My Ethiopia

A fantastic Karst cave field

THIS SITE SECTION CONTAINS TEN NOTES ON EXPLORATIONS I RECENTLY LED.              If you reached us via a search engine, please scroll to the section of your interest. 

About a year ago, after the rediscovery of a feral horse pack on the flat top of Mount Kundudo, I tried understanding its geology by visiting its lower parts too. The top is a stunning humid area, with grasses and a few remnant shrubs, it hosts a variety of wildlife including many couples of Lammergeier, the rare bird of prey, mustelids and baboons. Rocks up there are all very acidic, splitting black basalts, that form a cave just under the top. From the cave flows the Immis stream, that immediately forms a spectacular 250m waterfalls with four jumps. Just under, the rocks turn suddendly from black to white. It is clear the 400m of basalts had protected the underlying mass of limes, letting the Kundudo stand prominently at nearly 3000m, dominating the whole area and giving us views over Harar and as far as Hargeisa in Somalia.                                                                                                                            Springs and streams flow from all around its base, giving the Gursum province a fame for the production of all sort of horticultural goods, lately, of chat for export. 

  Irrigated fields on the Kundudo slopes, fed by waters from the cave system 

How could all this water flow, even after dry spells, without a drop of water, for up to seven months or more? Easy, I have touched it myself. Rather, I was totally immersed in.. the answer, last February. The basalts up top have prevented the complete weathering of the mountain, effectively creating it, as a remnant of ancient erosions, and at the same time created an extensive, ancient and really massive cave systems inside its bowels, The caves hold the waters, and at least three of them are spring caves, with totally inundated lower parts. 

It all started when a friend invited me to visit a cave on mount Stinico, in Gursum, at the end of the Kundudo short mountain chain. He had mentioned scribbles on the rock of open caves. THose signs proved to be rock paintings unrevealed to science, beautiful expressions of ancestors living thousands of years ago, grafted in black, white and red, beautiful and mysterious. Meftuh, the close friend I have never met -as the passion for the Kundudo chain commons us deeply, but he is in Canada and I 'commute' between Ethiopia and Italy- had mentioned stalagmites, one looking like a pregnant woman, out in the open and peculiar objects on the ground around the caves on mount Stinico. The whole area has been visited by an archeologist from Florence University, who reputes it should be excavated.

As I was roaming around, I noted mt. Stinico, and the Kundudo proper definitely more, showed the signs of the sort of erosion that indicates the probable presence of the most attractive, Karsten or limestone caves. I asked around, and some indicated two men had been presumed dead, as they had disappeared for ten hours in a cave somewhere. I had the chance to convince Gian Paolo Rivolta to come and visit. He is an engineer with a lifelong passion for caving. I struck more chance when, as we were in Gursum just for a couple of days, I could find someone who knew exactly where the cave entrance was. Off we went, and, after 200m of light struggling in the water that fills the lower cave parts, engineeer Rivolta decided we were not well equipped, and me and the young M. Furlan with us were not up to the task of continuing a possibly difficult and dangerous exploration. He promised he would come back with a team.

After just three weeks I had with me a former and the present President of the Gruppo Grotte CAI, a huge multifaceted Italian speleoclub, arguably the biggest in Europe, a major one in the world with its 3,000 active members, plus two Italian national instructors and a clever Frechman, in charge of cave topography, who also is a National speleology instructor. Quite a team!

What we found is simply 10%, in a totally personal guess, of what appears to be possibly Africa's best cave system in terms of sheer beauty: thousands of otherwise rare speleothems, those stunning rare eccentric rock formations cavers would risk and run miles to approach, see, photograph.

I soon, after the others had left, found a few more entries, all particularly promising. We had identifed a few already, including a spectacular chimney, as we were trying to find and hypothetic way into the cave to descend from, obviusly so much easier than climbing possible deep descents or chimneys. At least one of the new finds could be fitted as a touristic cave everyone could visit, while we expect now a series of top world experts visiting from next November. Other finds of the speleological mission include a spectacular fossil field. And a species of crab, apparently unknown to Science, that dwells in the cave and near the adiacent springs.                

Full photo gallery HERE

A Bikers' First

A party of fourteen bikers, from CTC, a 60,000 strong cyclists'association dating back to 1872 has completed in March 2009 a world first.

