Trip report from a female traveller

Carrie writes:
I just got back from three weeks in Ethiopia using the 7th edition of the Bradt guide. The guidebook was invaluable and I couldn’t have done the trip (solo, without a guide) without it. There were just a couple of things I wanted to update you on:

Women travellers: As a 27-year-old American woman traveling alone,  I experienced  quite a bit of harassment, mostly from teenage boys. It was mostly verbal, but a few times I found myself encircled by groups of boys who got a little physical. There were also many cafes/restaurants that I didn’t feel comfortable eating in because it would have been very conspicuous that I was the only woman there. (I was almost always the only woman eating alone in cafes and restaurants, but there was a difference between places where that didn’t seem like a big deal and places where I was sure I’d face an endless stream of romantic proposals if I sat down there.)

A little more disconcertingly, in Harar, I was followed around for 20-30 minutes on two separate occasions by older men. Both times they followed me into shops and one of them even followed me into a restaurant. Appealing to other Ethiopians just got me laughed at. Dressing in long skirts and loose shirts did not make a difference. Taking a guide, and latching on to locals I felt I could trust, seemed to solve the problem.

Getting around: I heard nothing but bad things about Skybus when I was there. I bought a ticket from them at one point and they tried to tell me it was Skybus when they actually sold me a ticket for Golden Bus. (I returned the ticket.) I ended up taking Selam Bus whenever traveling by bus, and despite leaving later and driving more conservatively, it always arrived earlier than the Skybus/Golden Bus.

Addis Ababa:

I contacted Mr. Martin’s Cozy Place in advance for an airport pickup (I arrived at 1 am). They sent a taxi for me, but the taxi took me to the wrong hotel (in the same area) and told me it was Mr. Martin’s. When I questioned him, the driver refused to help me find Mr. Martin’s. The other hotel staff (I still don’t know where I actually stayed) also refused to help. And since it was dark and the other hotel wasn’t significantly more expensive, I gave up. The taxi driver also charged me more than I had agreed with Mr. Martin’s staff and refused to give me change. I didn’t realize I was right around the corner from Mr. Martin’s until the next day, when it was light enough out to see the sign.

By contrast, Taitu took a walk-in booking from me for two weeks in advance and gave me the exact room they had shown me. They had the most helpful staff I experienced in Ethiopia as well.

Kiyab Cafe in Piassa area: You mention it has snacks, juices, etc. but it also had a full breakfast menu and the food was outstanding.

Since you recommend several hotels and restaurants in the Atlas Junction area, it would have been helpful to see minibus stops there too. It was easy to get to Piassa but I had a hard time communicating with people where I was trying to get back to from Piassa.

I had no trouble with pickpockets or any safety-related issues in Addis. I felt 100% safe walking around with my camera and a backpack at all hours. No one ever tried anything on me. I did carry my backpack in front of me instead of on my back and I wore skirts with no pockets, so I might have just not looked like an easy enough target.

Danakil:

WorldSun Ethiopia Tours seems like one of the more popular agencies for Danakil trips, and cheaper than ETT. I originally booked with them but the rest of the group backed out so they put me on the ETT trip for the same price. Despite not traveling with them, I found their service to be above and beyond.

The Danakil trips, across all tour agencies, were all stopping for a night in the highland village of Abala in between Dallol and Erta Ale. Not sure if that’s just because it was August and it was so hot in the desert, or if this is a permanent change. It definitely made the Danakil trip more bearable–a toilet and bucket showers made a huge difference.

Mekele:

I couldn’t find the Tigrai Tourism office anywhere on the street it was mapped on. Not sure if it’s moved or closed, or if it was just unsignposted. I didn’t ask anyone.

Atse Yohannes Hotel: Now charging 500 birr for a room, and they wouldn’t budge on price. There are definitely better-value options (Moringa and Lalibela Guesthouse) available. Their breakfast was terrible.

Beefmin Garden: I totally agree with your review. Great restaurant and had some of the best wifi I found in Ethiopia.

