I've added the final set of photos to the gallery, covering Tanzania, Uganda and Ethiopia. So that'll be a third of the trip then.
Winning, losing and rocking all over the world
I've added the final set of photos to the gallery, covering Tanzania, Uganda and Ethiopia. So that'll be a third of the trip then.
Rachel - Danikil Depression: Dallol
31/01/2011 - 01/02/2011
We were allowed a warm breezy lie in while the car was rescued from the desert but we still had another packed day ahead to visit the very lowest point of the depression.
The depression used to be covered by sea water but now gets about 15cms of rain a year. Where the depression is lowest there is still a few centimetres of highly concentrated salt water and this coupled with sulphur gas escaping from beneath the surface and other mineral deposits makes for the strangest landscape.
We drove out to the Dalol lake across miles and miles of salt flats - i've never stood in anything so flat and empty, if it werent for some distant mountains on one side the world would have been divided impossibly neatly into two halves - one dome of sky above our heads and the other a map of small, white rimmed, hegagonal crusted salt pools decreasing in size to the horizon in every direction. It reminded me a little of that scene in The Matrix in the training program before they build the world.
We eventually stop the cars at what seemed more like a big rocky pile of earth which we climbed for it to flatten out to what must have been an abandoned star trek set! Clusters of gypsum mushrooms/lilly-pads/felled tree trunks and enormous "termite mounds" of mineral deposits; I was expecting a painted monster to appear any minute from behind one of these towers to throw a polystyrene rock at me
While Dave, Aida and I examined all the weird sights, devising and posing for pictures, we were hurried on by our driver to climb the next hill. Almost in mid sentence reminding him that for us this was all new and we wanted to make the most o.... Oh! That's what you wanted us to see. Imagine someone had played around with the colours of your TV - what we saw was a bright green lake, a yellow and white shore as if someone had draped the place in giant fried eggs and an unnatural orangey red earth beyond. As the sulphur bubbles through the earth into the salty pools and dries it changes colour from egg yolk yellow, to orange to red (someone explain this to me) and the salts pools stay white. It's seriously mental. Although surprisingly quickly your mind adapts to the new environment, I had cycles of "hmm, okay, a green lake and pools of bubbling orange crusted hot springs, fine...NO, woooooah, wait, that's mental!" We walked around the green lake and found more and more bizzare mineral formations at every turn.
After we were dragged away from this place and back in the cars we drove back across the salt flats to find the place where the Afar people "mine" salt by chipping away slabs from the crusty sandy surface. The slabs are loaded onto camels and they walk for a week back to Mekele, surviving on dry biscuits. In the middle of all the expanse of flats we drove up to a 100 or so strong group of men at various stages of crouching on the ground slicing and tidying slab after slab of salty sand, bundling the slabs with rope and loading them on none to happy camels. All you could hear was groaning animals and chip chip chip chip. I wonder about the state of their hands given all that salt. And what do they think of these occasional cars who turn up to unload a few amazed white people in funny clothes to stare at them for 15 minutes before being whisked away?
And whisked away we were, back onto the flat and to Lake Asale which isnt really a lake but an ocean of "ice". dried salt has turned the surface into a perfectly flat white sheet that looks just like ice. Except for a growing spot on the horizon gets larger and larger and two islands appear as a focus. There's nothing really to see, just to *be* there is the point, and strangely the islands make the starkness and white of the salt sheet all the more imposing. I left everyone on one side and walked around and on the other side of the rock was almost total silence apart from the strange crystaline high ringing sound of the surface being broken as i walked on it, also just like ice. Someone had chipped a hole in the surface sand/salt and revealed perfectly clear water beneath. Later we were given the okay to taste it and it was saturated salt water. Bleugh
I could have stayed there for hours just to enjoy the experience of being in the middle of something so empty but back in the cars we went and made the journey back to camp and then the looooong journey back to Mekele to reflect on the trip.
There aren't enough exclamation marks in the world to explain how those 4 days felt.
