Exploring Ethiopia’s Somali region

Somali, Somali region, camels, Ethiopia
It’s the dream of every adventure traveler–to explore a region that gets virtually no tourism, to see a culture with little contact with the outside world, to be among the first to visit the sights. It can be a thrill, an amazing rush that gives you valuable insights into a foreign culture and its history.

It can also be a major pain in the ass.

To the east of Harar lies Ethiopia’s Somali Region, a vast lowland spreading out east to Djibouti, Somaliland, and Somalia. Home to only 4.3 million, it’s Ethiopia’s most sparsely populated region, where many Somalis still live a traditional pastoral life.

To visit the Somali Region I hired a driver with a Landcruiser (the transport of choice in Africa) and Muhammed Jami Guleid (guleidhr @yahoo.com) a Harar tour guide who is Somali and lived for many years in the region. “Dake”, as everybody calls him, may be Somali, but he’s lived in Harar and speaks fluent Harari, so he’s accepted as Harari. Nebil Shamshu, who introduced me to a traditional African healer, came along too.

We set out in the early morning, climbing up and over several large hills to the east of Harar and passing through the Valley of Marvels, a beautiful geological wonder of strange rock formations and towering pinnacles that reminds me of some parts of the Arizona wilderness. I ask our driver, Azeze, to stop so I can take pictures but he refuses. “”A few weeks ago bandits stopped a minibus here,” he says. “They killed nine men and kidnapped and raped six women.” Suddenly I don’t feel like taking pictures anymore. While Ethiopia is generally safe (I haven’t had any problems in four months travel all over the country) there are bandits in some parts of the countryside.

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Now this section of the road is quiet. After the attack the army launched a huge manhunt but the bandits slipped away into the rough terrain or disappeared into the local population. Soldiers are everywhere now, so the bandits will have to find another road for their ambushes.

After climbing a last steep hill the road winds down to a dusty plain. I remember this road from my trip to Somaliland last year. Men lead strings of camels along the side of the highway. Low domed structures called aqal somali dot the landscape. Covered with mats and bits of cloth, they look like patchwork quilts. Muhammed Dake perks up, looking around eagerly and singing along to Somali songs on the radio. He also knows the words to every Johnny Cash song. Dake is a man of the world.

Our first stop is Jijiga, a rambling town of low concrete buildings that is the region’s capital. The Ministry of Culture and Tourism is here, conspicuous by the large aqal somali in its front yard. Nearby are the foundations of the new regional museum, to be opened. . .sometime. We’ve come here looking for information about the castle of Ahmed Guray, the Somali conqueror who 500 years ago brought the great Abyssinian Empire to its knees. I’d heard his castle still stands at Chinaksen just north of Jijiga. Dake hadn’t heard of this, and the Ministry had little information about their own region, just one leaflet in nearly incomprehensible English and a promotional video in Amharic that included nothing about the castle. The officials believe it’s at Darbi, close to Chinaksen, so we head there.

The road from Jijiga to Darbi is what’s locally referred to as “improved.” That is, a steamroller has squashed a strip of ground flat and it’s used as a road. It’s not a smooth as asphalt, but it’s far better than some African roads I’ve been on. The only problem is the steady stream of dust blowing through the window and caking our hands and faces. It’s far too hot to close the window, so we just sit and deal with it.

We get to Darbi and find nothing but a village–no castle, no city walls, and nobody who knows what we’re talking about. We head to our original goal of Chinaksen and find the same thing. Confused and frustrated, we sit down to a lunch of spaghetti (eaten in traditional Somali fashion with our hands) while Dake makes a few calls to local officials. After a long wait we meet up with them only to learn that they’ve never heard of a castle here, but there’s a mosque from Guray’s time not far off. We decide to head there and one official insists on being our guide, his eyes lighting up with dollar signs.

I am not at all surprised when he gets us lost within the first fifteen minutes. He soon has us driving across farmers’ fields, insisting it’s the right way. Azeze is about to go on strike, I’m wishing I’d learned some swear words in Somali, and Dake finally gives up on the guy and grabs a local guy to give us directions.

