On the Road

We are changing the way we will be sharing our stories and photos by separating our Travel Journal from our Blog Posts. In our Blog Posts we will be writing about particular experiences and places. They will be somewhat shorter than they have been and still include lots of photos. Our travel journal, which we have called “On the Road”, is now published and includes maps of different sections of our route as well as photos we take along the way. The “On the Road” Index Page can help you find particular sections you are interested in.

The first instalment of “On the Road” is available now and it covers our trip from the south of Ethiopia to South Africa. If you are interested in our “On the Road” travel journal then please follow the link to the Index Page and then jump to wherever you want to go to. We would love your feedback about whether it is easy to navigate around and any suggestions you may have.


Wildlife on our Doorstep

Young BushBuck and Warthog, Chobe Safari Camp, Botswana

Chobe National Park in Botswana is one of great wildlife destinations in Africa and the Chobe river front section supports the largest wildlife population in the park. What a great place for us to enjoy a final safari before we finish this part of our African adventures.

Once we cross the border from Zambia to Botswana it is a short drive to Kasane where we are camping in the Chobe Safari Camp. We love our site next to the river and we are right on the border of the national park. As well as our great river views we can see elephants coming down to drink all along the river front and one evening an elephant approaches the edge of the camp, only an electric fence prevents him from wandering right into our camp site. As well as listening to the hippos snorting in the river we frequently hear the cry of the African Fish Eagles from the tops of the nearby trees, two sounds which immediately invoke wild Africa.

Initially we planned to stay for a few nights but we eventually leave after a five night stay. Several tame bush bucks and semi-tame warthogs with their young wander around the camp. The bush buck are so tame they walk right up to the camera and even allow us to gently pat their heads.

There is plenty of bird life including bright Red Bishop birds, Yellow Weaver birds, White-Browed Robin Chats and frequent sightings of Fish eagles. A bright green dung beetle investigates the droppings left behind from the warthogs.

We venture into the National Park early one morning. It is a short drive to the park entrance and we immediately head down toward the river. There is plenty of water throughout the park at this time of the year and during the morning we do not have much luck spotting animals at the river. There are plenty of water birds though and we stop frequently to watch them.

Game we see in the morning includes two hyenas heading down for a drink and investigating interesting smells on their way. As well as Impala, Kudu and Waterbuck, the park has good populations of the water loving Red Lechwe and a small population of the endangered Puku.

Chobe is well known for its elephant population and we are surprised that we don’t see any down by the river, especially as it is early morning. By late morning we have gone as far into the park as we plan and we turn back toward the entrance. Very soon we start seeing family groups of elephants heading toward the river and from then on we see more and more elephants heading down for a drink and a splash or swim. Before long we have seen hundreds.

A special sight is watching a baby elephant suckling.

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By this time the hippos are also ready to emerge from the river to graze.

The next day we take a boat cruise from the camp in the late afternoon. The water was calm and the reflections beautiful.

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Chobe Cruise, Botswana

We get some nice close views of the birds.

And get even closer to a Fish Eagle bathing in the river before he flew off to a neighbouring tree.

A large herd of buffalo were grazing on Sedudu Island.

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Buffalo Grazing on Sedudu Island, Chobe National Park, Botswana

And a family of elephants drink at the water’s edge.

We stop by some crocs basking in the late afternoon sun.

Before enjoying the river scenery on our return cruise to the camp.

Late afternoons and early evenings are spent watching the changing light and the sunset from the Sunset Bar but at other times we just watch the river from our camp site. Its no wonder we extended our stay but finally it is time to move on from this camp but we’re not going far.

Senyati Camp is less than 20 km from Kasane and not far south of the town of Kazangula so it doesn’t get us far on our journey but is well worth a stop over. The camp sites are very comfortable with lots of trees, a private shower and toilet and a sitting area with a sink. The real reason for coming here though is the waterhole with a fresh water fountain which the elephants love and an underground hide so you can get very close. On our last visit it was the dry season and we saw a steady stream of animals visiting the waterhole including hundreds of elephants over the course of the night, as well as wildebeest, buffalo and impala. There is plenty of water around at this time of the year and we wonder if the water will attract the animals anyway. When we first take our positions near the waterhole there are no animals nearby. As we sit we gradually see giraffe moving across in the distance and as time goes by we see more and more of them.

Senyati Camp, Botswana

Next a single male elephant approaches the waterhole for a drink and he is followed by several other males.

Later, as the sun is setting, a family group comes to the waterhole and as the evening progresses we see more and more of them. It has certainly been worthwhile making another visit here.

Senyati Camp, Botswana

Big Rain is Coming

Sunset over Lake Kazuni, Vwaza Marsh, Malawi

‘Big rain’ is coming. We have places we want to visit but the rain is already falling across Southern Africa so we make plans to drive through Malawi, sticking to sealed roads for much of the time, and take the opportunity to return to a few of the special places we visited 18 months ago and to catch up with some lovely people along the way.

Our first destination is the Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve. As we drive we can see big storm clouds gathering up in the mountains but the rain holds off and, at the moment, it seems to be fairly localised. The dirt track out to Vwaza Marsh is still in fairly good condition and we arrive by mid-afternoon. After checking in at the gate we make our way to the lake shore area where we can camp or stay in a bungalow. Camping prices are set by the national parks authority and the bungalows are operated by the local community so it is actually cheaper for us to stay in a bungalow with an ensuite than to set up camp … easy choice. The bungalows are a little run down but certainly adequate for our use and the one we stay in does keep out the rain.

We are soon relaxing on the verandah and looking out over Lake Kazuni. The water level is much higher than on our last visit and the water is quite deep in front of us so the hippos are a further away around the lake shore but we can still hear the occasional snorting and see them moving around. The water is very calm and as the sunset approaches the colours in the sky and the reflections in the lake are wonderful.

On our last visit we drove around the lake edge and through the park but apart from hundreds of hippos it wasn’t until we returned to camp that we saw many animals and then we saw lots of different buck heading down to the water to drink, watched the hippos cavorting in the water and venturing out to feed and best of all had large herds of elephants walking right through the camp. On this visit we see fewer animals but the lake is the star giving us an endless array of beautiful scenes. We start each day with another serene view.

Early Morning Light, Lake Kazuni, Vwaza Marsh, Malawi

Then watch a solitary elephants approach the water for a drink.

Elephant along the Lake Shore

Impala venture down to the water but then scatter in the bush. These buck climbed a rock behind a tree, it looks as though they climbed into the tree.

Several ducks sail serenely past happy with the high waters and calm conditions.

A troop of baboons descend from a sausage tree and one checks recent elephant dung to see if it contains any of the seeds it likes and then they scamper past our camp to search for food elsewhere.

In the afternoon a rain squall blankets the lake but it soon clears and we enjoy another delightful sunset to end our short but enjoyable stay here..

Evening Light, Lake Kazuni, Malawi

The next place we are keen to revisit is Nyika Plateau National Park, high in the mountains which make up the western border between Malawi and Zambia. Our last visit was in winter and it was very cold. This time the weather will still be cool but not freezing and the higher rainfall will make driving around inside the park more difficult.

The park is much greener now and still very beautiful. At this altitude most of the hills are covered in a short grass with trees only growing in valleys between the slopes where they are protected from the worst of the winter cold. There are also some old pine forests near the main Chelinda Camp.

