The Last Few Hours
In about 65 minutes, the hotel driver will toss my gear bags in the van and haul me off to the airport in Addis Ababa, where my Lufthansa flight will spirit me off to Frankfurt. This time I don’t have all day to peruse the airport bakeries, which are lethal, so perhaps I can make it home without a bag full of the World’s Finest Pastries, courtesy the Germans ( The French might argue this but I’m not in France).
On the way to Ethiopia I had a whole day to waste, and got myself in serious trouble by walking up to inspect the goods. That led to “I’ll have one of those, one of those AND one of those please,” which led to my walking as swiftly as possible to my final gate, danishes in hand. One bite and it’s history. Okay, another bite. Okay, well, one more.
I don’t eat bread products for this reason, but German pastries are as far from bread products as a Toyota Corolla is from a Lamborghini.
The pastries were ridiculously light layers of flakes, butter throughout, the lightest dusting of sugar.
Highway to hell. My god.
But that was en route here. Now I’m going home, and after three weeks of eating Justin’s Cashew Butter with Maple and bag after bag of nuts and dried cranberries, the pastry layers are long gone. Edible food has been hard to come by unless I really like eggs, which I do. Just not three eggs three times a day, every day.
As I sit here in my hotel room I can see how swollen and blistered my lips are, from eight days of high-altitude horse riding in the Bale Mountains. I used sunscreen but this close to the equator and that high up it’s just brutal. It’s going to take a few weeks for that to heal. It was worth it. I hadn’t been sure what to expect, but once outside the outskirts of Addis (which like all cities in like it, is overcrowded, poor and jam-packed) the country rolled out in front of us like a magic carpet.
Ethiopia was far more beautiful than I could possibly have imagined.
I’d taken four days to visit the storied town of Lalibela, home to ancient Coptic churches and a great deal of religious history. That area is growing fast, the town expanding so quickly that the city fathers are hustling to put in new water lines. That meant we were often out of water, in addition to the periodic availability of power and wifi which is characteristic of Africa.
The ride, which was organized by Unicorn Trails, went well beyond my expectations. This past summer I’d had some unfortunate experiences with rookie riders in Canada. The kind where someone who has never once sat a horse in her life decides after two days in the saddle that she is an equestrian (fellow horsey folks get this) and starts telling everyone else how to ride, how to hold our reins, how much room to leave between horses. In other words the kind of asshole you’d very much like to strangle, if for no other reason than their rank stupidity around the horses and lack of trail sense endanger others.
This wasn’t that. This group was made up of experienced, competent, sober riders who not only knew what they were doing but were also well-traveled enough so that there was always a lively conversation going on about this or that country, this or that culture. We could run like Hades as a group, laugh about who got the slow horse, handle our animals at full speed in rough country and not get insulted when someone else’s horse shouldered in and squeezed a knee.
We helped each other with tents, which were forever missing tent stakes (I’d brought my own tent, smart move) and we shared meds when one or the other got ill. What one person didn’t have, someone else did. We had people from the Netherlands, Brits, Americans, a great mix of long-time riders and worldly folks.
In other words, I was in horse heaven.
They were infinitely patient when we had to dismount and head down hill, which with my dual knee injuries forced a slowdown. Not a word was said. When another woman got very ill and she had to slow down, same thing.
We slept at more than twelve thousand feet, chased a rare Ethiopian red wolf for photos, and spotted Nyala where they didn’t normally show up.
Eight different bio-zones. Just the Bale Mountains were a wonder of diversity and variety. We spent time in villages, used the local horses for a day which the local men then rode home at day’s end.
We parted ways in Addis, the larger group heading home. I hied off to see the Danakil Depression. Billed as the hottest place on earth (that’s negotiable, the Outback is pretty hot), the depression involves some very long drives and explorations of remarkable sulphur ponds and bubbling pools. Some you can swim in, so thick with salt you float. Others, not a good idea, given that they are pure acid.
Two nights in two different places, our guides put us outside under the stars. The wind is incessant, but it’s hot, so heavy cover is unnecessary. What’s magic is to open your eyes at any point and watch the night sky wheel by, miles away from any light pollution, a partial moon as bright as any full moon close to a city.
Days dwindled to hours down to minutes, and then the long ride home. If there were sad moments, they had to do with the realization that African wildlife is disappearing so fast that most of us have no comprehension just how swiftly this is happening.
That said, the number of moments that I became as one with my plunging horse, the number of times the guide and I led a mad dash to the end of a valley far outweighed the sad ones. For people who love to ride, the chance to give a strong, spirited horse his head and throw caution to the wind is priceless.
I just do a very few things extremely well. Riding is one of them. The gift I give myself to do an extended horse ride with excellent fellow riders in challenging terrain is what puts the bird in my chest.
Africa is one of my favorite destinations. Full of contradictions, a mix of everything imaginable, a place to get lost and found, and to touch the profound. The continent is so massive, and each country so huge and varied that you could spend multiple lifetimes there and barely scratch the surface.
The cradle of civilization, and yet in so many ways completely uncivilized. Harsh realities, great beauty, and endless opportunities to learn to ask very different questions.
A perfect place to find new friends, discover new potentials, heal a heart and mark the stars’ slow wheel through the sky from a mattress with barely a blanket.
My final trip this year, a perfect end to a year full of challenges, losses, changes and transitions. This is my last year in Denver. The last year in this house. But not my last trip to Africa. In barely two months I head back to Africa yet again, to whet my appetite for beauty, adventure, challenging experiences, and with luck, to ride a fine horse at a dead run alongside a dazzle of zebras.