They reached the Kundudo, camped on it, passing via the Awash park, the Amhar Mountain chain, Harar and reached Addis on the way back via Dire Dawa, Kulubi, Asebe Teferi, a night camping in the Awash park near the falls, a last night at Debre Zeyt.

  Keith pedaling to Gursum, the unmistakable Kundudo silhouette on the horizon

Most of what we did had never been tried before, apart form the cycling route, which proved challenging, very nice, filed with new discoveries, and amazing ever changing views: we were the first to organize a serious night camp up the Kundudo and first to camp in the park next to the falls, in a lodge under construction.ON the way down form the Kundudo we used, after 155 years, the same route Richard Burton, the famed traveler, had crossed to reach Harar. We were the first cyclo-tourists to visit the Kulubi Shrine.

A poor cyclist, I still really enjoyed leading the group through a special voyage.

The cyclists' slower pace, if compared with rapid car tours, allowed me to develop and promote an International Symposium in Harar on the Extended East Route and the  Kundudo Park. We made a number of contacts and effectively set up a cycling route others are bound to exploit soon, from different countries.

Ras Dashen measurement

Our September 2007 measurement of Ras Dashen, Ethiopia, became official this year . It is by now recognized the world over. It all started with my idea that it could not be possible that Africa's fourth peak height, and the world's 23rd most prominent was quoted on the net variably and inconsistently from 4440 to 4663m! I enrolled the voluntary help of Jerome Salvat, co-owner of IGTC Ethiopia, a topographic consultancy and he just did it, to the metre. I exploited the occasion organising about ten conferences on the subject in Italy, one in Spain and one in Ethiopia, through which I also enrolled 23 participants. Some of them manned stations during the measurement.

The little feat had a lot of limelight on Ethiopian media of all sort.          Final result: 4549m +/-1,5m. 

Ethiopia's highest peak is since no longer the world's most misquoted significant mountain, to the contrary, probably Africa's best measured now with Kilimanjaro! We managed to confirm its 23rd prominence place, 22nd remains K2, by a bunch of metres, as we found Ras Dashen or Dejen a good 30 metres higher than expected from previous Shuttle SRTM relevations from the upper atmosphere in 2001.                         One of five DGPS stations, on a secondary peak

The Kundudo Feral horse pack

On Jan 3rd, 2008 I led a group of five researchers to rediscover a pack of feral horses up the magic Kundudo flat top mountain. This is probably my most interesting feat ever, as they soon proved to be critically endangered, in fact the separate feral horse pack most at risk on our planet. Efforts to save them and understand their origin are ongoing as I write, Three Italian and one Anglo-Italian missions have visited the area around Gursum and the amazing amba Kundudo in 2008. A fourth mission will take place in January 2009. The discovery has lead to the development of the whole concept of the Extended East Route in Ethiopia.


  Two Mares and a colt ;

The world's biggest and most endangered Antelope

 The third mission to the Kundudo, which I led with ecologist Andrea Vigano' brought to the confirmation of the presence of a 70-80 strong pack of Tragelaphus buxtoni or Mountain Nyala around Kuni, just four hours drive from Addis Ababa. During the same visit in July we understood the machination of a local hunter, who was obtaining a legal permission, through a stratagem, to kill a few of the just eight males he had counted just before we passed. Without mentioning, for sure, the area he wanted as his personal hunting block was under some false name and was in fact in a national Reserve! The issue is still open and ongoing, with the Ethiopian Environment Protection Authority taking action against him as I write.

And friends warned me, as big interest and strong lobby groups appear to turn around what sadly still is the world's most prized trophy. A damned photo after the kill and a head trophy cost about 40,000 USD to the fools who still indulge in this they alone call a sport.

link to the III Kundudo (Anglo-Italian) Mission report:

