31st October - 4th November
The 31st of October marked the start of a more extreme adventure, into the low lying region of the Danakil Depression. The Danakil lies on the border with Eritrea in the Afar region, and it is one of the few areas in the country that must be visited on a tour. We did some research and made our choice - Pangeans Safaris - and we did not regret it.
Pangeans is owned by a Greek-Ethiopian couple, Christos and Lysa, who both run trips to the Danakil. We were accompanied, driven and led by Christos, who is a passionate, earnest Greek man who has been living in Ethiopia for 7 years. His opinions and antics were an amusement to us all during the 5 days we spent with him, and we felt entirely safe in his hands. There were 5 of us on the trip: French Florence, Kim and Tom from Texas and Jase and I. Of course the rest of the seats in the 3 Landcruisers were not free. There were the Afar police, the army escorts, Christos’ family cook, litres and litres of water, food and luggage…
Beasts of the Road
We swerve between the beasts, inhaling their fumes and listening to their thunder. Crates overloaded with goods sway above us as we overtake. The ants in their cabins pretend to control but these giants could crush them in an instant. Goods making their passage between Ethiopia and Djibouti peek out at us in curiousity. Waiting to cross bridges they line up for kilometres, belching their fumes with a rumbling hiss. This is a violence that is new to me and becomes more and more real as we round bends to find broken skeletons crushed by the side of the road. Let this be a lesson not a reality they scream. I can only hope…
Awash National Park
After defeating Ethiopia’s most dangerous road and emerging unscathed we made a trip to Awash National Park. The grassy savannah stretches for miles here, dotted with flat-topped trees, and overlooked by vast mountain ranges. You can almost imagine the lions slinking through the grass, or the elephants stomping the savannah…but sadly, Ethiopia has not been kind to its animals and the only beasts we saw were deer, ostriches and guinea fowls. Although I cannot forget the river…we saw a crocodile basking in the sunlight it’s jaw open wide. And there may have even been some fish. The falls were beautiful also. After lunch, a stroll and rather scant game drive, we hit the asphalt once more, onwards to the nights destination…Semara.
I think anything would have been delicious by the time we arrived in Semara, ravenous, dirty and stiff. But I have to say, my goat bolognese was not just tasty because I was starving. The Ethiopians have managed to recreate their own spicy version of bolognese sauce that sits very well in the stomach.
By the light of day Semara showed itself to be a desolate place. A city of the desert where more modern buildings are juxtaposed with the dome huts of the Afar tribes. Women weave between trucks and over dirt in colourful, yet conservative dress. The rumble of trucks churning through the dust on route to Djibouti break through the silence. This place seems something of a hell-hole, yet it is nothing compared to what is to come…
The vastness of the Ethiopian desert stretches out to the horizon, unyielding and harsh. Giant trucks zoom past camels and Afar huts, stopping for no one. Children race towards the vehicle shouting, “Highland, Highland,” meaning water. Covered in dust and dry as a bone, they look like they have not drunk for days. I know this cannot be, yet I feel disturbed by the image all the same. We pass dome huts interspersed between small villages. Men cluster in the shade, while women haul water, wash clothes and sit by stoves. This is a mans world.
Rocky mountains meld into flat planes. Cracked dirt is dotted with trees holding fruit that yield no juices. Dust rises around the vehicle creeping into the crevices and sticking to our skin. Then we reach the mud…
The people of this region are called the Afar. They are desert people, lean of frame and solemn. The men wear sarongs and sandals and carry sticks. The women are covered with colourful materials and head scarves to protect their modesty. Women are the cornerstone of society in these tribes, keeping the household alive and often working with the animals. The men are very good at sitting in the shade and speaking amongst men, although not all are this inactive. In the salt desert and the road to Mekele we saw the more physical labour of the men, and my disquiet with the woman’s plight was mellowed somewhat.
Driving into a village you are surrounded by men. “But where are the women,” I ask? “Inside or over there,” they reply. In one village I found myself circled by 15 male youths, asking my name, my country, where I’m going. I look over to Jason and he only has 2 Afar friends. “I will go to my husband,” I say. “I love you,” one youth responds.
“What do you know of loving a woman,” I think to myself as I look inside the huts to see the women labouring. Seeing the marking their husbands give them when they marry. Like an animal…Maybe that is harsh, but it is my gut reaction. What kind of punishment is it to be born a woman in a culture such as this…?
For kilometres we jolt over rocks towards the volcano, the loaded guns of our our army escorts bumping along beside us. ‘I hope the safety catch is on,’ I think to myself, as I stare down the barrel of the gun. After a long bumpy ride we arrive to the base of the volcano to find that our camels have been taken by another group. Plans of walking lightly laden up to the lava lake fly out the window, and we prepare for a more heavily loaded journey.