We had hoped to go for a drive during the afternoon when we arrive but the rain sets in. Luckily it stops before evening and we are able to sit by a fire and enjoy watching the buck and zebra on a nearby hill.

Next day we set out to explore the park. Some of the roads are closed and other are muddy so we confine our travels to the easier routes. First we take a drive around one of the northern loops and back through the pine forest as that is where there have been sightings of leopards. There has even been an unconfirmed lion sighting recently. No luck with the cats unfortunately but the drive through the pine forest is always enchanting.

After lunch we drive out toward the Chosi Viewpoint. The views are wonderful but the grey clouds threaten more rain.

With heavy rain threatening we limit the distance we are prepared to drive but we still get some nice sightings of Eland, Roan Antelope, Impala, Mountain Reed Buck and Zebra.

After the rain we visit one of the lakes and then enjoy sunset beside the dam next to the main camp area.

We saw Bush Buck around the camp on our last visit but they have been more elusive this time. We finally manage to see some in the morning just before we are leaving.

Bush Buck, Nyika Plateau, Malawi

From Nyika we drive back to the highway and a short distance south to Mzuzu, the regional capital. We are returning to Macondo Camp there which is run by Luca and Cecilia, an Italian couple. They have a small camping area plus some safari tents in a lovely garden in the hills on the edge of town and a fantastic restaurant. We stayed and ate here on our last visit and have been looking forward to a return visit. Their hospitality is terrific and their pizza and pasta are fabulous. I’m sure the rest of the food on the menu is great too but we can’t seem to get past the pizza and pasta section. That is apart for the home-made liqueurs, Limoncello is my favourite.

While we are here we reassess our onward plans. We wanted to re-visit the fabulous Kachere Kastle on the shore of Lake Malawi not far south of Mzuzu and so we contacted Russell and Kate, the owners, to let them know when we thought we would arrive. Unfortunately they are closed for the wet season as they get virtually no visitors and they are in fact going back to England for some of the time. We also try to contact Croc Valley, the camp outside South Luangwa National Park in Zambia. We stayed there on our last visit and planned to stay again. We have had no replies to a couple of emails and we have also had reports of roads in the park being muddy or impassable so we reluctantly conclude we should skip a visit this time. Instead we extend our stay at Macondo to 3 nights and stock up our supplies for the long drive from here through central Malawi, across Zambia, and into the north east of Botswana.

As it turned out we could have saved ourselves considerable distance and time by entering Zambia from the north but the side trip into Malawi has been very enjoyable and worthwhile.

Swahili Coast Holiday

Sunrise at Peponi Beach Resort, Tanzania

We need a holiday! Ethiopia was full on and packed with sights and experiences so now we want to kick back and relax. We had a taste of luxury and relaxation at the place we stayed at in Malindi for three nights before we visited Lamu, and two nights afterward, but we need more. A day spent in Mombasa where we do battle with traffic and bureaucracy and a late drive south makes our arrival at our holiday spot in Diani Beach on the southern coast of Kenya even more welcome.

We booked our two week break here online and sometimes the pictures and description promise more than they deliver but not this time. We are in a two bedroom chalet in its own grounds and we even have our own swimming pool.

Diani Beach Bliss

A couple of staff look after the pool and grounds of this property and some others and help us with whatever we need. This includes arranging for a local fisherman to visit to provide us with our choice of fresh seafood and going down the street to buy us charcoal for our barbecues at local prices rather than the Mzungu (‘white man’) prices. The weather is hot and humid and there is no air conditioning but unless the power in the town is out (which happens several times), the fans keep the air flowing. Paul has fun getting stuck into some work on his photos and I finally start writing about our time in Ethiopia. And of course we can jump into the pool, and do so, many times each day starting from a pre-breakfast dip. As the day continues the pool heats up so by mid afternoon it initially feels very warm but after lazing in it for a while we feel refreshed.

We’re only a ten minute walk from the beach and we have high expectations of walking in the mornings and evenings most days but unfortunately we fall short of that and spend less time on the beach and more time in the pool than we planned. I guess that’s what a holiday is about. We go out for delicious meals a couple of times but mainly we are happy to be able to cook for ourselves in a real kitchen especially with fresh fish, prawns, octopus or calamari from the fisherman, access to real supermarkets for meat and groceries and a good range of fresh fruit and vegetables from the local stalls. We even manage to find some reasonably priced wine and some good croissants … not easy in East Africa.

When Paul was growing up in Kenya his family often holidayed in this area over the Christmas period. At that time (it was after all a very, very long time ago) the road was a single lane dirt road, there were a few holiday houses along the coast but there was no power or running water and the indigenous forests extended to the beach in most places. Now there are hotels and shopping centres, restaurants and resorts, and lots and lots of people. Its still very nice, and as I said the access to the supermarkets and electricity to run the fan and the pool pump has been very welcome, but we would also like a bit of time at a more laid-back location. After our fortnight holiday is complete we cross the border into Tanzania just 80km south then continue another 100km passing through the sea-side town of Tanga to Peponi Beach Resort. We camped here on our way north through Tanzania more than six months ago and it should be perfect for another week’s holiday before we hit the travel trail again. This coast is much quieter than the Kenyan coast and much closer to the holiday experience that Paul remembers from his childhood. 

The reef comes right into the shore and the tides are big so our view varies from exposed reef for more than 100 metres to water lapping the sand just below our camp. At high tide we can swim in the warm sea water and at other times we can have a dip in the resort pool. Unless it is a very high tide some sand remains at all times and villagers use the beach as their highway. Palm trees line the edge of the beach and a short walk in one direction takes us to a small fishing village where there is always plenty of activity when the boats bring their catches in or when groups wade through the water dragging nets along the channels in the reef. In the other direction a mangrove forest extends into the ocean.

Our camp site on the edge of the beach is perfect! We have a boma (shelter), plenty of shade, a nice pool, power to keep the fridges running so we have cold drinks and food, and a wonderfully peaceful atmosphere. It is so perfect that, at the end of the week, we decide we can stretch our food to stay an extra couple of days. Then, as we are trying to plan where we will be for Christmas, we decide we couldn’t find a nicer place than this so we extend even further and end up staying for two and a half weeks. As a bonus the resort is doing a big spread on Christmas Day so we book in to that and we won’t even have to think about what food we will need to buy to celebrate the day. We do however need to buy more food for the rest of the time so we drive back to Tanga and visit the excellent local market and quite good local supermarket and enjoy a very pleasant lunch at the Tanga Yacht Club. Our second week passes equally easily and we enjoy more idyllic days.

Our Christmas Day is relaxed and easy, tropical fruit and yoghurt with our breakfast, prawns and a crisp white wine for a light lunch then after a few dips in the pool we head up to the restaurant for our evening meal. It is a real feast and we sit at at long table with the other guests. Next to us are Geoff and Sally who own a property a short distance away as well as the new South Africa owners who took on the Peponi property three months ago.

Christmas Feast at Peponi Beach Resort, Tanzania

Finally holiday season is over and we need to travel on. We have less than two weeks left on our Tanzanian Temporary Import permit for the car and we don’t want to spend hours trying to extend it so we will need to pick up the pace. At least we are starting our journey south feeling well rested and refreshed.

