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.
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.
At Dollol our guides reveal that mud conditions have made the road to Erta Ale completely impassable. They decide to take a diverted road to the (relatively) nascent volcano back through Mekele. We follow the same painful road home and I remind myself time and time again how happy we are to have left the PPE at home for this adventure.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We arrive back into Mekele, shattered with exhaustion at 9pm. An incredible 4 days in the Danakil Depression.
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?”
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?”
“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.
“After, where do you go?”
“I’m… going back to Australia.”
“No. Back to Australia.”
“She’s my cousin. She’s going back to China.”
“OK. Only Australia and China?”
“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!
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.
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.
The rest of the clan was also busy getting themselves ready for the final ceremony.
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.
A boy no longer, he will now consume only meat, milk, blood and honey until he marries. Manhood!