The idea of traveling the Horn of Africa soon got reduced to Ethiopia and Somaliland, on account of visa difficulties for other Horn countries. Yet, these two proved exciting and interesting, and above all, varied enough for an eight-week trip in Feb/March of 2012, from which I kept the blog reproduced below. It is mostly travel experiences, a little background here and there, a feeble attempt to put some things in a wider perspective, and for the rest pretty pictures.
(the original blog appeared on www.oudmayer3.blogspot.com, a few years before I initiated this website; unfortunately, a few facilities have been discontinued by Google).
01. the idea
As if there hasn’t been written more than enough about everything that can possibly be written about, I will once more add to the vast amount of text on the internet. I enjoy blogging, it forces me to be even more observant than I normally am, as to ensure that there is always something to talk about. After Haiti, Indochina and Lebanon, the subject of this blog is going to be a trip through the Horn of Africa, or at least those parts that are relatively accessible (and that excludes, fortunately, most of Somalia, and unfortunately, Eritrea, which has closed all its boundaries with its neighbours). Read more.
02. the plan
Right! As always, we have a plan. This time we will be traveling in circles – there is really no other logistically convenient way to do it. Read the details.
03. the scare
Just after I posted our program, last Sunday, the internet media brought the news of five foreign tourists that had been killed in Ethiopia. They had been part of a group of eight, or 22, or 27 – the news is not very clear here – that had been traveling in the Danakil Depression (also called Afar Desert). Apparently, according to the Ethiopian government-controlled television, they were attacked by a group of Eritrean rebels at dawn, last Tuesday morning, near the Erta Ale volcano. Five were shot dead, two got injured and one got away unhurt. Later, it transpired that two more tourists and two of their Ethiopian guides had been kidnapped, and were being held across the Eritrean border. Read more.
04. the adjustments
Even before we have left, we had to adjust the plan already. News about the attack on tourists in the Danakil Depression remains elusive – the only thing everybody agrees on is that five tourists were killed. Now the ARDUF, a rebel group inside Ethiopia that fights for greater autonomy of the Afar region, claims that the tourists died during a shoot-out between the rebels and the Ethiopian army, after the kidnapping. We have decided to defer the decision to go there, and if we go, we will do it at the very end of our trip – if we do get kidnapped, at least we have enjoyed a fabulous trip beforehand. Just kidding. Read more.
05. the railway
Less than two days to departure, I can’t wait – partly to do with the fact that it has started freezing and snowing in The Netherlands.
As I wrote earlier, we had to adjust our program, which means that Djibouti – for which I have always had this inexplicable desire to visit – will now not be our first stop anymore, in fact it will not be a stop at all. Which also means that we will not take the only railway in the Horn of Africa anymore, the train from Addis Ababa to Djibouti. Read more.
06. the delay
It was quite a sight, yesterday morning. Very early, at 7.15 am, very cold at -11 oC. Dark. Chilling wind. Not wanting to wear our winter coats for just a short walk to the station – who needs a winter coat in the Horn of Africa? -, we had instead opted for multiple layers of shirts, jumpers, fleeces etc., counting on well-heated transport once we were on board of the train, all the way to Dusseldorf, where we were to catch a Turkish Airlines plane to Istanbul, connecting to Addis Ababa. And Sofia was wearing her Panama hat, in anticipation of the Ethiopian sun. Read more.
07. Addis Ababa
So there we are, finally, in Addis Ababa. A huge city, not particularly pretty. There is not really an old core, the town has been established only a little over 100 years ago, in 1887, and has been added to afterwards, by the Italians who invaded Ethiopia in the run-up to the Second World War, and quite likely also by the Derg, the communists who overthrew emperor Haile Selassie in 1974, and their allies: lots of buildings have this Soviet-era look: functional architecture, euphemism for square box devoid of any fantasy. Not pretty. There is the city center, with all the businesses and state offices, and two areas where most of the hotels and restaurants are, the Piazza – as the name suggests established by the Italians -, and a newer area around Bole road. Neither is particularly attractive. Read more.
