Harar is, without a doubt, one of the most colourful and engaging town I’ve been to. There are two parts. One is New Harar with some hotels, restaurants and generally speaking, I would consider it to be part of modern life. Then there is Old Harar. Life within the old city walls is so different, than what we know in Europe. At first it is disturbing. But you learn fast, that it is a positive disturb. Nowadays chances are rare to experience life without technology, without coffee shops on every corner, even without street lights. And you know what, it is really fun to be set back in time and see a way of life you have never seen before.
Usually when I’m thinking or researching about a place I’m soon going to visit, I try not to get too excited or set high expectations, because you never know what this place is actually going to be like. And I would hate myself, if I travel to a far-flung place and then I’m in front of the desired sight and I would think ‘Ah okay, there it is’. But, this time, I screwed it, I was really, really, really excited about Harar. I saw incredible pictures and read, that locals consider Harar to be the 4th holiest city in the world after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem.
I reckon it’s true. In Old Harar, there are about 92 mosques and a few churches. It is a town, where several religions live together in harmony. It is a town, showing the world it is possible to live together. Rare and beautiful.
After our first days in Addis Ababa we made the looooong 500km ride to the bus station in New Harar and while taking a tuktuk into Old Harar we met a kid, named Hiob. He’s local and was a very nice lad. We told him we didn’t want to stay in an hotel, but in an traditional hararian house. He knew one of the families, that have a guest room and eventually he took us there. We figured he wanted a little tip for his service. We offered some shillings, but he refused to take anything.
Instead he offered to show us around a bit, telling us how he is out of school and has nothing to do all day. He wanted to practice his english as well. Alright, why not. We agreed on meeting later in the evening, to look for some hyenas.
Wild hyenas live outside the city and each night after sunset so-called hyena men gather to feed them. It started in the 1960’s, when hyenas were constantly attacking live-stock and even humans in town, so that one hyena man took all his guts and started to feed ’em raw meat on a stick. Tasty, right?
As years went by, word got around and this daily adventure was recognised by travelers. Nowadays intrepid traveler can feed the hyenas themselves for a small fee (50 Birr – 2-3 euros). There are two spots, where the feeding is practiced. One being directly next to the city wall and the other one, as we found out, in the middle of bloody nowhere.
We arrived later that evening and instantly spotted one majestic hyena. They are plain ugly, but their way of walking, with the head held low and the green eyes lighting up in the dark, you can’t feel anything else, than pure excitement and fear.
You sit down next to the hyena men, take a stick, he puts raw meat on it, and then you hold it straight until the hyena catches its dinner. Remember to breathe in between. I forgot at first. You just feel the rush flowing through your veins and when the hyena men takes the stick and holds it behind your head, to make the hyenas hugging you, you surely think it can’t get more exciting. At least I thought, that’s the fastest my heart could race.
But then he said ‘Take the stick in the mouth’. I put the stick between my teeth, he put meat on it and there I was, kneeling on the ground with meat in my mouth and in front of me, the 2nd largest predator in Africa. I was beyond shaking.
It literally is one of my favourite travel experiences I ever had. When we’ve done the hyena feeding on the second spot outside of town the following night, it was another exhilarating moment. This time we were surrounded by more than ten hyenas and they were circling us and if you know the movie ‘The Lion King’, you know the three dumb hyenas. The way they laugh is absolutely accurate. SO funny!
See the video here, where Hiob filmed us during our last minutes with the hyenas.
Despite the hyenas, Harar has so much more to offer. The thing to do is, just walking in any direction. Follow any lane and don’t worry where you’ll end up. Old Harar is surrounded by city walls, so there’s no way you’ll get lost. The mud houses and walls are painted in various colours. I loved strolling around, soaking in the atmosphere, saying hello to random locals, who looked at us like martians.
We had an even more great time thanks to Hiob, who invited us to his friends home’s to enjoy Ethiopian’s second largest export, Khat leaves, the weaker equivalent to the Netherland’s tolerated soft drug. Hiob told us how he owns only one T-shirt, so I gave him one of my shirts and we decided, that he needs some money as well, and gave him probably more than he secretly expected. But we didn’t think of it as a fee or a guide service we were paying for, rather than giving a friend some money to buy food.
Another early morning rise later we headed off to the bus station and started the real adventure. We were off to one of world’s most notorious countries – Somalia.
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