Ethiopia by way of Djibouti: January-March 2011

We spent two months driving, through the Horn of Africa. We started from Djibouti, crossed an insanely remote border that was uncomfortably close to the Somali border and from there spent six weeks rambling through Ethopia. At that untraveled border (no foreigners, just local nomads) I didn’t know whether to lay low and act innocuous until we were safely away down an equally untraveled dirt road, or start practicing my “Ahoy there, matey,” in case a Somali pirate tried to, umm, befriend us. You can see the detailed route on the map.

One of the few countries in Africa never to have been colonized, Ethiopia beckons. It has monolithic churches, hand-carved from enormous rocks, that  fall into Seven Wonders of the World category.  These are rivaled only by monasteries carved into cliffs, reached daily by an 80-year-old priest in smooth-soled, sloppy plastic sandals who takes care of the place, but inaccessible to me, in sturdy walking shoes but terrified of heights.

And then there are the 14,000-foot mountains over which soar the immense Lammergaier vulture with its ten-foot wingspan, a stunning bird so large it can swallow bones whole.  Also populating these mountains are the Gelada, or bleeding heart, baboon, so called because of the red, hairless patch of skin visible between their breasts.  And shy herds of rare Walia ibyx scamper about, if you’re lucky enough to see them, foraging amongst tall prickly clump grass.

There’s all this and I haven’t yet mentioned the Danakil Desert, home of the once fearsome Afar people, known to castrate interlopers into their territory.  They don’t do that anymore, to Bernard’s relief, but they do still love to glower and pose with their AK-47s. And yes, those semi-automatics are loaded. They still work the salt flats, a hundred tribesmen in ragged T-shirts and salty shorts, hewing 30-lb slabs with knives and machetes.  Heavily laden camels and donkeys plod in caravans for a week to bring those salt slabs to market.

And then there are the southern tribes of the Omo River valley, some with their hair rubbed in grease and plastered with the ochre dust of the countryside, others slitting their lip which is slowly enlarged until they can sport a four-inch clay lip plate.

This mainly Christian country, reputed to be the site where the original Ark of the Covenant is hidden, as well as the site of Harar, one of Islam’s holiest cities, has some of the strangest food I’ve ever eaten and a population who are, in general, so stunningly beautiful that looking out the window of Brunhilde was an unmitigated pleasure.

My dispatches from the road are full of interesting details. Sign up HERE for my Dispatches Newsletter.  If you have questions about where we went and where we stayed, post below and I will reply.

You can also take a look at my husband Bernard’s gorgeous photos from our travels. Click here to view his site.

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