In 1967 a movie depicted 3 astronauts slingshot through time and space landing in the future on what they thought was an alien world. Only at the end of the movie did Charlton Heston discover that he had actually landed on a postapocalyptic Earth. That movie was, of course, Planet of the Apes and that movie was filmed here in the remotest corner of Djibouti. Looking around here now I can absolutely see why this is an “alien planet” like landscape.
We are at Lac Abbe a massive lake that straddles the Djibouti Ethiopian border, half being in Ethiopia’s Danakil where we have spent the last 4 days. It takes the better part of a day to drive out here most of it on a rough 4WD track running through rocky desert. The wildlife is surprising we see gazelle, Egyptian duck, warthog as well as the ubiquitous camels.
This was an ancient lake bed until 16 thousand years ago when the earth level rose leaving a residual lake and a remarkable row of limestone rocky outcrops which stretches for around 5km. These are literally chimneys as they emit geothermal steam and all around their bases are geothermal springs, scaldingly hot but able to support patches of spinifex green meadows.
There is a well equipped campsite here with actual toilets and generator power, but the little huts we sleep in enhance the otherworldly appearance of this place. They are igloo shaped but made out of yellow straw matting. It resembles a set from a Star Wars movie.
Lac Abbe campsite
Dawn has us wandering around the chimneys looking for the best light and photo angles.
Dawn Lac Abbe chimneys
The tour finishes with the drive to Lac Assal which is a salt lake 155 metres below sea level which vies with Dallol in the Danakil as the lowest point on the planet. It is the finale for us and does not disappoint. The road plunges quickly to this low point and all around are high hills which intensify the contrast. The photography is spectacular and a fitting end to an adventure in this little known corner of Africa.
Arriving back in Djibouti city it is Friday afternoon. In a Muslim state it is the day of rest and most of the heart of town is closed. Nonetheless we seem to run into more scammers and arseholes than anywhere outside of India in a short period of time. It all underlines the fact that we have extracted the best out of our last two weeks here and aids in the adjustment back to the Sorrento reality next week. It will be good to be back with you all my loyal readers. Until the next time, au revoir from Djibouti!
I reckon there would be a market for T shirts that merely had on the back “Where the f*** is Djibouti?”. This little country is only 200km wide and 400km long. It sits wedged between Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia with the Red Sea to the east. It has a massive, busy deep water shipping port. Enhancing its strategic importance is the interminable civil war and social disintegration of Somalia to the south. The west’s interest in intervening in the Somali war nosedived after American reversals early on and now they content themselves with limiting the terrorist threat by bolstering the surrounding states’ security. Happy times for Djibouti!
The US maintain a permanent military base here, Camp Lemonniare. In addition there is ongoing commitment of troops to Djibouti from a strange array of countries including Germany, Italy, China, India and Japan. The local boast on arrival is that this is the safest country in Africa, conveniently ignoring the recent terrorist bombing by Al Shabbab.
The capitol, Djibouti city has an unusual vibe to it. It is a low rise sleepy African village with wide streets that, for Africa are pretty clean. It is cooler than anywhere else we have stayed with temps in the low 30s and a nice cooling sea breeze. There is one beach but the dirty grey sands lead to unappealing mud flats.
There is no bustle here, all is laid back and a wander through the tree lined European quarter in the heart of town reveals the inner charm of this place. This is probably the only place in Africa where photographing the (intrinsically uninteresting) parliament is allowed by contrast even just walking on the other side of the road from the president’s palace earns us an exhortation to move on by the police. One mosque we photograph without incident but the next one earns us comments from the locals.
A lady at a spice stall asks us to take her photo and is delighted when we do so but we get the schizoid treatment from a random local guy who growls us out about taking pictures of a local woman.