Of Marquis Orazio Antinori


The best of all colonial explorers Italy had around the Horn in the 19th Century was undoubtedly Marquis Orazio Antinori. A personal friend of Emperor Minilik and his closest foreign advisor when he ruled from Ankober, Antinori was a somewhat modern figure, a naturalist and an ecologist of his time. He refused most of colonial resounding glory, rather he was pushed a bit out of its limelight, when other fools tried to throw on him the fault for their idiotic misdeeds. He died, 1882, in Lik Marefia, a three hours walk or so from Beta Menghist, Menelik's Palace in Ankober. There he had been granted land under the magic Emmemeret mountain forest, a primary marvel still almost intact. There he lived as naturalists of his age did, taxiderming birds and other for world museums, a technique he diffused in Ethiopia. His peer ship had brought no particular fortune with it. Like present day Italians in Ethiopia, much like me, he was fiddling all the time with improbable mechanics in a Country where... the wheel was recently adopted and maintenance is the work of genius freaks, no ordinary and organised feat. So he blew up his hand one bad afternoon, fiddling with a gun, on the right arm that had already suffered a grave injury in the battle to annex Rome, where he had been a Garibaldi volunteer.

His long time other friend, Cardinal Massaja, could not cure him well enough in the hospital they had set up together there, manned by clever Italian doctors. He survived with his Ethiopian family as his pupils were by then clever enough to send taxidermy specimens all over the planet again, under his direction, without his... direct hand.

A few years later, after his name was fully regained from other bad colonial explorers' libel, he caught a lot of rain visiting Minilik in Addis Ababa. And died ineluctably, in the pre-antibiotics era. Two of his hospital's doctors were buried with him, in a simple but amazingly beautiful tomb, in the form of a local hut. The Ras Dejen measurement team I lead has also exactly located his tomb, refilled the area which had been dug for vast expanses to look for the improbable treasure of a very frugal man indeed.

I had to leave the job unfinished, but I hope to rebuild the original hut soon. To remember a noble precursor, and because the area's sheer beauty may, again, create some income for the local residents. Nature and people are exactly as they were one hundred and fifty years ago. As is the huge sycamore under which the whole hut lied!

Koremi Visited

During 2008 I visited twice Koremi, the original Argobba villages just two/three hours trek or fifteen minutes by 4wd off the Harar south western wall door.

These are the traditional villages, houses and show the ancient life of this land, colonized by the first nucleus of Islamic believers since the seventh Century AD. the first Arab colony out of their peninsula. Soon, far sooner than the Italians will be finished with the much shorter Messina strait bridge, the Bin Laden Family Investment Group will be over with the 26 km bridge uniting Asia and Africa over the Bab al Mandeb. Not far from Harar, the first agreeable country travelers from Arabia will find after inhospitable deserts. Koremi will be visited by thousands of tourists soon. It is yet also a fief of extreme poverty. I designed an agro-pastoral project to cover the three "k"s on the EE Route, Kuni, Koremi and the Kundudo. Misunderstandings over a new law on International Cooperation and the complicated necessities of project writing and organising have so far stopped it. But I will try again, sure that a preparation, conservation of natural resources and of the local architecture is the only way forward. together with a strengthening of the local communities that alone can make Koremi residents profit from future tourism revenues. 


Less than twenty lucky tourists have apparently visited in the last two years.

Please visit the Koremi photo gallery on this site.

No Italian Plane ever Bombed Washa Mikael Church.

I visited today, prior to the Zeret cave expedition starting the day after tomorrow, a special rock hewn church above Addis Ababa. Washa, or cave Mikael is sized church, approximately twenty by ten metres excavated in the rock, in the fashion of the Lalibela craftsmen.

It can hardly be attributed to a much earlier period, though visitors' notes there attribute it to Abraha, an axumite king of the fifth century AD. It is much nearer in style and might to the Lalibela work, so the 12th century at least seems to me a more logic date.

It collapsed, revealing its standing pillars and the inner structure. All in the area, and local guidebooks as well as sophisticated church Dvds presenting it amongst the most significant churches of Ethiopia take for granted it was bombed by the fascist government of Italy during one of the five years of occupation, without any indication of how or when.