Dreaming of Lamu

Lamu, Kenya

Lamu is a centuries old Arab town dating back to the fifteenth century and it is the oldest continually inhabited town in Kenya. Situated on a small island just off the East African coast, a short distance south of the border with Somalia, it is a place that relatively few outsiders choose to visit. The laneways in the old town are so narrow and convoluted that no vehicles are allowed and, other than a few bicycles, donkeys are the only form of transport. I have wanted to go there since I was a boy and now, nearly fifty years after leaving Kenya, I have the opportunity.

We are keen to get to there so we can begin our ‘little beach break’ which we are planning to kick off in Lamu and then travel slowly down the coast into Northern Tanzania. We take the twenty minute flight to Manda Island from Malindi and then catch the ferry for the seven minute ride across to Lamu Island. This is a great way to approach the town arriving at the wharf where many other boats are congregated.

The scene is lively with lots of good natured calls and shouts. We haven’t booked any accommodation so finding somewhere to stay is the first order of business.

Petleys Inn, Lamu, Kenya

Right opposite the wharf is Petleys Inn, the first place that we want to look at. We are offered a room on the first floor which opens up onto a large shared balcony with tables and chairs overlooking the wharf. A short walk to the back of the hotel is a small but perfect swimming pool.

Petleys Inn, Lamu, Kenya

We will be right in the middle of things here so we quickly say yes but we can only stay for three of the four nights we will be in Lamu. There is a cultural festival starting in a few days and the place will be humming.

As it was in Malindi, it is hot and humid but we are slowly acclimatising and we make good use of the swimming pool. Early mornings and evening are terrific and I do a lot of exploring and taking photos.

Relatively few western tourists make it to Lamu but a few Kenyans come through here, especially when there is a festival on. The day to day life on the island goes on around you as you wander the tiny alleys and laneways. 

The old town is quite a bit smaller than Stonetown in Zanzibar but the lanes are narrower and cleaner and most have a drain running down the side. There’s very little rubbish but there is the odd trail of donkey droppings. Most of the buildings are three to five stories high so that the sun only penetrates the narrow alleys for a short time each day. Some of the front doors open straight onto the alleys but quite a few have little vestibules outside with a seat in the shade. These are very handy during the monsoon rains as well. Every so often we come across a donkey standing in one of these vestibules, some are tied up and others just seem to be taking a break.

Because the alleys are so narrow donkeys are part and parcel of life in Old Lamu Town. Any time anything heavy needs to be moved the donkeys are loaded up. Coral stone for building, cement and water deliveries are loaded up into the panniers on each side of a donkey. Sometimes small teams of donkeys are used, at other times they pull carts carrying goods offloaded from the boats arriving at the wharf. A few people can be seen riding donkeys, their feet inches from the ground on either side of the animal.

Donkeys seem to have a semi-autonomous existence in Lamu. This is probably not true but it is not unusual to see someone, arriving at their destination, climb off a donkey and set it loose with a whack, obviously with the expectation that it will find its own way home. Donkey drivers, walking behind their donkeys, very rarely need to make any movement to let the donkeys know which direction to take.

After the first few occasions, when walking through the town, it is not surprising to meet or be passed by a donkey that has no load nor any rider or driver in sight. At times they are lying down in the alleys, just wandering around, or ferreting around the rubbish tip. They are an intrinsic part of the character of Lamu. There is a ‘donkey rescue centre’s on the wharf street, which has been there for many years, where dozens of donkeys are fed and cared for. 

We frequent a few of the local eating establishments along the waterfront and quickly find out that we prefer the Swahili dishes to the attempts at Western food. It also has the advantage that they are quite cheap as well as being very tasty. 

The town is at its liveliest during the evening and we love sitting on our balcony while we watch the passing parade. The people on the island are predominantly Muslim and there are twenty three mosques.

One of many mosques

Around 5pm each evening there is a parade which changes in character each night. Sometimes it is young men only, at others it includes children of varying ages and one evening it was all women. Each time they played music and sang as they walked along the road. 

The main square is in front of the Lamu Fort and the locals congregate here in the evening to play games like Bao and to enjoy the shade.

Playing Bao after the days work is done
The entrance to the square in front of the old fort

On a couple of mornings we visit the local market which is to one side of the Fort.

A Cultural Festival begins on our second last day. We enjoy the Dhow races along the channel

the donkey races along the waterfront, and the fish auction where they auction off the largest of each type of fish caught in the last few days. 

On the last night we stay at a very lovely guest house in a newly renovated building where the owners have restored the place to show off the best of Swahili architecture.

Before catching the plane back to Malindi on our last afternoon we watch the crowds along the wharf. 

Young boys and young men vie for attention as they dive off the wharf into the cooling sea.

We only had limited time in Lamu and we would both have liked longer. It is a quiet corner of East Africa where you can chill for a few weeks or a few months.

Ethiopia Part 9, The Bull Jumping Ceremony

“Bull Jumping” Hamer Tribe, Ethiopia 2018

Imagine this. You have driven for three hours through the African Bush from a remote dusty village in the southwestern corner of Ethiopia, along twisting dirt tracks and across dry creek beds, and then for a further 45 minutes on a roughly cut track through the bush, which is not a road or a track at all but merely a clearing either side of a footpath along which no other vehicle has yet travelled. It is so fresh that the exposed stumps of trees and bushes are going to cause havoc with your tyres, and you have no hope of spotting or avoiding them all. You’re not sure where you are going but your guide says ‘it’s all good’ …

You are here in the Southern Omo Valley in a remote corner of Africa to witness a pre-nuptial ceremony in which a young man earns the right to marry the woman of his parents choice by running naked across the backs of a line of nine bulls and doing this four times after a day of celebration, dancing, drinking and traditional rituals. It is called the ‘Bull Jumping Ceremony’ but it turns out to be so much more than that!

You may have read about the Southern Omo Valley tribes of Ethiopia and possibly seen some of the documentaries and photographic essays that have brought a broader audience than anthropologists to these unique cultures. There are more than twenty tribes living in this remote south-west region of Ethiopia, an area which has only relatively recently become accessible to tourists, and then only with a guide, and often an armed guard.

Having made your way here from halfway around the world you need to work out how you can make the most of your visit. The small towns of Jinka and Turmi serve as ‘jump off’ points to explore the region so you make your way to Turmi, a small, hot and dusty village with very little infrastructure but it is close to the Hamer villages. There is a small hut in town which serves as the ‘office’ / ‘gathering place’ for the local guides, so finding a guide is quite easy. The people in Turmi have already figured out that the ‘Ferengi’ (foreigners) have lots of money and they sometimes stage manage visits to nearby anvillages and their ceremonies but you aren’t really interested in joining the dozens of tourists that are also in town and you are quite prepared to get off the beaten track.

This is our challenge and we are very excited to be here for our last great adventure before we leave Ethiopia. We have set up camp in Turmi for a few days and we are here to see ‘The Bull Jumping’ but other than that we have no idea what to expect. We talk to a guide and he says that he knows of two ceremonies that will be taking place the next day. One is fairly close to town but the other is some way out and we will be the only ‘Ferengi’ there.

We agree to leave around lunchtime the next day and assume we will be back around sunset. We anticipate joining our new friends, Thomas and Igna for dinner back in Turmi at 7pm, who arrived later in the day having spent two days on the road from Jinka, where it only took us one day. But then they are travelling on a tandem bicycle!

