Thursday, April 26, 2012

the end

What I had initially billed as a trip through the Horn of Africa became limited to eight weeks in Ethiopia, with a brief excursion into Somaliland. Eritrea has closed its borders with all its neighbours, a Djibouti visa was difficult to obtain in advance, and the rest of Somalia is perhaps not the most attractive travel destination for those who want to decide themselves when to return home again. Having said this, Ethiopia turned out to be an extremely varied country, from the mostly Christian north, with its mythical ancient history, and the mostly Muslim east, bordering Somaliland not only physically, but also mentally – although somehow there is little love lost across that border -, to the tribal circus of the south, and back to the northern Afar region en Danakil Depression.

Of course, the question remains, did we like Ethiopia? I know I have been negative on occasion, and perhaps a little cynical on others. But did we like it? Ethiopia is definitely a scenic country, fabulous natural beauty, spectacular geological phenomena; full of history, and full of architectural highlights to prove it, from the walled city of Harar to the churches of Lalibela and Tigray, and those around Lake Tana. But great nature and great toruist sites are only half of the story. The churches are very special indeed, unique, you won’t find anything like this anywhere else. But I never felt welcome in those churches, it was only my money they seemed to be interested in. The tribal villages in the South Omo Valley are equally unique, I don't think there are many people dressing up that way anymore, these days. But once again, I didn't have any social interaction with the people, I just paid money. We were welcome until we stopped taking pictures. In fact, with the exception of Somaliland and the Afar region, we didn’t think people were particularly hospitable to foreigners, despite the assurances of an Ethiopian acquaintance that guests in Ethiopia are held in the highest esteem – perhaps foreigners are not seen as guests. And history is on my side:  many visitors have been slaughtered in Ethiopia in the past, and not only by the Afar people. See the accounts of James Burke, Wilfred Thesiger.
So, did we like Ethiopia? Yes, but perhaps less so the Ethiopians. Which does not diminish the travel experience, mind you. Those eight weeks have been very enjoyable, and have taught us a lot, about the country, the culture, the people we met along the road – perhaps the advantage of the traveler over the tourist. It equally taught us about ourselves, and puts our own experiences in other countries in a certain perspective - at least in part the difference between living somewhere, and just passing through, however much time we take for that. Another lesson: perhaps we do prefer our own way of independent travel, complete with irritations and uncertainties, over the convenience of organized travel, as we did the last three weeks. If someone organizes the trip for you, you are no longer in control, but what is worse, you get the feeling that you are watching through a window, you don’t seem to be part of society itself anymore. At least that’s how we experienced it.

Some general observations, not hampered by any scientific base: The West is often criticized for its colonial past, and whilst there is little to justify the rape of colonies, the argument that colonial exploitation has caused poverty is disproved by Ethiopia, just as poor if not poorer, yet never having been colonized save for a few years Italian occupation. That the West is responsible for arbitrary borders is true (especially the Conference of Berlin, 1885), but the border of Ethiopia, the result of late 19th century expansion drift, is just as illogical, including ethnic Somalis, and a whole range of tribes that have very little in common with the Tigrays and the Amharas of Northern Ethiopia, the ones who have historically wielded power. And racial discrimination? Just as much alive in a country that is overwhelmingly black, and where those same Amharas and Tigrays look down on those primitive Southerners as well as those savage Afars. At the same time there is no denying (as so often has been done) that a highly skilled society in Africa has been responsible for the construction of those extraordinary rock-hewn churches, quite likely at a time that the West was dominated by Barbarians. And that society has survived, for centuries, in the same place: it may have been pushed, occasionally plundered, but there has been an Ethiopian - Abbysinian - entity for at least 2000, perhaps 3000 years here. There are few other countries that can look back at such history.