Getting to the Lachi bus station: it was difficult to figure out where the minibuses to Lachi left from–and most locals didn’t seem to know (one put me on a minibus going to the wrong place!). Would have been helpful to have the minibus station on the map.

Wukro:

I couldn’t find the Tigrai Tourism office here either.

The museum is now open and was one of the more informative museums I visited in Ethiopia. Lots of English signage and supplemental materials and the staff was happy to answer questions.

Ersayem Restaurant: Signed in English from the main road, but the restaurant itself is signed only in Amharic. They didn’t have a menu and it was a fasting day, so the only options were fasting food or spaghetti, and the server at first assumed I wanted spaghetti without asking. We cleared that up and they had fantastic food–and it was 30 birr for a huge meal with an Ambo! Best-value food I found in Ethiopia.

Hawzien:

There are all-day (or at least until mid-afternoon) minibuses running directly from both Wukro and Mekele now. And going to Adigrat, I was able to pick up a direct minibus (without having to change at Frewenyi) at around 9 am after only a 5 minute wait for it to fill up.

It’s possible to take a bajaj to Megab and do Abuna Yemata as a straightforward and easy day trip from Hawzien. No need to take a guide from Mekele or Axum or book expensive private transport, you can sort it out on the spot.

Gheralta Lodge was as amazing as everybody says–the food, the rooms, the location, the service, everything. Dinner is a flat 250 birr for the full menu, no a la carte option. It was about 75% vegetarian-friendly.

Axum:

The bus from Adigrat to Axum was one of the worst trips I’ve been on anywhere in the world. The driver was going 140 km/hour up and down switchbacks and he clearly didn’t have control. At one point we almost skidded off a cliff. Buses everywhere else in Ethiopia were fine, just this one leg was horrible.

AB Traditional Bar and Restaurant: Did not have live music the Saturday night I was there. Food was exceptional, but options were limited–they only had beef or lamb tibs and some Italian dishes available the night I was there.

National Yared Juice House: This was one of the more conspicuously all-male cafes I encountered. I definitely would not have felt comfortable there. Over the three days I was in Axum, I got cat-called every time I walked by by the people sitting there.

Lalibela:

Villa Lalibela: Great place to stay, with a super-friendly staff. They include breakfast with the room now but it’s very basic–just bread, jam and coffee. My one complaint is location. That cluster of hotels at the bottom of the hill is far from most of the restaurants/cafes/etc. It’s a very dark walk back after dinner that requires walking by a bunch of bars and pool halls that seem to be where all the obnoxious teenage boys congregate. Normally I would’ve just eaten at a hotel restaurant closer by, but the only one with an open restaurant when I was there (it was pretty devoid of tourists) was Jerusalem Hotel.

I’d suggest that other women traveling alone stay at Red Rocks or Asheton–better and more central location that you could have your choice of dinner spots from without worrying about the walk back. (To be clear, I’m sure it wasn’t actually unsafe–it just isn’t much fun to have boys following you and whistling at you/throwing stones at you when you ignore them when you know you won’t even see a street light for a mile.)

Ben Abeba: Great food, great service, great views. Totally agree with your review except the dessert menu was limited to fruit salad the day I was there. But it was a delicious fruit salad.

John Lodge: This was much more mediocre. Their local dishes were mostly unavailable when I was there and the only veggie-friendly option was spaghetti. They also said juices were unavailable even though I saw other people ordering them.

Dire Dawa:

African Village was as good as you made it out to be. The owner took the parrot out of the cage at night and moved it somewhere where it was much less disruptive. Only complaint is the wifi didn’t work well, but in a pinch there are plenty of internet cafes around.

Harar:

Rowda Waber Guesthouse: This was my favorite accommodation in Ethiopia. The breakfast was as good as you made it out to be. The staff was great. Booking through Hailu (who was also a fantastic guide) went smoothly. It would have been nice to know that none of the guesthouses are signposted, so you really do either have to get picked up from the bus station or ask a lot of people to find them. The one downside was an aspirant guide who was hanging around trying to get me to hire him. I stayed firm with wanting to use Hailu instead, and eventually he backed down.