08. Addis Ababa (2)
As in so many developing country capitals, the streets are full of people of every walk of life. There are shoe polishers everywhere, in rows on the pavement; interestingly, as many people wear sport shoes these days, the shoe polishers have branched out into shoe washing. Really, bucket, brush and soap! Most disturbing though are the beggars, especially the lepers amongst them, something I thought wasn’t of these times anymore. And those with an arm missing, or a leg, you cannot fake that. And the old, they have no safety net, no social security. Then there are the opportunists, those who cross the street at the sight of a ferenji – a foreigner – to put up their hand. And there are those who want to strike up a conversation with the foreigner, often with good intentions, occasionally not. And all those casual pedestrians who seem to continually study of all the pockets you could possibly keep money in. We have a tendency of walking a lot, and after a while it can become overwhelming. Read more.
09. Nile Valley
Right, I told you yesterday that I got mugged. Lost my wallet to those pickpockets we had been warned for so many times. Suffice to say that it was the classic set-up, suffice to say that I did run after them… have you ever tried to outrun an Ethiopian? So I didn’t catch him, neither did about 200 bystanders: all those able young men, in sports outfit, flashy running shoes, didn’t move a finger, or perhaps a foot, just to tackle a fast running suspect, and that was not for not realizing what happened. Read more
10. Bahir Dar
Bahir Dar has two claims to fame. Firstly, it situated on the shore of Lake Tana, considered the source of the Blue Nile (fyi, Lake Victoria is the source of the White Nile, and white and blue join forces in Khartoum, in Sudan). The outlet of the Nile from Lake Tana, the start of the river, is a rather underwhelming sight. Much more impressive used to be the Falls some 30 km downstream at Tis Abay (which means smoke of the Nile), also called Tis Isat (Water that smokes). Read more.
This is not the forum to discuss the history of Ethiopia in great detail. Firstly, because others can do that much better than I, and have done so, too, and secondly, because the history is pretty complex, balancing between fact and Ethiopian legend. For instance, it is hard to believe that the last emperor, Haile Selassie, was a direct descendant from the offspring of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, who she visited 3000 years ago – given the often violent regime changes, that bloodline must have been broken not once, but many times, yet Ethiopian history insists on this unlikely dynasty. Yet, Gondar has been an important part in this history, having been the capital for some 250 years. Read more.
12. Gondar (2)
Another not to be missed landmark in town is the Debre Birham church, the only historic church in Gondar to have been spared the sacking of the Madhist army, a Muslim revolutionary band that sacked much of Sudan, and part of Ethiopia, in the late 19th Century. History, or legend, has it that the church was saved by a swarm of bees, which drove off the vandals. (You see how difficult it is to take Ethiopian history, as promoted by Ethiopians, seriously? Bees seem to come back many times at critical moments in the past). Read more.
Guide books suggest that it is an easy bus ride from Gondar to Gorgora. It is not. As so many buses in Ethiopia, this one leaves somewhere between 5.30 and 6 am. OK we can handle that. But from getting close to the bus station in Gondar to after being well away from the bus stop in Gorgora, it is a constant hassle. Read more.
14. James Bruce
One of the more interesting characters that have been to Gondar is James Bruce, a Scot who set out to discover the source of the Nile in 1768. He reached Gondar in 1770, where he managed to gain the confidence of the emperor and his general. As Alan Moorehead, who wrote a chronicle of the Blue Nile, says: “It is wonderful that Bruce should have survived (..) among these violent men whose first instinct was to kill a stranger and then rob him of his goods”. Read more.
Being perhaps Ethiopia’s preeminent tourist spot, that is also Lalibela’s curse. The good news is that it has indeed a couple of fabulous assets, in the form of 11 (or 10, or 13, depending who is writing the guide book) rock-hewn churches. But not just hewn into the rock, like in Petra, for instance, no, these have been excavated; I mean, many of these churches are free-standing, all the rock around it removed, then the inside of the remaining monolith opened up, hollowed out, and finally exquisitely finished, with door openings, windows, arches, pillars, sometimes decorated with reliefs and frescos. Like a real church, really, but then out of a single piece of rock. Read more.
