A Travellerspoint blog

SOUTH AFRICA BLOG 1/2

Sunday market in Johannesburg and heading out to safari in Sabi Sands and Kruger National Park

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After two red-eye flights, we were glad to arrive on a warm and sunny December morning in Johannesburg. Despite its reputation as a violent, crime-ridden city, I had decided to book a ‘backpackers’ (aka hostel) in the up-and-coming district of Maboneng - ‘Place of Light' - to the east of the central business district. The area turned out to be more ‘coming’ than ‘up.’ Maybe it’ll be up & coming 10 years from now. But definitely not yet.

Sunday, it turned out, was the best day to be in Maboneng. The vibrant Market on Main, with its art galleries and food stalls, could have been in Hackney or Bushwick.

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After munching on a filling Durban bunny chow, a local dish consisting of curry served in a hollowed out loaf of bread, the lethargy kicked in after two sleepless nights and we headed straight for the Ethiopian coffee stall. It was while we were guzzling stupidly strong - yet well needed - coffee that we met a young South African guy named Ashley and ended up chatting with him for a while. We ended up exchanging numbers and arranged to meet him later that night for dinner at a popular nearby restaurant, Pata Pata.

Ashley met us at Pata Pata for some al fresco dining. After a fun dinner, he suggested we continue the party back at his place so we could try a bottle of his favourite South African wine. Heading to a stranger’s house in an industrial part of Johannesburg? We didn’t think twice about it. We walked through the eerie, empty streets that had been throbbing with people just a few hours earlier. It was only about 10pm at this point, yet every shop, house, and restaurant was boarded off with metal bars and felt entirely deserted. As we passed one building, we heard loud rap music coming from its garage. Marina asked if it was a new underground bar that had opened up. Ashley explained that it was “hijackers haven” where highjackers brought stolen cars to take them apart. How much further is your apartment, again?

When we finally arrived at Ashley’s building, I’ll be honest, I was a little perplexed when it came to the entrance. The industrial-looking, high-rise featured a wrought iron turnstile akin to a one normally reserved for entrance into a large sports stadium. We entered the building by passing a fingerprint scanner and then entered what appeared to be a bullet-proof middle area, which served as the neutral zone between the entry and exit points. Heading by lift to the 8th floor, we entered the apartment and met Ashley’s partner. Ashley immediately ushered us onto the couch, poured us two large glasses of wine and dead-bolted the steel door with four massive deadbolts, all in one fell swoop. It seemed we stumbled on a bit of an adventure in a city that averages two murders an hour and almost 20,000 burglaries a year.

A trip to South Africa wouldn’t be complete without a safari experience. I must admit that I’m not the world’s greatest animal lover. I certainly had my reservations about choosing a holiday where we would be woken up at 5am only to be driven on bumpy roads to see a load of animals at sunrise. Sometimes, however, you’ve got to admit that you were wrong.

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We spent 2 days getting pampered in a private lodge in Sabi Sands, a private gaming reserve teeming with wildlife, which borders the famous Kruger National Park. Our private hut included an outdoor shower and had a zebra theme throughout. Staying at the lodge, we saw the Big Five (lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard, and rhinoceros) game animals in no time at all, as well as a plethora of other animals including the rarer-to-spot highly-vicious wild dogs.

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For our third and final night, we stayed at rest camp, Lower Sabie, deep into Kruger National Park on its southern tip. If we thought the drive through the park in our hired car past all the wild animals was fantastic, we weren’t prepared for our afternoon safari drive at Lower Sabie Rest Camp. We took in all the bog standard activities. Before our very eyes, we watched a leopard sleeping in a tree, giraffes eating from tall branches and watched crocodiles slide with menace into the river.

As darkness took over, we were driving along the road when we spotted a fully grown male lion sitting in the middle of the road, trying to catch a bit of the heat which was absorbed by the tarmac from the day’s sun. The lion was so close you could almost reach out and stroke him. He didn’t seem bothered at our presence and sat stationary for a few minutes. Eventually he rose to his feet, shook his mane, and yawned so widely that he showed off all his teeth. Now we understood why he wasn’t bothered with us. Mr. Lion padded off into the bush and started calling his buddy. And I thought I wouldn’t be that impressed with a safari.

