Ethiopia (January 2017):
Across northeastern Oromia, from Sheikh Hussein to Harar
The purpose of this trip was to travel from Sheikh Hussein to Harar, as much as possible on foot, across the northeastern part of Oromia, the largest of the nine states of Ethiopia. In the eyes of most Ethiopian Muslims Sheikh Hussein and Harar are two of the most sacred places in Ethiopia, along with Negash in northern Tigray (which is the site of the first Muslim settlement in Ethiopia):
- Sheikh Hussein is a village named after a 13th-century holy man who is credited for having introduced Islam in the region and is buried in a sanctuary located in this village. For several centuries, and still today, twice a year, this sanctuary has been the destination of a major pilgrimage that attracts several 10,000 pilgrims.
- Harar (which I had already visited in May 2012) is considered by many Ethiopian Muslims as the 4th-holiest city, after Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. The old walled city of Harar (called Jugal) is said to be the largest concentration of mosques in the world.
Between Sheikh Hussein and Harar lies a dry land of flat plateaus (elevation: between 1500 and 1800m) separated by canyons (elevation: between 800 and 900m) created by the Wadi Shebelle and its tributaries. The Wadi Shebelle is a major river that has its source in Ethiopian highlands (Bale mountains) and flows into Somalia.
Logistics and support team:
Like for my four most recent trips to Ethiopia (April-May 2012, March 2013, November-December 2013, and April-May 2015), Solomon Berhe arranged the logistics for this trip (permits, transportation, support team, group gear, hotel reservations...). I am very fortunate that he had been willing to arrange such a trip in a very remote region of Ethiopia. During the trip I had some unpleasant encounters with police. Without his prompt and effective intervention, I might have ended up spending a few days (or more) in jail.
My companions during the trip were Gebru, Numan, and Mahmood (photos below). Gebru lives in Adwa (northern Tigray) and is Solomon′s brother. We had already done three trips together (April-May 2012, November-December 2013, and April-May 2015). I was glad and grateful that he came, as he was the only person I could fully rely upon during the trip (even though we don‛t speak any common language). Unfortunately, he only speaks Tigrinya and Amharic, while most people encountered during the trip only spoke Oromo. Numan and Mahmood are Oromos from Sheikh Hussein. They speak both Oromo and Amharic. Numan, who also speaks good English, was the main interpreter within the group and with the local people. Numan and Mahmood were fine companions, but neither had previously visited the region between Sheikh Hussein and Harar, beyond a few kilometers from Sheikh Hussein. (In fact, I doubt that anyone, even in Oromo, knows this entire region.)
Map of Ethiopia and its 9 regional states:
Oromia is the largest of the 9 Ethiopian states. In contrast, the town of Harar and its surroundings form the smallest one, Harari, which is fully enclaved into Oromia. The capital Addis Ababa and the city of Dire Dawa in the east are chartered cities not included in any state.
Itinerary in Google Map and Google Earth:
The path in green line (approx. 180km) in the two maps below was done on foot, whereas the path in blue line (approx. 160km) was done in a truck and a bus. Click here (.kmz file) to access all the waypoints and the paths in Google Earth. The waypoints recorded with my GPS along the green path are numbered 0 (start, in Sheikh Hussein) to 78 (end of the trek). The yellow pins indicate the locations where we spent the nights. The red pins (not shown in the images below) are intermediate positions. The paths in the .kmz file are not based on continuous GPS recording, hence are approximate and subject to (minor) errors.
- Day 1: Landed in Addis Ababa (early morning), drove to Goba.
- Day 2: Drove to Sheikh Hussein, visited Sheikh Hussein sanctuary.
- Days 3-12: Trekked from WP 0 (Sheikh Hussein) to WP 78, took a truck from WP 78 to the small town of Burka.
- Day 13: Took bus from Burka to Harar.
- Days 14-15: Spent days in Harar.
- Day 16: Took bus from Harar to Addis Ababa.
- Days 17-18: Spent days in Addis Ababa and around, flew back home.
The trip between Sheikh Hussein and Harar took only 12 days, but it was quite strenuous both physically and mentally:
- Heat combined with lack of water along most of the way made the trip more physically demanding than I had expected, despite the relatively small elevation gains/losses daily. Available water (mostly from ponds) looked often so bad that I first filtered it and then treated it with purification tablets. In general, I could not filter more than 1/2 liter without having to clean the filter. So, filtering the 3 to 4 liters I needed each day was time consuming. A few times I ended up being very low on drinkable water.
- We did not have a pre-defined itinerary. Instead, we created our itinerary on a day by day basis. Each day, we relied on my GPS to set a general direction of travel toward Harar and we asked local people for information about villages and water availability in that direction. Locals knew only their immediate surroundings and had no knowledge of what was lying beyond 8 to 10 kilometers. For us it was like groping our way in a huge environment.
- We had a couple of very unpleasant encounters with local police and militia (in particular, see section 2 of the trip below). In one case, I was treated as a prisoner for half a day. Without Solomon‛s help in Addis Ababa, it would have been much worse. Fortunately, thanks to strategically located communication towers on the plateaus (used by the police and the army to control the region), we often had cell phone connection. I also had my satellite phone. So, we were able to contact Solomon when we needed help.
- Traveling in the Ethiopian countryside is rarely relaxing. In most villages and small towns ″faranji″ hysteria (swarms of shouting people) is the norm. But, on my previous trips, this type of manifestation did not last very long. Here, it could last for many hours. In one village (Daffe, WP 74) the police had to contain a large crowd during an entire afternoon. Although ″faranji″ hysteria is not hostile, I got increasingly allergic to it toward the end of the trek, with people (who might have never seen a foreigner before) following me from villages to villages.
- In the most remote places, we encountered people who were often reserved and sometimes not friendly. In fact, most (all?) had never seen a white man and they were scared by me. This is understandable in a land where fights between clans have been the norm for centuries and the arrival of a foreigner has rarely meant good news. In fact, we heard that Oromo and (Ethiopian) Somali clans had fought recently in a region slightly to the south of our trekking itinerary, leaving several people dead. Once local people realized that they had nothing to fear from us, they were usually friendly and welcoming.
Despite such problems, the trip offered several truly magic and somewhat relaxing moments, such as the visit of the Sheikh Hussein sanctuary, the encounter with the Waradoube people in the Wadi Shebelle valley, the welcoming village of Furdo, and the beautiful valley of the Sakata river. Of course, the visit of Harar at the end of the trip was another highlight, even for a second visit.
Sections of the trip (click on the links below to see pictures of the successive sections of this trip):
[Since 1991, the alphabet for the Oromo language is the Latin alphabet. During the trip, I noted a number of Oromo names along the way (villages, rivers...). I often asked Numan to spell them down for me. Nevertheless, the spelling of several of these names in my webpages may still be incorrect.]