I landed in Addis at 10:15pm with no real way of contacting Measho, but all my fears dissipated when I found him standing patiently outside the airport with a placard bearing my name (spelt correctly!).
A good start.
He dropped me off at my hotel which, I would suggest, was on the low end of the scale. It was situated underneath a motorway flyover and, from the outside, it certainly did not look appealing. I would only be sleeping in a bed, I comforted myself, but the two boxes of condoms on my bedside table added an edge, even to the sleeping bit. I bade Measho farewell after paying him his fee upfront and we arranged for a 7am pickup the next morning to set off for our birding. Once again unease set in as I wondered if this was one of those international scams for naive tourists. Had I been set up? Would he actually arrive?
I was unnecessarily untrusting but being a bit of a “punctuality Nazi” I was starting to panic when he still hadn’t rolled in at 7:10am, a full ten minutes later than our agreed departure time. Well, 7:11 was not too bad and soon we were on our way.
Our vehicle was a Toyota Landcruiser driven by Measho’s employee, Angerson, who definitely has a future in Formula 1, or possibly stock car racing. Perhaps not the latter as he actually never hit anything, but we certainly came close on many occasions. It seems as if the thing to do is drive as fast as you can with your hand on the hooter. He wasn’t the only one employing that strategy.
We left the city and headed north, ascending from 2000m in the capital to the Sululta Plains just north of the city at an altitude of around 2400m. I will be mentioning altitude a lot during my tale-telling, mostly because it impacts the birdlife enormously, in much the same way as it does in other “birdy” countries around the world. The extreme altitude in places (up to 3000m near Debre Birhan) had me gasping for breath as I would clamber up some jumbled rocks to take photos of some of the birds. I felt like I had no fitness at all but I keep telling myself it was the altitude.
The Sululta Plains are essentially a huge plateau with a lot of depressions which fill up with water in the rainy season (June – September). We were at the tail end of the rain and so everywhere was underwater on the plains. Our first walk onto a floodplain had me wondering why Measho hadn’t insisted that wellies were compulsory attire. I decided after three steps that I wouldn’t care how wet my trainers got as there was no way of sidestepping puddles.
The Sululta Plains are an easy intro into Ethiopian Highland specials. They are usually large and easy to see and identify and we didn’t have to work too hard. Of all the endemics found in this area we only really missed one, being Spot-breasted Lapwing. The ones we did see included Wattled Ibis (which is an unfortunate looking bird), Blue-winged Goose, Abyssinian Longclaw, Erlanger’s Lark, Ethiopian Siskin and White-winged Cliff Chat. I also racked up a fair number of other lifers which are shown in a few pics below.
One bird that wasn’t a lifer but I reckon is a decent candidate for an armchair tick (i.e. they will split it some time in the future) was the weird Groundscraper Thrush found at this altitude. Unlike our ‘scraper back home, which is found in woodland and gardens, this one is found on the open grassy plains and rocky hillsides. It is also quite different in appearance with its buffy underparts.
We kept heading north until we reached the small settlement of Debre Libanos. This would be our overnight stop and held two birding spots that we would visit – the Ethio-German Hotel and the Monastery (more about both in a bit) – but first we had a lunch stop in a traditional Ethiopian road-side restaurant. A note about the food at this point is necessary. I’ll admit that I never got used to it. I do acknowledge that it was only three days and for one and a half of those I had Western choices, but I did have a go at this roadside restaurant and it didn’t quite click for me. They eat everything, and I mean everything, with a teff-based wrap/flatbread called injera. It has an interesting texture, being spongier than a wrap and it is served in a large round flat pan with the various sauces placed in the middle of the injera.
Injera, and its fillings, are eaten with the fingers, where the injera is used to squeeze the food together much like we would mop up the sauce on our plate with a soft piece of bread. I reckon with a bit of time I could grow to like it (an acquired taste for sure) but I just didn’t connect in my two attempts. I ate almost everything on my plate but my companions saw right through me and from then on I was offered alternatives, which almost always involved bread rolls and scrambled egg.
