Flanked by the arid Rift Valley to the north and Somali badlands to the southeast, Ethiopia’s bountiful eastern highlands are famed for their production of high-quality coffee, khat and other foodstuffs. Historically, the region’s most important settlement is the Islamic citadel of Harar, a UNESCO World Heritage Site renowned for the architectural and cultural integrity of its walled old town, as well as the legendary “hyena men” who operate on its outskirts. Over the course of the twentieth century, Harar was superseded in size and economic significance by Dire Dawa, a lower-lying and somewhat hotter city serviced by the region’s main airport and railway station. Most travellers fly in or take a bus directly to Dire Dawa to Harar, but those with private transport can break up the journey at Awash National Park, whose memorable volcanic landscapes still support fair numbers of big game.
A semi-arid landscape of dry acacia woodland and savannah, the scenic, 756-square-kilometre Awash National Park was set aside in 1996 to protect the gaping Awash River Gorge. On its northern horizon, Mount Fantalle is a dormant volcano whose sheer walls are set around a deep caldera pockmarked with active steam vents. Other landmarks include the impressive Awash Falls at the head of the gorge, the palm-fringed pools of Filwoha Hot Springs, and the shallow, boulder-strewn Lake Beseka to the southwest of the park.
Wildlife is relatively scarce and skittish. The most conspicuous large mammals are baboon (both hamadryas and Anubis), beisa oryx, Soemmerring’s gazelle and Salt’s dik-dik. Predators are very seldom seen, but spotted hyena and black-backed jackal are present, and lion and cheetah might occasionally venture through. Awash is a superb birding destination, with at least 450 species recorded. Fantalle is the best place in Ethiopia to look for the endemic yellow-throated seedeater and sombre rock chat, though of greater interest to casual visitors are the waterbirds associated with Lake Beseka, and colourful savannah species such as Abyssinian roller and northern carmine bee-eater.
The park lies 190km east of Addis Ababa, and is bisected by the main road to Dire Dawa and flanked by the small towns of METEHARA to the southwest, close to Lake Beseka, and AWASH SABA to the east. Set on the edge of the Awash Gorge, Awash Saba hosts a busy Monday market that attracts hordes of traditional Afar people. Both towns have a few hotels and are easily accessed on public transport, though realistically the park can be explored only as part of a tour or in a private vehicle (ideally 4x4) out of Addis Ababa.
The road through Awash National Park cuts through the southern tip of Afar, a vast but thinly inhabited federal region that follows the arid Rift Valley north to the remote borders with Eritrea and Djibouti. The region is named after the semi-nomadic Afar people, who comprise more than 90 percent of its population and traditionally subsist as salt traders or camel herders.
While the principal feature of southern Afar is the Awash River, which feeds an important modern irrigation scheme before it empties into a string of lakes near the border with Djibouti, the north of the region is dominated by the Danakil Depression, a searing and practically uninhabited area whose altitudinal nadir, dipping to 116m below sea level, is widely regarded to be the hottest place on the earth with daytime temperatures that regularly top 50°C. Other features of the Danakil include a spectacular lava pool nestled in the Erta Ale Volcano, and salt lakes such as Asale and Afrera, which have been mined by the Afar for millennia.
As might be expected, much of Afar isn’t really suited to casual tourism – aside from its inhospitableness it was also the subject of a stern UK FCO warning following the killing of five tourists in 2012, the third such attack since 2004. Yet it can be explored (at a cost) on an organized expedition with specialist operators based in Addis Ababa and Mekele.
Ethiopia is the original home of coffee. Folklore has it that the stimulatory effects of the wild Coffea arabica bean were first experienced in the ninth century by a goatherd called Kaldi, who lived in the forested Kaffa region of western Ethiopia. When Kaldi’s goats became unusually frisky after feeding on one particular shrub in the forest understory, he ate a few if its berries himself, and found they had a similarly invigorating effect on him. Soon after, it had become customary for Orthodox Christians to chew the arabica beans before overnight prayers. And a few years later, some monks mixed the ground roast beans into hot water, thus inventing the energizing beverage we now know as coffee – a name that derives from Kaffa.
By the mid-fifteenth century, coffee had made its way across the Red Sea to Yemen and the rest of Arabia. Here, it was actively cultivated for export to Asia and eventually Europe, where consumption took off in the seventeenth century, after the initially controversial Muslim import received a papal blessing as suitable for Christians. Today, Ethiopia is one of the world’s top ten producers of coffee, which is mostly grown at a subsistence level and contributes to the livelihood of around one-quarter of the population. Some 40 percent of Ethiopia’s coffee is consumed domestically, but exports account for more than 25 percent of the country’s foreign exchange earnings.
Ethiopians are ardent coffee drinkers. Known locally as bunna, strong espresso-style coffee is served in most restaurants and hotels throughout Ethiopia. It usually comes black, with sugar on the side, but by request most places will serve latte-style bunna watat, literally “coffee milk”. In homes, and with increasing frequency in restaurants, the unfiltered brew is also served in traditional coffee ceremonies, which involve roasting fresh beans over charcoal, then grinding them while the water boils and incense is burned. The grounds are brewed up in a traditional black clay jebena pot, and three successively weaker rounds are poured, the last of which confers a blessing on everybody present.
