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Entries about landscapes

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)

Christmas mark 2 (and a journey)

Rachel - journey to Bahir Dar and Bahir Dar

Whereas Malawi is red, Uganda is green, Ethiopia is yellow.

We are back in the land of the 5.30am bus journey. Yeuch. But the advantage of such an early start at least is being able to watch the sunrise over the countryside. We’d not seen any of the country yet and it is stunning.

The earth is a dusty light brown with short pale yellow grass. Every now and again are smart stick-fenced, or sometimes dry stone walled compounds containing a few rectangle houses and circular huts made of stick and mud with conical thatched roofs on the circular huts and usually a cluster of frosty looking eucalyptus trees being grown for firewood. Lots of these compounds, particularly those with stick-fenced pens for animals, put me in mind of Australian farms. The land we passed through was fairly flat and open but interestingly uneven, slashed by metre deep wriggly gashes revealing the brown earth at the bottom of which would be a stream or a dry bed and small clusters of trees. As the sun rose and people appeared we saw older children, wrapped in blankets, taking out and shaking rugs. Women in blankets standing in doorways watching the day start. Young boys lead donkeys away from the roads across the fields and men driving small herds of cattle with sticks. Young girls walking by the road wrapped in scarves carrying water cans. Horses grazing in fields of recently harvested cultivated lands scattered with small angular rocks. As the houses woke up wood smoke would be rising from the conical roofs. Sometimes in small towns we’d pass rows of corrugated iron shops in bright colours which would remind me of brighton beach huts. And as the sun was rising it was piercing the clouds and the rays would give everything a warm pale yellow glow.

Later we drove along one edge of the Nile river gorge – on one side of the bus I had a view of the huge “crystalline” looking rocks and scrubby slopes, and on the other was a wide open bowl of yellow and green peppered with the silver roves of the town in the far bottom. On the far side of the bowl was the Nile, wide and grey, snaking through the land and mirroring the road on this side of the basin.

That journey was some of the most beautiful landscape and light I’ve ever experienced.

We arrived in Bahir Dar, city of the lake, in the late afternoon and after a frustrating muddle with a hotel who bent the truth about their having space for us we ended up in a super budget place but super friendly too. They loved Dave’s passport photo and liked to touch my hair, giggling all the time. But nevertheless we had wanted to stay in a hotel on the lake so we went that night to negotiate a price and ended up being invited in for drinks by the eccentric manager Bisrat. He had his large double bed in his office which he’d occasionally jump onto to lounge amongst the newspapers, was always on his mobile phone or checking emails and his subject of conversation would jump around every 2 minutes. It took over an hour, and between side discussions about politics and personal desires *and* it turns out he organizes affordable trips to the danakil which we also signed up to, we finally agreed a deal and would come back the next day.

Next day we checked in and signed up to the boat trip running to the monasteries that are found on the islands in the middle of the big lake although we were a little late to visit one of them and one of them didn’t let in women so actually I only saw one. I think they’re all pretty similar though. The focus of the site is the classic Ethiopian style round church with a conical stick roof – inside and at the centre of the church is a room containing a replica of the arc of the covenant which noone but priests can enter, on the outside of which though are almost cartoon like paintings of the life of jesus, mary and the saints and the ring of space that is left is for praying and chanting in with a few drums dotted around. The monks themselves live in the round huts as found everywhere else. So really it doesn’t feel like a monastery so much as a village.

On the boat trip we made friends with an Ethiopian couple who now live in London. They were over here for Christmas to visit family and were more tourists than we were with flashy clothes and sunnies, cameras and video cameras. In the evening we met them in a traditional music bar like the one we went to in Addis and they were snapping and filming away the whole time :) In these bars the customers sit around the edge of the room and the performers dance and sing in the middle and every now and again the singers will pick people out in the room and sing nice but cheeky songs about them while dancing in front of them, after which you’re supposed to stick money (notes) to their foreheads. The dancing is the Ethiopian style which instead of being all about the hips is all about the shoulders. While stamping your feet, with your hands on your hips, you rotate or shimmy your shoulders around energetically. This isn’t just a traditional style either, it’s the same moves in pubs and clubs too. It’s really tricky to get the hang of and tiring to keep going but it feels quite slinky for the 30 seconds when it all comes together.

Bahir Dar is a lazy feeling town with wide streets and lots of cafes and hotels. The fascinating market in the centre of town sells all sorts: frankincense (used in the coffee ceremony) and spices, chickens, coffee pots, all sorts of grains, chat (for chewing), injera stoves (for the sour pancakes) and second hand clothes. We were adopted by a young man and his friend to show us round the market, meet his mother selling coffee pots, and bargain on our behalf for a couple of warm jumpers we’d need for the Simien Mountains. After that we all shared some dinner and drinks to say thank you and then parted because today was Ethiopian Christmas eve and there was a nighttime mass in the church we were curious to see.

For any church or holy event, even regular Sundays, everyone wears white with a large white scarf covering the head – for both men and women. On this day the church was packed. The priest would chant/sing sermons and excerpts from the bible and this was piped outside the church over speakers to where we were stood amongst the sparse crowd of white clad worshipers surrounding the church. Every now and again, in unison, with no signal, the people inside and outside the church would mutter or sing something back or bow to the floor in a way you would expect to see in a mosque, or read quietly from their own pocketsized copies of the bible. At some point the replica of the arc of the covenant is brought out under the shade of a glitzy umbrella and paraded around, and at various points the priests would disappear behind a curtain although the singing/chanting would go on. We were able to move freely around the outside of the church, move amongst the corwds and peer in the windows. It was extremely atmospheric and somber mood and a little spooky moving amongst all the white robes. We left about 3am and they we could still hear them chanting at 5am when we got up to go to the loo, the hotel not being far from the church.

