Archive for the ‘Danakil’ Category

Aramis Pension, Semera

Posted: April 6, 2013 in Danakil

Caroline Ding writes:

My husband and I just got back from a one month trip in Ethiopia. We went to the Danakil. After a rough and seemingly interminable day of driving from Erta Ale via Lake Afrera, we finally reached Semera. As we became discouragingly disappointed by the miserable guesthouses one after another, we discovered the “Aramis pension”- it is a brand new place with clean rooms, comfortable bed, functional AC, and good pressure shower. Staff is extremely friendly. What a surprising luxury to stay here after three days of living under the most “primitive life condition” in the Danakil depression. Aramis Pension is a very decent place to spend a night on your way out of Danakil.

Bernd writes:

I just came back from a 3-week-trip to Northern Ethiopia. Here are some short update:

* From Addis to Bahir Dar: there are also minibuses leaving from a place close to Mercato during the morning. Think this is important as most people travel that direction. Couldn’t find that info in the guidebook.

* Bahir Dar: watch out when booking a tour to the monastries or Nile falls at the Ghion Hotel. Several people got cheated (paying 200, 250, etc) instead of 150. Ended in long discussions…

* Blue Nile falls: No guide necessary (instead you wrote you might need one on page 201). Tour operators tell you that you should go only to one of the places, but only the round trip makes sense.

* The ticket office in Axum is currently used by some people who are not official at all. They just took it over as the real guy working there stopped. So they recommend you guides without license (not necessarily bad ones, we got one good and one bad one).

*Axum / rock churches: We booked a tour with an unofficial but very good guide. We would like to recommend him: Name: Getachen. Phone: 0920018953

* Axum/Mekele: The tour agency at the Africa hotel in Aksum now has a small office in Mekele on the backside of the Atse Yohannis Hotel. If you are in Aksum, talk only to the boss. Other guides from the hotel charge an additional fee when booking through them. We booked our Danakil-tour with them: very good! 500 US$ for 4 days to/from Mekele.

* Lalibela: the Roha Bar and Restaurant (the one beside the Lalibela Hotel) can NOT be recommended. When we got in, it was empty and really dirty, but we were too lazy to walk on. For this we got punished: we both got a really bad diarrhea (likely amoeba).

* the Lalibela Hotel (in Lalibela) has new renovated rooms at 35 US$. They are good, but 35 $ is overpriced.

* Harar: for getting there by plane, I think you should include the info, that you need a transport into Dire Dawa town first and from there to Harar. There are no direct buses from the airport to Harar (easy to find out, but before planning the flight this info would have helped).

* security: in general safe, especially in the Danakil, as there are now lots of soldiers to protect the tourists. But, last week an Austrian guy was killed on a blue nile tour (remote area).

Besides: really nice guidebook (better than the Lonely Planet)!

 

A few places and highlights in Ethiopia are difficult or time consuming to be travelled independently. This is definitely true for the Omo Valley and the Danakil Depression, both areas we visited over Christmas 2010. To get around the Omo Valley would have taken us several weeks travelling on the infrequent public busses. The Danakil simply cannot be visited without a tour operator, unless you have the survival skills of a local Afar and know how to extract the permits from local policemen.

We contacted local Ethiopian agencies in Addis Abeba directly, about 15 of them and eventually decided to book tours with 2 different agencies. For the 8 days in the Omo Valley, we chose Experience Ethiopia Travel (www.experienceethiopia.com), for the 6 days in the Danakil Depression we preferred Pangeans Safari (www.pangeanssafari.com). Both agencies were very professional, very flexible & reactive to any question or requirement.

Yayehiyrad, the Manager of E.E.T. as well as Christos & Liza, the owners of Pangeans Safari are all very friendly and helpful. Both tours were extremely well organized, without any bad surprises whatsoever. To make it short: both agencies, though totally different, can be strongly recommended.

The excellent tour with Experience Ethiopia Travel took us around the “Classical Circuit” of the Lower Omo Valley, offered good quality accommodation, a brand new car, and last but not least an excellent and very experienced driver / guide, Matthew.

Pangeans Safari specializes more in “Off the Beaten Tracks”, trying to get their customers a more genuine experience. They are very flexible and perfectly understand the needs of fervent photographers like us, who grave for the perfect light. Traveling with the owners added a new dimension, since they are more likely to allow you to look behind the scene.

