Awash in all its glory

1 August 2012 § Leave a comment

1 August

Happy August!

I have been reading Wilfred Thesiger’s Danakil Diary, which begins with his attendance (by personal invitation of the Emperor) at the coronation of HIM Haile Selassie.  He then spent a month hunting in the Danakil desert and explored the Awash River a few years later, at the age of twenty-three, after he finished his education at Oxford.

Wilfred: the first European to explore the Sultanate of Aussa (1934)

I accidentally stole the book from the hostel in Mombasa.  There are always a few stacks of books lying around in hostels that people have left and other people can read.  I had it in my bag to read by the water and then forgot to put it back on the shelf.  It was wrong, and I am sorry for it.  I am enjoying the book, though.  Much of it is details of scouting and hunting, as part of his exploration included bringing back specimens for the Natural History museum.  And then there are little things that make me laugh, as well as a few rare longer passages which describe the land.  A few excerpts:


November 29th.  A Danakil until he has killed someone is called a woman and not allowed to marry.  A most pernicious custom.  Moussa has ten men to his credit and is entitled to one ear ring.  He has several appalling-looking scars on his body.  One arm must have been nearly severed.  A Frenchman was murdered not far from here three years ago.  The remains of his corpse, one leg, was taken to Addis Ababa and formally decorated by the Emperor.  Posthumous glory!

Wilfred with his camel, 1948


October 5th.  Left camp at 7.30.  Mules arrived Chelalo at 1 p.m., several of them very exhausted after a steepish climb; it was here that we expected to find nyala.  We entered a forest of wild olives and massive juniper trees resembling cedars, many of them festooned with lichen.  I had never been in such a forest and found it fascinating.  We camped on the edge of the moorland among magnificent red-tasselled hagenia trees and clumps of yellow-flowering St John’s wort; above us the mountain was covered with giant heath ten feet and more in height.  Only the high tops, at thirteen thousand feet, were bare; there, tussocky grass, patches of everlastings and a scattering of giant lobelia were interspersed among crags of weathered rock. . . . Camped in a belt of kauso trees.  Very attractive and masses of wood for fires, had huge ones for which we were very grateful.  Above the belt of forest is the heath country, this grows in places to twelve feet high and covers practically the whole mountain.  The country is extraordinarily like Scotland, and there are large numbers of hares and a bird very like a grouse, now always in pairs.

A very young Wilfred outside the British Legation with the remnants of a nyala that his father shot

Hagenia abyssinica

October 16th.  During the night, nine of the negadi’s mules ran away and were only recovered at 8 o’clock this morning.  The negadis then refused to march and demanded a day’s rest.  Endless discussions till 12.30 when we started.  . . . Bought two ponies off the headman of the Arussi village, an ancient who claims to be one hundred and twenty years old and to have killed one hundred and forty men.  Umar was masterly in his handling of him.  In the middle of the discussion the Arussi would suddenly break into ancient battle cries and songs.  Humoured him with handfuls of salt and sugar, and an old fruit tin.

A Daily News expedition passing through an Arussi village, 1927

November 8th.  Went out to get honey from some Galla hives upstream.  Placed in the most impossible places in very tall trees.  Demise got to one and dropped it down.  The fire not ready and he was covered in bees before he got down, badly stung.  The comb ready, but only a small amount of honey—delicious.  Took it back to camp, about three-quarters of a mile.  Half an hour later the bees arrived and made life impossible.

These bees are a bit calmer. I took this photograph during hive installation in the gardens a few months ago

[N.B. African bees are far more aggressive than European honey bees, which (along with Russian bees) are the bees that live nearly everywhere besides Africa.]

November 11th.  Muhammad brought me a fossil from Sheikh Husain shaped like a bird’s head.  There are, I gather, numerous rocks there like life-sized men and women and animals.  The country round here is full of fossils.  The rocks round the camp look like the molars of prehistoric giants.

November 18th.  Woke up sitting among my tent ropes dreaming that we were trying to get the camels through the forest in the dark and had just run into an army of ants.

[At least they weren’t bullet ants . . . ]

December 9th.  The swamp is very large, stretching as far as I could see to the Awash.  Mostly mud and bushes here, but a large patch of vivid green in the distance.  Found spoor of zebra and oryx, and one old set of hippo tracks.  Yusuf declares he disturbed two hippo when fetching water.  Several Egyptian gees and herons.  . . . Mosquitoes unbearable. . . . Almost innumerable flights of sand-grouse to lesser Bilen spring at 8 o’clock.  Stop only a second.  Shot three, excellent eating.  Came from every direction.  A baboon’s garden close to camp.  They have grubbed up two or three acres for the roots of a rushlike grass.  Exactly like a ploughed field, and more thoroughly done than most natives’ ploughing.

Zebra on the Nairobi reserve a few weeks ago

December 10th.  Left camp at 7.45 and arrived at Lake Hertale at 5.15—a long and hot march, mostly over lava rock which threw up the heat. . . . East of us a mimosa-covered plain as far as you could see.  A glorious view of Lake Hertale as we crossed the intervening mountain. . . . Marched at 5 degrees for two hours along another escarpment parallel to yesterday’s.  During the march our guide ran away, but was luckily caught.  Serious if he had escaped.  Then set two zabanias to guard him.

December 15th.  Moved to a small village and camped on some dry ground in the centre of a bog.  Wished to go on to the next balabat, who is close, and a relation of the Sultan.  The balabat of this village, an old and rather doddering man, would not hear of it, and as he is a man of great authority, we were forced to comply.  He threatened indeed to become unpleasant.

Emperor Haile Selassie and Wilfred, 1940


February 12th.  Camped under two trees by the river where we camped on December 16th.  Large numbers of Danakil came into camp to welcome Miriam Muhammad, though his country is lower down the river. . . . They killed and gave us two oxen in the evening and quantities of milk.  We also caught about a dozen catfish of about five pounds.  There was in consequence a sound of revelry by night.  . . . The Asaimara seem genuinely friendly to us.  I am said to be their friend at court.  The only danger to the camp is, I think, that there may be an anti-Abyssinian party who wish to throw off their allegiance to the Government.  By murdering us, the whole tribe would inevitably be involved in hostilities with the Government and the young party would triumph over the party of reconciliation.  One young man when ordered “by Haile Selassie” to move off said, “I don’t know Haile Selassie.”

There must be a large number who feel like this, and would be willing to commit the tribe to war.  The other risk is that one tribe should kill us in another’s territory in order to involve them with the Government.  The balabat says this is our only danger, and that the Adoimara would be very pleased to bring trouble on them. . . . If the Asaimara fought the Government, the Government could count on the support of the Adoimara. . . . a small boy with a toy bow spent much time trying unsuccessfully to shoot small fish in the shallows.  Can find no evidence that they have ever used bows and arrows for fighting.

This diary is never tedious; there are always too many hyenas lurking about to make one bored

I have read about half of the book.  Of course there are many more enjoyable parts.  I also love looking at the maps that he drew.




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