Hunting the Wolves of Bale in Ethiopia

Posted on November 27, 2014

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The Ethiopian wolf is the rarest canid in the world, with less than 500 individuals left, most of which live in the country’s southern Bale Mountains. We hoped to glimpse this uncommon beast in its home environment but before we got there, Ethiopia had some trials lined up for us.

It was an hour before we broke free of the city traffic as driving north out of Nairobi headed towards Mount Kenya. Our friends and fellow moto-overlanders Ash and Deb, were staying with some expat friends near the town of Nanyuki and invited us to stop over for the night, so we made our way down the slippy-slidey muddy track to their cabin.   On the way out the next morning, they gave us a tip of where we were likely to catch sight of some rhinos right by the roadside and sure enough we spied a group of 4 of them after just 5 kilometers of riding.

In the north of Kenya, the rivers began to shrink and then finally dried up completely. Herds of camels appeared around every turn and for a time it felt as though we’d already entered an Egyptian desert scene.

 

The desert-scape was a welcome change of scenery after months of riding through lush jungles and camping in the rain, but made for less than ideal picnic spots.

As abruptly as the landscape had dried up, moisture and green hills returned and the landscape erupted before us with vertical red walls towering overhead.

When Jamie starts photo-bombing pictures I know that I’ve probably taken enough photos of the same rock.

As we zipped along on the freshly laid tarmac, a fellow traveler appeared to remind us how quickly we’re able to cover ground on our motorbike.

This was desolate country and other than our slow-footed friend, we rarely passed anyone. Other vehicles were usually military or road construction trucks.

We drove out on a random sand track headed into the hills to find an eco-camp of sorts that we’d learned about from Ash and Deb. When we stopped the bike to look around the camp, I found that the bike didn’t want to start and found gas coming out of the carburetor overflow. When I opened the carb drain screw, gas drained out far longer that it should have indicating that nearly the entire carb was filled up with gas rather than just the float bowl. It was clear that I needed to work on the bike, and I have tendency to break things when I try to fix things, so we headed out of the hills and back to the last highway outpost for the night.

The float bowl on the carb is just like the tank on a toilet, as it fills, it pushes a float upward that is attached to a lever and a valve to shut off flow when it reaches the correct height. Since the carb was over-filling with gas, it goes to reason that either the float was getting hung up, or the valve wasn’t sealing properly when the gas reached the correct height. I removed the float bowl and checked the o-rings and float needle. This little guy is what blocks off the flow of gas in the carburetor.

The float needle looked fine, so I replaced both o-rings on the float, put everything back together, and hoped for the best. The new o-rings seemed to do the trick and I’ve had no more carb drowning incidents since. Back on the road, we knew that the perfect tarmac couldn’t last forever and when it finally disappeared the road turned to alternating sections mud bog and rough rocky stretches that slowed our pace to a crawl.

The last miles to the Ethiopian border shook us to the bone. Jamie’s knees were about spent from trying to maintain her position and getting launched in the air when I hit a big bump at speed. I could feel the punishment that poor Dyna Rae was taking beneath us, and I winced at every hard impact as though I were taking it straight to the chest. After being checked for signs of Ebola virus yet again by a medic at the immigration post I went into the customs office. Our research indicated that a temporary import permit should be no problem at the border, so I wasn’t worried about the fact that the Carnet for the bike had expired 4 days ago. However, upon the absolute insistence from the customs folks that the bike could not enter without a Carnet, I produced the document from my folder hoping that they didn’t notice the expiration date.   Every new staff person that the Carnet was handed had me sweating a bit more.   All that need happen was one pair of eyes to notice the expiration date, printed in bold red letters on the cover and on every page of the document, and the jig was up. Amazingly, they handed the document back with a stamp and a smile.   I smiled back and let out a sigh of relief that we could get on our way. Unfortunately, they used up the last page in the Carnet, so I wouldn’t be able to test my luck again in Sudan or Egypt, which also require a Carnet.

I walked out of the customs office to find Jamie holding the bike in an awkward position, as she had had to move it to make way for an exiting truck and now had it standing precariously upright. I looked down to see the rear tire sadly squished flat to the ground. She was a beast to move fully loaded with a flat tire as we grunted it up to flat ground. Then it started raining. It became clear that we would be spending the night on the Ethiopian border.

The next morning I got to work on the bike and found that the hole had resulted from a fold in the tube that must have pinched during one of the hard hits we took the previous day.

After finishing a artfully crafted patch job on the heavy-duty tube, I found that the valve stem had delaminated and was leaking. This slow leak must have been what allowed the tube to deflate enough to cause a fold. After a failed attempt to repair the valve, I installed the spare standard-thickness rear tube I had been carrying since Cape Town. Perfect timing – we’d just left Nairobi, the one place where I could probably find a 17’’ heavy duty tube between here and Europe. I suppose I should really be counting my blessings though, since this is the first puncture I’ve had on the entire trip and it didn’t happen in the middle of a cooking desert.   I re-greased the wheel bearings for good measure (still original at 48K miles!), and we were on the road into Ethiopia.

