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Mapping Coffee in Ethiopia part two

Paul Little
8 May 2013
Blog team: 
Kew photographer Paul Little has just returned from accompanying a field trip to the Highlands of Ethiopia to research the impact of climate change on the vital coffee crop. Read part two of his diary of the trip.

Day 4 - 22nd March

We were woken this morning by the loudly insistent call to prayer from loudspeakers installed in the courtyard of the compound where we've stayed. I'm feeling a lot better today after a bit of unsettled tum. Aaron emerged looking rather pale and skipped the breakfast we took at the local cafe. Today we headed into the mountainous forests in the Shako area. The forests around here are managed but still diverse. It was a steep climb away from the road and exhausting in the dry heat of the morning. We climbed fairly high and made some plot surveys. The coffee plants were sparse in this area and had already finished their flowering. After the survey we enjoyed a tranquil moment's rest as we sat listening to the sounds of the forest - the chirp of insects and the calls of birds and monkeys. Curiously, there are aspects of this forest that remind me of a British woodland on a hot, hot July day; brambles that catch and tear as we struggle through the undergrowth; the fiery sting of nettles; and a familiar mustiness of mossy bark, dead leaves and warm earth.

Steeply sloping Afromontane forest (Image: Paul Little)

Back to the car again and our colleague, Dr Tadesse, diverts us to a local village to try some of the rich, dark honey made in the forest and for which this region is famous. The locals stare curiously at us as Dr Tadesse barters for the honey and we cannot help but look about us with equal fascination. The locals still depend heavily on the forest and it is with some surprise that I note the smartly dressed fellow standing nearby in a shirt and waistcoat is carrying not a walking stick, but a spear!

Dr Tadesse tries the region’s famous dark forest honey (Image: Paul Little)

We go on to the next town where we pause again to meet one of Dr Tadesse's contacts. Everyone's exhausted and, with Aaron unwell, it's decided to halt here rather than press on to Bonga. We enjoy a glass of mango juice with lime and it's sooo good! Like no other fruit smoothie I've ever tasted! Jenny and I indulge in another. The hotel we've stopped at is luxurious with running water, electricity and (oh joy!) hot showers. One really comes to appreciate things taken for granted at home. We have the afternoon free now and I use it as an opportunity to do some bathroom laundry. It's as well that we stopped, for out of nowhere comes a sudden storm with lightning and heavy rain. I was glad to be under a hot shower rather than out in such an African squall! However, I'm sure there'll be plenty more opportunities to experience the local weather...

Day 5 - 23rd March

We sit outside for breakfast and enjoy the variety of birds to be seen. Sunbird, hadada ibis, common bulbul, as well as scavenging kites and a vulture. We leave the CoffeeLand Hotel in Bonga at 8am. We cross the Gojeb river which divides the regions of Kafa and Jimma. The area consists of moist Afromontane mosaic shading into farmland and humid savanna woodland. We stop to survey a plot in Belete forest where we find a fallen coffee tree with one remaining coffee cherry.

A solitary cherry of Coffea arabica (Image: Paul Little)

Later we find a splendid specimen in its typical habitat, so I take some time to get good pictures. All in all, however, the wild coffee trees are pretty sparse here. We are followed by a local woodsman who carries with him an axe fashioned from a steel blade fastened to a roughly polished handle, which still has the shape of the tree branch it was made from. He helps lead us to the coffee trees and a small neat plantation within the forest. Back in Jimma again and we return to our previous hotel. My room on the third floor overlooks a construction site. Concrete pillars jut skyward and, on hearing a plaintive cry, I glance up to find two kites levelly regarding me. These magnificent creatures are a nuisance here, like pigeons and crows. It's our mess that draws them.

Day 6 - 24th March

Today is a road day. We travel by road to Awasa (Hawassa). I was up by dawn and took some footage from the balcony of the sunrise and some morning activity. Jenny is keen to see hippos so we make a short diversion to a pool where they are reported to be active. Clearly the hippos had seen us coming for by the time we arrived they had all snuck away and hidden behind trees and bushes. We traverse the highlands before descending steeply into a hot river valley. I settle on a technique for shooting out of the car window without conspicuously rubber-necking like a demented tourist. I set the lens to mid aperture, shutter to 1000/s, and leave the lens focused at its hyperfocal distance. Resting the camera levelly on my arm I watch the world fly by and just press the button when passing something happening. The whole day is spent on the road. The hour before sunset is called the golden hour and it happens just as we drop down from the highlands and into the Ethiopian Rift Valley. The landscape is bathed in the richest golden light I have seen. The people by the road are radiant and I can't help but snatch dozens of pictures as we drive along.

So many moments of everyday life beg to be captured as we pass by... (Image: Paul Little)

In the approaching dusk we see a huge African storm sweep down the valley; a giant mushroom standing on its column of water, flashes of electrical discharge flickering through the cloud. The light quickly fades and now we pay the penalty of the roadworks and diversions. Ethiopian roads are best avoided after dark. We still have an hour and a half to our destination. Even the best tarmaced roads are fraught with hazards. There are no pavements and people and mule carts don't carry lights. Faced with the dazzling headlights of oncoming traffic our driver has little more than intuition, a quick flick of full beam and toot of horn to ensure our side of the road is clear. More than once a cartful of faces beam happily back at our headlights as I involuntarily stretch for a brake pedal.

Day 7 - 25th March

We are in the town of Awasa by Lake Awasa. We had stayed in a smart hotel following the long journey of the day before. Running water and a relished hot shower. On the way to the next survey locality we stop into one of the smart hotel resorts in order to see the lake shore. We are approaching the easternmost leg of the expedition and we film a little dialogue here. The lake teems with different species of birds and as I take pictures from the shore I look down to see a palm-sized rock bobbing in the water. The pumice comes from the volcanic floor of the rift valley.

A fisherman on Lake Awasa punts his Tankwa, a papyrus reed boat (Image: Paul Little)

We head south along the highway towards the Kenyan border and pass trees laden with huge black birds. The marabou storks glare coldly down as we pass beneath. Dr Tadesse points out a plush compound, Villa Alpha, former home of the late, renowned African artist Afewerk Tekle.

We stop in Dilla for lunch. We film ourselves trying the region's distinctive Yirga Chefe coffee. Another potent brew, slightly caramel with fruity, citric notes, and a creeping lockjaw finish. A young lad taps at the window until we relent and buy a bunch of ripe bananas for an extortionate 10 bir. They're half the size of Tesco's but twice the flavour. We pass through Dilla and along a highland ridge to Yirga Chefe. This east side of the rift valley is influenced by a different weather system to Yayu and Jimma. Here the weather originates in the Indian Ocean and, perhaps as a consequence, the coffee plants here look significantly different to those we saw before, with noticeably smaller flowers and thicker, firmer leaves. As we climb the ridge we drive through a small town whose dusty roads lined with wooden houses look not unlike an old Wild West town. The children here are particularly delighted to see us ferengi and fling themselves alarmingly at our hurtling 4x4 waving frantically and shouting, "YoiYoiYoi!"

Back at the hotel, as we settle to sleep, a storm breaks over the town and after an hour or so the streets are awash. By morning it's as though nothing had happened. The deep roadside storm drains serve their purpose well.

- Paul -


2 June 2013
great article, I would love to visit the place myself.

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