We leave Turmi with high expectations but, as it turns out, we didn’t really know what we had signed up for. Our guide is crammed into the front of our Landcruiser with us and we wind our way between several villages before we leave the dirt road and pick our way along the newly cut bush track. Eventually, we reach a group of boys under a tree and we park in the shade. Our guide says we have to walk a short way so I grab my camera bag and we follow him for about ten minutes along a path that leads down to a river bed. There are crowds of people down here and we stand off to one side taking it all in while our guide talks to the villagers.

We are introduced to the young man who will be ‘jumping the bulls’ today and we can see that he is quite nervous.

The Central Character

A group of women leave the river bed, dancing and running, and climb the slopes up to a cleared area near the village huts where we find crowds of people sitting together on the ground under low shelters. We are invited to sit with them.

The women continue dancing and the noise is tremendous when they pass. The stamping of feet, the jangle of the many bells around their legs and ankles, the singing and the blowing of horns are almost deafening.

As they dance the dust rises and swirls in the light of the afternoon sun … a symphony of colour and light and noise.

The smells and taste of sorghum beer, and the local coffee, both of which are being brewed in large calabashes over small fires all add to the vibrancy of the scene.

All of our senses are assailed by this onslaught and it is a struggle to take it all in.

The children run around under everyone’s feet, as do the goats. One baby goat scratches around one of the fires and a small child removes it before it gets burned.

Ethiopia 2018

The smaller children are very keen to have their photos taken.

Occasionally one of the men asks if we are ok and offers us more coffee or sorghum beer. Otherwise, we are left to our own devices and to sit on our cattle hide happy to observe.

This man is carrying his own seat

The celebrations can last two or three days and during this time a number of different activities take place.

We are directed back down to the river bed where people are regathering. First up the men use some pigments, black, ochre and white, to paint their faces. Our guide paints Julie’s face.

Our guide tells us that ‘The Whipping’ is about to take place. We are not sure if we have heard him properly and we have no idea what is going to be whipped. A few people gather slender branches from some of the bushes and strip the leaves from them. During all of this, the women continue dancing and singing and blowing their small horns. Different things are happening all over the place.

Then ‘The Whipping’ starts. The women encourage each other and, through dance, singing and blowing their small horns, demand to be whipped. Their backs carry the scars from past ceremonies. Several of the men are reticent but the more senior men seem to accept the responsibility more readily. The women obviously want to be whipped and they show no sign of pain. Apparently, they later rub things into the wounds on their backs to promote scarification. Several men refuse to carry out the whipping and some of the younger girls contemplate it but then back down. Both men and women seem free to participate or not as they wish. The men select a branch that is most flexible.

The young boys and girls are taking a keen interest in proceedings, picturing themselves as more active participants in the future.

Later in the afternoon, a large number of people arrive from other villages and they are welcomed, offered some space under the shelters and given some sorghum beer.

Some of the men have coated their skin with oil and charcoal so that it shines. When they arrive they are given the best places to sit and plied with sorghum beer. These men will play a central role during the bull jumping.

The whole affair is a moving festival of activity from the river bed to the village and back again and then over to a clearing where the bull jumping takes place.

A group of men take themselves off to one side and start to dance. A few of the men step into the semi-circle formed by the other men and start to dance. They all set up an amazing syncopated beat with their feet and clapping with their hands. The men inside the semi-circle jump in unison with the rhythm of the beat they are creating.

As sunset approaches the mass of people moves up a slight rise to a level area. We are told that the cattle are coming. They arrive and are immediately surrounded by the dancing groups of women who are making a tremendous noise. They move in and out of the bunches of cattle, pushing and shoving and generally confusing the cattle. This goes on for some time until the cattle are befuddled and bemused. That seems to be their intent because the cattle become a lot more malleable and stop trying to escape from the surrounding ring of people.


The young man who is the central character in this ceremony wanders between the cattle contemplating what is to come. There seems to be a distinct look of trepidation on his face.

The oiled young men now move in and start to line up the bulls in preparation for the central event. They grab horns and tails and drag them into position. It is now well after sunset and the light is fading fast. A shout and the young man is up and running lightly across the backs of the bulls. Once across he drops to the ground and turns to repeat the effort three more times.

“Bull Jumping” Hamer Tribe, Ethiopia 2018

So very quickly, it is all over and we need to get back to the car. By the time we reach it the light has gone completely. Our guide is walking around the car with a torch and he draws our attention to one of the tyres which is completely flat. There’s nothing for it but we have to get it changed, which we do and we start the slow journey back through the darkness.

We haven’t gone far before Julie says that she can hear something. It is a warm night and we have all the windows open. She can hear air escaping and we have a second puncture and this tyre is slowly deflating. I decide that it can wait until we get to some more even ground so we can get a jack under the car. We still have a couple of four-wheel drive spots to get through though.

Eventually, we get back to a semi-decent track and change the tyre and we can head back to Turmi. We reach there a little before 8pm and unfortunately, we have missed our dinner date so we have dinner on our own, our senses still reeling from the intensity of the afternoon.

When we left the celebrations looked set to continue well into the night and will last through the next day. Each village only holds one bull jumping ceremony per year so they obviously make the most of it.

Ethiopia Part 8, Tribes of Southeast Ethiopia

Mursi Woman and Children, Ethiopia 2018

In the south-east of Ethiopia, we find an entirely different aspect of the country. We leave behind the  Orthodox Christian Churches and Monasteries of the northern circuit, the hustle and bustle of crowded Addis Ababa and the extreme highs and lows of the Bale Mountains and the Danakil Depression and enter an area where tribes build huts in their unique traditional methods and the people live as they have done for hundreds of years.  

The first village we visit in this area is a Dorze Village in the Guze Mountains high above the Rift Valley city of Arba Minch. The Dorze people live in a cold and damp environment so they need huts which can withstand the weather and they are famous for their towering homes which are essentially massive upturned baskets. Its too high for banana trees to grow but perfect for Bamboo and Enset (false banana) and their homes are woven with bamboo and thatched with the enset leaves. They can be 12 metres high when first built (or woven) then as termites and damp slowly wear away the base is sliced off so over 60 to 80 years the huts become progressively shorter. They don’t use a central pillar for support and the hut can be picked up and moved to a new location when needed.

Inside there are partitioned areas on the sides for livestock and vents are set high in the roof to help clear out some of the smoke from the cooking fires. A small area at the front serves as a reception room and if you imagine this as the trunk and the upper vents as eyes, the homes are said to resemble massive elephant heads (maybe you need a good imagination).

There are numerous Enset plants in the adjoining garden patch and our hostess shows us how she makes and cooks kocho, a fermented, unleavened bread, from the plants. It is eaten with honey and data, a hot chilli sauce. 

We are also treated to glasses of a local hooch made in stills in the village and drunk with a loud ‘Hoy, Hoy, Hoy’ toast as you raise the glasses high then quickly swallow the lot. Pity our visit was in the morning as a few more of those would certainly be warming on a cold afternoon or evening.

We are staying just a short distance from the village in a lodge where each chalet is a modified Dorze hut. Instead of the partitioned area on the side housing livestock, we have an ensuite, and there is a dining area in the middle of the hut, instead of a cooking fire, with magnificent views over the lake below. The views and the peace are so magnificent it is easy to stay an extra night.

Not far south of Arba Minch live the Konso people who have taken an entirely different approach to building their villages. They are not as high in the mountains and the weather is milder but the country around is very hilly and covered in innumerable rocks. Through 400 years of very hard work they have transformed the hills into terraces for their crops and built their villages on the tops of the hills surrounded by walls of rocks for protection.

