“Africa is mystic; it is wild; it is a sweltering inferno; it is a photographer’s paradise, a hunter’s Valhalla, an escapist’s Utopia. It is what you will, and it withstands all interpretations. It is a last vestige of a dead world or the cradle of a shiny new one. To a lot of people, as to myself, it is just ‘home.’ It is all these things but one thing—it is never dull.”
–Beryl Markham, West with the Night
Last week I went with two other volunteers to do some reconnaissance and mapping work at a handful of ecotourism sites near my town. The trip was to familiarize ourselves with these sites, map the trails, identify infrastructure needs, and evaluate overall tourism appeal. National Geographic is also making a map of the area of these sites and wanted photos, so I’m hoping that some of the photos below will grace a Nat Geo publication.
The first stop was Tulu Gudu, a small island in the middle of a massive lake called Lake Ziway. Tulu Gudu is pretty remarkable because the island’s 900 residents have lived in isolation for most all of the last thousand years and speak their own indigenous language. They have also preserved most of the native acacia forest on the island. In a country that has been 97 percent deforested, this makes the island both unique and beautiful. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of Tulu Gudu is that many people believe the Arc of the Covenant was hidden in a monastery on the island for 80 years during the 12th century to keep it safe from the wars that were plaguing northern Ethiopia. The monastery is still operational and looks like it will probably be incorporated into the island hike if the church and local community decide they want the visitors.
The next stop was Bochessa Peninsula on Lake Ziway. In a country that is renowned for its birdlife, this sliver of land is exceedingly remarkable. We saw a huge number of species in just a couple hours and many are displaying pretty remarkable plumage now that the rains are starting and mating season has arrived. Plus there are spooky mangrove swamps, prehistoric-looking 6-foot lizards, and stunning lake vistas. Not a bad spot.
Next up, we hit Lepis, the town near Arsi Negele where I’m doing the majority of my work. Not only is the Lepis Forest a birdwatching paradise, it also features monkeys, antelope, waterfalls, ancient forests, and some of the most charming little villages I’ve seen any place in the world.
After these stops, the other volunteers returned to their sites but I continued on to visit another volunteer named Dorsey. Dorsey lives in the Senkele Swayne’s Hartebeest Game Preserve. A couple decades ago, the numbers of Swayne’s Hartebeest had dwindled to a few dozen. Today, they have rebounded to about 600 individuals living in two locations. This hartebeest is listed by the IUCN among the species in the world in “imminent danger of extinction.” So it was a rare opportunity to see a very endangered species in-situ. And it’s almost mating season so Dorsey and I were privy to a lot of exciting activity in the herd, as males challenged each others’ territory with frequent skirmishes, head butting, and high-speed chases. Other wildlife on the preserve include oribi (a cute little antelope that’s about 3 feet tall), warthogs, aardvarks, and lots of cool avifauna. The downside is that the sanctuary is under real and immediate threat as local tribes are fighting over the land (which they’re not actually supposed to be on) and are illegally grazing thousands of head of cattle within the preserves’ boundaries. All this activity has pushed the hartebeest into a tiny corner of the sanctuary where they are able to avoid the worst of the molestation. Unfortunately, the government here has not allocated adequate funding to equip the sanctuary staff with the resources they need to enforce the boundaries. So without some big changes, I fear the future of the sanctuary is uncertain at best.