Rachel - Danikil Depression: Erta Ale
29/01/2011 - 30/01/2011
This is where everything is going to turn into exclamation marks. Serious desert conditions! Unending salt flats! Standing at the edge of an angry active volcano! luminous green sulphur lakes! If I didn’t have Dave with me to confirm I’d think I’d dreamed it all.
The Danikil Depression
The Danikil depression is at the north eastern spot of Ethiopia and overlaps with Eritrea and Djibouti as well so it’s vast. It’s one of the lowest points on earth and in summer it's officially the number one hottest place on Earth. The area was formed and is still being formed as three tectonic plates move away from each other (the same rifting process that is forming the rift valley) so it’s studded with still-active although geologically speaking young volcanoes. I read somewhere that in millions of years time the red sea is going to erode the edge and flood the depression and the rift valley, splitting Africa into two distinct landmasses (!). A reminder that the earth we walk on is still being created and destroyed and the globe we’re familiar today in millions of years time will look very different. Thank heavens for the geological animation on TV eh, otherwise I couldn’t begin to imagine that.
Without a tour company the only way of getting out to the depression is to join with one of the camel caravans who bring salt to the market in Mekele and that way the journey to the depression takes a week. Adventurous certainly, and I do love camels, but for once I think we’ll throw money at the problem and join an organized trip.
Driving to the volcano
Getting out to the depression takes a full days driving from Mekele. I was sharing the car with Dave and two very funny French guys so we swapped the iPods over from hour to hour and generally got to know each other better while staring out at the beige, rocky, dry, scrubby mountains for hours and hours, watching the in-car altimetre fall bit by bit. We stopped in a village at the edge of the depression to grab a bite to eat (while we were treated to the sight of a goat being slaughtered and gutted in the kitchen) and pick up local guides and armed scouts. For once the scouts are necessary because the nomadic Afar people of this region have a history of violence towards foreigners (killing and then removal of the male genitals being a featured point of pride) and this is also an area near the Eritrian border, peaceful at the moment but only fairly recently. Actually as for the Afar people, apart from the odd disgruntled fist wave from small boys, we only saw smile and waves and everyone arrived back from the trip scrotally intact.
While we were waiting to set off again Dave and I approached one of the outdoor table football games that you find all over in Ethiopia. It was surrounded by young boys of about 10 years old who were at first quite hostile and shouted at us to go away, I think thinking that we wanted to push them out and have a game by ourselves. Using only sign language we assured them that we just wanted to watch and after no more than 30 seconds the most shouty of them all invited me to share a side with him while Dave was put in attack on the other side. I had to raise my game fearing the loss of body parts but me and Shouty managed to scrape a narrow defeat and shared many a high five and taunt of “cheat”. We all parted with handshakes smiles and waves. That game is a particularly fond memory and example of communication using the things you can find that you have in common (in this case laughing at Dave being disapprovingly moved from attack to defense)
First nights camp was at the edge of the improbably located village of Hamedela. The wind was hot and gusty, the earth flat, rocky and dry. The accommodation was a basic hut of rough wooden posts with gaps between them covered in places by sacking. The toilet was “nature” but with no bush or even large rock cover you would be spotted half a mile away in all directions so best “visited” at night. Despite all these things it felt kind of welcoming and when everyone chose to bed outside under the stars there was certainly a feeling of anticipation amongst the seven of us.
The second day’s plan was to drive to the base of the volcano, pick up some camels to take our camping equipment and food, and walk the last three hours to The top. This was the day of the 4 by 4. The first 4 hours drive or so was through sandy desert; a proper desert with cracked earth, dunes, animal skeletons, nomads, wild camels spotted in the distance…the whole works. The sights of the desert were slightly strange when associated by the funk and disco songs being played by our driver (we decided Pink Floyd would have been perfect) and even an entire Michael Bolton album which I actually know all the words to thanks to being played on Sunday mornings by my mum and so I spent lots of the driving time thinking of family and home (hi mum!) which was nice.
