Thursday, September 24, 2009

Dean Krakel's story from Ethiopia

Dean Krakel was featured in my series, "A New Life," about how journalists are reinventing themselves. In that installment, he described his dreams for his rafting trip down the Omo River (above). Today he shares the reality he experienced in Ethiopia.

So there we were, my friend Max, guide Jane Dicey and me, in Addis Ababa with our rafting equipment strung out all over the parking lot of the Pacific Hotel, ready to lock and load and head south to the Bele Bridge for the launch of our rafting adventure on the Omo River.

But we weren’t going anywhere. The Ethiopian government acting in conjunction with EEPCO (Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation) had denied our permit.

No reason given.

It was a crushing blow to Max and me. The Gibe II hydropower dam is nearly complete and another dam, the Gibe III is in the planning stages. Our raft trip was a once in a lifetime opportunity to run one of the last, large free-flowing rivers in Africa; a chance to experience a wilderness few roads penetrate and document a wild land populated with wild people before it was forever changed.

Max and I had invested nearly every dollar we had into the trip along with a boatload of hopes, dreams and expectations. It seemed in those moments we had taken a big gamble and lost.

For the next five days, Max, Jane (below) and I navigated the streets of Addis in a score of blue and white taxis, visiting one government minister after another trying to gain the necessary letter of approval that would free us to move.

Maybe in a few weeks or a few months something could be done to help us. Maybe not.

Our rafting trip had come at a very inopportune time politically, Fassil Yilma at the U.S. embassy told us. Environmentally the issue is very sensitive. Billions of dollars was at stake. The Ethiopian government wants the dams completed. The country needs the power and profit that would be generated.

It was a matter best not pushed, Mr. Yilma said, or the government might push back.

The public relations director for EEPCO talked in big elaborate circles that all came back around to, “No.” Activity around the dam’s construction was dangerous. Our rafting would be a disruption to work and a distraction to the workers. We would not be allowed to portage our equipment around the dam. Could we float the upper river above the dam? we asked. No. Could we put in below the dam and float the lower river? we asked. No.

Doors closed. Phones went unanswered. Police at the Bele Bridge would be instructed to stop us if we decided to try without permission.

I had been asked to make a list of camera equipment so that it could be determined if it was “professional” gear. The unspoken message to me was that if I were truly a journalist and not just a tourist on vacation, any story about the Omo would be considered inappropriate. When a river is being dammed and a downstream culture that has depended upon the water’s seasonal ebb and flow for thousands of years is threatened, there is no such thing as positive publicity. Better to drown the valley silently.

People we told our story to tended to shrug and say, “It’s Africa.”

Not to be entirely stymied, Max and I came up with Plan B. We’d rent a land cruiser, driver and translator, load up camping gear and some of the food we’d have eaten on the raft trip and head overland into southern Ethiopia. In the two places where it connected with a road, the Bele Bridge and the Greek hunting camp of Murle, we would be able to reach the Omo.

Along the way we’d be able to visit the dryland versions of tribes we’d have met on the river, Although we would miss interacting with the more primitive tribes we would have encountered along the river, the Hamer (chief below), Karo, Mursi and Bana people along with a score of others.

Frankly, the prospect of making this trip gave me more jitters than the rafting trip had - and those jitters were considerable. There is little traffic in that part of Ethiopia and distances are vast. Everybody walks. For thousands of cattle, goats, donkeys and people the roads are simply big trails between grazing lands and villages. There would be no cell phone coverage in the remotest parts of where were going, no supermarkets, fast food franchises, no gas stations at convenient intervals.

What if we broke down or rain or rockfall made the roads impassable? What if our paperwork was denied at one of the various checkpoints? What if we stumbled into some minor tribal skirmish or border war? How would we be received by the tribes and how would we deal with the constant press of people that surrounded us every time we stopped the cruiser? What of the bandits rumored to surface along the road at night? Not to mention the animal factor, the lion and cape buffalo, poisonous snakes and insects, the tetse flies and malaria packing mosquitos.

Our driver,Tekle, (above) had been knocking around Ethiopia for twenty years and knew the land and how to get around. Endalk, the translator, better known as Michael (below), had grown up in one of the southern villages and had been down the Omo four times working for rafting expeditions. Michael knew the tribes, their languages and customs. If he didn’t have a personal connection in one of the villages he could at least find someone who knew someone who could help. And most importantly, Michael knew whom to pay and how much to pay for access along the way. Everything in Africa runs on bier notes and nothing happens without dropping a few.

And so for 1400 miles of mostly dirt Ethiopian road we threaded the needle of humanity and animals, weaving and honking and bumping and grinding our way south and back.

Near Turmi, in the village of Dumbar, we sat in a smoky Hamer (dancing below) lodge drinking coffee while visiting in our limited fashion with the village chief, his deputies and assorted relations.They were curious about what kind of vessel we drank coffee from at home if not from gourds. We gave them oranges and apples and watched their faces light up with delight at the taste. In return they killed and roasted a goat and served it to us fresh from the fire under an incredible star spangled African sky.

