In 2011, I spent two days burrowing into Addis Ababa – shopping for Coptic crosses, dodging honking taxis and quaffing shots of coffee as thick and black as treacle. I travelled to the Tigray rock churches, skirting around a 2,500m-high path cut into the cliffs above the Hawzen Plain. I flew into the Danakil Depression, where three tectonic plates separate, the clefts of the Great Rift Valley opening up into a vast white desert basin. Observing the sudden topographical shifts from the air, it was as if I were seeing the earth in the act of being formed – our planet’s molten core pushing out of a thin skein of crusted salt. The surface is ruptured by yellow pools of sulphur springs ringed in cobalt. Bubbling cauldrons of lava spit and burst with fire.
Yet if I felt I’d seen the navel of the earth, I also felt a deep hole in my experience of Ethiopia. I hadn’t touched the wildlife, nor the Islamic culture. I struggled with the logistical complexities that have been part of Ethiopia’s tourism problem for a while, as well as a lack of decent accommodation off the usual tourist triangle – a northern loop incorporating Addis, the rock churches of Lalibela and the trekking country of the Simien Mountains (which have a new 12-room eco-lodge, Limalimo, with rammed-earth walls and thatch). Then I heard about Abaca, a new mobile camp that can be deployed anywhere in the country, as well as a smattering of up-and-coming lodges opening up Ethiopia’s wildlife belt, and the decision was made. I was going back.
“To be able to explore Ethiopia’s crevices is the new inside edge,” says safari guide Michael Lorentz, with whom I am travelling. “Ethiopia is a pot of gold – extraordinary levels of endemism and diversity, which find their parallel in the spectrum of tribes in places such as the Omo Valley, and the religions: Islam, Animism, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The result is a far more nuanced safari than the usual east African experience. I guide all over Africa, from Chad to the Okavango Delta. In my opinion, Ethiopia’s time has come.”
Hence the trip I’m doing, from the Bale Mountains, which have a relatively new lodge of the same name, to the Unesco-listed city of Harar. En route, we visit two of Ethiopia’s most important Islamic pilgrimage sites, the 15km-long Sof Omar Cave complex and the village of Sheikh Hussein. We sleep under the stars in the empty Wabe Shebelle Valley, trying out Bale Mountain Lodge’s new mobile camp – currently too raw for the type of upscale traveller the lodge itself attracts, although the owners intend to polish up the experience in 2017 for their more adventurous clients. We also experience Abaca, though not in the Wabe Valley but Gambela, which is a troubled frontier wilderness area on the border with South Sudan. The green canvas tents are styled after a classic Kenyan mobile, but with Ethiopian furnishings. There are elegant wooden beds with sweet-smelling linens, and beaten copper sinks in the ensuite bathrooms; we sit down for three-course meals served with good wine. Of all Abaca’s lures, however, the most relevant is where the camp can go. On this 1,000km-long road-trip under a balmy January sky, I don’t see another tourist except on the first day and the last.
We start our journey in Addis, flying to Robe, an hour’s drive from the Sanetti Plateau in Bale Mountains National Park (though we could have travelled by car using the recently asphalted 400km road from the capital). At 3,600m, the air is thin and cold, the vegetation sparse. Giant lobelias – curious, thick-stemmed rosette plants – pepper the treeless vista. The ground is covered in silver helichrysum, which makes it seem as though the plateau has been dusted in snow. Pools of water remind me of tarns hidden in the clefts of the Scottish Highlands. The palette is similar too: purples, burnt umbers, peaty blacks. I catch sight of a chestnut-naped francolin – found only in Ethiopia and Somalia – and a golden eagle. We also see the most endangered carnivore on the African continent, the Ethiopian wolf, of which half the world’s remaining population, estimated at under 400, live in the park. The wolf’s gaze catches ours for a brief moment. Then it turns away like a shy dog without an owner.
But it’s not just the wolves, under threat from rabies and distemper introduced by domestic dogs, that suffer a precarious existence – “a species that sits on the edge of probability,” says Lorentz. The Eastern Highlands provide the main water catchment for the rest of the country and the water levels are not as they should be. This is an El Niño year; the rainfall has been poor.
I watch the landscape rolling past as we descend from the plateau into a grove of Erica arborea (a tree-sized heather) and hagenia. The air is wetter, the greens far brighter. We hear an Abyssinian catbird laughing in the trees. Still, I can’t keep two words out of my mind: drought and Ethiopia. They have a discomforting familiarity. [Since I visited in January, the feared drought has hit the region.]
But in the territories we travel through, it isn’t El Niño that accounts for the fact that we haven’t come across another tourist vehicle since leaving Addis. The Bale Mountains are simply off-radar. As to the view outside the car window, it is a lost world. Wild African roses climb up through the canopy. Bearded lichens catch the last of the day’s sun, the wisps turning from silver to gold. Lorentz says this is where black-maned lions still roam, possibly a relic population of the same lion subspecies Emperor Haile Selassie kept as pets.