I’ve decided I’m a desert person, despite the harshness there’s a peace to be found in feeling like you can only ever be a temporary visitor in such an open place where only the elements of earth and air are kings. But every time I find a place where you think life could never be possible suddenly there you find people. In this case, miles from anywhere, we would come across a few dome shaped nomadic structures and a few families and their goats. Every time I think I’ve found the human limit I am shown that we’re capable of limit breaching imagination and tenacity.
As we reach the far edges of the reach of the previous lava flows the landscape changes startlingly to sharp black rocky solidified lava – over time a path had been found or cut into the rocks and the 4 by 4 bounced and curved and tilted and juddered its way up and over the rocks. Take that Chelsea mums – this is what a 4 by 4 is for! I love to see machinery and engineering doing what it was designed for. Again I was sure in my thinking that nobody but volcano tourists could possibly have been past here in thousands of years but yet again we found ourselves at a small village of huts – heaven knows what the people do there (I really should have asked) because this place is in the middle of nowhere and there’s no soil for growing food and no animals other than camels that I saw. We rested here for some hours, with nothing to do but juggle with small rocks of black lava and wait in the shade until the sun was low so we could make the final climb to the crater.
After the sun had started to set, in unspoken but mutually felt excitement, we slowly walked up the gently sloping side of the volcano for the next three hours as the sun set and highlighted the jagged outlines of the volcanic rock against the pink sky. In places you can clearly see the ripples formed as the lava cooled and solidified, reminding me often of the surface of chocolate brownies. The last of the ascent was made in dark silence and as we reached the top, through a few stick huts where we would camp we saw the slightly pulsing red angry glowing cloud of smoke streaming from the crater not 500m away. That’s where we were going for the next three hours!
At that time Dave’s hope was to camp right by the edge of the crater so we picked up the small bag of camping things, a bottle of wine we’d brought and some water and then stepped down into the first crater. The volcano has held a permanently visible lava lake for 120 years and has been in a state of continuous eruption since1967. Past eruptions have created calderas and inner craters and while the camp is at the edge of the oldest crater you need to walk over the old solidified lava, then up and over layers of newer and newer lava to reach the visible lava lake. The last overflow was in November last year (one of the guides we met up there had witnessed it himself) and the freshest lava was like walking of gun metal gey sparkly super dense wire wool with air pockets revealed underneath (which we’d occasionally lose a foot through but there was solid rock underneath that). Everyone was chattering excitedly as we approached the silhouettes of other people backlit by the red glow but as soon as we saw the lake we all hushed to silence with the odd whisper. I tell you what, if it comes to a fight between man and nature...nature wins. It holds all the cards.
I suppose in some ways it looked exactly like you’d expect it to look, like on the telly. Surrounded by a 30metre crater was an orange glowing pool of cooling rock broken by streaks of yellow fresh lava which slowly altered as the surface flowed due to convection currents. Every now and again there’d be a gasp as bubble of gas would cause a bubbling splutter of white/yellow rock. I would have to keep reminding myself I wasn’t watching this at the cinema but we were actually there staring into the very centre of the earth and watching a mini version of the earths crust erupt, cool, flow and be consumed again. Fortunately there was a high wind that night and blowing the hot air and occasionally hotter belches of hot suplhur gas and lingering eggy smells away from where we were stood.
Watching with us were a team of French and German volcano enthusiasts who had been there for 2 days studying the lake. Their guide was telling us how the lake goes through cycles and how at the moment it was calm but every now and again there would be geisers of lava like the bubbles we’d seen already. He also told us how the surface we were standing on was formed only in November and that before the visible lake had been lower but wider, oh and that the fresh surface we were standing on was actually being eaten away underneath…look at that white crack on the other side over there a few metres back from the edge – that’s where gas had been leaking only yesterday and in a few weeks that would probably break off and fall into the lake below. In fact I could feel scalding hot patches in a few places under my feet although no cracks were visible where we were stood.
