OBSERVATIONS FROM THE MOTHERLAND : ‘I’VE GOT A CRUSH ON BALE’
By Dr. Gelane Gemechisa
Oromia is so vast and beautiful. I’m thankful to have had the opportunity to see other areas than just that of where my family is from. I truly feel that it’s important for any Oromo to see what this land that we love by name is all about.” Birhanie, I’ve a feeling you share this sentiment. #Bale #Oromia
It’s been a few weeks since I shared my last blog and I’m writing now from the beautiful and peaceful terrain of Dembi Dollo. I hope you all enjoyed coming along with me as I relived my experiences in Arsi and Sidamo.
As promised, in this week’s entry, I will take you with me as I revisit my travels through Bale with particular attention to my visit to the Sof Umer cave.
We set out for the mountains of Bale after a hearty lunch with family and friends. Usually, you don’t start a journey after midday but since there are so many people to see and greet, I had to adjust my schedule to accommodate the invitations. With the sun overhead, we made way for Dodola via Shashamene. Most of the landscape in the area is flat farmland glistening with hues of gold and green. In the distance, the silhouette of a mountain rises up from the seemingly endless plain. Straight ahead, the asphalt road seems to dance before our eyes in the afternoon heat. The road was good some 100 km until we reached a stretch of ongoing construction where the road was unpaved and rough to travel. We asked so many people along the way if the road was good and everyone confirmed the road was asphalt up to Robe. I found it funny that everyone we asked failed to mention the 30 km stretch of rocky dirt road.
About halfway through the pista road, we reached a sign that read “Sensaa Godina Bale, Anaa dhufu.” Finally! We made it to Bale! Shortly thereafter, we came upon an asphalt road again and drove through the Bale Mountain National Park. I looked out the window to my left and saw four wild horses galloping in stride with our car. Although I couldn’t get a picture, I can still see them when I close my eyes as the beautiful sight is imprinted on my memory forever.
An hour later and the sunset behind us, we reached Bale-Robe with Madda Walabu University welcoming us at the gates. A local soccer tournament culminated that day and the winner, Robe soccer team’s fans crowded the streets running and chanting “Hoooo, Ijjolee Robe!” We made our way to Kidus Giorgis Restaurant for dinner where there was an open fire in the center and outdoor seating. As we were eating the celebration out on the streets suddenly poured into the open area of the restaurant around the fire. The soccer team had arrived with their trophy and presented it to some elders who were eating there as well. Once the excitement died down, we too decided to make our way back to the hotel and rest up for another day of travel.
Still somber with sleep, we arose before the sun to make our way to the bus station. Besides the few truck drivers shuffling about and the morning call to prayer, Robe was silent, very different from when we arrived. As the sun began to stretch her arms over the horizon, the crisp mountain air fell on our breath revealing the life within us. In the distance, we heard the rumble of a motor, “please let that be a bajaj,” I thought to myself as I shivered in the cold. Thankfully, it was the three-wheeled vehicle, so we hopped aboard and zipped down the road to catch our bus.
The morning tranquility vanished as we entered the chaos of the bus station. We searched for our bus, asking people along the way for the bus to Ginniir and finally came across our carriage. I must admit, travelling by public bus is a less than desirable mode of transportation. Buses are usually crowded and stuffy; in the midday heat, a collective body odor resonates throughout the cabin. After three long hours on gravel road, we reached our destination and were welcomed with a big breakfast of different styles of tibs, fresh milk (which looked so good but I couldn’t drink because it wasn’t boiled) and strong coffee. Our driver arrived as we were finishing breakfast and we soon prepared to make our way to the awesome Sof Umer.
I clutched the handle in front of me as we flew down the mountain road. Mind you, the road in remote areas like this one is usually gravel or packed down dirt at best. The car jumped and rumbled as it hit the random stones in the road, meanwhile our driver fished in his pocket to answer his ringing phone. I was afraid to look at the speedometer for fear of inducing a heart attack but I dared and saw the needle at around 125 KPH. “Awesome,” I thought, “I’m going to die trying to see this remote natural wonder.” As we got close to Sof Umer, the mountain road became very narrow and steep. To one side of our truck was a rocky hill and to the other an open cliff, which made for awesome views but utterly terrifying to traverse by car. Every time we sped around a curve, I could see the rocks falling down the steep slope into what seemed like an abyss.
I finally exhaled when we reached the end of navigable road and had to park. I was fortunate enough to be given a seat inside the cab but the rest of my party sat in the bed of the truck with a mattress and pillows. Little did I know until we got out of the car that our speed not only made for a thrilling ride but also filled the bed of the truck with enough dust to last for lifetimes. As they jumped out of the back of the truck, they looked like ghosts; covered from head to toe with the chalky limestone dust native to the area.
Once on solid ground, I was completely captured by the calm and natural beauty of the landscape. It was so refreshing and immediately soothing that I quickly forgot about the rough and tumble ride we just experienced. We set out by foot down the narrow, rocky gorge that leads to the river basin. As we carefully studied and strategized our way over the rocks, people with herds of cattle and donkeys passed us with an ease as though the [path] was straight and flat. Some people chuckled as they watched us struggle down the treacherous course and finally a man named Rashid, figuring we came to tour the area, approached us and offered to help.
