Today’s post is the fifth and final part of my review of the photographic expedition to the Danakil Depression. Towards the end I talk about my thoughts on what worked and what did not but let’s start by looking at days 10 through 13: The Tigray Highlands. One confusing fact to bear in mind: As we had gained a day by making an early ascent at Erta Ale, our day 10 may well be your day 11. It is hard to know if your trip will also ascend early – I cannot see why not as we weren’t rushing – and so I’ll stick to our itinerary.
Today will be your last sunrise in the Danakil Depression and the stark beauty of the barren landscape. After breakfast and once the 4WD vehicles are packed, you’ll say goodbye to the military and police escorts as they’ll no longer be needed. It also marks the return to tarmac roads courtesy of a foreign mining operation that is has set up outside Hamed Ale. Whilst making the journey smoother, it does serve as a reminder that this once remote and untouched land is no longer quite so remote, or untouched. Given that the Afar people here derive their income from two sources – the salt mining caravan trade and tourism – it is difficult to see how the new-found accessibility will be a good thing for the local ppoulation. It makes the transport required for commercial mining far, far easier which has two critical effects: (1) Make the traditional method of mining little more than a side-show and (2) it will complete the process of killing the wonderful Dalol geysers.
Shortly after leaving Hamed Ale you’ll stop to look at a geologic curiosity – fossils of coral and other marine life. In what is most definitely a dry and arid wilderness this gives a fascinating insight into the land upon which you are now standing. If I understood correctly the coral that you see is three million years old, although there have been many incursions of the Red sea both before and since. It also lends more evidence as to why the salt flats are here: Geologic activity causes the land wall separating the Danakil Depression from the Red Sea to sink, the sea rushes in and then the same geologic activity causes the land wall to rise, stranding an inland sea that evaporates leaving marine life and salt. Repeat the process over a few tens of millions of years and, well, you just spent a few days seeing the result.You’ll then set off again and begin the climb into the Tigray Highlands. Aside from a couple of short stops there isn’t a lot to do. You’ll stop at Berhale, the terminus of the camel train that you saw at the salt flats. Whilst the isn’t a lot in the way of landscape here, a couple of things did strike me. First you’re beginning to see the life of the salt industry from birth to death and if story-telling photography is your interest, this is a wonderful opportunity, not least as it may be gone in a few years time. Second, you’re leaving the nomadic Afar behind as the makeshift tent-like structures are replaced with brick and concrete buildings. Chances are that you’ll stop at Berhale for lunch which for us was somewhat bittersweet as we said goodbye to the marvellous cook Muscara. Over that past few days we had all experienced living well outside our comfort zone but the good food (and good coffee!) definitely took the edge off the discomfort.
After lunch you’ll continue the ascent heading toward your destination, Wukro. Again there are a few stops to look at some more geologic curiosities – more marine fossils albeit this time at 2,000 metres up in the mountains – and you do begin to get a sense of how high you’ve climbed throughout the day.Whilst there is a stark contrast between the dry and barren landscape at Dalol and green and farmed landscape of Tigray, the people are an equally stark contrast. As we approached Wukro, a place that can best be described as a large town, we saw an increase in activity: land being farmed, livestock being herded and children going to school. There were definite signs of a recognisable, familiar societal structure and as we arrived in Wukro we could see schools, hospitals, shops and hotels appear. Also in evidence were signs of electricity and sanitation infrastructures. In short, the “roughing it” phase of the trip was over – a fact made all the more real by finally arriving at our hotel.
The rest of the afternoon was spent as free time. For many of us the time was spent re-acquainting ourselves with all the luxuries that a bathroom offers and having the first proper wash in a week! I managed to gain access to the roof – not so hard as I only had to ask – and set up the solar panel. Whilst I had started the journey with a camera battery charger that could work off either mains electricity or solar panel, the rather cheap construction had seen it fail at Erta Ale. I had also forgotten to bring a mains charger for my MacBook Air and so was reliant on the battery pack that came with the solar kit to keep my laptop alive so I could begin key-wording photographs.
