Monday, 13 May 2013

Ethiopia Endemics Tour - 8th-19th November 2012

I haven't been out for a few days and the weather looks like it will be keeping me in for a few more. So I thought I would dig into the archives and post up an earlier report of a trip I made to Ethiopia last November. I hope you enjoy it.

Weather: Very hot and humid, rain at times, cloudy in places.

Wildlife seen:
Over 250 bird species, including many endemics plus mammals, insects, flowers etc.

Places visited:
Debre Libanos Gorge, the Sululta Plains, the Rift Valley Lakes, Wondo Guenet and the Bale Mountains.

The Rift Valley including the main lakes; the Bale Mountains and Lake Awassa.

'Ethiopia didn't just blow my mind; it opened my mind. On our last day at this orphanage a man handed me his baby and said, 'Would you take my son with you?' He knew, in Ireland, that his son would live, and that in Ethiopia, his son would die.' Bono

'It is much easier to show compassion to animals. They are never wicked.' Haile Selassie

Ethiopia is a fascinating and welcoming country. The climate is warm and comfortable all year round and the bird life is exceptional. The scenery is stunning, there are masses of lakes surrounded by mountainous peaks, dusty valleys dotted with acacia trees and pretty little thatched huts surrounding well kept villages. The people of this country are friendly, inquisitive, proud and happy and for the most part self sufficient. Ethiopia provides its own power (from the many lakes), grows its own crops and keeps very many cattle. The pretty traditionally robed ponies and their riders seen along the moorlands, plus donkeys carrying their mixed cargo all round the country, provide an interesting cultural backdrop. There is no shortage of culture and history here and is a must-see country.

I couldn't believe it. Here I was, again sitting on a coach, again outside the same polytechnic in Hatfield that I had found myself this time last year. Only this time I was returning from Ethiopia and not Central America. And, more importantly, it was just after midday and not midnight.

Ten days earlier I had headed out to Addis Ababa, via Stansted and Heathrow Airports and, after a 16 hour, eventful (don't ask) journey, found myself going through the usual checks at Addis. This in itself was quite an experience. Queuing up to purchase a $20 entry visa took over an hour; queuing up to go through Customs took over an hour. So I was very relieved to retrieve my holdall from the revolving baggage reclaim area after all that queuing.

I headed out in to the arrivals hall, thinking that my contact had long since given up, taking the rest of the party to the hotel, to find that I was only the 6th person out and that others were still trapped inside!

After all the introductions I waited for the rest of the party to filter out. This in fact took another 2 hours and we didn't find out until later in the day that a couple had cancelled much earlier in the week.

So what did we do meantime? Well, of course being Birders we stepped outside and started doing some birding. And very fruitful it was too, getting some good photos in the process. Lots of Yellow-billed Kites, which proved to be the most common bird around; Black Kites; White-collared Pigeons and a few Common Fiscals. I soon became aware that there were a lot of species here that I had never even heard of, let alone seen. And there were some fantastically sounding names.

Common Fiscal
Tacazze Sunbird
We had only been in the country for an hour or so but I was already feeling warm, a little overdressed after leaving the cold weather in London and so I removed my fleece. And it was still early morning. The skies were an amazing shade of blue with a few contrails zig-zagging the sky around us, looking like jagged scars and we could see Addis in the distance, early morning smog already covering the city.

Eventually, our Tour Guide gave up waiting and we drove to our first hotel, the Ghion, arriving after just 30 minutes or so. That journey in itself was amazing fun, seeing the hub-bub of Addis life, so many people going about their usual daily rituals. The cacophony of noise was sometimes deafening and it was with some surprise that I found that Ethiopia has more people than the UK and Addis itself has around 4 million inhabitants. The highest city in Africa, it's located 8,000 feet above sea level. The local dress spanned a colourful spectrum on both men and women and that, together with most of the buildings, was amazing to see.

At the hotel we checked in and dumped our bags and prepared for our first excursion. No wasting time here when there is serious birding to be done. I noticed that my room had not been made up after the previous occupants and the shower didn't work, which didn't much matter as there was no hot water. Welcome to Ethiopia.

We met up again in reception 30 minutes later and went for a walk around the grounds spotting some great birds, including Tacazze Sunbirds; Montane White-eye and Abyssinian Slaty Flycatcher. Then we drove a little ways north to visit the Gafersa Reservoir, a magnificent habitat where a range of bush and wetland species were seen. Here were Spur-winged Lapwing; Wattled Ibis and then a magnificent African Fish Eagle swooped down and scattered everything, landing on a carcass.