So, after lunch we stopped at the Ethio-German Hotel to let them know we had arrived. I was most likely their first visitor in weeks as the place was looking a little worse for wear. My room never had water for the 18 hours I was there but I guess it was clean enough. The lack of quality of the fittings at the hotel were more than compensated for by the view outside. The hotel is situated on the edge of the escarpment with the profile dropping down by at least 1500m directly in front of me. There are no namby-pamby railings and warning signs. If you misstep here, it is the end. I was distracted from the view at our arrival at the hotel as it involved a period of wonderful birding. Endemics and lifers were shooting past me left, right and centre and at times I battled to know whether to look left or right. Looking up is also critical as the raptors on display are top quality, with the highlight, for me, being a nice adult Lammergeier.
As for the endemics, the Banded Barbet took pride of place but almost as exciting were Brown Parisoma, Yellow-rumped Seedeater, White-billed Starling and Ruppell’s Black Chat. Non-endemics included Red-rumped Swallow, Hemprich’s Hornbill and Blue-breasted Bee-eater.
It was tough to tear me away from the hotel as the birding was so productive, but there were promises of more good birds at the Debre Libanos Monastery down the road. We jumped into the car and headed down the hill to a property on the side of a forested slope, dedicated to the Christian faith. It seems as if Ethiopians are split between Muslim and Christian and a lot of this is dependent on where you come from. The eastern half of the country is more Muslim dominant but this central area is mostly Christian.
It was a Friday afternoon and I was gob-smacked at the volume of devout Christians that were moving in and out of the property. I had read about it in preparation for the trip and warning had been given about the busyness of the place, but I really hadn’t expected it to be quite this jam-packed on a Friday afternoon. Along with the volume of people comes with a volume of human waste. There are no toilets at the monastery and so the entire place is a bit of a free for all. I can’t say I ever stepped in anything iffy but there is a general look about the mudiness of the place that makes me think I wasn’t just walking through mud.
We avoided the central temple and walked past a row of very basic accommodation which Measho pointed out is for sick people who travel to drink from the holy water to cure their ills. I asked him flippantly if it worked, to which he replied “it depends on what you believe”. I owned up to Measho that I am not a religious person but I did notice that he was quite devout. Every religious building we passed would instigate a lettering of the cross across his chest, so I suspect he was a strong believer in the healing power of the water.
Our route took us up the hillside, with me gasping at every step I took, and, although there were a few people meandering up and down the steps to a higher section of the forest, it was far more pleasant in the forest than it had been down by the monastery. The forested slope consisted of podocarpus and juniper trees and it was quite beautiful. It was also nice and cool and we worked our way along the paths eking out a few of the endemics. The prime target for me was Abyssinian Woodpecker. I think everyone knows by now that I have a bit of a thing for woodpeckers and this was no different. I told Measho that it was the most important bird for me and he certainly delivered by spotting a pair of them in the lower sections of the slope. They are by no means easy birds to get and so it was a great relief. An added bonus was a Grey-headed Woodpecker that landed in the same tree as the Abyssinian. We spent our time in the forest looking for the other important birds but it was tough birding and we missed a couple of my targets. No matter as we still had a good haul.
All that was left was to head back to the hotel for a walk down to the Portuguese Bridge which was a lot more spectacular than I had expected. A raging torrent of water rushes through the arches of this ancient bridge, tumbles down a wide shelf and then funnels again through a gap to drop 1000m to the valley below. It just defied belief that there was not a bigger deal made of a place that was quite obviously one of the most scenically beautiful places I have ever seen.
I also managed to add a new endemic to the list at the bridge which was an endemic Ruppell’s Black Chat. And another good bird was the Fan-tailed Raven that was common amongst the soaring vultures.
Dinner was my main attempt at injera, fortunately washed down by some local beer and then an early night for a very early start. Saturday would be our attempt at one of Ethiopia’s most difficult endemics.
Click here for day two.