The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Lecture - Thursday 10th April 2008

Off the Beaten Track in Ethiopia

Given by - John and Jean Broadbent

Reviewed by - Kate Brown

This exciting, illustrated talk certainly fulfilled the expectations conjured up by the title; John’s superb photography and Jean’s pacey commentary enabled those of us present to share in the adventurous journey undertaken by them in 2007, in a 4 x 4 with their wonderful guide. Having spent many (56!) weeks travelling in Ethiopia over the course of the past 10 years, the Broadbents decided that this time their objective would be to go to places they had never visited before. So, a study of their excellent map, in conjunction with advice sought from sources in Ethiopia (bearing in mind that certain no-go districts were to be avoided), was the starting point of a rigorous, lengthy planning period involving a great deal of preparatory work.

We were ‘taken’ on a fascinating journey through varied, stunningly beautiful scenery — often with lush green vegetation it being the rainy season; the Debre valley gorge looked remarkably green. It was interesting to see the almost pastoral setting of the Portuguese Bridge (having read Richard Snailham’s book about the Great Abai Expedition of 1968) — not unlike an old bridge in the Yorkshire Dales! From here the Broadbents journeyed westwards towards Gambela and we saw some spectacular waterfalls — the wet season meant that waterfalls, which might otherwise be an unimpressive trickle, were magnificent sights, heard long before they were seen — such as the Keto falls where a vast volume of brown water hurtled downwards. At the Ajara falls, south of Addis, there was a fantastic view of what appeared to be two separate rivers plunging off the edge of a cliff then rejoining after the dramatic fall.

At Nekemte they visited an enormous cave system, about 70m across and likewise in depth, known to an elderly local, called Kebede, who remembered scaring off Italian soldiers (bent on searching the cave), with his tale of a huge serpent which lived in it. The Broadbents had the unexpected benefit of the expertise of a distinguished caver: Andy Eavis and his son, who explored the cave with them; the characteristic honeycomb pattern of the basalt rock provided a huge surface area for the masses of bats which hung from the roof. The glowing eyes of the resting bats (cleverly photographed by John) must have created a uniquely magical backdrop to the extraordinary sight we had of them all ‘dining’ together around a table which they had contrived to set up in the cave — complete with coffee ceremony we were told!

Gambela was approached from the escarpment above the Baro river, now wide and beautiful with lush green banks but navigable for much of the year, and so a 1000m descent had to be made to reach the town. Here were brick-built buildings, some quite large and old, also rusting marine propelling units — evidence of earlier times when the place had been seized by the Italians then later wrested back by a combined Belgian/British force. Nearby, close to an Anwac village, a local boy pointed out a gravestone, virtually hidden beneath the reeds, inscribed with the name: W. D. Dawson, son of the Rev. Dawson, died 1910 — a very moving sight — and close by were many more graves, including those of Greeks that had worked here in the early 20th century.

In contrast, pictures of lovely, smiling, local girls in Gambela, and the more unusual sight of village women smoking clay pipes, provided some lively human interest.

The relatively few photographs of people — young and old — that we saw, were all delightful pictures which formed a very natural, integral part of this journey off the beaten track.

Onwards, over to the rift valley, and a rich variety of glorious wild flowers—thanks to the rainy season. At Yirgalem, near Dila, a beautiful lodge — with a conical shaped, reed thatched roof above a low brick wall — was a good base from which to visit three little- known sites of intriguing, historical interest. First, an overgrown site revealed a number of tall (up to 6 or 7m), phallic shaped stelae; at another, similarly neglected site, there were smaller stelae with interesting carvings, including a carved head. But the most amazing sight hereabouts was at Shappe, for here, on a high rock wall beside a river-bed, were some extraordinary engravings featuring primitive cows and human forms, thought to be 3000 years old — all clearly identifiable thanks to John’s superb photographs of the carvings.

The final stage of our ‘armchair’ journey took us to the Danakil. Leaving Mekele, our intrepid travellers made the long descent from the escarpment and onwards, to eventually reach the Danakil Depression — 76m below sea level. Here were the long, salt-laden camel trains coming off the salt flats at Hamad Ela where the salt blocks are cut. The skilled Afars, using a simple adze-like metal instrument, quickly cut the rough slabs into large bars which are then packed like piles of books onto a purpose-built rigging on each side of the camel. The camels, roped together in line astern to form a long train, carry the salt about 18 km to where it is picked up by trucks.

In order to see the wonderland created by salts in the area of the geothermal springs, the Broadbents crossed the unstable lava area at dawn — to avoid the worst of the intolerable heat which characterises the Danakil. Splendid photographs captured the beautiful patterns and colours, and the weird encrustations — some almost coral-like — created by the crystallisation of various salts; no commentary was needed here, one was left to imagine the hissing, glooping sound and the pervasive sulphurous smell.

Jean and John’s excellent presentation of their remarkable journey gave us a tantalising glimpse of the rich variety of scenery, history, people, and some lesser known parts, of Ethiopia.

First Published in News File Summer 2008

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