Here is excerpt from my field report from Ethiopia that will be available under Field Notes - Ethiopia, 2012 on my website:
Compared to many other African countries, Ethiopia is a very safe place for travellers. I didn’t observe even those hazards and annoyances that are being reported by so many tourists and that travel guide books usually warn of. I don’t want to say that everything in such reports isn’t true but I can’t confirm it from my own experience. I never was offended or harassed even when I was walking alone in the streets of Addis Ababa. Nobody attempted to rob me or to steal something from my pockets or bags. Nothing of my equipment and belongings was stolen from hotels and the tent.
Okay, having read so many stories about pickpockets in Ethiopia, I left my cameras, phones and everything valuable, also money and credit cards, in the hotel. Going to the city, I took with me only a cut proof PackSafe wallet with some money and documents that was hanging on my neck. I had no hand bag and had nothing in the pockets. Although it wasn’t evident to people on the streets that I have nothing of interest, nobody attempted to get from me something — even to ask me for some change. Overall There were not more beggars on the streets than in other countries of Africa that I had visited so far, and even than in Ukraine; and there were even less people who were looking dangerous. Street vendors were even much less pushy than, for instance, in Kenya — usually it was enough just to tell them once that you aren’t interested in their offer. I read in many texts about Ethiopia that such people, particularly children, can be very aggressiv and insisting, but I never observed this myself.
All my baggage remained in an armoire in my hotel room in Addis Ababa when I went to the city. I secured it with PackSafe nets, iron cords and locks.
At the hotel reception, before checking in, I had to sign an obligation to watch for security of my belongings myself and not to blame the hotel if something gets stolen. It was pretty unusual condition because normally hotels have to do their best to provide security for their guests. In this hotel there were no safes in the rooms, nor lockers at the reception, nor any kind of lockable closets in the rooms. However, I was prepared for this: For such cases, I have a couple of PacSafe security meshes. They are made of lightweight but extremely hard twisted steel wire net that is very difficult to destroy. Of course, it is not 100% secure but one would need special tools to cut the wire, thus it protects against an occasional thief. Before living the room, I put both my bags each in one such mesh and locked them. I also locked my waterproof case where I had the most valuable equipment parts — cameras, lenses, satellite phone, etc. All this I put into an armoire that was in the room, and tied together withe a thicker metal cable, that I attached to an unmovable part of the armoire and secured with a padlock.
When I was travelling through the country, no one attempted to stop the car. I have seen police and military at the roads, but they weren’t checking the cars — unlike in Ukraine, Russia, or even Turkey where a policeman can stop your car any time and without any obvious reason. However, the Ethiopian police might not do it for the same reason as the Ugandan — because they have noticed that either the driver or passengers are white. As a visitor of the country you won’t have a chance to drive a car because an Ethiopian driving licence is required for that. Whether you will have any troubles with police and incidents on road, depends completely on your Ethiopian driver. Therefore, it is important to be careful when you are choosing the driver and the car.
The safest way to transport your photographic and other electronic equipment is to use a water and dust proof polycarbonate case, such as Pelican, or similar. A big disadvantage of such cases is that they are quite heavy. A big Peli case, when it is empty, can weigh 20kg, almost as much as the most airlines allow in checked luggage. Also most airlines allow only 32kg of maximum weight per piece of luggage even if you would pay for overweight. Therefore, large polycarbonate cases can’t be used at all on such trips, and bulky equipment items, such as tripods, have to be transported in soft-shell luggage instead. On this trip I had only one hard-shell waterproof case that I took into airplane as hand luggage. It served me very well in Bale Mountains protecting my lenses and some other equipment from dust and physical damage. Since it couldn’t accommodate all potentially fragile equipment items, I had always to worry about those items that had to travel in bags. They certainly weren’t safe there. Next time when I’ll go to Ethiopia, I will take two such cases — i.e. one more that this time, to be able to put all fragile items in hard shell cases.
In dry season, almost everywhere in Bale Mountains the soil looks like this: There was no vegetation — only remains of dry grass and dry dung of goats, sheep, horses, cows. This produces enormous quantities of dust, that is being carried by wind and that covers you and your belongings, not only from outside but also inside.
