariam, with its 24 windows hewn out of the ground sometime between the 12th and 14th centuries, and its legends of having been built by Lalibela himself, who rested here on his way to pay his respects to Zuqwala, has none of the sheer scale of the churches at Lalibela, but is all the more moving for it: intimate, domestic, at the centre of its community.
We pile back into the car, and watch the sunset as it climbs up the mountain, into the intense bustle of Addis Ababa.
Aida Edemariam is a writer and editor at the Guardian newspaper and the author of the critically-acclaimed book "The Wife's Tale," recently released in paperback.
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