16. Prester John
It is quite amazing that we Europeans know so little about early Ethiopian history. After all, an Ethiopian – or Abyssinian, as it used to be called – empire has existed for a very, very long time. We have vaguely heard of the Queen of Sheba, to who I referred already, but nobody seems aware that, at the time the Romans ruled Europe and the Middle East, the Axumite empire, with a high level of civilization, controlled the trading routes through the Red Sea, and did this for a long time. Read more.
There is actually not much to do in Axum. The sites are – how shall I put it? – impressive, if you think about it in historical context, but not very impressive to look at. I already referred to the Aksumite empire, a highly civilized society which lasted from probably well before Christ to the 7th or 8th Century AD, and adopted Christianity in the process. The traces of this empire are, obviously, to be found around Aksum, and consist of field full of stelae, a few royal tombs and the remains of a palace. Read more.
18. Aksum (2)
Despite an absence of impressive landmarks, we stayed three days in Aksum. It turned out to be a pretty relaxed town, with pretty relaxed people. OK, the children still demanded money and pens, but they were somewhat less insistent than in Gondar and Lalibela. Or perhaps we learn better how to deal with the situation. Read more.
19. the travel day
The various sites in the very north of Ethiopia are difficult to reach by public transport, so we decided to rent a vehicle, for two days. Monday morning early departure – well, not as early as most public busses leave, but still. Read more.
20. the travel day (2)
After the Debre Damo adventure we deserved lunch: remarkably good roasted lamb, in the border town of Adigrat, some 20 km from the Eritrean border. Well, border town, in fact the border has been closed for quite some time now, since the Ethiopian-Eritrean war of 1998-2000. I suspect if any smuggling is going on, it will be going from Ethiopia towards Eritrea, not the other way round. Read more.
We arrived in Wukro at dusk. The best hotel in town (10 US$ a night) had one single room available, and one double that stank badly. The building looked like a prison, three stories high with rooms exiting on a veranda around a narrow concrete courtyard. Every noise echoed upwards. Our second choice hotel was being renovated, but luckily we spotted a brand new – in fact, the second floor hadn’t been finished yet – and spotless clean small family hotel. Read more.
Mekele, the capital of the Tigray region, is just 45 minutes drive south of Wukro. The road is fairly new, which allows for quite high speeds, yet the non-motorized creatures who also make use of the road – not only the people walking along, also the donkeys, the camels, the cows and the sheep crossing, the children playing –, they are clearly not used to this. Read more.
23. the road to Kombolcha
Just when you have, for the umpteenth time, established firmly that although there are plenty interesting things to see in this country, the actual traveling is somewhat of a hardship experience – all the begging, all the opportunism, all the lying and cheating -, you have a day as today. Read more.
We had come to base ourselves in Kolbolcha, strategically positioned to visit several famous markets back-to-back, the Sunday market in Senbete and the Monday market in Bati, presumably the biggest market in the country after the Merkato, but definitely more colourful, with people from various ethnic origins coming together. In the event it turned out that Kombolcha also has its own market, on Saturday. Read more.
25. Senbete & Bati
The market marathon. We like markets, you know that, so even though we had just done the one in Kombolcha, this didn’t diminish the enthusiasm for, first, on Sunday, the Senbete market two hours south, and second, the huge market in Bati, an hour or so east. Read more.
26. Dire Dawa
We have left the so-called Historical Circuit – the north of Ethiopia, the historical heartland – behind us, and we are heading north and east now, to the less explored Somali part – Somali as in the eastern most province of Ethiopia, as well as a short entry into Somaliland, a semi-autonomous part of the country Somalia (in fact Somaliland is an independent country, for all intents and purposes, except that it has not been recognized as such by anybody). Read more.