The true highlight of this little place happens in the evening, namely dinner. One legacy, arguably the only good thing, that the French leave in their former colonies is a culture of food and wine and this place is no exception. Croissants are great and the baguettes crisp. Our seafood dinner was nothing short of being magnificent. Despite being an Islamic state, wine is readily available. It is French and tastes good. Sated and slightly titubant we meander back to the fortified compound that is our hotel and have the first night’s sleep in a bed for over a week!
Our luggage finally arrives this morning. I have been wearing formal trousers and the same underwear for the last couple of days so the arrival of reinforcements is a relief but not one that is to be savoured. We get our packs at roadside cafe and have to organise some privacy to change before heading off in 43 degree heat for Erta Alta the volcano.
The initial road is good but rapidly deteriorates to a sandy dirt track that our 4WDs seem to take as a raceway a la Paris to Dakar and then finally a 2 hour stint of rough off road driving over succeeding waves of lava fields. We then set off in the dark at 7:30 pm for the 3 hour uphill 8 km hike to the rim of Erte Alta volcano.
The climb is steady 3 hour ascent ameliorated by the darkness which conceals the climb involved. he difficulty is in the heat involved and hydration is the key. We arrive at the crater rim which is 10 minutes walk from the crater edge and a warm yellow glow surmounts the crater.I have previously been to Yasur volcano on Tana Island to see the pyrotechnical show and this looks similar until I get to the crater edge. What a show! Unlike elsewhere we look down into the crater. The lava solidifies into a crust and the zigzag lines of yellow fire break it up before one or 2 foci start off and overwhelm the viewer with awesome and dazzling shows. This is easily the most spectacular thing I have seen on this planet. Two hours and two hundred photos later and I am spent.
The sulphur becomes more intrusive now and when we retreat back to our camp 10 minutes away I happily collapse onto a “”mattress” and sleep 5 short hours until the predawn 5am wake up call. The morning session on the volcano proves to be less active and spectacular than the previous night snd we trudge down to Mekele before boarding our flight to Djibouti.
What a difference a day may makes! Up at dawn for another bland breakfast and we are off over salt fields again to Dallol. At 160 metres below sea level we are at the lowest point on earth. In the summer it regularly gets to 50 degrees celsius for us its a balmy mid 30s.
Large decorative fields of pure crystalline salt
Salt, sulphur and thermal activity
Sulphur stained salt and fumeroles
What ensues is one of the most alien landscapes I have ever seen a combination of the heat, salt and volcanic activity. The 4WD stops at the base of a massive salt hill and we walk up over successive zones of white, red, orange and bright yellow salt according to the mineral contamination. The red is from manganese and the yellow is sulphur. It is strange walhing over the dried salt crust crunching underfoot. Three Ethiopian army soldiers are scouting up front carrying submachine guns are we are only 20km from the formerly disputed border with Eritrea.
As we reach the yellow sand sulphur smells irritate the nose and eyes belching out of a myriad little fumeroles. Tiny geysers spit boiling water over fantastically sculptured yellow salt forming iridescent blue little lacunes. There are salt caves and pools and a large pool has multiple vents bubbling yellow water up to the surface.
Salt hills crazily sculptured
The coup de grace sees us back out onto the massive salt plain tos see the Afar tribespeople in the heat cutting enormous pavement stone pieces of salt to trade. All around are camels resting on the salt. Soon they will be loaded with the salt blocks, tied head to tail of the camel in front for the 7 day walk across the salt and dirt to the next big town of Mekele to sell the salt. Then it is back to repeat the process.
Afar tribespeople cutting and dressing salt
Camels waiting for their load
Tonight it is sleeping in a local house in a well off village. We get word that our luggage has been found and we will be reunited with our packs tomorrow morning. In the late afternoon we sit in a shaded courtyard up in the cooler hills ringing Danakil under a grape vine strewn pergola. Cold beer and an Ethiopian curry ceremony hosted by the pretty teenage girl of the household completes the picture as we get to know our our fellow travellers.
