In khat country: exploring Babile camel market and Valley of Marvels near Harar, Ethiopia

The below travel story is about my recent visit to these two sights near Harar. If you need some practical advice on how to get there yourself, jump to the section with tips for visiting Babile and Valley of Marvels at the bottom of this story.

We are in the Valley of Marvels near Harar in eastern Ethiopia, but rather than marvelling at the landscape we are amazed by the traffic. Isuzu pickup trucks race by with their green packed wares piled high above the vehicle’s roofs. This road that runs from Harar to the Somaliland border, some 2 hours away, is freshly paved, its tarmac smooth and black. It forms the grand runway of khat distributors who manage the biggest business in this part of the Horn of Africa. We watch them overtake a slow passenger bus in a curve in total contempt for their own and other people’s lives. We step aside into the shoulder of the road as they shoot by; best get out of their way because they will stop at nothing. Two donkeys lie lifeless on the roadside, their rigid legs stretching into the air from underneath their bellies. They were hit by a khat distributor vehicle earlier today; their owner most likely paid off with a few thousand birr to compensate for the loss and inconvenience – if the driver stopped at all.

The khat plant that these road ragers distribute has leaves that release a stimulant when chewed, much like coca leaves or betelnut, and is highly sought after. In this region pretty much every adult chews the leaves on a daily basis. It is one of Ethiopia’s biggest export products. The value of the drug is determined by its freshness, and to deliver fresh khat to the markets the distributors speed to the Somaliland border like there’s no tomorrow. Speed is essential because if too many hours pass after harvesting the product it will perish in the hot climate and steeply decline in value or even become worthless. So this is one of the most dangerous stretches of road in the country. Not because it is mountainous or in bad condition, but because these speeding khat distributors use it as their main logistic route between the Awedaay khat market and Somaliland, where an immense local market as well as further distribution to Yemen and Djibouti awaits.

I would not be surprised if drug industry moguls paid for the construction of this beautifully paved road purely to benefit their delivery speed – it is possibly the finest road I have seen during our entire time spent in the country. Surely the khat drivers do not have eye for the surroundings here, which are fairly interesting. We are in what is called the Valley of Marvels, an area where time, rain and wind have carved intriguing phallic forms out of the red roadside rocks. Cacti and termite mounts appear here and there among the rock formations. Compared to the Danakil Depression which we visited just days earlier, the area is not extremely impressive but worth a stop if you are in the neighbourhood. The site is small and its most fascinating attraction is a formation that appears to have a giant rock balancing on a tiny point of contact with the underlying pillar. I suggest the locals to change the name of this place from Valley of Marvels to Phallic Valley, or more explicitly maybe just Valley of Dicks, and then I am sure it will start to attract more visitors.

Our main destination for today is the nearby Babile camel market. Babile is a small town on the road to Somalia and is of little significance during most days of the week. But on Mondays and Thursdays it transforms in one of the country’s largest cattle markets, when villagers, mountain people, nomads and traders converge in a walled field to negotiate on the price of cows, donkeys, goats, and of course camels. People travel as far as from Djibouti and Somalia to trade here. Our car drops us a few hundred meters from the actual market, and we walk the last part through the village on a few dusty roads while local children curiously follow us around.

We arrive at the market field just outside town and the smell of the cattle enters our nostrils before we lay eyes on the animals. It is a familiar mix of hay and dung that falls heavy on the lungs. From behind the walls the sound of salesmen and -women advertising their wares blends with voices playing the sharp game of negotiation, and with banter, heated arguments and children’s laughter. Add the bellowing, whinnying and bleating of the hundreds of animals on sale to the mix and you’ll be overwhelmed before even having laid eyes on the scene itself.

When we peek over the wall we see that the biggest sensory stimulant here are the visuals: the black, white and brown of the animals contrasts strongly with the explosively bright colours of the clothing of the Harari women that are guarding their flocks and making sales deals with traders who are decked out in cowboy hats, as if they dressed up to purposefully play a charicature version of a crooked salesman.

