Danakil Depression in MekeleJanuary 29, 2016 in Ethiopia
Our lovely friend Mulish from Gonder has done it again, his friend Ababa was ready for our arrival in Mekele and had already organized our seats for the Danakil Depression tour. Their credit card machine wasn't working, no surprise there, but since we were leaving one of our backpacks behind, she said we could pay on our return. We paid 300$us for 3 nights 4 days, which was the least expensive I have heard yet from other travellers, including people on our tour and even in our Jeep who paid anywhere from 350$-380$-some even 500$. Yay for farengi pricing, anything they can get away with!
I don't know what I was expecting here... We had skipped over this part in the travel book because we saw it was too expensive... We heard there was a volcano and sulfuric lakes but not much about them was described... And yet every traveler we met along the way assured us we absolutely needed to do this tour, so we did.
Turns out, Holy Fuck! Excuse my French.
This was honestly one of the coolest experiences of my life.
You start by a drive down what they call "the worst road in Africa", if you want to call it a road at all, the last 12km takes an hour to drive it. The way it worked - the tour needs to be done in 4x4 jeeps, or else we wouldn't get there, we were 15 people so 4 jeeps following each other, and we need a military escort vehicle (ever since the attack years ago), and there's a guide in one of the jeeps with a cook. This cook would make her way to wherever we were stopping for lunch and prepare everything for our arrival. I was fed incredibly well! Huge meals, delicious, water provided by them. Our cook Mary was this super bubbly, quite modern young lady. I say modern because she had a tattoo and tighter clothing then your usual, tradition Ethiopian.
The towns we stopped in for lunch pretty much just had the shack in which we ate, the rest was just rural Ethiopia. The Afar people, who live in this region, are said to be incredibly resilient, they live in the hottest "most inhabitablle" place on earth according to some research somewhere. They do so by being nomad, where every couple of months they pick up everything and move towards the water source, or crop land, or whatever they need at that time.
Tiny bit of negative before the awesome, they say these wonderful things about Afar people to you, but the only people we saw and interacted with were those begging for things, or simply pointing and laughing. Give me money, give me pen, give me candy, chocolate, and when all else fails, they point to something on you and say give me, plain and simple. Aggressive, annoying little ones, and you got to wonder "who's the idiot still giving them these things?". Well we found out.
There was this one particularly bad town, where you were literally swarmed with kids the second you stepped out of the jeep, also where the company decided we would have to spend half a day and the night. The second night of the tour, everyone basically agrees it's just to elongate the tour, but it's completely unnecessary. They bring you to a family compound, lay mattresses on the ground of 2 large rooms for the 15 of us, and you spend from around 2pm until the next morning at 10am here. As I mentioned, leaving the compound meant you were surrounded by kids grabbing your arm, pointing at you, and asking for things. They scream hello at you, and scream louder and louder until you answer them. Problem is you already said hello about 5 times, but dammit they want it a 6th time!
After a while, we started ignoring them. That failed. We then started being more direct, telling them to leave, go away.
It took me walking around this town of about 8 minutes, no more, to start getting rocks thrown at me. At first, smaller rocks, and to Jack also. We obviously turned, told them to stop and kept walking. I then started getting larger rocks. Jack, not so much. And larger. To the point where I got bruised in 2 places on my back from 2 rocks that nailed me. At this point, there are about 25 kids following us and laughing. Jack and I realized at that moment that I was apparently a little too different looking for them. It was very clearly aimed at me.
Obviously at this point, I headed back to the compound, where I had to spend from 3pm until the next morning sitting in one little court yard, not exploring. Others also went for walks and returned within 5 minutes because of the overwhelming kids. Small rocks thrown around them, not on them. This was probably my most disappointing evening.