Moreover, their camping equipment is the best you can get. Talking about organization? Even in the middle of nowhere, Lisa and Christos provides a comfort we did not expect, like a make-shift shower! But the most important and truly unique aspect is that Liza is the only woman in the business, which enables her and her customers to get in contact and interact with local women she had become acquainted with on previous trips. This contributed to our everlasting memories of this tour through the Danakil.

True, these two destinations and tours were serious attacks on our finances. To cut costs it was critical to find fellow travelers, which proved to be quite easy through the Lonely Planet ThornTree Forum. Actually we had to turn down people, since four persons (including us) already seemed a crowd, especially travelling with this huge escort. During each trip our group was made up of four persons. For the Omo Valley we each paid 695 Euros (995 Euros for a group of two), for the Danakil we had to dish out 950 Euros (1.250 Euros for two).

Both, the Omo Valley and the Danakil will undergo major changes soon. All roads in the Omo Valley are under construction, which will shorten travelling time considerably and make the area accessible all year round, even in the rainy season. In the Danakil there was talk of paving the road from Berdahile to Hamed Ale, which would mean an end of the camel caravans, although some skeptics doubt that the trucks will withstand the effects of erosion due to the salt. Let’s hope the camels will have the last laugh…

More information on our Website: www.OneYearOff.net

Gilles Barbier & Heidi Sequenz

We had actually never heard of the Danakil Depression before we started reading the guidebooks to Ethiopia. Either there was very little information, or a focus on how expensive and difficult it was to travel there. The latter category was simply tempting us and off we went to the hottest place on earth. And believe us, it term is not some kind of marketing slogan!

Hostile Climate

Even during the “cold season” between November and February, we had to look for shelter in our stuffy hut for most part of the day. The heat was simply too intense and there is no shade to hide from the scorching sun. Temperatures averaged around 42 degrees Celsius (110 Fahrenheit) early afternoon and around 20 degrees Celsius during the night.

In the hotter months, the temperatures can be totally unbearable: a Swiss photographer told us of an unbelievable 67 degrees Celsius (160 degrees Fahrenheit) in Dallol end of March. Also the rainy season is not much fun, it makes the Danakil Depression inaccessible. Christos, the owner of Pangeans Safari, remembers a flooded desert due to torrential waters rushing down from the highlands around Mekele. This turned the sand into an uncontrollable mass of mud making the jeep sliding all over the place.

Safety Issue

Besides the hostile climate, until recently safety was another issue. Actually, the Danakil was pretty much of a “No Go Zone” until 2009. Skirmishes with Eritrean armed forces along the border were common up to the year 2005 and even after the cease-fire tourists were kidnapped. In 2007 it was five Britons. Even more dangerous were the landmines that killed several drivers in 2009. That very year about 500 travelers dared this trip, quite a few of them scientists exploring the seismic activities around Erta Ale. After more soldiers were stationed permanently things improved and the number of visitors is steadily rising. Nowadays the area is considered “very hot” among the travelling community. Especially passionate photographers have put the Danakil onto their radar.

Costs

Yes, it is quite expensive to travel to and in the Danakil Depression. There is no other way than to use the services of tour operators, who must provide not only one, but also a back up jeep, a scout, an armed Afar police man, a cook, all necessary paperwork and every drop of water every single person in the group needs in those 5-6 days. Plus of course the many presents to the local Afar chiefs, who issue the necessary permits for each area and who also organize the scouts and rangers!

This entourage does not come cheaply. Our group of four dished out the considerable sum of 950 Euros each for a 6 day tour with Pangeans Safari. For just the two of us it would have been a dear 1.250 Euros. Nevertheless, it was worth every single Birr.

Why go there?

Certainly not because of its climate, but there are a number of highlights that each alone justifies this trip! Let’s now share some of the most memorable experiences in the Danakil Depression:

(x) Looking down at the lava lake of Erta Ale, one of the most active volcanoes on this planet. The heat was intense, but standing on an overhang looking down into the huge boiling, bubbling and spitting lava lake 20 meters below makes you forget this easily. We would even go so far as to claim it requires good nerves.

