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Feeling the Heat

The ever-changing surface of the lava lake at Erta Ale guarantees that you'll never take the same shot twice. But be warned; staring at the lake's surface can become almost hypnotic.

The ever-changing surface of the lava lake at Erta Ale guarantees that you’ll never take the same shot twice. But be warned; staring at the lake’s surface can become almost hypnotic.

It has been very quiet around here for a few weeks simply because work has been insanely busy. I’m an IT security professional by day and right now I’m currently managing two projects that are well underway and all my time is split between them with the thousand different technical and operational queries that clients raise during the deployment phase. All my other work therefore has to fit into the gaps and the evenings.

Of course there is always a benefit to being so busy and one is that I have been working on one client’s site or another over the past few weekends and the travel fund has slowly been growing! So, despite feeling a little weary right now I do have something to look forward to: the next photography trip!

As mentioned in a previous post, Siberia is planned for 2017. The photographer running that – Alexey Trofimov – has suggested dates around the end of February and so whilst I’m really excited about working alongside him I need something a bit sooner.

The next option is to return to Iceland. I have an image in my head that I can’t get rid of and so I can see a week or two spent driving along the southern coast. Iceland is an easy trip; one I really do not have to think about but again, I want to go late in the year, when it is colder – perhaps November or early December. Again, I can’t wait.

So, the current plan is 18 days travelling through Java on a volcano hunt. The people who organised the trip to Ethiopia, Volcano Discovery, have a photographer-centric trip in September and over the past few weeks I’ve been talking to them about adding a custom extension. If all goes well I should be climbing Krakatoa in just under 80 days!

After the heat of Java's volcanoes Iceland will be a nice halfway-house before the -25°C expected in Siberia.

After the heat of Java’s volcanoes Iceland will be a nice halfway-house before the -25°C expected in Siberia.

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The Iceland Trip’s “Worst Case Scenario”

With the trip to Iceland being tomorrow and packing essentially complete I’m now at the point where I’m actually beginning to get excited. In fact there are only a few items left to deal with, including buying a few of those “meals in a bag” for the middle of the trip when I’m up in the Icelandic highlands and nowhere near a supermarket. That’s the double-edged nature of Iceland: It’s a truly breath-taking country but it favours the prepared.

Now, I do consider myself a reasonably prepared traveller, including the steps I take to stay out of trouble. But a recent post by a regular contributor over on the Trip Advisor Iceland forum did stop me in my tracks. In it she suggested that the profile for those travellers to Iceland that end up never leaving (alive) is male, a solo traveller, hiking and often with some experience. I fit 100% into that profile and whatever the source of this statistic I found myself double-checking my preparations for a “worst-case scenario”.

Risk analysts with tell you that there are three ways to deal with risk: Accept it and carry on (assume the risk), take steps to reduce the risk (mitigate the risk) or get someone else to handle the risk (transfer the risk). Depending upon the situation each option can be a valid approach, but in the case of my time in Iceland’s highland interior as the predictably unpredictable weather continues to worsen, option one would be plain, flat-out, stupid and option three (in this case meaning going on an organised trip) would be too expensive – if possible at all – and so inflexible as to render the reason for being there not worthwhile. So it was time to take the middle ground.

It is worth pointing out that there are usually three potential sources of danger in a given environment: From other humans, from animals and from nature itself. In Iceland you can disregard the first two completely. If anything is going to cause you problems, it will be the weather.

Staying on the Grid

The first thing to mention is telecommunication. Iceland has excellent mobile phone coverage from a number of operators. For example, take a look at Vodafone Iceland’s GSM coverage:

Everybody love 4G but despite being “so last century” GSM is your new best friend in Iceland.

Everybody loves 4G but despite being “so last century” GSM is your new best friend in Iceland.

So, should the worst happen I’m more than likely going to have access to the outside world, but who am I going to call?

