One of the most incredible places I've ever been - the Danakil Depression!
So there's good news and bad news... The good news is that I just spent four days in one of the most incredible places I've ever been - the Danakil Depression. The bad news is... my camera broke... again. I've now gone through two cameras in eight months of travel... not a very good record. But there's actually one more tidbit of good news. I've been traveling with an Aussie named Peter who has an amazing camera and he has promised to send me photos of everything I haven't been able to capture. Unfortunately it may take some time before I get them from him but I will eventually have photos. In the meantime, National Geographic coincidentally just published an article on the Danakil (Jan 2012) and there are photos in there of almost everything we saw! :-) We actually discovered that while driving around... someone had the magazine in the car and I started flipping through it and... realized the photos looked very familiar!
Anyway, first I spent a few days in Mekele setting the trip up which is actually the most modern-looking city I've seen in Ethiopia so far. There weren't many sights to see but the huge market was really fun to explore and it was Ethiopian Christmas so everyone was out buying live chickens and goats to feast on, grass (they spread it over the floor of their homes, restaurants, etc), oranges, etc. My camera was still working at this point so I'll try to post a few photos of the market soon. The Mekele market is also where the Afar people come to sell the salt that they harvest from the salt plains of the Danakil Depression. Its apparently a seven day walk one way! On our trip we saw a lot of long camel trains coming to and from the desert loaded up with blocks of salt but I didn't actually see any arrive in the city.
So to give a little bit of background, the Danakil Depression is one of the harshest places on earth and supposedly has the highest recorded average temperature of anywhere in the world. But even still, there are groups of nomads living there - the Afar - and from what we saw, they seem to follow some very traditional ways of life. Their homes are made mostly of grass mats that they weave and look like rounded versions of the gers of Mongolia. They are Muslim...as opposed to the majority of Ethiopians that are Christians. They also have a history of being quite violent - there have apparently been a few kidnappings of tourists in the last decade and they were known to cut the testicles off of enemies in the past but it seems that they have been appeased (at least somewhat) by the income they get from the tourists that come to see them and their land (but we still had armed guards with us for protection... I guess from the Afar but also because we were very close to the Eritrean border). The Afar have a few other interesting characteristics... some of them sharpen their two front teeth for aesthetic reasons so they look a bit like vampires! They are nomadic -basically following the little water that is found in the region along with their goats, cows, camels and donkeys - and even their schools move with them! The animals were often found in the shade of the few trees and bushes that were around but for the most part the land is barren except for a strange poisonous plant that seemed to thrive everywhere! The people seem to live extremely simply as there's really not much around out in the dusty, sandy, hot desert but when we asked the men we saw chopping up the salt plains why they don't wear hats to shade themselves from the sun or why they don't take a break in the middle of the day when the sun is harshest, they said they don't need to... they're used to it. :-) They also had some interesting demands/concerns about tourists visiting their land. We slept in one of their permanent "villages" and they refused to let the tour companies dig toilets for us to use. They insisted that we just go out into the desert to do our business but this meant some really smelly and messy ground surrounding the camp. They seemed to think that if we dug a toilet then we would be taking some kind of ownership of their land by changing it... the resulting filth didn't seem to bother them. I put the word "village" in quotes because it was just a collection of corrugated iron/grass huts. We slept under the stars on wicker beds we rented from villagers. In general the people were very friendly but some really didn't like having their photos taken. A few fights nearly broke out even if someone was just holding a camera in their view. Others were perfectly happy being photographed and I know Peter will be providing me with plenty of good shots. :-)
Needless to say, we needed a 4 wheel drive vehicle to get out there and tourist groups always travel together in case someone gets stuck or breaks down. In parts the "road" was so deep with sand and dust that it covered most of the wheels. We had to stay quite far apart from each other as well because at times the dust from the car in front would obscure our view for at least 30 seconds. We spent a good hour or two driving over lava (cooled of course) as well so it was quite the bumpy ride. Air conditioning was also necessary so the cars we were in were probably the nicest I've seen so far in Ethiopia. :-)
The main attraction of the four day trip was the Erta Ale volcano. It's an active volcano with the world's only lava lake. We arrived at the base of the very flat-looking mountain at around 2pm but sat in the shade of the cars and the few huts there until after sunset before we started our climb because it was just too hot to do anything before then. It took about three hours of walking to get to the top... we used head lamps but it was a full moon so we almost didn't need them. When we arrived at the crater all we could initially see was the dim glow from the lava about 50 meters away. I was already really impressed but then we climbed down into the crater and walked right up to the edge! It was bubbling and spewing lava everywhere but most of the time the glowing bits didn't reach the top of the smaller crater we were standing on. If you look at the photo in the Nat Geo article you can see the tiny people standing next to the lava... that's where we were!! I was really scared because occasionally the lake started to churn quite violently and some pieces would fly high up into the air but some of the others seemed happy to stand close to the edge. The fumes and the intense heat were also too much for some (including me - I had to breathe through a scarf and close my eyes whenever the wind blew) so after about 15 minutes of watching the fire filled lake, I went back to the top of the crater where we were sleeping for the night. It was one of the most incredible things I've ever seen but I'm sure that we wouldn't have been allowed to get anywhere near that lava in any Western country. Our guide even admitted that the lake overflowed seven months ago... but luckily no one was around. The next morning we went back to the lake (it was only a five minute walk from where we slept under the stars) and got some final photos with the sun starting to rise before heading back down the mountain before it was too hot. I can't wait to see all the photos!
The last day of the trip (much of the first few days were spent driving to the volcano) was just as - if not even more - impressive. We saw some bubbling sulphur springs that were neon yellow and green. Parts of the formations looked like coral that I'd expect to see when scuba diving! We then went to a bubbling lake that we were told had oil in it and it did feel like oil (it wasn't too hot to touch) but a guy in the group said it was potash instead. Either way, it was cool. Next we saw a salt cave and some cliffs that were made of salt but erosion had carved them into castle-like shapes with spikes everywhere that looked like millions of turrets! We also visited the salt plain where the Afar men work all day chopping up salt blocks, strapping them onto camels and then walking the 180 km to Mekele to sell them (for very little money). It was amazing to see witness a lifestyle so far removed from anything I had ever imagined.
All in all, it was an amazing four days... can't wait to see the photos!