The previous day we had been invited by Bisrat the manager to his family’s house for Christmas dinner which was very nice of him. There were several other hotel guests invited as well and we all went by minibus to be greeted by his mother in a very modern 2 up 2 down house in the town. Bisrat The Distracted disappeared and left us to drink beers brought by the maid and get to know each other and then he came back later for dinner. Christmas dinner was just like normal dinner – with various tasty, spicy stews and injira pancakes. Bisrat disappeared again and while he was out some itinerant praise singers paid a visit and sang us all songs (which unfortunately we couldn’t understand) and stopped for some coffee. Just like carol singers really :) We left in the mid afternoon and ended up hooking up with a group of Ethiopian, Swedish and German people we’d crossed paths with the night before round the fire. They’d all been up all night and we still drinking so we went for a birthday dinner for it was one of the Ethiopian lady’s birthday, and ended up back at the fire for a night of deep and strange conversations – for she was quite philosophical and had many opinions which made for a thought provoking evening. A typical Christmas I suppose – boozy conversations round an open fire.

A lovely, interesting day, but Christmas wasn’t the festivity we thought it might have been. Religiously significant and family oriented certainly but without the celebration you might have expected. But wait, Epiphany celebration is just around the corner and that one’s supposed to be a big’un.

Posted by rachndave 09:01 Archived in Ethiopia Tagged landscapes parties markets religion Comments (0)

Goodbye Malawi, Hello Tanzania

Rachel - Malawi to Dar es Salaam

It’s been a very long time since I wrote, we’ve been off the beaten track a bit. When we have had access to internet it has been to sort out flights to ethiopia and home.

So where were we? Oh yes, we’d just said goodbye to the lake and were heading off with two young Australian sisters towards the Tanzanian border. We had a lot of distance to cover that day but all went smoothly apart from a moment on the bridge when unfortunately both sisters at once we robbed on the bridge while inadvisably trying to change money with the dodgy types on the (literal) bridge between the border posts. Once they realised they were being short changed in the transaction the men hopped over the bridge barriers and made off with what they had already handed over. Bad moment. But not really much anyone could do so we loaned them some cash to get over the border and the rest of the journey was uneventful.

I can’t help like borders though. You need to be on your guard all the time and be careful about any kind of helpful advice or assistance offered. I think that’s why I like them though, if you make it through it feels like you’ve passed a test. Things are rough of course, and I certainly wouldnt want to stay overnight in a border town but there’s a certain energy about them and when you hear the stamp in your passport it produces a special unique thrill of relief and anticipation.

My first impression of Tanzania compared to Malawi was how much noisier it was, and it’s obviously richer. The houses have tin rooves, there are more cars and motorcycles rather than bikes, people are wearing shirts and trousers with no holes, houses are multi story, water is sold to buses in bottles and not little lastic bags. And the landscape is hillier, the earth is brown and not red.

We had, by phone, reserved a place on the overnight train from the west coast of tanzania to the east coast and arrived at the station early to pick up our tickets and lucky we did because after a lengthy wrestle in the arse-to-crotch shoulder-to-ear squeezy-inny argy-bargy leany-over-wavy-papers queue we told that the booking couldnt be found and it took some hours to sort out a place but since we had a 6 hour wait for the delayed train it was no problem really and it meant we all got to experience the queue and hone that technique (I find shoulder placement is key). So we boarded with all our things and bags of extra provisions we picked up in the markets outside: mangoes, bananas, avacados, bread, sachets of booze...

It was dark when we boarded but when we woke the next day I made for the restaurant car, bought byself a beer to nurse (the liquid equivalent of a towel over the sunloungers), and stared greedily out the window for 4 hours solid. And I saw LOTS of green (but let me tell you now in hindsight that i thought *this* was green but Uganda actually blows Tanzania’s greenery out of the water because in Uganda you can’t even see through to the colour of the earth it’s that dense with vegetation): short grassy green, long grassy green, thin wavy green, lush flappy green , tall green , shimmery green, matt green, frondy green, bushy leaved green, wide leaved green... with the occasional red or yellow leaved tree to break it up :) But mostly it was small overlapping hills which would arrange themselves every now and again to make an open areas – and the odd dry riverbeds which, you may have guessed, were carpeted in green grasses. I only saw a few small groups of three or four huts so the main interest other than drinking in all that green were stations where people would parade past with large dried fish, plantain, mangoes, bread, cooked chicken, dried rice, bananas, water, beef kebabs on sticks, ricecakes, sugar cane, peanuts and occasionally random non edible goods in portable glass cabinets strangely. This all more evidence that Tanzania is better off, by Malawian standards of course.

The landscape eventually flattened out as we started to approach the national park and into more typical game park savanna land which was beautiful as the sun started to set. We had been delayed so much we only just entered the park in daylight so we only managed to see a few antelope and some picked cleaned remains of some prey of some kind ,but it was just enough of a taster for savanna for me.

After dark a big group of us took over the restaurant car for some poker which lasted well into the small hours when the train pulled into Dar es Salaam and our first proper city in months. Time to hit the (paved) streets!

Posted by rachndave 05:19 Archived in Tanzania Tagged landscapes trains borders Comments (0)

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