5am I was at the bus station. A large crowd had gathered around the padlocked gates. A little after 5:30 the gates opened and hundreds of people flooded into the bus station. At once every bus conductor began to shout out their destinations. It was a fabulous cochophony of noise. And then I found my bus and the excitement began to die. A local number where my knees jammed into the next seat, my feat were trapped by numerous suitcases and the only place for my head to lay was on the bar in front. At one point a man walked down the aisle collecting money for the church. Five minutes later we were on the Ethiopian equivalent of Bolivia’s death road. Huge drops and no barriers. It’s one of the most exciting roads I’ve been on and also one of the most terrifying!
It was a long journey; made worse by another tyre blowing and the inevitable waiting time waiting for it to be fixed. Arriving at Shire bus station I switched to a minibus, which, whilst busy, was luxury and I arrived in Axum a good thirteen hours after I had started.
Axum was pleasant. It’s main sight is having the largest obelisks in the world. They’re impressive, but nothing to get to excited about. After a day, I met up with Benny and Bill again and we discovered the joys of bars in Ethiopia which have attached butchers. Beer and barbecued lamb is a great combination. After a couple of days being trapped due to Christmas, we contacted ETT agency and arranged our tour of Danakil, which included a free transfer. Anything to avoid another bus journey.
The following day we left with another Australian called Garth, and two Germans and headed towards Mekele. Slightly surprisingly, we made a stop after a few hours at a rock church. Rather brilliantly, it was Debre Damo, which I had been a little gutted to have missed. Perched on top of a flat topped mountain. The only way up (and down) is by a rope and a fifteen meter climb up a rock face. I was a little hesitant at the start and out of the seven of us in the van, only Bill and I mustered up the confidence to take it on.
The climb though was fine, if a little tough on the arms. Upon reaching the top, Bill and I visited the monastery, which dates back to the sixth century and is home to one hundred and fifty priests. The site is extensive and they are entirely self sufficient, which is fortunate considering the amount of effort to get up and down!
The next day we left for Danakil. First up was a drive to the salt lake, which took all day to reach. On the way we passed many normadic camel caravans walking in the severe heat for up to seven days, either on their way to collect salt or returning to sell it at market. It was a fascinating scene and over the course of the tour, I’d come to appreciate what a tough job they have.
Night was spent in a tiny village, with wonderful views of the night sky, which exists only to supply men to cut the salt. When asked why trucks can’t take the salt away rather than camels, we were informed that the chief of the village doesn’t believe in modern processes and for as long as the imports and exports add up, then the government are perfectly happy to support him. It’s a familiar process throughout the area, which remains largely lawless and village chiefs dominate.
We awoke early and drove across the salt plains to the actual depression, which is the hottest place on earth. More impressive, however, was the hill, where sulphur has created a huge coral reef. It’s as if someone has taken highlighter pens to the area. The colours were magnificent and I took far to many photos.
On the way back, we stopped off to watch the salt being broken up and formed into slabs before being loaded onto the caravans. These guys are working quite literally in the middle of nowhere, a good four hours away from anywhere by car. After a while watching, we drove to another village to sleep. This one had a roof, but no beds. It was a night on the floor.
The next two days proved to be unforgettable, as we drove in the direction of Irta’ale volcano. After a number of hours, the road turned to sand and we began sliding across the dunes. Then volcanic rock appeared. Huge sways of it – as far as the eyes could see. For the next few house, we were thrown out of our seats as the land rover battled against the impossible landscape.
Every once in a while, we would spot the odd house and indeed at one point a whole village. The idea that humans can survive in that place is mind boggling. There is quite literally nothing to eat and no running water. What’s even more thought provoking is that Lucy, possibly the first human, was found in the area. Passing some of the houses and people, I began to think that not much has changed in the way they existed.
Eventually we reached the point where the Land Rovers could go no further. It was now a job of waiting for the sun to go down before a two and a half hour hike to the top. There we were joined not by the military, who had been with us on the first two days, but instead by the local militia. Apparently, the only way the village chief will let tourists onto the volcano is if they have their own militia accompany them. The military don’t seem to have any power out there.
With night fallen, we began the hike with the orange glow in the distance. After a long walk, we hit the top of the outer crater, where we would spend the final night sleeping once more under the stars. But there was no time for sleep yet. Instead we clambered down into the crater and then up a little more before the crater lake revealed itself. The only permanent lava lake in the world, and one of only four or five in existence it is quite simply one of the most spectacular things I have ever seen. First there’s the colour. It’s like looking at colours you’ve never seen before. The heat causes a mirage effect and it just looks unreal. At the back of the lake, large holes have formed, where waves of lava is thrown out into the lake. Bits sink and then explode up. The place is violence personified. Photos don’t do it justice. Instead, I watched for hours transfixed by the unreal experience. After a couple of hours, the militia decided it was time for us to leave and we returned to the outer crater. Just before bed, I decided to go to the toilet. Upon attempting to find my bed again, I bumped into two members of the militia. Despite wearing a t-shirt, shorts and carrying toilet roll in hand, they seemed unnerved by my presence and began to aggressively shout at me and gesture with their guns. Fortunately, the guide intervened and walked me five meters to my left where my bed was. The more time I spent with the militia, the more I decided that the incidents over the last few years have not been the fault of Eritrea, but instead the very people who were supposed to be protecting us.
A few hours later, we were woken up again and went back up to the top again to watch sunrise. It was like an instant replay, as I lost my breath again upon seeing the volcanic lake once more. After that it was time for the descent and then the long journey back. A magical experience.