Horseback Riding through the Ethiopian Highlands
Janine Whyte's adventure of beauty, friendship and culture in Ethiopia.
The Abyssinian Explorer, Horseback Riding through the Ethiopian Highlands
Ethiopia – An Introduction
When I first revealed my intention to go horseback riding through the Ethiopian Highlands my friends thought me crazy. Mention Ethiopia and most people conjure an image of poverty, drought, starvation and deprivation. This may have been true 30+ years ago, but Ethiopia offers more than meets the eye, or any popular misconception. As the oldest independent country in Africa, Ethiopia has a rich history and a deep-rooted horse culture that I longed to experience firsthand, and the Abyssinian Explorer package from Unicorn Trails proved the perfect opportunity to experience horseback riding through the Ethiopian Highlands at its best.
Apart from a five-year occupation by Mussolini’s Italy, Ethiopia has never been colonised and is distinctly African. It retains its own cultural identity with a fusion of influences from the Middle East adding an air of mystery, intrigue and exoticism. It is heralded as the cradle of Christianity, with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church being one of the world’s oldest sects. This strong Christian foundation, coupled with the haunting sound of the muezzin calling the Muslim faithful to prayer epitomises the true union of different cultures living in peace and harmony with each other. It is also home to Lucy, our 3.5 million-year-old ancestor, and one of the most important hominid finds ever unearthed. This discovery cemented Ethiopia as one of the world’s most important archaeological areas.
The rich biodiversity of the country was evident everywhere we travelled, from the dizzying heights of the Simien and Bale Mountains to the arid deserts and sweeping savannahs.
Travelling in Ethiopia is measured in hours rather than distance, and the horse is the perfect mode of transport in this country of very little asphalt infrastructure.
Addis Ababa – Gateway to Ethiopia:
Arriving in Addis Ababa is akin to taking a giant leap into another world. This is a city that exudes the exoticism and mystique of an ancient regal civilisation, but also grapples with being Africa’s fourth largest city and the continent’s diplomatic centre. Museum lovers will feel at home with the plethora of exhibits and insights into the local history. But I personally urge everyone visiting Ethiopia to sample its local delicacies. The cuisine is unique and flavoursome with an aroma of infusions that dance on your tongue and into your soul. It’s not only the food itself, but the actual process and ritual of eating. In Ethiopia food is shared with friends and family, and is an intimate rite where even the presentation of food on communal platters encourages sharing. Nobody eats alone which is an incredibly beautiful sentiment.
After our group’s whistle-stop tour of Addis Ababa we headed through the streams of traffic and hoards of people to our hotel for the evening, to reflect on the day and speculate what our upcoming adventure would bring.
Into the wild
The morning marked the true start to our Ethiopian horse riding experience. After fortifying ourselves with cups of the finest local coffee on the verandah of our hotel, we set out on a six-hour journey through the Great Rift Valley to Dodda.
Ascending steadily from about 2,400m above sea level to the Central Highlands, the canvas through the windows of the bus became more colourful. The soil transformed from arid to fertile. Small forests of lushness pockmarked the landscape, and a tapestry of greens and emeralds began to surround us as we arrived at the Bale Mountain Motel for lunch in a sunshine-filled garden. Here we met Hussain, our fearless guide and leader.
However, our Journey did not end here and once our hunger was satisfied we truly hit into the wilderness. After collecting our back-up guide, Nabu, we meandered along a 4WD track for 10kms in a little minibus, stopping occasionally to walk. This helped relieve the bus of extra weight as it got stuck amongst the troughs until we reached the edge of the Changiti Forest. Surrounded by verdant green fields and craggy mountains we could go no further by vehicle. A team of horsemen and pack horses awaited us, and as our supplies for the trip ahead were loaded, we continued on a 3km hike through a forest of Juniper and Hagenia trees.
At last our camp was finally in sight, a collection of refuge huts that were tended by a local family whose traditionally bedecked and bejewelled horses waited patiently while Hussain went to negotiate prices for the use of the steeds for the first leg of our journey.
It is the ethic of sustainable tourism associated with this adventure that attracted me instantly to Ethiopia as a riding destination. The northern slopes of the Bale Mountains adjacent to the Bale National Park are abundant with endemic wildlife and natural resources that require significant protection. The forests are also home to a vast number of farmers and homesteads with cattle, sheep and goats being their major basis of subsistence. Unfortunately, what results is a vast amount of deforestation due to the ever-increasing population and increased reliance on agricultural lands for survival.
In a bid to combat this problem, the governments of Ethiopia and Germany started a co-operative effort to conserve the natural forests in the Oromo region of Ethiopia, and a community-based forest management program was born.
For the forest dwellers, tourism was developed as an alternative income to farming and wood collection. All tourism in the region is filtered through the Forest Users Group Union which represents the larger Community and a locally owned Tour Guides Association. All payments go directly to these groups, and these fees contribute to upgrading social infrastructures such as village schools.
Each day a new team of horses and their horsemen were hired, returning home to their community at day’s end with wages and grain for the horses we used. A new group of horses were then hired from the following community for the next day. So it continued until we entered the National Park where we used the same horses for our 3 days exploring the park. This model clearly works, and since 1995 tourism income has greatly increased the level of wealth in the communities. This has also resulted in a 4-year increase of the school leaving age in the area.
Our daily dose of adventure!
Our well-planned route was well designed into distinct stages with 5 – 7 hours riding per day.
