Afroalpine Leas: Seven Days Trekking in Bale Mountains

Afroalpine Bale Mountains Ethiopia

Waking up within a small tent, surrounded by frosty ground, and in unbearably cold weather, was an instant reminder of being on the roof of Africa – which actuates you to venerate the warmth of sun as if it’s for the first time. We had coffee, scrambled egg, home baked bread with locally made honey for breakfast, before continuing our second day trail to go deep within the Afroalpine Leas.

Walking from the park headquarters Dinsho (Juniper woodlands) and slowly entering into the heart of the Bale Mountains – Sanetti plateau –, while passing through the Upper Web Valley, unfold impressive eye vistas.

The first few kilometers before entering into the Bale Mountain National Park, was walking through charismatic villages with bamboo fenced compounds complemented with full of character huts, villagers, cattle, horses and donkeys. Surrounded by rocky hills and beautiful mountain ranges as a backdrop of farm fields.

Village and farm field Bale Mountains EthiopiaLeaving village panorama behind, following the Web Valley track road, which parallel to the Web River, presented memorable moments of crossing the river and witnessing it superbly passing through beautiful valley and under naturally made stone bridge.

Upper Web Valley Bale Mountains Ethiopia

We stopped at the top of an Impressive gorge for our first sight of the endemic Rock Hyrax locally known as Osolee (in Afan Oromo) or Shikoko (in Amharic).

Rock Hyrax Bale Mountains Ethiopia

Rock Hyrax

Climbing steep hills and being rewarded by wide open spaces surrounded by astonishing mountain range started to take place. Clear beautiful sky, breezy but warm weather and sunny day brighten up the surrounding for more magnificent scenery. The tranquil energy brings out stillness from within.

The Bale Mountains are one of the best places to have exceptional birding experience in Ethiopia. According to the Bale Mountains National Park Traveller’s Guide book, it is rated by the African Bird Club as the number four birding site in Africa, and it is home to 310 species of birds.

The Moorland Chat (Alpine Chat), Thekla’s Lark, Chestnut – naped Francolin, Augur Buzzard, Tawny Eagle and Common Kestrel were birds we were fortunate enough to witness along the way.

Birds In Bale Mountains Ethiopia

Moorland chat and Thekla’s lark.

Even though the Finche Habera waterfall – which locally known as Woman’s urine – ,  was not at its peak due to the timing of the visit, but the swamp underneath was hosting the jewel of Bale Mountains – Blue winged goose – our first view of this captivating creature made the whole day trail worthy.

Blue Winged Goose Bale Mountains Ethiopia

Blue-winged goose – Endemic to Ethiopia.

While getting closer to the campsite, we are being able to spot the flagship of this impressive habitat from afar – Ethiopian Wolf.

Finch Habera waterfall Bale Mountains Ethiopia

The campsite in the wilderness seemed far away from everything and hallowed in serene aura. The temporary kitchen set up was where resourcefulness being tested. The tent was where the art of simplicity being expressed. The wilderness was where the spiritual practice of accepting what is and being one with life naturally applied.

Finch Habera Campsite Bale Mountains Ethiopia

Traditional handmade three lagged stools, decorated with colorful painting of the Mountain Nyala and Red Hot Poker plant – Signatures of the Bale Mountains – was a luxury in the wilderness. All these materials were carried by the people and the animals accompanied us, so every item which happened to be at the wilderness were venerated.

Towards the end of the day, the temperature dropped instantly to freezing, which made changing cloth a defying task. The darkness brings out not only bright stars but a feeling of surrender.

Day Three: From Finche Habera Campsite to Wassyma Campsite 

Frosty morning Bale Mountains EthiopiaWaking up early in the morning in a wild, covered by frost, started to become familiar. It was a holiday so our guide gave us an imaginative and much appreciated gift which brighten up our day – bouquet of everlasting flower.

While having breakfast and enjoying the sun, we were being able to spot the Ethiopian wolf preying from far away, which was another teaser of a spectacle of the Afroalpine meadow.

Every day and every step of the trail was taking us higher – from 3,000 m to 4,000 m above sea level.  Artemisia Afra pervaded a strong and sweet aroma in the wild which reminded me Guassa Grassland where the smell of wild thyme enlivening the overall experience of trekking in Ethiopia.

It was another warm sunny day and the bottled water we were carrying with us stayed cold and pleasant to drink, which reminded me the opposite experience that I had in the Danakil Depression , where the bottled water stayed warm – experiencing two extremes within a country beautifully diverse in so many ways – Ethiopia.

Spectacular landscape with magnificent mountain range and unique Afroalpine vegetation kept unfolding before us. Here and there colorful lichen-clad rocks, as a reminder of trekking in Bale Mountains, breathing clean air.  Walking through magnificent valley and next to impressive rock zenith pervades a sense of humbleness.

Afroalpine Trekking in Bale mountains Ethiopia

Somewhere on a rocky hill, we took a lunch break and we were surprised by the gracious Bearded Vaulter (Lammergeyer) flying over us, hovering around the hills preying. To witness this memorable spectacle up on the blue sky of the Bale Mountains, we stopped eating the savory avocado sandwich which we were carrying with us prepared by our cook Idris for a moment.

Birds In Bale Mountains Ethiopia2

Augurd bazzard, Tawny eagle and Common Kestrel.

Chestnut-naped Francolin Bale Mountains Ethiopia

Chestnut-naped francolin – Endemic to Ethiopia and Northern Somalia.

We continued our trail and within an impressive Wassyma Valley we spotted a Giant Lobelia plant, which signaled that we were getting closer to the Sanetti Plateau. The Wassyma Mountain, locally known as the mountain which attracts wind started to unveil itself from afar. Crossing frosty streams and seeing snow way on the top of the hills were all indications of ascending higher.  

Afroalpine Trekking in Bale mountains Ethiopia2Mount Wassyma Bale Mountains Ethiopia

The crew already reached the destination and set up the kitchen within a naturally created space on one of the hills and our tent was on another smaller hill where  Wassyma Mountain was a backdrop – we were actually within the view, living it.

Wassyma Campsite Bale Mountains EthiopiaAnother cold night appeared but ironically it was soul warming – as gathering around a campfire with strangers whom wanderlust brought together in the wilderness and celebrating a holiday somewhere on the roof of Africa is a sacred experience.

 

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Gaysay Grassland: Seven Days Trekking In Bale Mountains

One of the five distinctive habitats of the Bale national park, Gaysay Grassland is a suitable home to one of the distinctive animals and only the land of Ethiopia can flaunt to the world – the Mountain Nyala. Traversed by the Dodola road, surrounded by clustered of hills, embracing a magnificent mountain and bonding the two major rivers of the Bale Mountains. Gaysay grassland is the paradise of exotically wild aromatic herbs and colorful everlasting wild flowers, which not only attracts wildlife but humans as well for soul replenishment.

 MEDIATIONAL & PICTURESQUE.

Gaysay Grassland Bale Mountains 1

Trekking Day 1

After spending the night and had breakfast the next morning at one of Bale’s small town Robe, we got picked by a blue and white minivan taxi from the guest house we were staying by our tour operator. Armaye is a young and an aspiring tour operator whom we have been planning our trip with via email few weeks before the actual trip.

Meeting with Armaye in person was a great pleasure as he was very welcoming and humble and of course actual human interaction is sacred in every way. While having getting to know each other and the overall brief picture of our seven days trekking in the Bale Mountains conversation, we drove back to Dinsho where the head quarter of the park located for formalities. The head quarter located in a very nice woodland covered with different kinds of beautiful trees and where we camped before continuing to the second day trekking.

We got introduced to our tour guide – Mohammed. He is born and raised in Bale, very passionate about his home turf, nature and conservation. We got introduce with our cook as well, Idris whom appeared to be introvert but someone whom might open up slowly along the way.

Right after the introduction, Idris asked us what we want to have for lunch even though the options were limited which we knew and prepared ourselves for. We agreed with one typical dish of trekking in wilderness in Ethiopia – Maccaroni with canned tuna cooked in tomato sauce.

As we planned, the first day of seven day trekking started by walking to the Gaysay Grassland, a 20 – minute walk from Dinsho head quarter. It was a walk on an asphalted road through the small montane village Dinsho characterize by white and blue tuk tuk and minivan taxis, little shops, eateries and coffee places along each side of the road enliven with people and with unique and beautiful trees as backdrop.

We had our intro conversation with our tour guide for the next seven days trekking in Bale Mountains. We learned that Mohamed speaks three languages –Amharic (My native language which is in sematic language group), English and French and Afaan Oromo (Cushitic language group) being his native language.

