Remember when you were a child, tucked in bed and your parents, opening a book, read out loud the words “once upon a time”. Within moments you were transported to a magical world, where castles were made of crystal, monks climbed serpent tails to build invisible monasteries and emperors turned solid rock into beautiful churches. Today we are about to venture to the North of Ethiopia, where our wildest fairytales are brought to life! *
The airport carpark reunion
The second part of our Ethiopian adventure starts when we pick up Kim at the airport. It’s 1am, in the middle of the night, and we expect to be able to welcome her inside like you normally would. However, Ethiopia being Ethiopia, we are not allowed inside the terminal and have to wait for her at the carpark (it brings back bad memories of our Embassy experience in Nairobi). It’s freezing and we are not dressed for the occasion…
It’s great to see Kim again! We drive straight back to the Hilton and decide to have a relaxing day at the pool the next day. Addis’ weather is pretty perfect this time of the year, so we make most of the luxury! At night we move to the Executive Lounge of the Hilton with stunning views over the city, where we enjoy great Ethiopian wines (yes, they make good wine in Ethiopia) and make the plans for the coming days.
The plan is to drive clock-wise through the north of Ethiopia and visit the natural and historical highlights of this special country. As we described in part 1 of this blog, Ethiopia is not set-up for tourism at all, so when it comes down to sleeping the only option is local guesthouses. Not ideal, and hygienically not great, but the way it is.
The first natural highlight we come across is the Blue Nile Gorge, a massive crack in the mountain range which looks like the Grand Canyon of Africa. However, with the current drought, there is not much water visible: an indication of how the rest of the country will look. We try for a minute to find a wild-campspot, but wherever we go we encounter people.
The people in this part of Ethiopia look like they have been teleported straight from the 1800’s. They wear white and earthy coloured vestments, men walk around with wooden walking sticks, women with loose head scarfs and donkeys and goats roam the streets. We sit down at a local restaurant where we order breakfast and the strong Ethiopian coffee while we watch this world go by.
In Ethiopia coffee is the centre of many cultural traditions, and of day-to-day life. Everywhere you look you see trays filled with small, handle-less empty cups. The lady who brews the coffee roasts and pounds the coffee beans on the spot, before boiling it in a little pot. When the coffee is ready, she pours it into a clay carafe which is kept warm on a charcoal stove. This is all accompanied by the smell of dried herbs and spices burned on the same stove, spreading very intense but pleasant fragrances.
In day to day life people meet around a coffee ceremony, or just drink a cup over breakfast or lunch, but when something special is celebrated it is tradition to have at least 3 cups. If you only have 1 (awal) is considered just rude, 2 (kale’i) means bad luck, but after 3 cups of coffee you are blessed. The oldest person in the rooms will speak out the blessing (baraka)after the third round of coffee is served, which finishes the ceremony. It is quite special to see that such a “normal” habit like drinking coffee is so important in this culture!
Tonight we sleep in our first local guesthouse, which is actually not that bad. Luckily most rooms have 3 beds, so we can share 1 room and reduce the already low costs even further. Ethiopia is cheap. You can have a hotel room for 6 dollar for 2 guests, and a normal but proper lunch costs around 80 cents for 2 people. This makes it actually quite nice to travel through this country!
After a night camping at Tim & Kim’s village (the only campsite in north Ethiopia, run by a Dutch lady), we make our way to Gondar. Gondar is actually one of the sites we visit which has been an inspiration for Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Gondar is a mediaeval city in the Northern highlands of Ethiopia, and famous for the ruins of old European style castles. Beautiful structures, but coming from Europe it was a bit of an underwhelming experience. Not that the castles aren’t beautiful, but Gondar is also the first place in this country where we encounter the infamous Ethiopian intrusiveness of its people.
It is basically from here onwards that people start to come a bit too close and sometimes a bit too aggressive. You can’t go anywhere without someone following you, have to negotiate prices down even in restaurants and guesthouses, and can have serious arguments with people as a result of this. It is an extreme contrast with the rest of Africa, and even with southern Ethiopia. It will be later in this journey that we get little stones thrown at our car, get caught in the middle of a small demonstration where someone gives ToeToe a karate kick and people spit on the car. We definitely do not want to be negative, but unfortunately it’s true. We try to figure out why the people behave like this and it might have something to do with the fact that Ethiopia has never been colonised, and managed to fight back all intruders up until this day. It might literally be in their DNA to be fighters, but we can’t state this as a fact.
