Situated in Ethiopia’s east towards the borders of Dijbouti and Somalia, Harar is sometimes considered ‘the fourth holy city’ of Islam. A four metre high wall surrounds the less than one square kilometer old town and encompasses over 100 mosques and shrines. Five gates, which provided protection when the walls were built in the 16th century, now provide bustling access to the narrow winding alleys that give Harah it’s charm.
The best budget hotel, Belayneh, is located right by the Shoa Gate, where 250 birr (USD$12) gets you a clean double with private bathroom (don’t back on running water) and if you’re lucky (or unlucky, depending on your point of view) a small balcony with a view over the bustling market that takes place all day just outside the gate. It’s busiest at 3pm as people make their way home, though it can be noisy in the early hours so bring earplugs.
Waking up to no running water (still) we headed out in search of breakfast, heading away from the mosque filled old town and ending up at Fresh Touch restaurant. On the way we manage to pick up a dreadlocked weirdo who’s English was so accented we couldn’t understand a single mumbled word except something about weed, of course. Following us to the restaurant we shake him off and go inside. We split the French toast, an omelet and a portion of quanta fir fir, a mix of yesterdays injera soaked in a spicy sauce with crispy chunks of beef, delicious and the best part of the meal. Not two minutes after ordering, the weirdo’s in the restaurant, proceeds to try to sit uninvited at our table, when Matt tells him to piss off before the manager tells him to leave the restaurant. We then spend the next two days being followed and harassed by this half drunk wanker.
Set in a nice shaded sunken garden off the main road Fresh Touch is a nice respite from the hassles you’ll find waiting outside. The service was polite but slow and when we got the bill the prices didn’t match the menu, obviously not in our favour, and we’d still been charged for a cup of tea we’d ask for four times and still never received. The area around here also feels scummy and very seedy. Our hotel location seemed to be the best in town after checking out a few other budget options. There’s plenty of beggars hanging outside the old town and poverty here seems to be high. There’s a constant and unrelenting bombardment of hassling from people, with ‘Faranji, Faranji!’ always coming at your from one direction or another, from people young and old.
Making our way into the old town, we spot the first floor cafe balcony of Wesen Seged Hotel, a great spot to people watch. Taking a queue from the locals we can’t pass up on the chance to give the popular mango avocado shake a go. Turns out there’s only enough mango for one, so the waiter somehow convinces us to have straight avocado one as well. They arrive decorated with a red syrup and a few slices of lime, and start off not too bad. In fact the mango avocado is pretty nice. The avocado, not so much. Even just trying to drink it is tough as you can see from the photo below. Hiding away up here we still managed to get followed by two guys who sat down next to us and tried to start their pitch. We politely ignored them, pretending we were engrossed in the BBC news headline about a contraband cheese gang being busted in Russia – true story.
Wandered the alleyways down Mekina Girgir or ‘Sewing Machine Sound Street’ it’s pretty obvious where the place got its name from, as the entire curving alley is lined with them. Continuing down the hill we reached Girgir Magala, the market area with views down to the valley. Searching for a couple of the old towns sites including Haile Selassies old house, we were followed by screaming touts at every turn. If we were polite enough to get involved in a conversation, we’d find ourselves a target for not only the rest of the day, but every day to follow. They’d hide in alleyways, behind cars, under garbage…and jump out when we’d least expect it, trying to arrange us take us around town or to the hyenas or just plain asking for money.
And we came to one conclusion why this town as such a seedy edge over the other towns we’d visited…to chat or not to chat? Like a meth or heroin epidemic, people who appear homeless and unwashed, sitting on the street surrounded by stripped branches and bags of chat, are actually not homeless at all. Apparently their wives just don’t them chew at home, so they lie on the street in their own filth and do it all day. In fact, everybody was at it, even the goats. It’s not a pretty picture.