Perhaps the obvious would be friends or family back home. If I had no other alternative then, well, I have no other alternative but I’m not going to be calling for a chat – I’m going to be having an emergency. If you’ve ever tried it trying to organise a rescue for someone from another country it is very difficult and as time is the enemy here, I really I don’t want to be in that position. So I’m making sure that I have the phone numbers for my accommodation in Iceland and confirming my arrival with each of them on the morning of arrival.

An example of why making sure that the accommodation knows you’re definitely arriving is useful happened to me back in 2010. We were taking a 4WD from the village of San Pedro de Atacama in northern Chile to the town of Uyuni in southern Bolivia. It’s a route taking three days and involves travelling through the northern Andes at an altitude of 4,500 metres. It’s a barren, unending wilderness where the temperature drops to -15°C or below once the sun goes down.

It is official – the fuel pump is dead. At 4,500 metres altitude that's not what you want to hear...

It is official – the fuel pump is dead. At 4,500 metres altitude that’s not what you want to hear…

Due to contaminated fuel the fuel pump died stranding us on the second day. Despite having been told otherwise there was no radio to call for help – and mobile phones were definitely out – and it was only because we were on a route that other 4WD vehicles used that we were able to ask a passing driver to let people know we needed help once he arrived back in civilisation. Which he didn’t do.

Luckily the accommodation we were staying in that evening were expecting us and when we didn’t show up they contacted the company who had organised our arrival and help was sent overnight to look for us. It was an uncomfortable evening – and we missed out on seeing some spectacular sights due to the delay – but we were rescued because of the accommodation raising the alarm.

In Iceland you have other tools at your disposal. The completely free 112 app from safetravel.is and available for iOS, Android and Windows mobile devices allows you to keep in contact by letting the emergency services know your location. It’s simple to use and works by sending a SMS text message so doesn’t need 3G or 4G to operate, hence why I showed the GSM coverage map above – it’s all the app needs to work.

Free, easy to use and could possibly save your life. What's not to like?

Free, easy to use and could possibly save your life. What’s not to like?

How you use it is up to you this but I just set my watch to remind me every 30 minutes to check-in. That way if the worst were to happen then the emergency services know my approximate location.

So, letting people know is very, very important and Iceland makes it so easy to do that there is no excuse not to do so. It is a zero-cost option for having someone looking out for me. I’d be stupid not to use it.

Of course, should I find myself needing assistance I’m likely going to have to wait until help arrives. For my trip I’ve considered three scenarios when travelling by myself: (1) The 4WD breaks down (2) I’m out hiking  and the weather unexpectedly turns for the worse and I end up in a biting cold storm with very low visibility or (3) I sprain an ankle. Each of these conditions is quite possible and can be life-threatening if not prepared.

The “Car Breaks Down” Scenario

The ‘car breaks down’ scenario is a relatively easy one to deal with: Phone the car hire company. However, it may be that they cannot rescue me quickly and so I have to spend the night in the car. That’s where my trusty Alpkit SkyeHigh 600 sleeping back comes in. Rated down to -5°C it means that an evening stuck inside the car out of the wind and rain inside will also be a warm one and a break-down becomes an annoyance rather than dangerous.

The “Bad Weather” Scenario

Due to its geography and location the weather in Iceland can change exceptionally quickly, especially in the highlands, and so the best course of action is to assume the worst. For me this entails being out hiking in the highlands of Kerlingarfjoll and a sudden snow or rain storm comes in and reduces visibility to near zero.

Cold! The red rectangle shows the highland area that I’ll be hiking in.

Cold! The red rectangle shows the highland area that I’ll be hiking in.

The first common-sense thing to do is check the weather forecast. It’s not accuracy that I’m after but rather a general idea and as can be seen in the above image from vedur.is – Iceland’s meteorological office – Kerlingarfjoll is going to be reaching sub-zero temperatures and so I need to ensure that I can keep warm and dry when out-and-about.

The easiest way to dress for the occasion is to use the layering principle of clothing (if you’ve not come across this then Google ‘layering principle clothing’). This is a tried-and-tested method of ensuring that your clothing suits your environment and in the highlands the outer waterproof and windproof layer is as important as the warmth-providing base and mid layers. Easy things to forget are gloves and some kind of hat.

