San Basilio de Palenque

We had four nights/three days in Cartagena so we explored old town, checked out Playa de Bocagrande, the main beach in Cartagena and not worth the visit and then made a day trip to San Basilio de Palenque, the first “free town” for Africans in the Americas.

The free lands of San Basilio de Palenque were founded more than two hundred years before Columbia achieved independence from Spain. To this day their culture and traditions have remained intact which is why UNESCO declared Palenque a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2005.

The exact date of the foundation of the town is not known but it is immortalized by the statue of Benkos Bioho, a West African slave who escaped from Cartagena and with other escapees established their own settlement and were eventually given the right for freedom in a decree signed by the Spanish Crown.

We hired a driver in Cartagena and his fee included a guide in Palenque. It was extremely hot outside and we wandered around dog poop littered roads hearing about the history of this town of 4,000 people.

Many of the cultural practices from music, medicine, social and religeous beliefs have direct African roots that have thrived for centuries. Several walls throughout the village have colorful Bantu/Palenquero words painted on walls. Bantu, an African language has been mixed with Spanish to create the Palenquero language, one of 68 languages found in Columbia and the goal of the the painted walls of words is to keep the language alive and maintain it’s African roots.

Further along our walk through the village we stopped at an old house which was representative of the homes from about 100 years ago. One of the fascinating things we learned had to do with the braiding or cornrows that black women would do to each others hair. What appeared to be just braids served as maps and escape routes and tools of resistance. Benkos Bioho came up with the idea and no one would question or think that one could hide entire maps in their hairstyle so it was easy to to circulate them without anyone finding out about them.

We made a short stop at the local Shamans hut where we were told the village did not experience any Covid cases because all were given a drink concoction of eye of newt, no sorry, of natural herbs and spices grown locally. Like any shamans place there were mixtures and tinctures and drinks and powders for whatever ailed the human condition.

Our last stop was a small monument dedicated to a local boxer, Antonio Cervantes, aka Kid Pambele, a boxing world Jr. Welterweight champion in 1973 and 1976 born and raised in Palenque. A pride of his village and one of three well known boxers to have originated in this town.

Cartagena

We arrived in Cartagena on the morning of January 12th after a short flight from Medellin. We were instantly hit with a + 10 degree temperature difference. Welcome to Caribbean Columbia!

We stayed at a small converted mansion, Casa Abril II located within the walls of old town Cartagena (Cartagena de Indias) which is a UNESCO designated world heritage site.

The colonial architecture in the old town is outstanding, built by the Spanish from the mid-16th century. Strolling through the streets we were met by beautiful huge vines of buganvilias that spilled over the terraces eliciting a sense of well being and beauty.

And then came the non-stop harassment from the multitude of vendors and street sellers and wanna be rap hip hop singers who forced their way into your face and royally pissed us off. And if there happened to be a billion (5,000) passenger cruise ship in town then all bets were off. Old Cartagena with all of it’s colonial beauty is not a place we would visit again and is probably worth only a day or two of your time.. The harassment was never ending. Por favor deja de molestarnos, please stop bothering us.

On a more positive note, the restaurants we visited were all top notch and the food was delicious however being in a main tourist attraction, the prices were also way up there. Not much different than the prices in our home town of Vancouver.

Just outside the walls of Old Cartagena is the large and imposing Castillo de San Felipe, the largest military building constructed by the Spanish Crown in the Americas. The castle was built in 1536 and is located on the Hill of San Lazaro which gives it an excellent vantage point and strategic location to view the approaches to the city by land or sea. Our impression was this was more of a fort than a castle because there were very few inner passages you could explore and none seemed to lead to rooms or sleeping quarters however this may be because these aren’t open to the public if they do indeed exist.

Medellin

After our arrival on the 6th, we checked into a nice boutique hotel, Hotel La Martina, grabbed a few hours nap, had a light dinner and then had a great 12 hour sleep. Now we were ready to explore this “ City of Eternal Spring”.

Located in Columbia’s mountainous Antioquia province, Medellin sits in the Aburra Valley, a central region of the Andes Mountains and sits at an elevation of just under 5,000 feet.

Medellin has an excellent transit system. The main train system runs north and south with two east west extensions and also boasts 5 cable cars (gondolas) that reach high up into the barrios that line the slopes of the valley. The transit system also has an elaborate Metro Plus bus system and a Tramway that extends east from the San Antonio station to two separate cable cars at Miraflores and Oriente stops. Our hotel was only a 10 minute walk away from Poblado station so it was a no-brainer to use this very efficient system every day.

We started off our day with a down hill walk to Poblado Station. Access to most of the stations requires the climbing of may stairs and on our first ascent of these stairs we nearly passed out from lack of oxygen due to the higher elevation of the city. We’re in pretty good shape and 5,000 feet isn’t really all the high but it took several days to acclimatize.