We enter the market after having paid a small entrance fee at a ticket office near the gate (it is not clear to me if we pay this fee because we are foreigners, or if locals are required to do the same). Despite all the chaos, in essence the area is quite organised: the animals are grouped by kind and most of them are quite docile, bar for a few large and muscular bulls whose testosterone makes them visibly agitated. We steer well clear of the edgy beasts because their large horns are no joke. Close to the gate women and children sell goats and sheep. Towards the middle of the field are the cows and bulls, and near the walls donkeys await to change hands to their new owners.

I am pleased by how well-kept the animals look. As an animal lover and vegetarian it is not always easy or satisfying to visit these types of markets. I recall seeing miserable caged cats on sale in the Indonesian midday heat of Madang, and fish left to slowly anguish on blocks of ice in sea food markets around the world. Those types of places where animals are seen as mere commodities are generally heartbreaking to me, but the Babile camel market luckily does not display such acts of cruelty. It is of importance to the buyers to see animals in good shape, because most of the livestock on sale here is not meant for immediate consumption but rather for the provision of milk or labour in the fields, or even as dowry in a lavish Ethiopian wedding.

Notably absent in this picture are the camels after which the market is named. When we inquire about their whereabouts we hear that the camels are not here because of a recent violent conflict between Oromo and Somali tribes. The Somali are the main camel traders but because of the existing tensions they were now staying away from the market. The absence of the camels makes the scene no less exotic and impressive. Even more than at the Valley of Marvels we marvel at the sights, but we are also quite the sight ourselves. Being the only foreigners we have people curiously following us around, staring at us, touching our arms and asking us to take their photograph. We’ve become the main attraction in this market. I reflect on the irony of this. Visiting the local market is such a touristy thing to do, probably because a market is something we can all relate to – doing your grocery shopping must be one of the most mundane activities in everyone’s life. But in the context of travel it can become a place of exoticism: we stroll through foreign markets to see fruits and vegetables we have never seen before, to be intoxicated by the scent of unknown spices, and to maybe shudder of revulsion at the sight of such things as pig feet or fried crickets. As much as it is a display of local produce the market is also a place of people-watching. To me the buyers and sellers in this market are even more intruiging than the products on sale, and while I gaze at their beautifully coloured dresses I accept that to them I am as exotic as they are to me, and that our presence here brings them as much people-watching pleasure as it does to us. There may not be camels, but we still got a good deal in this market!

Tips for visiting Babile camel market and Valley of Marvels

There are two main ways to bridge the 30 km from Harar to Babile: one is to take a bus (minibuses leave from the city's bus station, cost is around 10 birr or €0.30) and the other is to hire a car and driver. The latter is  more expensive at around €30 but will allow you more flexibility because the minibuses only leave when they are full, so that may involve some waiting. With the car it is also easy to arrive at the Valley of Marvels which lies about 7 km east of Babile. From Babile you can also take a bus to Jijiga and ask to be dropped at the Valley of Marvels - to get back to Harar you'll have to depend on your patience and some luck for a bus to pass and pick you up from there. On your way back into Harar you'll have a nice view on the city.
You can combine both sights in an easy half day trip from Harar. It is best to depart early because the market runs roughly from 10:00h to 14:00h but the best sales are made at the start of the day so at the end of the operating hours a lot of the livestock may have already left (although we were there around noon with still plenty to see). Remember that the market only takes place on Mondays and Thursdays. 
Before traveling make sure you are aware of any possible security risks. The area is quite volatile and there have been recent violent clashes between tribes around the time we visited (December 2019). In the past the area around Valley of Marvels was also known for banditry. Check your government's updated travel advice for the region and ask around locally what the current security situation is like before heading down. In case of tensions it may be possible that there are no camels in the market.
If you want to go with a guide I can highly recommend the services of Hailu, a great guy based in Harar who can arrange your private transport and who can accompany you to the market. It may help you to feel a little safer and he can explain a lot of things about the local customs at the market. He can be reached on +251 9130 72931 (also whatsapp).

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