After dinner, most of us headed off to bed – after several days of pre-dawn mornings and variable sleeping conditions, the thought of a linen-covered bed was too enticing to ignore.
After the first non-dawn start in over a week and a leisurely breakfast you’ll be off out into the Tigray highlands. At an altitude of 2,400 metres the difference in temperature is obvious and during the day you’ll not have to endure anything above 30°C which means you’ll not have to worry about taking the electrolytes any more. Also gone are the wide panoramic vistas, replaced with an undulating hill-scape.One of the most visited sights in the area – and one you’ll almost definitely see – are the centuries-old rock churches, so called as they are quite literally caved into the mountain side. Unlike the Muslim Danakil region, Tigray is predominantly orthodox Christian. Those interested in architectural photography will have fun trying to capture the essence of the churches and if people are more your interest then there is plenty of opportunity for portrait/candid work. After the church we went for a drive. For those into portrait work one of the nice things about Tigray over Danakil is that there are always people out-and-about tending to some task. As we drove we stopped a couple of times as the mood took us. One stop was to look for some geologic curiosity – more fossils – although most of us were more interested in the farmer coming up the road with cattle and donkeys. We were spotted by some school children and so there was lots of activity and posing for photos. Further on we stopped to watch some farmers thrashing hay although I was distracted by feeling increasingly ill. Next we stopped at a town although, by this point, I was really feeling awful (the cause later tracked down to a combination of high altitude and alcohol!) and so had to return to the hotel early. Talking to the others later on, there was a general feeling that more could have been done with the day – a feeling I shared at the time. The reality is that it was still a four or five hour day and more had been planned – another rock church – but we were ahead of schedule by a day so I’m guessing that some of the activities had to be moved to give us something to do on the spare day. Thinking of it that way you can’t really blame the organisers – I would imagine that under normal circumstances it would be hard to organise outings for a group of people at short notice – and we had not been in normal circumstances.
But if you do find yourself at a loose end then a couple of the group paid one of the drivers a little extra to head back out to go and see more of the area. The expedition lead apparently wasn’t too impressed once he found out, but Tigray is far safer than Danakil – not needing a military escort was evidence of that – and it kept (the paying) clients happy. I would certainly have gone had I not been ill and so suggest that, if you do find yourself bored – and Wukro doesn’t have a lot to offer – it could be worth trying to organise a side-trip.
Due to the earlier change in schedule today turned out to be a spare day for us – if your expedition keeps to schedule than everything we did yesterday and today will be condensed into a single, busy day for you.
After a very leisurely start we headed out to the second of the rock churches, Wukro Cherkos. Whilst it was interesting I was more interested in trying to cover some portrait work – something I tried in Israel – so I stayed outside for most of it trying to capture some candids.After the church we returned to Wukro to visit the local market. It was good fun and certainly gives plenty of opportunity to take portrait/candid shots as well as pick up some souvenirs. You’ll also see the final stage of the salt industry you saw started in Danakil as most of the stalls are selling spices and, of course, salt. After the market you’ll make the relatively short journey to Me’kele – Tigray’s capital city – in time for lunch. To all intents the expedition is now over and you’re going to be left to your own devices for the remainder of the time. I did struggle to get anything worthwhile (photographically) out of the afternoon as there’s not a landscape in sight, but if you’re interested in portrait or urban work the you’ll have busy afternoon.
In the morning you’ll take a domestic flight back to the capital Addis (by now you’ll have dropped the Ababa part) and back to the hotel you started from almost two weeks earlier. As everyone’s international flight leave at different times you’ll also be saying a lot of goodbyes.
Depending upon when you leave – mine was a 2AM flight the following morning – and you’re tolerance for boredom you likely be out in the capital for at least part of the afternoon. As a city there is plenty of opportunity for portrait and urban shots.
