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.
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.
Sunset on the salt flats
Our driver Abraham
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.
Our driver, Abrham, was excellent. He estimated we covered approximately 900 kms over the past 2 1/2 days.
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.
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.
Erta Ale Volcano
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.
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.
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.
Lion Mountain. Looks more like a Newfoundland Dog
Our original lodge that we thought we were staying at, KorKor Lodge had much better views but thats about all we can say because we didn’t stay there. We had a two hour drive to Mekele where we would meet our “small” group tour to ErtaAle volcano, Dallol and the Danakil Depression.
A smooth mid morning flight took us to Lalibela via Gondar. We arrived around noon and our driver and guide who were supposed to meet us didn’t. Good start.
We eventually secured a ride to our accommodation and were met by Hilo(sp), our guide for the rest of the afternoon and all the next day. He was apologetic, there was a mis-communication and he was really sorry. We easily forgave him and he turned out to be a blessing. He was an expert in all things Lalibela and area and is an icon in his community due to his past foray into local politics and his earlier involvement in social work with the local women and children. His history in the village is iconic in that his grandfather was the head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Christians in Lalibela, one of the two holiest cities in Ethiopia. He was the man.
Lalibela is famous for it’s UNESCO designated World Heritage rock-cut monolithic churches and the whole area in and around Lalibela represents a legacy of the medieval and post-medieval civilizations in Ethiopia dating from the 7th to 13th centuries.
The churches are quite incredible. Chiseled, I suppose by thousands of workers, they cut mostly granite rock to carve out these incredible buildings.
It is mind boggling to try to understand how this was done. Like many amazing temples in India and elsewhere, it was not done overnight but in many cases, 15, 25, even 50 or 100 years to complete. Amazing.
We visited four of the five northwestern clutches of churches in the afternoon, Bet Medhane Alem, Bet Marymam and Bet Mikael & Bet Golgotha.
Some of the walks were uphill and we noticed how out of breath we were. Lalibela is 2,500 metres above sea level, 8,200 feet so the air was much thinner than what we were used to. Our lodge was situated on a hill and of course our unit was located downhill about 50 steps and a long steep walkway. We were exhausted just walking up to breakfast. I know, boohoo but you do feel the elevation difference.
We had the next day to visit some of the other sites in the area so the next morning we drove 45 km to see the Church of Yimrehane Kristos, an 11th/12th century Ethiopian Orthadox church built of stone and wood and set in an entrance to a natural cave which is now unfortunately walled off due to, well, bad robber guys stealing all of the treasures stored in the cave monastery. The scenerary on the drive to the site was exceptional.
Big walls really reduce the visual impact and the overall impression you have. Although the the inside was incredibly interesting, you couldn’t help but imagine what the whole surrounding area would look like if there wasn’t this big wall covering the entrance to the cave. The site was very interesting but a bit of a disappointment due to the walls at the cave entrance.
We made our way back to Lalibela and stopped for lunch at an old Scottish ladies very eclectic restaurant, Ben Abeba, located on probably the best view point in all of Lalibela. The views of the surroundings were spectacular and the shepherds pie we had was pretty good too.
Our final stop was a visit to the three southeastern clutches of churches, Bet Gabriel-Rufael, Bet Amanual and the famous Bet Giyorgis, St. Georges Church. Chiseled out of solid granite it is an example of the human labour and dedication that was required to carve these monumental structures out of solid rock.
We were standing on the granite surface facing The Church of Saint George and I tried to picture how it all started……
Out on the rock was Ismailiya, a young man with his chisel and a crude form of hammer in hand. He had a plan and he started chiseling.
Little bits of rock flew off with each hit of the hammer. Some stuck to his sweaty brow but he was determined.
The next day, his ears ringing big time from all of the steel-to-rock hammering he heard a greeting and then a question from one of his friends.
“How’s it going Ismailiya, how are you? Great, how are you he replied. “Good, what are you doing?” Chiselling a church out of solid granite to show my love and dedication to um, well, the church and stuff. “Making progress?” Yes, very much. “How much longer till you figure you’ll be done?”
We departed Arba Minch on November 4th and made our way north to a resort on the shores of Lake Lagano.
It was a windy cloudy and cool day, lake was very brown and uninviting and the scenery was limited so we didn’t take any pictures.
We spent the night at the lake and then made our way to Abiatta-Shala National Park with the drive having some beautiful views of lakes Abiatta and Shala.
Shala lake is a soda soda lake and it is the deepest lake in Ethiopia. It can host thousands of flamingos but when we were there, there were only a few dozen.
The park itself has a population of Warthogs, Ostrich and Gazelle and near the lake side were some thermal hot springs.