This same experience continues when we want to visit the Simien Mountains national park. The Simien Mountains is quite a rough but beautiful mountain range, where we plan to camp for 2 nights. When we arrive at the office we are told to pay per day, where the official rules say payment is valid for 24 hours. This unfortunately sets the tone for a negative discussion. Normally not a problem, but here in Ethiopia people can become fairly aggressive over it, even though they know they are ripping us off. When we are told we have to take a compulsory scout (an armed ranger), we are appointed an older guy, with no understanding of English whatsoever.
He jumps into the back of our car with his massive and old rifle (we believe it has still been used in the Italian or Eritrean war) and says nothing, except for some loose words in Amharik. Later he starts to beg for money, a mattress to sleep on and food, even though we have been told he receives money to provide his own and should have been hosted by the local community. When we buy some fire wood from a local village, the locals light the fire and sit around it themselves without leaving space for us. Not a great experience, especially when we want to be on our own in the middle of beautiful nature. A shame really.
The bleeding heart baboon
On a more positive note: we drive through the stunning mountains with jawdropping views over the lowlands from 3700 meters altitude. The mountain range itself actually reaches up to 4600 meters tall. We come across big troops of Gelada monkeys, a very calm and tame Baboon subspecies with a red heart on their chest and long and fluffy white hair to protect them from the cold. They welcome us to walk into the middle of their group, allowing us to make pictures and observe their behaviour. Amazing animals!
We finish the day with a hike to a waterfall, which drops its water about 300 meters of a cliff. There is not too much water at the moment, but it is still an impressive sight.
Due to some of the negative experiences that actually drained a bit of our energy, we decide to leave the mountains after 1 night already and drive to a pretty nice hotel on top of a hill and ask permission to camp on their lawn. They luckily agree, and only minutes later we are sipping some Gin Tonics overlooking the castles of Gondar.
Solid as a rock
Lalibela is our next destination, and is famous for its rock-hewn Christian Orthodox churches. Carved completely out of solid rock, the churches are built around 900 years ago and are true masterpieces filled with frescos and painting dateing from the 12th to 16th century. We walk around with a very knowledgeable guide, have a little girl paint an ash-cross on our foreheads and see really stunning buildings. We are lucky that a few churches actually host services the moment we walk around. Chanting people, dressed in bright white gowns, walk around pleasing their spiritual minds. Quite an impressive sight, especially when we realise that we are actually inside a solid piece of rock!
We visit all churches in the area, a market where people from different tribes sell their wares and animals, and have dinner in a spaceship-shaped restaurant on top of a hill with stunning views, whilst the rain starts bucketing down after sunset. We leave early the next day, to make our way back to Addis, for Kim to fly back home again.
Once we dropped Kim off at the airport, we get the unpleasant surprise that her flight has been cancelled. Not because of technical errors, or bad weather conditions, but because there are not enough passengers on the flight?!? Quite bizarre, but now we have an extra day with her which we use to have a lovely lunch, some cocktails in the newest and hippest bar in Addis and a full body massage… life is not too bad!
During this same day we also organise our Sudanese visa, which we get from a highly placed official at the embassy himself. We are introduced to him, and can skip the line of at least 80 people waiting to get a visa. And the best part: we receive a tourist visa for 2 months, instead of a transit visa for 2 weeks which is normally issued. This is of particular interest to us because we are considering to ship ToeToe from Port Sudan to Turkey, and need some extra time to organise this. We have an amazing time at the embassy, since the hospitality is second to none. Our contact person is so friendly, and shares all his knowledge of the Sudanese culture with us. We are excited to go to Sudan, especially after some of the negative experiences we had with some of the Ethiopian people.
Is this really our planet?
After Kim has officially departed and we have seen everything of Addis we wanted to see, we decide to drive 760km back up north for a good reason: we will be visiting the Danakil Depression!!
Danakil Depression… just look at the pictures, it says enough! Or, maybe not… this area is so weird, known as the hottest and one of the most inhospitable places on our planet. Active volcanos spit out boiling lava and turn the night sky bright red. A salt lake in the middle of the dessert lets you float and is fed by over 500 hot springs. And the absolute highlight: Dallol, which literally means “many colours”.