Rashid became our instant tour guide of Sof Umer. Born and raised in the Sof Umer river basin, Rashid is a natural historian of the area and of the [cult]. He took us down the rocky path to the river banks where people were bathing, washing clothes, watering their livestock and collecting jugs of water. The steady, calm current of the weyb river was mesmerizing and I imagined myself standing on the banks during more ancient times when the cave’s namesake was still alive. Up and to the left stood a grand crown-shaped limestone rock that emerged from the water, begging our attention. The rock is called Barcuuma Ayyoo Makkoo, which means Makkoo’s mother’s chair.
I immediately started moving toward the rock to take pictures but quickly realized just how dangerous the landscape of Sof Umer is. As I mentioned a few times already, the rock in Sof Umer is limestone, which means very smooth and even more slippery. I calculated every step I took to secure my footing on the slick surface and avoid the deep crevasses that lie hidden between the close rocks. Rashid on the other hand, wearing dress shoes, climbed and skipped over the rocks with such ease it reminded me of Spiderman, the movie.
We hiked over toward Barcuuma Ayyoo Makkoo and when we got closer, I saw that the only way to get to the rock was to jump across a 4-5 foot gap to the other side. As I inched toward the edge of the rock to peer below, I saw the swift current of the Weyib river and jumped back. Maybe, it was the grandeur of the place, maybe it was my excitement, I don’t know, but for some reason I stepped out of my cautious character and decided to take the leap. I took a few steps back to get a running start, clenched my fists and prayed for the best. Some of the others in my group had already crossed and caught me as I landed on the other side.
After finishing touring the rocks from the waterfront of the cave, Rashid directed us up a steep path that lead to the mouth of the cave. He explained that traversing the entire cave takes about two and a half hours so for time’s sake we took an abbreviated tour.
Once we reached the mouth of the cave, I was overcome with hesitance. Standing at the entrance, you can see some 40 feet down into the cave then after that it is completely dark. I seriously contemplated not going in but thought of how far I had travelled just to see this wonder and decided to go down into the darkness.
We walked down the rock carved stairs leading to the floor of the cave where Rashid was already waiting for us to share the history of the followers who made a shrine of this cave. To the right, he showed us an abandoned fire pit where the worshippers prepared their meals when they made a pilgrimage to the revered site. Just behind the fire pit was a simple alter that consisted of a long beam of wood suspended about four feet off the ground between two rocks. As a symbol of their offering, the followers laid the ropes that were used to bring the sacrificial animals to the site across the wood and they still remain there today.
Rashid led us deeper into the darkness of the cave. I turned behind me to see the light at the entrance but it had already faded leaving only our flashlights to guide our steps. We came to a wide open space in the cave with that seemed like a grand ballroom with a ceiling that stood about 60 feet above our heads. To our left stood an enormous 40-foot rock with a steep downward slope leading to the floor of the cave. At the top of the slope laid a tree that, as Rashid relayed to us, has remained there without sliding for 900 years.
We continued on deeper into the cave walking behind the giant rock through a narrow passage that led to a series of tunnels. Seemingly harmless and even inviting, these tunnels are dangerous for any novice cave-trekker because they lead to nowhere. Rashid explained that Sof Umer has a total of forty four passages throughout the length of the cave, 17kms, but only one will lead out to the other side. The legend has it that four foreigners who entered the cave (without the help of a local guide) got lost inside and presumed dead but their bodies were never found.
Rashid led us down one of the dead end tunnels and when we reached the end, he told us to turn off our flashlights and stop talking to illustrate how isolated these parts of the cave are. There were a total of eight people in our group and we were all standing very close together but it was impossible to see or hear anything except for the fluttering of bats’ wings in the distance. I couldn’t even see my hand in front of my face. In this part of the cave, you can no longer hear the roar of the river let alone noise from the outside world and more important, in case of a rescue operation, no one from the outside can hear you.
Our last stop before heading back out to the sunlight was a river crossing. Sof Umer is so big and long that as you travel through it you must cross the river seven times as it winds all around the cave. The river at this point is very deep and the current is strong so crossing is no doubt very dangerous. Other crossings are laden with drop offs where the water goes from waist deep to more than 30 feet deep in a matter of one step. Needless to say, we did not cross the river at this point but turned around and made our way back to the entrance.
As we neared the entrance, we could see the sunlight off in the distance which was so comforting after being in the depths of darkness for about an hour. Down at the riverbank people were still going about their business as we had left them but I appreciated it so much more to see life again. The breeze through the trees, birds chirping, animals grazing all same as before but it felt like my senses were on hyper-drive now.
We said our thank yous and goodbyes to Rashid and parted ways. I always reflect on moments like these one when life brings a seemingly random person to your life to cross paths with. I’m thankful for Rashid’s guidance as well as the knowledge and history he shared with us. He truly made the experience one that I will never forget.
After getting back to the house and resting for a bit, we ended the day with a campfire that lasted well into the night. Our hosts invited us to the most delicious goat tibs I’ve ever tasted that they roasted on an open fire pit. Two of the young girls in the family prepared a sort of variety show to entertain us, singing and dancing to the latest Oromo and Amharic songs. We finished the night under the wide blanket of stars listening to music, telling jokes and playing games.
I have to admit in my short stay, I came to fall in love with the Bale landscapes and the people. I jokingly tell people, I have a crush on Bale but if you ever find yourself in this area of Ethiopia, you would quickly understand why I say so. Oromia is so vast and beautiful. I’m thankful to have had the opportunity to see other areas than just that of where my family is from. I truly feel that it’s important for any Oromo to see what this land that we love by name is all about.
In my next couple of entries, I will share my experiences during my travels through Wallaga and of my two-week stay in my “hometown” of Dembi Dollo. As always, thank you for reading my blog and please share any comments or concerns you may have.