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Tour Leader Tales: Adventures in Ethiopia

Tour Leader Tales:

Cristina Taioli Explores Ethiopia

November 18th, just one week after my birthday, I was at the “Leonardo da Vinci” Airport, in Rome, ready to take off  for my next adventure in Ethiopia, Africa.

A group of seven people, myself included, were about to travel to one of the most remote places on earth, the Afar Land (also known as the Danakil Depression) to meet tribes living along the Omo River.

We booked two jeeps, drivers and a local guide – because you can’t travel anywhere without an organized tour, and we could not enter Danakil, due to the unstable border with Eritrea, which also made the trip dangerous.

We landed in Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia, sitting at 8,200 feet above sea level, and immediately started driving north, towards the mountains and the market of Sembete, where the local tribes – the Amhara and the Oromo – exchange their goods with the nomadic and desert dwelling population of the Afar.

We began our trip with visits to local markets. There is always something special and unique about an African market: the colors, the people, the energy pull you into a vortex of activities that make you dizzy and ecstatic;  it’s like being inside an alternative reality, where you’re not quite sure what’s going on around you, but the atmosphere is so vibrant and energetic you are pulled right in.

One market we visited, in Bati, located between the Ethiopian highlands and the great Rift Valley, is the largest cattle and camel market in Ethiopia, and it attracts over 20,000 people every Monday. I was walking among hundreds of Zebu, also known as humped cow, characterized by a fatty hump on their shoulders. These cows have long horns that hit me, every now and then, while I was walking by! Many camels also surrounded me with their big, toothy mouths! Goats, sheep, donkeys and chicken roamed around as well. These animals were all for sale with their owners near-by, yelling and screaming, as they negotiated for the best price. What an experience!

We continued our adventure driving northeast, until we reached Asaita, the former capital of the Afar Region, and our starting point to visit the Danakil Depression and the Salt Plain.The Afar Land’s northern border is Eritrea, which remains a very unstable border, and that’s why we had to have armed guards with us at all times! The Danakil Depression is a geological depression caused by the Great Rift Valley in East Africa. It’s located a remarkable 410 feet below sea level.

In this region, the African and Asian tectonic plates are shifting and the earth’s crust is thinner, therefore this place has disclosed fossil specimens of the very earliest hominids; and it is thought by  paleontologists to be the cradle of humankind’s evolution. We followed a track that took us into the heart of the Danakil Depression, reaching the Lake Afrera. This is an hyper saline lake, and for this reason, the lake is very shallow and very salty: it was fun to lay there and float, and to relax in a hot water source next to the lake.

Erta Ale – meaning “smoking mountain” is the most active volcano in Ethiopia, situated in the Afar Depression, part of the volcano’s chain that runs in the central part of the Danakil Depression. We started hiking in the late afternoon, when the high temperature of the desert cools down a bit: a 3-hour trek, along a trail of sand and dried lava, to the top of this volcano.

I reached its caldera at dark, with just my headlight, as thin layers of fossilized lava were crunching under my feet. When I looked down inside the volcano’s crater, the most incredible sights followed! A flowing river of lava, coming from the bowels of the earth, crushed against the solid rocks creating waves and splashes: a deep sound, in the silence of the night.

No wonder this place is locally known as “the gateway to hell”. We spent the night nearby inside a very rustic hut, made of dirt and water, so that at the first light of dawn, I could walk back there.

In the daylight I was able to see what I was stepping on the night before: a plateau of black solidified lava. It was like walking on a black moon, decorated with the most incredible shapes.

Time came that we had to walk back down to the desert again, in order to move on to the only village in the area, Ahmed Ela, meaning “the well of Ahmed”. Here, for six days I had no hotel, no real shower, no real toilet, all I had was a bed, made of wood and straw; but the magic of this place makes you forget the lack of amenities: this is what I call “a million-star hotel”: simply outstanding!

