The journey to Harar was, like the curate’s egg, good in parts. There are some fascinating areas to be visited en route, but as is always the case, getting off a long distant bus incurs the risk of being stranded in an isolated spot. The interesting places were very isolated, in particular the areas of volcanic cinder and the scattered settlements of the Afar people. During the journey I was invited to join a fellow passenger for lunch. What appeared to be a tiny butcher shop doubled as a restaurant. Meat was selected from the carcass hanging in the store front, and brought to the table with an individual bowl of glowing coals; a do-it-yourself BBQ.
Much of the road travelled alongside both the old Italian built railway, now abandoned and the new Chinese line under construction. The road demonstrated the need for the railway. Most of the traffic was fuel tankers plying between Djibouti and the central parts of Ethiopia. Ethiopia is landlocked with Djibouti being effectively the country’s only access to the sea.
Harar was quite unlike any place I had so far visited. Dry and dusty, a maze of narrow alleyways, it reminded me of Marakesh some 30 years earlier. Life takes place on the street, free of cars, with the occasional mule carrying firewood or the bull being led to market. Traders sit in street selling vegetables, fruit or the favourite mild stimulant khat which is grown locally.
Khat is a significant aspect of life in Harar and much of Ethiopia. It is bought and sold openly and on local buses most of the passengers are chewing the leaves. One odd experience occurred on one such bus. A passenger boarded with a sack of khat. As we approached a police check point, the driver pulled over, took the sack from the passenger and stuffed it under his seat. The police stopped the bus and checked the driver's credentials. A mere few yards down the road the driver stopped again and the sack was returned to the customer. It seemed as if carrying the Khat was illegal or perhaps evading tax, but that the police were not prepared to challenge the driver.
As with so many Ethiopian towns, the wildlife makes itself known. Nowhere is quite like Ethiopia for the confidence of bird life. In the meat market street, kites swoop down grabbing morsels of meat almost before they hit the ground. Rubbish heaps are scavenged by vultures which show little regard for human intrusion. But nothing can match the behaviour of the local hyenas. Quite unlike any hyenas elsewhere, these enter the town at night and wander the streets. Over many years, one or two locals have taken to feeding them, and in one case this has become a nightly ritual for visitors to watch and take part.