We picked right away that we were in treat of a very rich experience with him. This is one of interesting details of traveling in my own country, which is a melting pot of different ethnic group, which makes a very rich and interesting journey in Ethiopia even for a native traveler.

The first word Mohamed taught us was how to say hello to the local people and we were so happy to say it as it was not that difficult even for my Belgian husband. Akkam is the one word which was strong enough to spark a smile and an eye contact with the locals when every time they heard us saying it to them along the journey through the Bale Mountains for seven days.

After the paved road we stepped in Gaysay Grassland.

Gaysay Grassland Bale Mountains 2

It’s a tract of grassland on upper land of an altitude range from 3000 m – 3500 m above sea level, near to timberline for a splendid panoramic view and experience.

Its wide open space colored with the flora and fauna of gleaming golden grass, silvery grey Gold Cape ( Helichrysum Splendidum) and greenish Artmesia Afra ( African Wormwood). It’s decorated with fringe of greenish hills dotted with red from the flower of Hagenia abyssinica (African redwood). It’s a procreative landscape to induce powerful energy to rise from within.

Walking in Gaysay Grassland induces an intense feeling of how much little space we occupy in this world as it was hard not to contemplate the vast space and the magnificent hills we were surrounded by. Gaysay Grassland is a home to mount Gaysay (3,543m).

The sound of our footsteps on dry grass and bushes, wind and stream were more intensified for our sense of hearing. Sense of smell heightened by the aroma of different kinds of everlasting wild flowers and herbs.

As it’s a December trip in Bale Mountains, the one seasonal thing which was missing was the spectacular scene of Red Hot Poker (Kniphofia) plant which flowers from March – November. Red Hot Poker plant is the colorful signature of Gaysay Grassland and Bale Mountain regarding wildflower.

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Red Hot Poker in Guassa Grassland

Every moment is different indeed as it would have created a different vibe and color of its own. Even though I had a beautiful experience to witness this colorful and exotic plant at Guassa Grassland where hills can be completely covered with the Red Hot Poker plant with colorful blossom at a certain time of year.

The Bale Mountains National Park is beautifully supports five different kinds of habitats, thus more than 1,300 species of flowering plants have been excavated in which 160 being Ethiopian endemic species and 23 which are distinctive to the park. One of more than 10 species of everlasting flower found in Bale.

The aromatic Artmesia Afra and the silvery Cape Gold lead us to the very handsome and endemic animal as being staple for the Mountain Nyala.

Gaysay Grassland Bale Mountains 4

Gaysay Grassland is suitable home to this distinctive and unfortunately endangered animal which was the last to be found in 1970. It’s a place which provides a close up look of Mountain Nyala as close as 50 m.

Gaysay Grassland Bale Mountains 5

Calves with their beautiful mother nurturing and grazing, young male with growing horn and spine mane fighting, and an older male –with notable white side spots, fully grown gracious horns and spine mane –usually alone browsing, are mesmerizing scenes to be witnessed at Gaysay Grassland.

Gaysay Grassland Bale Mountains 6

The Bale Mountains is home to different kinds of animals like the endemic Menelik’s Bushbuck, Grey Duiker, Serval and Common Jackal which all can be viewed in Gaysay Grassland and we were fortunate enough to spot other animals which also lives in Gaysay Grassland –Bohor reedbuck, Warthog, Herd of Olive Baboon and Spotted Hyena.

Gaysay Grassland Bale Mountains 7

Gaysay Grassland not only meddle to bring human and nature, it bridges two Bale rivers – Web River (Weyib River) and Danka River –on an impressive landscape. Besides being an eye vista, it provides an unusual experience of fly fishing of Brown and Rainbow Trout which travelled with British and being stocked in Kenya in the early 1900s and later found another African habitat in Ethiopia by being stocked in three of the Bale Mountains National Park’s rivers in 1960.

Waterfalls and streams induced a conversation about the fact that The Bale Mountains being the source of existence for over 12 million of people in the southeast Ethiopia even crossing the border to Northern Kenya and Somalia by proving water which rises from the Bale massif. 40 rivers rise in the Bale Mountain National park which empties into major rivers like Wabi Shabeelle and Jubba.

The local people has special and intimate connection with Gaysay Grassland as they revere the wild flowers and herbs for their medicinal value and the natural remedial water springs locally named as Hora. As we learned local people travel a long way to come here so that their cattle have a seep for overall good health and milk production.

Gaysay Grassland Bale Mountains 8

As it is a dry season trip in the Bale Mountains which is from November – February, the average temperature of Gaysay Grassland during the day is 20 C. It was a warm and sunny day with extremely beautiful clear blue sky, so it was picture perfect to start the seven day trekking in Bale Mountains.

While heading back, we witnessed the upper land pushing the timberline via strangely but beautiful trees appearing here and there.

Gaysay Grassland Bale Mountains 9

Back to the head quarter which is part of another Bale Mountain Habitat the woodland we, decide to spend sometime in the forest. During dry season the animals move from the Grassland to the woodland, so we get the chance to see the same animals back in the woodland which provided another beautiful scene.

The grassy forest bed within the woodland pave the way with the warming herbal aroma of the fallen leaf of the Hagenia Abyssinica tree which is another signature of the Bale Mountains. We were in treat as December and January is when the red spray of flowers of the tree blooms. Locally known as Koso, a mixture of dried flower of the tree traditionally used as remedy to combat tapeworm as Ethiopians love to eat raw meat.

Gaysay Grassland Bale Mountains 10

It’s in this woodland the indigenous African rose –Rosa Abyssinica –can be found but unfortunately we didn’t get the chance to witness as it was not the right time of year.

St. John’s worth (Hypericum Perforatum) with its beautiful yellow flowers, attracting wildlife and supporting traditional beehives for a delicious Bale’s Honey is a throughout the year scenery. The short but sweet Dinsho trail with in the woodland topped with spectacular view over the mountainous village of Dinsho, Gaysay Grassland from afar and cluster of hills.

Gaysay Grassland Bale Mountains 11

First Day Camping On The Roof Of Africa

We set up our tent on a ground which rises 3000 m above sea level, in the woodland hugged with trees and enliven with animal visits.

Gaysay Grassland Bale Mountains 12

The temperature in Bale Mountains varies as its different kinds of habitats. Spending the night on the roof of Africa is part of the adventure and it’s where the weather can be one of the eloquent details of the backdrop – Sleeping in the clouds during wet season (April – October).

The lowest temperature recorded in Dinsho is – 6 c. During dry season (November – March) the days are warm, sunny and with clear blue sky as we witnessed but it can be very cold at night in which temperature can drop to – 15 c and usually with frosty grounds above 3000 m.

When the sun start to set in, we felt we were traveling through seasons – from Summer to Winter – and the transition was instant.

Very Cold!

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ROAD TRIP: Seven Days Trekking In Bale Mountains

road trip Bale mountains 1

It’s a road trip through Ethiopian highlands, heightened by the magnificent picturesque landscape to an impressive destination. It’s a road trip unspooled series of treasured images, history and unique signatures of towns and villages studded along the way. It’s a road trip allured wanderlust via serendipity into the rhythm of enlightenment.

On the way to The Bale Mountains

road trip Bale mountains map

As the Great Rift Valley split the dome of Ethiopian Highlands, a journey to the Bale Mountains requires travelling through Ethiopian highlands which are divided in two portions by the main Ethiopian rift valley and this particular journey is towards the southeastern highland.

The Bale Mountains resides in the Oromia region – regional states of Ethiopia, covering 284,538 square kilometers. The Oromia region shares a boundary with every region of Ethiopia except for the Tigray region. Thus this journey required traveling through four zones of the Oromia region – East Shewa, Arsi, West Arsi and Bale.

The Bale Mountains are the lineal home of the Oromo – the largest single ethnic group in Africa. Pastoralist, farmers and famously known for their equestrian skills to name the few and which all can be witnessed while traveling through this full of character region.

A day before the actual seven days trekking started in the Bale Mountains, we drove from Addis Ababa early in the morning before the rush hour hits. There are two ways to reach Bale and we took the one which we haven’t done before to make the journey as interesting as the destination with an off the beaten path.

The other way of reaching bale from Addis Ababa – the one we trade to honor the off the beaten path– is via Shashemene and 40 km longer. It’s a pathway many travelers takes as it comes with driving through Ethiopia’s rift valley which dotted with plenty of beautiful rift valley lakes and definitely very interesting in spite of huge traffic. It’s a unique way of arriving to the Bale Mountains as it takes travelers through different kinds of major towns and small towns with their very own unique characters and unique landscape – from savanna portrayed with acacia trees to green forest and always topped with beautiful distant view of clustered hills or high mountains.