Abyssinian Slaty-flycatcher 
African Fish Eagle
We made several stops on the drive to and from the Reservoir spotting many birds, some on our endemic target list. The land stretched out before us as we covered mile after mile from the comfort of our air-conditioned coach. Well, when I say 'air-conditioned' it meant opening the windows.

We passed lots of the locals, herding their goats and sheep and cattle. Children sitting idly nearby as we drove past saw us and waved excitedly. Their smiles were infectious. I was already starting to enjoy the trip and I had been here less than a day. Our first day yielded an amazing 70+ species.

The day ended with an evening meal in a nearby restaurant, taking in some local delicacies. Including the local hooch. It was about now that the party could draw breath and we all made our introductions. I was quite amazed that, having made the journey all the way here, I was birding with 5 other guys from Hertfordshire! Small world. I managed to get to bed just before 11, totally exhausted.

We were up at 5.15 the next morning for a 6 o'clock start. This proved to be the norm for the rest of the trip. A choice of cold or colder shower soon woke me up and, after a quick breakfast, very soon we were again on the road. Today we headed north again and visited the Sululta Plains and the Debre Libanos Gorge. Among the exotically named birds we saw today were the Blue-winged Goose; Yellow-billed Duck; Lammergeier; Ruppell's Vulture; Kittlitz's Plover; White-cheeked Turaco; Pied Kingfisher and Hemprich's Hornbill. And many, many others. Plus we saw a troop of Gelada Baboons walking menacingly by a troop of Olive Baboons. Fight? Not today, as I guess it was too hot even for the baboons.

Olive Baboon
Pied Kingfisher
I was already starting to fret about trying to remember all the birds we had already seen but I was with a group of people who not only knew the birds but also their latin names too! The only ones I recognised were Common Sandpiper; Redshank etc. so I kept quiet and stayed at the back.

It was another long, exhausting but satisfying day and we got back to the hotel at Addis just after 6. There were two things then that cheered me no end - I managed to change up some money to the local currency, the Birr - with no card problems this time, as opposed to last year in CA. AND I had hot water in my room! Woo-hoo, a hot shower!

Dinner in the hotel followed and here I can give you a little taste of Ethiopian life. One of the guys had ordered tomato soup for starters, with bread and he then requested some butter. The young waitress smiled at him, gave a nod and a little curtsey and wandered off. He duly waited for his butter while the rest of us tucked in to our starters. Then our main course arrived and then the coffees were ordered. Meanwhile, our man had a face like a bulldog chewing a wasp but ate his meal and, just as we were retiring to the Bar for the day's bird check, the young waitress turned up, curtsied again and presented him with a little plate with some knobs of butter on it. Cue a range of looks around the table, a few laughs and a chorus of 'Welcome to Ethiopia!'....

Another early start again next day. No let-up here when there's light and serious birding to be done! Today we drove south down the Rift Valley, taking in visits to Lakes Koka and Ziway, where the water-birds were exceptional and Lake Abiata, a shallow and saline area containing hundreds, perhaps thousands of Flamingo. The bird species being spotted were endless and I was already starting to lose count again. But I was managing to take quite a few photos, hopefully being able to ID them back home. Other things seen today were Gazelle; Ostrich and even a roadkill Spotted Hyena!

Somali Ostrich

The scenery down in the Rift was amazing and magnificent. The wildlife programmes on the TV just don't, or couldn't, do it justice enough. You really had to be here to see it. One moment you were passing field after field of crops, then you were passing lands that just seemed to stretch on and on. And at the furthest field of view the blue of the sky married up to the green of the land, with mountains just visible beyond.

We got to our 2nd hotel, the Hawassa, in the dark just before 7. This hotel was once the favourite home of Haile Selassie's daughter. The garden had jacarandas, roses, amaryllis and bougainvillaea providing abundant colour and a home for sunbirds, woodpeckers and Silvery-cheeked Hornbills. The room was very nice, with a working shower plus hot water. But it took a few minutes to work out the toilet system - no cover on the cistern and a piece of string for the flush. I mentioned this to one of the other guys and he said 'String!! You must be in the penthouse suite - we've got no string!'.

Another good meal here, at the hotel, and another anecdote. Some of the guys had ordered steak with the trimmings. But the last guy only got the steak. The trimmings had run out. He asked the Manager over to enquire if any more chips (French Fries here), were to be made. He smiled, shrugged his shoulders and said he would find out. As everyone else had finished dinner our man ate his trimming-less steak and we then had our fruit salad and coffee. Of course, just as we broke for beers and bird-checks our man's chips turned up!