Sadly no photo of Mr Lion but we snapped another one we saw 30 minutes later (see below).
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Posted by genowers 06:20 Archived in South Africa Comments (1)

ETHIOPIA BLOG 5/5 (FINALE)

Are We Ever Going To Get This Damn Camera Back?

sunny 25 °C

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At the end of our Simiens Mountains trek on Day 4, we were picked up from Chenek camp by a van which was to take us off the mountain and back to civilization. As the dusty streets of Debark and then Gonder honed into view again, we realized we were back in the land of the civilized (well, almost).

We walked around the streets of Gonder in search of a hotel for the night, as we hadn’t pre-booked anywhere. We soon found a basic hotel whose owner promised hot water. This was a real necessity after not washing for another 4 days (after the 4 days of not showering in the Danakil) and being covered head-to-toe in dirt. Our feet started to look like the dirt may not actually come out.

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As we unpacked our bags and Marina was about to take the plunge under some glorious luke-warm water, a sudden power cut kicked in. The entire room went pitch black and all the electricity went off, along with the water (which immediately shut off), in a scene that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Carry On film.

That night after an eventual ice-cold (strategic) shower of just the vitals, we arranged to meet our cook, Negga, for a much-needed cold beer and Ethiopian curry and injera pancake in "downtown" Gonder town.

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First stop in the morning was the Ethiopian Airlines office in Gonder to reconfirm our lunchtime flight (a recommended action given the airline’s propensity to change their flight schedule on a whim). We had also passed on this advice to a Japanese couple we had met the previous day.

By chance, the same Japanese couple was already in Ethiopian Airlines office when we walked in. They didn’t look very happy after just learning their flight scheduled for the afternoon had, unbeknown to them, departed six hours early at 9:00am.

Fortunately, we didn’t have any issues. With our flight reconfirmed for that afternoon, we had a couple of hours to kill. We made the short walk to the nearby Gonder Castle and roamed around the gardens where the Emperor had lived back in the 17th century.

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[Camera location: Some Chinese tourists were still in possession of our camera. They were due to arrive in Addis that afternoon where we were supposed to be reunited with our camera]

“I am sorry. This flight is full.” That was the response we were greeted with upon arriving at the check-in desk at Gonder Airport two hours before departure (and just after we had reconfirmed our place on the flight earlier that morning!) In booking this internal flight, we had the foresight to book the earlier of the 2 flights that day, just in case any issue arose. This was because in Addis, Marina had to immediately connect to her international flight back to New York on Egypt Air that same night. Unfortunately, the later afternoon flight (that our Japanese friends had been booked on before they stole our seats) had already spontaneously departed at 9am that morning.

We had just 14 hours before Marina’s flight to New York was departing from the other end of Ethiopia. And we were just informed that the final flight of the day was full. And to make matters worse, our confirmed seats had been just given away to the very same Japanese tourists that we had advised to re-confirm their tickets! So much for trying to be good samaritans and sharing the travel wisdom. Now we were sh!t out of luck.

We contemplated trying to find a driver to drive us all the way back to Addis Ababa, but quickly realised that we were never going to make it over land. The roads in Ethiopia are terrible (with large unpaved stretches) and drivers are not legally allowed to be on the road after dark.

The probability of our getting back to Addis Ababa overland in time to make the international flight was about on par with Coventry City winning the European Champions League in May.

We were forced to kick up a big stink with the Ethiopian Airlines staff who seemed less than concerned about our predicament. After much protestation, the check-in clerk suggested we try to drive to Bahir Dar and catch an early evening flight back to Addis, which would get us in to the city with just enough time to make the international connection.

Bahir Dar was, ironically, where we had started our Ethiopia adventure when we spent a night there on a layover early in the trip. But Bahir Dar was about four to five hours drive on public transport from our location. It was going to be a struggle to even make it for that flight.

It was around this time that the airport manager, who had been enjoying his day off at home, became aware of our predicament. The airline's shuttle driver took us back into the center of Gonder in an airport van where we were greeted by the airport manager, Tamla, a middle-aged Ethiopian with excellent English.

He ushered us into the back of his personal car and started driving. As we started to re-tell the story of the calamity at the airport, Tamla told us not to worry as he was going to personally drive us the 5 hours (10 hours return for him) to Bahir Dar in order to make sure we catch our flight. Our luck had changed!

The airport manager turned out to be most interesting guy we had met during our entire trip, recounting stories of Ethiopia, as well as times when he worked for Ethiopian Airways in Lagos, Nigeria and Hong Kong.