(x) Dallol, a landscape of multi-colored hot springs and bizarre formations reminding of a coral reef. We managed to talk the soldiers into taking us back at the end of afternoon and were stunned as to how this place had changed since the early morning. It simply seems to be alive.

(x) Watching endless caravans soundlessly leaving the village of Hamed Ale at the crack of dawn and trotting back late afternoon loaded with salt.

(x) Discovering the salt mine near Lake Asal and the very harsh working conditions of the Afars and Tigrians, working there under a sun so strong that we had to leave at 09:30 am and hide in our hut.

(x) Socializing with some Afar families in Hamed Ale. Liza, from Pangeans Safari, is the only woman in the business, and was able to get us invited to some Afar homes, an absolute highlight of this trip. Heidi twice had the opportunity to meet several Afar women, and Gilles was also once allowed in a hut for a genuinely traditional “coffee ceremony”, something normally utterly unthinkable!

(x) Lake Asal’s vast salt plain with its surrounding rock formation. Some weary travelers are said to have mistaken it for a fortress. It is truly unique, even for those among us who have marveled at the incomparable Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, the biggest salt lake in the world.

Do a five day or six day trip?

Agencies tend to offer a 3 (only Dallol) or a 5 day tour, including Erta Ale. We added a 6th day which allowed us extra time in Hamed Ale. This way we could truly enjoy Dallol, in our opinion one of the most unique sights on this planet, early in the morning and late in the afternoon. Not only the light is different, but also the scenery. The lay-out of the pool amongst the multi-colored formations of minerals had changed within a day.

Apart from Dallol, there is Lake Asal, the salt mines and various geologically very active places that are a must-see. If this does not sound a lot to do, consider the extreme temperatures. Only a few hours of the day, from dawn to about 10 o’clock and before sunset can be reasonably used for these visits. On top of that, this inclement climate is extremely tiring. Not matter how fit you are, there is only so much your body is able to endure under these harsh conditions.

The other highlight was the village itself: hanging out at the well in the evening, being invited for coffee to Halima’s grandmother and watching the men sharpening their simple tools for another day of hard work in the salt mines is unparalleled.

Things we would do differently?

Point out the impact on the environment to the tour operators and the locals. Plastic litter is left behind for the Afar to take care of, but how and where in the middle of a desert?

There is also no toilet in Hamed Ale, period. Neither for the villager nor for the ever increasing number of tourists. It should not go unmentioned that the area is as flat as a pancake.

Conclusion

It was one of the most intense and amazing experiences we ever had, lasting over a period of six days and five nights. There was never a second when we were not aware of the extreme environment we were in.

The very well organized tour, the tireless efforts by Liza & Christos from Pangeans Safari to make us feel comfortable and their deep insight knowledge in various Ethiopian cultures and our European way of life contributed to this unforgettable trip.

More information on our Website: www.OneYearOff.net

Gilles Barbier & Heidi Sequenz


Visiting Danakil

Posted: December 29, 2009 in Afar, Danakil

This is the highlight of my trip to Ethiopia if not the highlight of my life. It was not very easy to organise the trip as none of the eight of us knew each other before we met in Ethiopia. The original idea initiated in this forum and we had an amazing group of 8 people in the end, including Victoria, 69 yr old independent traveller from Austria who instantly became our subject of adoration who gave us hope we’ll be carrying on travelling independently even after the age of 69. 6 of us met through LP Thorn Tree and the remaining 2 were recruited in Ethiopia. Two ladies were interested in the three day trip Dallol and six of us went even further to Erta Ale on a five day expedition. The most economical way was to start and end our tour in Mekele. Costs have been negotiated, re-negotiated, boring bits cut out from the itinerary, itinerary amended several times etc. You’ll be experiencing Afar way of life, caravans, salt slab production etc even if you pay for the Dallol excursion only so no need to fear you’ll miss out on something if Addis is not the starting/ending point of your Danakil Depression trip.

Safety – Governments of many western countries advice against all travel to Danakil Depression. Hostage taking did take place in the past and maybe Afar indeed are not the friendliest of people, but we didn’t feel threatened at all. 

You cannot visit Dallol in less than tree days from Mekele – the first day is just driving from Mekele; stop for lunch, arrangement of permits and allocation of an armed guard at Berhaile and PM drive to Hamed Ale. Sleep at Hamed Ale and the second day comprises of spending half day at Dallol, bake in the heat of the afternoon, then sleep again at Hamed Ale and the third day is the same as the day one, but other way round.