The local, of course, knows exactly where to go and soon we make it to a strange rectangular stone building that doesn’t really look like a mosque at all. There’s no courtyard or minaret like you usually see. Another local farmer comes up to us and a long discussion in Amharic ensues. The farmer gives me a few angry looks and Nebil talks to him in soothing tones. I understand just enough to know that the guy doesn’t want me to go in and Nebil is explaining that since everyone else is Muslim, that there’s no harm in it.

Eventually the farmer relents. We take our shoes off at the nearby wall and hop across sizzling flagstones to enter the cool interior. In the narrow front hall stand long wooden boards used by religious students for memorizing verses of the Koran. They can be found all over the Muslim world. These look old, stained nearly black from generations of handling. Further on we come to the main room, a long rectangular room painted with blue crescent moons and abstract decorations. Everything emanates an air of antiquity, and I wonder if Ahmed Guray himself ever prayed here before going off to battle.

Nebil must be wondering the same thing, because he looks around with wonder and declared that he wants to pray here. The farmer is making more nasty comments and Dake is getting nervous. “No, we need to go now. Sean, stop taking pictures.” We head out and the farmer is almost shouting now. The official flashes his badge and that shuts him up. After a final poisonous look at me, he stalks off.

“What was all that about?” I ask.

“He was saying that he smashes people’s cameras if they try to take pictures in there,” Dake replies.

“Nice.” I say. “I’ve taken pictures in mosques all around the world with no problem.”

Dake merely shrugs. On the way back the official asks me for a tip. I give him 20 birr ($1.20, a day’s wage for many working class jobs).

“Only 20 birr!” he freaks out.

“How many times did he get us lost?” Azeze asks me in English so he can’t understand.

“Exactly! But he helped out by waving his badge. I’ll give him 20 birr for waving a badge,” I reply.

As we head back to Harar I try to look at the trip philosophically. I didn’t find the castle of Ahmed Guray. Maybe it isn’t there. But maybe it is. It could have stood just a kilometer away from where we were, its battlements gleaming in the sun like some Somali Camelot, but the local tourism officials wouldn’t have known a thing about it. I did get some insights into life in the Somali region, however, and there does seem to be potential here that I’ll talk about in my next post. As I shrug off my day as a fairly expensive yet educational failure, a herd of camels passes by, their tan skin turned golden by the setting sun. A little further on we spot three families of baboons crossing the road.

There are things to see in the Somali region, just not what I set out to see.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Harar, Ethiopia: two months in Africa’s City of Saints

Coming up next: Ethiopia’s Somali region: a potential adventure travel destination?

Baboon raider put to death in South Africa

fred the baboon

He was known to his countrymen simply as Fred. The famous baboon’s hobbies included car burglary, stealing fruits, harassing humans, and sunning on a gorgeous stretch of a South African road around Millers Point.

This week, South African authorities decided Fred’s behavior was excessively aggressive, and put him down. While numerous activist groups such as Baboon Matters and the Nature Conservation Corporation pleaded for his life, their requests to spare the primate were rebuked. The locals too fought to save Fred. One Cape Point man tailed the vehicle containing a caged Fred for miles on his death row journey, his mind perhaps filled with action packed scenes of liberating the rebel baboon from his captors. But to no avail, Fred was euthanized.Fred was an expert thief, and had a keen eye for snacks. He would scout for cars with food inside and break in to feed. In 2010, Fred the baboon injured three people with two requiring hospitalization. Some speculate that this aggressive behavior is the result of being fed by humans around Millers point.

As the alpha male of the Millers Point baboon gang, Fred was an infamous character and cultivated a rather large following. The South African authorities cited his reckless behavior and escalating aggressiveness as the primary reasons for euthanizing him. While the cars around Millers Point may now be a little safer, many will miss the baboon burglar known simply as Fred.

flickr image via vgh.media

Ten monkey attack videos

Seasoned travelers know that the world is full of wonders as well as occasional hazards like political unrest, diarrhea and of course, monkey attacks. Harmless and cute as they seem to tourists, these are wild animals that are not to be taken for granted.

