Our four day/three-night trip to one of the most inhospitable areas of the globe was very weird. And not necessarily for the reasons that I was expecting.
I was expecting it to be really hot and dusty. I was expecting to see weird rock formations, bubbling pools of sulphuric acid and geysers. I was expecting to sleep out rough under the stars and smell really bad by the end of the trip. I was expecting long hours of driving in the car observing tiny villages of the Afar people who somehow manage to live a nomadic existence drifting from place to place in this arid, harsh, landscape.
But those weren’t really the weirder aspects of the trip for me.
The weirdest part of the trip was the large group that we were traveling in – and the group dynamics that arose as a result. It impacted my impression of almost every activity we participated in – and made a jaunt into the rock pools to see multi-colored geological phenomenon feel more like a trip to the mall in Shanghai than an expedition to one of the lowest points on the planet.
Our group consisted of about 40 persons, of which about 30 were a large group of Chinese tourists, who seemed to all know one another, though I never actually ascertained for sure whether or not this was true.
I would like to think of myself as a very open and unbiased person. I certainly do not consider myself to be racist. I do not wish to offend any of my readers by stating this – so I will reserve my observations to be solely about the individual group of people that I spent this time in the Ethiopian desert with. But I came to truly dislike the behaviors of these individuals, and it proved difficult by the end to separate my feelings about the Danakil and the sites we were witnessing with my feelings at how this group would act in the space.
First, other than the lovely two individuals from Shanghai that Mike and I shared our 4X4 with – the group of Chinese pretty much kept to themselves and didn’t engage in conversation with any of us “outsiders”. They were obsessed with taking selfies and spent hours and hours getting the perfect photos of themselves at each and every site of interest. Boyfriends would patiently acquiesce to their woman’s request for hundreds of pictures at different angles, with and without sunglasses, with and without certain expressions, standing facing to the right or to the left, with and without a flash, and any and all possible variations in between.
Since we had armed security with us (there is a real threat of Eritrean terrorism as the Danakil is very close to the border that is still disputed, and tourists have been targets in the past) – some of the Chinese would “borrow” their guns and spend hours taking photos holding the guns in a mind numbing array of different poses and set ups.
I found it both entertaining and nauseating to watch.
Then came the photo editing and the obligatory “whitening” of pictures by the women who are obsessed with being as pale as humanly possible – to the point where some of the girls looked like ghosts – and would not consider spending any time out in this inhospitable environment without perfect makeup which including lots of whitening foundation and powder. To avoid the horrific possibility of sun ever touching their skin – they would all be dressed in multiple layers including down vests – even when the temperature hovered around 40 degrees centigrade.
Many of their group smoked and they never failed to drop their cigarette butts wherever it suited them. On our hike to the summit of the Erta Ale volcano – which happened in the dark, late evening in the eeriest and most atmospheric of times – the Chinese group were selfish enough to be BLASTING music from their phones as loud as possible spoiling any of the 40 or so of us hiking from the possibility of enjoying a quiet moment of peace while hiking the mountain.
Aside from the fascinating human observation opportunities this provided – the geography of the region we were visiting was quite vivid – I still think it paled slightly in comparison to Yellowstone, Death Valley, and the Bolivian Salar de Uyuni, though it was interestingly a cool combination of all 3.
I enjoyed the chance to walk through the salt laden lakes and see my feet crunching on the beautiful crystallized salt as the sun was setting on our first evening. That kind of vast emptiness has a haunting quality unique unto itself. Seeing our 8 4×4’s driving side by side on this highway-less terrain was crazy and quite unnerving whenever our driver pointed out that he wasn’t quite sure of the direction we were supposed to be heading in (with an endless horizon, it is super easy to get turned around and navigation skills are crucial.)
Our car was the lucky one to get stuck in the salt mud and had to get help as our spinning tires were just sinking us ever further into the mire. Eventually, the large group of arguing Ethiopian guides and drivers figured out how to secure a wench to the back of our car and pulled it free – leaving it to us to scream at the Chinese group taking photos that they might wanna take 30 or so steps back to avoid getting their heads knocked clean off if anything were to go wrong and the cable snapped during the dangerous operation.
My vision of sleeping in a desert wilderness sans tent with just the stars for light was not to be. The camp in Hamedela was slapped right next to a Potash factory that had massive artificial spotlights that kept the entire camp illuminated throughout the night, much to my disappointment. The guides set out our hammock-like “cots” in rows, somehow wrongly believing that we must all want to sleep in tight proximity with one another rather than to spread out and experience the wilderness.
Food was served en masse and it was a free for all and you had to take what you could or end up hungry – especially since there were no chances to obtain snacks and we’d sometimes go six or seven hours between meals.
Our guides left much to be desired also and I found myself completely switched off most of the time they were talking anyways. The first one barely spoke English, though I really loved his reference to how the following day we would be driving 15 minutes between one site and the next “water bubbly.” Everything we stopped to see we did as a large group which gave one the feeling of being part of a herd of cattle. During our time at the geysers, rock pools, and multi-colored acidic rock – we were often led walking directly over the highly toxic and dangerous ground and I got yelled at for taking a safer more indirect route – by the guards with the guns! I couldn’t believe that they would let tourists trample all over this fragile and geologically thin/exposed/volcanic and potentially explosive/corrosive ground without regard to its preservation or to our safety.