Disappointing because as a traveler, you want to trust the people around you, you want to know you can get help, or just having an interaction with someone can be pleasant. But it was that evening that I realized I had no trust in any of my interactions with Ethiopians. They see us as wallets, entirely unwelcomed to their country unless we just walk around with an automatic tip or donation dispenser. A big part of travelling for me is the relationship you form with locals, and the experiences gained through them, but I won't find that here.
And then these two Americans, who apparently loved the kids, thought they were cute, decided to reward them all by giving them candy right outside our compound gates. They were surprised when the kids tore the bag away from them and ran away with it. Rewarding them. I couldn't believe it. I guess that's why they keep asking.
Enough negative, I saw a f***ing lava lake! The first day, we drove out as close to the Irta'ale volcano as possible, we ate, then started our 3 hour hike to the crater. We start this hike only at 5pm because apparently the goal is to walk with a headlamp in the dark for half of it, just for fun and games. This was the longest 3 hours ever, mostly because we could see the glow of the lava once it got dark, shining into the clouds. We all just wanted to get there!
Arriving at the top was just magical. You arrive at the top of the crater, looking down on this far, yet so reachable lava lake, just dancing around, spiting up every once in a while. Looked like the ocean side, crashing against the reef, only its firey lava! Once we got the go ahead from the military keeping guard, we actually descended into the crater and walked over this cooled off magma, crackling under our feet as if we were walking on giant charcoal. We got, without exaggerating, within 15 feet from the lava itself! Wind was strong and blowing the spiting bits away from us. The level of the lava must have been 2-3 meters from the rim. Seeing it bubble up, spit up, crashing against the side, absolutely mind blowing. Hot also. We were only permitted to stay about 40 minutes, and had to head back to the top of the crater to settle in for the night. Our accommodation for the evening - old, dirty foam mattresses, about 2-3 inches thick, depending how lucky you were, set into the dirt ground right smack outside around the crater top. The mattresses are laid out in groups of 3 within these 2 feet tall stone enclosures, almost like you would build around a fire pit, to help protect us from the wind. Thank God for our sleeping bags! Created this artificial cocoon I could pretend I was safe inside. The next day Jack told me there were mice in the rocks around us but chose not to tell me before because she knew I wouldn't have slept. Well played, well played.
We were woken at 5am so we could go back down for a second lava lake visit, only 20 minutes this time. I didn't want to leave. But eventually did, and we hiked down the 3 hours to our breakfast! The rest of the day was spent driving to that not so lovely town I told you about, where these same mattresses were laid out for us.
Day 3 we drove out to the salt lakes Lake Asale where these huge groups, caravans of camels and mules are still being used to carry the mined salt blocks back into town. Apparently, despite the fact that you can drive onto these lakes with large trucks, the locals are choosing to keep doing it the way they were taught traditionally, lifting all the salt blocks from the ground by hand, shaping them into squares to allow for easier transport and balance on the animals, and walking it all back. You couldn't see the end of this incredible white surface. We stayed here for the sunset (although too cloudy to see one) and had the music from one the trucks blasting, we danced and drank some local wine, had ourselves a great time. It was entertaining to see our military escorts have wine and dance with us...
Again, our accommodation for the night, weaved beds, with our usual mattresses over top, again outside. No walls, no markings of rooms or anything, just the Jeep parked at one end to "protect us from the wind" apparently. Where our 300$US each went, no one knows. But again, interesting experience! Apparently the star gazing is beautiful here, but unfortunately it was cloudy our whole stay. It was also supposed to be the warmest place on earth, averaging 34 celsius daily, but the clouds kept us cool all day.
And lastly, the sulfuric lakes in Dallol. The mixture of magnesium and sulfur and potash made these incredibly colourful formations... I was in awe of what nature could create. Yay for science.
All in all, 4 days of being driven around to these incredible sites, being fed amazingFood, in good company, what more could I ask for! All of it made my having to use the great outdoors as my toilet for 4 full days very easy to take !
And Jack can't stop talking about the volcano. Says she's going to stay to hang out with it, see how it's doing...Read more