What the future holds for Ethiopia is hard to tell, of course, even more so by someone who has only been there a short while. It seems to me that encouraging more agriculture at the expense of pastoralism - animal husbandry - would be a step in the right direction, but that is just an impression from two months traveling, during the end of the dry season. If the rains stay away, animals die – wealth destroyed  -, and crops fail – wealth creation is postponed to the next season, with relatively low additional investment. It is interesting that all my previous employers – Shell, but I mean more specifically Plan International, Save the Children, Interact Worldwide, even IOM – are present here. Organisations as Unicef have their second largest program in Ethiopia, no lack of outside help, thus. But maybe that is part of the problem, maybe that discourages incentives for people themselves, discourages them to take their lives into their own hands. A generation of children grows up begging the foreigner for whatever they can think of, and they have been preceded by an older generation, now in their 20s, many of whom still cannot resist a “give me” attitude in the face of a foreigner. Time to take responsibility, perhaps?

Anyhow, the end of a trip, the end of another blog. Hope you enjoyed reading it, hope you enjoyed the pics. Let me know any feedback, so I can incorporate that - or not - next time around.

(o, and by the way, you have to check out the video in the post "the travel day", which I finally managed to upload...)

Monday, April 23, 2012

the way back

From Hamed Ela we drive west, through the low hills at the edge of the Danakil Depression, to Berhale where the camel caravans end, and then up the escarpment – which is a bit more than just one vertical slope – and across the boundary fault, out of the rift valley.
We get back to Addis Ababa via Mekele and Kombolcha, a road we also took four weeks ago. Then it looked so dry, so barren here, but somehow, after more than a week in the Afar region, this now seems fertile paradise, there is actually water in some of the rivers, and irrigation along the banks, turning the fields green.
But after Erta Ale, after Dallol, we’re done. Trip completed, whatever there is left cannot generate the same interest anymore. The weather agrees with us, and for the first time in eight weeks it rains. Cloudburst, including a short hail storm! Water comes down from the hills in buckets, and in several places violently crosses the tarmac road. Glad we have four-wheel drive, even here!

It keeps raining, on and off, all the way to Addis Abeba, all the way to the airport.

(1, 2) some more camel caravans, and also donkey caravans (aparently, the Afar use camels, the Tigray, of the neighbouring province, use donkeys)

(3) Afar girl

(4, 5) along the edge of the Danakil Depression some more impressive dry river beds, and hills, occur again

(6, 7) and what's more, it also pays to photograph the people again, here in Berhale

(8) for my geologist friends

(9) even some natural colour - apart from sulphur springs - returns to the landscape

(10) as we leave the camel caravans behind us

Sunday, April 22, 2012


Having heard about this place, having seen photos, it still didn’t prepare me for the sulphur springs of Dallol. For days now we have traveled through the Danakil Depression, an area without colour (or it must be the glowing lava of the Erta Ela volcano at night). Everything here is bleak, black, grey, sandy coloured. The huts we have seen are light brown, blending in well, and in any case, the little colour that may have existed has long ago been covered in dust, from passing cars, or from the ferocious wind that all too often blows across the desert.
Not so in Dallol. After having crossed the totally flat, dry salt lake, we reach a hillier area, which turns out to be mostly brownish and grayish salt, eroded in the most bizarre forms, it looks. But once we reach the top of the slope, the other side turns out to be a screaming explosion of colour, a landscape of sulphur springs, white mounds, yellow, orange and reddish deposits, with small blue and green ponds in between. Astonishing, really, one cannot imagine a bigger contrast.
Walking around here, initially a little uneasy, on the darker parts of the surface, which somehow seem stronger, is a whole new experience. Everywhere are little, sometimes larger, fountains splashing hot water; when we come closer we can hear the water boiling underneath the surface; steam is coming off the more violent springs. Many of the vents that have formed on the surface have a white cone of fibrous sulphur around them. It is almost a crime to walk here, and to destroy this delicate process of creation (but then I remember the salt miners, and I don’t feel so bad anymore, about my own destructive influence). I could spend the whole day here, in awe – but it is actually pretty hot from the combined forces of earth and sun.
(1) from the flats omto an unsuspecting hill slope, similarly grey