On this particular journey we embarked up on towards Bale via Asella, is 400 km from the capital city Addis Ababa to the head quarter of the Bale Mountains National Park which situated in one of Bale’s small village Dinsho.

It’s a journey which took us through different kinds of major towns and small villages with their very own interesting signature. Bishoftu (Debre Zeyit) with its crater lakes, Mojo with its lively but at times chaotic atmosphere as being transport hub and Adama with its locally famous gastronomic delight of delicious meat.

Once we reached Mojo, instead of going straight on the primary road which can take us straight to Shashemen, we rather diverted towards east via the expressway to Adama. After Adama we took the primary road which takes us straight to Asella.

As we continued, slowly the hustle and bustle of city life started to fade away and replaced by panoramic vista, serene village life and people. As always cracking a local tune goes very well on a road journey in Ethiopia or anywhere else for that matter as it’s going to end up being the soundtrack of a cherished journey.

Road trip and good company guarantees very lively journey and on our case, the universe assembled two Ethiopians and a Belgian on a road trip in Ethiopia. Endale with his cordial energy was the one behind the wheel and a very good family friend of the two passengers – myself as a traveler in her own country and my Belgian husband as wanderlust passionate.

While we were immersed in the liberating feeling which road trip provides for little while, one of the other characteristic of road trips presented itself – serendipitous. A scene which forced us to slow down and eventually to stop. Looking at this thrilling scene through the windows of the car was not enough, so we had to get out of the car and get closer.

The earth literally cracked open for almost a km long. We didn’t say much to each other we were just gazing with dropped jaw and trying to analyze the scene with our logical mind. We tried to capture the thrilling scene which the road trip provided not only with our lenses but with our mind.

road trip Bale mountains 2

Obviously, once we are back into the car,  we couldn’t help to have one of those road trip conversations, which involved little bit too much of an imagination. And we couldn’t help talking about, that far-fetched it seemed topic which has been surfacing around the media for a little while now – The breakup of Africa into two land masses.

We don’t know for sure what we witnessed has got anything to do with that, but all we know that the scene cracked open our imagination and urged to entertain the idea – as an African and Ethiopian being separated from the continent in spite of the fact that geologists asserting that it takes millions of years for it to happen.

Though what we witnessed, might not be created by tectonic movement, rather by erosion of soil beneath the surface due to heavy rain, it induced a conversation about how it can affect the life of local people who lives around and hoping for more disclosure to be inspected in order to regulate preventable damages from seismic hazards.

As we continued, eye grabbing wide farm fields kept stretching before us as the lower slopes of hill sides have good fertile soil. Thus the area largely inhabited by farming people, most of the land of the region has been transformed to agriculture and mostly Barley – which signaled us we are in an area locally known as the source of Ethiopian local beer.

road trip Bale mountains 3

It was a delight to witness one of the ingredients of Ethiopian local beer out in the field at a particular time of harvesting. Bundled up straw drying out under the sweltering sun of Africa after good harvest in a golden stubble field crowned with the highest point in Arsi – Mount Chilalo with an elevation of 4036 meters above sea level – as a beautiful backdrop was a feast for the eyes.

road trip Bale mountains 4

While seemingly endless golden stubble field kept stretching before us, we kept talking about Barley and its special connection with this particular region. The Arsi highland is home to many long distance runners and Olympic medalist of Ethiopian athletes, so we raised an insider in our road trip conversation – that locally it is assumed, the secrets for the strength of these long distance runners, from this particular area, is Barley.

The beauty of road trip is providing an opportunity of tasting a regional delight as people are selling along the road or in small shops in one of the villages or towns studded along the way. Talking about Barley, we were hoping to come across roasted Barley snack (Kolo) in which one of Bale’s villages Dinsho is known for.

We continued on a smooth and quiet ride to the southeastern highland of Ethiopia decorated with impressive landscape which makes any journey as interesting if not better than the destination –typical road trip anywhere in Ethiopia.

road trip Bale mountains 5

After 100 km from Adama, the journey curtain opened to reveal Arsi’s major town which lies at 2400 m altitude. Asella was the capital of Arsi Province before relegated to the Oromia region, however Asella still maintains being an administrative center of Arsi zone. Asella is also a special place which strongly associated with the incomparable, Ethiopia’s very own and Olympic medalist Haile Gebresillasie as Asella is his birth place.

Once again we are back to the bustling city life scene – building, the white and blue tuk tuk bajajs, minivan taxis, shops, hotels and restaurants. Asella town was once an overnight stopover to explore the Bale Mountains – way before the paved road all the way to Goba (Another Bale’s town) and comfortable express bus service from Addis Ababa introduced. However, Asella still can be an overnight stopover for travelers with plenty of time and interested in the off the beaten path.

As Asella is obviously perfect lunch or coffee stopover for the particular journey like we were on, we wanted to have lunch, feel the ground and hoping to grasp Arsi’s spirit. We picked a hotel owned and goes by the name of another Long distance – runner and Olympic Medalist Athlete Derartu Tulu herself – who is one of Ethiopia’s treasures the Arsi highland gave birth to. Besides the obvious connection we were glad to have lunch at this spacious and clean hotel restaurant with friendly staff and good food.

We continued our journey and the city vibe faded away quickly on a smooth quiet journey which took us to Arsi’s small town lies at an altitude of 2,800 m above sea level and 56 km from Asella.

Bekoji – a name bigger than what the village appeared to be as it equally shares locally famous signature of being the birth place of many long – distance runners and Olympic medalist who put Ethiopia on the spot light with their victory in an international arena – Derartu Tulu, Fatuma Roba, Tirunesh Dibaba and Kenenisa Bekele.

One of the most memorable scene of this small town is colorfully embellished horses galloped by the skilled horsemen swaddled in warm shawl on an evocative frosty moorland. It was one of the thrilling reminders of being in an Oromia region.

 

The next small town which welcomed us, is where the Shashemene and Asella road converge in West Arsi zone. Dodola set an elevation of 2,400 m covered with Afromontane forest and afro alpine moorland. Dodola is the northwestern extension of the Bale Mountains which its magnificent mountainous forest and beautiful trees signaled the Bale Mountains as we were getting closer.

road trip Bale mountains 8

The Dodola road swiftly took us through the West Arsi zone in to the other Oromia Region zone where The Bale Mountains resides – Bale. As the road traverse one of the five habitats of the Bale mountain national park – Gaysay Grassland – driving slowly required with all the signs of animals along the road signaling that we might encounter the animals crossing the paved road to the other side of their habitat.

road trip Bale mountains 9

At this point our curiosity raised up. After few meters drive, we were welcomed by one of the animals lives in Gaysay Grassland – the olive baboons. Our excitement to see the olive baboons quickly replaced by puzzled curiosity, as the baboons aggressively run towards the car almost to bang the window as if they are looking for something and even jumped on the car as if to stop it, then we all got hit by some kind of awareness right away as we realized and finally conformed from our tour guide the next day the sad truth.

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The animals unconsciously conditioned by some irresponsible people in spite of signs and common sense throwing food to the animals, as a result the animals keep doing this every time a car pass by. This particular unexpected incident actuated a heated conversation about awareness in conservation and how we humans play a role.

Finally we reached the mountainous village which locally famous for one of gastronomic delights of Bale – Dinsho kolo (roasted Barely snack) – perfect for road trip and trekking in bale mountains. Our Destination Dinsho lies at 3,100 m altitude and it is a village where the head quarter of The Bale Mountains National Park resides.

 

In the honor of Road Trips!

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Introduction: Seven Days Trekking In The Bale Mountains

The Bale Mountains 1

It’s a journey which started somewhere from deep inside of a longing soul to go back home and to check off a bucket list – The Bale Mountains. Actual path which involved crossing the world from Brussels to Addis Ababa – home turf. Elongated to the southeastern Ethiopia, 375 km Southeast of Addis Ababa to the Bale Mountains, via Assela, of a five-hour drive to the headquarter – Dinsho. which took seven days, camping in the wilderness, of an exciting and sometimes challenging attempt, to capture the soul of The Bale Mountains.

It’s a journey which soared way up to the roof of Africa, to one of the Earth’s eight biogeographic realms – Afrotropical – to witness Lava outflow and glaciation magical invention of the soul enlivening Bale Mountains.