I am pretty confident in my clothing and I’m happy that it will cope with the extremes of Iceland’s weather that I’ll be facing – it better as 66 North is an Icelandic outdoor brand – but I’m definitely following the advice of many experts who recommend avoiding jeans and cotton as, when wet, they don’t dry quickly and in a cold environment they can accelerate the cooling of your body and speed up the onset of hypothermia.

So, should the weather turn nasty, it won’t present an immediate danger and I’ll be warm and dry enough to get back to camp. Assuming I can find camp!

GPS used to be the tool of the seasoned outdoor adventurer but smart phones have put this powerful navigational tool into the hands of just about everybody. GPS apps are available for all brands of smart phone and, given that the software is cheap – and you can have a lot of fun later by downloading the data to your PC and showing your friends and family exactly where you hiked on Google Maps – it makes sense to invest in the app.

The display may look a little unfriendly but there are also options to download Google Maps data and use if when away from 3G/4G mobile coverage. You can then watch your route unfold as you walk.

The display may look a little unfriendly but there are also options to download Google Maps data and use if when away from 3G/4G mobile coverage. You can then watch your route unfold as you walk.

I use an old iPhone 4S with no SIM card and running a dedicated GPS app – in this case GPS Kit. Other than the obvious ability to pinpoint my location it also has a tracking option that will allow me to backtrack without having to rely on visible clues such as path markers should I need to. The phone is in a rugged, waterproof case (by Lifeproof) that I picked up second-hand on eBay so there is no worry about using it in rain or snow. I’ve actually tested the waterproof nature having been diving with it to a depth of 12 metres so it doesn’t matter how bad the rain gets, it won’t be worse than that! I’ve also got a portable USB battery pack that is small enough to be easy to carry but can charge the iPhone twice over.

The “Injured” Scenario

The most likely form of injury when out hiking is a sprained ankle, especially when walking over uneven ground. Anyone who has had a sprained ankle will tell you how painful it can be, but when out-and-about by yourself it can be deadly. Back in 2008, when I was preparing to walk the wild section of the Great Wall of China, I relied a lot on the local knowledge of a photographer based out there and his advice as simple: Do not walk it alone. People have died after an injury and not being found for a couple of weeks. The good news is that in Iceland’s highlands you wouldn’t have to suffer that long – a night would probably be enough to finish you off.

There’s a reason that the “Wild Wall of China” is closed to hikers.

There’s a reason that the “Wild Wall of China” is closed to hikers. This was a complete section until someone walked on it…

The single best piece of advice I have been given for hiking is to wear properly fitted walking boots that support your ankle. This does not necessarily mean the most expensive walking boots you can find – my current boots were significantly cheaper than all the others I was considering but they hold my feet securely. Looking where you are going and not rushing is good advice too. As my clothing is going to keep me warm and dry, I have no need to rush and anyway, having 10kg of camera gear to carry always slows you down.

No, should the weather turn nasty and visibility fail, the only thing that will likely kill me is panic.

But should it happen there are a number of tips for dealing with a sprained ankle and whilst I have a plan the simple fact of the matter is that the injury scenario is really one of those where my best hope of survival is the steps I will have already taken that day and outlined above. In the case of my stay at Kerlingarfjoll in the highlands my plan is simple:

  1. Each morning tell hotel the route I’m taking, when I expect to be back and that I will check in with reception on my return.
  2. I’ll also double-check the weather that day – local knowledge is always good.
  3. Use the 112 app.
  4. Use the GPS app to plot my route.
  5. Don’t rush and watch where I’m going.

Of course, I have my Icelandic “worst-case scenario” kit-bag (which is really just my usual travel kit with a dramatic name)  which contains a few, cheap, lightweight items – along with a couple of larger items I use in photography.