The wind is harsh in the desert, and the bolognese heavy in our bellies. 4L of water sloshes gently in my backpack as I leap from rock to rock. Slowly, slowly, we ascend. Guided by the Afar police, and our trail lit only by moonlight we trudge onwards. My eyelids feel heavy as we walk and my eyes dry from the desert winds. It’s 2am when we finally reach the top, only to descend once more into the caldera…
From a top the mountain we can see the mouth of the volcano glowing in the night. As we descend into the caldera we walk over sparkling ground, brittle in its twists and turns, solidifying from recent eruption. Inside the lava ebbs and flows, swelling in terrifying waves and then sinking back into its hole. The gases burn our eyes and irritate our throats but somehow you can’t look away. Standing on the edge of such immense power is a strange experience. One not easily forgotten.
A village set amongst stones, radiating with heat as the sun beats down on the wooden houses. Donkeys and goats take refuge where they can in vacant structures. People hide during the day and emerge at dusk to go about their daily business. Privacy is a dream not a reality. The only toilet in the village is in the corner of the army barracks where someone has trampled the barbed wire fence. Most use the pebbly ditch at the edge of town once dark has fallen, or camouflage themselves in their sarongs in an attempt at modesty.
Our own camp is no more luxurious. We sleep underneath the stars on camping stretchers, use the local latrines and shower inside our makeshift hut with water pumped from the well. Never have I stayed somewhere so basic and devoid of comforts, yet we maintain some kind of solidarity with the villagers by living as they do - even if only for 2 nights.
Driving away from here, leaving the village in our dust, we move towards luxury once more. How is this fair?
In my mind a landscape this alien has never existed on Earth. The iron, sulphur and salt combine to create crusts and spouts of amazing colours. The earth hisses beneath your feet and steam rises from hot pools reflecting bizarre formations. Is there more heat from above or below? Sometimes it’s hard to tell.
Alice’s Wonderland seems almost boring compared to this. Mushrooming foot stools of salt and rock project upward inviting the passers by to a tea party.
Salt pyres stretch to the heavens, their jagged surface glowing translucent in the sun. Caves beneath emerge into secret hideaways amongst the salt.
Hairy lips in the Desert
Floppy, hairy lips beneath weary, curious eyes. The camel stares out from beneath it’s long lashes to the vast expanse of the salt desert, resigning itself to the long walk ahead. Some take their task more graciously than others. One camel expresses its discontent with being saddled by groaning unhappy sighs as the other camels look on. The road to Mekele stretches out before them across the desert…5 days of marching, laden with salt bricks for the market. A sobering thought for even the most energetic humpy soul.
Weathered, wasted men crouch amongst the salt chipping the blocks to sell on. There is little in the way of protection out here aside from the well-worn scarves decorating their heads. They chip the blocks to size then load their beasts for the journey ahead. Is this life some kind of punishment? To me it seems so…
The salt caravans fan out across the desert, the camels led by weary men. In profile, the camels seem almost to be smiling - something I never did understand…Bearing witness to this process highlights once again the vast divide between my life and the life of others less fortunate.
An Eventful Day
We zoom around corners, along the gravel roads until we come to a village. We slow down but not quite enough. As we drive I see a young boy, maybe 3 or 4 years old, running towards the road. The child has reached the centre and we cannot stop in time. I cannot see him any more. Christos leaps from the car and the child runs crying to the side of the road. The villagers begin to crowd around, pulling Christos this way and that.
I try and tell them I’m a doctor, but they don’t understand. I can see the accusation in their eyes. “Why is this white woman trying to lay hands on our child?” Christos is distraught. I try and tell him to translate for me, but it takes some time for him to comprehend my words. Eventually the message gets through and I find myself being taken to the house where the child is being cradled by its mother. I hope that my skills are not so rusty, but thankfully one look at the boy shows a shocked child, but not one badly hurt. I feel his scalp, palpate his spine, listen to his chest with the rudimentary stethoscope, feel his tummy, move his limbs. Everything seems ok.
The villagers huddle around while I perform my basic medical assessment. I can sense their curiousity. A woman doctor? A white woman looking at their child? How very strange…Christos agrees to get the child further assessed at the medical clinic 10km down the road. We are left in the village whilst the locals pile into the Landcruiser, and here we stay for the next 2 hours.
I’ve said before that stranded moments can be some of the most interesting. We sit in the local store surrounded by the village people. Florence receives a proposal or 2 which thankfully I escape. Tom gets his family album out which is a big hit. Somehow knowing that the faranji has family makes him more real.
We are even invited to a coffee ceremony with the locals before Christos arrives again. The local men are trading chat for chewing as we are sipping our 100% arabica from one of the most remote villages in Ethiopia. The women are cooking injera around the corner and the salt caravans are slowly making their way past outside.
Thankfully, when Christos returns the news is good. The boy is ok. He pays the exorbitant price which is way too much and we are on our way again. The shock of accident still plagues him but slowly slowly we can all move on…
Wow! Does this suffice?
Our experiences on this trip have been so varied. Some more interesting than others, some more extreme than others. This 5 day experience was definitely the most extreme journey we’ve had during our 8 months on the road, and worth every penny. We experienced a culture far removed from our own, drove through amazing landscapes, felt singed by a volcano and walked on what felt like another planet. We sweated our body’s weight in water, hid from the sun and emerged in Mekele caked in dirt.
AMAZING! Thank you Christos and thank you Pangeans Safaris, but most of all, thank you to those who let us see their land and experience a snippet of life they lead!