The Toughest Place on Earth | Danakil Depression

The Danakil Depression

Sulfuric acid is bubbling up through the salt-encrusted ground. The daytime heat soars over 46 degrees Celsius and the Gara (Fire Wind) is blowing incessantly.

We’re in the Danakil Depression: -116m below sea level and officially, the hottest place on Earth. The Danakil straddles the Northern Ethiopian border with Eritrea, and sits atop the junction of the Arabian, African and Somali tectonic plates – all of which are pulling away from each other to form one of the world’s most volcanically active regions.

Getting here is an ordeal in itself. The area’s remoteness and rugged terrain requires a troupe of LandCruisers and a decent chunk of cash ($400-$600 depending on group size and bargaining ability) for a bare bones bush-camp tour (all that’s on offer). The roads are being built by the Ethiopian military to service the hostile border with Eritrea and are not complete. The workhorse Landcruisers are in their element; the tourist-grade personnel are not. We arrive battered and bruised at our first camp, wondering if anything we see over the next few days could have made it possibly worth it.

Our first night we sleep completely unsheltered, under the stars. Our guides have rented some local Afar beds for us to sleep on, and for the first time in my life I watch the stars on their journeys throughout the night sky. The Fire Wind continues to blow and Christine attempts to block the wind by taking cover in her -7 degrees sleeping bag, only to find her back searing in insulated heat. I chuckle from my silk sleeping bag liner, gambling that the desert heat will not relent. I am wrong and wake frigidly cold.

Our guides have us up early in a race to be back in our air-conditioned oases before the heat returns. Over breakfast, we are notified that unseasonal rains have completely flooded some roads to Dollol. It might be tricky.

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Driving to Dollol

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Even after seeing others’ pictures, nothing prepares you for the mind blowing spectacle that is Dollol, the lowest point in the Danakil Depression. Sulfuric acid is bubbling up through the ground, creating stalagmite-like formations against a fluroescent yellow, green, and red back drop. It doesn’t even feel like Mars; perhaps somewhere even more inhospitable. It is stunning.

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Erta Ale

The roads on the alternate route to Erta Ale from Mekele are more of the same brain shattering bumps that we have had over the last two days. What awaits is a midnight ascent to one of the world’s five active lava lakes – lying in Erta Ale’s crater. A relatively young volcano (having formed within the last 10,000 years), Erta Ale has been constantly active since records started in the 1960s.

As the hours tick slowly by and we begin nearing our destination, the affects of the recent rains start to become evident as soft sands slowly turn into mud.

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In rapidly fading light, vehicles in the group get caught by the mud one after another. We begin to wonder if we will make it to the volcano after all.

At 7pm we are through the mud – and on to the toughest section of ‘road’ yet. The Landcruisers are hurtling over volcanic boulders as we hold on for dear life.  At 7:15pm I glance up at the car’s clock praying for the end. At least another hour to go.

After an 11 hour driving day, we reach base camp at Erta Ale and are prepared a quick dinner by the tour chef. At 10pm we begin our ascent.

It feels fantastic to be finally out hiking in the open. Despite the late start time it is still extremely hot. Our guide follows a supposed ‘path’ in the moonlight and us faranjis struggle along with headlamps and hiking poles up the rocky volcanic path.

At midnight we rest and are told another two hours to go. The group is struggling from exhaustion and the heat. It is certainly well past my bedtime – my eyes are getting heavy with sleep and I entertain the notion of a sleep walk. I decide against it.

And just like that, out of nowhere, we enter a little thatched village. I peer out onto the horizon and our goal is in sight. I see a giant volcanic crater with an ominous red glow hovering over it. We are giddy with excitement and instantaneously re-energised for the final push to greet Erta Ale’s heart.

We reach the lip of the crater and for the 2nd time in two days, my mind is completely blown. I stare down into the lava lake as the liquid Earth bubbles over and over itself, with frequent eruptions. My skin is reeling from the 1800 degree Celsius heat as I contemplate the most ominous looking sight I have ever encountered. It is pure, unadulterated, 100% evil. We are staring into the Earth’s core. We are staring into Hell.

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We stand mesmerised by the incredible sight for over two hours. With every eruption, we watch the lava lake’s level rise and fall. Two years ago the magma boiled completely over the crater, forming what we currently standing on. At 3am we head for our volcano top camp site for whatever sleep we can manage. We must be up at 530am to begin our ascent down.