Our first day was a bit of a whirl wind. First stop was Jardin Botanico, (the city’s botanical gardens). The gardens weren’t particularly special and the whole area was in need of some TLC.

From the gardens we walked about 500 metres through some, shall we say interesting fauna that was congregated under the elevated train tracks to the very interesting Cemetario Museo San Pedro. A cemetery of ornate tombs of notable Columbians.

After deciding that we too shall some day entomb our remains in an ornate cemetery we hiked back to the train station and continued north to Acevedo stop where we jumped into a cable car to Santo Domingo and then purchased a return ticked for a 20 minute cable car ride high into the mountains to Avri Parque, a huge ecological nature reserve with 54 km of walkable trails in 16,000 hectares of forest, plants and ecosystems. It was Saturday and it was a long weekend and the place was packed with touristas, it was cold and it started to rain so we we had a snack, looked around a little and then hopped the cable car back down to Santa Domingo, changed cable cars, rode down to the train station, jumped onto a packed train, hiked up the hill back to our hotel and collapsed at our hotel entrance after 13,500 steps and god knows how many stories of stairs climbed.

The next day, Sunday the 7th we walked back down hill to the train station and rode to SanAntonio stop, hopped onto a sleek Tram and proceeded to Placita de Flores to wander through a traditional market selling flowers, meat, produce, herbs and the usual knick knacks.

The San Antonia area is apparently a lively place but being a Sunday practically all of the businesses were closed so it was an uneventful stroll back to the train station and then onward back to our hotel.

Friday January 6th and Monday the 9th were national holidays called “Epiphany”, also called Baptism of Jesus, Three Kings Day, Denha, Little Christmas etc. What it meant for us were very packed trains and long lines to purchase train tickets so on Monday the 9th we decided to put on our Panama hats and play Juan and Juanita Valdez and visit a coffee plantation high in the mountains outside of Medellin.

It was an interesting trip but being in a tropical rain forest usually means a high of probability rain so rain it did.

We don’t mind the rain but the steep, lung bursting path up into the plantation was lined with smooth rocks implanted into mud. After three minutes and gasping for air we both started to think this wasn’t such a good idea, it was really slippery, we didn’t want to kill ourselves and end our trip that had just begun but we forged ahead anyway, me hoping not to pass out, and made it into a fertile coffee forest full of the famous Columbian Arabica bean. We actually learned alot about coffee and at the end of our session we were treated to a typical lunch of rice, plantain, chicken and arepa wrapped in a bananna leaf.

Tuesday the 10th was not a national holiday but you wouldn’t have known it if you paid a visit to Parque de Berrio, a short train ride from our area, Poblado Station.

Described as a lively gathering point it is located in the geographical centre of Medellin and has been considered for generations as the main meeting place and as the main reference for visitors and foreigners. However it is considered, it was a crazy mix of vendors, vagrants, prostitutes and a whole cornucopia of the human existence and also home to Plaza Botero, surrounded by the Museo de Antioquia and the Rafeal Uribe Palace of Culture. 23 brass sculptures donated by Columbian artist Fernando Botera are displayed in the park and an incredible selection of Botero’s art is displayed in the Museum.

Our final day in Medellin was spent exploring Communo 13, once the most violent neighbourhood in the world in the most violent city in world controlled by gangs loyal to Pablo Escobar.

Communo 13 was an illegally built barrio so it was not recognized by the government and therefore did not have any police presence so it was an ideal place to run guns and drugs as the area lead directly to the main San Juan Highway.

Everything came to a head on October 16, 2002 when the Columbian military carried out the controversial Operation Orion, an operation aimed at the overthrow of all of the gangs and rebel groups of Communa 13. Over 1,000 policemen, soldiers and a number of helicopters attacked the area. Several people died including three children. The siege made it impossible to seek medical attention for the wounded so the community took to the streets in solidarity and flew white rags and cloth. This action stopped the fighting but also led to an incredible transformation underlined by “accessibility” to the barrio ( escalators were installed to allow access to the upper areas approximately 23 stories above the lower reaches), “creativity” and “community”. There is too much to write about this amazing place but suffice to say the community has transformed into an incredible neighbourhood and is now one of the safest areas in Medellin. After a very hot tour around the area we stopped for a typical Columbia lunch.

One step ahead of the rain, it rained quite a lot in Medellin, we made our way back to our hotel and had an early night im preparation for an early flight the next morning to Cartagena.

A road trip through Western Canada with seven days of relaxation and fishing from a secluded lake cabin in the Minaki wilderness of North Western Ontario.

Cabin fever has set in, our waist lines are continuing to get larger and the itch to travel is getting severely itchy! Fortunately we can finally get in a little scratch.

