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The big weekend: birding Ethiopia’s Rift Valley lakes


06011622701729316_3abd7b521c_z (2)We are barely an hour south of Addis Ababa and already the landscape has changed so immensely it’s unrecognizable – the skyscrapers, convoluted traffic circles, and idling taxis replaced by scruffy acacia and protruding termite mounds. Colorfully painted Oromo tombs line the roadside and camels tower over clusters of goats and donkeys in rare swathes of shade. A priest in ivory-colored robes atop a horse draped with bouncing burgundy pompoms trots past my window.

I’m on my way to a lake dappled stretch of the Ethiopian Rift Valley, beginning a birding weekend with my then Addis Ababa-based brother-in-law Mike Fisher and Andy Haines, a friend from the Washington, DC area — all three of us self-described bird nerds. After spending four years teaching English in Addis Ababa during the early 1990s (and serving on the board of the Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society), Andy is returning to Ethiopia for the first time two decades, and taking us to one of his favorite places — Lake Langano. We’ve hired a driver and a ‘classic’ Land Cruiser (translation: sans air conditioning and seat cushioning) and planned perhaps an overly ambitious itinerary for a 48-hour visit.

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Gradually, the countryside becomes tinged with greenery and I can tell we are approaching a body of water. Violet streaked jacaranda, Indian neem, and pepper trees punctuate the acacia and fig trees line the Awash River. And then – unceremoniously – we spot our first birds of the weekend along the road: a gang of white-backed vultures huddled over the splayed corpse of a very unfortunate zebu.

Ethiopia’s collection of Rift Valley lakes, particularly those on our agenda – Langano, Ziway, and the so-called twin lakes Abiata and Shala — form an avifauna-rich, wetland-studded ecosystem, a haven for birds with 436 different species documented. Andy is fond of reminding us on his first birding trip to Lake Langano, nearly two decades ago, he saw 150 different species in a weekend.

Our driver, Gebre, doesn’t speak English, so we communicate in our limited Amharic. Our second bird sighting – an Abyssian ground hornbill – triggers panic as Andy shouts, ‘Baka!’ gesturing for Gebre to stop, which he does, smashing the brakes and whipping around to check the backseat, clearly expecting a medical emergency. He is even more perplexed to find us photographing the ungainly and common bird, but he quickly adjusts to our avian proclivity and begins stopping for every winged creature we pass.

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Our first destination – Lake Ziway – is also known for the five islands scattered throughout its water. The largest of Ziway’s islands, Tulu Gudo, is inhabited by the Zay people, but more famously, houses the ancient Maryam Tsion monastery, which reportedly briefly held the Ark of the Covenant in the 9th century. But we have a bird-centric agenda – and head straight for Lake Ziway’s jetty. The mangrove-fringed lake is buzzing with life – teenage boys splash in the tea-colored water, women crouch on the beach gutting shimmering silver fish, brightly painted tour boats line the shore, and a dust smudged white pony wades through a floating blanket of lilac-flecked water hyacinth. And then, I notice the birds – sacred ibis pick through lily pads, a hammerkop strolls the muddy shoreline, a snow-white egret eyes the murky water, a malachite kingfisher sails past at eye level, and an African fish eagle circles overhead. The visit to the jetty ends up costing us 45 bir (about $2.15) – shelled out to a seemingly self-appointed toll collector.

06011622738910371_dc5917489f_z (2)Just outside the town of Ziway, we come upon a sight least expected in Ethiopia– a 150-hectare vineyard owned by French beverage magnate Castel (reportedly complete with trenches to thwart wandering hippos from the nearby lake). Castel has had a lengthy presence in Ethiopia, first producing beer after buying the government owned Saint George’s brewery in 1998, and then, quickly taking note of the country’s vinicultural potential. After scouring the country for the most conducive growing conditions, Castel’s experts settled on the Rift Valley location in 2007 and began crafting two Ethiopian-produced wines – Rift Valley and Acacia — for sale domestically and internationally. The winery is closed for a private event when we pass, but with the first bottles debuting in the summer of 2014, we’ve already sampled the wares (my sister stocks her Addis pantry with Rift Valley chardonnay).

06011622104967574_bbb3bd098b_z (2)By late afternoon, we are stationed by Lake Langano, next to Sabana Beach Resort’s waterside bar. White-browed sparrow weavers bustle between round nests in the acacia branches above us. A trio of Egyptian geese sail past, cruising low over the sunlight-dappled water. Children clamber up a yellow plastic slide in the lake’s roped swimming area. I can’t help but instinctively balk at the sight of revelers in the water. I spent much of my childhood in the Nairobi suburbs, regularly visiting Kenya’s crocodile and hippo filled, bilharzia-afflicted lakes where swimming was completely out of the question. But Langano’s beach is reportedly free of schistosomiasis and moody megafauna. The swimmable lake – and our lodge, which has an undeniable beachy-cabana vibe – are also something of a novelty in landlocked Ethiopia, popular with weekenders from the capital.

