The Danakil Depression: Christmas at the hottest place on earth

Loes and I spent Christmas morning, midnight to 2am Christmas morning to be exact, taking in the sights and sounds of one of the only permanent lava lakes in the world, Erta Ala, in the Danakil Depression. The lava churned below us as smoke and foul smells filled our noses. It was a long journey to get there. For four days we were with a tour group exploring sulfur lakes, narrow caves and expansive saltpans. We battled wind, food poisoning, back-breaking bumpy roads and a three and half hour hike in the dark to get there. The biggest hurdle was getting military permission due to its proximity to the Eritrean border. Some how our beloved tour company managed to mess up the paperwork and 8 of our fellow travelers were not allowed to make the trip to see Erta Ale. To be turned away after three days of travel and a considerable amount of money spent, it’s an understatement to say people were angry. I’m not sure what caused the biggest explosions, the lava, the tour company’s incompetence, or the bad food.

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(Above: Waking up for day two of our trip. Slept under the stars, next to a donkey. And no, I’m not talking about Loes, you jerks)

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(Above: Our Christmas lights show, courtesy of Erta Ale)

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(Above: The “wind blown” hair style is all the rage here in Ethiopia)

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(Above: Loes exploring the sulfur pits in the Danakil)

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(Above: The stacked bricks on the left are salt. Large camel caravans can take up to a week to transport their goods to town)

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(Above : Sending my love to every one of my friends and family at home and around the world. I miss you all very much. )

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Ethiopia: The Rock-hewn Churches of Tigrai

Our first venture in northern Ethiopia had us taking a 14-hour bus ride into Mekele, the base city for trips to both the churches of Tigrai and excursions to the Danakil Depression. We found that Mekele itself doesn’t have much to offer, other than clean streets, some subpar restaurants, amazing juices and some seriously delicious honey covered pancakes. Honestly, the pancakes alone were worth the 14-hour journey. Well done, Green Valley Café (but your service is terrible).

We had a few days free before we departed for the Danakil, so we signed up for a last minute (as usual) trip to the churches. I’m glad we did. We headed to the tour agency at 7am and to our surprise, found a new Landcruiser, cushy seats at all, waiting for us. Two hours later we were in Megab, a small village at the base of the Gheralta Mountains, starting our ascent up the mountain. Our guide lead is through small crevasses and had us scampering up sandstone cliff faces, occasionally stopping to let us catch our breath or explore an old hermit cave. After an hours hike, we found ourselves at the church known as Debre Maryam Korkor. The priest unlocked the door and lead us into the church. We sat and listened as our guide spoke of its history and importance. Dating back to the 6th century, priests had lived on this distant plateau, dedicating their lives to their gods and a peaceful lifestyle. Only a few people lived on the plateau, but each Sunday and special service, dozens would make the hours hike to the church in order to pray and be closer to god. The journey is difficult, especially for those of an older age, so a new, much less remote church, was being built. We took our time to enjoy the stunning views in front of us. With a cloudless sky, it was as if we could see all the way across Ethiopia.

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The second church on our list was Abuna Yemata Guh, considered the most beautiful of all of Tigrai’s churches, mainly because of it’s location. The church was carved into the top of a giant rock pillar, and the only way to reach it is an hour’s hike that included scaling 20 feet of a sheer sandstone face using only uneven hand and foot holes, as well as crossing a narrow walkway with a 660 foot drop on one side. Loes and I both overcame whatever nerves we had and made it through unscathed. The same couldn’t be said for our traveling partners, who had a bit of trouble and fright when attempting to come back down. Luckily the guides and local worshippers were there to give us step-by-step instructions.

Blessed with breath-taking views, Abuna Yemata Guh lived up to its reputation. In addition to its surroundings, the interior of the church was eye opening as well. When discussing the church locations with our guide, he mentioned three reasons for their placement. First, with the churches being built so high up on the mountains, it allowed for the priests and monks to be closer to god. Second, with the churches being so far away from the towns and other people, it meant the priests and monks were that much farther from temptation. Lastly, with the churches being so far away from their enemies, it meant the priests and monks were that much safer from harm. Subsequently, no harm has befallen this church. While other churches had been set fire to or razed, this one had been left in tact. This allowed us to observe untouched ancient paintings and gaze upon books from the 6th century. It was as if we were in a time capsule, insulated from all that has happened since the church was first built.

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The churches of Tigrai are a truly impressive experience, one that should be on the top of everyone’s list if they plan on visiting Ethiopia.

Ethiopia: A bustling capital, tribes lost in time and hungry hyenas

The idea of traveling to Ethiopia was never in the original plans. The idea was to head south of Tanzania to the oft-praised country of Malawi. Plans changes though, and with me and travel, plans change rather easily (should I really even call them “plans”? More like rough ideas, really). 10 minutes of conversation with a stranger during our layover back in October was all it took. The seed was planted, and Loes and I bought a travel guide, spoke with friends and soon our imagination ran wild. It was a different kind of Africa, they said. A unique and friendly place, rich with culture and landscapes like you’ve never seen. After those rave reviews, how could we not go?

