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Entries about lakes

Standing beside a volcanic crater is definitely not normal

Rachel - Danikil Depression: Erta Ale

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.

Erta Ale
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

Posted by rachndave 05:23 Tagged landscapes lakes desert Comments (0)

Bonus lakes

Now we weren’t going to be hiking for 6 days we had some time to spare at a very relaxed pace. We had only bracketed the crater lake region on our map as a “maybe see” but we\re glad we made it because it’s a very pretty place indeed. The whole region was formed by a cluster of 20 or so volcanoes which now make for good mountain biking around, and swimming in, the resulting lakes.

When we got to the campsite we found that there was a lakeside cottage in the trees down by one of the lakes for not much more than a dorm bed so we thought why not. It was all a very basic hut with no electricity, a bucket bath next door and the toilet at the top of a hill. We’re used to basic however and the location was idyllic. And we were more than rewarded the next morning by a troop of vervet monkeys scampering and tumbling about the trees and ground right outside our window. We started at the window, then stepped out the door, edged closer and closer and in the end the monkeys were happier about us being close than we were :) When we were outside amongst them two jumped through the window of our room and one left a little puddle on the windowsill…cheeky monkey!

That morning I saw something I’d never seen before: Dave was down swimming in the lake and came back and pointed out the halo of rainbow around the sun, it was kind of oily looking as well. It stayed there for half an hour or so. Dave, the cloudwatcher, reckons it must have been because there were loads of ice crystals up there. Beautiful it was. Didn’t get a picture though, don’t think it would have come out anyway.

We hired some bikes and did a whistlestop tour of the lakes, followed at every turn by a crowd of children shouting “where are you going?” which is a new one. We ditched the bikes at one point to climb through some fields and up to peer in one of the craters which didn’t have a lake in it (extremely deep, steep sided hole), but the best part was that the sun was setting and through the grass, with the sky made orange by the dust, we snapped some arty pictures.

We’d been up and down dome big hills for a long time now so we were pretty tired, too tired to pedal up the steep hills on the way back so we ended up getting back after dark, with no lights. We really should remember to take head torches out with us :) We stopped for a refresher soft drink outside a shop playing some local tunes and played a sit down dance version of follow-my-leader with some very easily amused kids. We were a bit reluctant to push on really but they had used up all of our moves. Of course cycling in the dark on dirt roads, even by a bright moon, isn’t a brilliant idea so I took a tip sideways at one point. I’m not sure if I’m doing something wrong or if its just bad luck on dusty roads but if anyone has any words of advice…

We were thinking of seeing if we could make an appointment to see the King of the region of the Bonyoro people but after finding out it was a seven hour trip by minibus – not so much fun if you’re 6ft4 - we wouldn’t have time to break up the journey and still be in Kampala for some Christmas shopping. So we went to visit some wetlands instead. A strange project really; although the swamp is quite unique, from what the guide was saying the nature conservation undertaken was purely to bring money into the community. So the locals planted fig trees round the swamp to attract monkeys from the surrounding national parks and then set up nature walks. He couldn’t really answer many questions about the swamp itself which was a shame. But still it was a pleasant afternoon.

We were out in the sticks a bit and the minibuses stop early at Christmas so we were standing on the side of the road, hoping for an unlikely shared taxi, contemplating the bone shuddering, hair raising, 45 minute motorcycle taxi ride back on dusty roads when a 4 by 4 stopped and offered us a lift back, for free. Woo-hoo! Saved! I’m not a fan of the motorcycle taxis I have to say. It’s not ever the drivers, they’re all pretty skilled especially out here in the countryside where they know the roads well, it’s just the roads are bad.

Patrick, our savior from the motorcycles, was an agronomist working with the tobacco industry, so he drives out to the small scale farmers to help them improve yield and quality so the industry can get a better product and the farmers get a better price. He took a bit of a shine to us and after we’d got into Fort Portal he drove us around to see the place which is quite well-to-do. He ushered us into his favourite posh hotel bar for some drinks and bumped into a mate of his. Then he showed us all round the hotel pool and the gym and the grounds before driving us all out to another hostel he used to stay in to meet the nice American lady who runs the place (she seemed as bemused as we were). Then the four of us got some dinner and more drinks, and then finally went to a bar over the road from our hotel. Dave and I had to call it a night in the end and left Patrick at the bar. Phew!

We had a bus to Kampala the next afternoon so we took a lazy breakfast and were lucky enough to bump into a sweet German lady and her guide who had tried to help us out the day before when we needed a lift back from the wetlands. She’d been worried about us and we had a long chat about her lone travels round the world before had to leave to grab some provisions for the journey. Dave fancied some guacamole so we bought one of the avocados that are almost as big as your head you get out here, some onions and tomatoes and Dave whiled away the delay by chopping and mashing in the bus. Very tasty it was too. One great thing about Africa is that noone bats an eyelid if you do something like that; it’s going to be quite hard to readjust when we get back.

Posted by rachndave 23:46 Archived in Uganda Tagged lakes animals Comments (0)

Following our lead

Rachel - Lake Chilwa

While Lake Malawi – the big, long thin one that runs north to south and takes up nearly 20% of Malawi’s surface area – is formed in the bottom of the Great Rift Valley and is therefore surrounded by high sides and dotted with beach resorts, Lake Chilwa is shallow, saltier and almost seems like a mirage as it appears to you out of the remote, low lying reedy plains.

