Higher and Lower! (Lalibela, Ethiopia – KM 14,335)

On the list of nomadic peoples we would like to meet and learn from stands the tall and skinny Afars of the Danakil Depression. Pastoralists in search of grass for their animals, the Afar people also collect salt from mineral deposits—created as water from the Red Sea repeatedly flooded the Depression eons ago, the northeastern extremity of the African Rift Valley, and evaporated—and carry the bounty loaded on camels across the inhospitable desert and up to markets in the Ethiopian Highlands. We were uncertain about being able to travel down to the sun-baked and salt-encrusted desert. The Danakil, and its location straddling the border with Eritrea, is considered a lawless and dangerous place by some. A trio of Kiwis, travelling from Cape Town to England in their Land Cruiser, we had met in the Bayuda Desert of Sudan had mentioned the obligatory Afar escorts and armed guards. In Mekele, it was made clear that the nomadic Afar, very protective of their harsh land, did not allow any independent travel to the region. The easy solution was to book a 4-day tour with a local operator. SunWorld Ethiopia Travel and Tours, and its 100-pound legendary owner, Negasi, along with Visit Ethiopia Tours, provided Land Cruisers with air-con—below sea level we could expect 50+ degrees—, excellent drivers, food, beds, local Afar scouts and AK-47 wielding officers. With the added speed of engine we would cover salt flats, geothermal phenomena and, wait for it…Erta Ale volcano! Our departure on August 11th 2015—which is December 5th 2007 on Ethiopia’s Julian calendar!—was 20 years after we recognised each other as mates, colliding bodies and souls, and we took this luxurious side-trip as a honeymoon of sorts!

  • Riding in style, from 2,062m in Mekele, to below sea level and the surreal Danakil Depression. This is the lowest place in Ethiopia (-125m) and the hottest spot on Earth year-round! Afar Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.
  • Dipping our toes in the salted waters of Lake Asale, from which salt caravans, mainly operated by Tigray highlanders nowadays, leave from September to June—looks like we are off-season! Afar Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.
  • At Dallol volcano (-48m), sulphur, iron oxide and heat are torturing the ground into an extra-terrestrial landscape. Afar Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.
  • At 50 degrees Celsius, jumping in an acid lake is tempting! Afar Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.
  • Camel caravan? No. Just four camelus dromedarius on their way back from playing pack animals to another tour up Erta Ale volcano. Afar Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.
  • One of few magma crater lakes on Earth. Speechless. Erta Ale (613m), Afar Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.
  • Climbing back to the crater lip for a quick nap before descending the 9-kilometre trail before sunrise and the suffocating heat. Afar Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.
  • Heading for a delicious breakfast after an unforgettable night on Erta Ale—the “smoking mountain” in Afar language. Afar Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

Danakil Depression 4-Day Tour Slideshow (pause on hover)

With the support of Worldsun Ethiopia Tours & Visit Ethiopia Tours

The incursion into the Afar Region ended up being a stunning meeting with our planet, but an ineffectual rendez-vous with its inhabitants. Back in Mekele, Afar men volunteer that many Afar teenagers move to the Tigray capital to attend school and never make it back down to their ancestral land. “It’s difficult there”, they say. We believe them.

When the time came to leave Mekele, after such a mind-blowing adventure to the Danakil, the idea of continuing on pavement to our next destination, the famous Lalibela, felt boring and too undemanding. The 300-kilometre mountainous dirt road via Samre and Sekota, passing through dry shrubland and high mountain passes, was calling our names. In the event we rode only 200 kilometres. Here is how it went down…

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Afar men wearing haji hats—Afar people are traditionally Muslim—chatting in front of the Martyr’s memorial. For the victims of Mengistu’s Derg regime (1974-1991). Mekele, Tigray Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

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The bajaj (motorized rickshaw) is king of the city! Mekele, Tigray Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

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Leaving Mekele and the asphalt behind. Tigray Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

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Cow-cyclist collisions are a real thing in Ethiopia (Pierre and a brown beauty made contact three weeks ago!) so I navigate carefully through this horny bunch! Tigray Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