After we’d been watching for an hour, Dave had passed through the hot sulphurous cloud to the other side of the lake for a different view, and the expert guide on my side started throwing bottles of water onto the surface and watched as it was burned up, I think he was trying to break the surface of the crust and indeed after I said aloud “er, *please* don’t anger it” there was a whoosh, the sky turned yellow , the guide started whooping, the crowds stepped back and then spits of yellow rock started appearing over the side of the crater higher and higher until they were landing on the floor where we had just been standing. No need to say I wasn’t there anymore, I was hightailing it as far as possible but where do you run?? A few seconds later everything calmed down and we were ordered around the other side of the crater to higher ground where I found Dave. “Um, that was scary” I said, “you should have seen it from here!” he said. Apparently one of the geisers had formed and violently bubbled and spat out fountains of molten rock. One of the French girls said excitedly it was the most unusual activity to be that high. Um….
The same geiser was still active although much calmer and so we stayed on this side to watch the crust around it being sucked in and melted, after another hour or so the main party of our group went back with the first scout and Dave, Monica and I stayed on to wait for the other guide. Suddenly there was much excitement in the French camp as they noticed that the crack in the far side of the crater which had been showing spots of red was getting larger and then right while we were watching trying to see what they were excited about a big (but actually relatively tiny) chunk of the side of the crater slewed off into the lake. Everyone was amazed, I mean properly stunned. They were saying that they’d never seen anything like that in 10 years of visiting and how lucky we were.
Well after that we weren’t going anywhere, the churning and bubbling and spitting carried on on the other side but everyone’s stares was fixed on another area on the side that they were predicting might fall any day now and I started to weigh up the facts of where we were and had a flash of reality. I refound Dave who was on higher ground fighting his urge to see better into the heart of the crater with the knowledge of where he was and what we knew and the conversation went something like this:
Me: “Um, I think I’m going back, it’s been 4 hours now, and, well, I figure now it’s either going to get less interesting and I’ve already seen amazing things…or, it’s going to get *more* interesting and, weeell, I don’t want to be around for that”
Dave: “ha ha, okay…… 5 more minutes”
Me: “errrr, okay but I’m actually getting quite nervous now”
Five minutes later….
Me: “Amazing isn’t it! Um but I’ve been thinking I really would like to go back now”
Dave: “Yeah! Can you believe we’re standing on the freshly cooled lava of an eruption that only happened last November”
Me: “yyy-eear… it’s just that I’ve realized we’re *standing* on the freshly cooled lava of an *eruption* that only happened last *November*”
Dave: “oh, and the activity is really unusual!!”
Me: “yyy-eear… and the activity is really *unusual*”
Dave: “And bits of the side are falling off as we’re watching the lake eating into the crater below our feet!”
Me: “yyy-eear…and bits of the *side* are *falling off* as we’re watching the lake *eating* into the crater below our *feet*. And over there is a really hot patch, and remember there’s that big gassy crack”
Dave: “sigh, oh okay then…… One last look!”
Dave had decided on first sight of the area that it was daft to consider sleeping there, what with gas clouds and spitting rocks and all of the above, so we headed back about 1am and everyone was fast asleep in their sleeping bags. We never could drag our eyes away long enough to open the bottle of wine we’d brought to the lake so we opened it back and camp and sat up by ourselves on the edge of the caldera and watched the not too distant red cloud some more, pinching ourselves about what we’d just seen. Fortunately we’d negotiated to go back to the lake just before sunrise or I don’t think we’d ever have gone to bed
A few hours later we bounced out of bed, me reassured that nothing dramatic had happened in the night and there were people already up by the edge anyway. We think some more pieces may have fallen in the night and created what looked like a devilish lava face in the side of the crater. But compared to the previous night we just watched the surface for an hour as the sun rose and then left to walk back down the black rocks to the camp for some breakfast.
