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:
- “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.
- “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.
- “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.
- “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.
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.
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.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 1Depending 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. 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.
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 2The 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. 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.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. 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…