To reach a wedding in the remote village of Unga Bayno we drove up a dry river bed and then went on foot into the bush, walking into a scene so other worldly it was if we had tumbled down the rabbit hole in Alice’s wonderland.

On the following day we returned. Seated on a cowhide under an arbor of leaves surrounded by a pressing, murmuring crowd of dozens of curious onlookers, Max (below) treated assorted eye problems and injuries with his medical kit. One man, bitten by a cobra, had hacked his own leg off with a machete. Among these people a baby born with a defect will be taken away from the village and left to die. Only the strongest can survive.

At Murle we reached the Omo for the first time at what would have been our rafting trip's takeout. There an old Karo woman showed me how to scare the crocs (cooguru) away from the river bank….after I’d already squatted at the water’s edge and dipped my hands into it.

We spent two nights listening to the sounds of baboons barking and the croaking of colabus monkeys as they swung through the trees near our tent, awakening to so much birdsong it was like being in an aviary.

The air at Murle was thick with the billowing dust of goat and cattle herds being herded to and from the Omo for water by Karo warriors, all packing Kalashnikov and chewing Kat, the local stimulant of choice.

We watched as locals fished for giant catfish with hand lines and were serenaded and pestered by a parade of children who followed us everywhere. I dazzled onlookers with the bluish light of my steri pen as we purified our water. “But the water is already good,” said one young woman. “He is making it better,” replied Michael.

Far into Mago National Park we met the Mursi people and were repulsed by their swirling, in your face, chest poking, arm grabbing aggressiveness and incessant demands for money in exchange for photos. The threat of violence seemed imminent if the proper amount wasn’t forthcoming. By park regulations we were required to travel with an armed guard.

The Mursi are not a people you want to bump into alone or after dark. Chances are you wouldn’t be around come dawn. They war with other tribes, have murdered tourists and used to terrorize the local town of Jinka on market day. When Pasquale Saccuro, leader of the second expedition to descend the Omo, asked me how it’d gone with the Mursi, I told him, “okay.” He replied, “Things can go from being okay to a bullet in a heartbeat with the Mursi.”

Our last contact with the Omo was at Bele Bridge, near the end of our trip. We shook hands with the policeman guarding the bridge with it his Ak-47. Yes, he said, he would have stopped us from floating the river.

Max and I spent the afternoon by the river beneath the bridge, thinking, talking, sitting silently, thinking, trying to put things into context. It’s funny in a way because we began our journey far south where our river trip would have ended and we ended our journey at the Bele Bridge where the river trip would have began. Everything about our trip had not happened as planned or expected.

I went to Africa in search of something, to find some part of myself and answer some of the questions in my life concerning the future in the aftermath of the Rocky Mountain News’ closing, my recent divorce.

Truthfully, sitting under the Bele Bridge beside the Omo I couldn’t even think of the questions I meant to ask or the answers I had hoped to receive.

I felt so overwhelmed and overloaded by the different cultures that we had experienced that the old me had seemed to shrink away in order to make room for other things to fill me up.

Our journey seemed like one long strange dream of voices and songs, dust and goat blood, humming insects, painted faces, suffocating heat, violent rain storms, a thousand shades of jungle green and a thousand shades of desert brown, bright pink elephant flowers in bloom, a million wild sights, sounds, smells and tastes, a kaleidoscope of colors and impressions that fill my mind night and day as if I’ve taken a drug that has forever altered my consciousness and will not shut off even in sleep.

In the three weeks that we were gone I never felt one bad vibe from anyone, not even when we accidentally broke through a roadblock. It was only a brown rope stretched across the road that it would have taken a bat’s radar to see, but still, instead of filling the cruiser full of holes with an automatic weapon the policeman rushed up and stuck his hand through the window to shake hands. No worries. Be happy.

I never heard one curse word, at least none I understood, saw no middle fingers extended even in the worst, most confusing traffic jams or from people in the road that we had to honk at; I saw no anger, no unhappiness, no envy. Mursi excluded. There is no word for please or thank you in Mursi.

People exist on so little, ask for so little, and are so happy with what they have, happy to be alive, happy to have jobs no matter how trivial or unimportant those jobs might seem to us; happy to be here today, now, in the moment.

In a market place I saw a beggar give another beggar a coin, as if to say, hey buddy, I’m bad off too but I have more than you, let me give you a hand. That moment fits in well with my one overriding impression of Ethiopia: an outstretched hand and a big smile.

When you begin a journey you never know how it will come out. That is part of the mystery. Part of the fear. Part of the joy. Max and I started out on one kind of trip and ended up on something else. The outcome is still out there somewhere, like a ghost of Ethiopia that I may continue to chase for the rest of my life.

To reach Dean Krakel:


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Thanks for sharing your story, Dean, I am really happy to hear you finding new amazing adventures.

    I crossed the Omo once (just on the road to Jimma). Thanks for taking me much further out and reminding me about other worlds; Ethiopia is a magical place. I could sure go for a cup of their coffee right about now.

    best wishes,

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