By about half past nine we had loaded the horses with my few possessions and the provisions for all. I had hired an extra sleeping bag in anticipation of the cold in the altitude. We started walking along a trail across fields scattered with recently built huts, a bit up from the village, then we turned towards the mountains. If the relationship with the scout at the start had been a difficult one, he managed to redeem himself and engaged in sensible conversation that made me change my first impression.
We arrived at the camp by the early afternoon and were joined by the two horse handlers. It was overcast and windy, we took shelter in a leeward position next to a rock and lit a fire in order to make tea. We squatted on stones feeling the wind that chilled our hands, holding the hot mugs to counter the cold, huddling around the fire. Ahmed, one of the muleteers, had returned from Kuwait where he had been working as a herdsman, breeding goats and camels. He had a smattering of Arabic.
Bale, like other Muslim areas in Oromia, has seen a shift of power between the Muslims and the Christians in recent years. The Muslims have found easy access to the rich Gulf countries and have brought back money to invest in land and cattle, but also in large families – polygamy allows a man to have as many as 15 children, – hence the increased demand for land at the expense of the protected areas in the national park.
I trek into the Bale Mountains National Park up to the incredibly beautiful Web Valley and camp there.
However, the consequences are more far-reaching if we consider the spread of a more conservative Islam, epitomised by the adoption of customs typical of the strictest Arab countries, like the Islamic women's attire, usually worn neat and clean. Ten years ago the headscarf was uncommon among the Muslim women, but now integral hijabs in pure Arab style are to be seen everywhere. New mosques are also built and there are rumours of money-driven conversions, although the same accusation is also directed at certain Christian denominations in other areas.
Apart from this, Ethiopia has to cope with uncomfortable neighbours and has even suffered attacks inside its territory due to its geographical position wedged among turbulent countries in the Horn of Africa, notably lawless Somalia ruled by hothead mujahedeen and terrorist organisations. Ethiopia's relationship with Islam doesn't seem to be easy.
My body temperature was rising, maybe thanks to the tea. The clouds were thinning and let more sunlight through. We left for a walk around an outcropping height. All around the meadows were covered in shrubs and dry red-hot pokers, but even without flowers the colours were a marvel for the eyes. A greenish tinge was picked up by ochre lichens and the reflects from a meandering river that formed puddles in the midst of this arid prairie. Rays of sun came like an spotlight that moved as slowly as the clouds overhead. Nyalas, wolves, and many birds were the inhabitants of this desolate wilderness.
After this magnificent walk we were back to the camp for dinner. They said the temperature would be warmer with a cloudy sky.