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Sunrise at the crater

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From base camp, the group stumbles back into the cars, utterly exhausted after the last 4 days on the road. We brace ourselves for Erta Ale’s final assault on our bodies as we are thrown around once more like rag dolls for another 4hrs.

As we enter the mountains, climbing from Danakil’s Depths back up to Ethiopia’s Plateau, ominous clouds tell us this adventure is not quite over yet. Thundering rains begin to hammer our car, and the road is turning into a muddy abyss. We round a corner only to be met with a savage flood river cutting off the road completely. Dead trees, caught in the tumult flash past our eyes. Our chef, in our lead car, decides to check the depth of the river and comes within inches of his life as he is swept straight through. The guides burst out in nervous laughter. We are not in a good place.

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Our only option is to wait it out and eventually, the river slows enough for the drivers to attempt a crossing. It will not be our last.

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We arrive back into Mekele, shattered with exhaustion at 9pm. An incredible 4 days in the Danakil Depression.

– Eugene

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Immigration Hoopla in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

We reached Addis! After picking up Margot, a friend from San Francisco, we dropped our bags at Wimms Holland House. Notorious as the overland camping site, the place has fallen a bit in amenities and hygiene. But it’s right in the middle of the city, which was perfect, given we needed to extend our Ethiopian visas immediately a few blocks away.

Getting your visa extended is actually a simple process, if you know how. But given Amharic is the language used, I couldn’t help but feel bad for all the foreigners figuring it out by trial and error. Not to mention the 1,000+ Somali/Yemen/Sudanese refugees lined up outside. After shuttling around a few rooms getting our information verified, we finally reached the photo stop in Room 77. The woman in charge saw my Chinese passport. “Sorry, 15 days from today.” My current visa expires in 14. “Come back when expire.” That was definitely not an option.

She notices Eugene’s Australian passport. “30 days for you.” When asked why, she pushed my passport away and said to stop wasting her time. She motioned for the next person in line. We had waited an entire morning (including Ethiopian lunch) in line; given our travel plans in Northern Ethiopia, returning back to Addis for another 2 week visa was not feasible. We continued to explain the situation, and exasperated, she sent us to her boss in Room 89.

Off we went, and clearly the boss had better things to do. Without hesitation, he gave us 60 days each. Victory!!

 

——

However, our immigration issues weren’t over. After sussing out the Somaliland route at Wimms, we decided to turn our compasses further north — to Sudan.

The problem, as with most hasty route decisions, is the visa. We turned up at the Sudan embassy hoping for the best. After waiting for an hour, Eugene joined the line to speak to the boss. We got nervous when the 20 girls in front of us got sent off crying, some being pulled away by two security goons. Finally, it was our turn.

“Tourist visa please.”

“You need a letter from the Ministry in Khartoum.”

“But… how do we get to Khartoum without a Sudan visa?”

“NEXT.”

Confounded, we got in line again to talk to the ambassador. Attempt number two: Change the type of visa.

“Transit visa please.”

“Where are you going?”

“Egypt.”

“You need an Egyptian visa first. NEXT.”

While Eugene tried to find a workaround, I was crippled in the waiting room with a stomach bug. A friendly Sudanese expat felt sorry for us, and gave some advice: the less information you give, the better.

So off Eugene goes, back to the ambassador. Attempt #3.

“Visa please.”

“After, where do you go?”

“I’m… going back to Australia.”

“Not Egypt?”?”

“No. Back to Australia.”

“And her?”

“She’s my cousin. She’s going back to China.”

“OK. Only Australia and China?”

“Yes”

“Come back tomorrow for visa.”

And just like that, we got our ticket to Sudan.

—-

Addis was tough going. After 4 stomach bugs between us, endless diesel fumes, and incessant pickpockets, we rushed to leave. Now pushing to Lalibela, the holy town of the Orthodox Christian church, with Margot in tow. Til next time!

-Christine

South Omo, Ethiopia

Ethiopia Part 1: South Omo

Nothing we’ve seen in Africa quite comes close to South Omo. Here, you don’t find a trace of “modern Africa,” and passing through the Ethiopian mountains was like entering a time warp.