Since I’d spent ages fixing the bike that morning, and the road turned out to be a radical mess of asphalt craters, we didn’t make it very far into Ethiopia. There seemed to be more pothole surface than actual asphalt surface, so that even on a motorbike moving at less than 20 mph, I couldn’t avoid them all. The rim bending, flat making minefield of square edged holes led us to a guesthouse in a tiny little town called Mega where we immediately gathered a colossal crowd of curious kids. In fact, all throughout the ride, we’re met with constant calls of ‘You! You! You!’ , which seems to have replaced ‘Mzungu!’ as the standard white folk alert to the village.

We are in the middle of the dry season for Ethiopia, but you wouldn’t know it from the soaking ride that we endured the next day. We were lucky at the onset of the first downpour, happening upon a church overhang in a very friendly village just as the heavens opened up in earnest.   The church was constructed of hay bales and mud and most of the little village crowded under the overhang with us. No one spoke any English so we pretty much just smiled at one another, the kids touched the armor in our jackets, and everyone seemed happy to wait out the storm with us.

We weren’t so lucky for the next downpour and before long I was soaked to the skin and shivering in my jeans while Jamie fared a bit better in her moto pants. The road got even worse and my visor kept fogging so I had to keep it up and could hardly see the tangles of treacherous potholes before were bounding straight into them. The destroyed asphalt sections alternated with stretches of mud with dubious traction. I was getting incredibly frustrated at my inability to see what was ahead and feeling that a fall was imminent. I swore loudly in my helmet as the driving rain stung my cheeks like needles and Jamie tried to hang on behind me. It just went on and on like that as darkness began to fall and there was just nowhere to shelter so we had nothing to do by keep going.

I turned to focused silence as my shoulders cramped and stiffened until they felt like the craggy, gnarled branches of an old oak tree. We came upon a truck that had slid sideways off the road, completely blocking passage as another truck tried to pull it out the ditch. As darkness fell we managed to snake our way through the muddy carnage of the trucks into a small town where Jamie spied a place that we could finally stop. We’d found a guesthouse where we could shelter for the night. The place was absolutely infested with cockroaches that weren’t the least bit shy, but we didn’t care – it was a roof with dry space beneath it.

The next day we ascended into the highlands to find vast plains where villagers cultivated vast fields of wheat and tended livestock. I never would have imagined a scene like the golden undulating hills of wheat existed in a place like Ethiopia. Riding was slow as the road had few motor vehicles but was absolutely filled with horses, donkeys, goats, cows, and people. There were hardly any bicycles or motorbikes. We were in donkey country where the most common way for moving people and goods is a cart with wooden wheels drawn by these shaggy, sullen-eyed braying beasts.

As the day wore on we rode higher and the landscape became more dramatic around us.   We found a simple guesthouse for the night in the town of Goba and prepared to continue our ascent onto the Senetti Plateau in the morning in the hopes of glimpsing a wolf or two prowling the high country.

The morning gloom was thick as we mounted the bike for a ride into the clouds. As we powered through a few mud bogs in the road I was glad that I’d changed to a 14 tooth front sprocket shortly after entering Ethiopia, gearing the bike lower than the stock 15 tooth front sprocket.

As we climbed, we were flanked by sheer escarpments of pink-orange rock to either side of the vast plateau that makes up the largest area above 4 thousand meters on the entire African continent

We motored on through the gloom, with the air temperature dropping as we ascended. We stopped to stalk through the low vegetation of the boulder-strewn plateau keeping a keen eye out for any signs of a wolf and spied a number of endemic raptors perched on boulders.

 

Being a long way from any surf, and not having any discipline whatsoever, I don’t do any exercise to speak of. Instead, I like to strike athletic high altitude photography poses. This is the most strenuous physical thing I’ve done in two months.   Seriously.

We turned off the main road to ascend the highest part of the plateau up a rocky rutted track and finally climbed to a height of 4,400 meters (that’s 14,500 ft). Of course when I say climbed, I mean we sat on our butts while I moved my hands around a little bit.

 

This the highest I’d ever ridden the bike and wondered whether or not she would make it without choking badly in the thin air. Somewhat to my surprise, she thumped right along without issue all the way to the top. The decent was a bit gnarly, so Jamie decided to take control.

 

By the time we moved on to our most likely location for spotting wolves, the weather turned ugly. A thick cloud enveloped the plateau and the temperature continued to drop. Then it started to rain. We’re in the middle of the dry season in Ethiopia and it dumps rain every day. I must remember to write a letter to the ministry of tourism to complain. Before long were soaked through.

For the cloud we were now inside of, a wolf would have had to come up and lick our faces to spot one. We still had an hour and a half to ride before we would descend the plateau, so we threw in the towel on the wolves and turned around. Before we got down Jamie and I were both shivering. I had to stop three times to warm my hands on the engine as they became frozen into ineffectual claws on the handlebars. My visor kept fogging up and the road was strewn with rills and holes, so I kept my it up, freezing my face all the way down.

In the southern highlands of Ethiopia we’ve found incredibly friendly people, trucks that don’t run us off the road, a sea of donkeys, a bit of bike trouble, an absence of super special wolves, and more rain that we’d bargained for.   Despite a few challenges, Ethiopia has already charmed us.

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What Others Are Saying

  1. Laurie Ochs November 28, 2014 at 10:05 pm

    great story. I was getting concerned haven’t seen any info from you for awhile. Happy to see you are both well and still traveling..love all the pictures and I’m learning a lot about Africa. Stay safe and happy… Keep the info and pictures coming. Love you Jamie and even tho I haven’t met you yet Gary, love you too!


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