The Danakil Depression contains one of the hottest places on Earth, called  Dallol, where the temperature can reach 130 °F during the dry season. This is a very different volcano, with the lowest crater in the world, 150 feet below sea level. The word Dallol, for the Afar people, means dissolution, disintegration, and in fact the land is made of green acid ponds, iron oxide, sulfur, salt and geysers; it resembles the hot springs area of Yellowstone. The place smells like sulfur, and it’s so hot in here, that I had to be careful where I walked, not to burn my feet.

Despite all that,  the beauty of it is difficult to describe! A spectacular colorful field, made of salt deposits, hot springs, steam and smoke, multi-color saline waterfalls, miniature geysers, inlays and embroideries of iron and sulfur. I took over 100 photos of this incredible place, but none of them captured the reality, it was simply “out of this world”!

Almost 500 square miles of the Afar Depression is covered by salt deposits, and the crust of salt is over 3000 feet deep. Therefore, salt mining is a major source of income for the Afar, who are Muslim, and the Tigrayan, who are Christian. For ten months of the year, six hours a day, six days a week, they gather here, to work together, collecting the salt by lifting a big section of it with a stick, and then cutting it with an ax in square blocks, which are then transported by donkey or camel. After two days, this caravan will reach the city of Berhale, in the south, and from here, the salt is transported, by trucks, all over the country.

I was standing next to my bed, when I saw something in the distance, so I grabbed my binocular and looked again: camels, a long line of them, coming to spend the night in the village of Ahmed Ela, were we were. Their journey is many miles long, so they stop here to rest, the animals are all attached tail to neck by a rope, with the master in the front.

We also followed the caravans of camels, driving south, on a sand track; leaving the depression, and stopping at 230 feet above sea level, with our camp inside a dry river bed. During our early morning trek inside the canyon of the river Saba, we met salt caravans of donkeys and camels, coming from opposite directions: some with their load, and others empty.

After a week I finally spent my first night in a hotel with a hot shower, a real bed and a real toilet – a reminder of how much we take these things for granted.

The following day we flew back to the capital, Addis Ababa, in the south of the country, to visit the tribes who live along the Omo River, an important river of southern Ethiopia. This river is 470 miles long, from its source, on the Ethiopian highlands, to the Lake Turkana, on the border with Kenya. The driver has to be careful, all kind of animals are on the road: cows, sheep, donkeys, goats and they have priority over the cars.

Along the Rift Valley, we passed many villages; the local people here live inside homes called “tucul”, a round shape dwelling, with a conical roof made of straw, and sometimes a decoration of flowers, animals or geometrical shapes.

We took a boat around Lake Chamo, were we encounter fishermen, hippos, some very large crocodiles, and many birds of different species. From the lake, we drove up to the surrounding hills, to get to know the Dorze, a tribe of farmers and weavers, who build their home using the fibers obtained from the false banana tree.

The next day we moved south, to the lower Omo Valley region. Along the way we encountered the Banna: indigenous, shepherd and semi-nomadic people, who live in this harsh environment. The best place to see them is always at the local market, where mainly women, carrying their babies on the shoulders, come from the near villages, sometimes from miles away, to sell the products of their land. Some of the sacs they carry on their back weight over 40 pounds. Men instead, take the livestock to the water for a drink, or to the pasture.

At the weekly market in Turmi, I had the chance to see people of the ethnic group “Karo”. They inhabit the lands along the edges of the Omo river, which they use to cultivate, when the level of water is low. These people take very good care of their body: that’s why men hold the spear and paint their skin with white stripes of ashes, according to the old ritual of getting ready for hunting or for war. Women have incredible hair styles, curling up locks of hair with a sort of cream made of clay and butter or animal fat. They wear a leather skirts, decorated with metal bosses and iron rings. They wear many necklaces of different colors and materials, all intertwine to form a heavy mass of beads, shells, seeds;  married women have to wear a massif iron collar instead.

Together with the “Karo” are the “Hamar” people; both tribes live in the south west of the Omo River Valley, growing crops and livestock: here the cattle have the biggest value. This people has a unique expression of the body, and a culture that has lasted for centuries.

It was wonderful to connect with them as best as I could – I was walking through the village, normally with kids holding my hands and others calling my name.