So, that is it: An overview of the only expedition to the Danakil Depression that concentrates on photography and currently the only one that spends a significant time at the Erta Ale volcano. At approx. £5,000 including flights it is certainly not cheap, and conditions for the most part are basic to say the least, so the most important question is: Do I recommend it?
The short answer is: It depends.
Before I give my views it is worth pointing out the expedition type is described by VolcanoDiscovery (the organisers) as “active volcanoes, photography, adventure” with a character that is “long, bumpy 4×4 transfers, possibly extremely hot temperatures in the desert, intense exposure to sand, salt and dust, very basic sleeping and washing conditions while outside established towns”. This, in my mind, is an accurate description of what I experienced.
Whether I recommend this trip depends on one important element: You.
Over the previous four parts of the review I have described the accommodation and the sanitary facilities at each stage of the trip and, if you haven’t already done so, I strongly urge you read these as, for some of you, it will be enough to persuade you that you’ll have a horrible time. For half the trip there are no toilets, no washing basins, no soap and certainly no showers. For most people it will be the sanitary conditions that dissuade them. The sleeping conditions are also, for half the trip basic – sleeping in rock huts on volcanic ash covered ground, for example. Even when in hotels bear in mind that this is Africa. For me, the rooms were great – clean and comfortable – but I know people who would have been shocked.
Most people who embark on a expedition like this are going to be outside of their comfort zone and so more stressed than usual. You’ll need to take a sense of purpose with you. I didn’t travel because I was half-way curious about volcanoes; I travelled because I really, really wanted to get some landscape shots of this stunning place. Others travelled because that’s what they do – travel to volcanoes around the World. Having a strong purpose for going overrode the discomfort. A sense of humour helps too: We had a great group of people who all seemed to focus on the positive aspects and were willing to make the most of the situation they were in. People like that make a big difference.
So, to summarise:
Reasons to consider this trip:
- Excellent landscape photography.
- You have a (more than passing) interest in volcanism or plate geology.
Reason to not consider this trip:
- Wildlife, urban or architectural photography.
- Portrait photography – as there are better opportunities elsewhere.
- You simply want to see a volcano.
- You struggle under adverse conditions.
- You like comfort.
The highlight of the expedition, by far is the time spent at the Erta Ale volcano and lava lake. I thought Antarctica was stunning and could not be surpassed for raw, ethereal, beauty, but standing at the edge of a lake of boiling lava is an event I will carry with me for ever.
After the lava lake the next most impressive location is Dalol which is, from what we were told, in the process of disappearing due to the underground volcanic fissures that drive the geothermal activity being damaged by a potash mining operation in the area. As striking as Dalol hot springs are they are not a compelling ‘headline’ destination in their own right (at least in their current state), although there is an argument that the fact that they, and the local salt mining using traditional methods, are both under threat from extinction make them worth seeing as soon as possible.
In my opinion, the other sights we saw are ‘add-ons’, convenient sights along the way. It would have been nice to have more time at Lake Afdera, simply to get some varied landscape shots, but again, it is a stopping point en route to the main attraction.
The weakest part of the trip for me was the time spent in Tigray. Some of this may be due to the fact that we had just spent several days looking at some stunning landscapes, but still, I just didn’t find it engaging.
Aside from the locations it is worth mentioning some other aspects of the trip’s organisation.
- Small group.
- Geologist guide.
- Good drivers.
- Good cook.
What didn’t work:
- No generator.
- Time spent in Tigray.
- Lack of mineral export licenses (but you may be lucky and sneak some pieces through upon exit).
What’s essential to take:
- Good hiking boots.
- Electrolytes – water alone will be dangerous.
- More camera batteries/cards than you think you’ll need.
- Mosquito Repellent.
- Toilet tissue/wet wipes/alcohol-based sanitiser.
- Gas mask.
- Wide-angle lens – 17mm on a full-frame body is perfect.
All of the trips I undertake get rated in an essentially simple fashion: Knowing what I now after returning, and assuming that nothing could be changed, would I spend the same money again to go a second time? Erta Ale alone makes the answer ‘yes’. Is that a recommendation?