Changiti – Angafu: Changiti lay at an altitude of 2,400m and as we rode through the forest we were surrounded by exotic birdsong and Colobus monkeys jumping from tree to tree. We reached the Tarura Plain which was ideal for those who enjoy a gallop. Ethiopian horses are not used to the same signals as European horses, however, it was not difficult to control them. After a stop at the Wahoro hut the route led us to Angafu Via Tulu tute (3,750m altitude) where we were rewarded with astounding views. In the afternoon we took a short walk along the ridge to Delume before overnighting at the Angafu Eco-hut.
Angafo – Mollolicho: After an early breakfast we started out on the 6-hour ride to the Mololcho refuge hut. Travelling through the dense primaeval jungle we were surprised by the familiar species known to be shrubs in Europe, but which grew into towering trees here. We left the forest at around 3,400m and rode onto the great afro-alpine humid meadows, its undulating territory spiked with wild hyacinth and giant Lobelias the size of palms. A multitude of rodent species abound, which is a bonus for the many predators that make their home here. These include eagles, buzzards, falcons and Abyssinian wolves, the rarest canines in the world. Only an estimated 600 of these wolves survive on the Bale plateau and a sighting is a rare privilege. After an exhilarating but exhausting day, we were happy to reach the Mololicho camp.
Mollolicho – Duro: The morning ride toward Duro saw us surrounded by Erica vegetation with a carpet of yellow flowers making riding extremely attractive. We crossed the Meribo River which flows throughout the season and walked the final metres to Meribo as the trail is not suitable for horses. In the late afternoon we ambled along the ridge to appreciate the scenery. After dinner we made a campfire and enjoyed a traditional coffee ceremony with the villagers before retiring to the sound of jackals laughing into the night.
Duro – Anjenje: Today we headed to Morba (3,750m) after a full day horse riding through alternating heathers and vast plains on a relatively unchanging route across the plateau. We constantly kept our eyes peeled for the fawn coloured Abyssinian wolves. We reached the breathtaking Berenda Ridge which falls abruptly from an altitude of 3,600m and took a break at the Habera waterfall before continuing to Moroba, and our overnight camp at the Anjenje Refuge hut.
Bale National Park and The Sanetti Plateau:
From here onward we rode inside the Bale Mountain National Park, following the tracks of small groups of Oromo families going to the market or moving their cattle. Our overnight stop was the Sodota camp situated in a valley dotted with lobelias, an excellent site for observing the elusive Abyssinian wolves.
The next morning we left the Wasem river valley with its resident troops of baboons before climbing into canyons that concentrated into a giant amphitheatre. From here we headed onto basaltic plateaus to reaching an altitude of 4,000 meters. A long valley led to the wild mountains, the highest land mass in the region, where we camped overnight at Wasama.
Next morning the trail led us to Gebre Guracha, or Black Lake, home of many bird species before riding to the Sanetti Plateau, also known as the Island in the Air. Sanetti is at an altitude of 4,000m and is often shrouded in fog, so we prepared for a day in the cold. This is the home of the red fox and warthog. Although not a ‘Big 5’ destination, the area has its own endemic species and an active conservation program is in place to protect these national treasures after the years of drought and famine that decimated much of the local wildlife.
We passed through a forest of Hagenias and African junipers, our path bordered by yellow flowers and bright red Kniphobias which covered the slopes of the hills. This was the edge of the Bale mountains. At 4,000m the air was fresh and clear and when the weather allowed, offered unrestricted 360° views. The most spectacular of these was the Southern vista of the Herenna escarpment which plunges for more than 2,000m towards a vast tropical forest extending all the way to Kenya. This was our last night of the trail and we made ourselves comfortable at the Sanetti camp.
The next morning we bade a fond farewell to our sure-footed Ethiopian ponies and new friends. Our adventure roaming the Ethiopian Highlands on horseback was coming to an end, but there were still a few stops to make along the way. We set off to Dinsho, the headquarters of the Bale National Park, before reaching Shashemene and Lake Langano where a comfortable bed, hot shower and swim in the mineral waters was well deserved and much appreciated.
The next morning we visited the Abjata and Shalla National Park on our way back to Addis Ababa. Here we watched in awe as thousands of flamingos, pelicans and numerous other water birds waded in the shallows. We reached the capital with time to spare for last minute shopping and sightseeing. Our farewell dinner at our local traditional hotel featured the symbolic coffee ceremony and cultural dancing. A fitting way to spend our last night in this enigmatic, and often misunderstood country.
Horseback riding through the Ethiopian Highlands offers an incredible adventure and experience to those seeking something more than just another holiday. The Abyssinian Explorer trip offers an opportunity for complete cultural immersion, which was the highlight of my trip. Our team were all Ethiopian, our horse and horsemen all sourced from the local Central Highland communities, and we did not cross paths with any other ‘foreigners’ from the time we left Addis Ababa until we returned.
Some of my favourite memories include hanging out with the Ethiopian team, laughing and joking beyond the bounds of a language barrier; learning how to bake bread the local way; bartering with a local farmer for a goat; learning a smattering of Amharic and Oromo under the guidance of our cook, and finding myself in the middle of a religious blessing ceremony being conducted by a local holy man well under the influence of Khat! Our Ethiopian team had become friends and had happily shared their culture with us, delighted that we wanted to learn.
With a heavy heart and a promise to return, we caught our transfer for our return flights home. Each one of us felt changed by our adventure and carried a little piece of Ethiopia home with us to treasure forever.
For your adventure Horseback Riding through the Ethiopian Highlands please contact:
01767 600 606
Adapted by Andrew Knapp from Janine Whyte’s account of her riding experience on the Abyssinian Explorer tour, exploring the Ethiopian Highlands with Unicorn Trails. Photography by Janine Whyte.