After about four months of successfully flattening the Covid curve we can finally travel through the western Canadian provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba as well as north western Ontario without the need to self quarantine for 14 days when we reach our final destinations so tomorrow we will head off and take three nights and four days to drive about 2,300 kms to Winnipeg, Manitoba. It’s a long drive so the days will primarily be sightseeing through our car windows but we know the scenery will be spectacular.

We’ll depart Vancouver and travel through the Coastal Mountain range and then through the Monashee Mountains, the Selkirks and then the Rockies, descending the foothills through Calgary, Alberta and into the plains of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

It’s the middle of summer in Canada so we expect temperatures in the mid to high 20’s C with some 30+ days and probably some really good late afternoon thunder and lightning storms. There is nothing better than a good storm on hot summer afternoon on the prairies or lake regions.

We’ll visit family in Winnipeg for three days and then continue east and north for about 250 kms to Minaki, Ontario where we’ll park our vehicle and then take a boat transfer to our secluded waterfront cabin. There will be a few people in the relative area from four other cabins scattered throughout but it will essentially be us, the mosquitos, the black flies, lots of wildlife, the quiet and the stars. And some very good fresh water fishing!

Addis Ababa

Well, we have 3 days left before heading home. We arrived in Addis Ababa on the 26th of October and will head home from Addis on a late flight departing November 14th.

Over the course of 14 days of travel we covered approximately 3,300 kms in a couple of Toyota Land cruisers. The roads were generally bad and pot-holed in the south, were paved and generally very good in Amhara and Tigray and were unpaved 4×4 rough stuff in areas of the Afar region.

I don’t think we stayed at the best hotel in Addis in regards to the location to walkable restaurants and bars in the city. The Bole area a few kms away would have probably been a better choice however the Capital Hotel & Spa where we stayed was very nice. The main restaurant was okay, breakfast was included and it was good. Their bars were boring however their traditional restaurant was absolutely fantastic!

The hotel advertises itself as a high security hotel and is very proud of their high security status. Was this hotel a likely target for the bad guys?

We are the most outstanding hotel for safety and security of our esteemed guests which is acknowledged by the United Nation Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS). Likely, we are certified by the American Safe Hotels Company as a Safest & Secured Five Star Hotel in Addis Ababa- Ethiopia. the most outstanding hotel for safety and security of our esteemed guests which is acknowledged by the United Nation Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS). Likely, we are certified by the American Safe Hotels Company as a Safest & Secured Five Star Hotel in Addis Ababa- Ethiopia.

Our hotel was the only place in Ethiopia where we could get decent wifi so we spent the day of the 12th trying to catch up on our blog posts and then had a great evening eating and drinking Tej (an orange coloured honey based wine) and listening to and watching fantastic live music and dancing entertainment at the traditional restaurent located in the basement of our hotel.

When in Addis Ababa a must visit is the National Museum of Ethiopia. We spent several hours wondering through this unfortunately very unkempt museum. The bones of human evolution and the artifacts of an amazing cultural and religious history was sadly displayed with very poor lighting and very little information posted to describe the artifacts on display.

The highlight of the museum is Lucy, the 3.2 million year old collection of bones that once made up the skeleton of a bipedal Hominin discovered in the Afar region in 1974, the oldest ever to be discovered by anthropologists. Several hundred pieces of bone fossils represents about 40% of the original Lucy (aka AL 288-1).

Below is how Lucy may have looked.

The National Museum is interesting and could really be impressive if funds could be raised to do a make-over. The museum admittance fee was a very cheap 20 cents so there is certainly plenty of room to raise this. Maybe this could get the ball rolling to fix up what should be a showcase museum for the country.

There are several other sites in and around Addis that can be seen if you sign up for a tour but as it was our final day in Africa we were now in departure mode so after our visit to the museum we stopped in at a small collection of artisan shops and purchased some beautiful hand woven baskets, returned to our hotel and slowly packed our bags.

As mentioned above, tours either 1/2 day or full are readily available to explore in and around Addis Ababa but they are in our opinion a little expensive. Our hotel concierge arranged a taxi that charged an hourly rate which I think was a cheaper way to go and you were in control of your own itinerary. Always the best way.

Our flight home didn’t depart until late in the evening of the 14th so we had to pay for an additional hotel night but it was well worth it to have time to organize our luggage, secure our souvenirs, have a shower and take some time to contemplate all that we had experienced over the past four months visiting South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Madagascar and Ethiopia.

It was another excellent adventure!

Back to Addis Ababa

November 11, 2019

The north of Ethiopia and the last leg of our trip was an excellent experience and it gave us an insight into the historic and strong christian orthodox and Coptic Christian religion that permeates much of the Amhara and Tigray regions and of the nominally Muslim Afar people who thrive in the extremely harsh conditions of the north eastern Afar region and the incredible landscapes of the Afar region.

