Monthly Archives: November 2014

Ethiopia: T Minus 20

With twenty days until I leave for Ethiopia, and it being my last chance before then to perform all the time consuming checks, the pace has picked up on the trip planning.

The most fundamental task was to ensure that I have all the clothing and equipment that I will need to take with me and to that end I have been purchasing bits over the past few weeks. This weekend’s task was to collect it all together and see what’s is missing – and if it is all going to fit!


When I went to Antarctica I went through the pain of having to research, and then buy, a complete cold-weather wardrobe. Now I have had to do the same for the other end of the climate scale. As with the online advice for cold-weather gear, advice for hot-weather clothing is equally diverse. In the end though I have settled upon taking the following:

  • One pair hiking boots – Salomon Quest 4D GTX (plus spare laces)
  • One pair hiking shoes – Salomon Ultra X
  • Two Rohan “Core Silver T” base-layer T-shirts
  • Two Bspoke “Epping” Coolmax base-layer T-shirts
  • One Rab “MeCo 120” base-layer T-shirt
  • Four pairs Rohan “Cool Silver” Trunks
  • One pair Rab “MeCo 120” Trunks
  • Two pair Smartwool “PHD Outdoor Ultra Light” Socks
  • One Pair Icebreaker “Hike Light” Socks
  • Three Craghoppers Nosilife long sleeve shirts
  • Two pairs hiking trousers [TBC]
  • One Berghaus Polartec 100 fleece.
  • My trusty wide-brimmed hat

As you can see it is a bit of a mix: three different types of base-layer t-shirt for example. My reasoning for this is simply that when reading around the general consensus was that synthetic material doesn’t work well for some people: I didn’t want to stick to one brand or technology only to find that it didn’t work for me.

The hiking boots and shoes are both new. My trusty 18 year-old Scarpa BX boots failed in Iceland and despite being waxed began letting in water. My Merrell Moab hiking shoes finally fell apart in Israel – only just surviving due to a couple of tubes of superglue. So back in September I went in to the local GoOutdoors shop with the intent of trying them on and them buying online and went through several makes – Mendl, Scarpa, Mammut – but all slipped when I walked – a recipe for blisters. In the end the guy took one feel of the shape of my heel and ankle, disappeared and came back with the Salomon. They fit like a glove (well, a foot-glove). The whole process took 40 minutes and it was not service that should go unrewarded by then buying elsewhere. I was so impressed that I even emailed them to say how pleasantly surprised I was, and that rarely happens. The hiking shoes were bought yesterday, Salomon again due to the fit.

The other thing – which is a new experience for me – is that I’m taking only five days of clean clothes for a two week trip. For the experienced trekkers amongst you this may not seem particularly noteworthy, but for me is it a big departure from what I am used to. Well, almost. On my trips to Iceland and then Israel earlier this year, despite having sufficient clothes for a daily swap of underwear and t-shirt, I didn’t use half of them. So this is really just an extension of that although it will be much hotter than both Iceland and Israel in the Danakil Depression and so sweat will be more of an issue. As a backup I am taking a small tube of travel washing liquid although given the lack of running water and that the only bodies of water are either highly acidic, poisonous or have a higher salt concentration than the Dead Sea, I’m not altogether sure how I would get to use it.

The trousers are still to be bought as I am still stuck on the decision: I love the multiple pockets of cargo-style trousers, but I also like the idea of those which can be converted to shorts. This is a decision that needs to be finalised this week. I’ll also be buying two more pairs of lightweight hiking socks.


For the majority of the expedition we’ll be away from civilisation and in the middle of nowhere. This means no electricity, gas, running water, mobile phone coverage and no sanitary facilities. With the exception of the first night in Awash and the last night in Mek’ele, accommodation is listed as being ‘under the stars’  – a euphemistic term for sleeping on the ground. Our comfort – and more importantly health – will be dependent upon whatever we take with us.

  • A Vango Sherpa 65 litre backpack
  • Snugpak “jungle” sleeping bag
  • Exped Ultralight inflatable pillow
  • Karrimor sleeping mat
  • Gas mask
  • Mountain Warehouse large travel towel
  • Lenser P7 LED torch
  • Petzl Tikka XP head torch
  • Medical kit
  • Voltaic Systems’ 18W solar charging kit
  • Swiss Army knife
  • A funnel
  • Several large plastic bags and some zip-loc bags

The pillow may seem like a luxury item but I’ve woken up with a stiff neck too many times to know that it can real pain (so to speak) to have a sore neck when you’re rushing around. And at 46g in weight, it is not exactly cumbersome.

The jungle bag – so called as it is a lightweight one season sleeping bag- is less to keep warm and more to provide protection from the little critters that will be roaming around – mosquitoes included. It has a thermal comfort rating of down to 7°C and includes a handy zip-up mosquito net over the head opening. The pillow fits in the hood nicely.

The gas mask is probably the oddest item on the list, but it is required for certain areas, especially around the crater of the volcano and the lava lake. The biggest risks here will be hydrogen sulphide and sulphur dioxide gasses, both of which have a habit of killing you if left untreated. As we’ll be around 600km from any form of medical aid, prevention is definitely better than cure in this case.

The solar panel is the luxury item. As mentioned in a previous post it is there to charge the camera batteries and the battery on my trusty MacBook Air. I could survive without the laptop – although doing of would make checking image quality tricky – and five camera batteries may be enough for the trip. In a pinch I could charge the batteries off the cigarette lighter socket in the 4WD, but there is possibility that may not be an option. Any in any event, there is nothing wrong with a bit a tech geekery!

So, the big question is: Has this weekend been a success? The answer is both yes and no.