Fresh Touch has moved and it’s now almost immediately outside Harar Gate. It no longer has wifi.

Cozi Pizzeria does not seem to be there anymore. There is another restaurant in its place but some locals said it wasn’t good.

The military base across from the Ras Hotel has a really nice bar with beautiful garden seating. I went with Ethiopian friends and I’m not sure if foreigners could get in alone, though. And they’re strict about no cameras (I put mine in my bag and agreed not to take it out after a ten-minute argument about leaving it at the entrance).

I would suggest including the place in the main square in the old city that makes the chapati pancakes in your food recommendations (coming from Harar Gate, it’s outside on the ground floor of that big building on the left). 30 birr for a 2-egg pancake with veggies etc., delicious, and one of the most popular spots in town among locals.

There is also a lady who sells great veggie samosas (choice of potato or lentil). She sets up around 6 pm outside Central Cafe. 4 samosas ran me 8 birr.

The hyena feeding site has moved. It’s now about 5 km outside the walled city. (I didn’t go to the old sites to verify that they’re no longer there, but I did ask several locals and four different guides and they all said it’s been moved.) Costs 150 birr in a bajaj round-trip (the unofficial guides will tell you 200) plus 100 to pay the hyena man. The site was pretty quiet at 7:30 pm when we arrived but the hyena man eventually got 3 hyenas to come.

That’s all I’ve got–thanks again for the great guidebook! Ethiopia was the trip of a lifetime and the relatively small hassles and frustrations were totally eclipsed by the friendliness of the people and the fascinating history and natural sights.

Off-the-beaten-track trip report

Ondřej writes:

 

Hello, I have backpacked through Ethiopia for three months from the beginning of March to the end of May. Thanks a lot for all the great tips and information in your book, I would have missed so many interesting things without it! And sometimes, it is even very fun to read🙂

Now I would like to contribute some updates for some parts of the book. I numbered them by page as they appear in the seventh edition.

 

225 – Fang Waterfall – is now paid. I have no idea where he came from, but an old man suddenly appeared and asked for money before I could approach the waterfall. He actually issued tickets, but he couldn’t read or write, so he asked me to write one hundred into the receipt. I wrote 30, the kids started laughing, told him what happened and he got a little angry but was laughing at my trick as well a little bit, just accepted the money (although he wasn’t really satisfied) and went his way again.

 

251 – The Gorgora road is mostly finished by now.

 

273 – Simien Mountains

 

All in all, the Semiens are a very hostile place to low-budget tourists these days. Unless you just hand out money all the time, you’re trash for them (same as everywhere in Tigrai, Hawassa and the other tourist hotspots).

 

The people at the NP HQ are real jerks and spread many lies, as well as the various barters and wannabe guides around. I arranged at the HQ that I would cut the first two days into one (directly from Debark to Gich) and then go day by day and try to make it to Dashen if the weather will allow for it. They told me it is OK and that I can pay only for 4 days, and then pay more when I come back, should it be neccessary. In the end, it took me 4 days to walk to Ras Dashen, and another full day to ride back (details later) so I came back to pay the extra day, and they asked me to pay 9 days because that is how long it usually takes for tourists. They couldn’t provide any kind of proof that there is a rule for this. Again some people supported me, but the HQ manager was against me, and wasn’t willing to give up. I was trying to make it a fair deal, but it led nowhere and after an hour I just gave up and went true aggro-mode, started shouting and stomping and banging my fist on the counter and finally they gave up. It was very sad though, that I actually had to use “force” to reach justice.

 

A big new thing is that an asphalt road is now running through Bwahit pass directly to Chiroleba (and further a few km to a village unimportant for tourists), a bus runs pretty much daily back and forth, and several trucks each day. The people claim it is illegal to use either, and will ask for ridiculous prices for taking you. I was friendly and got some locals on my side, which ultimately guaranteed a place for me and my scout all the way from Chiroleba back to Debark for 250 ETB (locals pay 60 each, so I only overpaid twice). The lowest I could get the truck driver was 1000 and he wouldn’t go lower if my new temporary friends didn’t intervene (they just took my money, stuffed in his pocket and told me to get on haha).