He blew us away with captivating stories the entire 5-hour journey to Bahir Dar, and he even helped translate and coordinate the final arrangements for collecting our camera in Addis.

He also stopped for coffee on the way in a tiny village where we were quite possibly the only foreigners to set foot in the village that year, and where the locals excitedly offered us live chickens for sale.

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[Camera location: The Chinese tourists were due to land in Addis any time now. Our camera was within reach. We just needed to get back to Addis…]

Tamla, our driver, dropped us at a lovely lakeside restaurant in Bahir Dar, which had a lush, tropical feel to it under all the palm trees. We had just enough time to gobble down some food and a cold beer while watching the pelicans fly over the lake.

It was ironic that, after all, we did end up seeing Bahir Dar in the day light (and even having a meal there, unlike on our first night there).

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[Camera location: The Chinese tourists had apparently missed their flight to Addis and were going the next day. We weren't getting our camera back, after all]

Another Ethiopian Airlines driver picked us up from the restaurant to transport us the short distance to the Bahir Dar airport.

Totally deflated and despondent after hearing the latest news about our camera, we jumped in the van bound for the small, domestic terminal. Suddenly the phone rang. It appeared to be news about the camera.

The Chinese tourists had apparently managed to get on a different flight. It turned out the tourists were currently in… wait for it… Bahir Dar! Just as this great news filtered through to us the phone, we lost reception and the line cut out. Great timing.

Our phone rang again but from a different phone number. This time it was from a guy who claimed to be a taxi driver and alleged that he was in possession of our camera. The news got better. Not only did he have our camera, but he was waiting to return it to us at the Bahir Dar airport. We couldn’t believe our ears.

Five minutes later our van pulled into the airport car park. We instantly saw the man holding our camera. Marina swung open the back doors of the van before the van even stopped moving, and in one fell swoop, flung herself through the back doors, landing in the somewhat bewildered taxi driver’s arms, planting a massive kiss on his cheek.

We flew back to Addis, camera in tow, and reflected on what we both agreed had been our most interesting trip to date.
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Posted by genowers 14:58 Archived in Ethiopia Tagged mountains airways simien ethiopian dar bahir ethiopia simiens debark gonder Comments (0)

ETHIOPIA BLOG 4/5

Wheezing Our Way Through the Simien Mountains

-5 °C

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On our flight from Mekele to Addis Ababa, I was sorting out our backpack when I realized our camera was missing. After all of the other passengers had disembarked, the Ethiopian Airlines crew tried to help us to search for the lost camera. They alerted Mekele Airport in case we had left the camera at security. I felt sure we hadn’t seen the camera at the airport. I had an inkling that the camera had fallen on the floor of our car on the way to the airport and we accidentally left it in the vehicle when we rushed out to make our flight in a hurry.

It did not help matters that our camera’s SD card (which was not backed up since Lalibela) was probably our single most valuable possession, as it contained all of the photos from the amazing Danakil Depression trip that we had just finished. The only solace at this point was the thought that we didn’t use our camera for the same use as Ian Botham….I digress. We asked the crew to call our driver, Sisay, as his English had been limited (although admittedly far better than our Amharic). We waited anxiously as the stewardess relayed the conversation.

We could hardly believe the news: the driver had checked the vehicle and located our camera! Naturally, it wasn’t going to be easy to retrieve the camera. I’ll attempt to give you real time updates on its location for the duration of these blogs.

[Camera location: Mekele, about 479 miles from Addis]

We had nine hours on the short overnight layover back in Addis between flights. We were due to fly to the city of Gonder on the west side of Ethiopia in the morning and all of the flights from Mekele to Gonder had stopovers in Addis.

Our amazing travel agency, Ethio Travel and Tours, which had organized our Danakil Depression and Tigray trip had kindly offered to find – and bizarrely pay for – a basic hotel room in the Bole district of Addis Ababa, so that we could spend the night close to the airport. The agency even arranged for a driver to pick us up at the Addis airport. Being in close proximity to the airport was supposed to save valuable time we would have spent transiting to the Taitu Hotel, which was a 30 minutes drive in the center of the city.

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There was only one flaw in the plan: our driver didn’t have a clue where this local hotel was located. It didn’t help his case that Addis does not have any road names and buildings are referred to with respect to other landmarks. In effect, the hotel had no address. The driver drove up and down the streets of what was clearly the red light district and stopped to ask for direction from every pimp, pusher, or prostitute who ambled along the roadside.