We had 1 1/2 very interesting days in Lalibela, a 1/2 day drive and a visit to Yeha and 2 1/2 days exploring the other-worldly Afar region of Ethiopia sleeping under the stars and pooping (or trying to) in garbage and poop and toilet paper filled lava fields.

The landscape was incredible.

Our driver, Abrham (yes that is the correct spelling) was a very nice man and was the lead driver in our group so we were always the first to arrive at a specific destination. He is from Mekele and has worked as a tour driver for many years so he knew all the ins and outs of the expansive and open terrain we often travelled.

Abrham was also a very generous man.

On our way to Erta Ale Volcano, we stopped without warning at a tiny Afar settlement in the middle of a lava field in the middle of nowhere. There was a young boy standing on the side of the road. Abrham got out of the truck and opened the back and pulled out books, writing paper, pens and some candy and handed it out to the small crowd that seemed to appear out of nowhere. He told us he did this every time he passed this way because they have very little access to education, never mind paper or pens or candy. It was a gesture that should be repeated by all tour drivers/companies that pass through. Life is very harsh in the north eastern Tigray and Afar regions of Ethiopia.

We were dropped off at Mekele airport with several hours to kill before our flight however we lucked out and were able to get on an earlier flight back to Addis. We arrived back at our hotel with plenty of time to relax, shower and have a nice evening and a light dinner of a very average pizza at our hotel lounge.

Erta Ale to Dallol. A slightly shorter story.

November 10, 2019

After breakfast and a search for a place to poop in private we retraced our route back from Erta Ale to Abala where we would have lunch, say farewell to a few of our group and connect with another group who would be joining us.

Four people departed our group and 9 people joined us for a total of 15 people on a maximum 8 people tour. This really sucks and we were not impressed.

Lunch was the tried and true pasta with tomato sauce and salad, the same as last nights dinner and yesterdays lunch. Salad was a part of every meal and no one ate the salad. You would need to see the conditions to understand why.

After lunch we made our way towards Hamed Ela where we would stop overnight before making our way to Dallol. Most of the road to Hamed Ela was excellent and paved through beautiful mountainous landscapes but before stopping in Hamed Ela we continued on and made our way to the endless salt flats and salt mountain crags of Assale Salt Lake (aka Lake Karum). It was like driving in the high Arctic. What looked looked like ice as far as the eye could see was smooth and shimmering salt.

En-route we stopped at a small natural pool in the salt flats and parked in the shade of a small salt mound. It was at least 45 degrees Celsius in the shade. It was incredibly hot and dry. What really blew our minds was we were essentially on a thick slab of salt with a lake existing below.

The pool was small but it was deep. We didn’t go for a dip but a few of the group did and while they were bobbing in the dense salt water pond we were served up the coldest beer I have ever tasted in my life. What a great surprise.

The pond was essentially a saturated salt solution and there wasn’t much fresh water around to rinse off. It turns out it was probably a good idea not to go for a dip. Later in the evening we slept outside, uncovered and practically naked because it was so hot outside and as an added bonus we had a donkey hanging around nearby. We would have made an excellent salt-lick for the poor beast!

Continuing further south over a vast expanse of relatively smooth salt flat roads we stopped near the shore of Lake Karum where we had a few more cold beers, listened to some good music, danced and watched in awe as the sun set and scattered colours over the vast salt fields eventually giving way to an incredible black and white full moon illuminating a lunar/arctic landscape.

We arrived at Hamed Ela after dark. Ramshackle huts, a microwave/cell tower standing in the middle of a lava field and our beds for the night scattered about. This time our beds were bamboo woven and on legs with new mattresses just for us, the old fart complainers but hey, the squeaky wheel gets the grease! We placed our beds with our truck behind us, a donkey beside us and a lava field bathroom in front of us.

Amazingly, there was a bar nearby which I went to and drank warm beer with all of the youngsters from our group who had congregated there while Joyce fought off the doting donkey while trying to read a novel on our iPad Mini.

Picture this. You need to go to the bathroom, it’s pitch black, the ground is covered in black, cragged lava and you, and many others have to find a place to poop. Your headlamp illuminates the white against the black. Toilet paper? Poop? You really don’t know. Are you out of site from the others when you pull your pants down? Can I actually go now through all of this? Enter constipation.

Throughout all of our travels, this night and last night had to be both the worst conditions for bathroom breaks and at the same time one of the best and an experience we won’t forget. We’ll call this the best of the worst bathroom experiences.

Many years ago Joyce and I trekked through the mountains of northern Thailand and slept overnight in several tribal villages with zero services. We hiked for several days but before we headed out we ate a couple of anti-diarrhea pills so we were essentially clogged up the whole time so “where to go?” wasn’t an issue.

When we canoed down the Lower Zambezi River and camped over night on sand and reed islands it was dig and cover, the most liberating feeling you can ever have! The situation at this camp was definitely not liberating.