 

A dirt road is also running from Ambiko all the way up to the pass directly below Ras Dashen, leading somewhere far away south in the Semiens. But most probably it also connects to the new asphalt road somehow through the way of Arkwasiye. So, theoretically, in a private car, you can pretty much drive all the way up to Ras Dashen (with 1 hour left of walking in the end or so). But this needs to be checked.

 

Also, my scout was a jerk, he was complaining all the time that his feet hurt, that it’s raining too much, was always begging for money and when I didn’t give any, he just halted and refused to go on. In general, the NP staff is very corrupted and unprofessional.

 

375 – Maryam Qiat – A bus runs to Rahya daily for 11 ETB from Adigrat. There seem to be more buses every day, but very irregular. I got stuck overnight, but I was offered to sleep at one of the local shop/restaurant/pub places for 50 ETB in an OK bed in a private room (guest room of the family). The priest’s number in Qiat is 0927773168. He doesn’t speak English though, I was lucky enough to meet a local student who helped me locate him and translated stuff for me. He claimed there are long tunnels leading from the church into other sacred chambers, but of course, these are only accessible for the priests, so they can’t prove it. The nature and scenery around Rahya is also among the most breathtaking in Tigrai, for me at least, definitely worth mentioning!

 

376 – Gunda Gundo

 

The walk to Gunda Gundo was an unbelievable and unforgettable trip. It is possible to find it alone, the people are very friendly to tourists and will show the way. Just ask every single person you meet. Also, believe them, even if it looks like they are sending you in the wrong direction, because the road is really zig-zag and sometimes not very easy to find. One more thing worth mentioning, watch out for dogs at the point where you descend into a canyon at one point, before climbing over a small hill and continuing the descent again. The ones I encountered were all tied by chains, or watched after by their masters, but it could be risky. Have stones ready.

 

In Gunda Gundo itself, the people are completely different. As all the Christian officials everywhere in Tigrai, they only care about money. I was not allowed to enter the monastery, because I didn’t have a permission from some the office in Wukro. They were willing to overlook the fact for 500 ETB, which I refused to pay. The people are real jerks, abusing women and children to do all the work in and around the monastery and leeching on money from tourists. The only thing they do is brew their own beer, and even buy bottled beer from a pair of guys who make a living by running a beer-donkey-caravan back and forth between Idaga Hamus and GG. On the other hand, I also met a really nice nun there, who was very kind and fair to me, and was the only thing that saved my sanity in this god-forsaken place. She arranged a place for me to sleep in, which kinda saved my life.

 

The experience and the walk was still absolutely worth it. The point of my story is – bring a permission from the office in Wukro, otherwise you are in trouble.

 

427 – Lake Afrera 

 

A minibus runs daily to Afrera from Logiya (not Semera), starts loading people around 5:30 AM, be there in time as it seems to get full quickly and there aren’t more for the day. Also, it doesn’t run from the bus station, but from another place closer to the center of town, so ask the day before, or get up early enough to figure it out. The price was some 110 ETB if I recall correctly. The ride is breathtaking and really smooth along a nice new asphalt road, very fast too.

 

Afrera is safe to visit even for solitary backpackers – I even accidentaly walked into a military area (don’t go looking for a view of the village to the hill with a gazebo west of the salt-extractors colony). I was probed for an hour or so by the soldiers, but again my friendliness and limited Amharic vocabulary saved me. First they said (one of them knew some english) that it is a big problem to come there alone, and that I am the first faranji to go there alone without a guide and that they need to call the local government because I don’t have a permit. But in the end a tourist visa was enough to satisfy them and they even gave me their phone number to call if anything were to happen to me.

 

There are at least two sets of hot springs around the town (and probably many more I haven’t found). The bigger, touristic ones where it is easy to bath, and then I found another set of them along the shore immediately east of the colony (here). There is noone around unless the people are working and they are maybe even more scenic than the touristic ones. It is not possible to bath in them though, they are too hot. You have to pay 70 ETB to bath in the touristic ones now, but they even give a receipt if you insist on it.