  • Strong painkillers
  • Sprain bandage
  • Spare bootlaces (handy for so many things, including boots!)
  • Emergency stitches (also called suture strips)
  • Liquid plaster (a paint-on anti-sceptic plaster)
  • Plasters
  • Compede (a UK brand of blister plaster)
  • Scissors
  • Tweezers
  • Survival blanket
  • Gaffer tape (carried due to its use for photography, but handy for splints)
  • GPS
  • USB power brick
  • LED Torch (again, used for light painting in photography but has a 20 hour charge)
  • Swiss Army Penknife (well, it’s not proper hiking without one!)

Despite seeming a large and costly list, the medical bits all fit into sunglasses case so really easy to carry around in a pocket or backpack.

At the end of the day you can never plan for every eventuality. What you can do is identify the potential dangers and plan as best you can around them. That’s usually the difference between trips that have “moments” that to tell your friends about for years afterwards and those trips that are your last.

Also posted in Travel, Trip Planning Tagged , , , |

The Frame Game: A New Project

The last post had me enthusing about printing photographs, be they from a DSLR or a smart phone. The post was less about photography and more about keeping memories alive. It was also aimed at those people who are not particularly interested in photography – the most “at risk” group I believe – as photographers already understand the need to print, although perhaps for other reasons.

But interested in photography or not, whether amateur or professional, one thing is certain when we decide to print one of our photographs to hang on the wall: The cost of professional framing will take your breath away.

In the past I have simply taken my photographs to the picture framers at the craft centre at the end of my road – Neil was not the quickest, but the work was exactly as requested with a price that was nowhere near as high as other firms in the area. But Neil is no longer in business and so I have had to look around at my options.

My first choice was to use Loxley Colour, a very reputable firm here in the UK. But, whilst the price is, if not cheap, at least palatable, the frame was delivered with one of the mitre joints poorly joined and a small crease in the photograph. They have been very good and had a courier pick it up so they could make up a new one but that’s been an additional two weeks delay. In any case, the one thing that bugs me about their framing is that they insist on using acrylic instead of glass.

Of course, this is perhaps my fault. When I first started having my work framed a few years ago the initial frames came with normal picture glass which, aside from giving a subtle green tinge to images, is horribly reflective in the presence of spot light sources such as the sun, a table lamp or overhead lighting. I spoke to Neil and he recommended Schott Mirogard Waterwhite anti-reflective glass. It is not cheap but the results are fantastic and I have been a convert ever since. So looking at the acrylic used by Loxley Colour really leaves me, at best, underwhelmed.

So I was left with two equally unattractive options: Live with a finished product that, although reasonably priced, I wouldn’t be truly happy with or find a framer that could work with Mirogard and I’d swallow the cost. And, just to give an idea of the costs involved, a 13” by 19” (32.9cm by 48.3cm) image with a 2” (5cm) border would cost approximately £60 from Loxley Colour (with acrylic) or approximately £141 from another recommended framer, albeit with Mirogard. Ouch! But as with most things in life, there is always another option. Learn to do it myself…

I started with the question: How hard can it be to take a photograph and put it in a frame? I’d need a frame obviously. And glass. Perhaps a nice border around the photograph. I’d also need something to keep the photograph flat and rigid. Finally some bits to attach it to a wall. But other than that I really couldn’t think what else was needed. As it turns out, that is pretty much it.

It was an encouraging start but I have to be realistic. I am not known for my hand-eye coordination and anything that involves cutting, drilling or precision measurement in general leaves me in a cold sweat. Given that most ready-made frames are horrid things – and probably wouldn’t be available in the sizes I would need – I would have to make my own. Mirogard glass is specialist and usually sold by the sheet so would need cutting too. And those professional looking card surrounds with the lovely angled edges as in the image below will also require careful cutting. In other words, despite the concept of framing being quite straightforward, the actual process was going to be very tricky.

A border – often called an over mat or top mat – lends an air of professionalism to a framed image. And, as bad as my hand-eye co-ordination is, this was my first attempt… [Click to enlarge!]

But, undaunted I did some more research – including watching lots of useful videos on YouTube – and there are several options available to people like me that make home framing a realistic possibility. In fact I am so confident that it can be done at home that I have taken the plunge and invested in my first piece of kit.

