We arrived in Addis Ababa in the early night but by the time we cleared customs, exchanged a bit of money (strangely Will had USD and Rebecca had GBP), collected our bags, squeaked past the luggage inspection, found our transfer driver, rode to the hotel, checked in and made it to our rooms… it was well past midnight.
Our driver was extremely prompt at 7am – unfortunately none else was… by 9am we had exchanged the remainder of our cash to Ethiopian Birr, purchased a SIM card and an inexpensive local cell phone so we could contact the folks at the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme to let them know we were on our way!
Grocery shopping was a bit of a free-for-all. We really had no idea what to expect so we grabbed random bits and pieces – some of which came back to haunt us (tuna) and others that worked out quite well (a large tub of local honey).
After all of that we left Addis behind, the hustle of the city fading in our rear view mirror and the countryside opening up before us. I was at once amazed at how green everything looked! February was solidly in the dry season and every where you looked the land was rust colored, dry and dusty. This was an entirely different Ethiopia. Deep, lush green coated the hillsides. The crops were healthy and tall and harvest was just getting under way. Women walked the side of the road with great bundles of wheat, barley or teff tied together on their shoulders. Young boys surfed on carts piled with produce, pulled by strong, sure footed donkeys and rugged ponies.
The road work that had made progress so slow in February was nearly completed and we made excellent time passing through the lake district and stopping for lunch in a small outdoor restaurant. Will had his first experience with Tibs Fir Fir and was properly impressed. The meat was well spiced and the injera light and tangy.
After a short 6 hour drive we reached Dinsho in time to set camp before the sun sank below the horizon. Reedbuck, warthogs and mountain nyala all joined us in our little camp site, curious and unafraid. That night we had a lovely dinner with Anne-Marie Stewart and Chris Gordon who head up and run the day to day operations of the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme in the Bale Mountains.
The next three days we explored the Gaysay Grasslands, a small park located at the edge of the village of Dinsho. We successfully photographed bohors reedbucks, large male mountain nyala, grey duikers and wattled ibis as well as being treated to close views of spotted hyena and colobus monkeys. The warthogs visited us in camp almost every day and on one occasion startled us by appearing brick red. Will took some lovely wide able shots of them that day and later we discovered the wallow of exposed red clay which accounted for their war paint. Will commented that these are the largest and most relaxed warthogs he’s ever encountered and he’s encountered a fair few in his time. So for those of you who think I was absolutely crazy for chasing one out of the cook tent in February… I’m only a little bit crazy. ;0)
During our trips to Gaysay it occurred to us that this vehicle MIGHT not be so well suited for our needs. It was a lovely new Land Cruiser and the driver was kind, knowledgable and very easy to work with but as luck would have it… it had next to no ground clearance. Our suspicion was confirmed on an afternoon trip up to Sanetti Plateau. The rain and constant passing of large trucks had left deep grooves and gashes in the dirt road with which our car had considerable trouble. Regardless, we were treated to our first wolf sighting, a member of the Dumal pack.
A few panicked phone calls and a second car was dispatched. It came with an older, experienced driver and nice high clearance so we thought we had it made! Until we arrived in Sanetti and encountered our second wolf, a sub-adult male from the BBC pack. I reached for the switch to lower my window… and nothing happened. Muzeyen, our “wolf monitor” and personal guide for the trip, tried his and it bucked, kicked, sputtered and refused to go down. No, the back windows don’t work we were informed. No, we can’t get them fixed.
Luckily for us this wolf was very tolerant. We managed to slip quietly from the car and photograph him hunting from behind some large boulders. After that we rushed to the nearest spot with phone reception and contacted the office. After being told it was high season and there were no other cars but they would try, we left Sanetti for more permanent phone coverage. We spent the remainder of the afternoon trying to problem solve on how we could make this car work for us… take the window motor from the drivers side, lower the window permanently, shoot with the door open… there just weren’t any good answers. Just as we were giving up hope we heard another car had been found. They apologized that the windows were crank operated and I immediately chimed in with “No trouble at all!! We love cranks!”
The new driver, #3, was dispatched that evening. Our plans were to set out for Web Valley at first light, even if the driver made it half way that night we wouldn’t be able to arrive in Web until nearly nightfall and so to stay on schedule we had driver #2 shuttle us and all our gear to the research camp in Web Valley. Muzeyen accompanied him back to Dinsho to wait for the new driver while Will and I set up camp. Afternoon came and went. Our hopes of reaching a wolf den to photograph at sunset faded and we made the best of it by photographing sunset from a lobelia covered ridge that over looked the Web Valley. With no cell service we had no idea if the new driver had arrived or if they had gotten stuck on the road… half an hour after sunset I broke out the satellite phone and managed to contact Anne-Marie. She had heard several vehicles pass by headquarters but didn’t know if any of them contained our crew. She said they wouldn’t drive the road after dark so chances were they would show up in the morning. Our hopes of getting to the wolves for sunrise were crushed.
An hour later – HEADLIGHTS!! Muzeyen jumped from the vehicle and announced this one was good! Massive relief!! The expedition was saved! Almost…
The company assured us that all drivers were prepared to camp in the field for extended periods of time and that our fee covered a food allowance so they would be 100% self-sufficient. This driver didn’t even have a sleeping bag and it was COLD. Our wonderfully good natured cook Mamesh allowed the driver to bunk with him.
After a chilly night we rose to find frost covering the windscreen, after scraping, coffee and a big discussion about the perils of using water on the windscreen we finally made it out of camp and onward to our first experience with the Tarura pack pups.