 

The remains of a small volcano immediately north above the touristic springs are pretty awesome, with breathtaking sunset views of the landscape and ruins of some kind of old stone building (I guess and abandoned local refuge, or some kind of war remnant).

 

Minibuses run on to the next town along the road to Erebti, one daily around 11AM. There you can change to another one to Abala, which is already well connected to Mek’ele. I haven’t taken the minibuses so I don’t know the prices and times after Afdera as I hitchhiked on a truck directly to Mek’ele. The whole stretch of the road is amazing quality asphalt with good bridges and should you get stuck anywhere, Afdera, Erebti and Abala all have stringshoe accomodation (outside sleeping, but it doesn’t mater as it is 40°C anyway).

 

P.S.: Wear good shoes. I encountered a huuuge, bright orange coloured huntsman spider running after me.

 

485 – Dire Sheikh Hussein

 

It is possible to get to Dire on public transport. A bus runs to Dire from Jara. To Jara, you can get from Ginnir / Delo en route from Sof Omar (unpredictable), or directly from Robe easily. The bus from Jara is very hard to predict. I waited for more than a day and in the end went with some guy on a motorbike instead. The buses are tied to the market days in Jara (Saturday, Tuesday) and Mechara, but it is not a 100% safe rule. On the other hand, if the demand is high enough, there is even more than one bus. They start late afternoon from Jara and go through the night to arrive in Mechara in the morning and vice-versa. Price is 150 ETB, but you can also go on the back of a truck for the same price if you arrange it, which is definitely more adventurous and you get amazing freedom of looking around (the gorge is breathtaking even during a night without any moon). I have also seen one bus arrive to Dire from Jara only (not going further) but I have no clue how that runs.

 

In Dire itself, ask to be taken to the petrified praying chamber. It is in the side of one of the Wabe Shebelle cliffs, and it is a small grotto enclosed by petrified roots of ancient trees, covered in crystals. It is very small, but probably one of the most amazing things I have ever seen in my life.

 

 

Lakes Gummare, Afambo and Abbe

In 2001, Peile Thompson trekked the length of the Awash River north of Awash Saba, the first person to do so unsupported since Wilfred Thesiger in 1934. Shortly afterwards, he sent me the following information about the remote Lakes Gummare, Afambo and Abbe, which has been included in the last few editions if the Bradt Guide. I am now posting it on this update website as it will be removed from the next printed edition of the book in order to make way for less obscure information. Note, however, as detailed in the upcoming 7th edition, that the bridge at Ebobe has been rebuilt, so it is now possible to visit Gummare as a 4×4 day trip out of Asaita, stopping at a village called Afambo, where you will need to pay US$30 at the police station to pick up a pathfinder and armed escorts.

South of Asaita, the Awash River terminates in a chain of about six shallow saline and freshwater lakes, of which the largest (and last) is Lake Abbe on the border with Djibouti. The deep blue lakes, fringed by lush salt-tolerant vegetation and surrounded by high mountains, support dense populations of hippos and crocodiles. The lakes form one of the most important waterbird sites in Ethiopia, and attract large numbers of Palaearctic migrants during the European winter. On the Djibouti side, Lake Abbe is a popular weekend destination. The Ethiopian side of the lakes, however, is totally undeveloped for tourism, and likely to remain so for some time. At the time of writing, the lakes are inaccessible in a vehicle, following the collapse of the bridge across a river at Ebobe, 10km south of Asaita. Until such time as this road is repaired, the only feasible way of reaching the lakes is by hiking or setting up a camel expedition.

Over May and June of 2001, Peile Thompson explored this area on foot, using routes that hadn’t been walked by a faranji since Wilfred Thesiger in the 1930s. Peile travelled with six camels (to carry supplies and water), and many of the routes he followed would be suitable only to experienced and well-prepared adventurers carrying sufficient water to last several days. However, he has kindly passed on details of a relatively straightforward round hike between Asaita and lakes Gummare and Afambo, which could be undertaken over two (or better three) days without inordinate preparation.