Even up to 50 years ago, the people of South Omo weren’t aware of an “Ethiopia” entity. From the Mursi women who stretch out their bottom lip to fit a lip plate, to the Hamer men who jump across bulls to mark entrance into adulthood, South Omo is veritably a living museum. When we heard we were just in time for the bull jumping ceremonies, we stopped the car.

With our guide in hand (visit the local Tourist Hotel if you’re in need of help), we drove into the bush. At some nondescript location, we parked the car and started hiking through the savannah. Then, out of thin air, a half-clothed man appeared, stared for a few moments, and invited us to tea at his house. I looked at Eugene. Why not?

The local Hamer man led us to his two huts, and presented us with two nut shells, filled with beans and hot water and definitely a few ants. Politely, we sipped our tea. We tried to make conversation, but alas, Amharic either isn’t familiar to them or they preferred silence. Either way, we thanked them and set about another half hour hike to the ceremony.

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We arrived just in time to watch the singing and dancing. As we were getting settled, a loud crack! sliced the air.

I looked up to see a woman being whipped on the arm so hard, that the tree branch twisted around her body and cracked open her back. Almost immediately, she grabbed the whipper’s arm and urged him to do it again. He hesitated, but acquiesed. Our guide explained that the beatings show devotion, and the honorific scars are treasured for life.

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The rest of the clan was also busy getting themselves ready for the final ceremony.

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Later in the afternoon, everyone began moving to a clearing, where a herd of cattle gathered. The initiate, stark naked, let onto the back of a bull. Then he continues jumping from bull to bull, until he reaches the end of the line. Again and again, until the crowd shows its satisfaction.

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Getting a running jump!

A boy no longer, he will now consume only meat, milk, blood and honey until he marries. Manhood!

 

-Christine

 

Onwards to Ethiopia through Lake Turkana

In choosing your route north from Nairobi to Ethiopia you have two options. On one hand, there is a vague route via Lake Turkana, taking you over the road ‘hardly ever trodden,’ and travelling close to 1000km without fuel stops nor another vehicle in sight. On the other, the infamous Marsabit-Moyale ‘road’ is claimed by many as literally the worst in Africa.

With Kenya’s elections drawing nearer, we chose the Lake Turkana route, figuring our quest for isolation would keep us well and truly away from any potential political flare ups.

Day One: Lake Naivasha

Lake Naivasha, our first stop ~150km out of Nairobi, is one of Kenya’s four great Rift Valley lakes. Our campsite, Carnelly’s (spelt wrong in the guide books and possible here as well) is stunning, sitting amongst swampland that extends all the way out to the lake. We stayed a couple of nights in order to visit Hells Gate National Park – unique in that it allows people to ride bicycles right amongst the African game.

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Like many parts of wild Africa, development is taking its toll. About 3/4s of the way to the end of the Hells Gate trail, out of nowhere huge construction vehicles begin appearing, tearing their way through the park’s dirt tracks. A pleasant place for a bike ride it is not. Whilst the geo-thermal plant under construction will undoubtedly improve the local economic situation, it is a shame it is to the detriment of this wonderful national park.

Day Two: Maralal

Waking bright and early, Christine and I planned on getting off to a good start on the tough 300km drive we had ahead of us. We were derailed immediately: our ‘time saving’ breakfast at Carnelly’s took on Homeric proportions as we experienced the very best service East Africa has to offer. Rolling into ‘town’ we searched for a discreet fuel station to top up our tank, in addition to the 100L capacity of extra fuel we required to cover the 1000km ahead. Discretion was important: on the continent, often you’ll turn your back for a second and find dozens of curious eyes peering into your vehicle

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Glass.

Thankfully we managed to avoid this as we packed and repacked the car with the extra fuel and headed out of town.

Driving through this part of Kenya up towards Maralal was unlike any part of Africa we had yet been. We were riveted by the wealth of the land as we journeyed through the green undulating hills formed by tectonic plates attempting to rip Africa in two.

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Victory at the equator

200kms into the picturesque journey, the tarmac suddenly dead ends into dirt. After deflating our tyres and our 3rd hour vanished, we gave into our realization that we had seen the last tarmac until well into Ethiopia.

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Which way?