Over the next couple of months I’ll be discussing everything needed to turn a raw photograph printed on an inkjet printer at home into a complete, framed product ready to hang on a wall. This is not going to be a series of “how to” articles – as a beginner myself I am simply not qualified to write them and, honestly, YouTube really has some good stuff – but what I hope to convey is that home framing is not merely a fantasy but instead is very possible. After all if, like me, the old adage of “measure thrice, cut once” simply means you end up with three different measurements, then seeing the results produced by someone with no previous experience may be just the encouragement you need.

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The Danakil Depression: Trip Review Part 1

Back in the middle of last year, once I had begun take the idea of going to Ethiopia seriously I started to read around on what options I had. I knew that I wanted to see the Erta Ale volcano and the bizarre landscape at Dallol – both conveniently close to each other in the Danakil Depression – but, other than that, I was open to suggestions.

There were many options for four and five day trips that covered the Danakil region but I just knew that, from a photographic standpoint, these were going to be too rushed. There was one trip I found that was 13 days in length and, more importantly, billed as a photographic expedition, but I could find very little independent review on this. To be honest, there wasn’t really too much more describing the shorter trips either.

One of the main reasons that I was more keen than usual to read the experiences of other travellers was that the Danakil region is listed by the UK government as being an area to which you should not travel for any reason, a fact that makes it very difficult to get any form of travel insurance from a UK company. I did ask for advice on one of the photography forums explaining that I couldn’t find much about these trips on the web to which the replies were generally unhelpful stating “that should tell me something”. So in the end my trip was really a result of a bit of a leap of faith. Because of my inability to find anything useful to help me know what to expect – both as photographer and simply as a curious traveller – I have decided to describe the trip I took – in general and its usefulness to photographers – in the hope that, if you too are thinking of going, I can answer some of your questions.

Before continuing I just want to clear up a few of so-called “facts” that you’ll see mentioned time and again as you read various web sites:

  1. “The Danakil Depression is the hottest place on the planet.” No, it is not. It currently has the title of ‘place with the highest average temperature’ which is not the same thing. In fact the measurements upon which this record is based were taken at the (now) ghost town of Dalol (often written Dallol) back in the 1960s. It does get hot of course, but when I was there in December the temperature really only reaches the early 40’s centigrade. The thing that you’ll notice is that even once the sun goes down, the temperature remains in the high 20’s throughout the night. Keep covered up and drink plenty of water mixed with rehydration salts.
  2. “It is a seriously dangerous region for tourists.” At the most northerly point of where you’ll travel you’ll be very close – about 8km – from the highly disputed border with Eritrea. The short story is that Ethiopia tried to annex Eritrea in the 1960’s which lead to the 30 year Eritrean War of Independence that Eritrea finally ‘won’ in 1991. Since then relations have been cool, but with the exception of a couple of clashes – the  1998 – 2000 Ethiopian/Eritrean War being the most notable – the border is generally stable.
  3. “There is a risk from terrorism.” Well, yes. But there is in most major western cities too. What this refers to is the 2012 attack at Erta Ale that killed five tourists, injured two and kidnapped four (later released). The attack was carried out by the Afar Revolutionary Democratic Unity Front, the Afar being the nomadic tribes that live in the Danakil region. There was also a kidnap in 2007  with an attempted one in 2008. So yes, there is a risk that you have to consider. However, the Ethiopian government, and perhaps more importantly, the Afar themselves, understand just how much money tourism brings in to the region and they have moved a long way to providing security for guests. Both Erta Ale and Dalol have military bases and you have military and police escorts from when you enter the region until when you leave.
  4. “The Afar are known to castrate foreigners”. Oh please. Yes, back in the 1930s there was custom that, as a rite of passage into manhood, a boy had to castrate a member of a neighbouring tribe. But that over 80 years ago. Women had barely been given the right to vote in the UK at that point, we’ve had World War 2, nearly had World War 3 and the word ‘minging’ regrettably has entered the Oxford English dictionary. A lot has changed since the 1930s and the Afar have too. So, don’t worry; you’re going to leave Ethiopia with all the bits you arrived with.