We were up early next morning, yet again, just before dark and whilst waiting for everyone else to turn up we spotted Vervet and Gervet Monkeys in the trees around us plus a few Black and White Colobus monkeys. A quick, pre-brekkers, walk by the stream in the nearby Wondo Guenet Forest afforded views of Black-headed Forest Oriole and Yellow-fronted Parrot. Plus a large local family group bathing in the adjoining warm springs. No shyness out here. I declined their kind invitation to join them and mentioned that I preferred cold showers. Well, I am British and I do have an upper lip to keep stiff.

It was particularly hot today and I was struggling to keep up with the pace already. We were given a few hours off after lunch, because of the hot sun and I made the mistake of lying down and promptly fell asleep. I woke up about an hour later feeling too groggy for the late afternoon walk. A good decision as it turned out as nothing new was seen.

African Pygmy Kingfisher
Malachite Kingfisher
But I did spend a quiet hour walking around the magnificent grounds of the hotel spotting the odd bird, which of course I didn't recognise. I sat down in the cool of the shade and read from one of the local English papers. The country's President, Meles Zenawi, who ruled Ethiopia for 21 years, had died recently in a hospital abroad after weeks of speculation about his health. He was only 57. It was thought that the trip would be in jeopardy as there were thoughts of civil war. Fortunately, the transition was relatively painless and here we were.

We checked out of the hotel next morning and made the long, dusty drive to the Bale Mountains. On the road we passed an accident that had killed 7 cows and a goat. Which were already being feasted on by dozens of vultures, just like on the telly! Although it was fascinating for us our local guide, Elias, said that the owner of the cattle would now be all the poorer for the loss.

The views across the Valley were quite spectacular, with both sides of the Rift to be seen. We managed to see Warthog and Mountain Nyala along the way and even a Hippo in a nearby lagoon. Plus, of course, more stops for birding. But the views as we drove up and up, around and around the mountains, getting higher and higher, were simply breathtaking.

We finally arrived at our third hotel - the Goba Wabe Shebelle Hotel, our base for the next two nights. And another story. There was trouble with the check-in. Apparently, the Manager had let our rooms for the first night because people already in them wanted to stay an extra night. Our tour guide leader argued and bartered but those of us who had booked single rooms had to double up. I bunked down with the TGL, which wasn't too bad. Apart from his snoring!

So far I had experienced magnificent scenery, wonderful, friendly people and some truly beautiful and bizarrely named birds. I had tried the local produce, cuisine and beer and laughed at some of the bizarre travel experiences we encountered. So it was only fair that I also experience the local Montezuma's Revenge. I usually travel with half of Boot's the Chemist in my bag. Just in case. Well, you can't legislate for everything. One of the guys managed to catch some bug early on and had been very generous in passing it down the line to everyone else. A different day, a different revenge on a different person. Today was my day. By now I was getting used to various country revenge's and it only affected me for half the day. Well, I wouldn't be getting the complete experience, would I?

Little Bee Eater
African Emerald Cuckoo
Anyway, as I have just mentioned the locals I should state here that another quirk of the country are the children. We could have been in the middle of nowhere, with no one around and, stopping to get the scopes out for another bird on a wire, suddenly, out of thin air, dozens of children would appear. Most of them didn't say much, they just stood and watched us. They were giving us that 'more looney Brits on tour' look. When we were in and around the large townships, poverty wasn't too obvious. But out in the sticks it was much more apparent. I won't go into too much detail but it was quite heart-warming to see the look of joy on their faces as we handed out things like pens; notepads; clothes etc. Little boys and girls would dance up the track waving a biro in the air, treating it like bringing home the FA Cup. I guess it brings everything into perspective.

The Bale Mountains are between 9,500 and 14,000ft high and I was glad I had brought a fleece with me! They are a mixture of green, spacious rocky peaks and crags, numerous small lakes, extensive heathland, magnificent cloud forests and bogs. Virtually uninhabited, they are entirely unspoilt and have been rightly set aside as a National Park. Here can be found Mountain Nyala and Ethiopian Wolf, together with sights such as Golden Eagle; Rouget's Rail; the rare and hardly known Spot-breasted Plover; Chestnut-naped Francolins and Abyssinian Long-claws. On the open moorland plateau extensive grasslands and the weird spikes of primeval-looking Giant Lobelias and Red-hot Pokers provided a wonderful Afro-alpine habitat.

And, unfortunately, because of the Revenge, I missed quite a lot of it! But I did get the Rail and the Plover!

Spot-breasted Plover
Rouget's Rail
By the time we got back to the hotel I was feeling a lot better. Only to find that all my stuff had vanished from my room. It was agreed earlier that the TGL would move out into another room and that I would stay put. But that's not how they do things in Ethiopia. After about 30 minutes of banter with the Manager I found my stuff had been moved to another room. Minus a few things - travel clock, shoes etc. I was past caring at that point and just went with the flow. About an hour later the TGL knocked on my door with my missing items, small mercies!