The first Westerner to lay eyes on Harar was Richard Burton, he of Burton & Speke fame (from a later expedition to the heart of Africa to explore the source of the Nile). On early travels, in 1854, Burton reached Harar – which he compared to ‘ill-famed Timbuctoo’ as being equally ‘bigoted and barbarous’ (from hearsay, no doubt, as I don’t think he ever went to Timbuktu). He stayed for ten days, as guest, others say hostage, of the local sultan, before being allowed to leave again. Read more.
We are getting further and further east. Jijiga is the capital of the ethnic-Somali Ogaden region in Eastern Ethiopia. The town features prominently in a book written by Nega Mezlekia, who was born here, and spent his childhood here. Nega was born in 1958, same as me, and in many ways his childhood was not too different from mine: a middle-class family, relatively protected, a schoolboy being naughty, pulling off all sorts of pranks, frequently being expelled from the class room: I recognize that. Yet, there are obviously a lot of things I don’t recognize, my teacher didn’t beat me senseless, I wasn’t subjected to witchcraft to drive out the devil, but mostly, I didn’t live in Ethiopia. Read more.
29. the Adel tribe
Somewhere in his book Young Nega describes entertainingly the dangers of encountering men from the Adel tribe, a tribe inhabiting the area west of Jijiga – which had to be crossed during the exodus from the town, ahead of the invading Somali army. (The Adel are Afar people, who inhabited the Adel Sultanate, in the southern extremities of the Afar region.) Read more.
30. Jijiga (2)
One of the pleasant surprises of our trip to Jijiga was that the gravel road, mentioned in our various guide books, has been upgraded to brand new tarmac, which cuts the travel time in half. I had installed myself in the front seat, next to the driver, because the trip – according to those same guide books – promised to go through spectacular country side: the Valley of Marvels, no less, and the “well-wooded Karamara Mountains”. Right! Read more.
There are few entries into capital cities – would-be capital cities – more depressing than the entry into Hargeisa. There are few more depressive ways of entering a capital city than the way we entered Hargeisa today. Read more.
I mentioned would-be capital Hargeisa already: would-be capital of the Republic of Somaliland. Somaliland in one of the three parts that officially makes up Somalia, the others being Puntland, and the part that gets so often in the news, the southern part of Somalia (let me call this rump-Somalia). Puntland and rump-Somalia are both previous Italian colonies, Puntland is the pirate paradise, somehow semi-autonomous from the rump Somalia, thanks to its healthy and ever growing foreign exchange reserves, and rump-Somalia is now the prototype of a failed state (the past link with Italy is, of course, totally coincidental and the failed state part nothing to do with the colonial past; after all, the other Italian colony in the Horn, Eritrea, is an exemplary country, no?). Somaliland, however, is the former British colony. Read more.
33. Hargeisa (2)
However depressive Hargeisa may look upon entry – and in fact, however depressive Hargeisa may look, full stop -, much is being compensated by the people here. Granted, our immediate comparison is Ethiopia, and you know by now that we have not been wholeheartedly impressed by the Ethiopians in general, but even without this, Somalilanders must rank towards the top in the list of most friendly, genuine people. Read more.
34. Las Geel
All this adventurous, hardship travel to Somaliland had one major objective: visiting the rock art galleries of Las Geel, some 50 km outside Hargeisa. I have seen many rock paintings, in India and in especially in Southern Africa (beats me why I never went to Lascaux in France, need to correct that one of these days), and I have always enjoyed it. Knowing that you can only see this here, in situ, you cannot transport them to any museum around the world; the magic and the mystery of the makers, long-dead shamans who painted this thousands of years ago, likely in some ritual to entice the gods to bless the hunt, or the harvest; the romance of the caves, of sitting there looking out over the plains below, like others must have done, too, that same thousands of years ago. Read more.