No in the sense that I have not performed a complete test pack and checked the weight. This is only a little annoying in that it would have been nice to do, but a quick educated guess would suggest that I should be OK.

Yes in the sense that I now have a final shopping list which can be summarised as:

  • Two more pairs lightweight hiking socks
  • Two pairs of hiking trousers
  • Medical supplies
  • Sanitary and personal care supplies
  • An inflatable globe
  • Glucose tablets, energy bars, dried nuts and fruit.

The biggest challenge of this is the trousers simply as I need to actually go somewhere that has what I am after and try them on – a struggle given my busy work schedule and hence why this weekend was so important. By contrast the other items are easy to come by.

Including the all important inflatable globe of the World…

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Power on Location: Part 1

Whilst every trip that I have embarked upon has had its own unique character and challenges, they have all had their similarities too, so much so that I just simply accept their existence. So, when beginning to think about the practicalities of the forthcoming trip to the Danakil Depression, it was a bit of a surprise to be hit by a rather obvious fact: There’ll be no electricity. Now really, this should be of no surprise whatsoever as we will be, quite literally, in one of the most desolate and inhospitable places on the face of the planet but still, up until this trip it is not a problem I have had to face before.

Now to call this a problem may seem a little melodramatic – Mankind had lived quite happily without electricity for millennia and so I’m sure I can cope for a mere two weeks. It’ll even be fun. No, Man does not need electricity to survive. But camera batteries do.

A few years ago I was up in the Andes on a four-day trip between San Pedro de Atacama in northern Chile and Uyuni in Southern Bolivia. We travelled in jeeps, slept in refuges and ate fried spam for dinner. In many ways it was the forerunner to the Ethiopia trip; a barren wilderness unscathed by humans. And no electricity. I managed to survive on the five camera batteries I had, but did run most of them down. That was four days without being ‘connected’. Now I have two camera bodies, invariably forget to turn off battery-sucking image stablisation and am shooting more video – and 13 days of power to provide.

To make matters worse, I’ll be taking my trusty 13” MacBook Air with me which serves the dual purpose raw file backup and Adobe Lightroom viewer. I did spend a while thinking that I could just do without the laptop – a luxury after all – but I have increasingly found the ability to look at images on a big screen at the end of each day invaluable. After all, I’ll not be going back and so I want to make sure that those killer shots on the camera’s LCD display are equally killer when viewed at a more normal size. And just like the camera batteries, the Air is not solar powered.

But it could be.

I know basically how solar charging works but I also know that the theory does not always translate into a practical solution, or at least an affordable and portable practical solution. And Google was throwing many, many options my way. In the end I found the interesting web site of Voltaic Systems a company based in the USA who stood out for two reasons. First, they offered a complete charging kit; the panel, the lithium ion battery and all the cables and adapters. Second, they offered the right cables and adapters. They had a charging adapter suitable for my Canon 5D2 and 7D cameras batteries and they had an adapter cable for my 2011 model MacBookAir. In short they were a one-stop shop for exactly what I was after.

A few emails were exchanged over the weekend and later that week a package turned up on my desk, followed a few days later by a smaller one containing some adapters to allow the solar panel to be strapped to a backpack. And so I was sorted. If it works, that is.

The core elements of the solar charging kit: The panel, the battery and a cable to connect the two...

The core elements of the solar charging kit: The panel, the battery and a cable to connect the two…

The kit looks to be essentially very straightforward to use: You use the panel to charge the 20,000mAh lithium polymer battery and then use the battery to charge the laptop or camera batteries. You can charge the batteries directly from the solar panel, but Voltaic Systems strongly advise against connecting a laptop direct, presumably due to voltage regulation issues. The V72 battery in the kit is estimated to provide a MacBook Air with a single full charge. So, at the end of the day I could be charging the Air whilst charging a battery. For my Canon LP-E6 batteries, the estimate is six hours charge time.

Initial tests were, frankly, disappointing. I spent a few hours in my study with the panel facing the window and eagerly watched the provided battery show signs of charging by the miracle of harnessing the power of nature. Except that it didn’t. Being the geek that I am, I adopted the nuclear approach and immediately reached for the voltmeter – 15.9V. It is rated as an 18V panel and so at least something was working. It was only then that I did what a normal person would have done and read the copious instructions on the website.

So, rule number one: Perhaps the clue is in the name – solar charging kit –  but it doesn’t work very well when indoors. Even window glass will reduce the amount of light reaching the panel. Once I opened the window and gave the panel a more direct view of the sky, the voltage jumped up to a more usable 17.9V. And more importantly the indicators on the battery sprang into life. I had finally mastered nature!

And then they died again.

This happened several times over the next hour and no amount of cable-wiggling or repositioning of the panel helped. But the voltmeter did show the voltage coming off the panel was intermittently fluctuating and then I worked out why. So, rule number 2: Clouds passing in front of the sun can cause the voltage to drop enough to stop charging.

This was all way back in August and having some time I today went out into a bright British November afternoon for more testing. So, how did it do?

If the panel can generate 21.2 volts on a November afternoon in the UK, I'm hoping it will drink up the African sun...

If the panel can generate 21.2 volts on a November afternoon in the UK, I’m hoping it will drink up the African sun…

Whilst 21 volts may not seem like much it is worth remembering that a car battery generates 12 volts and most mobile phone and tablets require a mere 5 volts. But, does it charge the all-important V72 battery?


Now it may not be the most exciting movie but to me those LEDs lighting up in sequence is pure action-adventure because it means that, just like the movie guns with an endless supply of bullets, I’ll be able to keep on shooting all day long…


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