A Travellerspoint blog


Has someone been playing with the colours on my camera?

Rachel - Danikil Depression: Dallol

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.

Posted by rachndave 21:44 Archived in Ethiopia Tagged landscape Comments (0)

Interim Normalcy

Rachel - Addis and Mekele

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.

Posted by rachndave 02:37 Archived in Ethiopia Tagged observations Comments (1)

One man (a host of Angels) and his chisel

Rachel - Lalibela

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.

Posted by rachndave 07:22 Archived in Ethiopia Tagged religion transportation tourist_sites Comments (0)

Eight days on top of Ethiopia

Rachel - Simien Mountains

I love to hike, but I don’t think my body does. I can’t predict the future but I think by body can. Every time we have been about to embark on a long trek I have been struck by some bug or other. In Iran I had diarrhoea, in Lebanon it was stomach cramps, in Malawi it was vomiting and this time, the day before we were going to head up to over 4000 metres in the Simien mountains I got hit with a nasty cough and cold.

So we started a day later than planned while I felt sorry for myself and tried to recover from the cold and bumpy 4 hour, 5am start bus journey under the covers in our hotel room and dave went to rustle up donkeys and food etc. I think I had it lucky though, our original guide had to cancel on us because his wife had just gone into labour, although super helpful he was so we had to forcibly send him away to his wife’s bedside in the end.

Day 1: Our new guide Shaggy, The scout Den and two nameless mule handlers, Dave and I made our way through the small dusty flat town and its equally small dusty market and down to the smooth rocked and meadow edged river which marked the start of the hills. We crossed the river by rocks and up through the gentle grassy hills, through forest and later wide open plains to our first campsite “Sankaber”. Dave and I had chosen to cook our own meals instead of hiring a cook and in the cooking area we one-by-one met the cast of this week’s stint in the mountains. Although each group would be walking with their guide in their own group and set out at different times we would invariably find ourselves meeting at the lookout points and rest stops and of course in the campsites over the next few days.

Day 2: Our first view from a height of the volcanic created and then river eroded valley floor. Wow. We shared our lunch with a troop of non-plussed baboons. At first we we thought they hadn’t seen us and kept quiet but then we realised they weren’t bothered in the slightest. We later caught up with some French walkers and while we approached we were hushed as if a rare shy creature had been spotted close by. As we approached we saw that we were looking down on what can only be described as a hilly baboon hobbit-village at some distance. We humoured the French for a little while and then strode noisily into the middle of the pack and watched as baboons of all ages gambled and grazed around us while others pelted themselves down the far woody hillside and chased each other round rocks. The guides had to drag us all away assuring us that there were hundreds more baboons ahead and, to paraphrase, could we, like, get over it already because we had some miles to cover :-p To which we replied “5 more minutes” :) Eventually we followed on, waving goodbye to baboon city and continued a gentle up over open gentle rolling plains, through fields of alien looking giant lobelia and small villages of round thatched houses to the stunningly situated campsite “Gitch”. Although it feels like the campsite is in the middle of nowhere there is actually a village somewhere hidden nearby and we were told we could buy a chicken there for dinner. Which we could…a live one. So while Dave went off to witness the butchery (in the halal sense) I started the sous-cheffing as the sun set and watched the cattle and horses being driven to lower ground for the night (check out the photos of the sunset and location of camp when Dave puts them up – it was breathtaking). After chopping a mountain of ginger, garlic, onions and carrot we made a tasty (if extremely rubbery) marinated chicken. Pah, who needs a chef. The campsite is at 3200 so as soon as the sun sets it gets mighty chilly so we all huddled round the campfire and turned in early only to wake at dawn to find the ground and tent covered in frost! This is not what I imaged Africa to be like! But it only added to the site’s beauty and didn’t last long at all once the sun was up again.

Day 3: Wow…again. This was by far the most spectacular day of the hike. We were climbing higher and higher along the edge of an incomprehensibly high, vertical dropping escarpment and so each turn revealed a new view of the still-high-in-their-own-right plateaus below as we climbed to 4070m to have lunch (where a sheep stole Dave’s lunch hahaha). One particularly good look out was the fabulously names GoGoMater which in Ethiopian means “go go old woman” and is named for the place where a local old woman chased after a foreigner who was walking past. Really it should have been called “Bugger me we’re high up and you can see for hundreds of miles in every direction” because we were stood on the jutting out point of the escarpment which meant you could see the craggy rocky mountains and plateaus on one side and a sheer drop and other face of the escarpment on the other. The guide pointed out where the path would take us on the other side of the vertical cliff, right along the very edge, and I think that should have been named merely “gulp”. It turned out no to be too bad because the path was a few metres back and the slope of the path was towards safety but even Dave had to lie down to peer over the edge and admitted to feeling a bit queasy when looking down. The sheer scale addled my little mind they did. The escarpment took us direct to the third and cutest of the campsites “Chenneck” where we all regrouped, lounged in the sun, drank tea, washed our steaming socks, watched the campsite baboons and eagles, and shared our “wow, wasn’t that amazing”s of the day.