I had long wanted to understand this better. I walked up there from the Asmara road, next to the Yeka Mikael church, my father in law's favourite shrine, in about one hour pleasant walk. I discovered with a friend, doctor of forestry,  that the usual Eucalyptus is being replaced rapidly by an undergrowth of Juniperus, Figs, Acacias of different species, Prunus and a variety of local trees. So the forestry department has cut and burnt the Eucalyptus tree stomps to avoid regrowth. It will soon be like the original forest it was before Minilik camped near here with at least 80,000 troops, in the wake of Adwa. I thoroughly interviewed Debebe Tekola, a local long time resident and Abba Ghiorghis, a very old local priest with evident glaucoma. The version was as usual, the fascists bombed it form the plane. But a few precise question, in separate rapid interviews brought this version, if added up: the church was definitely de-consecrated, at the time of the Italian invasion. Not because Minilik took the 'tabot' away, as Philip Briggs affirms in his comprehensive guide to Ethiopia. Because it had collapsed. It seems possible that the presence of a strong camp on the facing hill could have prompted a further destruction to avoid rebels using it to launch an attack, especially at times when the troops of the Italian discovered "empire" felt more threatened, in fact even by monks, in late 1937, for example. But, there was no one in there, so bombing from planes would have made no sense, just mining the columns -which has not been done in any case- would have been logic. This makes any Italian bombing totally unlikely. In fact a good part of the roof is still standing, giving a formidable hiding with different exits, any careful destroyer would have solved this with three or four anti-tank mines, or just putting sufficient explosive charges in the right points. The old monk, Abba Ghiorghis, even gave the fault of the fall to the Turkish, calling them Dervisches, in the local ancient use. To further show myths abound, as no 'Turk', rather, Egyptian invader ever got here. The Egyptian Ismail Pasha, usually defined as a 'Dervish' was heavily defeated at Gundet and Gora in 1885, prompting the fall of his reign and the British colonization of his Country, in fear the newly opened Suez canal would be in the hands of extremists. He never got anywhere near Addis Ababa. In any case there was nothing where the mtropolis now stands, it was not, definitely, a place of interest for any invader.

Even though more investigation could be carried out at the now fully open military archives in Rome, and a building expert could visit the remains and lichen analysis in the cracks could date the collapse, even if a later Italian intervention is theoretically still possible, a plane incursion makes no sense and I believe no Italian military has blown up parts of the Church either.

It is just a resilient myth most believe is History. Prof. Richard Pankhurst shares this impression of mine fully. In fact he just told me, after I started jotting these lines and had published a fisrt version, there is much better proof than my speculations: a British church dignitary had described the church as collapsed, well before the Italian invasion.

Abba Ghiorghis or any other respected priest could not admit, in any case, time and rains on the soft light eruptive volcanic rock would cause its collapse over the decades. Because they were the work of angels in the first place.

More interestingly, there is  a lowly wall of huge stones leading to the fantastic viewpoint over Addis, the best of them all, to me, just a few hundred metres, from the church. The wall encircles fully, now still, the viewpoint.

What was there, and when?? The Italian camp remnants are also worth a visit.

A.A., 28 12 2008

This google book search will take you directly to page 170 of the Ph. Briggs guide mentioned: Bradt Travel Guide of Ethiopia

Zeret Cave, Guassa Plateau: the Menz leg of the East Route

Zeret lies on the last, long finger of a wide plateau below the Guassa mountain reserve, after Mahal Meda in upper Menz, Amhara. A quiet village, still bears the remembrance of a fierce battle, we believe the last in the Italo-Abyssinian war. A seventy years old story this year, it still haunts the place. no one, before the visit three years ago by Dr. Dominioni of Turin University, the careful historian who unveiled the Zeret facts, dared enter no further than the first huge room, 83 m wide and at least 25 deep. Because spirits would certainly put candles off, and waiver and cut any electric lamp. Moreover, those who had dared would rise an ugly stiff penetrating grey powder, and trod on bones, clothes, clay pots, granaries, poor personal effect of all sort.

We explored, measured and mapped all of its six-seven branches, 400m long ramifications. Evaluated the inner lake at just above 100 square meters, counted thirty five big granaries and innumerable caly pots, 21 jaws and a lot of bones, clothes, strings, necklaces, animal remains, bullets.

We understood somewhat better how the battle run, also through the witness of tegegne, an old man who still remember the whole scene, over three or four days, from when, a thirteen years old boy, he saw the bigger surrendered men being gunned down, just when he was freed with women and children.

Even more than Dr. Dominioni did, we felt the battle was very fierce.

We understood how the Italians could not have penetrated the cave-fort for long weeks, as it was stuffed with food, water in plenty. And it was unattainable, as the fighters would wait at any time in the dark to easily shoot at the contrasted silhouettes of anyone daring to approach.The confirmed use of hyprite and phosgenin gases concluded it quickly though, as the water got immediately contaminated, we proved, as well as a majority of the food.