The reason I want to highlight – and rebuff – these oft made comments is that they can cause people to not travel to one of the most stunning places on Earth. It is OK if you decide not to travel, but it is important to do it based on facts.

 

Trip Options

Most of the shorter trips start and end in the Tigray capital town of Mek’ele. This has the benefit of being significantly closer to the Danakil Depression – and where you really want to be – but it does mean that international visitors will need to factor in time to get from the international airport in Addis Ababa to Mek’ele – this most likely being via an internal flight. At around US $600 the shorter trips are a lot cheaper but, from a photography perspective, pretty much pointless. Whilst some will likely disagree, the whole point for me was to spend time at the lava lake at Erta Ale and walk away with images I was happy with. Looking at the itineraries of all the four-to-five day trips I could find and they all had the same basic approach: Begin the three-hour ascent to the lava lake in the early evening, head over to the lava lake and then descend in the early morning. So all you get is a few hours in the dark at the lava lake. For this reason alone, I would not recommend them, but there are other reasons I’ll cover in the later posts looking at days 4 to 6.

At the time of looking at my options there were really only two other choice available. The first would have been to arrange a custom tour, but given the complex geography, harsh climate and political instability (both with neighbouring Eritrea and within the Afar clans themselves) this would have resulted in a serious financial outlay. The second option was the 13-day trip offered by the German company Volcano Discovery. As it turns out the actual trip is handled by Addis-based Origins Ethiopia and it is they that provided the vehicles and drivers, the cook, and the guide as well as organising the police and military escorts required in parts of the Danakil Depression. You will pay a lot more than $600 – it was $4700 in 2014 – but if you are travelling with the aim of landscape photography, or even just to understand the region a bit more then the shorter trips are really going to leave you disappointed. That said, I am not saying that the trip I took was perfect and I’ll cover the strengths and weaknesses (for me) in a later blog entry.

An overview of the route taken on the 13 trip.

An overview of the route taken on the 13 day trip. The lines in blue show the sections where you’re mostly sitting in the 4WD vehicles. The real fun happens between evenings 3 and 9…

Despite the trip being advertised as a 13 day tour of the Danakil Depression you are not going to be spend 13 days behind the camera. This is in no way a criticism of the tour’s itinerary but it does reflect the fact that it is a big country and it takes time to get from one location to the next, especially as Erta Ale and Dallol have been described by National Geographic as being in one of the most remote places on Earth. In the end you will have about five days of solid landscape photography time, quite a few 30 minute blocks when you stop at some of the other points of interest (such as the rock churches in Tigray) and lots of quick five minute stops. You’ll probably be shooting a lot from a moving vehicle too.

One of the many short stops you'll make over the next 13 days. The trip is all about volcanoes and geology and with a trained geologist for a guide you'll certainly learn about geology... [Click to enlarge!]

One of the many short stops you’ll make over the next 13 days. The trip is all about volcanoes and geology and with a trained geologist for a guide you’ll certainly learn about geology… [Click to enlarge!]

I’ll divide the review into several parts over the next couple of weeks simply because the overall thing is quite large. I’ve written this is referring to “you” an awful lot so I better explain why. Simply I am working on the basis that, if you do decide to travel to the region, you’ll bypass the shorter trips and opt for the longer one – of which Volcano Discover/Origins Ethiopia seem to be the only one who really focus on Erta Ale. As this is an expedition they have run a number of times now it is pretty much a set schedule and the trip I had will most likely be the one you have. I do refer to “I” every so often – usually to voice some personal feeling, or simply because I forgot to say “you”!

 

Day 1

The first day's travel was along route 4 to Awash National Park covering a stretch of approximately 200km... [Click to enlarge!]

The first day’s travel was along route 4 to Awash National Park covering a stretch of approximately 200km… [Click to enlarge!]

