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Original ATA News Release
2007 Congress Agenda

Explorations in Southern Ethiopia
By the late Eunice Rawlings


EuniceIt was May 12th, 2000. The 26th Annual Congress had been a good one, and even after a late final soiree, 15 ATA members from Southern California assembled eagerly in the Hilton lobby to begin our tour of Ethiopia's famous Historic Route, Axum, Lalibela, Bahar Dar and Gondar. Once at Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, airport we passed through formalities and waited in the departure lounge. After we had bought everything possible in the gift shop, time began to drag and we became aware of solemn faces all around us. Finally, an Ethiopian Airlines representative informed us that Ethiopia and Eretria were officially at war and going north was not an option.

We didn't think going back to the hotel for several days was an option either. Our wonderful tour director George from Tourman's/Ethiopia Tours gave us some ideas for alternative arrangements and a phone call to Commissioner Sukkar enabled us to negotiate with the airport operations manger, Bekele Kidane who graciously found just the right sized Ethiopian Airlines plane for us.

Ethiopian AirWe invited members of other groups that were stranded and picked up a couple of hitch-hikers from other galaxies and 19 of us including the steward boarded a sturdy twin-engine prop plane and headed to Arba Minch, 505 kilometers southwest of Addis. To Ethiopian Airline's credit this whole operation was concluded by about 11:30 am. As we headed south and munched on boxed lunches, we passed over spectacular scenery. After leaving the modern skyline of Addis Ababa we found ourselves marveling at a giant patchwork of little farms with fields of green, gold and brown, each with its cluster of round, thatched homes.

Arba Minch, the Lakes and Nech Sar National Park
We passed over lakes and steep craggy cliffs. As we came closer to our destination, Arba Minch, the scenery turned to brilliant green and Chamo and Abaya, the largest of the Rift Valley lakes, shimmered back at us. Arba Minch airport consisted of a tin roof shed with bathrooms in a nearby field. Next door to these amenities a modern, unfinished airport structure rose as a phoenix from the ashes, possibly waiting for the war to be over, so that more funds would be available to complete it. Curious, friendly people who enjoyed posing for pictures and kept us entertained until our vehicles arrived surrounded us. The minivans had seen better days, but given the circumstances they and their owners did very well by us. Our pilots bid us farewell and promised to come back for us in a couple of days.

After a short ride we arrived at our destination, the Bekele Molla Hotel. The main building was whitewashed and dripping with bouganvillias, the terrace had a view that was indescribable. We had several weather changes during our brief stay which only intensified the superb vista of lakes Chamo and Abaya, the intense greens of Nech Sar National Park, the magnificent mountains and the inimitable African skies filled with giant, soaring birds.

The accommodation was in twin bungalows. Very basic. The bathrooms were spartan and as we learned later, water was iffy. Some rooms had water for a while; some showers shut off just as one had worked up a good lather and some had no water. The windows were ill fitting so the mosquitoes declared May 12 ñ 14 a new feast day. Never have I been so glad to be with such a wonderful group of people. We all laughed at each otherís tales of woe, which we shared over breakfast.

Meals at the hotel were also an adventure. But when you consider that 18 of us descended on them on a moment's notice, the chef did a great job. The menu didn't change much, fish, beef, spaghetti and soup. We all soon learned that the fish was incredible (freshly caught from the lake) and the servings were huge. On our final evening, we were presented with breaded Tilapia served on special stands so that it looked as though the fish were swimming along the table. The flesh was easily removed with a fork from each side of the fish and it was truly out of this world.

Green Crocodiles and Pink Flamingos
We were unable to visit some of the different communities and main attractions in the area because most roads had been washed out. We did take a wild boat ride across lake Chamo to see the basking grounds of hundreds of Nile crocodile, (some reach 30 feet in length), with hippos, pink flamingos and storks close by. Our return was quite late in the afternoon and a storm was brewing. The gathering clouds and the setting sun made a memorable panorama of changing light dancing on the water and bouncing off the mountains. That night the heavens opened and it poured!

Shopper's Paradise
The rain continued until after lunch the next day. Near our hotel was a small 'gift shop' which was full well priced local treasures. We bought wonderful pots, jewelry, lip plates and other reminders of the area. We heard later that our little shopping spree had provided enough revenue to feed the storeowner's family for six months. We went into town and walked around the market, a collection of little canvas covered, ground level stalls, which on this day were little islands of dark brown mud surrounded by water. Some of us purchased beautiful shammas the finely hand-woven cotton shawls worn by most Ethiopians. We concluded the day's activities by dropping in, uninvited, on a small village in the country. We were welcomed by young and old alike and were made to feel very much at home.

Awash and Awash National Park
We flew back to Addis and boarded a waiting tour bus that took us southeast to Awash. Arriving late in the evening, we stayed at a hotel that was in a walled enclosure with rooms around the perimeter. There was a large open area in the middle with an assortment of small livestock. Dinner was delicious. There was no water to drink. We had to make do with beer or Coca-Cola. Aside from a dead bat in one of the rooms, (just a tiny one) the accommodation was clean and comfortable. It was hot though, and all of us had packed to go north, so in the rooms with no air-conditioning; well, you get the idea. We awoke to find that we had were staying at the Hotel Paradise

Our morning saw us exploring Awash National Park where dik dik, waterbuck, ostrich, gazelle, zebra, oryx and other plains game as well as cats may be seen. Our game viewing was not good, but a large group in a large bus preempts any serious sightings.

Meeting the Nomads of Southern Ethiopia
Truly exceptional, was an encounter with the nomadic peoples of the area who appeared by the Awash river where we had stopped at a clearing to stretch our legs and admire and photograph some exquisite purple rollers, one of Ethiopia's 830 species of birds. They came in a long, dignified procession, slowly and quietly, the men dressed in little more than a toga, with huge machete like knives at the waist, and the women, shy yet beautiful, some wearing colors, others in traditional off-whites. With them came a large group of haughty camels, long horned cattle, goats and donkeys. The scene was magic, as the various animals came to the water's edge to quench their thirst.

These good folk weren't particularly thrilled to see us and didn't want their pictures taken. When offered Birr (Ethiopian currency), in return for a pose they scoffed at us. "What will we do with money"? They queried. It didn't help that the chief decided that George was looking at his women, and started chasing us brandishing an ancient shotgun. We swiftly boarded the bus and headed towards Addis.

Another similar incident occurred when we stopped to get a close-up look at some great water birds. We drove over a marshy area then walked the final few yards. From a distance we could see a large herd of camel and pretty soon two fierce young men with a halos of hair, and big machetes came and asked why we were observing their camels. When George tried to explain that we were looking at birds, they clearly thought it was a pretty lame excuse. "Birds! Who looks at birds"? Again, we excused ourselves and continued to Addis!

This wasn't the journey we planned and we didn't accomplish a whole lot, but we wouldn't have missed this excursion for anything. For one thing, it was a great bonding experience for the group. But more than that, it was a humbling, learning experience. Ethiopia is two and a half times the size of France, so it is possible to be in a country at war and not be in danger and it is equally possible to be in southern Ethiopia and not see a sign of drought. Ethiopia is a land of many contrasts and as travel professionals we must spread the word that Ethiopia is a country that offers much to the traveler and with proper preparation a visit will be a safe and enriching experience.

Our tour operator in Ethiopia was Tourman's Ethiopia Tours, Addis Ababa.

Eunice Rawlings passed away in 2001.