To do this hike, you’d need to carry two or three days’ food, depending on how long you take over it. Drinking water is available at reasonably regular intervals, but it’s always advisable to carry some water (and refill whenever possible) in case the pumps aren’t working. It would be inviting problems to travel through this part of Afar country without a local Afar guide, and written permission from the regional authority. A permit can easily be arranged through the tourist office in Asaita. They can also arrange a local guide. Travelling in this area without a guide is foolhardy, not only because he will interact with local Afar people on your behalf, but also because there is a genuine risk of losing your way, with potentially fatal results.

The most accessible lakes are Gummare and Afambo, which are linked by a short stretch of river about 20km south of Asaita by road. To get to the lakes, you must first follow the main road south of town for about 10km to the river at Ebobe. If you want to cut down the walking time, a local bus service does run at least once daily between Asaita and Ebobe (timings are erratic), and there is plenty of transport along this road on Tuesdays (market day). You can normally cross the river on foot, but the banks are too steep for a vehicle, which is why the bus and all other transport terminates here. Shortly past the crossing is a police post, where you will be turned back if you don’t have written authority. South of this, the track runs through fertile land dotted with rural Afar settlements and small papyrus-fringed lakes – the birdlife is incredible.

Another 10km or so along the track, you reach a deep 15m-wide river. Here, the local Afar people have made a raft out of fallen reeds and will pull you and your kit across to the other side for birr 5 each. You could swim it, but there are a lot of crocodiles around! About 500m beyond this crossing, you reach the river linking Lake Afambo to Lake Gummare. There used to be a bridge over this 150m crossing, but it collapsed some time ago. This crossing has to be done with a raft as there are many crocs and hippos around in the lake. The border traders are all queuing up to get on the rafts, with camels laden with salt and goods. The animals swim across, but the goods are placed on the papyrus raft and ferried to the other side. The people who operate the rafts will charge you ridiculous sums to get across, knowing you have no option … but don’t be tempted to swim it as we did, we nearly got scoffed, and the locals went crazy! This is real smuggler’s country, so be a little careful, as things get heated and everyone is armed. For the few that make it here, the view of Lake Gummare is magnificent with the rich birdlife, the Afar hustle and bustle, and the high surrounding escarpment that drops down to the opposite lakeshore.

Having crossed the river, you pick up the track again as it winds up the high escarpment towards the Djibouti border. After about 3km, this climb of several hundred metres in elevation leads towards a point marked on several maps as Afambo. We expected there to be some form of settlement here … wrong, unless you count a derelict bunch of buildings and an observation post, remnants of the old Derg border post! From the abandoned camp, the views over the lakes and back west towards Asaita are awesome. Note, however, that the surrounding area is mined, so you should always stick to the path, and that no safe route other than the track you have climbed connects the camp to the lakes. The hike up from the crossing to Afambo takes about 90 minutes, but it’s really worth the effort for the views.

There is no accommodation around the lakes, nor are there formal campsites. Travellers can camp rough anywhere they like, ideally slightly away from the villages to avoid masses of people (and ticks!). The area is very hot, even at night, so it’s not necessary to carry a lot of camping gear – but you will need some protection from the prolific mosquitoes. Expect to be investigated by young Afar warriors asking questions (and sometimes a fee). This is when you need a local guide and piece of paper with the Afar Tourism Board stamp on it. I should stress that federal stamps and pieces of paper count for nothing in Afar; you must have something with an Afar government stamp or people will turn you back.

From the crossing point described above, Peile notes that it’s possible to continue south along a little-used track that follows the eastern shore of Lake Afambo to Lake Abbe, where you can cross into Djibouti. The hike from the crossing point to Lake Abbe takes four days. Peile stresses that no drinking water is available until you reach Lake Abbe, where there are some freshwater springs. Lake Afambo’s water was potable in Thesiger’s day, but it’s now very saline due to the various irrigation schemes along the Awash River. In this hot and exposed terrain, you would need to carry at least ten litres of water each per day – that’s a total of 40 litres of drinking water each for the full hike, which would have to be carried on camelback.