The final 120km of bumping around the rough stuff took us close to 5 hrs and we arrived at Yare Camel Club in Maralal in the early evening. The long, slow driving we had better get used to. A political party had gathered at the camel club’s ‘function room’ and we recalled our daily security alerts reminding us to ‘avoid all political gatherings’. We bunkered down and hoped for the best.

Day Three: South Horr

We managed to find fuel in Maralal and greedily topped up our tank on the way out of town. The GPS had two options heading to South Horr through Baragoi: one via ‘very bad rocks’ and another more obscure route through Barsaloi. Hoping to preserve our tyres, we opted for the latter.

Leaving the main C77 road behind us, the obscure route dead ended a few times in Maralal before we found the right track. The road disappeared at times, with only sandy tracks to follow as we wound our way up through the Rift Valley ranges. The road less travelled was for the most part in great condition. After quite nearly rattling our teeth out the previous day, it was a welcome change. Only when the real climbing started did we realize why maybe ordinary traffic might typically opt for the main route.

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Some of the day’s better roads!

Road building typically dictates that steep ascents and descents are negotiated with winding, hairpin tracks. This particular service road simply dove straight in on a degrading marble surface. Now crawling through the mountains in low range 2nd at 15-20km/hr, concern quickly grew that the ‘short’ 150km day was turning into another epic.

Just like that however, we were through the mountains, and the wonderful Rift Valley opened up stunningly in front of us. Returning to the flat sandy tracks, we managed to make it to South Horr, a dry riverbed village by mid-afternoon. We camped out at the Samburu sports club, and low and behold, a political gathering amassed for the 2nd night in a row.

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Coming through

Day Four: Loyangalani

With only 90km to our first stop on the lake at Loyangalani, we left the dry riverbeds mid-morning. As we continued, the landscape changed completely once again, and we found ourselves bumping along amongst the volcanic plains. Hot and windy, the uncompromising landscape of volcanic boulders was out of this world.

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Our first glimpse of Lake Turakana (i.e. the Jade Sea) was a jaw dropping experience. Out of a seeming nothingness, in a hot, windy desert, a stunning body of water began to appear in front of us. With a coastline larger than that of Kenya’s entire east coast, the Lake’s green waters were incomprehensible.

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As we pointed the PPE into the oasis town of Loyangalani, we began to encounter some of the most colourful tribal people we had yet met. Adorned with beads and jewelry symbolizing their hierarchical status, people from four different tribal communities in Loyangalani coexisted peacefully. The tough desert like conditions had however taken their toll; two years earlier a devastating drought had obliterated the majority of their livestock, leaving the communities to survive on food aid.

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Day Five: Sibiloi National Park

After a hot windy night in the tent, described by our friends Linda and Jurgen as ‘having hair dryers blowing on you all night’ we were up early and ready to push on. This next leg of the journey would be the most remote of the entire trip, and we stocked up well on oasis spring water before leaving.

The windy landscape that we encountered was the most devastating we had been through yet. At times we were forced to stop the car completely as the PPE was engulfed in dust storm after dust storm. Often we would emerge unsure whether we would still be able to find our tracks.

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Despite all this, in the most dumbfounding of environments, we continued to encounter the nomadic tribal people battling the elements on their endless journeys for survival.

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As the PPE continued over the rocks we eventually found the entrance to Sibiloi national park. Having a Tanzanian driving license we entered at the resident rate, a hefty 90% discount off tourist rack rates. Although we had hoped to push all the way through to Illeret, we opted to pull off the road and bush camp in the national park. It was our most inspiring decision yet.

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Day Six: Konso, Ethiopia

Wanting to beat the heat and any potential onlookers, we were up at the crack of dawn ready to cross finally into Ethiopia. We stopped by the local police station at Illeret for updated information, and to register our intent to cross into Ethiopia. Charles, the local police officer was much obliging and we topped up our fuel tank with 50L from our reserves and pushed on.

Crossing borders at this obscure corner of the continent was a non-affair. Suddenly we were driving in Kenya; and the next, we were crossing a line marked only on the GPS and we were in Ethiopia. We had made it!

We eventually hit a real (albeit gravel) road, our first in over 750km, and turned left to report at Ethiopian immigration control in Omorate. With our passports in order after the arduous process of visa applications in Nairobi, we expected to pass through with a breeze. Not so. A customs officer was adamant that a carnet de passage was required to cross (it is not) and was unwilling to allow our vehicle into the country. He jokingly (but not really jokingly) told us we would have to turn back.