A horrible place: Heather zone (ericaceous belt) at altitudes below 3500 m a.s.l. Maybe it is better in a more wet season, but in February and early March it is an extremely dusty and almost lifeless area of dense heather bush that is very difficult to pass. You can walk only in spaces between walls of heather trees that have deep rills made by erosion and hooves of cattle. You can puncture your shoes and or even break a leg at any time, so you have to watch your steps for many hours. Doing it for many hours is very boring.
Since there is always a danger that you break your camera if you fall or drop it occasionally, I recommend to have at least two camera bodies. Also getting an equipment insurance should be a good idea, particularly if you have a lot of expensive gear.
You should also be careful of dust. Bale Mountains was the most dusty place I ever visited; even in Kenyan savannah there wasn’t as much dust as in Ethiopian highlands. I have no advice for such situations: It isn’t possible to provide complete protection against dust because there is just too much of it. If you would pay attention to dust and try to prevent its intrusion into your equipment, it will spoil all your trip. I decided to relax and to take only reasonable amount of care. In the night, when the air was more clear, and I cleaned lenses and cameras as much as possible.
In terms of health hazards, Ethiopia is also relatively safe. Malaria, a desease that Africa travellers are the most afraid of, is virtually absent in this country whose territory lies either at heigh altitudes or in areas with dry climate. Anyway, there is no danger of malaria in those regions of Ethiopia that I have visited during this trip. Therefore, I didn’t take any prophylaxis against this desease. The risk of getting infected by parasitic worms doesn’t exist at heigh altitudes, too. Even in Harenna Forest I used water from the local river for shower without any treatment, and didn’t get an infection.
However, there are two deseases that a traveller has to be warned of: meningitis and typhoid fever. Outbreaks of meningitis happen now and then in tropical Africa including Ethiopia but they are localised to certain small areas that are quickly put under quarantine. Chances “to be at wrong time in wrong place” are not very big, particularly when you are an outdoor traveller who has little contact with local population.
There is a much greater risk to get a typhoid infection. There are two ways to prevent it. One is to get immunised by your family doctor before the trip. The other possibility that any doctor would recommend is just to be careful — first of all to avoid drinking and swimming in water that may be contaminated with human feces and urin. Since typhoid fever is rarely a life threatening desease nowadays and immunisation isn’t reliable, it is enough just to be cautious.
As almost everywhere for an outdoor photographer, also in the Ethiopian mountains the risk of an accident and injury is quite heigh. This was the main reason for me to have a satellite phone on this trip because I was travelling alone — only in company of Ethiopian helpers. Certainly, it is advisable for everyone trekking or hiking in such countries to have as good insurance as possible that would also provide evacuation in case of emergency. Also it is good to have a first-aid-kit and important medicaments — analgesics, antiseptics, etc. Even if you can’t yourself provide a medical aid, it is better to have everything necessary because there can be someone who would be able to do it.
In my opinion, it is the heigh altitude that causes the most serious health problems. I had read in books about mountaineering that different people have different reaction to heigh altitude and not all suffer altitude sickness. Though I had been at altitudes greater than 2500 m above sea level before this trip, I never got sick because of that, hence I didn’t know that for me altitude sickness may be a serious issue a all. I had to learn it already in the first night of my stay at Dinsho: I couldn’t go to sleep because of dyspnea. The next days it got worse: I was getting breathless already after very short physical activity, often had bleeding from nose that finally got clogged with blood thus breathing got even more difficult, had very little sleep, I could hear my heart beating very quickly somewhere in my head… As if it wasn’t bad enough — I had to walk every day at 15-20km on dusty plains, climbing hills at over 3500 m a.s.l., carrying heavy load… and breathing dust. After a week I was getting really desperate because I wasn’t feeling better. Suddenly, 10 days after beginning of the trekking my illness stopped as suddenly as it had started although I was at altitude over 3800 m above sea level. All symptoms were gone soon, and I was feeling normal for the rest of the trip.
Having had such troubles, I would advice anyone going for a long trip in Bale Mountains or any other area in Ethiopia at altitudes over 3000 m above sea level to take the risk of altitude sickness serious. If you aren’t in good physical shape and not young, I think it should be a good idea to get your health condition checked by a physician.