We departed Hamed Ela at around 4:00 am with the intent to be the first people to arrive at Dallol and see the sunrise illuminate the kaleidoscope of mineral colours bubbling from this sulphuric landscape. No one one woke us up. We had enough time for 1/2 cup of coffee before heading out. We think maybe we are in the bad books now?

Dollol is a cinder cone volcano in the north of the Depression and is known as one of the lowest craters or subaerial vents in the world. It is more than 45 metres below sea level and is a unique terrestrial hydrothermal system. Acidic fluids are discharged through small vents that create colours and patterns and a landscape that is out of this world.  

It was a fairly long drive over rough terrain and at times over endless and in this area not so smooth salt lake flats. We were not the only travellers doing this, there were probably another 25-30 vehicles doing what we were doing but fortunately spread out through this very expansive landscape. As we were preparing to depart Dallol the convoys started arriving en masse. A large contingent of Chinese tourists arrived, some wearing only sandals, others slipping on paper shoe protectors to use for the hike. I’m sorry, I only report what I see and I do not make judgments but, it was quite funny to see.

We were smart to arrive early and be “alone in the cone” and beat the crowds. This was a good thing. There are roads being built, and it won’t be long before the BIG tourist invasion really begins.

Interestingly from several articles I’ve read, Dallol is considered to be one of the most remote places on earth. I guess it depends on your definition of “remote”. In my books, Mount Everest is remote but No doubt, Dallol was was way remote!

Our final stop after leaving Dallol was a visit the salt mines in the Lake Karum area near to the area we visited yesterday. The area covers approximately 200 square kms and the huge salt crust can be up to 3 km thick. The area is part lake and part salt pan and is the result of the evaporation of an ancient sea.

The Afar people have survived in this unforgiving region for at least 2,000 years mining and selling the salt which at one time was used as currency in Ethiopia. Since the middle ages, the salt has been mined, cut into slabs and loaded onto camel caravans for transport to Berahile where it is unloaded, sold to traders and loaded onto trucks. There are 750 officially registered miners and they work in 50+ degree C temperatures and make not much more than about $150.00 CAD per month.

One final stop for coffee and we headed back to Mekele to be dropped off at the airport for our flight back to Addis Ababa.

IMG_1694Our driver, Abrham, was excellent. He estimated we covered approximately 900 kms over the past 2 1/2 days.

Mekele to the Danakil Depression. First stop, Erta Ale Volcano. A long story

The below map is from Maps.me and is cool because it shows all of the volcanos in the relative area we travelled. Erta Ale is one of only eight volcanos in the world with an active lava lake and the longest existing lava lake being present since 1906.

We had a very frustrating evening of not knowing where we would be staying, a terrible and expensive western style dinner and a challenge to have breakfast before our pick up which we assumed we would be at 7:00 am. We had no vouchers, we had nothing to lead us to our next destination so all we could do was assume. Around 7:00 am after a quick breakfast, yay! we went to the vehicle driveway area of the lodge hoping for a sign from God. All through the previous night we listened to amplified chanting and hymning echoing from the plethora of churches that dot this incredibly religious landscape. He must be nearby and looking over us yes? We barely slept.

At the vehicle driveway a man with long hair and a beard (no not him) approached us and asked our names and insinuated to us he was there to take us to the airport in Mekele. No we said, you have the wrong people. He also threw out the word “Magma Tours”. We had no idea what he was talking about. (No vouchers etc. ). Ultimately he was in fact our driver and Magma Flow Tours was the tour we would be joining in Mekele. It would have been nice to have known this in advance and to be honest his hair was short and he didn’t have a beard but the stranger who joined us, his brother, looked and dressed like he could maybe be a saviour of some sort or other.

We departed Gheralta Lodge very disappointed with our stay and with how our tour company had left us hanging with no vouchers, proof of payment etc.. We had a two hour drive to Mekele. Located in a high elevation valley in the Tigray Region it is the 5th largest city in Ethiopia and a town where the air is polluted by a steel mill and cement factory. As we descended down into the town the air was unfortunately smoggy and with Joyce still dealing with a cold, cough inducing.

We were dropped off at the headquarters of Magma Flow Tours at 9:00 am and then waited 2 hours for part of our group to arrive, 4 young German girls. We hopped into Toyota Landcruisers and headed out for a 2 night, 2 1/2 day trip to the Danakil Depression to visit Erta Ale volcano, Dallol and the sights in between. Our first stop was the town of Abala, about an hours drive and where we would meet the remaining 4 people in our group. Hmmm.. our maximum group size was supposed to be 8 people and we were now going to be a group of 10.

Off we went to Abala with our driver, Abrham, comfortable in our seats and listening to great Ethiopian music. It wasn’t a long drive, about 50 kms and was on very good roads through mountainous and semi arid terrain. The town would be our lunch stop for today and the next two days as well. The reason for this is there is no road between Erta Ale and Dallol so you have to backtrack to Abala and then take another road from there to either Erta Ale or Dallol so the town acts as a switching point for tourists who are doing the reverse itinerary.