There is really no pressing reason to go to Berbera, other than that there is nothing else to do in Somaliland (except visiting the Las Geel caves, on the way to Berbera). The country side on the 170 km drive from Hargeisa doesn’t change much, although by now there are less and less animals, only camels and goats, grazing in between the shrubs. We circumvent the occasional mountains, still with very little vegetation. And Berbera itself, well, the entry is perhaps even more depressing than the one into Hargeisa. And yet, yet… there is something magic about the town, in all its run-down, dusty form. Read more.
36. Arba Minch
With our return to Addis Ababa we have left a few things behind. One is the east, the predominantly Muslim part of the country. Another is long bus drives, and minibuses, and the associated haggling over fares and suitcases on and off the roof. For the remaining three weeks of our Horn travels we have upgraded ourselves to a private car with driver – not our usual way of traveling, but given the planned destinations, first the Omo Valley in the south and then the Danakil Depression in the north – two places where public transport is either almost, or totally absent -, we saw no other option than the car and driver. And a bit of comfort. Read more.
37. the Dorze
The other feature of the South, and one you will hear much more about in the coming few days, is its ethnic diversity, unknown anywhere else: I saw it described somewhere as the last place where a variety of African tribes still live in their original setting. Well, everything within limits, of course. Read more.
38. Karat – the Konso
Further south from Arba Minch we initially stayed on the flat valley floor, where banana production seems a major activity – in addition to the omnipresent herds of cows and goats, which are still being watered and being walked, somehow preferably up and down the main road. Only after a while we left the valley floor and climbed into the mountains again. Read more.
There is really no reason to come to Jinka, other than using it as a spring board for visiting the Mursi – about which more later. Jinka is even more insignificant than Jijiga was, much more insignificant, in fact. Jinka does have an airstrip, apparently there are even occasional flights, but they will need to clear the cattle off first. Jinka has a few basic hotels, basic food, a small, very basic market, and a smatter of very basic, dusty streets. And it has an annoyingly large number of young men… Read more.
40. the Mursi
Probably the most famous of the tribes in South Ethiopia are the Mursi, on account of their women, who distinguish themselves through their profound lip-plates, large clay plates that they insert in a hole in their lower lip. The stuff you see on the front cover of the National Geographic; the stuff you never imagine to see in real life, really. Read more.
41. Mago National Park
I believe that in every national conservation strategy the one thing to avoid is to have National Parks in which pastoralists are grazing their animals, this just leads to continuous conflict between the interests of the pastoralists and the wild animals the park tries to protect. The Mursi, pastoralists, live in the Mago National Park. Read more.
42. Kuse Kashala
Half an hour drive outside Jinka, near Kako village in the direction of Key Afar, we encountered a truly remarkable man. Kuse Kashala is an Ethiopian, of uncertain tribal origin, who started, some years ago, to make things from the rubbish people threw away. He has no particular answer to the question why, perhaps he was bored, or perhaps he was, unwittingly, attracted by the creative process, who knows. Read more.
43. Turmi – the Hamar
A sign announces “Welcome to Turmi”, and that is just as well, otherwise one might even pass through the town without noticing. Turmi is some 2.5 hours drive from Key Afar – remember, where we visited the market? – and in those 2.5 hours very little changes outside. We are in bush and savannah landscape, a bit like the Mago Park, with plenty of trees, but mostly not very high, and interspersed with shrubs. Read more.
44. Omorate – the Dasanech
Did I say there was very little between Key Afar and Turmi? Between Turmi and Omorate there is even less – except for birds! In the dense savannah we see plenty of Guinea Fowl, and another walking bird, don’t know the name, and in the trees carmine bee-eaters and a whole range of other colourful birds fight for camera attention – once again, it is almost like a Mursi village! Read more.
45. Kolcho – the Karo
One more village, why not? The Karo are one of the smallest tribes in this area, numbering perhaps 1000. They live in the village of Kolcho, which is attractively located on a hill overlooking, once again, the Omo River. But what else can I say? When we arrived, there were five other four-wheel drives parked under the specially constructed car port, just off-loading the tourists. Yet, there were sufficient women and children left to immediately line up next to our car, too, for the inevitable photo, against the inevitable two birr. Read more.