My face and hands got burnt by the sun already on the first day and I had to protect them with scarf and gloves that I was wearing all the time on sunny days during this trip. Certainly, I had sunglasses and a hat on in most hours of the day.
The last but not least health relevant issue that I would like to mention here is UV radiation and skin burns that is causes. Everyone has heard about potential danger of skin cancer caused by it. I heard it, too, and certainly would have tried to avoid sun burns — if I could, or better to say — if I had time for it. I didn’t even notice how I happened. I was very tired after long walk on the first day and because of my altitude sickness; I laid myself down on top of a hill to rest for about 20 minutes — with my face up. In the evening I felt that my face and hands were hot and burning. The next day they were all red and swollen. This continued for several days: I was getting vesicles on the nose that were bursting, and liquid was leaking from them. The wounds were healing quickly but the signs of them remained till the end of the trip. Even when my driver came for me to Dinsho, he told me that I was looking as a completely different person than the man whom he had brought with his car there weeks earlier to this place. For my next trip to Ethiopian highlands I will take sunscreen and will be more careful with the sun. I will also from the beginning of the trip protect my hands and face with cloths as much as possible.
Local people in Bale Mountains appear to use only firewood that they gather everywhere in the mountains. My horse assistants, cook and guide didn’t want to use the Primus stove that I brought from home and the kerosine that I had bought before the trip because they needed a fire not only for cooking but also for warming themselves. On this picture, my support team is sitting around such a fire in Web Valley.
The next day in the afternoon the guide came with three other people to the campsite. These people were a cook and two horse assistants. His first estimation was that three horses will be necessary for the trip. But the next day, when the horses were packed, it became apparent that the calculation had been wrong: An additional horse was needed to carry the supplies and the belongings of the horse assistants. The guide explained me that according to the rules established by the local organisation of horse assistants, the number of horses had not to exceed that of horse assistants plus one, i.e. 2:1, 3:2, 4:3, etc. (However, I’m afraid that this rule wouldn’t work for large groups of travelers — when just one more horse wouldn’t be enough.) A horse is supposed to carry maximum 40kg of load. Hence, with my almost 60kg of luggage, I alone needed 2 horses. One horse assistent had to take care of them. But since we were going to spend 17 days in the mountains, we had to take food for us and some forage for the horses accordingly. The guide and the horse assistent had also their own tents, cloths, etc. Hence another horse was necessary to carry all this. Since that were already 3 horses, another horse assistant was required. He also had some personal stuff to be transport, and, of course, we needed some more food.
On my way in Bale Mountains I was accompanied by 6 people and 4 horses.
Since we were 4 persons now, someone had to prepare our meals. A traveler who goes for a short trekking only with a guide and one horse assistant can probably cook meals himself. But if there are more people, either someone has to “play a cook” for all or there should be a special person for that task. During that trip, neither myself, nor the guide, nor anyone from the horse assistants were ready to prepare meals for everybody. Therefore, I decided to hire a cook, and asked the guide to find one. To my big surprise he came with a young lady. I had not expected such liberties for women in this region where the majority of population were Muslims.
Together with the cook, we were 5 people, so three horses were not enough. This became clear in the morning of our departure from Dinsho. Luckily, hiring another man with a horse wasn’t a problem. Of course, I couldn’t mind when a trainee of my guide joined our troop. All together, my support team consisted of 6 people with 4 horses.
You may be asking if they weren’t too many to pay for, if all those 6 people were really necessary for this trip to be a success. I still have no definite answer for this question. Since I don’t know in depth the culture of these people and all details of their relationships, I have to agree that the role separation was right for them, i.e. that a horse assistant couldn’t be a part-time cook, or the guide couldn’t be looking after horses. Certainly, fewer people doing more work would be eligible for a better payment. But this may be just our Western approach, and the sense of efficiency may be just different in other societies. I assume that there are people who would let also others earn money instead of trying to do other person’s job in order to get a maximum payment. If people who were helping me on that trip had this honourable attitude to each other, I certainly respect this. I also enjoyed the company of these extremely friendly, modest and reliable people and am very grateful to them.
