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Published: February 16th 2011
We were lost. We had come down from the caldera of the Fentale Volcano but were now zigzagging across the surrounding foothills looking for the road. Our ‘guide’ was a random kid we had picked up out of a nameless village about 10km west. What was clear is that he knew the difference between up and down, so he had figured out how to get to the top of the mountain. Getting back to where we had left the car, however, was proving more challenging. We needed to go north and west, and the kid had again put his back to the rapidly setting sun.
Given present company, this predicament wasn’t all that surprising. Ben, Nick and I were good at getting lost. We had had lots of practice in the Andes. At least this time, there was no snow, and the temperature wasn’t plummeting. On the other hand, Ethiopia offered its own ‘unique’ concerns. We’d left the car parked under a couple of spindly acacia trees just off the dirt track road. The requisite woman with huge bundle of wood on her head and accompanying half dozen raggedy children had magically appeared out of the dusty scrub as soon
as the car had stopped. These were hired to ‘guard’ the car as the kid had warned darkly that ‘bad men’ might steal the car tires. I assumed this was the villager’s fear of the Kereyu pastoralists. A fear that was probably rational. The Kereyu generally despise the agriculturalist villagers, and they criss-cross the emptiness of Awash National Park following their herds. They also always carry Kalishnakovs. Why? Leopards and lions. Surly armed tribesmen and carnivorous cats were not concerns in Chile.
The idea to come to Awash had been a good one. Ben had come from France for a week, and both Nick and I were strongly of the opinion that getting the hell out of Addis Abeba was imperative. Although Addis has been described as Africa ‘Light’, it is still mostly big, ugly, and urban. Though it is probably misleading to talk of ‘real‘ Ethiopia versus something else, outside of Addis at least conforms more closely to the Lion King stereotypes of Western imagination - thatch mud huts, traditional tribesmen, donkey carts, cows, goats, stunted acacia trees, and the blinding white brightness that sucks the color out of the dusty landscape. Ben needed some of that in
not the group around the car. they seemed too agitated for photographing. these guys were walking across the oasis. look at the guy on the left. he is carrying the AK. the other guy just has a stick and a sword.
He probably didn’t need to get sick, but he’d gotten that too. Taking advantage of his feverish state, we piled him and our stuff into the back of the car. He seemed pretty miserable about this development, but we had paracetamol and faith. About three hours after leaving Addis, we turned off the Debre Zeyit road and into the park. The 10k to the Awash river and the campground is apparently where all the animals hide. There were warthogs, a beisa oryx, some dik-diks, a few lesser and greater kudu, and a small troop of baboons that could hardly be convinced to waddle off the road. The night was filled with strange screeching sounds, and there was some concern about the crocodile we’d seen in the campsite next to ours. Luckily, nothing ate us in the night. In the morning, we breakfasted with a troop of long-tailed black-faced colobus monkeys.
Then we went looking for the volcano in the northern part of the park. We told the ranger we didn’t need a scout, i.e. an armed escort. This later proved to have been a poor decision for a number of reasons. We found the volcano and
climbed it. At the top, we sat on the lip of the caldera having lunch and watching gigantic lammergeyers, bearded vultures, riding the thermals. Then we turned around. After a couple hours descent, the aforementioned zigzagging started, and the limitations of our ‘guide’ became clear. We came to the obvious conclusion that we were lost and told the kid he was following us now. Thought the setting sun was making everyone a little edgy, we did eventually find the car. It had all the tires. However, in our absence, the car had attracted attention. I’ve walked out of the woods and met hillbillies, hunters, huasos, and rural cops, but this was something altogether different. In addition to about thirty head of long horned cattle, there were about fifteen young male Kereyu sporting serious afros. Most wore a thin white cloth wrapped around them like a skirt with another longer piece wrapped about their torso. And they were all well armed: short scimitars hung from their waists, and all had shiny Kalinshikov casually slung over their shoulders. This was going to be interesting.
Ben and I walked into the mob to find Nico already seriously engaged in the throw-down, drag-out
negotiations that inevitably accompany Ethiopia. How much was it going to cost to get in the car and get out of there. We’d agreed to 30 birr with the wood carrying woman, but she was gone, and the Kereyu elder wanted 200. And as I mentioned, they all had guns. For about the next thirty minutes, there was outrage, shock, histrionics, some finger wagging and at one point, the hilarious theatrics of Nico down on his knees in the dust asking (more or less since this was all happening in pidgin Amarinya) for the love of god, how much did they want.
As this unfolded, I was wondering:
Were the Kereyu like the Afari pastoralists further east? The Afaris have not only a reputation for being xenophobic, ferocious, and bellicose but also a tradition of acquiring social prestige within their community by ‘collecting’ human testicles.
How bad an idea would it be for me to start taking pictures of this scene because this is some crazy shit?
Sure, it’s extortion and there is the principle of the thing, but we are in the middle of nowhere, they have guns, Nico seems to be pissing them off, and they
I am pretty sure Father Phil isn’t going to like this story
Really, twelve bucks?
Thanks to Nico’s tenacious negotiating (the only thing I was adding was oft repetition of ‘terre gaga’ and ‘chegrellum’ - calm down and no problem), we paid 50 birr. A couple hours later, we were sitting in hot springs staring up at the stars and listening to the unholy racket of a thousand monkeys screaming in the cliffs above. This time, we’d decided to pay the 30 birr for an armed ‘scout’ escort. If the BBC crew who was there filming were to be believed, crocodiles apparently like the hot water as well. And they don’t negotiate.
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