Dallol and Erta Ale can be visited on a five day expedition: the first two days as per above, the third day is the drive through Danakil Desert from Hamed Ale to the Erta Ale base camp, then 3 hours evening climb/hike, 2 hours at the volcano, 4 hours sleep, 1.5 hours at the volcano before the sunrise and the descent follows soon after the sunrise on day 4. Day 4 is all day driving from Erta Ale base camp to Hamed Ale and Day 5 is the same as the day one, but other way round.

Ask your tour operator to provide prices for 2 people, 3 people, 4 people, 5 people and 6+ (sometimes 5+). Our price options were:

2 Travelers -905Euro, 3 PAX- 785Euro, 4 PAX- 670Euro, 5 & above – 535 Euro

Price includes

• 4wd vehicles comprehensively insured

• Gasoline

• Fees to drivers, security guards, road leader and for the cook

• 3 meals of the day with bottled mineral water

• Permit to Danakil

• Camping gears

• All government taxes

. Fees to camels and local guides

Ask the tour operator to spell out if something is NOT included just to make sure there are no any hidden costs. Tips for drivers, cook, little servant in Hamed Ale and the exaggerated protection in Dallol (we had 4 soldiers with us!) were not included in our price and that worked out around Birr 300 extra per person.

Very important – ask your tour operator to guarantee the following:
• There will be plenty of water in case you’re stuck in the desert, especially on days 3 and 4!
• First Aid kit!
• The drivers must have each other in sight at all times, especially on days 3 and 4!
• There must be one torch per person for the hike to Erta Ale. The hike is 3 hours long and not particularly hard, but the volcanic rock is sharp and a few of us had some (minor) cuts.
• The Afar guide will have to be in control at the approach to the inner rim – we got too excited and wondered off dangerously close to the edge not knowing how solid the rocks were where we were standing on – this should have not happened! 
• Ask for air con 4×4 (our air con didn’t work)
• Ask if they have satellite phone (they probably don’t)

Day 3 and 4 are the most challenging as this involves long drive through the most inhospitable of places – the drivers can get lost trying to find their way through the sand and bushes. The most hazardous is Day 4 when the local Afar guide is dropped off at his village in the morning and the drivers now left with no resident guide start loosing each other whilst trying to get to Hamed Ale as quickly as possible. Things like car breakdown or simply being stuck in the sand in the midday sun at the temperature of 40+C can be fatal if there’s no water or shade to escape to. If this happens, then let them do whatever they need to do to get the car back in the driving condition. You find/improvise the shade, hold on to your water and hope for the best. If worse comes to worst then the local Afars will find you – it’s incredible in what places they were appearing!

Things to take with you: (small) binoculars, sun block, hat, sunglasses, scarf/sarong, baby wipes, maybe ear plugs to minimise the wind effect and always make sure there’s plenty of water in your 4×4. You won’t need any extra clothing or tents for sleeping in Hamed Ale, it’s hot even at night and just a mattress will do, but the volcano is at 600m altitude and you’ll need a blanket, sleeping bag or a couple long sleeve T shirts.

Sulphurous fumes should not be a great concern at the rim of the volcano, but they are strong enough to cause mild irritation to your respiratory system – use scarf/sarong to cover your nose/mouth if your tour operator can’t provide one of those masks. 

Our agency was Visit Ethiopia Tour and Travel http://www.visitethiopia.com.et/ and it was pleasure cooperating with Mikias. He’s very understanding, trustworthy, friendly, speaks good English and he can be reached on:+251 911 681 100. They, and other agencies, will ask for deposit to be paid as soon as possible, but we paid ours only a few days before the expedition because none of the people in the group knew each other before traveling to Ethiopia. It’s easy to transfer the money between banks in Ethiopia: you must know the recipient’s names, address and the exact branch of the bank they wish to collect the money from. Eg, you’ll be paying money in Axum’s Dashen Bank branch to Mr John Smith of Menelik II Avenue, Addis Ababa etc who wishes to collect the money from Dashen Bank Bole Road branch in Addis Ababa. 

Goran Jovetic, London, UK