This entry is getting a bit long so i'll split it in two... *bing* turn the page
Rachel - Addis and Mekele
24/01/2011 - 27/01/2011
One of my favourite things about traveling abroad, beyond the tourist headlines, are the little experiences of the everyday – post offices, banks, supermarkets – those times when you find out how life really works in this country. Not quite so everyday the visa office I suppose but it is an official department and taking an interest in the machine is probably what got me through the days. A dozen different queues, interviews by paranoid superiors after seeing Iran and Syria stamps, computer system failures, the various helpful and some unhelpful human beings all made for some bonding and shared looks of usually amused bafflement amongst the Ethiopians and multi cultural foreigners alike. We had to change our internal flights because of delays but in the end we managed to squeeze in some museum and gallery visits (including a really nice artists community in the hills at the edge of the city) as a result so all in all not too painful. Malawi however who managed to extend our visas in half an hour though so I don’t *really* see what the fuss was all about.
The following day I spent another amusedly puzzled day being sent to 4 different police stations trying to get a report of the hotel room theft from New Year. They lost the original report, sent me to another station across town, found the original report back in the original station so I had to return, retook my statement for some unknown reason, sent me to another station across town who wrote out their own version of the report and sent me to yet another station who wrote out a version on slightly better paper for my own copy. Always in duplicate. Everyone was lovely throughout though so I’m not complaining. In other countries where they also do things like issuing you handwritten ticket recipts for museum entry or bus tickets, in carbon copy duplicate, I’ve assumed that it was a colonial hangover from Britain’s more bureaucratic days and apologized internally for the lasting effects, But Ethiopia has never been colonized. Perhaps practices like this were introduced during the Italian occupation which might explain why it seems even more convoluted here
Because of visa delays it meant we couldn’t fly to Axum as planned (and therefore will have to abandon this historical city on this visit) we decided to fly to a fairly nearby town called Mekele instead. Well timed actually because after we grudgingly rearranged our plans the tour company called to ask if we could bring forward the Danakil trip which leaves from Mekele.
Mekele is instantly pleasant and with an inspiring political history which I’ll explain later. We sat on the roof of our hotel and were fascinated by the main roundabout for over an hour watching families, traders, animals, crazy people, greeting friends and a host of interesting sorts passing back and forth or stopping in the road to talk. Another slice of the everyday I suppose.
Here we met the gang who we’d be joining for our trip to the Danakil Depression and Erta Ale volcano. In hindsight an interim period of everyday normalcy before 4 days of the most mind bending abnormal sights I’ve ever seen.
Rachel - Lalibela
21/01/2011 - 23/01/2011
Today a bus driver probably saved us from a lynching. On the early bus between Gondar and Lalibela we were woken by the bus going up slightly on two wheels and veering off toward the edge of the road but the driver recovered in seconds. While we were still trying to find out what had happened everyone started to duck down in the aisle but slowly they got back into their seats and we turned to the man behind to explain, although his English wasn’t great and wouldn’t really give a straight answer. It seems that the driver had hit someone and was probably killed. Dave and I couldn’t understand if that were the case why we hadn’t stopped. Ten minutes later the drivers assistant was in the aisle phoning the Gondar office for advice and at the next town we stopped at the police station. There we found out that a girl had stepped in front of a parked minibus and the driver couldn’t do anything. The reason people had ducked was because villagers had been throwing stones at the windows and the driver hadn’t stopped because mob justice in the countryside means that they would probably have beaten the driver to death and the passengers would have been attacked as well. Everyone on the bus who saw what happened said there was nothing he could do and by driving on to the police station he did exactly the right thing to protect us. Poor girl, we didn’t hear whether she survived or not but people on the bus seemed to think it wasn’t possible she had.
I’ve been told since that this happens frequently because people in the countryside aren’t very road aware and in some places it is believed that an evil spirit can be riding on your back and that a fast car passing will knock it off and so people will jump out backwards into the road to get as close to the car as possible.