We visit a village with a guide who explains the customs and significance of what we are seeing. Once inside the outer wall the twisting stone-walled walkways connect family and clan compounds, each with a clutch of thatched-roof homes, communal mora (huts where young men sleep at night to serve as watchmen and community servants for the village) and public squares where generation poles (one pole is raised every 18 years) stand tall.

Children play in the walkways and around the generation pole in the public square.

From Konso we drive west into the Lower Omo Valley. This area is featured in many articles in National Geographic and it is an area we have been looking forward to visiting. There are over 20 different ethnic tribes with distinct differences in dress and culture and they still live largely traditional lives. The country is primarily indigenous bush with very few buildings using modern materials. This part of Ethiopia has been accessible to tourists for a relatively short time and west of the Omo River it is still very remote and requires planning and guides to visit the area.  

Jinka is the largest town in the area and will be our base for visiting the Mursi people. Even our drive to Jinka is fascinating as we pass through wonderful and varied landscapes and through towns like Kako and Key Afar where the local tribes include the Banna people with their distinctive hairstyles and decorations. It is market day in Kako as we pass through the area and for many miles either side of the village we see people driving their animals or carrying their produce for sale in the market.

Once in Jinka we find some accommodation and begin organising our trip through the Mago National Park and across the Mago River. A guide is required for the trip and we also need to collect an armed guard when we enter the national park. Fitting one extra person into our vehicle for a trip of that length is extremely difficult and uncomfortable, two is not even an option so we will have to go in our guide’s vehicle. While we are at our hotel we are greeted by two other travellers we had seen on our trip out from Konso. Igna and Thomas are from Lithuania and have been working in the US for the past few years. They are riding a tandem bicycle for two months in Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania … it sure makes our travels seem very easy and comfortable by comparison. They are also planning to visit the Mursi people so we join forces to share the costs of the guide and guard.

We make an early start and the trip out to and through the national park takes us through more great landscapes as we cross a range of hills and the Mago valley. There are apparently quite a few animals in the park but the thick vegetation means spotting any is rare. It would appear the need to carry an armed guard is more to provide employment than any real danger. 

We visit two Mursi villages. The first is a permanent village and the people have some cattle but are also involved in agriculture. In the second village, they primarily raise cattle and move around their lands to provide them with new pastures. As they are nomadic so their huts are less substantial and are easily deconstructed then remade using larger branches they have carried with them plus local grasses and other materials from the new area.

The main source of cash income is from visiting tourists such as ourselves and although the clothing, or lack of it, is genuine, the face and body painting and elaborate headgear would traditionally only have been worn for battle or special occasions. It is now worn often in the hope we will pay for taking their photos and people eagerly line up to be included in the photo shoot.

The enormous lip-plates worn by some of the women can be up to 12 cm in diameter. They are made of clay and are inserted into a slit in their lower lip. Due to the obvious discomfort, women only wear the lip-plates occasionally, leaving their distended lips swaying below their jaw. The hole is cut around age 15 and stretched over many months. Now women can choose to wear plates in their ears instead, not an easy process but certainly easier than wearing the lip-plates. When asked why they did it we were told it was to show respect for their culture. Other people told us that it originally started to stop neighbouring tribes abducting their women.

In the second village the decorations used included cattle horns, gourds and local berries.

Mursi Woman, Ethiopia 2018

From Jinka we travel south to Turmi. One of the main reasons we are here is to witness a Hamer “Bull Jumping” ceremony. While we are waiting for that to happen we travel to the nearby town of Dimeka for their weekly market. It’s a very colourful and lively affair and well worth the visit while we are waiting for the “Bull Jumping” ceremony.

Back in Turmi we conclude arrangements to visit a “Bull Jumping” ceremony which turns out to be something quite special and warrants its own post so keep an eye out that.

Ethiopia Part 7, Bale Mountains

We are sitting in the mist and driving rain in the Bale Mountains in southern Ethiopia waiting for it to clear slightly so I can start taking photos. The wind is buffeting the car and it doesn’t look very inviting outside. But that’s not surprising. We are up at over 4,200m in altitude on one of the highest roads in Africa in the middle of the largest expanse of Afro-alpine climate zone on the continent. It is freezing cold, especially after the Danakil, and quite desolate up here. I’m loving it!

We stayed in a nearby town called Goba last night and got up in the dark before 6am to drive up into the mountains. Thankfully it didn’t rain too much during the night. Not far out of town the road turns to an all-weather dirt road and we were soon climbing up some steep hills. Not surprising because we climb over two thousand metres in less than fifty kilometres. We show our pass at the gate and we continue our journey.

On the left edge of the road a torrent of water rushes down the hill but we couldn’t see much else because of the thick mist. 

Before too long I get impatient and I’m out of the car, stepping carefully across the spongy ground. The wind is blowing and it is icy so my hands are freezing but I’m enjoying being outside the car. In this mist I can’t see further than about forty metres. 

As I walk off the road I see a narrow stream flowing slowly across the marsh, winding its way back and forth before it disappears into the thick mist. I’m often stepping in shallow water so I’m very grateful for my good hiking boots which keep my feet dry. I keep hearing the sound of bubbling water and I soon find the source; a water fountain on a very slightly raised mound is feeding the stream and there are other fountains spread about the place. The ground is sodden and carpeted with tiny plants that obviously thrive in the cold and wet. I love these wild places. 

In another spot I take photos of a couple of small waterfalls tumbling down from a raised marsh over a small natural wall of rocks. I climb up about two metres to the marsh and find more rocks around small hills as well as giant lobelias which can grow up to nine metres high. There are some small tarns amongst the rocks and every now and then a little more sunlight makes its way through the clouds and mist to add some reflections to the flat grey surface of the water. Apart from the soft sound of the wind and the swirling mist the place is eerily quiet and still. The cold seems to pervade everything. 

In some areas the ground is riddled with holes but for a long time I don’t see any animals. Then I spot a mole rat scurrying across the ground, and disappear into one of the holes. Later I see a hare running away with black and white tipped ears. 

I take shelter in the car a few times to catch my breath and warm my hands but eventually the temperature warms up enough so that I can stay outside. 

At one of our last stops I step outside the car and look behind us. I quickly and quietly call to Julie to look out of her side of the car where two rare Ethiopian wolves are crossing the road. One of them heads away from us but the other trots over to some rocks nearer us to investigate something. It sniffs around for a while before taking off after its mate. We are thrilled. There are perhaps only three hundred of these wolves left alive. We vaguely saw a couple in the shadows the night we climbed the volcano in the Danakil Depression so it was wonderful to see them so clearly up here.

Giant Lobelias, Bale Mountains, Ethiopia

We drive back to a place on the road above a wide area which has several larger tarns surrounded by larger hills and a rounded peak, all of which are swathed in rolling mist. After we eat we sit a while to see if the mist will clear. At the first opportunity I am out taking photos. When the mist rolls in again we start back down the track we came up on. 

We have one last stop to take photos when the sun comes out for a while showing us the fertile valley nearly two thousand metres below us. What a view! In the east we can see a massive line of cliffs. I climb up to a viewpoint and I look down into a narrow and very deep valley to the west that carves its way through the mountains. This is a truly dramatic landscape. 