It was infuriating, even though the natural wonders themselves were incredible.
In the middle of Day two, we visited a working salt mine that was complete with hundreds of workers hacking away at the ground to produce rectangular shapes of rock salt that they would then affix to hundreds of camels who would carry it over hundreds of miles to and from market. It really was quite a sight to see and it looked like incredibly arduous work done over long stretches of time in the blaring sun and heat.
Ironically, everywhere we went, we would see salt in its many forms, but there was never salt served with our meals. I’d point this out – but I think as I mentioned before – irony and sarcasm is somewhat lost on Africans.
We had a very long drive to our mid-way point on day two – which was going to take us back on the road to Mekele to a town that was on the way to our destination for day three – the Erta Ale Volcano where we might hopefully see molten red lava at night while we camped on its summit.
Though our itinerary stated we’d be camping for 3 nights – we apparently were going to be staying on mattresses in three rooms in a private house that had been arranged for us in the small town of Abala. When our car arrived, our guide explained that there really wasn’t room for us in the assigned rooms and that we could either sleep on the floor of our hosts’ living room – or we could drive back to Mekele for the night and they would cover the cost of a hotel room. It was altogether very confusing – it appeared that they’d overbooked the place by several individuals, and the idea of sharing one bathroom and one shower with 39 individuals was not in the least appealing.
Mike suggested that perhaps they might cover the cost of a room in a local hotel in town – and we were happy when they agreed to this suggestion. Strangely, our two car companions opted to stay with the group while Mike and I got our own room about half a kilometer up the road with our own private shower. We high-fived; feeling that we had definitely scored.
It rained that night for the second time during our whole trip and Mike and I made our way back to our room after a rather yummy fasting meal with the soft patter of raindrops and the exhortations of kids begging for candy all the way to our room where we thankfully fell asleep, grateful for our luxurious privacy.
One of the other main issues on this trip that spoiled my enjoyment of it was the lack of hygiene and basic sanitation. On our first and last camps – despite the fact that hundreds of tourists stay here every single week during the visiting season – there were no pit toilets or facilities of any kind. Not being given any sort of instruction – folks would just take a shit anywhere they took a fancy, very often just strewing their toilet paper along with it. It was absolutely disgusting. Peeing in the bush is one thing – but having human excrement building up over years and years right next to where Afar villages were trying to live life and raise their herds of animals is unacceptably gross. Not only that, but no water was provided for us to wash our hands prior to mealtimes. Luckily, we had a very kind and thoughtful driver who would bring us a gerry can and soap for our car when Mike and I would insist on washing our hands.
On the third day we drove over seven long hours to reach the volcano. Much of this was over very rocky and non-paved terrain that was as good an African massage as any we’d experienced on this trip. We spent long hours waiting for everything that day – to leave Abala in the am, to get lunch, to leave on the climb for the summit. Then, as we were climbing to the summit of Erta Ale along with many many other groups of a similar size to ours, all of a sudden they decided to march us at such a pace that it was impossible to pee or rest along the way. It took all of four hours to get to the summit and we were only given 3-5 minutes breaks ever hour and a half. It was crazy to be herded at that kind of pace when we had been waiting and waiting all day long. I didn’t understand the reason for it – but I can only assume that ETT is given a certain “window” in which to climb and have a time for “viewing” of the lava before they have to clear out and make room for other groups.
With this herd mentality and the blaring of music along the way, I can’t say I enjoyed this mountain experience since it was anything but. In addition, there was trash all along the way – thousands of discarded plastic bottles along with toilet paper and cigarette butts lining the path all the way to the summit. Which, unfortunately, was obscured with high winds and steam – so you could see a really eerie red glow – but not any lava.
We were finally getting into our sleeping bags around midnight, and were expected to get up to have another viewing opportunity at 4:30am. Clearly this segment of the trip was badly organized as I need more sleep than that to function properly – not to mention it was 11 kms each way to ascend and descend. I skipped the ass-raping crack of dawn call and tried to get another hour of sleep before we were forced to march down the mountain single file following our brave gun-toting military scouts.
I could easily have skipped this part of the trip. Seeing the lava would have been just amazing – but I felt like I was hiking a large garbage dump on a poorly organized multi-school trip where you had an uncomfortable sleepless night and had to take a shit where thousands had before you, out in the open for all to see in a massive area covered in human excrement for the past 17 years.
By the time we arrived back in Mekele, I was falling down from exhaustion and beyond ready for a shower, a decent meal, and clean sheets. I was also waiting to hear from a friend in Accra who was potentially going to be available for me to hang out with for my last week in Africa. After the Danakil, I really had seen all I wanted to see in Ethiopia and I was so done with the people here and their attitudes (as I described in my first article about this country). Unfortunately, my friend was not going to be able to have me visit – so Mike joined me as I drank 3 Gin and Tonics before we ordered a rather delicious pizza and righteously passed out.
The next day was going to be a day of rest, no doubt about it!