Two weeks ago, Equus – read Yves Stranger, the horse trekking outfit’s groom – in – chief - announced it was going to initiate The Zara Yacob Trail at the end of May, Ethiopia’s first highland horse trekking route.
Zara Yacob, one of Ethiopia’s greatest kings, started Africa’s original protected area, issuing an edict in the 15th century that the forest of Menagesha Suba no longer be logged and bringing seedlings from the forest of Wof Washa far away on the eastern Rift Valley escarpment near Ancobar.
Equus wishes to retrace this route on horseback for the first time in five centuries – and yes, we will of course be carrying seedlings from Wof Washa, all the way to Menagesha Suba forest.
The distance – as the crow flies – is close to 250 kilometres, but Abyssinian ponies are not crows, and the real distance may be closer to 300 to 350 kilometres – we’ll try and do it in six days, reconnoitering routes, possible stops, water points and rivers, and visiting beautiful churches on the way and talking with local people and asking for their advice (and a bed to sleep in, and some barley for sale for our horses!).
As showed in the Google Earth map below, the route follows a generally north-east to south-west direction, crossing the plateaus of Debre Birhan and central Showa long famous for their horse breeding. Today, these same lands produce donkeys for Gojjam, mules for Bale – and polo ponies for Addis Ababa.
Horse markets are a strong feature of this route with weekly markets in Kottu, Sirti and Guddu all proudly selling donkeys, horses and mules. Racing and showing off are also a strong element of these gatherings and literally hundreds of horses come to market – as they are still used as transport by the local people.
These plains without a single fence for dozens of kilometers are ideal horse breeding and galloping grounds. Welcoming people who live in unique villages, a traditional landscape still given over to pastoralism and plowing by oxen, migrating cranes, bleeding heart baboons, century old Orthodox Churches, old growth montane forests and the superb views from the eastern Rift Valley escarpment, together with the horse markets, make this a true Ethiopian highland experience.
In my first post on the Zara Yacob Trail, I mentioned the Kokada Trail and the GR 10, but have since found something much closer to home, and to the idea I wish to implement. The Çelebi Way is an equestrian route founded a few years ago in Turkey, in which riders – but also hikers and bikers – follow in the footsteps of Evliya Çelebi, an Ottoman traveller who spent forty years traipsing the breadth of the empire, leaving ten volumes of his travels behind.
This route – and many others – has been mapped in Turkey by enthusiastic riders and trekkers, to promote the country and its natural and historic heritage. The Çelebi route is just one among a plethora of other historic routes that have been initiated in Turkey over the last ten years and trekkers – Turks and foreigners – are flocking to them in ever increasing numbers.
How about a trekking route through Tigray? And another from Lake Tana to Axum? Ethiopia, a country with a wealth of beautiful sites, history and a welcoming population, could very easily initiate trails such as these.
Since The Zara Yacob Trail’s first steps two weeks ago, Equus has partnered with a number of organizations to get the idea on the road:
Eminence, Addis Ababa’s premier social entrepreneur and media agency which is organizing a huge seedling exhibition on Mesqal Square for the World Environmental Day on June 5, is going to promote The Zara Yacob Trail to the media and associate it to its seedling event.
Sunarma an NGO which runs an indigenous tree nursery in Wof Washa, will provide the seedlings for the historic ride. Sunarma, with projects near Sirti in Jidda Woreda, in which it accompanies agricultural and development projects, is also interested in initiating community tourism projects.
Why not start a community horse trekking project in Sirti, bang in the middle of The Zara Yacob Trail?!
The Ethiopian Heritage Trust with which Equus is now developing trails and overnight treks in their stunning Entoto site where they have planted millions of trees – it’s true, go and see them for yourself – would be happy to plant a ‘Zara Yacob seedling.’
Hoarec’s deputy director, Abdirahman, said he was lacing his boots and itching to be one of the first on the trail – Hoarec’s many environmental programs in Ethiopia, especially in the Rift Valley, Gambella and the hills and mountains around Addis Ababa, have proven to be ground breaking projects when it comes to initiating integrated conservation projects in the country. Abdirahman, saddle that horse!
Ato Terefe, the owner of the Ankober Palace Lodge, asked about a ‘Menelik Trail,’ and indeed, why not implement a Menelik Trail which would run from Menelik’s first capital – Ancober – to his second – Entoto – finally reaching his third, Addis Ababa?!
Biniyam Admassu, who works tirelessly with the Frankfurt Zoological Society to promote and protect the Guassa Plateau (in Menz, just a few kilometres up the escarpment from Ankober) wanted to know why not have a trekking route that would follow the escarpment all the way up to Menz – and beyond. And why not indeed?
In making this first exploratory trip along The Zara Yacob Trail, Equus only wishes to take the first step on a journey that many more will make.