We had considered camping the night up in the mountains but we both felt that it was too cold and wet to be at all comfortable and we couldn’t get to the official campground because the road was too muddy. Even so it’s a very special place and we are very glad to have spent the better part of a day up here.

Ethiopia Part 4, The Danakil Depression

Sulphur Springs, Danakil Depression, Ethiopia 2018

Sulphur Springs, Danakil Depression, Ethiopia 2018

The Danakil Depression, a place you read about in magazines on a plane going somewhere else, or in brochures in an air-conditioned travel agency. The hottest place on earth and one of the lowest at over one hundred metres below sea level. Weird landscapes that have been transported from a different planet. A place where foreign interlopers are viewed at the same time with disdain, indifference and suspicion. Not just by the people but by the country itself. Not somewhere you are going to go out of your way to visit. A place that sounds like hell on earth.

Active volcanoes with the oldest permanent lava lake on earth with hundreds of thousands of acres of blackened lava beds that are hard on shoes and even harder on car tyres. Bubbling sulphur springs and pools of acid set in an alien, technicolour landscape of bright yellows, lime greens, and gaudy oranges. Dried lake beds of white salt stretching over the horizon, too bright to look at under the noon day sun but, at sunset in the middle of this vastness, a wondrous place to watch the reflected blues, pinks and purples and the yellowing rays of the sun. A sun that, day after day, bakes the earth and everything else around until every bit of moisture has evaporated leaving nothing but salt or desiccated husks.

The Danakil Depression is located at one end of the largest rupture in the surface of all the continents on this planet, the Great Rift Valley. A rupture that will one day, thankfully in the distant future, split the biggest continent in two and the Danakil Depression will disappear under the sea.

Temperatures here regularly reach 50 degrees Centigrade and the average, year round temperature is over 34 degrees. Nothing grows here, nothing! There are enormous, very shallow and very salty lakes but you cannot drink the water. The Danakil stretches west from the Red Sea in neighbouring Eritrea until it runs up against a barren range of mountains over 2,000 metres high. Every pebble, rock and gigantic fold on the eastern side of these mountains is exposed to the desert winds and sun. On the other side of the mountains sits a very different world of farms, villages and towns amongst valleys and mountain ranges that seem to rise and fall for ever into the distant blue haze.

The hills are getting drier as we head toward the Danakil Depression, Ethiopia 2018

The Danakil, a desert of salt lakes, hot sulphur springs and volcanoes, is home to the Afar, a warrior people whose lives have changed very little in thousands of years. They live in small, rounded huts with rough walls of rocks covered over with thin sticks and fabrics. The rock walls fit loosely together leaving numerous gaps designed to let any little breeze through. There are no doors. 

Afar Village, Erta Ale Volcano, Danakil Depression, Ethiopia 2018

Most of the Afar live in small villages around the edge of the Danakil where there is some water and sparse desert grasses to feed their herds of camels, donkeys, goats and sheep.

These days they carry semi-automatic rifles and there is still a sense of tension although the long-running war between Ethiopia and Eritrea has now ended. There are one or two small towns where there are basic markets and some rough accommodation for travellers, typically a mattress on the floor of a large communal room.

Village, Afar Region, Ethiopia 2018

This is the place we have come to see and it turns out to be one of the highlights of our time in Ethiopia. With some trepidation we decide we want to go there in our own car but no private travellers are permitted in the Danakil. Village chiefs must be paid and armed escorts are compulsory. We eventually settle on World Sun, a tour company in Mekele, who are willing for us to tag along with one of their groups for less than half the price quoted on the web sites.

We leave Mekele just after 9am in convoy with one other vehicle which is carrying our terrific guide, Gere, Joachim from Germany, plus two other support staff. We will be meeting up with another vehicle in the small town of Abala situated below the mountains at the western edge of the Danakil. It looks like it will be a very small group which is great! It takes us a couple of hours to reach Abala and we arrive before the others so we sit and have a coffee in a roadside stall as is the custom in Ethiopia.

The car we are waiting to meet is carrying three tourists so it is a group of six including us, plus Gere, the cook and the drivers. 

We are back on the road before long and we have been given a radio so that we can communicate with the others. The country changes as we move from the foothills east where it levels out and stunted thorn bushes grow. We see the odd herd of goats and camels early on but after a while they are very few and far between.

Old Volcano, Danakil Depression, Ethiopia 2018

After another couple of hours of driving on the tar road which leads to Eritrea we turn north onto a sandy track which takes us to a village where our guide stops to find the local chief. We take the opportunity to let some air out of our tyres now that we are off the tar road.

Afar Village, Erta Ale Volcano, Danakil Depression, Ethiopia 2018

It isn’t long before we are moving again and we are driving across a sandy plain. Plumes of dust rise high in the air behind each car and the tracks fan out so we each end up driving on different tracks keeping an eye on each others dust. Our vehicle is carrying more weight so we are a bit slower, especially when we hit softer patches of sand. We are in four-wheel drive so we make it across these patches quite easily.

Desert Driving, Erta Ale Volcano, Danakil Depression, Ethiopia 2018

After about half an hour of this easy driving across the desert, the tracks converge and we come to the first of the lava fields we have to cross.

The remaining distance is quite short and we can see Erta Ale, the volcano we are here to see, but we are now moving at a much slower pace, between 5 and 10km per hour. The track is easily visible since the tour companies come out here nearly every day but the rocks are still rough and I begin to wonder whether we should have bought new tyres. We will definitely need them after this. After another hour and a half of driving we finally arrive at a roughly made village which seems to exist purely as a place to bring tourists to have dinner and prepare for the trek to the volcano. It is about 4pm when we arrive. We can see clouds of smoke coming from the top of the volcano in the distance.

Erta Ale Volcano, Danakil Depression, Ethiopia 2018

Old Lava, Erta Ale Volcano, Danakil Depression, Ethiopia 2018

We rest in the shade until the day starts to cool a little and then I am up and about taking photos. There are several convoys of vehicles parked around the place and groups of tourists sorting our their gear ready for the walk to Erta Ale. In amongst all of this are lots of camels which will carry mattresses and extra water.

Around sunset we have our evening meal and soon after that we are ready to leave. We are each given two bottle of water for the walk to the volcano. We will need them for the 14km walk! The sun has set but there is still plenty of light for the moment. The first part of the walk is through a sandy gully and across a plain. The sand is a little soft but it is easy going.

Erta Ale Volcano, Danakil Depression, Ethiopia 2018

Maybe I shouldn’t have eaten so much food though! It isn’t long before the path rises a little as we cross a lava plain. Our pace slows a little and I am starting to feel the heat. Even though the sun has well and truly set it is still over thirty degrees and the air is extremely dry. We take small swallows of water and try to conserve it for later on.

The sky is now completely dark and we are using torches to pick our way across the lava fields which are getting higher. We are using a little water to wet some ‘special ‘cloths we carry so that we can cool our heads and drape around our necks. Gere is terrific and he starts to make the rest stops a little more frequent. I certainly need them. The rest of our group is much younger than us and they are very patient. Eventually Gere tells us that we are now starting to climb the volcano. Funny, I thought we were nearly there! I am really feeling the heat and I need more rests as we climb. The temperature doesn’t seem to have changed at all. We are wearing the good walking shoes we bought in Tasmania and we certainly need them on these rough and sharp volcanic rocks. It is the first time I have worn shoes in well over a year and my feet are not liking the confinement at all. My socks are soaked in sweat.