Although water may be scarse in some regions of Ethiopia, in Bale Mountains it isn’t. It is available at all altitudes but not everywhere is clean. The daily trekking route goes usually through several places with drinking water but you should never rely on it. The guide knows such places but the condition of the water depends very much on weather, season, presence of cattle, etc. Therefore you may find it muddy or dried out when you have reached the place. Always take enough water for drinking on the way — about 1.5-2 litres.
Also the camps are typically situated at small rivers or even springs. Spring water is usually good for drinking without treatment. Particularly at heigh altitudes of the Sanetti Plateau you can be sure to get clean water directly from a spring. At other places the water would have flown long distances over areas contaminated with cattle dung. The locals may drink it nevertheless untreated but I hadn’t. I used a water filter Katadyn Pocket to prepare water for drinking, washing hands and face, and for brushing teeth. I found also that having the Katadyn filter everywhere with me was more practical than carrying drinking water: The filter is not heavy, and you can made as much water as you need at every place. The original condition of water doesn’t matter: It will be always perfectly clean after it has run trough the filter. Since I had to clean the filter many times during the trip, I suppose that the water was dirty not just in my imagination. Even when you stay in a hotel, with a water filter you can safely use the tap water for drinking and brushing teeth.
For treatment of water with filter I was using a foldable plastic canister. It had a tap and also served me as reservoir for water that I used for washing hands and teeth brushing. I stored drinking water in a See-to-Summit water bag that I found very reliable and convinient.
One of unanswered questions that I had before departure was: How the baggage should be packed for a horse? I needed to know it in order to ensure safety of my photographic and other equipment and camping items, such as water filter, solar battery, cooking utilities, flashlights, bottles, etc. Reading travel guides and research in the Internet didn’t help.
On my other trips, I had a padded backpack with photo equipment and a bag or a backpack with other stuff. Since other people who travelled the Bale Mountains didn’t report anything special regarding luggage, I assumed that they had usual trekking backpacks or similar bags. I also expected that bags or sacks were more suitable and convenient for a horse to carry. Obviously, such containers should be dust and water proof. Thus, I purchased two Ortlieb expedition sacks and put the most items that I had on this trip into them.
When I saw for the first time how the horse assistants treat the luggage I understood that only soft items such as sleeping bags or cloths are safe in soft-shell bags, and that it was a mistake to put some equipment among them. Fortunately, I had also a hard-shell outdoor case for photo equipment, but other items were in constant danger of getting broken or deformed, and some even did. I was particularly afraid that long items, such as tripods, would be deformed or even destroyed. Finally, I put all tripods, flash brackets, electronic devices and other non-soft and potentially fragile items in a separate bag and asked the men to be more careful with it. It was a red 85l Ortlieb that you can see here on some pictures.
The following pictures show the process of packing a horse.
Step 1: The assistants put the largest piece of luggage on the horse. Here it was my large Ortlieb sack where I had all items that weren’t photographic equipment. The men push, squeeze the bag and pull its ends down till it gets the shape of horse’s back. If long and non-elastic objects happen to be inside, they would be broken.
Step 2: This man puts my heavy waterproof case containing fragile photo gear — approx. 13-15kg (!) — onto the Ortlieb sack. My other more sturdy photographic equipment, such as tripods, is in the red sack on a horse that is in the background on this picture.
Step 3: Now he puts a rope along the horse over the luggage. One and of it is tied at horse’s tail. (I didn’t know before that tails of horses are so strong.)
Step 4: Now two horse assistants wrap a rope many times around horse’s body. They pull very hard at the rope to ensure that the luggage is fixated firmly and the tie wouldn’t loosen when the horse will be walking. Look how the rope cuts into the chest of the poor horse. I assume however that it didn’t hurt because I never noticed that the horse got irritated when the men were doing this. This is the moment when the last fragile items would get broken if you have forgot them inside.
Step 5: After the heaviest luggage pieces are fixated, the horse assistant attaches lighter items: my tent, a small rucksack (with my 300 mm telephoto lens inside), and a sack with kitchen utilities.
Step 6: Here you see the horse completely loaded with luggage and ready to depart. The total weight of items on this horse is about 40kg which is the maximum that such a packhorse is supposed to carry, an the one on this picture is loaded up to this limit. I have seen people riding horses in Bale Mountains, however. In such cases either the people are so light or the horses are different, i.e. bigger and stronger. Otherwise I can’t explain how it is possible.