Salambo discovering Ethiopia
Many places around Addis make a good destination for a weekend trip. The Wenchi crater lake, located half way between the towns of Wolliso and Ambo, about 120 kms west of Addis, is one of them. From the capital, it takes about three hours to reach either of these towns, and another hour on a dirt track to get to the crater itself. As an overnight stay was required, we booked at Negash Lodge in Wolliso, by far the best known place to stay near the crater. Negash Lodge, located in a beautiful, almost tropical park full of wild monkeys, used to be a country residence for Emperor Haile Selassie. The rooms are located in individual huts, each one built in the authentic style of a different region of Ethiopia, while the main restaurant and bar are in what was Selassie’s house, a 1930s bungalow style house opening on to a wide patio. The place, a regular weekend retreat for city residents, is particularly interesting for having kept its mid-20th century style and features. Like many places in the highlands of Ethiopia, it also has a hot thermal swimming pool.
From there, a small country road takes up to the small town of Wenchi and the nearby crater lake. The area, located at an altitude of 3400 metres, is extremely rural and isolated. Villagers rely on limited individual crops, in particular Ensete, or the so-called false banana because of its likeness to the banana tree. Unlike bananas, Ensete’s fruits are not edible; it is a highly nutritional root vegetable, and a staple diet in some of the southern regions of Ethiopia. In recent years however, it has declined as a crop because of the spread of a disease. As a result, local farmers started to use the plants when still immature (it takes four to five years to reach maturity), which prevented further growth. I tasted Ensete bread, a type of dense cake with a relatively bland taste, which works well with a spicy dish.
Tourism in Wenchi developed about ten years ago with the support of the German Government Development Agency, GTZ. They helped the local community develop into an association to guide tourists around the crater and sell their produce. They started producing honey for sale, which unfortunately is not available all year round. I was very disappointed when they told me that they had none left when we were there (I will have to go back in December just for the honey!). Today, the community is well organised: they have a tourism office where they sell visitors the entrance ticket, the services of a local guide as well as the horse and boat rides. They also have as a principle not to beg for money, and forbid their community members to do so. However, they do expect an extra tip for taking tourists down to the crater. It is hoped that the Wenchi association model can be reproduced in other regions and cultural sites.
To reach the lake, we followed our guide on horse back down a 5 kms trail around the inside of the crater. Along the way, we passed many small huts and were greeted by the local children, who cheerfully wave at visitors. The horses were provided by the local inhabitants, as part of their community business. They walked the horse for us all the way to the lake and back up. Geographically, the crater is impressive, wide and very steep, it falls by about 500 metres in altitude from the top down to the lake. Part of the trip is to take a small boat ride (on a rudimentary wooden canoe) to the island to visit an orthodox monastery. We missed out on it mainly because of lack of time. We had to go back to Addis the same day and didn’t want to drive at night, when the roads are more dangerous. Nevermind, it will give us a good reason to go back to Wenchi.