Bright and early on Saturday morning, L.L. from Bethesda, D.C. from Nairobi, and I set out, headed for Woliso and then the Wenchi Crater Lake trail, looking to do some vigorous hiking with good views. It was an easy two-hour drive on good road to get to Woliso. We stopped at the Negash Lodge to leave our luggage and get directions to Wenchi. "Go out the Ambo Rd. and look for the sign" was as good as we were going to get. So we did.
The Woliso-Ambo Rd. is notoriously poor, and mostly impassable in the rainy season. For the first couple of kilometers from Woliso we were driving upstream against the current of people coming to market with flocks of sheep, herds of cows, and donkeys bearing firewood and false-banana root (tastes like potatoes). The road actually got a little better along the way, allowing speeds of 50 kph. At the only crossroads on the entire route we stopped and asked a soldier for directions: "Wenchi?" He pointed straight ahead and on we went, steadily uphill, along roads that got dustier and dustier. Everything in the rearview was immediately made invisible by the cloud of light brown dust.
After almost 40 km we entered Wenchi Village and then saw the brightly painted sign pointing the turnoff to the crater lake. We stopped at the tourist office (a small tukul), paid our fee and collected our guide while fielding requests for "onebirr" from the local kids. I asked the kids "Oromifa?" "Amharinia?" The guard laughed and said "everyone here Oromo language." We drove down a road that quickly deteriorated into a rock and dust rutted and holed track. Eventually the road petered out on an overlook with a spectacular view of the crater lake hundreds of meters below. (See photos here.)
In front of an audience of several kids we geared up and set out down a dusty trail. The soil along the trail was the consistency of cake flour. Every footfall caused a waist-high dust cloud. From the crater rim we hiked steeply down for a 1/2-hour until we reached a valley floor of sorts, with a stream meandering along. There were sheer cliffs on all sides and it felt like one of the scenes from 'Lord of the Rings.' There were several flocks and herds being watered in the valley and I learned to say "atemi" or "hello" in Oromifa. In several places we had to jump across the stream. About three minutes after saying "the first one to take a digger in the mud buys the first round," L.L. planted one right in nice goopy puddle.
In the valley we saw three mill-houses, several hot springs with people bathing, and a hot-spring waterfall being used as a shower. After walking up and around some rocks, we got our second view of the lake, this time at our level. We stopped beside the lake and ate lunch while lounging in the shade and feeling the lake breeze. Passing small plots of barley and false banana we made our way to the boat to take us across the lake. Two locals paddled in the back while the rocking of the boat and the slap of the waves against the side of the boat lulled all three of us almost to sleep.
On the far side of the lake we disembarked and walked through a small village, rising steadily towards the crater rim. We passed a group of tourists on horseback. Being sweaty and leg-tired I couldn't resist a friendly "that horse sure looks tired" to a chubby tourist. We made it back to the car in fine shape and paid the "guard" who watched the car in our absence. On the road back I not only needed four-wheel-drive, but low range in order to make it up a couple of the hills.
The road back to Negash somehow seemed quicker, and I didn't care a whit that the shower in my tukul wasn't piping hot. I thought that standing in the cool water, washing off several layers of sweat, sunscreen, and trail dust was about as refreshing as it could get. Of course a cold Bedele beer at the garden bar while watching the monkeys play didn't hurt any.