Ethiopia’s second largest city, with a population of 420,000, DIRE DAWA started life in 1902 as a major stop on the railway from Addis Ababa to Djibouti. Originally known as Addis (“New”) Harar, it overtook the original Harar in size in the 1970s, and has been a pivotal trade link to the ports of Djibouti and Somaliland since the closure of the Ethiopian border with Eritrea in the late 1990s. In tourist terms, it is of interest mainly as the air gateway to Harar, which lies 65km to the southwest. During the rainy season, its warm, dry climate can make a refreshing contrast to the cold drizzly highlands.
Easily explored on foot, Dire Dawa is bisected by the Dechatu Wadi, a normally dry watercourse crossed by a bridge and a cement causeway. Northwest of the wadi, the rather genteel city centre, also known as Kezira, comprises a neat grid of French-laid roads emanating from the old railway station and lined with tall, shady trees. East of the wadi, Megala is a more traditional Islamic quarter of narrow roads and alleys leading south to the arched facade of the rather wonderful Kafira Market, which is often attended by Somali, Oromo and Afar in traditional garb, and tends to be busiest in the morning.
Steeped in history and rich in character, the hillside citadel of HARAR is the spiritual centre of Ethiopia’s Muslim community, its walled old town – Harar Jugol – regarded as the fourth-holiest city in the Islamic world and inscribed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site since 2006. Harar Jugol’s Arabic name is Madina al-Awilya – “City of Saints” – an allusion to the 82 mosques and 102 qubi shrines (tombs of holy men) packed into its compact area.
From a tourist’s perspective, the city lacks the imposing landmarks associated with Aksum, Lalibela or Gondar, but its overall feel is far more traditional and architecturally cohesive. Furthermore, Harar ranks among the most welcoming of Ethiopia’s cities, and – contrary to Western stereotypes – the least staid. Both in the Islamic old town, whose almost exclusively Muslim population has roots going back for centuries, and predominantly Christian new town, public life is dominated by the compulsive consumption of khat, lending the city a slightly dissolute air, one reinforced by the liberal scattering of poky bars where the leaf’s foul taste can be washed away with a chilled Harar beer.
A knot of narrow roads and alleys, Harar is a most enjoyable city to explore on foot. It comprises two very distinct parts, with Harar Jugol to the east and the modern-looking new town to the east; the latter dates mostly back to the Italian occupation and has few landmarks of interest.
Harar was probably founded by Islamic settlers some time before the tenth century, and rose to prominence in the 1520s under Ahmed Gragn, a militant imam who launched a succession of destructive raids on the Christian empire to its west. The tall city walls were erected by Gragn’s nephew, Emir Nur, in the 1560s. Following a slump lasting several decades, Harar’s fortunes were resurrected in the 1640s by Emir Ali ibn Daud, under whom it became the region’s most populous and important trade centre. More than two centuries of autonomy came to an end with the ten-year Egyptian occupation of Harar from 1875. In 1887, Harar was captured by the future Emperor Menelik II, who included several members of the emir’s family in his administration. Menelik also appointed as governor Ras Mekonnen, the father of Ras Tefari (the future Emperor Haile Selassie), who was born in the vicinity of Harar and spent much of his childhood there.
Also known as qat, chat or miraa, khat (Catha edulis) is a slow-growing shrub endemic to the highlands of the Horn of Africa, where it has been cultivated as a stimulant for millennia. The plant’s edible leaf is a legal stimulant in most parts of Arabia and the Horn, where it is popular with Muslims, whose religion forbids them from drinking alcohol. Classified as a drug of abuse by the World Health Organization, it is nevertheless regarded as less harmful and less addictive than either tobacco or alcohol.
The hills around Harar produce what is widely claimed to be the world’s finest khat, much of which is exported to neighbouring Somaliland. But it is also consumed abundantly in Harar. Walk into any hotel or restaurant, and you can expect to encounter a group of locals whiling away the afternoon over a mini-forest of khat leaves – a process that involves several hours of jaw-numbing mastication before the desired affect is achieved.
Khat is an acquired taste. The leaves are very bitter, even when supplemented with a spoonful of sugar, or a sweet soft drink. And the reward for all that rumination is slim: a light (some say almost imperceptible) buzz, no more potent, albeit different in quality, to the after-effects of a beer or a couple of strong espressos. Still, should you want to try it yourself, khat is totally legal in Ethiopia, very cheap and easily purchased, though it’s worth taking along a trustworthy local to ensure you obtain premium-quality young leaves.
Harar’s legendary hyena men are a pair of rather idiosyncratic fellows whose job description entails luring wild hyenas to two specific feeding sites outside the city walls. Touristy as it sounds, a visit to one of the hyena men is an unforgettable, and rather eerie, experience. It starts at dusk, when the hyena men call their familiars individually by name. After a while, the first few animals emerge from the shadows to slink towards the feeding site. The hyena men then start feeding bones to these massive-jawed carnivores, passing them across by hand, or even with their mouth – and inviting bold tourists to do the same thing.
The hyena men operate outside the city walls, one at a site close to Felana Gate, north of the old city, and the other between Erer and Sanga gates, to the southeast. Most tourists visit with a guide and many also take a car or taxi – neither is strictly necessary, but both might be reassuring when you leave the feeding site at night knowing that hyenas are prowling around.