(2, 3) which turns out to be mostly consisting of salt, eroded in pretty patterns

(4) only to, across the hill, expose a huge field with sulphur springs, developed in technicolor 

(5, 6, 7, 8) the standard stuff, hot springs creating little hills of sulphurous material, ever growing because of continuous water over-boiling

(9) some of the water forms ponds

(10, 11, 12, 13, 14) and more sulphur - really, I can select 10 other pictures at random, and show you the same amazing environment

A little further north salt occurs in yet another form, as enormous salt mountains in which steep valleys have been eroded by rain water. In detail, many of the salt surfaces have eroded further, and sharp spines have been formed along them. Under normal circumstances this would be a phenomenal natural feature, but after the sulphur springs, well, just nice.

Equally entertaining, perhaps, is that we have to be preceded by the soldiers that have been specially added to our entourage today. We are quite close, perhaps 10 km, from the border with Eritrea. Since a group of British tourists were abducted here in 2007, allegedly by Eritreans, every tourist must have a military escort of two soldiers – at its usual costs, of course. But it must be said, they are taking their job seriously, and every time we get out of the car, the soldiers survey the terrain, walk ahead to clear any potential obstacles, and “secure the perimeter”. What they would do against anything more than an accidentally lost Eritrean soldier, I don’t know, though.

(15) salt mountains, a short distance away from the sulphur springs
(16) the military escort secures the perimeter, before we can enter the gorge ourselves

(17, 18, 19) salt in various forms, quite attractive in fact, but not to sit on!

(20) and after the excursion the guns get back in the car....

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Hamed Ela

I cannot really call it a road, the stretch we are driving from Dodom to Hamed Ela, our next destination. First we bounce back across the lava surface again, then we follow, well, the occasional track, or just the gut feeling of our road runner: as part of our obligatory team of support, we have a local Afar who knows how to get from A to B, and who knows when to take an alternative route because an earlier one becomes impassable - I don’t really know why the tracks change so frequently, allegedly every few weeks (or would this be another justification for employing a road runner?). Our driver clearly enjoys the opportunity of off-the-road driving, and seems to think he is competing in the Paris-Dakar rally; for us passengers it is slightly less convenient, and not really comfortable (and I cannot stop thinking that it is not really necessary either), but hé, did we want adventure travel or not? Small trees are flattened in the process, occasionally a whole village is covered in the cloud of dust we produce. We get stuck in the sand a few times, but not too badly, and each time we manage to get out again. I am more concerned that our road runner, who has now been joined by a second road runner, is lost himself in this endless stretch of nothingness, sand, sand dunes, and some greens. But then we get to the inevitable village again, or to a salty spring where hundreds of camels are drinking. And we hit something of a real road again. Miraculously, we have indeed found our next destination, Hamed Ela. Quite an achievement, given the size of Hamed Ela!!

(1, 2) dunes may well block the tracks to Hamed Ele, at anyone time

(3) but whatever happens, there is always a village, somewhere

(4, 5) camels drink from a salty pool, in the middle of the desert

The people of Hamad Ela earn their living from salt. The village and its 4000 inhabitants or so live at the edge of a huge salt lake, Lake Asale, which for most of its expanse is dry – it is hard to believe that this area is covered in water during the rainy season. Miners cut the surface, extract huge plates of salt, and then cut and shave them to a standard size that can be transported on camels and donkeys to the market at Berhale, two days trekking away (traveling by night only, during the day it is simply too hot to move). Each late afternoon, enormous camel caravans move from the lake, via Hamed Ela, a spectacular sight. And a few days later the caravans return, empty. But the miners stay, day in day out, spending the whole day under the burning hot sun, on a burning hot white salt plane. And it is not that salt is a rare and expensive commodity, here.

