“Have you thought of your program?”
This was the third time this guide had barged into the drafty common room of the Bale Mountain National Park lodge to solicit his services. I had told him before that I had no plan and no desire for a guided walking tour of the park, be it for bird watching or otherwise, yet he persisted.
“We must make a plan.”
“Do I need a guide? Can’t I just walk around? Besides, I’m just here to meet a friend. I don’t think we will even do any trekking tomorrow.”
The friend I was waiting on was Brian, a long-haired, coffee-fueled, Peace Corps volunteer who I had met only fifteen minutes before. I was sent his way by an old college friend (and PC volunteer) who said I ought to go check out Bale. I thought this an excellent idea. Once you make Peace Corps friends in an area, the whole network opens up, and a vagabond can easily hop from town to town, connecting the dots.
“I’m just going to hang out with Brian. No birding.” It was getting cold and dark. Finally the guide gave up, electing to walk down to his cabin, leaving me in peace.
Bale Mountain National Park is beautiful. Located in southern Ethiopia, it is a high, forested range of mountains with immense ecological variety: from low swampy valleys to rocky peaks, to dense bamboo forests. The park is huge, and is perhaps best accessed via he park headquarters in Dinsho, a quaint town of three thousand. I stumbled along a lush forested trail to find a 70 Birr (~$3.80) bunk, a 50 Birr (~$2.75) daily park entrance fee, and a much lower temperature than I ever imagined might be found at under seven degrees of latitude.
I’ve never seen (nor do I expect ever again to see) any terrestrial environment where such a variety of interesting critters make themselves so accessible to a bumbling human. On the two minute walk from the lodge to Brian’s cabin, I regularly saw hoards of warthogs, fuzzy bushbucks, caped Colobus monkeys, muscly nyala, and any of two hundred or so bird species which a guide could probably tell you all about. And all of these forest beasts can be approached to within stone-lobbing distance before their trust in humanity wanes.
Needless to say, it was neat to never have to leave the vicinity of the lodge to see all of these things. Indeed, for Brian, many of the creatures had become something of a nuisance for their fearlessness. Warthogs had taken to rooting around his cabin’s foundation to try and build a den, and hyenas had been similarly digging.
“I’ll give you 20 Birr [about a dollar] if you can slap a Jib!” went Brian’s hyena hunting wager. There are enough of them in the park that it’s not entirely unreasonable that someone could sneak up on one to slap it on the behind, but what would happen afterwards remains a mystery.
We did leave the park headquarters, though, on an afternoon following some of Brian’s wrap-up. He’d spent well over a year in Dinsho working with the park managers, and was on his last week in the country. After a bit of digging in the mud to make clay cook stoves, we met his replacement, a PC volunteer named Matt, in town before crossing a river and choosing a route up to a high rock outcropping.
We spent hours marching contentedly, and pausing regularly to sniff an aromatic shrub or snap a photo of a perfectly presented mammal. Between breaths of thin air we mused about the place’s beauty. Matt, who would soon move to the area, reckoned he’d won the Peace Corps lottery, having been placed in such a beautiful park. We reckoned he was right.
Another reason I was happy to go meet Brian is because he was allegedly something of a musician. Again, I sought musical collaboration, and on the first cold night in his cabin, he deployed his makeshift drum kit with a suitcase bass drum, a washboard, and a few food cans nailed to a board, and proceeded to produce ample rhythm. Soon he offered the washboard to me and picked up a cheap mandolin he’d been teaching himself to play in his free time. What followed was a two hour set of motown and folk tunes, occasionally with reggae influence, played for the approval of the hyenas.
The same thing happened on the next evening, though we were joined by Matt with his guitar, and two bottles of bad wine to enhance our sound. The hyenas howled, or yowled, or whatever they do.
My final night in Dinsho was also the big going away party for Brian by all the folks in town he’d been working with for so long. Brian had suggested that we do a live set at the party as a last hurrah, to displace some of the recorded music that would surely find its way in to the party, and
“Because it will blow their minds!”
“Why? Because they never see this kind of thing?”
“Yep. Nobody really knows how to play music.”
Flocks of friends and well-wishers filtered in to the common room at the lodge, displacing a number of uppity European birders. Some guides, already drunk, made many failed attempts at lighting a scattering of big eucalyptus logs in the fire place. Crates of beer and baskets of enjera were brought from the kitchen and enjoyed by all. Eventually Brian and I had enough gin in us to wail away with our nuveau reggae-folk. The locals adapted their jerky-shoulder dance to our tunes with some success, and fun was had by all.