At one point, the driver stopped outside a dodgy-looking bar unannounced and we were suddenly introduced to a man who identified himself as the boss of the travel agency. Even in his drunken stupor, the boss had already been updated about the loss of our camera by the Mekele office and assured us we’d get it back. We eventually found the hotel (really a somewhat shifty motel) situated behind ominous-looking iron gates. Our “short” taxi ride had taken one hour and we crashed for a few hours of much needed sleep.

[Camera location: Gheralta, about 553 miles from Addis – our taxi driver with the camera had left the airport as he had to drive some tourists back up to Gheralta in the East Tigray region]

The cab ride back to the airport, which had taken one hour the previous night, took a whisker under eight minutes at 5:30am the following morning. We caught the short flight to Gonder and drove ten miles into town.

We met our group of 7 that was to join us on our most ambitious physical venture to date: a 4-day high altitude trekking adventure through northern Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains.

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[Camera location: Mekele, about 553 miles from Addis –the camera had been given to some other tourists from China, who were flying from Mekele to Addis and were supposed to hand our camera to Ethio Travel in Addis, who would in turn pass it on to us]

The Simien Mountains are one of Africa’s principle mountain ranges and include a number of peaks in excess of 4,000 meters (over 13,000 ft) that offer challenging trekking and reward those brave enough to undertake them with breathtaking views – literally in my case. The altitude proved problematic for me (due to my asthma) right from the outset when the minibus dropped us three hours hiking away from our first camp at a rest camp called Sankaber.

On the way to Sankaber, we encountered a variety of unique and beautiful plants and flowers, as well as a massive field of hundreds Gelada Baboons (found only in Ethiopia) who were not in the least concerned about human presence and went about their business as usual, walking over our feet if they happened to be in their path.

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By mid-day the scorching African sun burnt my pasty white English skin through factor 50 sun cream – applied liberally and frequently – while nightfall saw temperatures that plummeted below freezing. It was only the warmth of the camp fire and some ropey local gin that warmed the cockles on the first night at Sankaber. We attempted to stay up to welcome in the New Year but failed miserably as we sought refuge from the cold in our sleeping bags about 3 hours short of midnight.

We toasted the arrival of the New Year in New York at 8am with warm coffee over breakfast that was prepared by our resident Ethiopian cook, Negga. He looked after us throughout our trip, preparing meals, and setting up the camp every night. However, it didn’t seem right calling Negga by his real name, as he waited hand and foot on a group of white foreigners.

Somehow we all ended up avoiding calling him by his name and instead referred to him as “mate.”

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Anyway, we needed to take on some serious fuel as the second day’s mountain trekking was as grueling as I had feared with the altitude zapping every last ounce of energy from my body that was still struggling to recover from a case of Ethiopian belly. It felt a damn sight more strenuous than my usual exercise of walking up two flights of stairs when our building’s elevator has broken down.

Along the way we passed the 500m high Jinbar waterfall and stopped for lunch on the banks of the Jinbar river.

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We passed through Geech Village where some of the group sat down for coffee with a local family in their traditional tukul hut, which they shared with their animals. I was glad to arrive at the windswept summit of Geech Camp after 6-hours laboured walking up to the summit at 3,600 meters (11,810 feet).

Geech Camp was more stunning than Sankaber, with palm-tree-like Giant Lobelia plants all around (which only grow in East Africa and only at high altitudes above 3,300m).

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We somehow survived the second night in sub-zero temperatures again by sleeping fully clothed in multiple layers in a decent sleeping bag covered in four thick blankets doubled over.

Despite another hearty breakfast prepared by our mate, we couldn’t face another all-day trek. My legs hardly worked in the altitude, and I struggled to breathe while standing let alone on the upcoming 9-hour day’s trek traversing two mountains via the summit at Imet Gogo (3,926m /12,880 feet) and ending at Chenek camp (3,600 meters / 11,810 feet).

We decided to break the bank and pay $5 for the 9-hour mule ride instead.

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Two local mountain guys pulled their mules along the trail all day with us two happy campers riding the mules and enjoying the stunning views.

Imet Gogo was probably the single most spectacular spot in the whole of the Simiens, with breathtaking 360-degree panoramic views of cliffs, valleys and canyons unlike anything we’d seen before. We could see as far as the eye could stretch.

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We were thankful that we had chosen the hardest day to hitch the mule ride. Even the mules struggled, especially up some of the steep gradients. My mule was slower under my weight, so I watched from behind as Marina’s mule struggled to ascend some of the particularly arduous climbs.