(6, 7) Lake Asale, the salt lake where it still has water

(8) and the rest of the lake, dried up

(9, 10) workers chopping blocks of salt of standard size, which can be loaded on the camels for transport

(11) some of those camels taking it easy, ahead of a long trail

(12, 13, 14, 15) and some pictures of the camel caravans - note that it doesn't work to get a hundred camels on one picture, but the groups depicted here are but very small parts of a huge caravan

Despite the hard life, and what is more, despite the fact that every tourist who visits Danakil spends at least one, and more often two nights camping in Hamed Ela, the Afar people here are as nice as their brethren from Assaita, welcoming, friendly. They may have a ferocious history, yet, they smile, and they are genuinely welcoming. So it is possible, in Ethiopia. Our mandatory Afar guide treated us to a cold Coke, something he didn’t really had to do – I mention it because it hasn’t happened often in the past eight weeks that somebody did something for us without ulterior motive.

the scare (2)

Erta Ale is the place where a few months ago five tourists got killed, and two others, plus two Ethiopians, kidnapped (the tourists have been released a few weeks ago, no sign of the Ethiopians…). The perpetrators were, allegedly, a local movement that fights for more autonomy of the Afar region, likely supported by Eritrea trying to discredit Ethiopia ahead of the annual meeting of the African Union in Addis Abeba. Eritrea tries to do this every year, just before such meeting, through kidnappings, or bomb attacks, or anything, really.

Having seen the facilities around the crater, I think I now much better understand what happened. Just outside the crater rim, 15 minutes walk from the inner crater, are several stone huts and other enclosed areas, where people sleep after having been to the crater, and before heading back down at dawn. It is quite a chaotic place, huts everywhere, and especially when it is busy – there were 27 tourists than night, and they all have their own guides, plus mandatory local guides, a camel men, and the mandatory police escort – it is not particularly clear where everybody is. The attack on a group of tourists camping out here was quite likely aimed at getting some hostages, to attract international attention and to pressure the Ethiopian government into concessions. The attackers, anything between 20 and 30, from the various accounts, may not have acted with the utmost military precision, perhaps also not with the latest intelligence, when they zoomed in on the camp, searching for the foreigners. We met a local woman in Dodom earlier, who claimed to have been present that night, and told us that the rebels shot the five tourists point blank, because they refused to come with them. I find that hard to believe, from an organization that needs international support, or at least sympathy. And you don’t shoot five tourists in order to kidnap two. I think it is more likely that in the ensuing chaos, nobody knowing what was happening, shots were fired and the gun-toting police escorts panicked and started to shoot, or shoot back; in the cross fire a number of unfortunate tourists, lost in the dark, in an unfamiliar environment, got killed while trying to scurry away.
Of course, that would be an inconvenient truth. For starters, it would expose the incompetence of those police escorts. But it would also confirm the argument that if you arm the escorts, you in fact risk escalating the violence in case of an incident. Which is precisely what happened. But that would mean that you would be better off without a police escort, which would be a major economic blow to whoever is running the police escort business here.
You will never find out exactly what happened, and nobody will tell you.
(1) our entourage: a mandatory guide, a mandatory local guide, and two police escorts with guns; including our driver, who also came with us, and the two of us, that makes seven - you see how easily it gets busy, on the top

Friday, April 20, 2012

Erta Ale

When we walk down the mountain, the next morning, we actually see the slopes of the volcano close-up. Lava flows have come cascading down before solidifying whilst still furiously splashing, leaving an undulated, wavy surface. Fabulous structures have developed along the slope as part of the cooling process. It is just a pain to walk on the irregular surface, give me sandstone anytime (incidentally, give me sandstone, too, when it comes to sitting down: our trousers suffered badly from the occasional rest on the sharp tuffs).

(1, 2, 3) the side of the volcano in day-light, with numerous solidified lava structures
(4) wherever there is a little sand, grass manages to grow, incredible!