We had lunch in Abala and ended up spending 2 hours in town waiting for the remaining group to arrive, have their lunch and then head off so we were about 3 hours behind schedule.

Joyce and I really don’t like group tours but for now this seems to be the only way to see this area due to security concerns.

We made our way in a 4 vehicle convoy, 3 vehicles with our group and 1 supply vehicle with the guide, cook and supplies. When we approached our destinations police or local militia escorts would join us to visit the sites and stay overnight at our camps.

Militia escorts sound exciting because it gives you this idea that the area you are travelling to is dangerous and once you’re with your escorts the dangerous adventure begins! There is danger everywhere in this world and in the areas we would visit there was risk although less than one or two years ago. The area was known as a haunt for rebels and bandits from both Eritrea and Ethiopia and the concern that lingers is from serious instances that happened in 2017 and 2012 so, better safe than sorry.

In January of 2012, five tourists were killed, three were injured and four people were kidnapped during an attack at Erta Ale volcano. It was believed to be carried out by Eritrean-trained rebels. Ethiopia blamed Eritrean terrorists and the animosity between the two countries intensified once again. In 2017 a German tourist was shot and killed while ascending Erta Ale but it was thought to be a case of mistaken identity. Who really knows? Check it out here. https://www.volcanodiscovery.com/erta_ale/news/66415/Erta-Ale-volcano-Ethiopia-German-tourist-killed-probably-by-accident.html

The below notice from the Government of Canada Travel Advice and Advisories site might deter some people from visiting however we had no reason to worry and felt quite safe travelling to and through these areas.

Things are looking more positive now. In April 2018 Abiy Ahmed Ali was elected as Prime Minister of Ethiopia. In July 2018 a bilateral summit was held between Eritrea and Ethiopia and a formal declaration was signed ending the border conflict and restoring full diplomatic relations.

Peace looks possible and Ali’s winning of the Nobel Peace Prize for working to end the state of war that existed between 1998-2000 and the border conflict that dragged on from 2000-2018 gives him incentive to continue on this path. There are still tribal differences as Eritrea was once a part of Ethiopia and only gained independence in 1993 following the 30-year Eritrean War of Independence but things haven’t gone well since. It’s a very long and and extremely interesting story and the borders still aren’t open but both governments are still talking.

The truth is, everything you read is generally wrong about travelling safely around the world. No matter where you go, 99% of the population is just like you and me with their wants, desires and aspirations. No one wants war, no one wants corruption and phoney want-to-be-dictators. We really are all the same.

It’s a little confusing when talking about Erta Ale Volcano and Dallol and the Danakil Depression and unfortunately for us, our guide didn’t spend any time explaining to us where and what we were seeing. She was too wrapped up with the younger crowd that was the majority of our group. Sixties sadness boohoo!

The Danakil Depression is a vast plain hosting many volcanos, lava fields, salt lakes and salt pans and is located in the Afar Region near the border of Eritrea and in the northern part of the Afar Triangle. The region is about 125 metres below sea level and is the hottest place on earth in terms of year-round temperatures. It is also commonly referred to as the cradle of humanity because of the discovery of the famous Lucy, dated back to 3.2 million years ago as well as many other fossils of hominins found in the region. It is hypothesized this area is where the human species first evolved. Very cool!

Dollol is a cinder cone volcano/hydrothermal field in a remote part in the north of the Depression and is known as one of the lowest craters or subaerial vents in the world. It is more than 45 metres below sea level and is a unique terrestrial hydrothermal system. Acidic fluids are discharged through small vents that create colours and patterns and a landscape that is out of this world.  

The drive to Erta Ale was through a surreal landscape of endless volcanic lava fields. I have no idea but there must have been an absolutely catastrophic event or events that occurred millennia ago. Your mind wanders as you drive through this lifeless landscape dotted here and there with an impossible plant thriving in a patch of sand and volcanic ash. As far as the eye can see is black lava. Some of it is smooth and rope shaped from uninterrupted cooling and some formed in abstract patterns from sudden cooling from the seasonal rains. It was an incredible site to behold and out of nowhere we would see a few Afar people wandering through this landscape somehow immune to the inhospitable environment.

All of the driving through the lava fields was on an excellent paved road, the best roads we have experienced in Ethiopia, but the fun began when we had to leave the tarmac to head to ErtaAla volcano, 75 kms away from paved civilization. The road was crushed lava but smooth and then turned into an endless landscape of volcanic ash. We drove through paths of deep ash and sand, ostrich running out of our way as we competed with the other vehicles dust trails, all of us jockeying for position to stay up wind from the dust. I wish I had a drone. The scene was like something out of a Morocco/Sahara desert race. It was a lot of fun and to top it off we listened to really great music. The final stretch was again on a road somehow cut through an incredible expanse of lava.