With every step the mule lunged forward up the mountain with all its might. As it did so, I heard a large gust of flatulence, which Marina had the audacity to blame on the unsuspecting mule!

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Posted by genowers 11:35 Archived in Ethiopia Tagged ethiopia simiens Comments (0)

ETHIOPIA BLOG 3/5

Adventure on Mars: Journey to the hottest place on earth and the lowest place on the African continent.

sunny 40 °C

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The highlight of Day 4 of the Danail Depression trip was visiting the amazing hydrothermal salt deposits at the Dallol crater. Dallol is the world's only volcano below sea level (-157ft or -50m). Sulfur and mineral salts from upwelling springs create incredibly vivid colors. It’s located 18 miles north of our camp near the border with the countries of Eritrea and Djibouti. The year-round, average temperature here is 34.4 °C (94 °F). December was the coolest time of year to visit Dallol. We definitely didn’t think that as we staggered over the rocks in the baking hot morning sun towards the Dallol crater.

Described as “great warts of twisted sulphur,” the crater was actually a collapsed volcano formed when basaltic magma penetrated salt deposits resulting hydrothermal activity that created phreatic eruptions. It looked more like the planet Mars to me. It was an amazing end to the best 4-day adventure ever and took us the entire day to drive back to civilization.

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We had arranged a detour on our way back so that we could visit the rock-hewn churches in the northern Tigray region. In the evening, our Danikil driver, Dani, dropped us off at a non-descript town of Wukro (which consisted of one dusty street) and instructed us to wait outside a small motel for a different car to pick us up. We sat outside the motel for over 3 hours.
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When we had virtually given up hope of ever getting picked up, a blue van appeared out of nowhere. We jumped in and were driven straight to the Gheralta Lodge, the Italian-run lodge we had pre-booked for the night. The hotel was widely regarded as being the best hotel in Ethiopia, so I’m not quite sure what the owner thought of us as we arrived in pitch darkness after hours, ringing the gate bell, looking like two homeless vagrants having not washed for 4 days and carrying what looked like our worldly belongings on our backs.
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It wasn’t until the morning that we were able to appreciate the splendor of the hotel. It was more reminiscent of Tuscany than Ethiopia. After an amazing fresh breakfast, our driver took us on a day tour of the rock-strewn churches hidden high up in the hills. These churches were more remote that the one’s in Lalibela. They numbered about 120 in the Tigray region and date back to the 4th century A.D. The churches were built into the mountains and made to blend into the landscape in order to protect them from invading Muslim armies over the centuries.

We climbed up to several churches in the area before our driver drove us back a few hours to Mekele. By the time we arrived at the airport, we had about two minutes remaining to check-in. We grabbed our bags as quickly as we could and threw the driver a generous tip before running to catch our evening flight to Addis Ababa.

We were about to embark on the next part of our Ethiopia adventure: trekking in the Simien Mountains complete with another adventure we could never have foreseen…
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Posted by genowers 19:04 Archived in Ethiopia Tagged dallol danakil depression ethipia Comments (0)

ETHIOPIA BLOG 2/5

An active volcano, a salt lake, and off-road driving in the magical Ethiopian wilderness

sunny 40 °C

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The highlight of our trip was destined to be the four-day 4x4 off-road adventure to the Danakil Depression, the otherworldly geological landscape in the embattled border region between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Located in the northeastern corner of Ethiopia, the Danakil is comprised of local Afar tribes, primitive villages, rocky sulfuric landscapes, and an active volcano – Erta Ale. It is the hottest inhabited place on earth (year-round temps range from 80° F to 125° F [27 °C to 52 °C] with nearly no rain) and the lowest place on the African continent (at 155m below sea level).

In addition to the harsh conditions, the Danakil can occasionally be fatal. Our guidebook described the active Erta Ale volcano we planned to visit as “expected to erupt imminently.” Plus, just before we departed, we learned of a recent deadly attack on a group of 9 Western tourists who were kidnapped by armed Eritrean rebels on the volcano. Some of the captives were killed while the rest were released a few months later after a ransom exchange. This kidnapping was one of a few similar incidents at the Erta Ale volcano over the past several years. Of course, we weren’t about to postpone our plans due to a small possibility of kidnapping and volcanic eruption. Besides, recently the security in the region had been stepped up, so all groups now had to travel with mandatory armed soldiers.