Depending upon how you organise your international flights you’ll likely arrive early morning on a red-eye flight. The international airport is surprisingly close to the heart of Addis and so this gives you a couple of hours to have breakfast at the hotel, freshen up and, in my case, transfer everything I needed from a suitcase to a backpack before the expedition officially begins. You spend the rest of the day driving the 200km to Awash National Park where the first night is spent. How much photography you get done is largely dependent upon your interests – and your ability to shoot from a moving vehicle. There are stops, of course, for lunch and a couple of volcanic craters, but it could be difficult to get a decent composition from them given the short time you stop at them. As there are few stops I did end up shooting from the 4WD as it made its way across the landscape but I’m not a “shoot from the hip” photographer. One of the other guys produced some great shots this way so you may be lucky and is something I would definitely practise before you arrive as you will pass some interesting sights. Perhaps of more interest would be the frequent road-side villages that have developed that you see as you drive. You will only get to see these villages today and tomorrow as they are a result of being on the main route  (routes 4, 18 and 2) between Addis and the port cities in neighbouring Djibouti and so there’s a lot -and I mean a LOT – of transportation along the route.

On the first day of driving we saw in the region of 20 overturned trucks. [Click to enlarge]

On the first day of driving we saw in the region of 20 overturned trucks. [Click to enlarge!]

And another one...

And another one… [Click to enlarge!]

Speaking of the transportation another thing you’ll see is a lot of accidents. It is hard to give an exact figure – simply as we didn’t start counting until after we had seen the first few – but a good guesstimate would be around 20. That is 20 articulated lorries – some with the 40 foot freight containers on them. As grim as it sounds, one of the first we saw still had blood dripping out of the crushed cabin. It is a long road from Djibouti to Addis and there are no maximum hours for driving.

At the lodge in the national park there may be some time before darkness completely takes hold to make the easy three minute trek to the Awash waterfalls. The waterfall is certainly worth taking the time photograph – what will be against you is the fact that you arrive late in the afternoon. The light likely will not be ideal, but you can get creative with some light painting.

_MG_9738
The light was fading even as we arrived, but a handy torch always comes in useful! [Click to enlarge]

The evening was spent in comfort. The food was good and the beds comfortable. Mosquitoes are a problem here – you are close to water after all – and so make sure you are protected. You will also get to bathe properly as the huts have a toilet and shower, albeit the water is not that warm and has a distinct odour to it. Still enjoy it a few days from now you’ll give anything for a cold, odd-smelling shower. The other thing you will get to experience, which for a town-dweller like myself was breath-taking – is the night sky. Before coming to Ethiopia, read up on how to photograph the night sky – you won’t regret it!

 

Day 2

Day two is more time in the 4WD vehicles covering distance... [Click to enlarge!]

Day two is more time in the 4WD vehicles covering distance… [Click to enlarge!]

The day starts reasonably late at about 7AM with breakfast although you may be up about an hour earlier if you’re hoping to find a good angle for sunrise. There is an argument that a dawn start at Awash is worthwhile but the most impressive sight there is the waterfall which is largely cast in deep shadow even after sunrise due to the high cliff face immediately opposite.

If you're looking to get some quality wildlife photography this may not be the trip for you. We spent a couple of hours in Awash national Park and saw relatively few animals... [Click to enlarge!]

If you’re looking to get some quality wildlife photography this may not be the trip for you. We spent a couple of hours in Awash National Park and saw relatively few animals… [Click to enlarge!]

You also get to experience the very flexible notion of time that will be the norm for the rest of the trip – the 8AM start is more like 9AM before everyone is ready and the 4WDs area packed. The day starts with a couple of hours in the national park itself day although – and please remember that I am not interested in wildlife photography – it is not that spectacular.

The remainder of the day is spent driving a further 360km north to Logia – what is possibly best described as a truck-stop town. Again there are a few token stops and you may be able to get a good composition from them. You’ll likely stop for lunch in one of the many road-side town that you have been passing through since starting yesterday and it is really you’re first opportunity to see how rural Ethiopians live up close.

Today you'll get to stop in one of the road-side towns that have grown around the busy transport link between Addis and Djibouti [Click to enlarge!]

