Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Inadvertent Ecotourists

Post by Josh.

I love nature and hiking. Several of our trips in the US were to the National Parks to camp, hike, and climb mountains, and a few of the destinations on our wander around the world were set up to explore distant natural settings. Thailand was the first of those - we went on a three-day trek in the northern hill country around Chaing Mai. I was expecting to be traipsing through ancient jungles, far from the influence of modern man. Instead, we spent most of our time threading our way through the dense network of trails that connected the fields, farms, and villages of the Thai hill tribes. These groups maintain their political and cultural separation from mainstream Thai society, but their motorbikes, cell phones, and modern clothing made them seem pretty similar to what I had seen in other towns. The nature that I saw during our walk was highly cultivated - nothing that could really be called wilderness.

In Ethiopia, I figured we would try the whole 'wilderness adventure' thing again. The Simien Mountains, in the north of the country, were advertised as a playground of dramatic volcanic ridges, twisted into fanciful shapes by erosion and blanketed by one of the richest ecosystems in the country. The park was also divided into a cultural reserve, with traditional villages and farms, and a separate nature reserve which allowed us to focus on uninhabited nature. I was pumped to explore the place. Until we found out that you are required to hire an armed guard, and a guide, and probably pack horses and a horse handler and a cook to enter the park, and that they expect you to stay there for five or more days while we only had three. Guidebooks, however, also mentioned another mountain park in the south of the country - the Bale Mountains - where you did not need a guard and where you could hike between a network of camp lodges set up by a German NGO.  Reassured, we headed south.

It wasn't until our first night in the lodges that I realized that we weren't even in the Park itself, but instead in a protected area of the mountains set asides for tourism. We had again become unwitting EcoTourists and spent the next three days wandering amongst the hillside farming communities of the local Oromo peoples.

Maybe Thailand had tempered my expectations, but I actually wasn't let down by this. Maybe it was because of the incredibly rich landscape, which felt like a bizarre tropical Eden and filled my head with all sorts of emerald green Ethiopian pastoralist fantasies. It still feels fresh and exotic to see horses grazing in mossy fields lined with banks of tropical flowers, or to encounter herds of goats amongst thyme and juniper bushes at treeline. We saw a cave and waterfalls, a colony of Colobus monkeys, and got to hear the whimsical cry of the endemic Abyssinian Catbird. At every turn, local farm children were there to wave at us from over rustic fences or offer us shy hellos as we passed them on the herding trails. The forest felt as though it had been shaped by generations of farmers and herdsmen in gradual and subtle ways, so while it never felt wild to me, it always felt rich and coherent.

We ended up sharing the lodges with a group of four French people who introduced us to the card game 'Bang!' and two Germans, Hans and Joerg, who worked in a local town and offered to host us the night after we left the mountains. Joerg runs an example farm, trying to promote the mechanization of Ethiopian agriculture, and offered to show us his fields before we left. Perched above the edge of the Great Rift Valley, his farm gave us the animal sighting experience that the settled mountain hike had not - we saw bounding antelope, brilliant blue, yellow, and lime green birds, and a pod of about 16 baboons wrestling and foraging in a fallow field. It was a surprising end to our hiking adventure, but demonstrated again that we don't have to find 'wilderness' to experience the awesome animals and environment of an area.

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