Arriving from our 9-hour drive from Lalibela to the northern town of Mekele (the launchpad for the Danakil Depression trip), we immediately crashed in a basic room at the decaying Atse Yohannes Hotel, badly in need of a lick of paint. The hotel served as the departure point for the trip the following morning. Our room did not have running water but fortunately, despite the protests of the Ethiopian maids, Marina and I took turns running down the hall wrapped in our towels to sneak into an unoccupied room on our floor that had the luxury of ice-cold running water.

After an early breakfast, we packed two small backpacks for the 4-day, 3 night journey, bringing only the necessities with us. Heading downstairs to pay our booking fee in cash, we were stopped in our path by a disheveled, sickly-looking English girl who rambled about avoiding this tour agency at all costs (it transpired that a dozen of people who all returned to Mekele last night fell ill with a nasty bout of food poisoning and dysentery after eating some uncooked cabbages served on the Danakil trip).

Needless to say, most of their group was now confined to their rooms and within a 5-second sprint to the toilet. We couldn’t help feel for them. It wasn’t the sort of hotel you want to get stuck in with that sort of illness (shame, the hotel had no running water!) Putting thoughts of kidnappings, volcanic eruptions, and diarrhea aside, we proceeded downstairs to submit our booking fee with a wad of clean US dollars and handed them over to the agency.

Out in the back were five modern Toyota 4x4s, all of which were loaded to the rafters with equipment, food and water for 4 days. Four of these cars contained travelers, while the fifth car was for the heavily-armed guards who were to travel with us for the duration of the trip. We set off in a convoy leaving the dusty Mekele behind, sharing our car with a couple in their late 20’s (a guy from India living in Oslo and his Cypriot girlfriend from Nicosia) as well as our expert off-road local driver, Dani. It wasn’t long before we were driving through the most surreal landscape that started off incredible and got increasingly better during the drive.

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The 20 tourists on our expedition represented 17 countries. Without exception, all the backpackers were the most well-traveled we have ever encountered. One guy from France had recently cycled solo from Lyon, France overland to Delhi, India cycling through the former Soviet 'Stan' republics (Tajikistan, Kazakhstan etc.).

One American girl in her mid-20s was in the middle of 2.5 years in the Peace Corps in a remote village in the West African country of Benin. She told us stories of her life in a village that was an entire day’s bus journey away from the nearest westerner and with no access to the internet. One guy from South Korea had quit his high tech job and was travelling the length of Africa overland on a very tight budget. He (lightheartedly) complained that he had trouble crossing from Kenya to Ethiopia when a border conflict broke out and he couldn’t cross the border for about 5 days due to the bombs. By the time we set up camp on the first night and swam in the buoyant salt lake at Lake Afrera, we felt like we met some really interesting people and we were in for an adventure of a lifetime.

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Breakfast on the following day was followed by paddling in the nearby natural hot springs next to Lake Afrera. Then it was back in our vehicles and our convoy set off for the volcano. The drive took most of the day but captured some of the most dramatic and varied landscape I’ve ever seen. The view from our 4x4 window changed routinely. Never had staring out of a car window constantly for 7 hours been so interesting. The landscape went from salt flats to rocky terrain to flat then to desolate and finally to sulfuric. That’s not even mentioning traversing a pure sand desert. The trip was almost entirely off-road. I have no idea how the drivers remembered the route as there was nothing in the way of landmarks. I’m not sure we even saw any other vehicles other than our convoy on some days. Occasionally we would speed past local Afar tribesmen and camels, who looked at us with about as much bemusement as we showed in return.

We arrived at the base of Erta Ale volcano in the late afternoon on Day 2. The last hour of the journey was spent navigating what must be the world’s bumpiest drive in the most inhospitable landscape of dried lava. We sat up camp and waited for the sun to set and, more importantly, the temperature to drop. Armed with a small backpack, head torch, 2 litre water bottle, and flanked by our armed guards, we set off at a fast walking pace on the 6-mile hike up to the summit of the volcano in complete darkness apart from a new moon and the warm orange glow of the volcano in the far distance.

There was no set path, and we encountered the first other visitors just before we arrived at the summit. We climbed right up to the very edge of the crater and stood there in awe for must have been ages. Massive globules of lava boiled up below a black film on the surface of the lava lake. It was the closest we’ve ever gotten to an active, spewing volcano. There were no safety measures at all. There was just the bubbling, belching, hot crater and us - a handful of tourists in the middle of the night. In the end, we walked 10 minutes down the hill and slept in the open air on thin mattresses. The heavy wind blowing at the summit, made the stifling heat of the crater cool enough to sleep.