So we jumped in a bajaj searching for some tranquility. Our friendly young driver plays for the local Harar City football team and was alright for a United supporter. Having seen what chat had done to the town he’s chosen not to try it, smart man. A few uphill twists and turns later we found ourselves at the shady nirvana of the Harar Brewery beer garden, tucked away behind the social club. The lager tastes unfiltered, like drinking Camden Hells straight from the brewery vats in London, though for only 7 birr (22p) for 400ml it’s a little more pleasing on your wallet. The hakin stout is also a winner and the lovely shaded area gives you that much needed solitude, hassle free. Ladies you might want to give it a miss if you’re uncomfortable with a rusted out squat toilet with shit smeared walls. Just sayin’.
Eventually the gentleman at the table next to us can’t resist asking where we’re from, in perfect English. Turns out George is originally from Ethiopia but now lives in Vancouver, while his girlfriend Sesay lives in Addis. We had a really great time with these guys, the conversation flowed freely, and when they stayed too late to drive the hour or so to their planned destination, they drove us back to our hotel and ended up getting a room for the night.
The next morning we meet up with George and Sesay for breakfast at the hotel restaurant on the top floor. We bond over a massive cock up with the bill where they give us the wrong one entirely, give us the correct one but with extra drinks, correct it then forget to include a plate of eggs, then didn’t trust us when we added it up from the menu. Thanks for a good laugh guys!
After another morning spent wandering the colourful alleyways of the old town, we head back out the Duke Gate to a bright purple restaurant we thought we’d try for luch. Kim’s Café and Restaurant had quite the local crowd and we joined them in the daily special, ox stew on injera. We had the best service from the waiter, but the stew was average. If you’re after a good, cheap, local feed, head out of the Belayneh Hotel, take a left and follow the road a short way uphill until you find a small local place on your left with a little front patio. Great shiro and injera and the coffee was also excellent for just a couple of bucks.
As darkness set in it was finally time to head out and see the real reason we’d come all the way out to Harar, the hyenas. Spotted hyenas have been around these parts for over 500 years, feeding on the towns rubbish and scraps. Stories vary but the most common is that a local man, trying to stop the hyenas from eating his livestock during a 19th century famine, fed them porridge to keep them happy. The relationship stuck and these big beasts still come into town, though now they enjoy a tasty meal of fresh beef. There are still two practicing hyena men in town, one at the east Errer Gate and the other at the North Fallana Gate. After asking a few locals, we were told it wasn’t as safe to walk to the Errer Gate, so we headed to the closer option of Fallana.
The streets were still bustling with locals, and a lovely lady walked part of the way with us, directing us the right way to go with a big smile. Arriving in the dark, we paid our money (100 birr) to the man with the meat then waited our turn. With Sarah going first, everything happens so quickly. Three hyenas are running around, one is hiding in the dark behind us and you can hear more howling in the dark distance. They seem quite tame and even a little frightened of the hyena men, who sits you down then shoves a stick in your hand with a chunk of meat on the end, which a hyena promptly comes and snaps off. Not content with this, he then gets a hyena to climb on Sarah piggy back style while eating above her head.
Matt’s up next and nervous excitement fills his eyes as he starts first with the hand, then
‘Do you want to feed them with your mouth?’
Let’s just say sitting calmly on your knees while a full grown hyena prowls up to snatch meat off a stick only inches from your face is not the most relaxing place to be. But it is exciting and we don’t think there’s anywhere else in the world you can experience something as crazy, scary and exhilarating with these unique animals.
Speaking to a young local guy as we watch others conquer their fears, we find ourselves discussing the problem of the local touts and the constant harassment, and we’re glad when he agrees that they need to be educated about how to behave to tourists. With it’s growing tourist economy, we can only hope this is something that doesn’t get worse, as Harar could be so much more than what it currently is, a great big hassle.
Check our more Ethiopia pics on our Flickr page!
Tips for Harar
- Harar has the best coffee in Ethiopia.
- Get ready to be hassled. Constantly. By everybody.
- Always double check your bill! Several times throughout the country we had items added or prices doubled.
- Bargain for fresh produce on the streets as they will rip you off.
- Get lost in the alleyways, it’s fun and it’s easy to get out when you’ve had enough.
- If you’re heading to the hyenas independently, it’s easy enough to find, though again you’ll probably get hassled by people saying you have to pay them. If you’re not sure, just do what we did and pay the guy who’s holding the meat.
- Belayneh Hotel has the best location and price at 250 Birr for an ensuite double.