Awesome Awash: Part 1

[I’m starting a trend here with alliterative blog post titles.]

A big group of fellow interns and I, excited to get away from the big city, decided to go to Awash National Park, the closest national park to Addis. While it is close in terms of kilometers, the ride there seemed almost interminable, for various reasons. Some of us were hungover, some were carsick, and others (myself included) were just plain sick. At times, the road was being worked on, which required detours on dusty gravel roads, which we were slow to traverse in our Toyota Cruiser (which does not have 4WD). Especially in the outskirts of Addis, there was a lot of traffic. It took us so long to get there that I started to get paranoid that the driver thought we were going to Awassa, far south of Addis, rather than Awash.

Beautiful lake view at a hotel we stopped at for a bathroom break.

Beautiful lake view at a hotel we stopped at for a bathroom break.

When we finally limped into the park, we were a sorry bunch. At the park gate, it did not look like much, either…just a dry and dusty landscape studded with acacia trees. After paying our entry fees, we pushed on in our trusty Cruiser towards the lodge.

The inside of the Cruiser (don't we all look thrilled?)

The inside of the Cruiser (Only Alex looks excited..)

All our fears were unfounded, once we were deeper into the park and especially at the Lodge, where we were welcomed with orange juice. I think we must of looked like we had traveled for days to get there. The Awash Falls Lodge is built on the bluffs overlooking the falls, and the views were absolutely amazing. Our group had rented a couple “tukuls”, traditional style cabins with four bedrooms. Ours was two floors and even had a balcony overlooking the falls, where I would have been content to sit and read all day.

All our tukuls had animal names! We were in Oryx.

All our tukuls had animal names! We were in Oryx.

Our balcony and the amazing view!

Our balcony and the amazing view!

 

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That, however, was not the reason we went to Awash…we went to see some wildlife, and were not disappointed. On the drive in alone, we saw a  rare Greater Kudu with its distinctive spiral horns. Then, as we were sitting on our balcony just after arriving, we saw a mama warthog with 5 little babies. The grounds of the lodge are also home to a pair of domesticated ostriches, as well as a troop of not-so-domesticated baboons. The baboons have been known to go into tukuls left unlocked and do lots of damage while clawing through people’s stuff for food. I found the baboons rather creepy, but it was cute to see the babies clinging to their mothers’ stomaches to get around.

English: Male Greater Kudu, Kruger National Pa...

Male Greater Kudu, (Photo credit: Wikipedia) This is not my picture…my reflexes with my camera are not this fast.

After a very small lunch at the Lodge restaurant, which had outdoor and indoor pavilions, I opted to take a very relaxing nap back in the tukul. The cool breeze coming off the river and the sound of the water rushing over the falls made for some great sleeping. When I woke up, it was time to do my job as trip coordinator and collect money from every one so we could pay for the rooms. Everyone found it quite amusing that I even brought a clipboard, so I was looking extra bossy and official.

Our view during lunch at the restaurant

Our view during lunch at the restaurant

The highlight of the day (evening, I suppose, at this point) was a trip to the hyena caves. We went with a guide from the Lodge named Mohammed, who is actually Zanzibari! I was able to practice some Swahili with him, a chance I did not expect to get in Ethiopia! The trip to the hyena cave was long and bumpy, as we had to go back along the road towards Addis…and then had to leave the road altogether. Mohammed would tell our driver, “Follow that road!” and we’d all look at see nothing that resembled a road, or even a dirt track. Once we arrived, however, it was worth all the fear that our Cruiser would get stuck and we’d have to walk back to the Lodge.

We got out of the van and walked the rest of the way to the caves, jumping over fissures in the earth where the land is splitting apart. Awash is at the northern end of the Great Rift Valley, which is slowly expanding by a few inches every year. In thousands of years, East Africa (including half of Ethiopia) will have broken off from the rest of the continent, and we got to see where it was happening!

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The most special part of the hyena cave experience, besides seeing an animal I’d grown up thinking marched around listening to lions and singing (kudos to the Lion King), was how peaceful it was just to sit in a big group and be absolutely quiet. With 17 interns, you don’t always get moments of peace and quiet. Here, we had to be still and quiet so as to not scare off the hyenas. Watching them emerge from their cave and run off to hunt was an experience I don’t think I will ever forget.

My animal pictures aren't the best, but here you can see one of the warthogs having just ran off a hyena.

My animal pictures aren’t the best, but here you can see one of the warthogs having just ran off a hyena.

Listening to Mohammed talk about hyena biology and behavior.

Listening to Mohammed talk about hyena biology and behavior.

 

When we got home from the hyena cave (in the dark), we went right to dinner, which we had ordered before we left. We sat around a fire in huge carved wooden chairs and listened to the thunder rumble in the distance and of course the soothing sound of water rushing over the falls. It was a beautiful end to a day that started out long, hot, and stressful.

After uploading my pictures, I realized I don’t really have any good shots of the hyenas: they kind of blend into the surroundings and my camera is not that advanced. Maybe I’ll see if my friends got any and post those.

Interesting notes about the hyena cave:

  • Contrary to the wise lessons of the Lion King, hyenas actually live together with warthogs in this particular cave. The cave provides such good protection that neither are willing to give it up, and so they live together in an uneasy truce. Both parties are equally afraid of the other, which we sort of got to witness when we saw a warthog scare off one of the hyenas who was getting too close to where it was sitting.
  • The lodge is required to notify the local community of Dafar people before people go visit the hyena cave. (They just call them on a cell phone, which pretty much everyone uses.) Then, the community sends some representatives to sit with us and collect a small (for us) fee and ensure we don’t poach the animals we see. The community is thus very invested in keeping the ecosystem healthy, because tourists coming to see the hyena caves are a source of income. In our case, the representatives were 3 young boys who were maybe 12 years old. They had to walk a few miles to come meet us, as their people are nomadic, and then a few miles back in the pitch darkness. Mohammed thought it was very funny that some of the interns were concerned about them walking alone in the dark, something they have been doing their entire lives!
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