In 2007, SS Bajwa, Indian deputy mayor of New Delhi, was killed after falling from a terrace while fighting off an angry mob of monkeys. Typically more of a problem in South Asia (India, Thailand) where Hanuman – the Hindu “monkey god” – is particularly revered, attacks by monkeys are on the rise. Luckily, most monkey attacks are more benign, or at least less lethal.

After reviewing the following collection of kung-fu chimps, playful gibbons, and roving monkey pickpocket gangs, certain “travel tips” become self-evident. Don’t provoke them. Don’t give them knives. And don’t, under any circumstances, feed the monkeys, unless you’re attempting to exchange your Ray Bans for a piece of bread. As further warning, we’ve uncovered ten monkey attack videos featured below. Don’t let this happen to you!

1) Monkeys attack Dane
Entitled “Wheee!” Or, “Dane gratuitously provokes the monkeys until they swarm him.” Make sure to watch until :55 when Dane has to run for his life as he’s chased by a pack of crazed primates:


2) Don’t pet the monkey.
Unless you’re looking to be chased by a monkey.

3) Monkey vs. Dog
J’excuse the commentary. Truly a ninja among monkeys.

4) Baggage handlers
Searching for methods of mass destruction. If only my own baggage handlers were so kind.

5) Car-jacking
Containment is the best recourse.

6) West Side Story
Don’t give them knives. Really, don’t. Ever. Give. Them. Knives. Stupid and cruel.

7) Delinquents
When I was in India, late 70’s, I mistakenly assumed that they were being trained to steal shiny items for delivery to an “overlord.” Now I suspect that they simply evolved, learning to take and hold various items in exchange for “food.”

8) Nice hair clip
Such as this. Hmm, nice hair clip. Give Wonder Bread. I give clip.

9) Get a room
I’m not sure what he’s getting at there, beyond the obvious. She appears to be enjoying it.

10) Taekwondo
Texas. This is where it all begins, really.

Classic Trek: Semien Mountains, Ethiopia

Ethiopia is home to one of the more spectacular, yet lesser known, classic treks of the world. The Semien Mountains, found in the northern part of the country, offer amazing scenery, dizzying heights, and unique wildlife, with treks that can range anywhere from one to two weeks in length. Best of all, the trails tend to be remote and generally empty, providing solitude to travelers throughout the breathtaking landscapes.

The Semien range is quite rugged, with plenty of altitude. Many of the peaks rise above 11,000 feet, with the tallest, Ras Dashen, reaching 15,159 feet in height. The trails and campsites remain primitive, and there are few amenities to be had out in the Ethiopian wilds, but the mostly untouched backcountry offers deep gorges and unique rock formations, delivering stunning views to trekkers at every turn.

One of the more unique aspects of a Semien trek is that the trails wander through remote villages on a regular basis. This allows hikers the opportunity to visit with locals who live in the region and still maintain a simple lifestyle that has remained mostly unchanged for generations. The presence of these villages allows for cultural immersion, which is something that is often missing on similar treks in other parts of the world.
There is also plenty of wildlife to see on the trail as well, with Gelada Baboons being one of the highlights. The baboons make their homes amongst the rocky outcroppings of the Semien Mountains and rarely stray far from those protective spaces. Other animals in the area include the walia ibex, a species of mountain goats unique to the region, and the Ethiopian wolf, which resembles a red fox in most physical aspects.

For trekkers who have already covered the more well known treks of the world, such as the Inca Trail or the Annapurna Circuit, the Semien Mountains offer an isolated, little known escape that remains off the radar for many travelers. The incredible views, unique mountain villages, and interesting wildlife set it apart from just about any other hike, and will leave a lasting impression on anyone who makes the journey.