The Bale Mountains 2

It’s a journey interestingly specified to Ethiopia’s hidden gem, universally recognized, biodiversity paradise and to the heart of The Bale Mountains – The Bale National park. To a park which naturally and uniquely divide in five habitats, to see the wonder of nature by the most scenic drive on the highest all – weather road in Africa, crossing a plateau, one of a kind animal watching and sacred mountain trekking and pony – trekking.

The Bale Mountains 3

It’s a journey studded with a memorable experience of a Park with many unique universes of its own. Witnessing one by one via a thrilling, remarkable and challenging journey started from 3000 m high, ascending to 4000 m and descending to 2000 m from a plateau along an escarpment into a forest.

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It’s a journey distinctively cascaded through Gaysay Grassland with its rivers, swamp, unique fauna and flora and home to the endemic Mountain Nyala and other animals. Juniper Woodlands with its beautiful African tree Hagenia Abyssinica and other trees. Afroalpine Leas and Upper Web valley with its rich Afroalpine vegetation to create a unique world of its own. With its very own unique spectacle of animal watching only Ethiopia can provide – the endemic Ethiopian wolf hunting another endemic giant mole rat on a unique landscape. With its Impressive rock formation, magnificent valley and home to the second tallest mountain in Ethiopia –Tulu Dimtu (4,377 m). Erica Belt as Descending down from Sanetti plateau along the Harenna Escarpment to enter into a fairytale like forest – Erica trees beautifully, impressively and extremely clothed with moss. Harenna Forest the largest cloud forest in the country which encompassing bamboo forest within and being home to another endemic – The Bale monkey.

The Bale Mountains 5

It’s a unique journey which delivered a rare and exciting chance of trekking on a flat land in the ether and a picturesque drive through clouds on a roof of Africa. Experiencing mountain air and ruthless cold, encountering very interesting people along the way, losing oneself in wide open spaces but ironically finding true self, gathering around campfire and having heated conversations with strangers.

It’s a journey inspired to mug up on a particular history. Bale Mountains named after a formerly high powered Muslim State, that was discovered in Bale during the 11-th century. Bale is the original state of Muslim, it was also the base of the 13-th century Arabian Missionary Sheikh Hussein who left a still existing legacy of his shrine. Thus, these historical facts answered the “why” induced by roadside authentic everyday life spectacles – the local unique way of living, clothing and bamboo fenced small colorful mosques dotted here and there.

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It’s a journey which incorporated gastronomic experience of a particular culture – Taste Of Bale. Golden barley farm fields, was not only an eye vista as Barley appeared on a plate as one of Oromia’s delicious delicacies famously known as Chechebsa. From the farm fields, potato ended up being deliciously warming companion in a very cold evening out on the mountains. Traditional beehives, on one of unique trees of Bale, magically appeared as traditional mild mead – Birze. Fresh picked from a garden and steamed Collard Green which locally known as Gomen with home baked bread, distinctively unique delicacies of Bale from Harenna forest village Rira, and seasonally harvested wild forest coffee from Harenna forest in a cup for a soul.

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It’s a journey with its own miss out and rewards of seasonal offerings of The Bale Mountains. Bale during January means, missing out flowers which only blossoms during August – November like the colorful Red –hot poker, excessively and beautifully covered Erica trees with moss, rainy, muddy and misty but warmer journey. In spite of being the coldest time of year for the Bale Mountains, it was a journey blissfully rewarded with clear blue sky, once a year seasonally harvested wild coffee, the flowering of a distinctive African tree – Hagenia Abyssinica and many other beauties of its own.

It’s a journey which induced feelings, emotions, thoughts, conversations and insights about nature, security, freedom, true self, home, wilderness and so on.

All in all, it’s a journey which provided a once in a life time experience on the roof of Africa – beautifully diverse, exotically distinctive and excruciatingly cold.

The Bale Mountains 8

To Be Continued…

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ETHIOPIA: EXPLORING THE ROOF OF AFRICA

It is always good to go back HOME – ETHIOPIA.

Coming soon is – My seven days trekking in The Bale Mountains travel memoir.

Bale Mountains 1

There is no place like HOME!

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Ethiopian Gastronomic Journey in Belgium I

Flemish Regional Delight 1

Food is a key to open the gate, on a delicious path way into another culture. My Ethiopian wanderlust takes me to a whole new world, yet again to explore and learn. Belgium is the destination and food is the tour guide into this rich culture and history.

To be specific and to take on my food adventure one detail at a time, FLEMISH REGIONAL DELIGHTS and CLASSICS which usually can be found on many local restaurant menus, gave me an exciting direction to start.

Of course for many people including me, the two world’s best treats jump to mind at the mention of Belgium: Chocolate and Beer. Obviously my gastronomic journey in Belgium instantly made me to realize that there is more to it.

Little local eateries where locals hangout is always my first choice to taste authenticity. For certain dishes, I was blessed enough to experience home cooking at typical Flemish household – Belgian food cooked with passion and love by a lovely family. I don’t know if I can get any closer to this rich culture than this.

As much as I believe Traveling expands your horizon, I am also an avid advocate that you don’t really need to actually go anywhere to learn about another culture. As I also love being transported into another world through travel books, cook books and travel shows.

While learning about another culture through food, ironically it seem, but I discover more about myself and the culture I grew up in. Ethiopian dishes are more inclined towards legumes, grains, certain vegetables and spices. Usually the spicier and the hotter the better for many Ethiopian taste palate.

As an Ethiopian, my taste bud is accustomed to earthy, spicy, sourish and very hot rather than very rich and creamy which I am actually experiencing here in Europe and which can be overwhelming at times. Obviously certain dishes I can’t really try like Chicory Ham Roll, because as an Ethiopian Orthodox religion devotee, Pork is not allowed to eat.

Of course when opportunities present themselves like this – actually be in Belgium in this case – I grab it fervently and try to be as present as possible to let the experience pass through me, leaving it’s cherished mark behind so I can always carry it with me and sharing it with the world in honoring my passion.

As a lover of caressing divine details, I couldn’t resist the temptation of visiting the chocolate museum in Brugge. The mesmerizing details and history behind this world’s delicious treat – from cacao beans to chocolate – nourished my soul as much as an extremely good Belgian Chocolate would.

Another museum also dedicated to another gastronomic symbol of Belgium – Frites. Many of us knows this particular treat as French Fries, however the general idea which the name possibly indicates can be changed instantly after an authentic experience in Belgium – a land from where it is claimed to be originated.

After visiting Friet Museum in Brugge, which beautifully caress the details and the origin of Belgian French Fries. After being at one of the local friture, which usually occupied by the locals and of course after savoring twice fried, perfectly crisp, full of flavor, comforting and aromatic friets cut into the size of lady finger and smothered with rich homemade mayonnaise as Belgians would… I couldn’t help to believe that Belgians owns it indeed.

Sea Food is also an important part of Belgian cuisine as Belgium borders the sea. As an Ethiopian Sea Food is a whole new world to discover, it is not only because Ethiopia has been a landlocked country for the past 26 years, but also Ethiopian cuisine doesn’t really incorporate sea food except certain kind of fish usually Telapia from its great rift valley lakes dotted along the southern part of the country, Lake Tana and other lakes scattered around the country.

So on top of indulging my curiosity with Rick Stein’s Seafood Odyssey, I happily seized the opportunity to immerse myself on the sea food culture in Belgium.

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Mussels and prawns are popular and I was fortunate enough to enlighten my taste palate with home cooked hearty mussels by my Belgian husband. It made me feel like, I tasted the sea. The white wine in which the mussels cooked in and the parsley gave it another dimension.

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I learn different kinds of sauces are integral parts of Belgian cuisines. The green sauce that Belgians are known for is on top of my favorite list. What makes it even more interesting is the 12 herbs it is made of and the story behind it.

Paling in ‘t Groen (Eels in Green Sauce) is one of Flemish regional delights. Legend has it, this was one of the favorite dishes of Emperor Charles V. The very devout catholic Emperor insisted that 12 different kind of herbs being used in preparing this dish, 12 herbs representing each apostle.

The combination of different kinds of herbs – Mint, Parsley, springs of tarragon, Basil, Sage, Watercress, Chervil, Lemon balm, Sorrel, Bay leaf, Savory and Nettle (now replaced by Spinach) – gives it deep green color.

The smooth texture, greenish and earthy flavor in combination with perfectly cooked Eels, was divinely delicious.

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Smakelijk! And Dank uwel! – are two words, a traveler in a gastronomic journey in Belgium would quickly pick up.