One of my favourite quotes from Europe’s most notable author on the African continent, Karen Blixen reads:

“One can always impress a Native by being willing to waste more time over a matter than he does himself, only it is a difficult thing to accomplish”

So we waited. And argued. And eventually, on presenting more useless pieces of paper, he discovered one stating ‘FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY’. Satisfied, he collected it for his folder and agreed to let us pass. The slip of paper was a receipt for payment for visas into Kenya, but we quickly gathered our things and headed off.

We neared our intended campsite in Turmi in the early afternoon, but with the promise of internet, a beautiful campsite, ATMs and hot water showers in Konso, we decided to push the 200km further on. A serendipitous call: despite lacking the promised riches, our ‘camp site’ ended with a delightful reunion with our friends Linda and Jurgen from Nairobi.

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We’re in Ethiopia!

-Eugene

In the big city of Nairobi, Kenya

Bumper to bumper traffic welcomed us into the Nairobi, East Africa’s hub. And we were quintessential country kids who finally arrived at “the big city,” marveling at the 24-hr stores, cosmopolitan fare, and skyscrapers 10 stories high.

One of our first days here, we delved into Nairobi’s wild side and paid a visit Nairobi’s Giraffe Center, a success story amongst conservationists. The efforts of African Fund for Endangered Wildlife (AFEW) has more than doubled the population of Rothschild’s giraffes, and the center has successfully released these beautiful animals across Kenya’s national parks.

Hands full of food pellets, we stood face-to-face with the giraffes on a perch and fed them their afternoon snack. With tongues rough as sandpaper, big shiny eyes, and an unimaginable amount of slobber, the gentle creatures won our hearts. As evidenced below!

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Slobber all over the place

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Getting a Valentine’s Day kiss from Lena!

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Two nights later, we checked Carnivore off our Nairobi bucket list. This restaurant takes nyama choma (the unofficial dish of Kenya, meaning barbecued meat) to new heights. With unlimited soup, salad, and 20+ meats brought to the table on swords, the food doesn’t stop coming until the white flag waves, literally. (There’s a flag on the table you need to knock down). Needless to say, we left satisfied.

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The following day we visited the David Sheldrick Center, a foundation that takes in orphaned baby elephants and rhinos, rehabilitates them, and releases them back into Kenya’s wild parks. For one hour every day, they allow visitors to come and watch the baby elephants get their daily mud bath and lunch time milk bottles. We were smitten, and promptly adopted one of them–a baby girl named Sonje. As new foster parents, we received an invite to return in a few hours and see her bedtime ritual.

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Joining the elephant dog pile

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All grown up and bottle-feeding himself!

To pass the time before the private viewing, we made a stop at Kazuri Beads in the Karen & Langata neighborhood. (Kazuri in Swahili means “small and beautiful.”) What began as two women is now a workforce of 100+ single mothers and disabled women who commute daily from the slums to make a living for themselves. A tour of the facilities covered everything from clay making to molding to painting and glazing–it’s a well-oiled operation that provides opportunity and empowerment to a disadvantaged social group.

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A hard day’s work drying off in the sun

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Each bead is hand-rolled, hand-drawn, and hand-painted

Back at the elephant center, we watched the keepers bring all 20+ babies from the bush. The young ones strutted (some ran) into their pens in anticipation of their milk nightcap. Walking around, we looked on as some babies were wrapped up in blankets, a few babies cried out for more milk, and one cheeky little guy chewed on his trainer’s coat (and then proceeded to chew on Eugene’s arm). Sonje, who will be released back into the wild soon, spent the entire time chowing down on dinner.

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Wrapped up for the cold night ahead

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Saying hello to the visitors!

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Nom nom

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Clearly not satisfied with his ration of milk

Last but not least, we can now add another home away from home to our ever expanding list: Jungle Junction. Popular amongst overlanders, the Nairobi house was packed the entire time.

We met a few couples headed the same way, and after careful consideration, decided to change our route north to follow the caravan. Instead of bumpy and bandit-infested Moyale, we are now headed towards remote and beautiful Lake Turkana, en route to Ethiopia.

The Jade Sea awaits!