Ethiopian Treasure Hunt.

Ethiopian Treasure Hunt. We blag an historic Land Rover and goes in search of ancient art in Ethiopia. Reproduced by kind permission of Land Rover World.

Being used to driving to Africa in my trusty Carabungawagon it came as something of a shock to arrive in Ethiopia a matter of hours after leaving the UK by aeroplane! I was in a small rural town called Nazeret accompanying Laura Basell, an Archaeologist on a mission to find cave paintings in the mountains and Alan Fairweather, an Archaeobotanist studying the agriculture.  With only three weeks available for the entire trip, flying was the only feasible way to get there, but had one big disadvantage. No Land Rover. We were faced with a 500 km trip across Ethiopia to Dire Dawa and then several sorties up into the mountains with nothing other than the bus or our feet.

I have found that Land Rover owners tend to help each other out and share a desire for adventure. With this in mind I strolled around the back streets of Nazeret not really knowing what I was looking for. Barely half an hour had passed when I saw a group of men gathered around the open bonnet of a Series 3, L.W.B. Station Wagon. I was impressed with the Series 3. Not one panel was straight and most were held in place by string or tape. Maybe we could buy it? I had $50 in my pocket which should have been adequate. Emerging from under the bonnet was Hashik Redi who together with his brothers maintained Nazeret’s ancient Land Rovers trading under the slogan ‘We are Redi’. Hashik spoke good English, and confirmed the Station Wagon was not for sale, but he had a customer who may have been willing to help us.


News of a European with a fistful of dollars spreads rapidly in Africa and Hassen Abdella duly turned up minutes later in a delightful Series 2a SWB Station Wagon. With a broad salesman’s grin, Hassen proudly showed me his Land Rover explaining that it was ex government and he had paid the equivalent of  £3500 for it as it had covered just 27,000 kms since new. He took me for a ride and it was truly remarkable. I don’t remember ever travelling in a new Series 2a, but this was pretty close. The engine was almost silent and the ride on its 30 year old leaf springs was smooth on the reasonably good tarmac roads around Nazeret. We discussed a deal in a juice bar over freshly squeezed avocado and mango juice. A copy of LRW with one of my previous articles in, and the hint of worldwide fame within these pages helped cement a deal.

Hassen would drive us over to Dire Dawa and up into the mountains for a reasonable fee plus all expenses as long as Hashik could ride shotgun as mechanic. Although the Series 2a was perfect it would be its furthest ever trip, so a mechanic and co-driver was a sensible precaution. We shook hands on the deal and arranged to get an early start the following day. Time keeping in Africa is never reliable and an agreed 7.30 am soon rolled into 10.00, as we loaded our rucksacks onto the roof, picked up Hashak who was ‘Redi’ and headed out of town.

In common with most roads in Africa we were treated to tarmac until the edge of town when the road surface deteriorated and became more pot holed. I was starting to understand why every 4x4 ran on Chinese 10 ply tyres. These tyres would probably last 200,000 miles in the U.K. Here they get ripped to shreds by all manner of road debris and Hassen reckoned a set would last no more than a couple of years. Handling is not an issue with the roads usually being dry and corners a rarity. We maintained a good speed all the way to Awash with us ‘tourists’ facing each other in the back and Hassen and Hashik up front. The road ran along the rich fertile plain of the Awash National Park to our north and the Arsi mountains to our south. I was surprised at how different the landscape appeared in contrast to the popular image of Ethiopia portrayed in the western media. Crops were being harvested and fields prepared for planting. Everyone seemed busy and nothing was wasted. The rains had been reliable for the last few years and the farmers were enjoying good crops twice a year.

At Awash it was time to head south into the mountains and a stiff climb left the little Land Rover gasping a bit. We had climbed from 1000 to 3000 metres in a matter of 20 kms. and gone from broken tarmac to rough gravel track. We were in the territory reserved for the 4x4 and the heavy truck, Not a car in sight. Their tyres would be shredded and their springs pushed up through the floor. We were on a 300 km rough track that connects Ethiopia’s two major towns.

Drug Run.
On arrival in the hill top Asbe Teferi we were in need of sustenance. For Laura, Alan, Hashak and myself this was a cup of tea, but Hassen required something more interesting.......... Ethiopians take a mild stimulant called Chat. It resembles young branches of a Bay tree and you chew the fresh leaves, spitting out the pulp when its juices are exhausted. We had seen it often, but never dared to take any. Bizarrely it is a legal drug, even in England where Ethiopian students have it sent over to aid their concentration during exams. Hassen needed some badly to counteract the drowsiness he was starting to feel, so the hunt began for the best available in Asbe Teferi. We pulled off the main road down a heavily populated dust track through the shanty town behind the facade of shops and bars that was Asbe Teferi. Our progress was slowed to walking pace such was the interest shown by the locals in the ‘Faranji’ (foreigners) and we were soon forced to stop such was the crush of people. We all got out and Hassen went off to score the drugs whilst the rest of us mingled with the crowd never going too far from Hashak who cautioned us that it would be wise to stick together. As usual, our initial fears were totally misguided and the people were very friendly offering us drinks and gifts. One man, high on Chat, even offered Laura his baby daughter as he said he had too many! Hassen reappeared with a £5 bundle of Chat neatly wrapped in Banana leaves which he started to chew immediately we were back in the Land Rover.

