I am at the Bilen Lodge, an eco-lodge on the edge of the Rift Valley, in the Afar tribal area of eastern Ethiopia. I am sleeping in a flimsy thatched hut, with an even flimsier screen door, that I pray now I remembered to latch before I got into bed. There is a full moon, and as I rush to look out the screened window above my bed, I can just make out the tawny back of a lion sauntering away from me. It is my first night away from Addis Ababa, where I have been teaching a software class for three weeks, and my African travels have suddenly gotten a lot more interesting.
I had an inkling this might happen when I arrived at the converted hunting camp on the banks of a dry riverbed the day before. The Afar people are herders, and on the long, dusty drive to the lodge from the one paved road in this part of Ethiopia, I saw small herds of the skinniest cattle I have ever seen, ribs protruding. This land is in a chronic state of drought, and this year is especially bad. The cattle are driven by small boys with large sticks. Adults carry heavier weapons as I get closer to the lodge and the small Afar village just beyond. The “bellman”, an Afar tribesman, who picks up my backpack with one hand and escorts me to my hut, carries an AK47 rifle by the barrel with the other, balanced on his shoulder.
At dawn, I awake wondering if I had suffered a bad dream. But, no. There are lion prints everywhere in the dusty ground surrounding the hut. I came here to see African birds, but there are other wildlife milling about. I see warthogs in the near distance, foraging, and last night delicate dik-diks, tiny deer with huge brown eyes right out of a Disney movie, were curious about my presence and walked to within a few yards of me.
I reach for my binoculars to get a closer look at the warthogs. Suddenly, they look up, wary. I follow their gaze with my binoculars to find they are looking at a cheetah, moving slowly along the path young children were walking on yesterday as they came and went from the Afar village. My heart pounds again. Not from fear, but from excitement. I have now seen two of the three big cats living in Ethiopia within hours of each other. I’ve lived in Colorado most of my life, surrounded by mountain lions, and have never seen so much as a glimpse of them.
Unfortunately, there is no one at breakfast to hear my story. I have arrived at the lodge in the rainy season and I am the only guest. The manager listens to my excited yammering patiently, smiling politely, understanding every fifth word it appears. Finally, he admits, “Yes, there is a lion.” We stand, smiling at each other, saying nothing more. This is going to be a good day.
Ethiopia is one of the driest, poorest, and safest countries in Africa. I walked freely on the streets of Addis Ababa and felt in no danger at any time, although I did not walk at night. The danger at night is from falling into gaping six-foot holes in the sidewalk to the sewer below. The holes are unmarked and hard to see on the almost always unlit city streets.
The city was interesting, but my travel interests lie mostly outside of cities and I was eager to get into the countryside in this ecologically diverse country. I arranged for a combination driver/naturalist with an eco-tourism company in Addis to take me to some of the prime birding areas along the Awash River, toward Harar, and along the Rift Valley lakes, south of Addis, where I expected to see many of the 800 species of birds found in Ethiopia.
My plan was to bird for four days, then have my driver drop me off in Dodola, near the Bale Mountains (pronounced Baa-Lee, with the accent on the first syllable), where I would hike for a week and find my own way back to Addis. The Germans have built a series of huts in the Bale Mountains, and mountain guides will take you around to them. There are no trails. Or, rather, there are hundreds of trails, all unmarked, which is why a guide is essential. I planned to spend the week living rough and looking for the critically endangered Ethiopian wolf and the endemic mountain Nyala, an antelope species with two extraordinary spiral horns. Although I had a plan, I also subscribe to Lao Tzu’s adage that a good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving. I believe in serendipity.
I arrived in Dodola unannounced because cell phone reception and Internet connections are intermittent, a common problem in Ethiopia. I assumed guides would be available in the rainy season when tourists are scarce. There was a guide, but they couldn’t locate a horse. “But, I don’t want a horse,” I explained, “I want to walk.” I gathered from the general hubbub and how often I had to repeat this statement, that I was the first American tourist to ever set foot on the ground in the Bale Mountains.
My guide for the trip was a young man named Ayuno. He had grown up in the area and knew the region intimately. Because he spoke English, he was often hired by scientists who came to the Bale Mountains to study forestry or wildlife ecology. We had numerous long conversations around a fire, waiting out a rain or hail storm, in which I learned about everything from forest ecology, to wildlife biology, to the customs and problems of rural Ethiopians. My time with Ayuno was some of the best I have ever spent in the mountains.
One day we arrived at a German hut in late afternoon. Ayuno asked the hut caretaker, as usual, to bring us some fresh cow milk for our coffee and some delicious flat bread that is baked over an open fire. The caretaker was gone longer than normal, and there were a number of people milling around the caretaker’s hut. I asked what was going on. They were preparing for a local religious celebration, Ayuno told me, which would be held that evening. People from all over the region were gathering.
Ethiopia has deep Christian roots, but in recent memory it was run by a communist government that had outlawed most religious activity. Now, many people in the country are practicing Muslims. The rural people in this region, Ayuno told me, borrowed spiritual practices from many religions, but tended to favor the old traditional African religions with animal deities and powers. He would see if he could get us invited to the celebration.
About an hour after dark, the drumming started. Soon after, Ayuno and I walked over to the caretaker’s hut. The two rooms of the hut had been cleared and a small fire built on the dirt floor in the center of both rooms. Smoke escaped from the thatched roof in a convincing facsimile of a house aflame. Over one fire, the women were clustered, cooking food. Around the other, two men, one blind, were drumming. It was nearly impossible to get into the drumming room, as it was filled with people of all ages, from small children to old men, all dancing, singing, and clapping hands. All eyes were on me as I came into the room and took a place near the wall to observe.
The next hour was a combination of a New York City rave and a Southern Baptist revival meeting. The drumming was nearly constant. The singing, clapping, and stomping were palpable. Eyes closed, heads bobbing, sweat glistening in the smoke and flickering light, the dancers were enraptured by the rhythms, moved. Occasionally, the drumming would come to a climax and stop, and what sounded to me like a prayer was offered by various men in the room. The only word I understood was “ferenji”, foreigner, white man. When it was spoken, people would turn shyly to look at me, but I took the words to be a blessing and replied with a smile. Ayuno, standing beside me, thought best not to translate, and held his silence, perhaps an outsider, too.
Eventually, I felt uncomfortable as an observer and decided to leave, shaking people’s hands softly in the Ethiopian way as I quietly made my way out. The drumming and singing continued until dawn, and I have never had a more restful or pleasant sleep as I awoke periodically and listened to the sound wash over me.
I never did see an Ethiopian wolf or a Nyala on my travels, just signs of them. But, I will remember a lion roaring and the blessing of an Ethiopean prayer meeting in the Bale Mountains for the rest of my life.