Don’t touch the lava
In 1 day we drive towards the base of Irta’ale, one of the most active volcanos in the world. The drive takes us through deep sand for 2 hours, and it takes another 2 hours to cross the last 18km of sharp lava stones, which makes it incredibly hard to drive (luckily we left toetoe in Meke’le and enjoy the luxury of being driven). Destination of the drive is the military base, which is set up to protect the area and tourists travelling here. It is about 40km from the Eritrean border, and despite the so called peace in the area there is still quite some tension between the countries.
After sunset, and in the presence of military, we hike to the top of the volcano in 4 hours and see the sky slowly turn red because the boiling lava lakes. Only 3 weeks ago this volcano erupted, and it is only a few days ago they started to explore the new situation again. After we sleep under the stars for 3 hours, we hike the last hour towards the lava lake. It is pitch black, and we have to climb over big chunks of solidified lava to get closer. The freshly dried lave cracks under our feed, and sometimes we sink through it, so walking around here in the middle of the night is actually quite a scary activity! But the sight of the lava streams, only meters away, is mind-blowing… Just look at the pictures to get a better idea.
Walking on water
Once we are back at the camp, we have a quick breakfast and drive deeper into the desert to have a swim in the salt lake (we can float like you float in the dead sea), before we refresh in one of the many hot springs. Another 4 hour drive brings us to the guesthouse for tonight, and we have some good food and a long and reenergizing sleep.
The next day we are travelling further north into the desert, with as destination the heart of the Danakil Depression. This area has been used for decades and decades to mine salt. Only problem: it is more than 200km away from the nearest town… The Afar & Tigray tribes decided many years ago to transport the salt from the lowlands (this area is 128 meters below sealevel), to the towns by camel caravans and it is up to today they keep these traditions alive.
On our way towards the salt flats we see the first camel caravans slowly making their way towards us. It is not much later that we enjoy a glass of wine with sunset, whilst we watch the other caravans make their way out of the salt mine.
7 x a marathon
The salt miners have to walk up to 280km to reach the salt mine, dig out the blocks of salt, load them on their camels and donkeys before walking back for another 280km to sell the salt on the market. All together one trip can take over 15 days, walking 40km per day. Take into account that this is the hottest place on earth, with temperatures rising way above 50 degrees Celcius with no fresh water around, and you will understand this might be the hardest job in the world.
Tonight we sleep under the stars again, in another military camp, where we end up in the military bar having some drinks. Desert or not, the weather gods decide it is time for some rain and tonight it is pouring down, but improvised covers of tarps and wooden structures manage to keep us a little bit dry.
The reason why we are here is Dallol. This is most likely the most bizarre place on Earth. It basically is one big boiling, bubbling and steaming salt lake structure thingy (we have no idea how to describe this, it actually looks like a massive science experiment of Mother nature). Because of the volcanic activity under the surface of the earth, water and steam are pushed to the surface, taking heavy metals with them, creating the most bizarre and colourful structures in the salt: bright colours of yellow, orange, blue, green and brown, shaped like mushrooms, little canyons and volcanos. This is as far as our explanation goes, it might be better to look at the pictures to get an idea how it actually looks!
Altogether, these 4 days must have been the highlight of our entire Africa trip so far.
How did they built this?
After this fantastic experience we drive through the high mountain ranges where we see many monasteries scattered around and built on the most interesting and inaccessible places. One even requires climbing up a steep rock wall of 15 meters… it makes you wonder how they built this hundreds of years ago.
Via Aksum, back in ancient days one of the most powerful places in the world, and for many Ethiopians the holiest of holy places (it is believed the Ark of the Convenant is kept here), we drive back to Tim & Kim village where we meet Helga & Rinus again to prepare our journey to Sudan together.
Before we head into Sudan, Linde & Helga give a workshop about washable sanitary pads to a group of 30 local girls and women. “Normal” disposable sanitary pads are too expensive, therefore women often sit on a hole in the ground or work with cloths during their menstruation period, which effects their education. These washable pads should be able to change their lives and their gratefulness and rewarding responses speak for themselves.
Ethiopia has been a battle between emotions. We found it quite intense to travel around, but also an extremely interesting and rewarding experience. Looking back, it is definitely the rewarding experience that comes back to mind!
read more about Ethiopia (and all other countries we have visited) http://2throughafrica.com/our-countries/
* Loney Planet, Ethiopia, Djibuti & Somaliland – page 247