Nechisar Park is quite a way from Addis. To get to Nechisar you must go through the zonal town of Arba Minch. Going to Arba Minch represents a victory of determination over common sense. Take a look at a map of Ethiopia. Look down, way down, to the bottom of the Rift Valley Lakes. Arba Minch is between the two last lakes. It is a long way from Addis.
Fortunately it’s worth it. The first time I planned to go to Arba Minch I didn’t get past Sodo – about 2 hours north. Apart from the crocodiles in the lake, the place didn’t sound interesting enough to bother with. I went to Jimma instead, which truly was boring.
It turns out that although Arba Minch itself is not that great, Nechisar Park was delightfully above expectations. As well, Arba Minch is the gateway to the deep South, which is culturally and temperamentally a huge leap from mainstream Ethiopia.
The road from Sodo was excellent a couple of years ago, and is still one of the best roads in Ethiopia. It took us under 2 hours to travel the 120 or so kilometers – crawling through the many villages on the way and dodging the regular assortment of animals and pedestrians. The scenery is great, especially when you get close to Lake Abaya, the longest of the Rift Valley lakes.
Arba Minch means forty springs. It is really two towns loosely connected – a lower one and another high on the escarpment. In the upper town are found the more beautiful and interesting spots. This includes the omnipresent Bekelle Molla Hotel, a chain in the south – in this case perched on the edge of a cliff with a spectacular view of the two lakes and the Nechisar Park. A nearby restaurant, Rosa’s, had been recommended by a guide book and lived up to expectations. Apart from quite good fish, it had a waitress who swayed around in a light cotton dress, much like Sophia Loren in old movies. We talked about her afterwards, and my wife Gillian pointed out that the waitress hadn’t been wearing any underwear. Regrettably, I hadn’t noticed.
Nechisar Park starts just outside the Northern side of Arba Minch – there is a turnoff by a school shortly after you cross the bridge coming into town. As usual there is no sign and you must rely on helpful passers-by for directions.
You must first check in at the office, which is in a desultory little compound. My first time we checked in and camped for two nights. Theoretically you would have to pay again if you left the park, as we did for a day trip to the far South, but they didn’t enforce this on us. The rates were cheap, the conditions basic. There was a lovely camping spot by the stream, with big shade trees and plenty of open space for tents. The water is very muddy – hardly fit for washing up let alone drinking. We were well supplied so we thoroughly enjoyed the camping.
I have very low expectations for wildlife sightings in Ethiopia. I spent many years in Southern Africa where you are spoiled rotten by the excellence of the game viewing and the facilities. Having no facilities at all is a challenge, but rising to that challenge is part of the fun and adventure. But if you are in a park, you expect to see animals.
Nechisar did not disappoint. We saw gazelle, Swayne’s Hartebeest, lots of zebra, dik – diks or duikers (small buck), Nyalas, warthogs, crocodiles, and bushbucks, along with that amazing variety of birds you get in Ethiopia – including marabou storks, pelicans, vultures, buzzards, etc.
One of the big draws for Nechisar is the so-called crocodile market – named because so many crocodiles gather there that it is crowded like a local market. Unfortunately the level of the lake was too high, covering the beach which draws the crocodiles , so we had to settle for a long distance view of crocodiles swimming around. Lake Chamo is justifiably famous for the large numbers of crocodiles it has – and we were astounded to see local fishermen chest deep in the water within sight of the big crocs. They must know what they’re doing!
The roads in Nechisar have been bad. Last year there was a great deal of construction on the roads in the park, so it was closed to traffic for some time. Hopefully the construction has had its effect, and the park has improved access. I’m sure they are virtually impassable in the rainy season – so avoid it from July to September.
With a good 4 wheel drive you can make it up to the plateau between the lakes – the beautiful ‘bridge of the Gods’. This is where you see the most animals – especially the hundreds of zebras. But be careful with your car – friends of ours had 3 flat tires in a couple of hours – one flat more than they had spares We weren’t around, so they had to walk out of the park – their friend had a plane to catch – which took the better part of 5 hours.
We didn’t see any lions, but we heard them at night. It was very scary! After the first night we camped, several of us exchanged our observation that we had heard the characteristic grunting of a lion at about 5 in the morning. We didn’t worry about it. The second night the lion started to grunt at about 9 in the evening, and carried on all night at intervals. The voice box of the lion is one of natures’ wonders, their noise carries for miles. This one started a long way away, then came inexorably closer – grunting every half hour or so. We scrambled to build up our firewood and discussed plans to have shifts of guarding the camp. By 10 PM the fatigue from the day began to catch up with everyone, and people began retiring to their tents. We then heard a second lion responding to the first – coming from the other side of our camp! Great! Two lions were trying to get together and we were in the middle!
I lasted until about 11:30, when I went to bed in the tent. I was woken up at about 1:30 AM by my sister, who pointed out that the lion was very close and perhaps we should sleep in the cars. I mumbled sleepily that they wouldn’t bother us if we were in the tents and went back to sleep. I woke up alive in the morning, much to my relief. The lion had continued past our camp – none of us knew how close, and no doubt rendez vous’ ed with his or her colleague or boy/girl friend. I was glad they weren’t attracted by snoring!
The lion adventure capped off a great trip. If you survive these things they’re great. If you don’t, it’s another story.