Today you’ll get to stop in one of the road-side towns that have grown around the busy transport link between Addis and Djibouti [Click to enlarge!]

One of the things you will also begin to notice is the panoramic vistas. This is a big country with big stretches of nothingness – it is a land of unbroken horizons.

The second day begins to show just how empty Ethiopia can be... {Click to enlarge!]

The second day begins to show just how empty Ethiopia can be… [Click to enlarge!]

Again the accommodation was fine – a basic hotel, but clean and there was a toilet, shower (again cool) and electricity. Now would be a good time to make sure that all your batteries are charged as from here on in, with the exception of the cigarette lighters, there is no electricity and with everyone wanting to charge phones and cameras, there’s guaranteed to be a queue. Or you could do what I did and take a solar charger.

Here we were also introduced to the cook Muscara who would be preparing us food for the next few days and had just prepared dinner. There is a saying that ‘an army marches upon it’s stomach’. How true this is I do not know, but I do know that a person can forgive a lot of discomfort when they are happily fed. At the end of the trip when we were all discussing what we had experienced, we all agreed that the high quality of food made a lot of what we had been through bearable. Whilst this may seem a little melodramatic, it is worth remembering that at this point we are still in relative civilisation.

Speaking of which enjoy the sleep you get tonight as it will be your last in civilisation for a while…

 

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My (Second) Top Five of 2014: The Plane

Today I’m halfway into my alternative top five from this year and is one of the harder-to-find places along the southern coast.

Faith can be an important quality when trying to get the shot...

Faith can be an important quality when trying to get the shot… [Click to enlarge!]

Whilst accounts of the exact date and route – and even the cause – vary some believe the original report in the Icelandic newspaper bear the closest resemblance of the truth. On 21st November 1973 whilst returning from Höfn a US Navy Super Douglas DC-3 was forced to make an emergency landing when heavy icing set in over the Mýrdalssandur sand flats. The plane was able to stay aloft long enough to send out a mayday before eventually eventually coming to rest on Sólheimasandur Beach along Iceland’s southern coast and about 170km from Reykjavik. The crew of seven survived  – surprisingly with no injuries – and were rescued in very short order. The US Navy made plans to recover the craft but these never came to fruition whether due to the weather or the cost. And so forty years on the aircraft still sits on the beach as a silent reminder that Iceland’s  unpredictable weather should not be underestimated.

Finding the wreck requires a combination of planning, keen eyesight and faith. It is not on any map and nor is it signposted and so if you do want to see the wreck for yourself, planning is the order of the day. I had discovered the GPS coordinates of the site and so could accurately locate it on Google Maps. In fact once you know where to look you can actually see an indistinct dark outline of the plane if you zoom right in on the map. But, locating the plane on Google Maps merely tells you were the plane is and, as the old saying goes, it is not the destination that is important, but rather how you get there.

I continued trawling the Internet and found a few descriptions on the route people have taken although distilling the most descriptive of these to its essence effectively left me with “after a long but slight incline on Route 1, turn through a white gate after a green field”. Not exactly confidence building. Still more time was then spent using Google Streetview back and forth along sections of Route 1 and then I found a likely candidate albeit the gate was not white and the field wasn’t particularly green.

So it was facing this gate that I found myself one morning debating if I really wanted to take the hire vehicle off on to the black beach with no actual path to follow and simply drive toward the sea.  Getting lost was not really the issue; getting stuck was. But fortune favours the brave and so off I went.

It was an odd experience. The beach is wide and long and essentially looks as flat as a pancake. Visibility was good but as I continued to drive the landscape didn’t really change much. Planes are quite big and this one was a shiny, silvery lump of metal on an otherwise black background. So where was it? And that is where the faith was required. The beach may look flat, but is wasn’t and  just after what must have been the third thought of giving up, I crested a mound and there it was!

I visited the plane twice, each time for over an hour. In that time three other visitors made the journey out to see the plane. Maybe more did but their faith failed them.

But that is OK; it was nice to be alone with a little bit of history…