We reach the camp at the top of the volcano around 10:30pm and we are exhausted. Gere shows us where we will be sleeping and says that we can rest for a short while before we go down to the edge of the inner crater to see the molten lava which is another 10-15 minutes walk after climbing down some steep steps in the rocks. Julie decides to rest for longer and wait until the early hours of the morning. I’m afraid that if I don’t go now I won’t make it at all. Julie beds down on her mattress inside an enclosure surrounded by a low wall of rocks. 

I grab my tripod which came up on the back of a camel and the rest of us make our way down to the inner caldera and, on strict instructions, we follow in Gere’s footsteps across the brittle lava. Some of it is less than a year old and still brittle and honey-combed with hollow channels which wouldn’t bear our weight. It is fairly slow going but before long we reach the edge of the inner crater. The breeze is variable and every so often we have to cover our nose and mouth as the smoke comes over us. It is very dark and there is no moon so the only light comes from inside the volcano or from the distant stars. Gere peers over the edge and decides we should move around the lip a short distance which we do.

As I sit on a rock and rest I start to visualise some compositions which I can photograph. I love the red colour of the clouds reflecting the light from below. I take these shots at about 11:30pm. I’m glad I brought my tripod!

Erta Ale Volcano, Danakil Depression, Ethiopia 2018

We wait for a short while but we don’t manage to see any trails of molten lava below us and we are all tired so we head back up to our camp. Gere says that he will wake us at 4:30am to try again to see the lava. I’m totally exhausted when we reach our camp and I bed down as quickly as I can. I need some sleep and I decide to forego the early rise which Julie makes with the others and guess what … they manage to see some of the molten lava. I have a good rest and I take some photos of the group walking back across the brittle lava of the inner caldera.

We start walking back down just before sunrise and our legs are getting more and more wobbly. Well mine are for sure. The walk up took us nearly four and a half hours. It will be a little less going down and we will only need one bottle of water. Nevertheless, we get back to the village a little after 9am and have some breakfast after a rest. 

Now it’s time to drive back to Abala for one night. I have had enough walking for a while. My feet are in a bad way and one toe nail is bruised and I lose another two toe nails a few weeks later. We repeat the slow drive back across the lava fields and then we reach the sandy plain. We have some fun with the three vehicles driving abreast across the sand with the dust billowing behind us. We reach the tar road and turn east towards Eritrea. It is not far to some hot springs and a salt lake where we get out and wade in the lake. In this temperature we are not really interested in the hot springs. After a bit we head back out to the road and we make it to Abala by early evening. We are in the trailing vehicle and we note how the other drivers are very careful when passing the herds of goats along the way. We wonder why the local people have to graze their animals so close to the road.

Back in Abala we find our lodging for the night and Julie and I decide to use our roof top tent. It will get any breeze there is and it is mosquito proof so we should get a better sleep than we might in a window-less communal room. Our group is down to three as the other vehicle has headed back to Mekele but before dark another group arrives that are on their way to Erta Ale. They all hail from Israel and we have a good chat about our travels. One of them is after a Coca Cola which isn’t available in town but I fetch one from our fridge for him. In the morning they return the favour and make us some Israeli coffee. Pretty good!

During the evening there are several people coming and going and we understand that the woman who owns the property is an elder and influential in the town. At some stage a policeman arrives in the compound and we realise that there are some serious discussions going on. I wander across to find out what is happening and Gere tells me that we have been accused of running over a goat on our way back to town. I immediately invite the policeman to inspect our car but he wants us to take it to the police station where it will be impounded. We have already set up our roof top tent and we intend going to bed fairly soon so we are not really interested in this. Eventually the policeman agrees that we can visit the police station in the morning to clear the matter up. We ask Gere what the price of a goat is and he tells us the (obviously inflated) price of a goat and a camel. Over a hundred dollars for a goat and over a thousand for a camel. Hah!

After breakfast the next morning we drive around to the police station with our host and Gere. We park in the street and get out and chat to a few of the policemen around about. We aren’t included in the discussions but we gather that another tour company was originally accused of running over the goat and they denied it and fingered us as the ‘ferengi’ that hit the goat. The discussions continue across the road at a nearby coffee shop. Nobody is bothering to look at the two vehicles that were allegedly involved. The owner of the dead goat is demanding justice. We decide that we need another coffee as well so we sit down across from another group of policemen and we start talking. Eventually they take some phones out and start taking selfies with us but we aren’t allowed to take any … so no photos, sorry.

We have to hand it to Gere. After about an hour the discussions are wrapped up and the two tour companies agree to pay half each for the ‘dead goat’ and we are grateful that, not only were we not involved in the discussions, but we haven’t been forced to pay either. 

We are now free to leave town and we head north along the base of the mountain range west of the Danakil on the road to Dalol where the sulphur springs and salt works are located. The drive through the foothills of the mountains is spectacular and we take some photos en-route.

Mountain Range, Danakil Depression, Ethiopia 2018

We stop briefly in a village for lunch and continue towards our new camp which is a short distance from Dalol. 

After a quick stop there we move on out onto the salt pans which seem to be endless. Our first visit is to some sacred rocks which are about the only thing that rise out of the flats. They are brown and made of ancient salt. The local Afar people eat pieces of the rock when they are sick and apparently it helps with stomach problems.

Nearby is another small hot spring which a few people from another group take a dip in.

Our next stop is for a sunset view beside a salt lake which disappears over the horizon. We drive as close as possible before the salt becomes to wet and before the cars start sinking. We set up tables and chairs and get out the cold drinks and nibbles from our fridge which we are very glad to have with us! The colours are amazing and I have a lot of fun with my tripod, wading out into the shallow lake to get the reflections. 

Our small group is very relaxed and we take some photos of the group before we leave.

We drive back to camp for dinner, arriving a little after dark. It is still very hot and there is a strong wind blowing. The landscape is desolate with rocks covering low undulations and very little grass. We find some shelter behind one of the huts. Our cook is inside with the fire and that’s the last thing we want to get close to. After supper we make ourselves comfortable on some rough beds up against the shack.

Bed under the stars, Danakil Depression, Ethiopia 2018

We are protected from most of the wind but we get just enough to keep us relatively cool. Even so we only need a sheet and it isn’t long before we fall asleep gazing at the myriad of stars.

The next morning is another early one. we leave at 6am to get out to the sulphur springs before the other tour group which is much larger and tends to take over when they arrive anywhere. It isn’t far and it is only 10 minutes walk from the cars. This is the lowest point in the Danakil at around 140 metres below sea level.

What a sight! I’ll let the photos speak for themselves. 

I also get the drone out and take some shots which I am quite pleased with. Some of these have been posted on Whitefella Walkabout Photography on Facebook

Gere has warned us about the slippery rocks and we take care. One of the young women who who was also at Erta Ale, the volcano, slipped and her feet went into one of the pools and they were badly burned by the acid. She had both feet bandaged and couldn’t walk without help, but she made it up to the volcano on the back of a camel. 

We start heading back to the cars just as other people start arriving. We are glad we made it out so early. It is already over 40 degrees when we reach the cars at about 9am. We really want to get our of the sun now and drink some water!

We stop a short way away for breakfast in a small, muddy canyon where the salt encrusted walls provide some much needed shade.