We arrived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital and economic hub, and made our way to Itegue Taitu, the oldest hotel in the country. Taitu was a welcomed splash of luxury. Large rooms with hardwood floors, raised ceilings and plenty of character. Big and comfy beds with no need for mosquito nets. Working showers that didn’t occasionally burst into flames (Loes had a shower in Nairobi that ended in a fireball shooting out from some pipes and wiring. She hasn’t complained about cold showers since then.) We explored Addis’ busy streets and shops, walked through the grounds of the ancient St. George church, and found ourselves eagerly downing large glasses of fresh squeezed mango and banana juice. We weren’t in town for more than 24 hours before we signed up for a tour of the Omo Valley, an area in southwest Ethiopia known for numerous tribes and market places.

The next morning we woke early and met up with our travel partners for the next six days, Erik and Jun. Erik, a 36 year old Dutch man, was a welcome sight for Loes. Any chance Loes gets to speak Dutch, she jumps at. I’ve tried learning some of the language, but there are only so many times Loes can listen to me count to 20 until she gets a bit bored. Jun, a 65 year old Japanese man who had visit over 190 countries, was our self appointed leader. Full of knowledge but a little set in his ways, he mostly kept to himself unless we spoke of travel, after which he willingly shared many of his travel tales.

The car rolled up and was met with our crinkled faces of disbelief. It was a ratty old Landcruiser, with no door handles and a roof so low Erik and I would end up with a concussion after each bump in the road.  They must have pulled this thing straight from a wreck yard. We complained a little, but after a guarantee this car wouldn’t break down, we hit the road. I guess guarantees aren’t worth much these days because two hours later the interior of the car smelled of gas and we found ourselves stuck for three hours waiting for a new car.

After getting a new car (with door handles!) and a new driver (he spoke English!), the tour could finally, truly, get started. Over those six days we visited four markets, two remote villages and experienced cultures we’d only previously glimpsed on the cover of a National Geographic. The Mursi village was more of a visual treat than cultural experience. It was a lot to take in, from the women with their lip and ear plates, to the painted faces and bodies of the gun toting young men. The long drive into a remote, barren landscape further fortified the idea that these people were removed from modern civilization. However, the sight of a young villager in Rayban sunglasses confirmed that the slow creep of technology into these societies could not be stopped. As unique of an experience as it was, the Mursi village trip did not feel genuine. It was too short, too forced. We were pestered for photos wherever we went, with demands of money after every click. I don’t fault them for their actions, but it did cheapen the moment. Overall it was a great experience, as long as you know what to expect.

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(Above: Mursi woman)

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(Above: Afar man)

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(Above: Mursi women and an awkward American)

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(Above: Loes helping me with my fear of heights. I’m all man, baby!)

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(Above: Why did the land tortoise cross the road? Because I helped it, otherwise it would be dead. Eat your vegan hearts out, PETA)

We also spent time in the small village of Kolsho. Here, we were greeted by the village and effectively left alone. We explored the area and played with children, eventually meeting a man by the name of Nokia who eagerly welcomed us into his hut. We felt no pressure and simply enjoyed the experience as we spoke of his life, his family and his village. There were no “wow” moments, no “I’ve never seen that before” type events, but it felt real, which was something everyone was thankful for. Looking back on our few hours in Kolsho, I can only help but smile.

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After Omo we found ourselves resting up in Addis then heading east to Harar, a town considered to be the 4th holiest city in the Islamic culture. We spent most of our time within the ancient city walls of old town getting lost amongst the narrow stone streets or in the vast Muslim cemetery on the outskirts of town. The rest of our time was spent in the hotel room hunting cockroaches and flies or praying the water would finally work for once.

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The highlight of our time in Harar was the feeding of the hyenas. In years past there was a famine in the region, during which the hyenas began to attack villagers and livestock. Without many other options, the villagers began leaving out bowls of porridge for the hyenas, hoping that would satisfy their appetites. It worked, and since then there has been an annual ceremony in which a bowl of porridge is left out for the hyenas. The daily feeding of the hyenas has it’s roots in this tradition, but is now more of a tourist draw then a cultural ritual.

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That said, it’s a surreal and unforgettable experience to be surrounded by eight lurking beasts as a meat-covered stick is placed in your mouth and soon greedily removed by the powerful jaws of an eager hyena. My heart skipped a beat when an overly excited hyena missed his attempt to grab the meat and instead grazed my forehead. I can still feel his slobber on my skin and hair. Maybe that just means I need a shower.