Saturday, 13 January 2018

Ethiopia – Danakil’s natural wonders

January 2-5

Hello everyone!

I’ve been to Ethiopia’s capital and its main tourist attraction. Time to go off the beaten track to a place which is simply out of this world.


Erta Ale volcano

Ethiopia prides itself on being one of the main resistors to colonialism. The British effectively prevented the Italians from taking the land known as Abyssinia – what is now Ethiopia in the 1880s. Ethiopians will tell you they were occupied, rather than colonised, during the Mussolini era in the 1930s; even that period of Italian control was a mere five years.

Ethiopia and Liberia were the only African nations not
colonised in the Scramble for Africa in the 1880's

This is not to say that Ethiopia has avoided the tribal and territorial issues which have plagued the African continent since decolonisation accelerated in the 1960s. Eritrea became its own internationally-recognised country in 1993, and tensions between the two have remained high ever since. The situation is at its most volatile along the border, in an area called the Danakil Depression, a desert covering the north and east of the country.

All borders between the two countries are closed
If I were to tell you that this was where I was going, you may think me to be slightly mad. That may change to downright foolish when you learn that a tourist was shot dead in the area one month ago.

A screenshot of the BBC article reporting the death on December 3rd

There’s another way of looking at this: very much glass half-full. These attacks have happened once every five years. Additionally, numerous statements were published about an increase in the Ethiopian military and police presence in the region – many places are at their safest in the aftermath of an attack due to such a security increase. The fact that the victim went without security, which was strongly suggested before the attack happened, also lends weight to the notion that visiting Danakil would be safe if the right precautions were taken.

Security forces are present - and very visible - in the Danakil area

This is not to say I didn’t have concerns or doubts about going. A fair-weather traveller wouldn’t come near this place. I wasn’t sure whether anyone else would risk a four-day excursion into the Danakil Depression. I needn’t have worried about that…

We slept under the stars at Hamed Ale on the first night - any
kind of amenity is rare

Vehicles drive in a convoy for protection - ours had twelve 4x4's

I was quite surprised, and certainly reassured, upon discovering that there were almost thirty people on my excursion. Most on the trip shared the view I have just explained; also, they were very eager to see sights of this area, which at the moment is certainly off the common ‘historical’ route through the north and west of Ethiopia. Much of it is uninhabited, with only members of the Afar tribe desperately struggling to survive its inhospitable conditions.

The low level helps to explain why the region is one of the hottest
on Earth, with temperatures often exceeding 50'C
Those sights? I think it’s easier for the pictures to give you an idea as to why people come to this area…

Lake Asale
Yellow Pond
Erta Ale volcano
Lake Afrera

This geological nirvana was created by the fact that it lies at a point where three tectonic plates (the Arabian and two splitting sections of the African plate). These helped to create the Rift Valley which is the spine of much of eastern and southern Africa. As the name suggests, the Danakil Depression is also a very low-lying desert area. The location of the colourful rocks, Dallol, is 116 metres below sea level. After walking along the flank for about ten minutes, your eyes fix on the rainbow of rocks in the distance.

This area is the second-lowest point in Africa - Lake Assal
in Djibouti is at -155m

The colourful rocks are higher due to volcanic activity
pushing them up

It looks like a geothermal image, or an Instagram photo which has been doctored to wildly change the landscape. This is all natural. The different colours represent different minerals and compounds found here: red for iron, white for potash (potassium salt) and yellow for sulphur. Any of you who have been in the presence of sulphur before, whether in a school science lab or near a volcano, will be able to make an educated guess at what smell dominated the area.

Dallol translates as 'Shining Gold' in the local Afar language
Sulphuric pools at Dallol

It’s a stunning sight. Arriving before other tour groups, we were able to admire the different colours in an almost silent aura, with the only noises being camera clicks, feet crunching over the solidified sulphur and the hissing and bubbling of the liquid below. That liquid was sulphuric acid – not something you want to touch.

The water can reach temperatures of up to 100'C - another
reason to avoid contact with it!

Jobs for the Afar people are few and far between but the minerals help to provide a means of income. In particular, salt is extensively mined in the Danakil.

Mining will occur in temperatures in excess of 50'C
in June and July

At the request of the Afar and support of the national government, mining is done traditionally and without machines. This means salt is extracted by hand and then dispatched by camel to the nearest major town. It must be unbearable in the summer. I’d recommend that anyone visiting the area buys some cheap sunglasses to donate.

The government wants to pacify the Afar as they help
protect the Eritrean border

Salt is prevalent throughout the region. Salt deserts exist, with the one surrounding Lake Asale being 40 km by 30 km. The crunch underfoot and bright reflection from the floor reminded me of a snowy Kazakh winter’s day. I wouldn’t have been wearing a T-shirt then, though…

The strange shapes are apparently created by tectonic tremors

Sunset at a salty Lake Asale

It allowed us a bit of fun in Lake Afrera, a low-lying lake which I imagine is similar to the Dead Sea as you can float in it. I tried swimming and my legs kept popping up out of the water! Bizarrely, you feel different temperatures in the same spot; the top of the water is very warm as it is freshwater from a nearby hot spring, with the bottom, salt-absorbed part being significantly cooler.