No historian would now doubt the use of the forbidden gases, after Dr. Dominioni's studies. The modality with which they were thrown inside is still up for discussion.

The military documents mention using gas charged 81mm shots, sources in Zeret convene on a massive gassing when Abyssinians surrendered, through three 200l drums, that were almost unbelievably lowered from the cliff above. Some may dismiss this as a pure myth. Given the fact that we visited the cliff and ascertained it could be fairly easily reached on muleback, and considering the extraordinary personality of G. Sora, the Italian officer in command at the battlefield, I would think this is perfectly feasible. He was a generous, bright fighter, twice prized with extremely rare medals, and the hero of a famed North pole airship flight turned to tragedy.  

Eng. Rivolta, former President of Italian Speleologists, is coming back at the beginning of February to complete the exploration and to film the interior.

He had to convince me to go back in there. The rewarding bit of it is the crossing of the beautiful plateaus, and the wildlife encountered on the Guassa highland.

Though the views from the cave's entrance are astounding, it is the most scary place I have ever been to. It speaks of a shameful past, when our grandfathers thought they really had to rush and be like other proper Europeans, damned colonizers.

  Dust was everywhere, and would not settle

We managed to lay a poor cross, useful indication tool now to those who enter, we managed to get lost too. And ask our deeply felt apologies to the Ethiopian TV crew who had followed us.

  Guassa Plateau photoes courtesy Jeff Kirby©   More photoes in the photogallery

The highest pass in Africa. How many 4000m in Ethiopia?

During the measurement of Ras Dashen I mentioned above one of the five stations we confirmed twice as 4,200m a.s.l. was near the road at the Bwait pass.

Thanks to information by Jonathan de Ferranti, the leading authority on mountain prominence -a Geographer of value who is dedicated to putting right a number of things that just are not so on world maps, and bettering our knowledge of world contours through his site- we found it is the highest transitable pass in Africa. The Stanley saddle up mt Ruwenzori is at 4,370,  but can only be passed on foot or by mule

Nearby, two hamlets very near the 4,000m contour line on the best maps are most probably the highest villages on the Continent. I would like to put this right too, some further day.

We found a CSA, the Ethiopian Statistical Authority recent paper that numbers twenty five separate 4000m and higher peaks. The first is Ras Dashen or Dejen at 4,550, the last Abuye Meda at exactly 4,000. Whilst we were able to confirm the first to the metre, the highest SRTM cell next to Abuye Meda does not pass 3,600m. We have thus a very strong reason to believe not only Abuye Meda is not a 4,000 peak, but also that his height is grossly overestimated, say of... 400m!

  The Semien ranges, home to most 4,000 peaks in Ethiopia

Another acquaintance, Hans Hurni, a Swiss man who appears to raise in the National Scale and tasks of Ecologist and Geographer every time I write to him, from simple Faculty Dean to in-Charge of all ecological Project supervision in the Swiss Federation and abroad, has actually climbed a good number of them, as has Raimon Marinè from Barcelona, another clever ecologist.

Friends of the 4,000m Club within the Italian CAI, a huge Alpine club with nearly 400,000 members, are proposing to come to Ethiopia regularly. I wish this may help us to better our knowledge of Ethiopian mountains in a near future. About their real heights, yes, but foremost on their ecological conditions.

My site statistics indicate this page has been reached by a Swiss visitor and a couple of Austrians, one of which had googled 'Abuye Meda 4000m'. Please contact me via the tab above. We have our branch of alpinism, 'Semienism', we may like to call it.

No life taking North faces, first climbs with a flag, a pride, a name. All have long been roamed upon by Abyssinians, used as viewpoints in times of war, as refuges. They are walks, in the heaviest of cases, scrambles. Up, nearer to the sky, distant and awesome.

All these rare, distinguished and little known environments have a value to our planet, and could be the fief of a number of yet unknown species, certainly of insects and lesser and vascular plants, predictably even of nocturnal mammals.

Yet their valley forests and special top grasslands are very rapidly being cut and grazed. Before anyone ever studied them. Some attention and education can restore them to the world beauties, indispensible life displays, biodiversity banks they are.