Our next visit is to the salt works which the Afar people have been working for over a thousand years. It is hot, horrible work in temperatures around 50 degrees. The crust of the dry bed of the ancient salt lake is cracked using pieces of wood as levers and then salt blocks of 5kg are shaped by hand using primitive tools and tied into bundles to be loaded onto camels.

Camel caravans still carry the salt to distant markets taking two weeks to get to places like Lalibela.

A 5kg block of salt is worth about 9 Birr here. In Lalibela it sells for about 200 Birr. The salt miners are very loth to change their traditional methods though. They refuse to allow trucks to carry the salt away and refuse to change their mining methods as they fear losing control of the salt and their livelihood.

It is finally time to go and it is good to get back into an air-conditioned car for the drive back to Mekele. We stop again as we drive through the foothills to take some more photos.

Camel Caravan

After that the road starts climbing until we are at about 2,400m above seal level and it is much cooler. What a contrast from the sulphur springs about 2.5km below us and less than 100km away.

We cruise back into Mekele and say goodbye swapping contact details and expressing our gratitude for the care and professionalism of our guide and the tour company. We are very glad we made it there and back. Now if only our tyres will hold out until we get back to Kenya.

Ethiopia Part 6, A Quick Visit to Eastern Ethiopia

Colour, Harar Old Town, Ethiopia 2018

The northern historical circuit and our excursion to the Danakil Depression in northern Ethiopia have all been fabulous and now it is time to explore other parts of the country. We didn’t get to visit the Simien Mountains National Park but we would still like to spend some time in the high country and hopefully see some Ethiopian wolves and other wildlife. One place we could visit which might fit the bill is a bit off the beaten track in the Menz-Guassa Community Conservation Area, south of Lalibela. We’ll need to travel on some rocky seldom travelled  roads to reach it which could be very tricky after rain. The rain begins on our last night in Lalibela and is continuing intermittently so we’ll need to watch the weather and reassess later. It continues raining most of the day and it is slow travelling on winding roads and with lots of slow moving traffic.

We stop for the night in the town of Dessie and consider our options. The dirt roads up to the conservation area will be tricky and camping in the high country in the mud and rain is less than appealing so we decide we’ll skip it and instead visit the Bale Mountains National Park in the south east of the country later. Before that though we decide to travel into eastern Ethiopia and visit the old Islamic town of Harar. We take the road east from Dessie to the southern end of the Danakil Depression. If we continued east we would be heading toward northern Djbouti and Eritrea which both sound fascinating but not on this trip. Instead we take the Djbouti Road south into eastern Ethiopia. We had thought it might be a dirt road but there is brand new bitumen and the only other traffic on this road are some trucks which are heading for the coast. The borders to Eritrea have only recently been opened and the traffic is light and the road flat and straight so we make good progress. We are back in camel country and while there are signs of recent rain it becomes much less as we head south and the temperature rises once again.

Unusually wet for camel country, Ethiopia 2018

Our good road finishes at Awash and we turn east and are back on one of the main highways to Djibouti. Our progress is much slower. We are heading back into higher country so we have lots of winding roads and hills, the road conditions deteriorate and there are regular pot holes, and much more traffic. This is the main road east from Addis Ababa and there are lots of trucks. There are also lots of villages and local traffic and animals so we need drive carefully, not a bad thing as the views along the way are worth slowing for anyway. Numerous wrecked trucks show that they don’t always take the appropriate caution, I imagine there are other vehicles in accidents as well but as they are lighter they are easier to remove. One truck in the middle of a village has us wondering.

Your guess is as goods ours, Ethiopia 2018

After an overnight stop along the way we reach Harar. The old walled town is World Heritage-listed and has 368 alleys squeezed into its 1 sq km. We find a hotel just outside the old town and after lunch we wander inside. Like many other places in Ethiopia its history is imprecise. It was founded somewhere between the 7th and 13th centuries and in the 17th and 18th centuries it was an important centre of Islamic scholarship and was almost never visited by Europeans. 5m high walls surround the old town and there are 6 gates including one which admits vehicles which was added in 1889.

Entrance to Harar’s old walled town, Ethiopia 2018

As we walk in the old streets we are surrounded by people wanting to guide us or just wanting a hand out. It is immediately off-putting and we are reluctant take photos even if they are of the street and buildings and not of people. We wander down some lane ways, not as relaxed as we would like because of the continual attention we are getting. 

 Colourful robes and Peugot 404 cars catch our attention as do the frequent bhajaj. When Paul was growing up in Nairobi they had a Peugeot 404 station wagon for a while and they were popular at the time because they had won the East African Safari Rally three times in a row. They still seem to be popular here, perhaps because we are very close to Djibouti which was a French colony.

We visit the museum dedicated to Arthur Rimbaud, a famous French poet who lived in Harar for about 10 years. It is interesting to speculate about the life he led and what brought him to this place which must have seemed completely remote and cut off from his life in France.

Other alleys lead us past the tailors shops and small houses to the butchers area where black kites line the roof tops hoping for some meat. Tourists are encouraged to buy a little meat and hand feed the kites which swoop down to take it.

We had planned to stay at least two nights in Harar but in the morning we decide we are not really enjoying the atmosphere in Harar, the lane ways are not particularly scenic and the attention from the people is intrusive and sometimes aggressive.  There seems to be a different sense of personal space here and we feel crowded. Kids hold our hands or just hang on to our clothing, its sort of cute for a little while but then gets a bit much and we decide to continue our travels. We  return along the main road we came here, it is still busy and people still clamour around us whenever we stop so we just keep going.

Eastern Ethiopian Town, Ethiopia 2018

We make good time and reach Awash where we spend the night in a delightful old French colonial rest house which used to be the railway station which is run by an Italian-Ethiopian woman. We had two flat tyres on or way to Lalibela and had them repaired with plugs. One of the repaired tyres is flat again so we try again in the morning before we leave town and we also get a temporary fix to a leaking fuel pipe. We spend the day driving south along a minor road toward the main road which leads to the Bale Mountains. Once again the minor road gives us a much better run than highways. For the first time in Ethiopia we are travelling across fairly flat land which receives good rainfall and we see agriculture on a much bigger scale and the use of heavy machinery including large tractors and harvesters. It is such a contrast to the terraced slopes in the mountains where all work is done by hand.

Patchwork Fields, Southern Ethiopia 2018

The day begins hot and dry in Awash but as we continue south the clouds build and before we reach the end of this road it is fully overcast and rain is threatening.

We stop over night in the town of Dodola where we enjoy their take on ‘traditional tibbs and enjira’ then travel east to the Bale Mountains the next day. The road climbs and then travels along ridges providing great views to the valleys below. The land is green and there are lots of scattered villages throughout the valleys, it is a highly populated area. As the road climbs further we enter the clouds and are surrounded by mist and drizzle.

In the Clouds on the way to the Bale Mountains, Ethiopia 2018

Through clear patches the scenery is stunning, great escarpments are on one side of of the road and gentler hills on the other. The road takes us through a part of the national park, the Gaysay Grassland and we are slightly lower here and below the clouds. This is supposed to be a good spot for wildlife but we don’t expect to see any next to the road. We stop to adjust a latch on the car and to our surprise a large male kudu is grazing less than 20 metres from us. It is still early and we could continue up into the high section of the mountains today but at more then 4,000 metres high it will be very cold so we spend the afternoon and night in the town of Goba. We’ll leave very early in the morning and have our breakfast at the top of the mountains, hopefully watching Ethiopian wolves.