At -103m, this island is the lowest 'high point' of a
land mass anywhere on Earth
Floating in Lake Afrera

Another hot spring is far less attractive. The ‘Yellow Pond’, so-called due to its sulphuric content and hue in certain light, has many dead birds around it. The birds are so parched and desperate for fluids that they will drink from the pond and then perish around it. 80% of the lake is potash, which is a useful fertiliser in this part of the world.

Carbonic rock which melts underneath the pond gives
the water an oily appearance and texture

The water is 20% sulphur

The hottest place of all is also the most dangerous: Erta Ale. Meaning ‘Smoky Mountain’, the volcano which rises to 613 metres above sea level is constantly boiling and bubbling, causing toil and trouble for anyone in its path when an eruption happens. The last eruption? 12 months ago…

Erta Ale is continuously active and smoking

The crater of Erta Ale
If it was easy to get to, Erta Ale would be a constant hive of activity. Driving over sand, cooled lava and seemingly impassable boulders at various points puts paid to that. Vehicles often get stuck, which is another advantage of driving in a convoy. This is a tangible example of ‘off the beaten track’. The lack of toilets would put many off as well…

We set off for the summit in darkness, just after 7:30pm. With the moon yet to rise, the only light was a glowing red blur in the distance. The crater of Erta Ale.

A contrast of fire and moonlight
Three hours later, after a surprisingly gentle hike, we were a mere 300 metres from the crater. This was where we were going to sleep, in between visiting the top. Yes, we were sleeping very close to the opening of an active volcano.

The slope is gentler than most volcanoes
The walk across to the crater needs a little more care; molten rock isn’t as strong as stone, meaning that large fragments of it have the potential to break when you stand on them. Soon after, we reached the crater…

Fragments from the caldera contain many minerals, including
flecks of gold

Nice and safe...

In most other places in the world, we would have been stood at least 10 metres away from the edge, which would be roped off and manned to ensure no one did anything silly. Here, atop a windy, smoky volcano, we were told to stay ‘about one metre’ from the edge. One metre from certain death. One metre from a place which certainly would have protected the One Ring To Rule Them All.

Admiring the crater from the edge of Erta Ale

Erta Ale has one of the few persistent lava lakes in the world

The smoke often shrouded the magma beneath; this explains the poor quality of the pictures. It’s actually quite cold due to the wind whipping around the peak. When you get closer to the edge, however, you can feel warmth emanating from below.

No smoke without fire!

What we were able to see was a river of magma, visible when the activity beneath the chamber’s volcanic rock is too much for it to bear. Flowing silently (well, from a distance) from right to left, it sporadically sped up and whizzed very large pieces of rock out of sight. It reminded me of a water slide. Admittedly, this slide would be fatal… 

The magma carrying debris along its fiery path

When the smoke cleared sufficiently to see the magma flow far below, an almost hypnotic aura resonated around Erta Ale. Once again, the colours visible are spellbindingly vivid. Once again, the only sounds were camera clicks, the whipping wind and an occasional, barely audible crackling from the fiery hell below. Once again, not a word was spoken.

Erta Ale is known locally as the 'Gateway to Hell'

If it was safe and comfortable, visiting the incredible natural sights of the Danakil Depression would be near the top of almost every adventurer’s list. The challenges for a casual traveller are numerous – I showered once in four days and made more use of the natural world as a toilet in four days than I ever have in my life. More people are coming – an awful visual example of this is the number of plastic bottles left on the flank of the volcano – but this will never be classed as a ‘relaxing’ holiday spot. What it is? An incredible experience of the extreme natural world, and an otherworldly reward for anyone who is adventurous enough to come.

Love you all


Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Ethiopia – The Wonder of the World Built by Angels

December 30-January 1

Hello everyone!

Welcome to what Ethiopians call the Eighth Wonder of the World.

The Church of St. George, Lalibela

Pilgrims praying at a mass service, which started at 5:30am

This is Lalibela, a pilgrimage site for Ethiopian Orthodox Christians. A short flight north from Addis takes you up to 2,600 metres above sea level, to a village famous for its churches which are in excess of 800 years old.

A Bombardier, the way to travel quickly across Ethiopia

Bete Medhane Alem, one of the larger churches

To the unknowing eye, these places of worship look intriguing and impressive. To those who know how they were created, they are simply staggering.

The contrast between the church and the rock its etched from

A combination of the Jewish Star of David
and the Orthodox cross

Before construction started on these eleven churches during the time of King Lalibela, the area where the churches stand was rock. All rock. These churches were chiselled out of the soft tufa rock which is found in the hills of the village.

This church is rumoured to be King Lalibela's house when he was alive
The larger churches are protected from the weather
by large roofs, which are an unfortunate eyesore

Unlike most buildings, which are built from bottom to top, these pretty intricate designs were started from the top. The rock was gradually chiselled away into the shape of a church. They then carved the inside so that there were rooms inside this rock. The best comparison I can think of is if you have a block of wood and you remove parts of it to create a sculpture. In this case, the ‘wood’ is the soil of our own planet.