To Be Continued…

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Bird Watching In Ethiopia I

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The landscape of Ethiopia is surprisingly diverse as being one of the countries from the horn of Africa.

The land of Ethiopia hosts from lush grass land, savanna, forest to desert. This diversity brings out abundance in bird life and made Ethiopia one of the 10 places for birding from Africa.

Ethiopia supports 850 spices and 37 endemic and near endemic birds which puts Ethiopia in the second place succeeding South Africa.

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The roof top of Africa –Ethiopia – is home to the highest mountain range in the continent. This magnificent creation of nature is not only feast for the eye, but also a convenient arena for the skillful, gracious and bearded vulture (Gypaetus Barbatus), also known as The Lammergeier.

A soul enticing spectacle Ethiopia hosts by The Lammergeier  – hovering above spectacular mountain range, patiently waiting for the scavengers clean out the bone, picking the bone swiftly, flying so high, looking for the sharpest rock, drop the bone, crush into pieces, softly landing and picking out the bone marrow.

Sundering the mountains is the great rift valley cuts through Ethiopia starting from Turkey is dotted with beautiful lakes like lake Hawassa, Zway, Shala and Langano to name the few.

Lakes which most supports different kinds of birds and indeed beautiful spots to witness outstanding spectacle of water birds in Ethiopia and the harmonies co-existence between animals and human.

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The capital city of Africa – Addis Ababa – still hosts quite a bit of birds in spite of the fact slowly turning into concrete jungle. Mingling with ordinary pigeons, The White – collared Pigeon – one of the beautiful endemic birds, which can only be spotted in Ethiopia and Eriteria. Either for an enthusiast birders or nature lovers, this particular bird most probably raise the curtain for the most fascinating bird life show in Ethiopia, on your first arrival in Addis Ababa.

Ethiopia is a unique place where you can go back in time – where donkeys are beloved means of transportation, camels are desert ships, salt is being mined traditionally, fields are plowed by oxen, cattle are part of a family, and homes being constructed by plants collected from nearby so does bird’s nest – soul enlightening scene.

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Ethiopia is a warm vacation place for Palearctic migrants coming from all parts of the world – Asia north of Himalayas, Europe, Northern Arabia, and Africa north of Sahara: Old world Holarctic. While boreal winter pervades other parts of the world, the sun keeps shining in Ethiopia to make it the best time of year for birders and nature enthusiast alike.

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Ethiopia is the land of beauty. It is not only the landscape, the diversity, culture, history and the people that screams out beauty, it’s also proud owner of extremely beautiful, the world’s most sought after bird – The Spectacular Prince Ruspoli’s Turaco.

When it comes to birding, Ethiopia is considered one of the most convenient places in the world to easily see many species of birds. The beautiful Arabian Bustard (Jacques Erard), Von der Decken’s Hornbill – one of many northeast African endemics, The Lammergeier and so many more.

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For further information about Bird watching in Ethiopia and horn of Africa, I suggest the following three books.

Birding Ethiopia: I must say this particular book is more than a birding guide book for people who are planning to visit Ethiopia, it is also beautifully and thoughtfully designed to people who just want to be transported into another place from the comfort of their home.

 

Where to Watch Birds in Ethiopia: Another detailed guide book to the best birding sites in Ethiopia. One of the authors being an Ethiopian – Merid Gabremichael – is a definite plus as it gives an interesting feeling of being guided by a local.

 

Birds of the Horn of Africa: This book is for birders and ornithologists alike and covers not only Ethiopia but the horn of Africa.

 

 

As the first installment, this particular post is only a welcoming entry into The Bird Paradise – Ethiopia – which leads to a closer look at the Endemics and near endemics which I am blessed to witness, coming up on the next installment of Bird Watching in Ethiopia II.

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For the love of Birds!

Posted in Addis Ababa, Africa, Birds, Book, Ethiopia, Photo Essay, Travel, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 13 Comments

Dallol: The Danakil Desert Adventure III

 

A highlight of Danakil Desert Adventure. Uninhabited region, roughly 130 meters  below sea level. Holds the official record for high average annual temperature of 35C . Dreamlike colorful wonderland of delicate masterpieces of sulfur that situates in the center of the explosion crater – Dallol – Kaleidoscopic, Whimsical and Transcendental

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After witnessing spectacular sunset over Salt Lake – Lake Assale, we head back to Hamed Ela military camp to spend a night out in Danakil Desert. The military camp settled closer to Ethiopia and Eritrea border which seem like the edge of the world.

Small shelters built by assembled dry sticks and finished with straw mat as a roof top. The huts built closer to each other in the middle of the camp area. Wooden, woven beds set up outside around the huts in a circular form to keep us from possible windstorm in the evening while sleeping outside. An interesting detail of resourcefulness I noticed by being in a desert – putting things in circular form.

I remember while watching the sunset over Lake Assale, the drivers park the cars in circular form again for wind protection. They put portable little chairs within the circle. The chairs placed against the cars so that we sit inside a cocoon and enjoy little plastic cups of local red wine while they were entertaining us by cracking local tunes and dancing in the middle as a dance floor – enjoying present moment somewhere in Danakil Desert.

Before dinner at the camp, we provided with container of water to wash up our salty legs from waded in salt lake. Meron (Merry) was our amazing cook, who has been with the group cooking delicious local and western fares. Her energy and resourcefulness for cooking amazing dishes in this harsh environment was truly inspiring and definitely an affirmation that WOMEN ARE CAPABLE OF DOING ANYTHING .

A buffet set up outside and we enjoyed eating dinner out in a desert. Our guide gave us brief description for our next day adventure in Danakil Desert. Obviously after dinner, we were craving something cold to drink, so fortunately there was a military joint within the camp compound.

A fridge freezer cornered at the side of the first room which is built by an evenly assembled dry sticks. Long and thick wooden set up at every corner of the room as a bench. There were few chairs were  military members were sitting on and around small tables having local beer and relaxing. Within the next room there was big pool table were other military members playing around it.

We got ourselves slightly cold local beer and start interacting within a military bar somewhere in Danakil Desert. The group I was in for this adventure was a compilation of people who came from different parts of the country that one common interest brought us together at Danakil Desert.

WANDERLUST brought Israelis friends, Polish couples, Swiss women wanderer  amusing English guy, flexible Japanese guy, core hard traveler Japanese women, Belgian, Russian and American … all at the cradle of humanity: a region where 3.2 million – year – old hominid known as Dinknesh (Lucy) unearthed in 1974 – Afar, Ethiopia. The distance between countries seemed to lessen. A defining moment to rise way above ego (the false self) and to actually be able to see citizens of the universe gather at their great great great… grandmother’s home where it all begins – Ethiopia.

There was no toilet facilities at the military camp for the group to use. Bit further away from the military compound behind little stone hills was where we allowed to take care of nature’s call. Once again comfort in a desert is a state of mind. Another day had to come to an end without taking shower in Danakil Desert at Hamed Ela military camp. Feeling the wet wipe on my skin felt like heaven and actuated me to be present enough to appreciate a sacred experience of feeling all clean and fresh.

It was time to sleep. Thin, colorful and foamy mattresses laid up on the woven bed and sleeping bag. The evening was even warmer than the night we spent at a slope next to the volcano – Erta’ Ale. The sleeping bag did not come to be useful until the wind started to kick off after midnight. Letting go the illusion of sense of security, putting trust on strangers and the universe … was another profound life lesson I obtained while sleeping out in Danakil Desert under pitch black sky with sparking stars.

After a short night, we were awoken by a flashlight and a wake up call coming from our guide 5 in the morning. Sunrise above silvery horizon over Hamed Ela. The camel caravans were already started their journey back to the salt mine looking all energized and this time without loads of salt cubes as it is the double backing journey from Berhale to harvest salt. We had amazing breakfast at the same spot we had dinner. After breakfast we immediately started our last day Danakil Adventure.

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Heading to our first stop Dallol was witnessing sand gives way to salt flats. While contemplating the fascinating flatness of the desert, the cars parked under a huge brown mound which seem to be appear by some kind of magic within the endlessness of nothingness and it is the only vertical figure in sight. Dallol is a broad flat –slopped maar formed in 1926, protrudes from the eastern side of a 1,200 km area of windswept salt encrusted flats.

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We had to ascend the slope in order to reach our destination – Dallol.  Our guides advised to take a litter of bottled water with us. After climbing the hill for a little while we were greeted by jaw dropping rock formations and salt structures which sprout like mushroom with smooth marble like table top. These mineral formations has orange, brown, white and pinkish colors and stopped us cold. Half way up and looking back to witness an orange colored desert and the cars parked under the slope now little toys in the vanishing salt and sand horizon.