Everyone waited patiently for a replacement (which we had to pay again for, after much debate in the bus!) and we arrived in Lalibela quite late.
This area used to be completely inaccessible by road and would have taken 4 days to reach by Mule form the nearest large town. The journey in made us appreciate how spectacular that would have been for the town is hidden away in some Tolkein-esque mountains. But nowadays even has it’s own small airport probably only because it’s a must-see on the tourist trail. The area is famous for the result of a wild dream in which the ruler of the time was instructed by Angels to carve churches out of the rock. The result are a variety of some cavernous and some cosy churches carved out of one piece of rock – that includes pillars and decoration inside and out. Some are free standing from the surrounding rock trench and some are cut into the side of the mountain.
To look at, I have to be honest, we were a little underwhelmed by the decoration having been told time and time again how awesome they were. But with a little imagination you could appreciate the scale of human endeavor since each metre square of rock would have taken one man days of chipping with hand tools to excavate. As an engineering task they were pretty awesome. Although the legend goes that it was Angels who did most of the work by night - how's that for credit? The most decorative inside, which apparently has life sized figures of the disciples carved into the walls, barred entry for women with the tenuous reason that Jesus turned away Mary Magdelen upon his resurrection and asked for the disciples instead. Or so our guide says. *sigh*.
During the lunch break, when the priests of the church eat their sandwiches I suppose, we explored the medieval feeling village with unique round, thatched, two story huts. The paths between them were winding and narrow and we had to dodge livestock and streams of dirty water. At every turn greeted by calls of “farenji!” as usual. We were invited into one home for some coffee which we accepted and inside the walls have shelves moulded into the mud walls and pots hang from animal horns embedded into the fabric of the wall. Nice idea. After we politely left we headed down to the market which was also trading livestock and enquired after the cost of the goats, donkeys and oxen there. (5000 birr for a ox which is 200 pounds and a good couple of years wages here)
After lunch we resumed the tour of churches, weed filled baptism pools, dozing priests and mummified remains of pilgrims.
That morning we had been approached by some youths raising money for their circus group. It sounded interesting so we said we’d stop by after the churches closed to see their performance. When we got there we were the only people to come so we had a tour of their office and shown their personal progress reports and little stock cupboard of props. They take their show to the villages and use it to spread awareness about social issues and HIV. Their original teacher had unfortunately died and the group was taken over by an ex circus member now security guard at the bank, but now their training was taken from videos. I wasn’t therefore really expecting too much when they rolled out an old school gym mat on the flat dusty area outside their office and we sat down on a knackered wooden bench just in front of it. But wow, these kids have skills. They were performing routines of tumbles, three person high pyramids and somersaulting off the top, contortionism and juggling (although they’re not so good at juggling yet they say). We weren’t faking the oohs and ahs and gasps. I do hope they find a teacher because they’re all earnest and practice every day, they’re proud of what they’ve achieved and so were we.
Next day we took a break from churches to…climb up to a monastery…cut into the rock. For a change we thought we’d ride some donkeys up in the heat of the day. I decided to walk back cos mine was a bit rickety and the drops to the side were pretty steep. The drivers thought it was hilarious “giggle giggle farenji giggle”.
Our lack of camera confused the priest in charge of the church/monastery and it took us a few minutes to realize that he wasn’t proudly presenting the crosses for extended inspection but posing for a photo. I guess there aren’t many tourists who come without a camera.
The monestary wasn’t a big wow but it was a nice view up there and we had a chance to share some bread and tea with some men from the countryside who had just walked three hours to get to the market and were intrigued by us and laughing at our attempts to fend off the very persistent hat seller. None of us could speak each others language but it was a nice bonding moment in the shade.
Now we had to take a break from our road trip and head back to Addis by plane to extend our visas which irritatingly can only be done in the capital and caused a lot of scratching of our heads to figure out the logistics I can tell you. But we’d had enough of history for a while, it might be nice to be back in the big city.