One the shore of the lake is a fishing village called Kachulu – one long wooden-shack-like-shop lined dirt road leads from the village of compound mud houses, through the reed beds and down to he harbour where a few dozen fishing punts wait to take out the nets which, when we arrived, were being dried and mended on the gound while the previous catch of small herring were drying on rows and rows of hand made racks.

This is an atmospheric place and by far the most remote and un-touristy place we have been in Malawi so far. When we arrived at our “resthouse” we found only three rooms, each containing only a bed, a handkerchief sized table with a candle and not room for much else. We are now used to mud bottomed squat latrines but this one was super basic and the bathroom was a bucket of water on a few bricks on the ground behind a reed partition. We thought perhaps this was a very local resthouse so with our bags, trailled by local children and drunks, we went to checked out one other resthouse in town but that one was bordering on the squalid so we returned – now very happy with our lot.

Not long before word got out and our little room was surrounded by children, initially frightened of us and now relentlessly curious, local women and some men from the church. All of whom fascinated to see what we might do. But of course we don’t really *do* anything. I was glad at this point to have brought some bubbles with me from home so to a tighter and tighter crowd of children I blew a few bubbles but was almost immediately upstaged by Dave and his camera flash :) I was astounded by their reaction to the flash of the camera – screams of delight and amazement - and then over and over again they demanded another picture, each time the flash went off to astonished and excited screams.

One of the church (or so they said at the time!) men approached us and one of them, Goodson, tried to tell us how the village worked, offered his services as a guide and invited us to his family’s restaurant. We promised to find him later and then locked ourselves in for 10 minutes breather before venturing out for some exploration and to find a beer. Which we soon found in the company of the interesting local policeman. We were in mid conversation when Goodson found us and insistently asked us to come to the restaurant so we thought we beter had. We spent a strange hour or so in the dark, eating gritty nsima (the maize flour staple here) while Goodson rambled and asked for our advices only to reject anything we said and then nearly had apoplectic hysterics when Dave added some salt to his nsima instead of his fish. He pointed this out to everyone else in the room and just couldn’t get over it. We’d found out by this point that he wasn’t a missionary at all, had only even been in town for a few days, he lied about the price of the meal and all sorts of other oddities and so we managed to make some polite excuses, insisted that we didn’t need a guide the next morning and left. Unfortunately the interesting policeman had also gone by this stage so we went home a little baffled by an intense and odd evening.

The next morning Goodson let himself into our room while we slept (!), apologised and left but was still there waiting when we got up – laughing almost uncontrollably as he us told us how he was telling everyone he met about the “nsima incident”. It took a lot to inist that we didnt want him to come with us to the nearby island and finally get some privacy to get ready for the day. We enjoyed a fun trip to the market, amusing all the ladies with our squeezing of tomatoes but then of course Goodson appeared asking if we’d buy him a couple of mangos and still asking when we were going to the island so we dropped the politeness, asked him to leave and in the end bribed him with a mango. We never saw him again. Blimey!

Down at the harbour, with the help of a crowd of friendly locals, we secured a punt to take us half an hour across to Chisi island to spend the night. We’d bought some of the small dried fish to try, some tomatoes and onions and were planning to camp and cook a proper local meal ourselves.

The punt across the lake was one of my highlights of Malawi, it was so serene and breezy while we passed through the reed beds and past several fishermen in dugout canoes hauling in their nets and waving to us. We arrived on the shore of Chisi and were met by Moses, brother of the chief of that village, and of course an ever growing crowd of children. Moses invited us to stay in his house on the shore that night but before that we picked up a young guide, Kenny, who showed us the fishermen’s huts built into the reeds further round the shore and then spent the afternoon with us showing us the villages on the island and sharing with us stories, rites and rituals of village life. For example we learned that after a couple is married they move in with the man’s family so that the mother in law can get to know the new wife and if after that three months the mother in law doesn’t approve she can ask the man to leave his new wife. He still has the choice but it underlines the importance of family harmony here.

As is always the case we had picked up a following of 25 children by now and so in order to provide them with some entertainment I’d start walking in a comedy way only for them to start copying everything I did. Hee hee, I could have some fun with this! So we played follow my leader all the way home. Fortunately I called Dave back and so we have some of it on video – it’s really cute. They absolutely loved watching the video afterwards. Later, with the help of Kenny’s mates, we shared some Sunday school songs before Moses sent them gruffly away from outside the front of his house. Cant say I blame him – they would have watched us sleep if they could :)

We spent a pleasant evening by torchlight in Moses’s front room sharing things about our lives (and trying to keep conversation from revolving entirely around money) and eating the nsima and fish he’d kindly cooked for us.

After another bucket wash in the garden the next morning we had a minor battle with the boat driver from the day who was trying to lie to Moses about our agreement but in the end we managed to get back to Kachula, into a pick up and back to Zomba.

In Zomba we bumped into the social worker who’d been on the pick up on the way to Chilwa so we had some lunch chatting together with the young waiter who’d studied media in Manchester, and waited for our minibus together having a really nice time. He said some really nice things as we parted and I was quite sad to see him go myself. We waved goodbye to him and Chilwa.

Posted by rachndave 23:18 Archived in Malawi Tagged lakes children food Comments (0)