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After 15 minutes walk, we reached at the top of the hill. Being able to see behind the hill was unimaginable vista. Strange earth formation lead us to another world. Before we knew it while still being mesmerized by the salt structure we walked up on … a live, huge and colorful canvas unfold before us. It seem like stepping into a painting where different kinds of forms, bright and happy colors all over the place.

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Obviously with the limited conscious mind, we would be able to see the scientific facts – colored plain of sulfur deposits, iron oxide crust, sulfur geysers and acid lakes – and all the peculiar colors, shapes and forms all over. Drops, bubbles and smoke. Rock, water, sand and oil.  Yellow, brown, orange, white, green, red and so on.

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Besides being visually stunning, actually being at Dallol is so surreal. We felt the heat not only from the early morning sun of the desert above us but also from the delicate ground of Dallol, and from the bubbling sulfur springs. To make it even more alive the overwhelming smell of sulfur actuated us to be present through our sense of smell.

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Our silent reverie loudly complemented by soft throbbing of water boiling underground, bubble up steaming water of the tiny geysers and from crunching over crystal like formations of the brittle earth with our every mindful but adventurous steps we took within Dallol.

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Dallol had to be visited early in the morning before the desert start baking. It was around 7:30 we arrived there. Though it sounds too early for the desert to heat up we were already sweating. We had to wear hat obviously to protect our skin from the already scorching sun even in the morning.

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No jewelries and it is not because of the adventure but rather to protect your jewelry from discoloration just being at Dallol. Some kind of mask as walking through this whole new world challenges a sense of smell with its intensified sulfuric smell. Trekking shoes as walking within Dallo was a delicate one that one false move leads into bubbling sulfur so being mindful was essential.

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Talking about mindfulness, if you let yourself to see Dallol way beyond the scientific label it putted up on it by scientific facts /logical mind, you can definitely stunned by the inexplicable energy of the universe adorned with breathtaking colors and fascinating details. After an hour wandering around within Dallol, we head back to the cars. Dallol equally impressed us all regardless of our travel histories.

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Danakil Desert is full of strange and stunning earth formation features. Salt hill and canyon was our second stop. We had to literally crawl for two minutes under salt hill to end up in the middle of the salt canyon which was dark so had to use headlight. It was bit challenging but all worth it as we end up being stunned by what we saw at the end.

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Either created by wind and erosion or by the in-explainable universe energy. I choose to be enlightened by the beauty of the details carved on the wall of the salt hill and God lies in details indeed. To get out of the canyon we had to climb up the hill which required a big step, holding on a grip and obviously trusting your own true nature.

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Another magical earth formation of Danakil Desert was our third stop which is named as Yellow Lake. A strange little lake with different colors and yellow potash bubbling. According to the locals it has a healing property for skin aliments. I saw our driver taking the water into plastic bottles and he said it is strong remedies but heals any kind of skin problems.  A miracle in a desert.

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Saving the best for last. Besides being blown by earth formation my Danakil Desert Adventure lead me straight in to a HEART OPENER experience. Our last stop for our last day in Danakil desert was vising the salt mine.

Salt flats in the Danakil Depression, along the borderline between Ethiopia and Eritrea, are located 100 meters below sea level. This huge salt crust often up to 1000 meters thick, goes deep in the earth’s crust. It is where the salt mine is.

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It was 10:00 am when we reached at the salt mine not even mid-day but I clearly recall checking the odometer to make sure as the heat start becoming unbearable and it was already 44 C. The highlander’s Tigray and the lowlander’s Afar salt miners was working harmoniously and with enthusiasm in spite of the inhospitable nature of the Desert.

The salt miners were breaking plates of salt out of the ground using  ax. Fitting a set of sticks in the indentations made by the ax.  Lifting the big salt slab using the sticks. Cutting the slab into tiles of standard sizes which weight 4kg. Stacking, tying and loading it on the mules and camels for transport.

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Carving one piece of cube salt fetch salt miners 3 Ethiopian Birr so they try to make as many as possible before the day ends. I learn they can make from 100 – 200 salt cubes a day and that would be an estimation of earning from 14 – 25 $ a day.

They were so focused on what they were doing to the point it seem they were not aware of being invaded by tourists walking around and taking picture of the action of the moment. Evidently the salt miners  get used to the fact being visited by tourists but the very fact they were present enough for the task at hand even surpass the suffering of physical body from the merciless sun and heat of the desert.

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As locally know as Amole Chew – is salt block which once was an exchanging commodity worthy as gold here in Ethiopia. Although money notes has replaced Amole, Salt is still “White Gold” for the legendary Ethiopian Afar people who pay price–from taking off burned flab of skin to precious life.

Seeing an Ethiopian within the group who came to visit the salt mine seem flabbergasted many salt miners a bit as it is not an everyday occurrence. I saw a sense of joy on their face in seeing their own person as a tourist and it made me even happier when they took a moment to look at me in the eye and said “HABESHA” – a recognition of souls in a sense of oneness.

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By some kind cosmic force I was being able to detach from the part of me who was being a tourist in my own country and start to see the actual native and tourist connection. Starting with the natives, it’s obvious that not every native is happy with the fact a lenses put up on their face while going through their everyday life especially without their permission and in spite of what the local tour guide say. And being a tourist should be more than seeing places and taking picture rather it should come with compassion and respect for the land and the people being visited.

Arrogance comes when a tourist ask camel drivers while they are crossing the desert to hop on a camel that already carry enough load just to take pictures and saying I have been there. Arrogance comes when not honoring etiquette of the place being visited. Arrogance comes when a tourist thinks the money paid for the itinerary entitled them to do whatever they like – step on culture, tradition, dignity and needs of the natives of the land being visited. Arrogance comes when getting pleasure out of somebody’s misery for the sake of telling a story.

Everywhere in the world, people want the same thing – shelter, food, family, happiness, love, comfort and most importantly we all want to know that we matter that our being here meant something. Seeing people beyond the cover or beyond given conceptual identity. Emitting that sense of oneness by saluting the same soul that abides within all of us can be a heart opener to all of us native or tourist and then we welcome each other with open heart in our own home wherever it may be.

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I packed all the priceless memories and lessons within my heart as my Danakil Adventure has come to an end. Once we reached the city of Mekele which is around 100 km away from the Danakil Depression, the first thing we all wanted to do is dump our smelly and dirty clothes, take real shower, put on clean cloth, have cold drink and sleeping inside and on a bed.

Our car pulled over in front of Ethio Travel and Tours office where it all begins four days ago. At the office we were so welcomed with smile and appreciation. The staff presented us white polo t-shirt – on which JUST DONE IT DANAKIL  words sewed on it with green, yellow and red thread– as a trophy which made us feel a hero. Last but not least, I must say I really had great experience with skilled, experienced, and caring team –from sweet drivers, strong Ethiopian woman cook to thoughtful tour guides of Ethio Travel and Tours (ETT)–whom all made this Danakil Adventure possible.

The End

Posted in Adventure, Afar, Africa, Danakil Depression, Danakil Desert, Erta' Ale Volcano, Ethiopia, Landscape, Photo Essay, Travel, Travel and Tourism, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Lake Assale: The Danakil Desert Adventure II

Lies at -116 m  below sea level. It is one of the SALT LAKES in the northern end of the Danakil Depression. Lake Assale (Asale) is an ex harbor of the Red Sea, also known as Lake Karum – CATHARTIC, ALTRUISTIC AND ILLUMINATING.

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Our stirring transition – from witnessing the flaming LAVA LAKE – Erta’ Ale –, to the snow – white SALT LAKE – Lake Assale – within the Danakil Desert, went through a convalescent overnight stay in Abala village.

After a challenging day and an overwhelming night out in a desert. On our second day Journeyed to Abala village to soak in the desert life via mingling with the locals in one of the Afar regions. The road trip from Dodom – entry way to visit Erta’ Ale – to Abala was mostly about processing our Erta’ Ale experience. Reflecting. Going through pictures from last night.

After a while the desert heated up devastatingly. It hinted us that the last time we had cold drink either water or soft drink was the day before in Mekele – getaway to Danakil Desert. Once in a desert, the water we kept drinking was literally lukewarm and tasteless. Realized even room temperature kept water tastes like heaven and sounded priceless at that very moment.