Visiting 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

Afar trip report

The World from Afar – the edge of Ethiopia
February 2009
My second visit to the Danakil desert and the hottest place on Earth. Ethiopia continues to enthrall and Afar is one of those regions which is on the edge, in many different senses. It is remote, inhospitable and has a reputation, probably justified, for being insecure. We went as a group of ten in 4 landcruisers using a very experienced local expedition organizer. To do this trip they have to be! We travelled to Mekele, north from Addis, initially along some of the worst roads in Ethiopia – mainly because they are being rebuilt. For some reason in this country road building seems totally illogical. They endeavour to build the whole road at once, hence the chaos and disruption seems endless, as did this stretch of road! We spent the first night in Kombolcha and the second in Mekele.
North central Ethiopia is comprised of a series of tablelands, dissected deeply by rivers which leave remnants of features not dissimilar to the canyon lands of the American west. The area is quite arid and the rocks vary from old lava flows to a variety of sandstones. The road improves after Dessie but topography creates a need for tortuous ascents and descents. The roads, as a result of these ups and downs, challenge vehicles and drivers, the evidence of which is seen by the frequent accidents where cars, Izuzu trucks (locally known as Al Qaeda, because they kill so many!) and intercity buses which have gone over the edge. A sobering reminder of the need to have good drivers, vehicles, and take care. The altitude along the roads north remains high – over 2000 metres and in places rising to 3000. It is only when you leave Mekele, a pleasant town which is well maintained, that the long descent begins.
We had a vehicle break down in Mekele which annoyingly delayed our departure. But despite knowing that we would get to the Danakil late we persisted in our journey. The trip down takes the vehicles down incised river valleys, over ridges and truly provides the drivers, passengers and vehicles with a rough ride. We picked up our police and army escort, needed for the political tensions and potential kidnappings which exist in this area, and our permits, in Berhale. By then it was dark and not knowing what was to the side or ahead was somewhat intimidating. We drove on and even if the night had descended the heat and aridity increased. We were entering the hottest place on Earth where temperatures in the summer can reach record levels of 58C! As we travelled down we passed the caravans of camels who have plied this route for centuries to extract salt from the former sea bed of what was an extension of the red sea. They seemed ethereal in the moonlight and we appeared to be disturbing their lentitudinous, but unending, steady cycle from Mekele to Dallol and back.
We camped, there are no hotels, in Ahmedila. A small Afar settlement which is dependent on the salt trade. The people here control the extraction. They dig it up, they shape it into blocks and then it is transported out to markets throughout Ethiopia. In the evening the men can be seen sharpening their axes and cutting implements. The village is friendly and they have a deep well to help sustain their existence in such a desolate and harsh environment. The salt itself is a sustainable resource. When the water table rises as a result of rivers which flow into the area in the wet season the old workings are dissolved and new salts are precipitated over time. We watched the production lines as they cut, prised out, shaped and loaded the salt. They do this all year in all temperatures. I do not know how, but they do! This is an age old practice and it looks set to continue for the forseeable future.
However, we didn’t just come to the Danakil to look at salt extraction. The Danakil is amazing for some of the most unique landforms and physical features seen on Earth. Dallol, at 120 metres below sea level, has an old volcano which simmers beneath the surface. It last erupted in 1926 but now the gases and heat mix with water and other minerals found as part of the salt deposits to create a bizarre landscape of salt pillars, small yellow, green and orange lakes and fumaroles. There are bubbling pools of sulphuric acid, hot gas emissions, offensive smells and terraces of precipitated minerals. It is highly active and since my last visit there it was more extensive and even more exciting. Despite the heat the sights are incredible. There are former remnants of an Italian extractive industry which was based here in the 1930’s. They came in from what is now Eritrea. Old buildings built of salt blocks and fossilized cars, encased in salt! The colours, steam, smoke, bubbling pools fringed with rocks recently formed and looking like icing make this an incredible sight to see. Not just a desert!
Driving across to see Dallol we crossed the area where the salt was being extracted but the tracks made by vehicles created a strange road made of salt polygons – I have never seen anything like it. These patterns stretched to the mirages on the horizon, where camels floated above the illusive watery surface.
