Amazing Awassa (Birds, Boobs and Backpacking)

We got lucky, at least that’s how I see it. I’ve always been fascinated by wetland ecosystems and the first time I saw the Rift Valley lakes on a map I knew I had to explore them. Little did I know that Awassa, the lake shore city we stumbled upon and called home for the past week, was paradise.

View of Awassa's lake shore from Mount Tabor.
View of Awassa’s lake shore from Mount Tabor.

Awassa is the capital of the ‘Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Region’ (lulz) and rests 275km south of Addis on a suspiciously well-paved road (thanks China!) The city has only been around for 50 years, yet boasts the most impressive urban planning of any African city I’ve been to. The wide boulevards are lined with established bougainvillea and acacia trees, and there are street lights. STREET LIGHTS, people! Awassa really is Africa V 2.0.

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Dad and I settled into the fabulous Hawassa Lake View Hotel (everyone spells the city’s name differently, because why not) and have been living like the Queen of Sheba since. Within five minutes of kicking back on the balcony, bird book and binoculars in hand, Dad had identified five new species. We took a late afternoon stroll along the Awassa Lake nature boardwalk and discovered countless more, surpassing 60 to date!

It’s worth noting that it’s easier to see a new bird in Ethiopia than to get a reasonably-sized cup of coffee or a diet coke. I’m holding out with little optimism. 

Here are some of the beauties I’ve photographed:

Of note, the Maribou Stork has a wingspan of up to 10 feet. That’s one big ass bird.


Boob Massage $6 USD (that’s $3 USD each)

The food and coffee (taste, not size) is fabulous, the people are warm and welcoming, and the flora and fauna are downright impressive. Ethiopia is not, however, known for its spa services.

Full disclaimer, the warning signs were there: open 24-hours, cash only, operating out of what arguably was a run down house. Perhaps I was feeling adventurous, or just in need of working some neck knots out. Regardless, I ended up forking over 150 birr ($6 USD) for an aromatherapy massage. It’s important for you to know that I paid before seeing the ‘facilities.’

This is what immediate regret looks like:


I hesitantly plunked myself onto the fragrant mattress face-down and channelled my deepest inner zen. Don’t think about the bed. Don’t think about the hygiene. And for the love of Jesus don’t think about the last time those grubby digits with chipped acrylic nails, sliding all over my body, saw soap. Be zen, Verity, be zen.

Once I accepted my hour-long self-imposed fate, I started to relax and actually kind of enjoy the service. The ‘ circle and slap’ technique was, as its name suggests, different than western massage, but surprisingly therapeutic along my back and shoulders.

It was somewhat less therapeutic, however, when the masseuse signalled for me to turn over. Completely naked, there I was, exposed. Before I had time for concern to set in I was having both boobs methodically circled and slapped. Circle, circle, slap! Slap! Slappityslapslap!

Although that was the first and last Ethiopian massage I will ever get, I have to admit the girls didn’t mind the attention.

Key takeaways are 1) talk someone into giving you the ye olde circle and slap technique (the girls may thank you), and 2) this kids, is why you wash your hands before you use the bathroom in Africa.


Dad and I embarked on a more wholesome, Africa-tastic trek to the periphery of Awassa to chase down some hippos. A toothless, rather sketchy guide brought us by boat up a river that feeds Lake Awassa in search of the most deadly animal in Africa. Found it!

I see you! Adorable.
I see you! Adorable.

So it turns out the title’s total bullshit. How can an animal that cute be that mean? Impossible.

Holy f.
Holy f.

On second thought these 9,000lb beasts are downright terrifying. The teeth!

Excuuuuuuuuuse you! Click image for the video!

Revision: one party terrifying, one part hilarious. As soon as we spotted the hippos a large male sauntered to the shoreline, started helicoptering his stumpy tail, and erupted into a  highly entertaining poo explosion. I will now happily cross that off my bucket list as it’s immortalized in my memory (although if I ever need reminding I watch the best hippo youtube video of all time.)

Round 2: Shit my Dad does

As suspected, my travel companion has been holding his own in the Shit my Dad does category. Accordingly, I’ll share a few highlights.

  • Dad’s creative language skills are standing the test of time. When taking a bajaj car to Shashemene Dad is overheard asking, “‘ba ha ha ha ha ha to sashimi, por favor.”
  • Poor Dad didn’t realize that his anti-malarial medication triggered sun sensitivity, and since he ‘has been in the sun for 68 goddamned years’ he didn’t need sunblock. He scored an epic sunburn on every square inch north of his shoulders, only then decided to put on sunblock, and squirted a bunch in his eye. He was easy to spot with a fiery red forehead and one-eyed perma-wink.


  • When searching for a pharmacy for the aforementioned sun snafu, Dad stumbled into Awassa’s red light district, waving at all of the progressively more exposed women. As interested women began swarming, he realized that something was… off.

Abijatta-Shalla National Park

The highlight of our time in the south was most certainly our day an hour north of Awassa at Abijatta-Shalla National Park. Although big game and most native species were driven out by nomadic herders many years ago, the geography of the park is spectacular.

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Standing on the summit of a 3km-wide ridge, you look north and see Shalla Lake, and south to see Chitu, a tiny volcanic crater lake teeming with tiny pink dots.

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As we hiked down to the crater lake, the squawking tiny pink dots came to life. A veritable sea of flamingos. One of the most profoundly cool things I’ve ever seen.

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If only the entire day was so picturesque and magical! One last Shit my Dad does bonus story for good measure. So, we hop out of the mini-bus into a tiny village 14km away from the park with no idea how to get there. We hear yelling and screaming as people stampede from their homes, around corners and from alleys, toward us. Out of bloody nowhere we were engulfed by every person within a mile radius.

No one told us we were the main act.

I was trying desperately to keep my cool, surrounded by yelling people more than 10 deep, and suddenly realize that I’ve lost Dad. I push my way through the sea of sweaty arms and dirty t-shirts just in time to see a kid aggressively grab Dad’s arm. I don’t know what the shit went through Dad’s head, but he channelled his inner Jackie Chan and HI YA! KARATE CHOPPED the kid’s arm!

With that image (that is burned in my mind), I’m signing off. Back to vodka and papaya juice for me!

BRB just doing stuff for a bit k?

x V

PS, the park told us that we’re the first visitors to ever arrive by bajaj. Look for us next on the Amazing Race Ethiopia!

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  1. Love the journey Ver, and the hilarious visual descriptions. The flamingo photo reminds me of my favourite scene in the movie “Out of Africa”. xooxo

  2. I knew I should have asked if you needed malaria medication! I have about a month’s worth sitting at my house going unused from my time in Indonesia. If you know anyone else requiring it let me know, I’d be happy to gift it rather than disposing of it after it expires.

    Amazing birding! You also had laughing out loud over the awkward massage (been there!) and arriving in a less than typical way to a tourist attraction (I’ll have to tell you some time about choosing to move houses via public transportation in Philippines).
    Keep up the adventure!

    1. Ah! Malaria is no fun (been there!) so appreciate the meds offer! I will let you know if I come across someone in need, or run out myself. Glad someone else has experienced the circle and slap – when you accept your fate it’s kind of nice! Miss you!

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