Another town, another market. Dimeka’s is on Saturdays, and is marginally bigger than Key Afar. Most people in Dimeka are “normal”, according to our driver, with which he means that they go dressed in Western cloths. However, on market day there are a lot of out-of-towners around, many indeed in traditional dress – although it seems that the women have been encouraged to put on a T-shirt. Read more.
47. the road to Yabello
From the South Omo Valley we drove back to Weyto and to Konso, and then on to Yabello. The road first crosses the Buska Mountains, as far as I can see the western escarpment from yet another section of the rift valley, before descending in the Weyto desert, a flat expanse of land that looks conspicuously like a rift valley floor. Read more.
After a morning detour to Arero, further east, to see more birds, a relatively successful venture, we headed north again, leaving the south of Ethiopia behind. Perhaps an illusion poorer, but all the richer for the experience. Read more.
49. the food & beverage
We knew this would not be a trip of culinary highlights. I already mentioned the injera, a local kind of leavened bread with the texture – and the taste – of a wet towel that is omnipresent, every Ethiopian dish is served on it. You tear off a piece of injera, and use it to scoop the topping into your mouth. To be fair, some of those dishes are quite OK, although meat is invariably tough, and sometimes of uncertain origin. Read more.
We are heading north again, this time to the Afar region and the desert area of Danakil. A stop-over in Awash allowed us a brief round through the Awash National Park, the first place where we do see some larger mammals, in numbers. Gazelles, and especially the majestic Oryx, as well as Kudu and what I think are Hartebeests are crossing our road, or rather, the park tracks. Plenty of birds, as well, of course. A viewpoint at a safari lodge provides our first glimpses of the Awash River, the river that Wilfred Thesiger – about whom more later – followed, some 80 years ago, to explore its course. Read more.
51. Wilfred Thesiger
The reason Wilfred Thesiger enters this blog is that he made a significant contribution to the knowledge of the Afar region, in the northernmost part of Ethiopia (and extending into Eritrea and Djibouti). He is, or rather was (he died in 2003), a very interesting guy, possibly one of the last real explorers. Read more.
Tajoura is in Djibouti. As you know, we won’t go there now, on account of difficulties obtaining a visa for the overland crossing, but I just like to share Thesiger’s experience, as an example. Wilfred Thesiger arrived in Tajura in May 1934, after an eight months expedition through the Afar country in Ethiopia (Abyssinia, as he calls his). Read more.
53. Afar country
Afar country – including the Danakil Depression, or Danakil Desert, it goes by several names – has been described as a pretty lawless region. Banditry is rife. In the 1930s, when Wilfred Thesiger became the first Westerner to enter the Aussa Sultanate in the heart of the Afar area, the survival rate of Westerners (in those days Africa wasn’t yet flooded with Chinese) in Afar country was rather low. Read more.
The road to Assaita turns off the main Djibouti road some 100 km before the border, and goes through totally flat, grey desert, here and there some trees, but mostly the familiar nothingness. Except that quite a few gazelles still find a living here, and the occasional wild ostrich. And except that, in one way or another, quite a few Afar find a living, too, or at least are living in the occasional hamlets; herds of camels and goats roam around the huts. Read more.
If Assaita is the end of the world, what must we call Dichioto? Seldom have I seen a more desolate town, consisting of two rows of corrugated-iron buildings – walls and roof, and almost no other building materials used – lining the main Djibouti road. In fact, most of the buildings, a selection of sleazy bars and restaurants, and the occasional very basic hotel, are hardly visible, because truck after truck is parked, on both sides. Read more.
We have found accommodation – clean, modern room with en-suite bathroom, and with airco! – in Semera, ahead of our four days camping in the Danakil Depression. The chance to have a last shower, even though it is cold (which is not really a punishment, in the heat of Afar country!). Also last chance to charge whatever optical and electronic equipment we are carrying. Read more.