So this is where we have been the evening before, walking up, in the dark – well, by torch light, but not seeing much beyond our own feet. A strenuous 3.5 hour climb, not so much because of the climb, which was not very steep, but more because of the heat, despite the sun having gone down already. Pretty exhausting, perhaps we are less fit than we would like to think. But we got rewarded! Still some two hours away, we could already see the glare from the volcano, and when we come closer, we see the steam, we smell the sulphur. After having caught our breath again, we climbed down the crater rim. Erta Ale has two craters, one inside the other, and the outer one is made up of fibrous, once again undulating, lava, or whatever this particular stuff is called. Sometimes solid, but at other moments the rock crushes under our shoes, collapses, making us drop down. Never more than 10-20 cm, but it is an eerie feeling, especially because it is pretty dark everywhere: you could imagine yourself being swallowed by the volcano, if lower layers are equally weak. Getting closer to the rim of the inner caldera, you glimpse where you could end up: in purgatory, occasionally changing to hell when a burst of molten lava explodes upwards. Below – perhaps 50 to 100 meters down, difficult to estimate -, the inner caldera is entirely liquid: although parts of the lava lake seem dark, we can see the surface moving in angry waves, as if a bad storm blows over the lake. Some cracks in the dark surface allow a view of what is going on below the surface, and in case your imagination is insufficient, fountains of yellow and red-hot lava splash up along the rim at times, the glowing fluid clearly sticking to the rock afterwards. I have seen volcanoes before, and I have looked over crater rims before, but this, I have never seen.

The guides are a little nervous when we come to close to the edge, and the surface is indeed pretty hot – although I think they are more concerned about pieces of the rim breaking off and falling down, taking us with them. Into purgatory, into hell.

(5, 6, 7) just a few photos of the crater by night - active it is1

 Of course I need to see this in daylight too, so where most other tourists descent at dawn, to avoid the heat of the day, I have to get back into the outer crater, at first light. The softish rock we were walking on last night is silvery coloured, and once again, solidified in beautiful patterns.  And wherever there is a strong sulphur smell – much stronger now than earlier, and almost suffocating in some areas – yellow threads, fibres, are attached to the rock. I don’t know how this process works, but it is fascinating, seeing this web of sulphur covering the rock.

The crater is as active as the night before, and as impressive, although in daylight it is actually much smaller than we had anticipated. The contrasting glows are less pronounced, but you still get a pretty good idea of what is going on, down there.
(8) a watery sunrise over the crater

(9) the crater in day-light, actually pretty small
(10) this is the stuff we walked on, an crashed through, during the night

(11) and this is the yellow sulphur web that forms across the rocks where vents expulse sulphur, something you can clearly smell
We start walking down the volcano much too late, and it takes us almost three hours to reach the camp where the cars are parked. Partly because of the amazing geology on the way, the fantastic structures in the solidified lava. Partly because of the uncomfortable surface, of course. Partly because the camel that had brought our stuff up the night before had decided to leave, together with another group, earlier in the morning, leaving our camel man at a loss, and us with lots of equipment to carry down between the seven of us. But mostly, because by 9 am it is already searing hot on the slopes. And there is nothing around, just back rock. No shade, no shade whatsoever. We have now been three days in the Danakil Depression, two more to go, but we are already thinking of our well-deserved – at least, that’s what we think – comfortable hotel room at the end of it. I cannot even begin to think what it must be like for the people who live here, with very little water - and forget about cold water -, with no shade; with the permanent heat of the Danakil Depression around them day and night for the rest of their lives, and that of their children. Until the road to Mekele is finished, perhaps. That road up the Erta Ale, that I mentioned earlier, I am afraid that will still take some time: this remains, after all, some of the most inhospitable countryside in the world.

(12) camel man on the way down, looking for his camel

(13) and one of our police escort, demonstrating yet another use for a Kalashnikov, as a carrying stick