And then, just after we order a second round of beers, we spot the lodge’s other birders – a group of sunhat crowned, binocular draped German seniors, moving as a pack, eyes on the canopy. For some reason, I can’t seem to vanquish the childish feelings of competitiveness mushrooming inside. I pull Andy’s earmarked copy of Birds of East Africa protectively closer as they pass.

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Sunday is our full day to explore and we are out early. Our first destination, the Senkelle Swayne’s Hartebeest Sanctuary, is about a three hour drive from the lodge – a considerable haul, but we are determined tourists. While Ethiopia has a significant number of protected areas– including 15 national parks and two wildlife sanctuaries– the country is hardly a hotspot for wildlife tourism, especially compared to East African peers like Kenya or Tanzania. The Senkelle Sanctuary is emblematic of many of Ethiopia’s protected areas – a large portion of them places in peril as wildlife and local communities compete for natural resources and land. Senkelle is one of the last havens for the endangered Swayne’s hartebeest, a subspecies that once roamed large tracts of Ethiopia and Somalia – and the sanctuary’s open savannah is also a hub for birds, nearly 200 different species have been observed in the protected area. But for communities living nearby, the Senkelle Sanctuary is also a reliable source of grass, timber and grazing land – especially when other options are few and far between.

060116pic3The final leg to the sanctuary is along a pockmarked dirt road, past clusters of straw topped huts, with cactus-fenced yards. Many of the compounds have logs hanging from the tree branches above them – makeshift beehives. Gebre navigates the clefts in the road delicately, but by the time we roll into the sanctuary I feel like my kidneys have shifted. At park headquarters, the staff seem surprised to see visitors, one of the rangers is in the middle of corralling a half-naked toddler. But a scout is rustled up for us, we are efficiently ushered into the park.

In minutes, we’ve found a small herd of coffee-and-caramel-colored hartebeest, huddled in the shade of a cluster of acacia. We park and approach the group on foot, crunching over the scorched earth — sections of the savannah recently burnt to encourage new growth. A warthog trots past and a pair of timid, sand-colored oribi eye us from a distance. Overhead, swallow-tailed kites circle, two carmine bee-eaters perch on a fallen log and lilac-breasted rollers coast past. In the distance, two sandy columns are churning toward us – dust devils – swirling parallel lines on the horizon.

06011622714145512_97ecb51eb9_z (2)After Senkelle, we race the slowly sinking afternoon sun to Abijiata-Shalla National Park, one of Ethiopia’s most critical avian hotspots – particularly for wetland species – the protected area supports more than two-thirds of the country’s entire population of waterbirds. But, the so-called twin lakes could hardly be more different – Lake Abijiata is exceptionally shallow, known for the large number of lesser flamingos drawn to its water. Meanwhile, Lake Shala is one of the deepest in Africa, nestled in one of the continent’s widest volcanic calderas. From the park’s entrance, I can see the glistening park of lakes in the distance, like conjoined twins separated only by a narrow strip of acacia-sprinkled savannah. But, we flounder on the parks rugged, internal organ jostling roads. After nearly an hour of aimless wandering, Gebre shrugs, giving us the universal expression for let’s bag it. Even while lost, we can’t help but point out the park’s birdlife – eastern chanting goshawk, red-billed hornbill, star-spotted nightjar. Finally, the road becomes too washed out to pass, but somehow after turning around we stumble on the track of Lake Abijiatta.

06011622738928711_a7561e5baa_z (2)We park next to a pair of makeshift soccer goals and walk toward the shallow lake, tinged pink with countless lesser flamingoes. Cameras out, we slowly try to approach the birds, but like a rosy mirage, the flamingos consistently inch further away each time we try to get closer. A trio of elementary-aged girls follows us along the spongy shoreline, ‘hello, hello, hello’ they repeat. I stop to show the girls the tiny images of the lake on my digital camera and they giggle uncontrollably. Finally, we race the approaching sunset back Lake Langano – and our lodge.

Monday morning, when it’s time to leave, we stall, lingering by Lake Langano watching a gang of white-necked cormorants comically bump one another off a rocky jetty. We tally our bird count – 40 species in 48 hours. A go-away-bird with an exaggerated bouffant-like tuft chides us knowingly. As we turn to leave, Andy pauses and points to the ground – an African hoopoe is trolling the thick grass. Make that 41 species for the weekend.

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