Ethiopia’s Rift Valley is not the Ethiopia that famine-focused news reports are made of. Travelling south from Addis Ababa, I found myself driving past not sand storms, cracked earth and skeletal cattle; but forests, waterfalls and fish-and-hippo-filled lakes. I relied on the Amharic signs and the unmistakeable aroma of frankincense and roasting coffee beans to remind me where I was. Ethiopia, I thought, is beautiful.
Until I arrived at Abiata-Shala National Park.
The park’s 887 square kilometres are comprised mostly of the two large lakes from which it takes its name. Lakes Abiata and Shala are separated by just a 3km-long ridge, but they couldn’t be more different. The picturesque Lake Shala plunges up to 360m into a collapsed volcanic caldera. Islands dot its surface, havens for birds, which thrive thanks to the fish in its waters and the lack of predators on the remote islands. But across the ridge is a very different story. Here were the endless dry earth and the felled forests. This was the sickly version of Ethiopia which I had seen in the papers, on the evening news. I hadn’t wanted to believe it existed
We parked our car and began to walk towards the distant waters of the lake, across the flat, featureless mud that was once its bed. The waters have been diverted to a nearby soda ash plant, causing the water to recede by up to 5km, and salinity to increase, killing all the fish. The park was gazetted to protect the birdlife, but the birds will not return here while there are no fish for them to feed on. The cormorants, fish eagles and pelicans are gone; only flamingoes remain, feeding on the abundant algae that stains the lake, darkly.
Storm clouds cluster above this apocalyptic scene; the flamingoes are a salmon-coloured contrast to the steely lake and sky. As raindrops begin to puncture the parched mud, we run back to the car, but distances are deceiving in such an empty landscape, and we are drenched be the time we reach the shelter of the vehicle.
The soda ash factory apparently no longer functions, but the damage has been done. The lake struggles to replenish itself, but the 600 farmers around its borders drain it to irrigate their crops. They have felled the surrounding acacia forests for firewood and charcoal, and to make space for maize plantations. Hot springs, on the northeastern bank of Lake Shala, are used for bathing, socialising; while domestic animals quench their thirst at the lake’s edge. Donkeys haul jerry cans of water back to the homesteads.
I visited Lake Abiata-Shala National Park to research, map and photograph local attractions for “Ethiopia’s Central and Southern Rift Valley Mapguide” published by National Geographic in 2011.
- Abiata-Shala National Park is a half-hour drive from Lake Langano. The rust-red Langano is a popular resort as it is the only lake in Ethiopia which is completely free of bilharzia.
- Accommodation and restaurants can be found by Lake Langano.
- Other nearby attractions include Shashamene, the region donated by Emperor Haile Selassie to the Rastafarian people and other Caribbean people of African origin.
- There are also hot springs on the northeastern edge of Lake Shala, where residents and tourists can bathe.