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This is a timelapse video shot at the volcano by our friend Vamsi we shared our car with.

About four hours later, around 4am we were woken up. Sometimes in life you don’t mind getting up ridiculously early and this was exactly one of those times. We climbed back to the edge of the crater and sat there watching the sun rise across the crater. Unbelievable (Jeff).The sun started to burn my skin by the time we had descended 2.5 hours down the volcano and arrived at our camp for breakfast.

There was time to eat and pack up before our convoy of vehicles hit the (non-existent) road again. It took over an hour of bumping up and down in the Toyota, often at 45 degree angles and crashing our heads on the ceiling as we left the moonscape terrain that had been created by dried lava from the volcano and hit the expansive sand desert. A few hours later in the midst of desert, we stopped under the only two palm trees we had come across and sat in the what could be called “shade” to eat lunch. It was as random a location for lunch as you’ll ever find.

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As the drive on day three came to a conclusion, we traversed the path taken by the camel caravan, which consisted of about 250 camels walking in a single file. The camels were used to transport lumps of salt mined at the salt Lake Afrera to Mekele to sell at the markets. The camel caravans made for an awesome sight. It had been a long drive to our camp in Hamadella for the final night. Facilities at the camp were primitive to put it mildly. There was one toilet that was out of bounds for health reasons. It made “the worst toilet in Scotland” in the movie Trainspotting appear positively sanitary.

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We quickly chose two of the beds in our camp which consisted of 20 beds next to each other in the open air, and we dumped our sleeping bag on them. We had been informed on our arrival that there was a nearby bar. Yours truly made a swift exit from the sleeping area and with the help of the head torch promptly went looking for the bar. To the edge of some rickety chairs that were sheltered from the sun was a large fridge. Perfect! The barman told me to help myself (obviously to save him the bother) and I reached inside for a beer. Something seemed decidedly wrong. The beer wasn’t cold. In fact it was distinctly warm.

Disoriented from a mix of darkness, sleep deprivation, and heat exhaustion, I turned to the barman, asking where he keeps the cold beer. He smiled a toothless smile and said he doesn’t turn the fridge on so he doesn’t have to pay for electricity. My face must have dropped as he looked at me somewhat apologetically. I decided that warm beer was better than no beer (marginally).

For dinner, our guides had slaughtered a wild goat and cooked it for the group before we retired to our beds and slept in the open air, under the stars for the third night running.
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Posted by genowers 18:39 Archived in Ethiopia Tagged landscapes churches volcano ethiopia Comments (0)

ETHIOPIA (AND EGYPT) BLOG 1/5

Cairo... Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

sunny

Ever since we first encountered photos the Mars-like landscape of the Danakil Depression, an awe-inspiring natural wonder on the border of Ethiopia and Eritrea, we knew we had to see it with our own eyes. So great was our excitement to travel to Ethiopia in December of 2013, that we booked our flights unprecendently far in advance (8 months, to be exact), no doubt patting ourselves on the back for our superb organization skills. Our Egypt Air flight included an added bonus – a two-day stopover in Cairo – giving us just enough time to check the Pyramids of Giza, Egyptian Museum, and Tahrir Square off our list. It appeared, however, that booking a stopover in Egypt turned out to be the Archduke Franz Ferdinand moment that ignited serious political turmoil in Egypt, which included mass civil unrest, martial law, 7pm-7am curfew, and even revolution that erupted in the summer of 2013. In light of this instability, we did contemplate canceling our trip to Egypt. But then again, when have we ever shunned danger, chaos, and a bit of adventure?