We made it to our base camp at around 6:15 pm and then the “real fun” started. We had lunch many hours ago and we were hungry and drive-tired and thirsty. We pulled up to our camp for the evening and were informed we would start the hike within the next 1/2 hour. If we had stuck to the original schedule and not had to wait several hours in Mekele and Abala we would probably have arrived at the base of the volcano around 3:00 pm, had time to rest and have an early dinner and be fuelled and ready for the hike in 35+ C temperatures but it was not to be.

We were told the hike would take about one hour. It turned out to be almost two hours to reach the volcanos crater edge. We were okay with this as the original itinerary suggested a 3 1/2 hour hike so no complaints. We were told there could be sulphur smoke and fumes so gas masks would be provided if needed so we could hike the last leg over solid magma to view the bubbling lava in the lower cauldron. As we approached the crater edge I could feel the sulphur smoke tightening my lungs, (I have mild asthma), so I really needed the gas mask to proceed for the final hike. It was dark and from our perspective it looked like at least another 1/2 hour hike to reach the cauldron but because we didn’t have an English speaking guide, in fact no guide, we were not told that the last leg was in fact only about 10 minutes, regardless I needed a mask to continue.

Lo and behold, there were no gas masks. Our so-called guide, who didn’t join us (you will read more on this later), failed to make sure to have these available at the summit so without the mask there was no way I could continue. This was a once in a lifetime trip to the farthest reaches and to one of the few hike-able active volcanos on earth and we couldn’t finish the hike. We had read several months earlier that the volcano had become just a smoking cauldron with not much to see, there was apparently too much smoke to see the boiling magma however recently this has changed and the smoke did clear apparently only 6 days earlier so the lava lakes were again visible. We didn’t see it. A very big bummer in our books!

We had two militia who accompanied us on our hike up to the volcano. Neither spoke english. Our guide, who speaks english and was supposed to bring the gas masks and help us through the hike had menstrual pains so didn’t join us. We were with a much younger group of people on the hike and they tended to leave us in their volcanic dust so we were always behind them as we ascended the volcano. We had several occasions where we couldn’t see the group ahead of us or the path we needed to follow. It was dark and there was an almost full moon and although we had head lamps we still couldn’t see the way forward. Fortunately the militia man who walked behind the group and with us would return and continue to guide us. He was a very nice man and ultimately led us back down. Through interpretation we were able to tell him how much we appreciated his assistance because we had absolutely no assistance otherwise on a very expensive excursion to a far out place. We gave him a very nice tip and he was very appreciative.

Something we must comment on is the amount of garbage strewn throughout the whole area. It brings what you read about Mount Everest and the garbage in that area into perspective. Literally thousands of plastic water bottles plus food wrappers and assorted crap lined the hiking route and our base camp was certainly no better. There is a road between Erta Ale and Ahmed Ale being constructed by the Chinese company Defense Construction Enterprise and an additional road between Afdera and Erta Ale by China Wyi Pic to access the potash mines in Dollal. This will drastically open up tourist access to these regions and we can’t imagine the amount of garbage this will bring to the area. Some advice…..visit now before these roads are completed. It will be the end of this great adventure to see these places.

The total hike time was a little over 4 hours. We had lunch about 6 hours before the hike and only water on our ascent and descent and were wobbling on our feet and slipping in the lava gravel when we finally returned to “camp” and the temperature was still way above 30 C.

We arrived back around 10:30 pm, had a major confrontation regarding the gas masks with our menopausal guide, who we found lazing on a mat chatting and laughing with the drivers and then had dinner consisting of pasta and salad and warm water. The same thing we had for lunch. It really isn’t that hard to make nice meals under limited conditions. We have had many memorable meals prepared on two hot plates in the middle of nowhere so whats the problem?

After dinner we prepared to sleep under the stars however we had another surprise in store. Earlier before we headed up the volcano we had discussed the sleeping situation with our “Guide”. We asked if the sleeping arrangements would be semi-private and be spread around the area and we were told “yes”, blankets and mattresses would be placed in areas around the camp and there would be separation between people. We were a group of 10 and laid out behind some crude huts were 10 thin mattresses, pillows and sheets laid side by side on a smooth section of lava. Dormitory living at it’s best and having “been there and done that” there was no way we were going to sleep with 8 strangers so we requested to move our stuff somewhere else. Well, little miss-guided had a fit, told us there were no hotels here and fine, you can sleep in the hut with sand floors and no roof but don’t be surprised if the mice get you!

Good night little miss, you are now definatley in our bad books. We didn’t sleep well primarily because our pillows were like large stuffed sacks of wood chips and BTW, there were no mice.

