Tuesday, March 3, 2015

February 7-26,2015: Ethiopia: the Danakil and Omo Valley, plus Somaliland and Zanzibar!

Subject: February 7-26 2015: Ethiopia: the Danakil and Omo Valley, plus Somaliland and Zanzibar.
Date: Tue, Mar 3, 2015 3:38 pm

Since I first wandered into Ethiopia in 2007, the Danakil depression, that place of  fascination and desolation, had been high on my bucket list.  I had touched on the Afar Triangle  on my  last trip in the region. That and  Wilfred Thesinger's writing only intensified my interest in the region.  But security concerns - British consulate employes had been taken hostage during that first trip into Ethiopia - kept me away for a time.  But when I understood the government was planning to develop the area's mineral resources, I sure wanted to get there before that happened.  While it was still pristine. 

A British company had recently began tours into the area but there was a fair amount of trekking involved, too much for me.   Then, this year, Spiekermann Travels advertised the Danakil as part of a more extensive tour into Ethiopia, Somaliland and Zanzibar.  I hadn't great enthusiasm about a return to the Omo Valley but the rest of the schedule was tempting. And  I knew the guide for Ethiopian segments was tops:  Asrat Kahsay at Image Ethiopia Tours.

We (there were six of us) flew from Addis Ababa to Makale in the north, then driving into the Afar  and the Danakil, there for four days, escorted by three  armed  military.  We stayed at a small village, Hamed Ela, sleeping on platforms and a mat, either outside or in lean-tos or sheds.  Buildings, such as they were, used poles, branches, pieces of wood, material, cardboard and fabric in the construction.  Very basic though we did have portable facilities.  The cook that traveled with us was superb - he managed excellent meals under adverse conditions.

Interestingly, there was an Italian academic there for a month, studying the effect of a nearby mining operation on the Afar people. 

For two days we drove about in Land Cruisers,  exploring  the Depression, the lowest point in Africa and one of the hottest places on earth.  The desert is covered with scrub, land fit for a camel.  But there were some bits of unique landscape:  colorful mineral beds and out growths of sandstone called The Chimneys - quite spectacular. 

But it was the never ending parade of camels with their cargo of salt that memorized  me.  Chunks of salt are mined and shaped into blocks by the Afar people, loaded onto camels (and a few patient donkeys) and taken (a four day trip?) to proper roads and trucks where the salt is loaded onto trucks for further distribution.  Photos of the never ending lines of camels trudging across  lava beds and desert are on the internet; there is  a particular notable shot by Michael Poliza  in the Lufthansa Magazine for November 2011. 

The area is also known for  volcanoes and we (five of us; one elected not to go) drove to a nearby village to get the headman's permission to continue on to Erta Ale, one of the active volcanoes.  A three hours-plus walk/climb.  In the interests of full disclosure, I must admit I cheated and did most of it, coming and going, on a camel - some of it in the dark.  Beyond  was the walk to the lip of the crater where you could watch the swirl of the firey lava bubble up.  My first experience with a volcano and it was awesome!

There were others there.  In fact, one group was leaving as we were arriving.  When we had our fill of the primordial scene, we returned to a late supper and sleep, before negotiating the ill defined, rocky path down.

The night on the mountain in  sleeping bags was where  I had the best sleep of the trip.  Early next morning when still dark, we headed down and out to the autos.  On to Hamed Ela and breakfast.  And back to Mekele and a proper shower before we flew to Addis for part two of the four part tour.

So off to the Rift Valley and the various African tribes.  Unlike my earlier trip where I  had camped, we stayed at   lodges. some more basic than others but all quite comfortable, during our seven day visit. We stopped  at at least half a dozen villages and at least three markets. 

  The people were in all sorts of dress:  from body painting, braided hair and beads to cast offs of Western clothing.  They were experienced in dealing with the Westerner and charged for photos - it was strictly business.  Five birr a shot!

Despite a couple of flats we persevered. Roads were crowded with all kinds of vehicles:  tuks-tuks, ox and donkey carts, scooters and bikes, trucks and buses, cars and carriages- plus the livestock and the walkers.  Ethiopia is full of those who walk from place to place. Tribal people as well as the more Westernized.

Most village dwellings are with thatched roofs, conical in shape.  Often family and livestock share. Some still hunter-gathers (except for the 5 birr photo income!) and a  contrast with the Fly Emirates shirts which were popular with many males. 

I was most impressed with a tribal chief, who was working at Addis as an engineer when called home to assume the leader's responsibility upon his father's death.  While he missed the amenities of civilization, there was no question but his life was now with his tribe.  He was attractive and  articulate and patient with our questions.