Day 4. This is where all the groups parted company because there are several routes through the Simiens and we were going for the highest peak Ras Dashen. So the two of us made the slog alone down down down through the valley and along the river to the Ras Dashen base camp, stopping for lunch and some provisions shopping in a busy village having its market day. Ambiko camp is right next to a village and unfortunately it has many beggars, particularly children, who come to the camp – partly for entertainment I think - so it isn’t the most relaxing place unfortunately. I mean tot write a little separate piece about the relationship between tourists and locals later on but this place is a particularly interesting example. In the past you could stay in the village in a local person’s house if you wanted. This would give a bit of income to someone from the village and you were able to (in an admittedly small and surface way) get an idea of how people live up in the mountains. But the National Park authorities have put a stop to that – claiming reasons of “hygiene”. Which means that the village is denied an income from tourists except to beg, and tourists are forcedly separated/elevated(?) against their will from the people area they’ve come to visit. And why not in that case *teach* the villagers about hygiene which can only be a benefit to everyone? We thought it was madness and made for an uncomfortable situation all round.

Day 5. The previous day I had decided not to climb Ras Dashen with Dave because I was still coughing very badly from my cold every time we stopped for a rest so Dave went to the summit while I pottered around in camp and made friends with, and did small tasks (what they’d let me!) for the chefs who were preparing meals for the walkers. Dave was first back off the mountain and said it was a lovely walk on top of the world and despite being over 4500m wasn’t too strenuous. Everyone who came down was greeted by the chefs and mule drivers with a “Welcome back, welcome back, welcome back from Ras Dashen” song and a small posy of flowers which was a really sweet touch. Mood in the camp that night was understandably high, with campfire singing and dancing, but everyone was pooped so it was an early satisfied night for all.

Day 6. Was merely day 4 in reverse and a tough slog up up up. But at Chenneck we met a few new faces and shared our various experiences so far. Oh and a baboon stole Dave’s tea but put it down without spilling a drop just to teach him a lesson I think…cheeky baboon :) One of the newly arrived guides had a history degree and gave us all an interesting history of the country which filled in a few gaps and answered some questions not in the guidebooks. He knew much more about European and british history and politics than any of us did and made me quite ashamed how little I know. Must get one of those ‘orrible history for kids books when I get back

Day 7. We spent the day on the gravel/dust road to cut out Gitch and Sankaber camps and go straight to the site clostest to the final town. Although normally we shun the roads we were quite glad in this case as it was easier walking when we were both quite weary and footsore by now. We spent the journey piecing together what parts of history we could work out (“normans…they were important for something weren’t they…we they before or after the magna carta?”). We arrived at camp super tired after the longest days walk yet but we had promised the guides a chicken so we bought another two live chickens and together we prepared a local spiced meal and shared it with everyone. It was a real sense of achievement for us and even without much language we had a few moments around the small fire.

Day 8. We hobbled the final 4 hours back into town with various blisters and aches but finished at last to share a beer and take winners photos. Tell you what, I was looking forward to sitting on that bus back to Gonder.

I think the Simiens have been some of the most spectacular walking I’ve ever done….and I’ve been to Scotland! You should go.

Posted by rachndave 06:45 Archived in Ethiopia Tagged mountains hiking Comments (0)

The most important thing is the human being

Rachel - Awramba

I'm generalising of course, and we have been here over a period of special religious activity, but I think it's safe to say that Ethiopia is country with a deep seated religious faith. Be that their own unique branch of Christianity or Islam. So we were pretty surprised to hear of a community, an hour or so from Bahir Dar, which professes to be without religion.

The village of Awramba was founded by a man who claims not to be a prophet or a leader but simply a man with an ideal,and that ideal is that the most important thing is to treat fellow human beings with kindness. But furthermore that the problems of poverty will not be alleviated by prayer but by hard work in an equal society. In this village there is no "men's work" (traditionally weaving, fishing) or "women's work" (traditionally spinning cotton, cooking) and older members of society are not discarded once they are too old to contribute,but instead there is education forall ages who want it, care of the elderly and the weaving workshops (which is the main way they generate income for the village) are occupied by both sexes performing all jobs.

The village itself has a very welcoming and peaceful feel. We were greeted by a community member who showedus round the dormitories for the elderly,inside a home with their innovative energy saving stove,the school room, library and the weaving workshops. All the while explaining that the founder doesnt not believe in God but that there is no need for a church or building becuase he doent want to give that creator a name, or designate a place where They are to be "found". It is also fine to have noreligion at all because "the most important thing is how you treat the human being". She also explained about how a member of the community has to adhere to the rules of kindness and respect and hard work, and how conflict is resolved, support is given,developments and improvements made and generally how the community functions under this system. At the end of the talk we were introduced to the founder who could answer any of our questions about his ideas and the community. he was a softly spoken man who stressed that he just had an idea, that was all - he wasnt in charge and he hoped it was a good idea that would be shared by others.

I thought they made a lot of sense and in a place where people often seem to use religion to excuse terrible personal conditions it was also something special to see people using their own skills and resources to improve their own lives. Maybe in some years time they'll have a tent at Glastonbury....

(ps. also of note was amusing a group of schoolgirls on the walk back with only the few Amharic words we had in the back of our guidebook inc. a staged argument using only the word for "cow" and the word for "donkey")

Posted by rachndave 08:53 Archived in Ethiopia Comments (1)

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