The day after visiting the solfataras, the yellow peril, we ventured south into was people might perceive to be real desert – sand dunes. In actual fact only about 5% of deserts are covered with dune systems. Going south there is no road, only a direction and anastomosing patterns of tracks left by other vehicles who have made the journey. One of our vehicles, having lost its four wheel drive capacity, got stuck on a few occasions but in the end, as a result of the driving skills of our intrepid guide, Teddy, we got to the base village where we set off to climb Erte Ale. Erte Ale is a very gently sloping volcano which pours out, from a permanent lava lake, vast quantities of fluid lava. We drove up a very cindery and rocky track towards the parking place. This track was very sadly, a few weeks later, to be the final place that our cook, Assefa, ever saw. He had been on four trips with me and he was blown up on this road, along with several others, by a deliberately placed landmine. This is testament to the fact that Afar is truly on the edge and the Afaris are discontent with Government influence and the fact that a new road is going to dissect their land and expose them to more control. They like their isolation and autonomy. The impact of this on tourism, however, means that the Afar lose a potential source of income even if only a few tourists pass this way.
We started trekking late in the afternoon and we arranged camels to take up our food and gear. We were going to sleep on the edge. An edge with a view! It took two and a half hours to reach the summit along a fairly well worn path. The moon was up and the stars were out by the time we neared the summit. As we got closer the beautiful sky was forgotten about, for the moment, and our attention focused on the orange glow which varied in intensity as the lava occasionally broke through the surface crust. Erte Ale is one of three, I believe, volcanoes in the World which have an active and permanent lava lake. All three are found along the Great Rift Valley in Africa. When we arrived at the summit and took a little time out to rehydrate and rest we contemplated the fact that beneath our feet we had the materials that created our atmosphere and indeed life itself. This, together with the stars above, creates an impression and vista that stays with you for life. The crater lies within a crater and we had to climb down, by torchlight, to walk over old and very fragile fields of lava to reach the cauldron. The lava we walked over was crusty and ropey in nature and the Hawaiian islanders call it pahoehoe. When I reached the edge, even having done it before, I was mesmerized by the sight below. A black crust dissected by serrated fissures of molten red lava. The lava rises in small plumes and in microcosm mimics the great movements of the Earth’s crustal plates. It spreads where it rises and sinks where it cools and when there is a build up of heat and pressure it erupts and sprays lava skywards. It was much more active this time and the gases emitted were, in places and at times, overpowering. Some of the eruptions were really quite big and made us all retreat from the rim. What an experience, to see molten lava seething, breathing and erupting. This was humbling and at the same time exhilarating. Only being there and catching those moments can convey the insignificance you feel for yourself and power of the planet which has created us. I love taking photos and I took many but somehow it is never enough to feel the experience.
We slept in rough hewn stone shelters under the stars and rose early to see the sunrise over the lava lake. The glow still impresses but it is at night time that the pyrotechnics are at their best. It took us two hours to descend and as we did so the air became more oppressive and hotter. Feet were sore and we knew we had two long days of driving ahead to reach Addis. We stayed one night in a very basic hotel in Afdera, a centre for commercial salt mining. We were still in the Danakil. A simple shower, a cold beer and the beds pulled outside made the night more tolerable. It was hot, very hot. Our final night was spent in Awash national park where we went to the waterfall and the hot springs. The latter are beautiful and very hot. But they certainly helped to mitigate against the aching limbs created by the climb and to cleanse the pores which were filled with Danakil dust. The next day we finished the trip and went out to the Irish ball – good training for a night of revelry! I am not sure which was tougher!
Teddy Berhanu runs Acacia tours in Ethiopia. He is one of the most experienced tour operators I know and his service is exemplary. He has been to the Danakil many times and I would personally use no-one else. His equipment, intimate knowledge, car handling and the fact that he takes along a mechanic and cook make it all possible in terrain which is so challenging.
Theodros Berhanu (Teddy) theodrosb@hotmail.com Acacia Tours +251 911 201394

Trevor Cole
5.5.2009