Our route took us along a mountain ridge with commanding views both north and south of the surrounding countryside, then as the sun set I was reminded of just how bad 30 year old headlights can be as we all peered into the gloom of the unlit road. We drove through villages with no electricity and women starting to light charcoal fires to cook on. Oil lamps shone in wattle and daub houses and we all felt as though we had gone back a century. Yet this simple lifestyle lacked nothing. People waved and smiled at us, children laughed and played in the road. Farm animals wandered aimlessly, accompanied by a boy casually flicking a stick, and the smell of  good food hung in the air.

Bar Girls.
Despite Hassen being fully charged on a huge intake of Chat, his eyes red and wide, the rest of us fancied a break from our bumpy ride in the back. We pulled into Hirna, high up on the mountain ridge and found an Hotel at £1 a night for a room that I felt was usually rented by the hour to be ‘entertained’ by one of the girls in the bar down the road. I found myself sharing it with four enormous cockroaches which I enjoyed squashing with my size 11 boot. After omelette and chips we slept soundly until 4.00 am when we resumed our trip. Hassen had not slept a wink, and was rapidly becoming a walking anti chat advert by being irritable and saying he regretted taking the job. Fortunately he passed the driving over to Hashak and fell asleep in the back.

We continued our journey high up in the clear morning air of the Arba Gugu mountains, heavily cultivated with a local grain called Sorghum easily identified by Alan and the main ingredient of the Ethiopian Injera. A large flat pancake, and key component of most meals. We stopped at a small town to sample this Ethiopian delicacy. The Injera is about a metre in diameter and resembles foam rubber about 0.5 cm thick on which a hot chili meat sauce, cheese sauce, chunks of raw Ox and beans is served. The whole lot is eaten without the aid of cutlery and it is considered polite to accept a mouthful from the hand of your host.

Fast Decent.
After our meal Hassen fell asleep again and Hashak was able drive like one of the Simmonite sisters. We soon descended from the hills into Ethiopia’s second most populated town, Dire Dawa, and a welcome relief from bouncing around in the back of this 30 year old Land Rover. Laura and I had various meetings to attend with local authorities to get permits to visit the cave painting sites. Armed with these and  a local guide, Kebebe Berhannu, we set off the next day in search of the caves. The road out of Dire Dawa was good tarmac, but we soon branched off this up a dust track cutting through lush countryside and plantations of Chat, Coffee and the ever present Sorghum. Villages of mud huts lay in the valleys and shepherds tended flocks of sheep and goats on the hillsides. This was indeed beautiful countryside.

Our destination was the village of Laga Odo, one of the best documented sites in the area. The route became narrower and more suited to the oxen and donkeys that the locals use, but still the little Land Rover plodded on picking its way over rocks and through streams. Hassen had recovered from his Chat hangover and was now enjoying the adventure confessing it was the first real off road driving he had done. He had found a new drug familiar to all of us.

Ancient Art.
The final approach to the cave paintings was accessible by goat, donkey or foot as it was a very narrow path winding its way up through the hills. We walked enjoying the opportunity to stretch our legs. The cave was a natural ledge high on the hillside and at eye level had a series of pictures its entire length depicting farm animals, hunting scenes and fishing. The older bits were over 5000 years old and had suffered a fair degree of erosion, but through the analysis of these Laura was able to build up a picture of how village life had evolved over the last 5000 years that will contribute to her Phd. Thesis

Our next cave was further afield near Harar some 30 kms east. The old walled town of Harar is regarded by Muslims as the fourth holiest city in the world and supports some 90 mosques. These days Muslims and Christians live in peaceful harmony and the town is known as the centre of the Chat trade with a big weekly market to sell the locally grown crops. Our destination was a small village on the edge of town where a huge cave was said to be a cave painting site known only to the locals. Intrigued we parked the Land Rover and ventured in. With limited sanitation in the village we soon discovered why the locals knew this cave so well. It had doubled as a toilet for the last 1000 years and our efforts to penetrate the depths of the cave were curtailed. We were dedicated, but not that dedicated! Having now been subjected to many aspects of the sharp humour of the Ethiopians we fell for this one completely and found our hosts and guide Kebebe laughing as we came out.

We did visit a few more caves, but all too soon, it was time to fill up the Land Rover again and head back for Nazeret and then, by bus, to Addis Ababa and the plane home. I was left with an impression of Ethiopia that differed totally from what I had expected. The bit I saw was lush, green, beautiful and populated by happy people working hard and enjoying the entertainment afforded by visiting foreigners. The little Series 2a performed faultlessly, though the wear and tear after 1000 kms of very hard driving across terrible roads had certainly loosened up that ‘new’ feel it enjoyed a couple of weeks before.

Ethiopia welcomes tourists and is fairly cheap, with a reasonable Hotel room at about £5 and a simple meal costing substantially less. Their climate is perfect for tourism all year round, but the oddest thing is their time. They operate a time system six hours adrift  from ours. What we call midday, they call 6.00. Their day starts at our 6.00 am which they call 12.00, with  our 7.00 am being their 1.00, etc. etc. Just when you’ve adjusted to the two hour time difference from GMT and got used to making a 2.00 pm after lunch arrangement for 8.00 they casually slip in the date. They have 13 months and its 1994!!

Bradt publish an excellent guide written with great humour and accuracy by Philip Briggs and International Travel Maps publish a pretty good map. Both are available at Stanfords in London. 0207 836 1321

Copyright: Toby Savage. <> Reproduced by kind permission of Land Rover World Magazine.