We followed the river, driving south, getting closer and closer to the border with Kenya, getting to know another tribe, the Daasanech. They are nomads or semi-stationary people who live on sheep-farming and fishing, and build their homes in a unique way: a support structure of branches, covered with animal skins, easy to assemble and disassemble, and typical of a culture with a transhumance tradition.

We met the locals and admired the daily life of the village. The market is not only the place for exchanging goods, but also to spread news, knowledge, stories, like the one in Alduba, where the Ari, Banna and Tsamai meet.

The river Mago gives name to the Mago National Park. Here the road is rough, like the wild territory of the African Savannah. We pass Acacia trees, some blossoming with yellow flowers, and giant termite mounds. This is also the land of a very peculiar small tribe: the Mursi.

Mursi are farmers, who still follow their ancestral traditions: they decorate their skin with colored dirt and scarification done with a blade; some of them have perfect skin engravings, similar to a tribal tattoo in our culture. The most unusual body decoration is the labial disk, made of wood or ceramic, that women wear in front of their mouth, after taking out the two front lower teeth. Obviously the skin has been stretched out throughout the entire life of the girl, starting with a little cut at the beginning, and inserting disks that will get bigger and bigger: some of them are incredibly large and heavy to wear. When they take it out, for sleeping or for eating, they have this hanging ring of flesh in front of the mouth.

From the African savannah, to the rocky hills of the land of the Konso tribe, the population is organized in clans, living inside the “tucul” type of home, protected by a dry stone wall. They have great culture and talent, proven by their fine handicraft, which includes also the funerary wood stele called “waka”.

Next we traveled to the “singing well” of the Borana people. This tribe dedicate their life to cattle rearing, and they dig wells to ensure the survival of the animals during the dry season. From these wells, they extract the water with buckets, passing them from hand to hand in a chain of singing men, following the rhythm of an ancient chant, and that’s why it’s called the “singing well”. I was enchanted, watching and recording these men standing in the water, working and singing, when a herd of cows came into the well, just following the sound of the song leading them to a narrow corridor and to the precious liquid, vital in this harsh environment.

The Borana people don’t just build wells, but also collect salt from a natural lake formed at the bottom of  the crater of an extinct volcano, called El Sod. They walk down into it and dive in this shallow lake, to extract the salt that donkeys will then take back up to the village.

Heading north, we moved towards Addis Ababa, to meet the Sidamo, a mix of Christian and Muslim ethnic groups, who still follow the old animist beliefs.

They live in the typical beehive shape of the “tucul”. For their trades, they grow crops, banana, tobacco, peanuts, and especially coffee of the finest Arabic variety. The coffee plants here grow spontaneously on the hills, but each family has their own little plantation in the garden, together with fruit trees and some vegetables. In this region, coffee is important not only for the local economy, but also plays an important role for the social and cultural life. We are invited to take part in their ancient ritual of the coffee ceremony; for generations, a sign of friendship and great respect. About an hour of preparation before I could actually drink it!

We reached Lake Awasa, the smallest but the most scenic of the Rift Valley. Overwhelmed with bird life, during our boat ride we saw: ibis, cormorant, pelican, heron, wild duck, kingfisher, African jacana, marabou stork, and many more that I was unable to identify.

Sadly, my incredible adventure has to come to an end. We returned to the capital, were we visited the National Museum of Ethiopia, to see Lucy’s bones: “Australopithecus afarensis,” who lived 3.2 million of years ago. For someone like me with a Natural History background, this was a very touching and momentous way to end such an unforgettable trip.

View more of Cristina’s amazing photos from this trip.

About Cristina:

Tour Leader Cristina Taioli was born in Cesena, Italy not too far from our Italian headquarters. She studied environmental sciences at the University of Bologna and is currently working on her Master’s degree in environmental cooperation and sustainable development at a university in Ravenna. Cristina has worked in marine biology research and education, with projects in Greece, Costa Rica, the Bahamas, Egypt, the Maldives, England, and Italy. She has also worked as an underwater diving guide in Thailand.