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Faranji! Gimme banana!” “I am a tourist, not World Vision nor Save the Children! Go see your mother, she will feed you.” “Faranji! Gimme mobile!” Tigray Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

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After a quiet night spent in a brand-new candy-pink high school we are sent back to the road by the security guard. Ameseginalehu! Dongola, Tigray Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

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Bulls and blades as rototillers since 3,000 years! Tigray Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. Tigray Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

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These parts of Tigray are regularly affected by drought and food shortages. If the rainy season looks like this it is easy to imagine how dry it becomes during the rest of the year. Tigray Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

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It is a wheat kernel distribution morning courtesy of US Aid orchestrated by the UN World Food Program. Samre, Tigray Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

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August 22nd is the end of a 15-day fasting period—no dairy, no meat—and the beginning of the Ashenda festival which intertwines an Ethiopan Orthodox holiday with a cultural one. Originated from two legends, the sacrification of Jehphttah’s daughter by her own father from the Old Testament and the ascension of Virgin Mary, women and girls braid their hair and wear lots of eyeliner and colourful dresses. Men are told not to choose a fiancée during this time as it is impossible to tell if she will be beautiful underneath it all! Samre, Tigray Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

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The action of water has created many flat-topped hills, the ambas. Tigray Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

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“If these 300 kilometres were the only ones I would get to ride in Ethiopia it would be fine by me.” I tell my partner. “My thoughts exactly!” he replies. Tigray Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

Sticks, rocks and whips are used by children to herd animals…and by adults to herd children! Later that day, after being stoned by a mob of children, we will accept the invitation from a truck driver, delivering HIV medicine to remote health posts, to load our bikes in the back and ride 45 kilometres with him to Sekota. Amhara Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

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In Sekota, the Ashenda festival is called Shadei and women are dancing and singing until given some donation. Getting ambushed on the road and asked for money has been a daily recurrence since entering Ethiopia, but during the week-long festival it will be the norm. Amhara Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

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The Ethiopian Highlands rise abruptly from the plains in every directions. This fortress in the sky helped shape a distinct and unique culture.  Amhara Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

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After loosing control of his bike in a tight curve, and crashing his front wheel into thorny branches laid by the road as natural barbwire, Pierre is fixing 15 punctures! Kia, Amhara Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

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Morning after being invited to camp at the police compound. No, there is no “alone” time in Ethiopia! Amhara Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

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Heading south, cacti and shrubs disappear and make way to rich agricultural land. Potatoes, fava beans, sunflower and tef rule the steep terraces. Amhara Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

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Early morning hitch-hiking for us. After loosing at “who is the most stubborn?” game with miniature shepherds, we decided to remove ourselves from the situation before we hurt a child! A crew of Chinese, engineers and surveyors, have been building a camp outside the village and were happy to ferry us another 50 kilometres to Bilbala. They are here to widen and pave the road from Sekota to Gashena. It should be ready in 3 years, if you are interested. Asketama, Amhara Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

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Surely asphalt will improve the accessibility to this enchanting road built by the Italians during the occupation. A good thing? Maybe. Amhara Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

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Ethiopians love to build their villages on top of ridges and Lalibela—and its rock-hewn churches—is no exception. Up we go! Lalibela, Amhara Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

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After moving our panniers inside our comfortable room at the institution that is the family-owned Asheton Hotel, we stretch our legs following Abrham from LAL Eco-Trekking and Tour with a hike on the Abune Yosef Trail. Small agricultural communities are scattered on the lush ridges; head in the clouds, feet in snow peas. Lalibela, Amhara Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

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Ethiopia—Abyssinia at the time—was the second state to officially adopt Christianity (after Armenia) around 320 AD. Over centuries churches have been hand-hewn from the bedrock, none more famous than the 12th and 13th century cluster in Lalibela. Sunday morning pilgrims gather at Bet Giyorgis, St George Church: the masterpiece! Lalibela, Amhara Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

 

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LOgo Asheten

Rocking and Rolling to and from Addis Ababa! (Arba Minch, Ethiopia - KM 15,130)
Highs and lows in the Ethiopian highlands! (Mekele, Ethiopia - KM 14,125)

One Comment

  1. It really I great work

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