The luggage carousel stops. Looking back through the aperture the shutter out to the baggage handlers rolls down and comes down on our travel plans. We have been to Ethiopia twice and each time they have lost our luggage.
The week in Sudan went without a hitch.We stayed up all night for our 4:30am flight and endured the feral performance of the locals at the airport. Landing at Addis it turns out our 90 minute turn around time was a bit tight as we had to race to get through immigration and across to the domestic terminal. We eventually made it but our luggage didn’t.
An hour later our tour rep arrives to take us 4 days into the wilderness of Danakil, basically 4WD and camping and we basically have the clothes we are wearing and our cameras. I leave Anthony at the airport to hassle, harry and generally kick the arse of the lazy guy tasked to find our luggage. I figure he is good at that. I go with the guide and buy some basic toiletries so we can start on the trip.
I don’t know if it is the zero sleep, the feral flight or the loss of luggage but the rest of this first day is particularly tough. We are driven over the roughest roads imaginable all day to arrive at a desolate and seemingly hostile village in 40 degree heat for our first night. The scenery is so exciting that I have taken a sum total of 3 photos for the day! The omens are bad, this is going to be an arduous journey.
A ray of hope at the end of the day when we aretaken out to a massive salt lake,Lake Assal at sunset. Our 4WD cruises over massive salt flats where the dirty grey salt is split into massive dinner plate sized chunks resembling Antarctic sea ice. We reach waters edge and enjoy the surreal landscape of pristine white salt and crystal clear water. My shutter finger is reinvigorated and gets a work out. We sleep like babies al fresco under the milky way.
Sunset over Lake Assal
Back in Khartoum every Friday near dusk sees a uniquely Sudanese event which harks back to the beginning of my story. The Mahdi who defeated General Gordon led a scion of Islam known as Sufism. These musical, mystic Moslems were referred to as the whirling dervishes after their music and vertigo inducing spinning dances. In the shadows of the Mahdi’s tomb a weekly reenactment occurs. In a country that sees few tourists this is not a tacky tourist culture show we see perhaps a dozen tourists in all. The pulsating chanting and dancing draws a hundred locals and we are privileged to be allowed to witness it.
This is a fascinating country with no shortage of top notch tourist attractions but one that has been blighted by war over decades and therefore a perception that it is unsafe for tourism. I certainly do not feel that there is any danger here for the culturally aware tourist. There is a negativity towards being photographed and twice we have been pulled up by locals asking us not to take photos, not of them but of the village or environment. By contrast at the dervishes today some of the guys were actually waving us to the front and prompting where to take the best photos. At the museum one of the locals randomly paid our admission price in a typically Muslim gesture of hospitality.
This is not a country for the novice traveller to cut his teeth on but any experienced traveller would find this country and its people well worth visiting.
Next stop Ethiopia and the ominously named Danakil Depression!
Our final afternoons sees much angst and swearing as we try to erect our tents for the overnight camp in the Saharan desert. The sun is blazing, it is near 40 degrees and a gusty wind whips up the sand and catches our tent fly as if it were a kite. Combined with our inexperience and ineptitude the result is haphazard but does survive the night.
We summit a massive sand dune to watch the sunset and in the distance is the Nile to complete this magical tableau.
We are up bright and early having spent the night at the ferryman’s house. We pile into an ancient beaten up Corolla with no side windows no dashboard equipment but nicely adorned with glued on red felt and tassles hanging off the ceiling. The ample natural ventilation somewhat offset the petrol fumes in the cabin. Mercifully it was only a short drive to the banks of the Nile where we boarded our felucca for the crossing.