By mid-day the scorching sun already started baking the desert. Stopped at one of the villages for lunch. As if by some kind of magic, the little coffee shop in the desert had an actual godsend – one of human creations out of necessity. Guess What? Fridge-freezer! A cue formed instantly to get cold soft drinks as if we have never had it before. Maybe all you need is a Fridge freezer in a desert to thrive, I thought.

The cold drinks were double the price of the city but was all worth it. I could not wait for the shop keeper to hand me the cold drink. I was just embracing the bottle with both of my hands to soak in the priceless cold feeling from the bottle. The thick soft drink bottle was caressed with little drippings of melting iced water. I kept it towards my face so it gives my sweltering skin a moment of relief from the fire – waft which I became friend with in order to survive in this callous environment.

That lukewarm water we have been drinking in spite of it all, did not quench a thirst and obviously won’t be able to give that cooling effect from inside out. I felt every tiny bit of the cold drink’s taste, texture and movement passing through till it’s very last drop as if for the very first time – another divine moment to be present in the midst of Danakil Desert.

Our stay at Abala village was affectionately pleasant. Took bucket shower with naturally warm water – no need of a heater here. Walked through the village which suddenly overflown by Abala’s charming children who were excited to see strangers. We had delightful Ethiopian traditional coffee even in a desert. Divinely scrumptious regional delight – stir fried goat meat. Deliciously succulent orange were among the many we indulged ourselves in Abala village.

We stayed overnight at the village in one of the cement built local houses which seem turned into an oven by the heat of the desert. We slept on the foamy little mattresses laid on the cement ground. Even in the evening and with the windows open the room was too warm to sleep, but it was good enough for our recovery from our first day challenging adventure in the desert.

On the third day with in the Danakil desert, the intriguing road trip from south – west to the northern end of the Danakil Desert, to witness the live spectacle of sunset over Lake Assale, started around 8:30 a.m. After half an hour drive, we stopped at the view point to relish in amazing landscape which truly dreamlike.
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Spectacular road trip at the edge of the Danakil Depression as it was driving through Berhale –fascinating town at the edge of the Rift Valley escarpment of the Danakil Depression.

A large town located in the administrative zone 2 of the Afar Region in north – eastern Ethiopia. A town lies at an attitude of 639 meters above sea level. A town made up of two interesting combinations – the characteristically Tigray stone houses and the plain Afar huts. A stopover town for the camel caravans that bring salt from Lake Assale before proceeding to the market of Mekele in the highland.

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Berhale is an interesting town which exist in between two different worlds which gives it a unique charisma – not so much of a highland and not so much of a desert either – hence a treat of enthralling landscape in the valley.

The asphalted road in the desert lead us smoothly through the stripped and brownish twin mountains. It seemed like going through spellbinding transition between two natural kingdoms – highland and desert.

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Lake Assale Danakil Desert Adventure 8After a while, I started to realize why it is said that this is where the Danakil Depression actually starts. Hardly see people along the side of the road but be able to witness the movable Afar house of the nomads constructed somewhere in this barren environment.

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Leaving the mountains way behind, headed to the other village of zone 2 of the Afar region – Hamed Ela. Another Off – road ride following the rough caravan track but this time on the other part of the Danakil Desert where all sand in some expanses, and rocky in others. Passing sand and rock dunes thrown here and there by the universe for beautiful details in a desert.
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Hamed Ela is another small Afar village which exist in the ascetically beautiful desert. It is a village which lies 48 km east of Berhale. An overnight stopover for camel caravans coming from Berhale before proceeding to the salt mine in the morning. Hamed Ela is where we will spend the night sleeping out in the desert in a military camp as it is a springboard village for visit to Lake Assale.

Once we are at Hamed Ela the temperature already soared up to 42 c. The 8 km drive to Lake Assale from Hamed Ela, mostly seem like entering into a wide open space, making your own path leads to nowhere and entranced by the endless horizon.

We stopped in the middle of nowhere and get out of the car into the baking desert and walked through the thick heat towards a spring water. It was about three minute walk and we were already melting. The wide open space actuates you to realize the tiniest place you occupy in this vast universe as the edless desert has the power to make everything looks small.

An oasis in a desert. The spring water proclaims a miracle somewhere in the Danakil desert where existence seem impossible. The naturally created small pool, with interesting salt pattern at the age, contains warm salty water which provides a marvelous opportunity to feel the pacifying energy of water in the Danakil Desert.

Almost all deserts hosts some kind of camel caravan. Here at the Danakil desert,camel caravan is the harmonious bridge between the highland and the desert through a livelihood commodity – SALT. The caravan was coming out of the salt mine with skillfully hand cubed salt from the ground, loaded up on the camels and mules. The caravan was moving toward Berhale in late afternoon when the sun was not at its strongest but for me I was not able to see the difference as it was still hot.

“I can learn something from the desert too. It seems old and wise.” – A profound verse that reveled itself in my mind at the Danakil Desert while being captivated by the caravan from one of my favorite books of all time – THE ALCHEMIST by Paulo Coelho. I saw determination, stillness and presence on the faces of the nomads – Afar camel drivers. I felt the enlightening energy coming out of the Danakil desert crossers which was too strong to expand my horizon.

Could not help to be transported to another era and being lead to the source of the livelihood commodity of the Danakil Desert caravan traders. The still existing traditional salt mining. The historical journey of the caravans following the footsteps of their ancestors who brought wealth to the Axum Empire way back then via the once major trading commodity SALT.

It was the sound of the wind, the hoof beat of the animals, and the groan of the camels that were breaking the utter silence of the desert. My eyes followed the camel caravan until which seems at the edge of the horizon and its silhouette upon the abstractedly seen silvery mountain ranges. Suddenly, the captivating image covered by the sand dust that the cars were producing. It was about time to head to Lake Assale.

Unlike the other salt lake in the Danakil Depression – the emerald green lake Afrera. Lake Assale produce different kinds of hypnotic colors. One part is blindly snow white. The other part gives an illusion of golden hues on sparkling salt due to the brown sand.

In remote times, this part of the Danakil Depression was intermittently submerged by the Red Sea which eventually left behind larger amount of aquatic salt accumulated to layers of several hundreds of meters deep and turned into the now salt Lake. Lake Assale is part lake and part salt deposit.

Most of its places covered by thick salt crust that even support vehicles. Our car had to stop at some point in order to avoid sinking in. We waded into the lake feeling the salt crust beneath. Heading further in, then felt the warm salty water on my feet. I tried to imagine Lake Asale overflown with water when it rains in highlands as it hardly rain in the Danakil Desert.
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The brightness of it all was soul ILLUMINATING. It was powerful enough to make you step out of the limited physical realm into the blissfully unlimited spiritual realm for a brief moment. Stepping on the sparkling salt crust suddenly became intimidating out of a sense of respect, which stirred by the camel caravans I witnessed.

Being at its source, I could not help to contemplate salt as I was surrounded by it. A sense of appreciation for this particular element invaded me. A moment of realization that Salt is more than a flavor enhancer of my food which confined within a tiny salt shaker placed at the kitchen cabinet or dining table. Rather, salt is a livelihood of the desert people.
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Obviously Lake Assale is ALTRUISTIC as it has been mined for many years and still is. Conversely, the life changing experience emanated from witnessing the materializing process that comes with a price – the sweat of the salt miners and camel drivers in this harsh desert. The still existing salt mining activity moves seasonally and we were scheduled to witness it on the next day – the last day of our Danakil Desert Adventure.

CATHARTIC indeed. The anticipation of standing on a salt lake that once flooded by the Red Sea was a grand moment as it seem like it was not only salt but an everlasting energy that it left behind. Seeing my reflection on the clear salt lake was priceless as it was a moment of clarity that my adventure of discovering my own country was actually discovering MYSELF!
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Looking up. From a distance part of the lake embellished by the dreamily seen mountains. Part of it provides a fascinating scene of an endless sparkling horizon. Part of it dashed with brown sand which seemed like a painting.

The sunset over the sparkling Salt Lake – Lake Assale. The sky slowly turned into a huge canvas revealing collection of colors being portrayed before us in the desert by the universe.
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The glowing sun slowly moves behind the luminous clouds and swallowed by the silhouette of mountain ranges from a distance. The snow white salt lake turned into pink for an ephemeral moment.
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Another honored day ended at the Danakil Desert.
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To be continued…

Posted in Adventure, Africa, Danakil Depression, Danakil Desert, Ethiopia, Travel and Tourism | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Erta’ Ale: The Danakil Desert Adventure I

Adventurous expedition through Danakil Desert (Danakil Depression) within the Afar region of Ethiopia is more like a transition into an astounding whole new WORLD.

