Terence Baker writes:
I thought your readers might be interested in my tale of getting to Harar from the Bale Mountains via the Wabe Shebelle gorge and river via the Sof Omar Caves and the tomb of Sheikh Hussein.
Breaking it into usable parts, rather than giving you an essay on my adventures:
i) From Robe/Goba – the road just a few miles east of Robe turns to dust, all the way to Sof Omar. There, someone on the side of the road flagged down my car (I was travelling with the excellent Zawdu Hailu from T Jazz Ethiopia (contact via British Addis Ababa resident Jerome Aubrey at firstname.lastname@example.org)) and demanded payment to the caves. It was not so expensive, but the “government fee” we knew did not exist other than in their pockets; throughout Ethiopia we heard about “government fees” and “association-fixed prices,” even if there never could be produced receipts or forms, which I always though associations loved. This is tiring when the “guide” produced does not speak English, but there you go. Sof Omar is a good site for Bristle-headed starling, Red-billed hornbill and Vervet monkey, and on the way there I saw White stork and Black-backed jackal.
ii) I used Hungarian company Gizi’s map of Ethiopia (www.gizimap.hu), which is detailed, but the only road that it looked possible to use to go north of Sof Omar was not the yellow one that goes between Ginir and Gure, but the thin red one that does go to those two towns but not directly, via Delo and Jara, where it was possible to eat lunch.
iii) Sheikh Hussein is a highlight. Basically, it consists of one tomb (as you know), with whitewash, inscribed Arabic sentences from the Quran painted black, low roofs and a large outer wall. Again, a few costs seemed to be plucked out of thin air. We paid 200 birr each for entry, 100 birr for a non-English speaking guide and 150 birr for a guard to stay up and look after us (which he did) when we slept in the one-storey government hut 200 metres south of the tomb. You need to bring your own sleeping bags and mats, but if was okay. Larger groups – when they come, which is rarely – can sleep in a school, with much the same arrangements but higher costs, one assumes. The children here were so excited to see us that they forgot they were twirling cut-throat razors as they came to see us. The only restaurant is at the far side of the village, has no name and has no cooking facilities apart from an open fire. Spaghetti with spicy meat sauce cost 35p, I calculated, and there is a small shop opposite that sold Harar beer and bottled water, which we bought so that our cook could cook with it. The tour of the tomb was wonderful, even if everything had to be translated. Several old men sat around outside, looking like Hollywood central casting characters for mujahedeen rebels; everyone was stoned on qat, and several bent over to eat pieces of grey gravel on the tomb floor. At the “restaurant” we met a couple of government officials from Addis Ababa who were there to look at the possibilities of providing electricity, gas and main-lines water to the village (there is none), and they said the extra “government” costs were fictitious. Still, none of that mattered, as costs are low, and the experience – sitting on low benches while bearded Muslims slowly got off their boxes on qat and hyenas moaned in the distance – memorable. Bring a torch!
iv) The road north of Sheikh Hussein is not to be done in the rainy season. We were there in early April, and Zawdu said he would not have wanted to drive that route much after that month – actually, he said ever again if he did not have another vehicle with him in a convoy. The road is fine. Gravel. But for about 150 kilometres between Sheikh Hussein and Micheta, we saw only two boys shepherding camels. There is nothing. It is beautiful, and standing beside the Wabe Shebelle river, which flows into Somalia, and driving along the sides and across the stunning Wabe Shebelle canyon is every bit as wonderful as my trips to the Grand Canyon in Arizona and Waimea Canyon in Kauai. But suffer a breakdown, and help is probably three days away. The road is a little narrow in places, large rocks testament to landslides. I was very happy I got through unscathed, but I could see the dangers of taking that route. It was the only place in Ethiopia where I did not see at least one person somewhere. No villages, no nothing, just a Salt’s dik-dik that was not shy in the least.
v) The road remains dust after it starts to become populated at Micheta. The towns of Mechara, Gelemso and Bedesa are very busy, and this was the most we heard the shouts of “you!” and “farangi!” on our trip. Perhaps because fewer people come that way. When you reach Asbe Teferi, the road becomes asphalt.