Bete Maryam - Church of St. Mary
The designs inside the churches are incredibly
complex considering their construction

The result is that you can stand on the original rock and look down into parts of an underground system of buildings which seems fairly unique. The northern cluster in particular look like an early indication of town planning, with tunnels and narrow pathways etched between them. Many of the churches are monolithic, meaning that they are free-standing and independent of any support from the sides by the original rock. Some, such as the two below, are in excess of 15 metres tall.

Some of the churches have been renovated
recently, as shown by the newer pillars

This is a rock-hewn church, meaning
you can walk all around it

Others are semi-monolithic, meaning that they can be walked around but are supported from the roof. This one, called Bet Abba Libanos, looks a lot like the world-famous Petra in Jordan. As soon as I saw it, I thought of Indiana Jones.

This church is built into the rock, with the back wall and
roof supporting the carved structure

Bete Abba Libanos, which reminded me
of Indiana Jones

What adds to the aura of Lalibela is that these churches are all actively used on a daily basis. Even when staying two kilometres away from the two sites where the buildings are found, a person can wake at sunrise to the sound of chanting or lecturing. This is a live exhibition of the Ethiopian Orthodox religion.

Pilgrims with whiter robes are generally from towns,
with the off-white robes belonging to people from the countryside

Lalibela also showcases a religious passion which seems to have disappeared from much of Europe. The unstinting belief of the stories behind the churches and their creator, King Lalibela, shows complete dedication to their religion. The SparkNotes version of the story is that King Lalibela went to Jerusalem and was told by God to build these churches in a particular place to create a ‘New Jerusalem’. No US Embassy in sight, by the way. Lalibela returned and then built most of the churches in 23 years. Depending on who you listen to, he was helped by up to 40,000 men…or angels.

King Lalibela is the third King, with the green robe
Replicas of the Ark of the Covenant are
behind the curtains - only priests can see it

Understandably for a place of pilgrimage, everything has a religious link. Many of the churches have nine windows, reflecting the number of saints worshipped in Orthodoxism. Most have four pillars inside, one for each Orthodox evangelist. Some have eyes carved into the pillars to represent the vision of the angels. The trenches from the northern and southern clusters join to make the Jordan River.

A carving of an Orthodox saint

This is a fertility pool - women have to be lowered
in with a rope as it's quite deep

One which I really enjoyed was the ‘Tunnel to Heaven’. You start at the bottom of a narrow opening and carefully tread upwards into pitch-black darkness: ‘hell’. Only being guided by putting your hands out to the sides (and above your head if you’re reasonably tall), you trek through the claustrophobic passageway for about forty metres before seeing a shaft of light: ‘heaven’. Many believers will start hollering ‘ai-ai-ai-ai’ when they emerge into the light, next to another church.

Looks fine with a camera flash - in reality, this
was complete darkness

Pilgrims would holler loudly as they rise from the tunnel

There are many other legends and tales about Lalibela, many of which have been contested by academics. What they do, however, is add to the mystique and atmosphere of the village. This is particularly poignant at the moment as many pilgrims are flocking to Lalibela from across the country, often hundreds of kilometres by foot, to worship, learn and celebrate Genna on January 7th: Ethiopian Christmas.

Apparently, this cross wasn't made, instead
being given to Lalibela by God

Pilgrims were sleeping in the open in large groups

With little more than their white (or off-white if from the countryside) robes, a Bible and a smile, the pilgrims – many of whom seem to be of pensionable age – wander around the churches, kissing the walls and muttering prayers.

This will be full as Genna approaches
Pilgrims massing around the Church of St. George

Lalibela is at its most spiritual in the early morning. On Sunday, each church hosts a 5:30am mass for two hours, before priests start teaching. With more and more pilgrims arriving in the run-up to Christmas, it makes for a memorable atmosphere, with people of all ages squashed into the churches or listening intently in the grounds or on the hills above, all bound by their common faith. On the Monday, everyone flocked to the most photogenic church, the symmetrical, cross-shaped Bet Giorgys (House of St. George).

Most can't fit inside the church so have to stand outside

Modern technology has obviously permeated the Orthodox church...

Waking up for the latter was a challenge as I had been celebrating Western New Year’s Eve the night before. This crazy design is actually a restaurant called Ben Abeba, a Scottish-Ethiopian adventure which possesses stunning panoramas of the valleys way below.

Ben is Scottish for mountain; Abeba is Amharic for flower
Sitting by the fire, where we listened to local musicians
while eating tablet & shortbread

We had taken a tuk-tuk to the restaurant. After a brief chat with the driver, he asked if any of us wanted to drive. I thought he was joking…

Tuk-tuks are easy to drive - apparently it's just like a moped
The real driver kept suggesting I was driving too fast...

Lalibela is an incredible place, particularly with so many pilgrims arriving to add to its air of spirituality. I still can’t get my head around how these rock-hewn churches were carefully carved out of the rocks which you can stand on metres away. I can certainly see why it’s sometimes said to be the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’.

Sunset view from Ben Abeba

An incredible landscape
Secret tunnels and lots of adventure

Love you all and Happy New Year,