Below is our sleeping quarters. Ours is on the right without the thatched roof. The kitchen was on the left and was very noisy at 4:00 am. There were no toilets. We had to make our way into a lava field and evaluate large lava protrusions and determine if they would block your bum from prying eyes. This was not dig and cover. The ground is solid lava so you poop and hope somehow the very arid air and high temperatures will render your poop into a non-squishable, don’t get stuck in my shoes lump of, well, dried poop.

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We departed fairly early the next morning dissapointed in the experience so far and headed back to Abala to have lunch and prepare for our next leg to Dallol.

Lalibela to Axum, a visit to Yeha, an overnight stop and then on to Mekele.

We flew into Axum (Aksum) from Lalibela and arrived around noon and were met by our Guide and Driver and what we thought was a plan to take us to our hotel, have some lunch and then visit some sites.

We hopped into the van and started driving and asked how long it would take to get to our hotel. “Thomas” our guide calmly informed us “4 hours”. This was, shall shall we say, a surprise.

This small detail was not mentioned on our itinerary and I obviously failed to catch this on the many distance and travel time bits of research I did before we decided to do this specific part of our tour and itinerary. Oh well. It is what it is.

Our final 3 day leg before heading back to Addis was starting at 9:00 am tomorrow morning in the town of Mekele. We asked how long the drive was from our hotel to Mekele and the answer was more hours. Two surprises!

When we first arrived into Aksum we didn’t have time to stop for lunch or have any time to visit some of the ancient kingdom’s sites which was very unfortunate. We were pressed for time and wanted to make it to our hotel before sunset.

Enroute to our hotel we had time to briefly visit the ruins of Yeha, dating from the 8th to 5th centuries BC and thought to be the birthplace of Ethiopia’s earliest known civilization. The site is considered to be the largest and most impressive archeological sites in the Horn of Africa. We had time to view the Great Temple, the oldest standing structure in Ethiopia and a small Byzantine church where we were shown some incredibly preserved ancient stone slabs with Sabaean inscriptions and many hundred years old paper tombs with original drawings and writings.

This was a highlight as the rest of the visit was anti-climatic. The temple was supported by scaffolding and was looking very ignored however the mind does still wander.

When you touch the stone blocks cut to precise sizes and placed without mortar over 2,700 years ago and to this day are to some extent still standing, you can’t but wonder why there are so many potholes on modern roads! Seriously though you do try to imagine those times.

We finally arrived at our lodge, before sunset thankfully, and unloaded our luggage and went to reception looking forward to a cool welcome drink and cold towel.

This was not to be as we were told we didn’t have a reservation even though our itinerary says we have a reservation. No one told us otherwise. Nope, no reservation and, we are fully booked they told us.

Luigi, the Italian owner of the lodge came over to us and introduced himself. He was very apologetic and a very nice man but his hands were tied, they were fully booked.

While we were sitting at an outdoor table in the bar/restaurant with amazing views of the Gheralta Mountains waiting to find out what went wrong and where will we be staying tonight we learned our guide had other information that he didn’t initially discuss with us when he picked us up.

When we arrived at the airport, Thomas asked us what hotel we were staying at. “KorKor” we told him. He did hesitate so I showed him a copy of our itinerary.

As it turns out, he was told to take us to Gheralta Lodge but because we answered his question “KorKor”, he took us to KorKor. We were never informed of the change in accommodation and we don’t blame Thomas for this.

We reloaded our bags into the van and headed off on another 1/2 hour drive to Gheralta Lodge where fortunately as it turns out, we did have a reservation.

We arrived at Gheralta with no idea of what to expect and the entrance didn’t look appealing. It actually looked like the entrance to a barn built of stone or an iteration of the Nativity scene or something.

It was attractive in a touristy sort of way but we didn’t think we booked a manger for the night. Thomas our driver was very adamant that this place was much nicer than KorKor and George W. Bush once stayed here and many famous people stay here and it is the best choice in the area blah blah etc. The sun set before we checked into our bungalow.

We later found out the Gheralta Lodge was highly recommended by Tripadvisor and Lonely Planet. I’ve already written a review on Google so I won’t repeat myself other than to say, the food (dinner) was not good although it was raved about on Trip advisor and the accommodation which was very “authentic” and “rustic and true to the design of the area” had probably the worst beds we’d slept on in the last 3 1/2 months and the room smelled like pesticide.

The dinner menu was a set menu. There was no A la Carte menu. Either pay way too much for the set menu, (about $45 CAD for two) or starve. The salad selection was nice, the soup/broth was cold and the main course was comprised of very well-done baked tomatoes which tasted like they were a day old, ground beef flattened into a pan and baked with, well, not sure if there were any spices added, and potato-stuffed, cold and hard ravioli with tomato sauce and real parmesan cheese! Yum yum.

We departed to Mekele around 7:00 am the next morning but first took a couple of pics of the surrounding area.