Katharina Kane travelled to Ethiopia on assignment for Lonely Planet. You can follow her adventures on Lonely Planet: Roads Less Travelled, screening internationally on National Geographic. In Bati she learned the finer points of camel trading at the town's livestock market.
Tiny, dusty, and usually overlooked by travellers, Bati swells in size every Monday when it hosts Ethiopia's biggest livestock market. Camel trains, pop-blasting buses and eager traders converge on the town to buy and bargain, sell and swap. Don't even attempt a headcount – the town teems with cattle and camels.
The camel market takes place of pride. Hundreds of the curious creatures gaze lazily across the field, held on loose ropes by their owners. Camels are amazingly calm animals, and that tranquillity is apparently contagious – the whole market seems to move in slow motion. Traders stand statue-like, only moving to find the highly sought-after specks of shade. There's no shouting salesmen or loud haggling. You barely notice the occasional handing over of bundles of cash, followed by the silent departure of the camel owner.
I'm told that normally only male camels are traded on Bati Market. Female camels are rarely sold because they bear young, and their milk is valued as a drink and as a potent aphrodisiac. Among the hundreds of animals on offer, I only find three camel cows. 'Only good for feeding', says the trader dismissively. 'They no longer bear young, so all you can use them for is their meat. One costs 3500 Birr.' His colleague smirks at me, and says he wants to marry me. 'I've already born my young. Only good for feeding', I say. He smiles broadly. 'That's no good. My teeth aren't strong enough.'
You can usually detect a people's priorities by the vocabulary of their language. English has plenty of words to describe rain, the Oromo and Afar languages have a very detailed camel vocabulary. In Oromo, the biggest, strongest camels are called korona. I learn that you recognise them not only by their size, but also by the colour of their coat, their furry neck hair and their teeth. They cost 5000 Birr. 'How are you going to get this home?' asks the trader. 'I'll have to walk I think, it won't fit on the bus.' 'That's what I thought', he says, 'and what about the plane?'
Teeth are the clue to a good camel, it appears. To find one that will carry your loads easily and still grow stronger for a few more years, look for a young male that has already changed two of its four main teeth.
Everything here is camel-coloured. From the sandy grounds to the dust-painted skies the entire area is tinted a rich, soft ochre. In the foreground, rows of smooth camel humps rise up like a small mountain chain. Bati doesn't lie in the desert, but on market day, the camels bring the desert to town, as though they carry their favourite environment with them wherever they walk.