In the centre of the town is the Seven Olives hotel, which had been recommended as the best in the area - and the only one where it was possible to camp. However, while the camp site was in a nice spot below the hotel, it was not accessible to vehicles, so I had to camp in the car-park. I spent the afternoon relaxing in the hotel grounds, and was quickly able to find Banded Barbet and Abyssinian Slaty Flycatcher.
On inquiring about the tarred road, I was informed that the Dilbe road had been closed the year before as too dangerous, and the new one opened. While you are not supposed to drive along it, until it deteriorates too far, it is an excellent road for birding along, and much more productive than the new route.
Thursday 23rd December 1999
I spent the day with Eshetu Bedane, a very knowledgeable guide who showed me the 12 monolithic churches in Lalibela, and we then travelled out to visit a couple of cave churches much further out, before finishing off with another cave church nearby the town itself.
It is almost impossible to describe the monolithic churches for, while they are not large, the very quality of the workmanship, the artifacts, paintings, etc were unlike anything else I have ever seen. The history behind each church, and the numbers of pilgrims visiting them all, gave such an incredible insight into Ethiopian life. It is almost impossible to put into words what I experienced during the day.
While I did not take my binoculars while walking round the churches, Rüppell's Black-Chat and White-winged Cliff-chats were common. While on the way to the Yemrehana Christos cave church, I was able to find quite a number of flocks of White-throated Serin along the road-side. On the final cave church a few km to the south of Lalibela I found a Rufous Sparrow of the race shelleyi. However, this was far outside its normal range.
Other common birds of the area were White-billed Starlings, Rüppell's Cliff-Chat, White-winged Cliff-Chat, Tacazze Sunbird, and the white-headed form of the White-rumped Babbler.
Friday 24th December 1999
Leaving early, I set off back along the new tar road towards the airport, and turned left over a bridge after about 10 km. This road, which was also new, lead back to the "Chinese" road some distance from Dilbe. The drive towards Lake Tana was relatively uneventful, although there was some beautiful scenery, and an impressive view as one reaches the final flood plains. Black-backed Cisticolas were found on one stop.
On reaching the Bahir Dar - Gonder road, I turned north, passing extensive cultivated flood-plains, which held plenty of birds. Herons were very common, with one area holding approximately 30 Black Herons within 100m of each other - all feeding in the cultivated land and not in the water itself. Nearby was a flock of around 100 Common Cranes. I also caught a brief glimpse of a bird that I could only identify as Abyssinian longclaw, and while the habitat was right, I wasn't expecting it this far north. Continuing round the eastern edge of Lake Tana, the area continued to be heavily cultivated, and heavily populated.
On reaching the southern part of Gonder, I turned south to reach Gorgora, a small "resort" on the northern end of Lake Tana. There was a very pleasant hotel there, although I was amazed to find myself the only guest for the two nights I stayed there. They had no food or restaurant in operation at the time, but this was not problem to me. I did wonder how more other foreign tourists who hired a vehicle and travelled independently managed.
Relaxing in the later afternoon with a cold beer (nowhere in Africa are they in short supply), I found a Song Thrush near the lake shore in the hotel gardens.
Saturday 25th December 1999
Christmas day - according to the Gregorian calendar. However, since Ethiopia remains on the Julian calendar, everyone else was waiting until January 7th. Hence, while I decided to have an easy day of relaxing and bird-watching in the hotel gardens, it was a good time to get the Landrover serviced. A local mechanic from the Marine Authority (in whose grounds the hotels sit) was happy to do the necessary oil changes, etc.
The gardens (as with all Ethiopian government-run hotels) were impressive in the variety of habitats they provided, and a large range of birds were found, including African Collared Dove, European Turtle Dove, Eastern Grey Plantain-eater, Yellow-breasted Barbet, Short-winged Cisticola, Blackcap, White-headed Buffalo Weavers and the albiventris race of the Variable Sunbird – called Yellow-bellied Sunbird in southern Africa, but this was the white-bellied race, so I finally appreciated why it has a different name in the rest of Africa. Geoffroy's Ground Squirrel were seen nearby.
An Ethiopian trip: 27/11/1999 to 17/01/2000Giles Mulholland 31 January 2000