Our home and car for the night
Our destination was the northernmost monument of the Egyptian Empire in Sudan, Soleb temple. Built by pharoah Amenhotep 111 in 14 BC it is the most Egyptian in appearance of the many monuments in Sudan. It is also just 100km south of Wadi Halfa on the Sudan-Egypt border. Our journey here entailed much negotiation over a number of days first with the hotel owner who booked the trip who said it was too far in the time we had and secondly with our driver. Everything is very typically “African vague” here and in the end it was an ordeal but here we were and it was certainly worth it. Smaller in size than the Luxor Temple in Egypt also built by Amenhotep 111 it is nonetheless a little Egyptian gem with soaring sandstone columns richly engraved with Egyptian art.
Soleb temple 14th century BC
My first overseas adventure to an off beat destination was to Egypt in 1982. Egypt now (except for the recent civil unrest) has become a bit passe, but then it was new and unusual especially for an Australian. There were only a few tourists there in those days, overwhelmingly European, no Australians. The monuments were not crowded with tourists. It was the year after the Egyptian president Anwar Sadat was assasinated and fellow called Hosni Mubarak took over as president. I engaged my trusty travel agent, Cliff (who finally retired last year) and organised a trip that would encompass every significant temple, tomb or monument in Egypt to satisfy my nascent curiosity for all things ancient and particularly Egyptology.
Today I find myself reminiscing about that first adventure. Even then I knew I would be back here, that this country represented “unfinished business”. So I touch the ancient sandstone, think back to the men who created this, obviously with no modern tools or implements, that 3500 years later I am looking at. I linger, sit absorb the atmosphere. As we leave I look back one more time and a melancholy grips me. This is it! I have seen all the substantial Egyptian monuments I have travelled the length of Nile from both sources to the sea. The wheel has turned full circle. It should be cause for exhilaration and there is certainly that but, as with all of life, most of the pleasure is in the anticipation and not the completion of the act.
Our car pulls up at the end of our middle day of touring with us happy with our daily diet of temples and pyramids. Even the ferocious heat does little to dampen our enthusiasm. Last night we stayed overnight at a tented camp at Meroe. The tents were spacious, had real beds and electricity and we had our own bathroom with toilet and shower. The meal was superb (sans alcohol in this strictly Muslim country). Today we are treated to a resort in the desert on the edge of town with massive elegant rooms arranged in beatiful gardens around a massive manicured green lawn. I had to blink twice just in case it was a mirage.
Up before sunrise the next morning we walk across to the sacred mountain, Jebel Barkal. We eventually locate the path and make the steep ascent in time for sunrise. We are not at any great height but the view is breathtaking. The sinuous Nile arcs lazily through the landscape with its obligatory cuff of green date palms and crops that comes to an abrupt end at the desert. The little market town of Karima is awakening on the south bank of the Nile and around to the west of this massive rock in the desert is yes, you guessed it,another cluster of picture perfect pyramids.This country never ceases to amaze me!
Jebel Barkal, sacred mountain
“Cobra head” Jebel Barkal
Temple of Mut
The sun is setting behind us on another scorching day and we are running up and slithering down massive golden sand dunes lifted straight out of a set of “Lawrence of Arabia”. Ours are the only footprints to be seen on any of the dunes patterned with the sinuous furrows created by the breeze. We are scrambling in the sand like two light kids at the beach to get into the best possible position to capture the light and photograph the 2000 year old Meroe pyramids.
But wait, which pyramid is best? Which combination? There are at least a dozen pyramids atop this massive sand dune and another half a dozen in the sand down the hill. An orgy of photography ensues and we are finally sated at the completion of a spectacular day of touring.
Meroe pyramids, 8 BC
For anyone with even the most casual interest in Egyptology this place is Nirvana! There are more pyramids here than in Egypt. There are temples, ancient cities, petroglyphs, statues and amazing art and iconography carved into temple walls. There are painted funerary tombs. The most remarkable thing is that we have the place to ourselves. We have only met a handful of tourists and have never had to share an archeological site.
Naqa temple 1 century AD. Note the detail of the pharoah holding the hair of the prisoners before striking them down.
El Kurru pharoah tomb 7 century BC
Karima pyramids 7 century BC