Finishing up at the park we made our way back to Addis Ababa for a short overnight stay before heading north to Lalibela.
In all we traveled 2,376 kms through southern Ethiopia in an uncomfortable Toyota Landcruiser with our driver Sophy. Although we had many long driving days it was still a great adventure. Thank you Sophy for getting us back to Addis safe and sound.
It was a great drive back to Arba Minch. Rather than backtracking we took a different route that was far more scenic and a little more adventurous. We drove narrow gravel mountainside passes, crossed a couple of rivers and drove along dry riverbeds. It was a nice change from potholes and cows and goats.
When we arrived in Arba we took a left turn and headed way up into the mountains to visit a local Dorze tribe. Dorze means “weaver” and the tribe is known for their intricate weaving skills for both cloth and the large beehive shaped huts they live in. It was a bone wracking drive and we probably ascended about 1500 metres in one hour and we thought “this better be worth it”. Well, it was a setup. We entered the “village” and in front of us was a beautiful 6 meter hut intricately woven with bamboo with the front resembling an elephant. They are the most unique traditional structures in Africa.
Inside looked comfortable with a guest bed and several chairs and sleeping quarters for the family and separate quarters for the livestock.
Outside we were treated to a display of bread making using fermented enset or false banana.
We then moved on for a taste of the locally made gin called Areki but as we were walking over to the “bar” we noticed several smaller weaved huts with numbers on them. To our surprise and disdain this place was a tourist lodge! We/I drank several shots of Areki each time making a “traditional” toast and were then met by the lodge owner who proceeded to try to sell us weaved cloth for the benefit of the community yada, yada, yada. We’d been had. We told him in no uncertain terms we didn’t appreciate his pressure selling tactics and immediately left ticked off that we were once again considered to be sucker tourists with lots of money and no brains.
We arrived in Turmi late afternoon November 1st after another scenic drive and stayed at Buska Lodge which is located a few kms outside of town. Turmi is home to many of the Hamer people and although just a speck of a town it is the largest settlement of Hamer district. It is known for it’s Monday market where anyone and everyone in the Omo Valley descends to take in the colourful weekly event but alas, it was Friday when we arrived and we would be departing on Sunday so we missed all of the market action.
The next morning we headed out to Omorate, about 25 kms from the Kenyan border to visit the Dasenech tribe, a pastoralist tribe living along the Omo River and are Ethiopia’s most southern people. Interestingly the Dasenech have a natural antipathy to eating fish. Eating fish is really a last resort in times of crisis. We crossed to west side of the Omo River in a dugout boat and walked about 500 metres to a traditional village comprised of small, flimsy domed huts that are reminiscent of the structures built by other desert pastoralists in the Sahara and Kalahari deserts.
The people were friendly and welcoming and had a small crafts section set up for tourist outside of the fenced village. No one hassled you inside the village which made for a far more enjoyable experience.
All of the villages we have visited have a village pub for the men to sit around drinking a really terrible looking home made beer. I was tempted to try it but my stomach suggested otherwise.
We wandered around the village interacting with the villagers. They were going about their daily routine and we felt completely comfortable and welcome in their village.
Women building a new hut
The craft shop
Shortly before leaving many of the villagers broke out into dance. The style is similar to that of the Masai Mara where the men jump quite high and the women bob to the rhythm of jumping. Joyce and I were both pulled into the dance circle to try our moves. We all had a good laugh.
We crossed back the river a stopped at a little riverside cafe for a cold drink and were entertained by a troop of Black and White Colobus monkeys.
On our journey back to Turmi there were many termite mounds lining the side of the road. This is not unusual however these termite mounds were not actually mounds but spires. Not sure of the reason for this but they were quite unique.
In the afternoon back in Turmi there was a “jumping of the bulls” ceremony which is a rite of passage for young Hamer boy’s transitioning into manhood. The boys must run across the backs of seven castrated bulls which are covered in dung (to make them slippery) without falling. If they fall more than four times they must wait another year before trying again to reach their manhood. Another part of the ritual involves young girls being whipped with birch sticks. The women asks a boy to whip them on their backs and the boy obliges. It is believed the greater the pain the higher level of submission and loyalty they are showing to the boy and the scars left on their bodies are a symbol of the loyalty they are to receive from the men in return. The idea is at some point in the future the girl may need the young’s mans help and will show him her scars as if obligating him to provide the required assistance.
We knew this would be happening at the ceremony and had no desire to see women getting whipped by men. We have seen the huge welts on the women’s backs and regardless of this being a cultural tradition, it’s probably time to stop this rather barbaric practice. We talked to several tourists who did attend and their observation was there were more tourists in attendance than tribal members and at 800 Birr admittance fee, it would seem this has become more of a cash grab than the continuation of a centuries old practice although as mentioned in our previous post, good or bad, their livelihoods are in turmoil and survival and cash is a strong motivator to continue to draw in the tourists.