57. Danakil Depression
This trip was expected to have many highlights, but one of them, standing out among the highlights, must be the Danakil Depression. It is not only the lowest point on the African continent (in places 116 m below sea level), not only the hottest place on earth (34-35 oC, on average (!), and hottest temperature ever measured, at 64.4 oC). It is also one of these places without any infrastructure, no roads, no towns, forget about hotels, even of the Assaita standard – why on earth are we going here in the first place? Read more.
58. Lake Afrera
Where we had expected to enter a set of vague desert tracks into the Danakil area, a clearly signposted turn-off from the main Djibouti road points to a new tarmac road all the almost 200 km to Afrera. Progress is unstoppable, that’s clear. The road provides access to the Afrera Lake, a huge expanse of salt water in the middle of nowhere. Read more.
Leaving Afrera was surreal. A six-lane tarmac road, the biggest we have seen so far in Ethiopia, is leading to… nowhere, outside town we immediately end up on a gravel road where two cars have difficulty passing each other. Apparently, there is a road planned all the way to Mekele, 300 km away, right through the Danakil Desert. So far this trip has not been as adventurous as we had expected; in two years time, even Danakil can be done by comfortable sedan, and who knows, in a few more years, one can drive a touring car up the Erta Ale volcano! Read more.
60. Erta Ale
When we walk down the mountain, the next morning, we actually see the slopes of the volcano close-up. Lava flows have come cascading down before solidifying whilst still furiously splashing, leaving an undulated, wavy surface. Fabulous structures have developed along the slope as part of the cooling process. It is just a pain to walk on the irregular surface, give me sandstone anytime. Read more.
61. the scare (2)
Erta Ale is the place where a few months ago five tourists got killed, and two others, plus two Ethiopians, kidnapped (the tourists have been released a few weeks ago, no sign of the Ethiopians…). The perpetrators were, allegedly, a local movement that fights for more autonomy of the Afar region, likely supported by Eritrea trying to discredit Ethiopia ahead of the annual meeting of the African Union in Addis Abeba. Eritrea tries to do this every year, just before such meeting, through kidnappings, or bomb attacks, or anything, really. Read more.
62. Hamed Ela
I cannot really call it a road, the stretch we are driving from Dodom to Hamed Ela, our next destination. First we bounce back across the lava surface again, then we follow, well, the occasional track, or just the gut feeling of our road runner: as part of our obligatory team of support, we have a local Afar who knows how to get from A to B, and who knows when to take an alternative route because an earlier one becomes impassable – I don’t really know why the tracks change so frequently, allegedly every few weeks (or would this be another justification for employing a road runner?). Read more.
Having heard about this place, having seen photos, it still didn’t prepare me for the sulphur springs of Dallol. For days now we have traveled through the Danakil Depression, an area without colour (or it must be the glowing lava of the Erta Ela volcano at night). Everything here is bleak, black, grey, sandy coloured. The huts we have seen are light brown, blending in well, and in any case, the little colour that may have existed has long ago been covered in dust, from passing cars, or from the ferocious wind that all too often blows across the desert. Not so in Dallol. Read more.
64. the way back
From Hamed Ela we drive west, through the low hills at the edge of the Danakil Depression, to Berhale where the camel caravans end, and then up the escarpment – which is a bit more than just one vertical slope – and across the boundary fault, out of the rift valley. Read more.
65. the end
What I had initially billed as a trip through the Horn of Africa became limited to eight weeks in Ethiopia, with a brief excursion into Somaliland. Eritrea has closed its borders with all its neighbours, a Djibouti visa was difficult to obtain in advance, and the rest of Somalia is perhaps not the most attractive travel destination for those who want to decide themselves when to return home again. Having said this, Ethiopia turned out to be an extremely varied country, from the mostly Christian north, with its mythical ancient history, and the mostly Muslim east, bordering Somaliland not only physically, but also mentally – although somehow there is little love lost across that border -, to the tribal circus of the south, and back to the northern Afar region en Danakil Depression. Read more.
For some books about Ethiopia and Somaliland, including those discussed above, see the Horn of Africa reading list.