During our stay at Bale Mountain Lodge – an improbably stylish small hotel for a location so remote, which opened four years ago on this southern flank of the park – we don’t find big cats, but we hear the alarm call of rare Bale monkeys as they gambol through the bamboo. Such is the diversity, with the landscape changing dramatically the next day when we head for the Sof Omar Caves.
We pass fields of teff being threshed by Borana cattle. We encounter trains of camels 40 or 50 strong; they are being driven to the coast, where they will board ships and be taken across the Red Sea. When we stop for a picnic, thousands of cabbage white butterflies swarm in a frankincense tree. In the same grove, we see a red-bellied narina trogon – its coat a shimmering turquoise-jade – and an African paradise flycatcher with a long white tail like a gossamer veil. This is at the entrance to the Sof Omar Caves, sacred to both Islam and the local Oromo religion. There is something haunting about the complete blackness in a cave complex with huge domed ceilings, like a Christian cathedral, and the devotion of the only other person there, Mohammed Youssef, who has taken two days to get here.
We drive on, venturing deeper into the heart of Muslim Ethiopia. Camping in the Wabe Shebelle Valley, we watch the African dawn light up a vast gorge system, which we have all to ourselves. The meadows bristle with troops of baboons. Rockfalls have removed parts of the road; other sections are hard to pass, with each precipice revealing another stretch of jaw-dropping emptiness. Then, in the village of Sheikh Hussein, named after a 12th-century Muslim saint, we visit a 13th-century religious complex encircled by mud ramparts washed in white. The roots of old fig trees weave among the graves. The walls and squat domes are handcarved with elegant script and symbols.
For a while we are the sole visitors. Then we meet a pilgrim from Lalibela – a young imam called Ali Umar. He has taken four days to get here. He wipes white dust across his brow, and with his cleft stick, leads me into the most sacred part, where the saint is buried. The air is cold. The stone is wet. The tomb is womb-like. I have travelled widely in Muslim countries; as a non-Muslim woman, I have never experienced such access, nor felt so deeply the power of a religion that’s not my own.
But Ethiopia is unique in east Africa, its reputation for religious tolerance going back to 600 AD, when the Prophet Mohammed’s first followers, fleeing persecution, came here and were welcomed by the Coptic Aksumites. “Fundamentalists see Ethiopia as an obstruction to Islamic expansion in Africa,” says our local guide Daniel Tesfaye. “Islam has a peaceful history in this country.”
It’s a remark that proves prescient when we reach Harar, where the women dress in yellow, fuchsia and scarlet. We can’t park close to Rewda, the guesthouse where we are staying. Like Marrakech, the alleys of this town – walled between the 13th and 16th centuries – are too narrow. One street, known as The Street of Reconciliation, is so tight that two citizens who have fallen out cannot get past each other without communicating. Yet there is a feeling of lightness – in the pale pinks and peppermints, in the brightly painted doors of the courtyard homes, and in the colours of the mosques, of which there are 82 in the old town. “That’s one to every 40 households,” says our Harar guide Amir Ridewan. “Every 100m you will find one, wherever there is a pomegranate tree.”
Ridewan takes us to meet Harar’s “hyena man” Youssef Mume Saleh, whom we watch putting meat into the mouths of a 30-strong clan of hyenas. At night, says Tesfaye, the citizens of Harar used to open the city gates and let the hyenas come in to scavenge through the rubbish in the streets. Saleh – who is often assisted by his son Abbas – has been feeding the hyenas for 30 years; he says they protect his cattle.
When I think no more preconceptions can be thoroughly upset, I meet Abdullah Ali Sherif. He’s chewing khat – a mildly narcotic leaf ubiquitous in these parts – standing outside his private Sherif Harar City Museum, which occupies the former governor’s house. Twenty-six years ago, Sherif started collecting Islamic texts. He now has more than 1,300, including a 1,000-year-old copy of the Qur’an and a mathematics book from 1580. He takes me to the archives, to the unbound texts that are stacked high in a locked room. I meet one of his 23 bookbinding protégés, Elias Bule. Bule, who started as a museum guard, continues a millennium-old tradition that used to draw students from as far away as Iraq.
“One of the first things the fundamentalists do is burn books. Otherwise the texts expose them,” says Sherif. I ask if he thinks the threat is on his doorstep. “Harar is a community where you can’t hide. People tell me what I ate for breakfast.” He drinks some tea, lying on his side in the shade of an old fig tree. “Whether the texts are about Islam or not doesn’t matter. They are things of beauty. They are part of history,” he says.
We talk for a couple of hours. When the bookbinder excuses himself for more khat, I realise I’ve lost myself entirely – to the wildlife, to the culture, to this swathe of backcountry Ethiopia recalibrating what it means to travel Islamic east African territory in 2016.