We had a relaxing afternoon and then headed out for a short visit to a small local Hamer village. The village probably had a dozen or so family homes spread out over a fairly large area and the only people around were women and children and one or two older men. During the day the boys and men take their goats out to pasture and return in the evening but most stay away from their homes for long periods of time. As we were leaving the goats were making their way back home but no men or boys were in sight.
Departing Jinka we headed south and then west through Mago National Park to visit a Mursi tribe who had been relocated by the government and moved from the park to the surrounding hills and mountains outside of the western edge of the park.
Ten years ago and even up to three years ago the park had healthy populations of lion, leopard, elephant, bush buck, waterbuck and several other mammal species but because of severe poaching and hunting by the Mursi the few animals that survived have moved to Kenya so there is virtually no wildlife left except for a few guinea fowl and Dik-dik, a small antelope that lives in the bushlands of southern and eastern Africa.
The views from the mountains heading down into African savanna was spectacular but somehow sterile.
After ascending the hills outside of the park we turned onto the first side road we came upon and headed to an “authentic Mursi village” where we parked our vehicle essentially in a parking lot outside of a large fenced-in area.
Before entering the village we were told it would cost us 200 Birr for each camera and we could then take as many pictures as we like. This was to be paid to the village leader. Fair enough I guess.
We entered the village and were met by armed militia milling around, Russian Kalashnikovs hung over their shoulders. We were later told the villagers get quite drunk later in the afternoon and the militias are there to keep the peace. I’m really not so sure about that.
The village seemed to be set up exclusively for tourists. There were thatched huts scattered around a mud field, the women sat around making lip plates and everyone tried to sell you these painted plates. There didn’t seem to be any indication of a functional village.
The Mursi women are known for their lip plates. The larger the lip plate the more attractive the women and the more dowry for the family when the marry.
Our guess is the people in the village make their way to this set-up village every day to sell their souvenirs and then make their way back to the actual village(s) they live in. It was a set-up and we could see it for what it was as soon as we entered the compound.
Later in the evening we met a fellow from Poland who did the same drive to the area but rather than take the first turn he went further and did visit a real Mursi village. He said it was full of cow shit and flies and was not a pretty sight. We would rather have seen that than the tourist trap we saw. It was a four return hour journey to make the visit.
The lower Omo River Valley has recently been damed and the filling of the reservoir behind Gibe III dam on the Omo River is holding back flows needed by some 200,000 indigenous people in southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya to sustain their food production and livelihoods.
The people of the Omo Valley rely on the natural flood cycles of the river for sustainable practices of flood-recession farming, fishing and livestock grazing. With the loss of the natural balance, harvesting and grazing areas have been reduced forcing the area tribes to move into Mago National Park which is creating conflict with the soldiers charged with protecting the park and the little wildlife that is left and there have been reports of deaths of these pastoralists because of this conflict.
Tourism is helping by supplying another revenue stream but with tourism comes serious challenges to balance a way of life without selling out to the almighty dollar.
The Mursi people have serious challenges however their journey could be a showcase of what can be done if the people can come together. A big IF!
No one should have to sell their dignity and be put on display to foreigners for a few dollars. I don’t know the solution but I do know mass tourism will only make matters worse for these people if they end up relying on welfare and then falling into a welfare trap.
A little bothered by the whole set up we headed back through the park and made our way to Turmi.
Today we set out for what we hoped would be a shorter drive to our next stop, Jinka but before leaving town we made sure to visit the local market which is held on Mondays and Thursdays.
The market is usually attended by four tribes from the area, the Hamer, Ari, Konso and Benna. They sell honey, fresh vegetables, shoes, cloths and of course the tourist souvenirs which overall were of very good quality but you still wonder if they were in fact made in a factory in Adis or Chi..
About 500 metres from the main market the men have a cattle and goat market. Very few women attend this, they aren’t really allowed but women who have been widowed are allowed to attend and continue the family business.
The area is a huge sand/dirt field with several groups of tribes with their animals milling about.
At the animal weigh station the men try to get their goats into slings and then hung on scales to determine their weight and asking price. The goats, although fairly docile animals don’t particularly like to be strung up.
Local Hamer women
The drive to Jinka was scenic and chaotic as usual. The road is good for a short distance and then littered with potholes. If you aren’t negotiating the pot holes then you’re negotiating the constant herds of cattle and goats.
Before checking into our hotel in Jinka we paid a short visit to a local Ari village. The day had been very rainy so the walking paths were quite muddy and slippery. The village was quite spread out so we only spent a short time visiting.