I had decided to give dinner a miss and have an early night to catch up on lost energy. About an hour later the TGL called again to let me know about the next day's itinerary. As the Group were splitting up, with some heading further south for the extension and the rest of us heading north back to Addis, he wanted the tips for the locals. I suspected he had picked a good time to ask, as I was very generous, in an effort to get back to bed.

Red-Cheeked Cordon-bleu
Red-billed Firefinch
The next day I felt totally refreshed and even had some breakfast. Cold porridge, cold toast and warm coffee. And something that looked like orange juice but was very glutinous with a very strange taste. We bade our farewells to the intrepid group taking the 5-day extension with me making a mental note, congratulating myself on not choosing it. Then, after checking out, four of us, together with the local guide, Elias, and the driver, headed north. It was a four-hour journey to our 4th hotel, the Wabe Shabelle Hotel, the best one yet. The room was spacious, the shower worked, the water was warm and we had mosquito netting on the big double beds! I say hotels, but they were probably more akin to Lodges. They were just places to stow your gear and get your head down. And it did give you a real sense of being in an African country, with all the pre-requisite sounds drifting in from the dark of the night.

We had lunch immediately, with me being adventurous and ordering tomato soup. Bread was provided but I didn't bother asking for butter. The birding hadn't stopped, with the guys using their Bins in between mouthfuls and idly shouting out birds. I did find the trip a little too intensive and my mind boggled at the numbers and names of all the wildlife here. I was glad we had a checklist!

Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird
White-bellied Go Away Bird
The rest of the day was spent visiting Lake Awassa, a beautiful freshwater lake, set amongst hills and a luxuriant vegetation. Amongst the lilies and great reedbeds we found herons and egrets; Marabou Stork; Hamerkops; Hadeda Ibis and more Kingfishers. And more kids. One even called me Elizabeth and asked if I had a dollar! I was just glad he spoke English as my Amharic was not up to scratch.

It was a fairly easy day today and we also got back to the hotel early, had an early dinner and an early night.

We had breakfast the next day at a leisurely 7am. But this was after an hour's walk around the hotel grounds beforehand. And before that I discovered that the area had suffered a power cut. It was a warm but dark shower that morning. Luckily I had a torch with me. I can tell you it was no mean feat putting on my usual sun screen and Deet in the semi-dark! And I can count myself fortunate to state that I didn't receive one single bite on the whole trip. And I was the only one to not bring any malaria tablets with me. Well, firstly, I always have a bad reaction to them and secondly, my local doctor stated that they weren't necessary for where we were going.

Red-throated Wryneck
We headed north back to Addis, along highways that seemed to stretch on forever, again making a few stops on the way. This included barging in on a wedding reception to get to the only decent birding in the area. We did pass on our congratulations and did get offers of some drinks but as we weren't properly dressed - camo gear and walking boots; bins and scopes, compared to suits and crinoline - we made our apologies and moved on through. You should have seen some of the stares we got!

Around 5-ish we got to the outskirts of Addis to find a massive traffic jam which didn't surprise the Brits but perplexed the guide and the driver. We didn't get to the hotel until just before 8. We had a couple of rooms there in which to change; repack our gear; have dinner before we drove out to the airport.

Acraea safie
Ethiopian Highlander
We gave a hearty goodbye to Elias and the driver, who was magnificent, considering he was continually being shouted at to stop and switch the engine off during the whole journey! I gave them the rest of the stuff I had brought out with me, including a couple of Galapagos t-shirts. My luggage was now considerably lighter than at the beginning of the trip.

Then we made the tortuous journey through Customs and Baggage check. There was just time to use up the rest of my local currency to purchase a couple of fridge magnets and a couple of beers. For the flight of course. And then the four of us sat down and did one last bird check.

The 7 and a half hour journey back to Heathrow was uneventful, no screaming kids this time and I even managed an hour or two's sleep. I was so exhausted I could have slept on a clothes line. I even enjoyed the last 30 minutes of 'Ice Age4'.

We touched down at Heathrow an hour early and, to my amazement, I got through Customs and retrieved my baggage inside 30 minutes! That was some improvement on last year!

I said my goodbyes to the guys and made my way to the coach station and, getting the 9.15 to Stansted, found myself sat outside the Hatfield Polytechnic again. Nothing had changed much. I nearly fell asleep on the coach, nearly ending up in Cambridge. A short wait for the train home, via Bishop's Stortford, arriving just before midday.