It turned out that our adventure began even before we left the United States. Upon a routine call to Egypt Air to select seats, Marina discovered that only her name appeared on the passenger manifest and the second passenger (i. e. me) was not on the reservation. A few conversations with Vayama, which progressed from disbelief to denial to anger to exasperation, left us resigned to the fact that we had to buy a brand new ticket for me from New York to Ethiopia (now, some 2 weeks before travel) at a vastly inflated price. There's nothing like a last minute panic. We certainly have learned our lesson about being too organized and trying to book 8 months in advance.
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After enduring an uncomfortable, red-eye flight on the dry Egypt Air flight, with minimal legroom and even less alcohol, our luck seemed to change when we landed in Africa’s second largest city. Cairo was awesome. Our hotel was situated just a couple hundred meters from the infamous Tahrir Square, the scene of many of the worst protests and clashes of the past couple of years. As a result of the troubles, it seemed we were some of the only tourists in the city. The curfew had recently been lifted and the pavements were awash with the city’s nine million residents. The streets represented one large stream of stagnant traffic. We navigated our way through the hustle and bustle of the city to Islamic Cairo. Meandering our way through the back alleys, we stopped at the well-known El-Fishawi Coffee Shop where we enjoyed a coffee so strong it would keep a mere mortal awake for a week.
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The early morning wake-up call the following day was a blessed relief from staring at the ceiling in my jet-lagged/ caffeine-infused state. We had arranged a personal driver for the day to take us around the pyramids. Talking to him it quickly became apparent how hard the lack of tourists had hit the local economy. Our driver told us that he used to drive tourists to the pyramids daily, but now had one customer a month. He took us to Giza, Sakkara, and Dashur and waited at each location while we wondered around the desolate wonders of the world and took photos. On the way back, he dropped us off at the Egyptian Museum. We walked past the army personnel and tanks situated outside and walked inside the world-famous museum. The stark lack of tourists was pronounced. I’m not even sure there were 10 people in the museum besides us during the couple of hours we spent there. The museum was badly in need of refurbishment and looked more like an IKEA warehouse than one of the world’s great museums. The contents were fascinating, especially Tutankhamun’s treasures and the incredible Mummy Room containing pharaohs in open caskets, perfectly preserved over the past 4500+ years.
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Our layover in Cairo was short and sweet, and we were soon moving on to Ethiopia. We arrived at Addis Ababa at day-break, having flown on separate flights from Cairo (due to our mishap with my ticket). We immediately caught a taxi to the Taitu Hotel, the oldest hotel in the country that was reminiscent of the colonial days. The hotel’s owner was a friend of a friend and showed us amazing hospitality. He desperately wanted to pay for lunch and even offered to lend us a substantial amount of money ($500 USD!) as we had trouble with the ATM machine. We declined his extremely generous offer but took him up on a free hotel shuttle to the airport for our flight to Lalibela that same day.

In order to fly to Lalibela we had to stop overnight in a town in southwestern Ethiopia called Bahir Dar on the shores of Lake Tana. It was our first night in Ethiopia and could hardly have been further away from home. It’s almost preposterous to eat dinner in New York before 9pm. In true New York spirit, we left our hotel at 9.30pm only to discover the entire town had closed for the night. It appeared the only ones getting a good feed that night were the plentiful mosquitoes in our hotel room.

As the propeller plane landed at the Lalibela Airport, we were immediately struck by the natural beauty of our surroundings. Lalibela’s highlights were the awe-inspiring rock-hewn churches (carved out of single blocks of stone), dating back to the 12th century. We spent the majority of the next day exploring the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
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After satiating ourselves in rock-hewn churches, we strolled about a mile along a dusty dirt track to the edge of town, where we discovered a newly opened restaurant that had a greater architectural resemblance to a scene from a Mad Max movie than anything from during King Lalibela’s reign in medieval times. The restaurant was the design brainchild of a Scottish schoolteacher and her Ethiopian husband. When she invited us to a Christmas celebration at the restaurant the following night, it appeared to be the perfect venue to enjoy mince pies followed by roast turkey with all the trimmings. Unfortunately, we never got to sip mulled wine while looking out over the stunning Lalibelan valley on Christmas Day, because we opened our email that evening to discover that our pre-arranged trip to the Danakil Depression had been spontaneously rescheduled for a day earlier. So we had to cut our time in Lalibela by one day and depart for Mekele.

As it turned out, we spent Christmas Day slumped in the back of an old uncomfortable minibus for about 9 hours on unpaved Ethiopian roads. Our painfully slow and bumpy drive to the northern city of Mekele was made only more tedious by having to listen to the most boring middle-aged Belgian guy I’ve ever met. His conversation sent me to sleep like several pints of 9% Blue Label Chimay at lunchtime. But neither enduring the man who gave me temporary narcolepsy nor missing out on an Ethiopian Christmas dinner could detract from what lay ahead of us in Mekele…
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Posted by genowers 14:13 Archived in Egypt Tagged egypt ethiopia Comments (1)

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