I tended to  wander about the villages, watching women grooming themselves, checking out  the elders who were checking us out, and enjoying the wee ones chasing each other about in what seemed to be a combination of tag and hid'nseek.  I just wasn't into the commercialization   with the photo shoots. 

At one place, I sat with our drivers at the local "Starbucks" where a young woman was serving coffee and also acting as the bank for villagers.  A fair amount of activity, particularly with a young man who kept taking and then returning monies to her and with a rather possessive manner toward her.  I would have loved to have known their story.

I think it was our  last village where a local took photos of our tour group as they were  negotiating  for photos of the villagers.  Serendipity.

Next was the flight to and one night in Hargesia, the capital of the declared but unrecognized country of Somaliland.  Again, we acquired security - two armed uniformed men.  and  with an young, attractive and delightful   Moslim woman as guide.  The afternoon was spent in the dusty and crowded town center.  Mostly one story, corrugated metal roofed shops though a few more modern building were in the works.  Trucks were decorated a la Indian/Pakistani custom.

The next morning found us at the camel market before going onto Laas geel aand the spectacular rock paintings. Located in a series of caves,  they were really quite unique.  Enroute, I noticed a large and modern boarding school built by  Kuwaitees, at odds with  more prevalent primitive structures.  Women were  covered. We were told we need not be, but I noticed the Western women at the hotel were wearing  scarfs so i followed custom. 

NGOs were around but it is the British who take  most interest in the welfare of Somaliland.  Natural as it was once British.  They have their own currency but lack UN recognition as a sovereign state.  Someone's hope is that they will peacefully reunite with Somalia.

Last, but certainly not least, was Zanzibar. a semi autonomous  region of Tasmania.  And Tasmania apparently is not happy with the US for it cost us about double for the visa.

Beforehand, I didn't know half of our group had opted out of the Zanzibar portion - didn't know I could.  If I had known, probably would have.    I am  glad I didn't know, for I really enjoyed the time there.

There was the  tour of Stone town, the old city, starting at the old slave market, walking through the active souk and then the old stucco buildings with shops in various nooks and crannies.  Zanzibar is a city waiting to be photographed and I was without camera - used the last shots of the throw-a-way in Hargesia.  The big attraction of Zanzibar is the doors. There are many of them:  various sizes, woods and decorations - seeing is believing. 

The other notable sight was the red colobus monkeys who hopped and swung about, posing for the tourists.  Of which there were some. For this is a vacation spot par excellence!   There was the spice tour, a chance to see the plants used in the various seasonings, and a walk through the jungle area.  Zanzibar has it all!

I must mention the hotel:  The Serena, one of a number of 5* hotels operated by the Shia Ismaili Moslim sect and the Aga Khan.  Taking two old time waterfront buildings - one had been a dispensary - they developed a luxurious seafront hotel consistent with the local architecture.  I was familiar with the Ismailis' support of clinics and schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan, so had little hesitancy about  contributing.  (The other 5* hotel I've stayed at is Dwarka's in Kathmandu, where the owners also contribute earnings  to the community.  Both reflect the styles of their respective cultures.)

So endth the tour.  After two nights in paradise, two of us started on our flight to SFO:  Zanzibar to Addis to Rome to DC to SF.  One stayed on for two more days. The trip home was long but went smoothly.

Food:  Breakfasts and Dinners were usually at the hotel/lodges/camps and were excellent.  Choices from pasta to chicken.  I tended to go vegetarian:  Rice and veggies but with chicken soup.  Noon meals were often at a local restaurant - good and varied.

Accommodations:  A wide range:  In town, 4*.  In the countryside, comfortable lodges.  In the Danakil, basic - see photo of Afair dwellings.

Cost:  This was an all inclusive tour from Washington DC onward:  $1,262.82.   Airfare SFO-IAD:  $424.20   Tips and visas:  $400. Cat care: $600.
Danakil-Afar Dwellings.jpg
Danakil-The Camels and the flats.-01917-019A.jpg
Danakil-Jo @ downtown Hargeisa17-000A.jpg
Danakil-Back in the Saddle Again!R1-01917-012A.jpg
Danakil-Omo Valley-Them watching Us! .jpg
Danakil-Mekele street scene..jpg
Danakil-Omo Valley Market1-01917-007A.jpg

care: $600.

Conclusion:  Expensive but the Danakil made it all worthwhile.  Now moving to the head of the bucket list is  a visit to the Taklamaken, a fierce Chinese desert. Next trip, though, is the Siberian Railway.                                                                           

Jo Rawlins Gilbert
Palo Alto CA  94303



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