Danakil Desert is full of spectacular highlights and electrifying details that begs for bold exploration. I start with the rare phenomenon that Danakil Desert provides to witness through one of the few persistent lava lakes in the world – Erta’ Ale – HYPNOTIZING, DEFYING AND MEMORABLE.

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The itinerary in which I was on for this experience, required three nights and four days camping in the Danakil Desert – where many areas laying more than 100 meter below sea level, where temperature can soar to 50 c and earns a startling reputation of being the hottest place on earth.

Our journey started from Mekele – the gateway to Danakil Desert – via a village which is the administrative center of Zone 2 of the Afar Region called Abala. Continued to Dodom – a village found around the most desolated landscape and serves as an entry way for visiting Erta’ Ale.

For acquiring the real sense of this whole new world, you have to taste it and feel it. Maybe this is one of the reasons why nothing really prepared me for this captivating adventure than actually be there.

Heading to the Danakil Desert is a mesmerizing experience by itself. The road, the landscape, the desert flora, the villages (yes even in a Desert), the people and so many more to be blown away by. But it takes to be present enough to witness and to let it pass through you while leaving its priceless life lessons or memories imprinted on your heart.

Besides the anticipation seeing Erta’ Ale, it is the ROAD TRIP that kept me so fascinated in so many ways. As we kept driving and leaving behind the comfort of city life or even little villages with cold drinks – felt like heaven at one point -, the landscape slowly start changing as a welcoming sign of another different world.

Green plantations and mountains faded away, the road starts to flatten, less and less people at the side of the road.  Scattered strange plants which grew between rocks started to reveal this harsh environment.

The road trip gone smoothly on asphalted road while enjoying the scenery on each side. Obviously, nothing beats ROAD TRIP AND GOOD PLAYLIST so luckily the driver had some engaging local tunes cranked – perfect match for a memorable ROAD TRIP IN ETHIOPIA.

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It was about time to have lunch at one of the villages and this is when I truly realized that I actually entered into a desert. The moment stepping out of the air conditioned car, my skin greeted by the remorseless fire – waft and the sweltering desert sun, I felt the heat within a second all I wanted was some kind of shade.

The little house we had lunch built by unevenly assembled dried sticks and finished with corrugated iron door and straw roof top. Good enough to provide shade – which seems priceless at the moment – and probably from the sand wind in the evening but no way to escape the heat as the fire – waft invite itself through the gaps of sticks and the open door.  Start sweating already.

Obviously I missed Addis Ababa’s heavenly cool breeze, but now I get to feel the desert with all my being, I knew it was about time to start embracing it rather than resisting in order to alleviate my wanderlust so I continued.

Heading to Dodom in the afternoon means the Road Trip getting tougher, bottle of water getting warmer – time to taste the desert.

All Windows closed to keep out the dust and of course the fire wind, time to rely up on AC inside the car. Could not help wondering what it would be like out there, so checking the odometer becomes an addictive little act out of curiosity.  From 38 c hitting to 45 c seen it and felt it all.

Once off – road and as exactly our driver said it “this is where the battle begin so fasten up your seat belts”. I could not help having a new sense of admiration and respect for all the drivers in the Danakil Desert. Even though a good car that can handle this tough road is essential but an enthusiastic and experienced driver is a must too.

Being able to sit still for a moment and being able to have bottle of water without any effort suddenly becomes hard task that seemed too ordinary and obviously taken for granted –  lesson learned while crossing the Danakil Desert on one of the worst road in the world. It is only 6.5 km, but takes 90 minutes driving on harden lava rock, sand and passing through intermittent desert flora.

It was not a road anymore. It seemed like the three cars before us was making their own way while leaving sand trail behind. It felt like we were on an enticing car rally watching all the action through the car window which is on the race itself. It was just electrifying.

As it is not enough to jolt your comfort zone and awaken your sense of wonder, the Road Trip do provide stunning scenes that I at-least could not help asking myself profound questions about life. Seeing hamlets, people walking outside even kids running around in the middle of nowhere stunned me.

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Yes there are small villages in a Danakil Desert that people live in. I thought I was in a life time adventure but this is an everyday life adventure for the survivor and legendary Afar People.

What dreamily noticeable through the duskiness of sizzling day were Amoyate and Boreale – other bigger volcanoes – embossing the barren landscape.

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Arriving at camp –the base of Erta’ Ale – with small stone huts where we rested and waited for the temperature to drop a little for averagely estimated three hour trekking way up to the slope to see Erta’ Ale.

Even though the road trip was bit challenging, it is at this camp that the eagerness to see the lava lake and to spend the night out in a Danakil Desert under the stars and moon builds up as it is now we are just few hours away from the most spectacular live natural scene of the world.

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The camels loaded with our mattresses, camping gears and our dinner but the rest we had to carry it with us – two litters of water (believe me you need it), sleeping bag and of course hygiene products – but the rest we left it behind at the camp where the drivers stay overnight to get their good night sleep for another safe road trip on the next day. Two guides, local guide and armed military scouts escort the group all the way to the hill top and to spend the night with us.

9.5 km walk up to the crater rim of Erta’ Ale started around 6 p.m. Talking about the temperature getting cooler well all I can say is “just a little bit cooler” as it was still hot even without the blazing sun.

The very first part even with a keen and new energy can be a bit tough as it is walking on sand where you can put too much effort for a desire of holding on a grip – obviously sand means no traction. Then walking on rocks and through yellowish dried vegetation grew between rocks.

As the time goes by and when the daylight starts fading, it was about time to put on our flashlight as it is important to see where we are stepping on specially when walking on thin solidified lava rock beds.

There were resting moments for 5 to 10 minutes to take our breath and catch up with the rest of the group. It was perfect moment to be present enough and look at the vast sky up on us with sparkling desert stars and a bright moon (it was half quarter moon on that night but still beautiful). To lighten up your soul even better in the midst of Danakil Desert Darkness, it is the red glare that you would be able to see from the far – a sign of Erta’ Ale.

The last part becomes a bit challenging and asks for being bit cautious as it is walking up to a slope on a soft solidified lava bed rock that cracks open and leads to an air pocket which is mostly not more than 20 cm. Here it is the crack sound beneath your steps that breaks the utter silence of the desert.

Eventually…We Made it! At the camp where we will spend the night sleeping on the slope beside the volcano. While taking our breath from the three and a half hour climb, we able to see Erta’ Ale for the first time from the first crater rim. Jaw dropping and powerful enough to let you rise way above chattering mind and tired physique.

Nestled within the caldera are two pit craters so we had to descend down into the larger, more northerly one which once held a lava lake though currently inactive. It is about a five minute walk on undulating lava that cracked open beneath almost every step and let you drop a bit – proceed with that eerie feeling.

Getting closer to the outer rim of the second caldera is to automatically feeling the unbearable heat that comes out of the crater lava lake. In spite of the heat, could not help looking down through the intensified red glow which is the mesmerizing effect of the molten red lava on the fume that comes out of it.

Though the upper surface of the lava looks dark it is translucent enough to see what is going on underneath – the slow but heated movement of the bubbling lava.

If all these and the roaring sound of the persistent lava lake are not enough to jolt your imagination, then the yellow and red little explosions that splash out and illuminate the lava lake definitely can and even better can make your pulse move as the heart does.

Spending Saturday night in a Danakil Desert witnessing the naturally spectacular light show and the hypnotic beauty of Erta’ Ale – translucent, enigmatic and startling – was eccentric and cherished. Obviously having dinner, getting rest and good night sleep skipped our mind for that moment as we were all so captivated and could have spent the whole night watching the earth formation magic unfolding before us.

We went back to the camp to have dinner and to sleep out in the Danakil Desert. The thin mattresses laid down on the ground and almost a one inch high rocks built up around the mattresses to protect us from the sand wind (which was not the case that night).

After this overwhelming and exciting day, all you long for taking shower -another everyday but ordinarily holy experience usually taken for granted – here you are at the mercy of wet wipe to clean up yourself. Comfort in a desert is determined by your state of mind.

That night out in the desert was bit warmer so hardly used the sleeping bag until it became a bit chilly and windy way after mid night. Watching the stars and the moon and the whole new experience of sleeping on the slope next to Erta’ Ale in a Danakil Desert was out of this world for me. Another moment to learn to lose control and the illusion of keeping our self-secure.  Letting it all go and be embraced by the vast universe in the darkness of Danakil Desert.

After a short night, we were awoken by our guide around 4:30 a.m. in the morning to go back and see Erta’ Ale once again while it is still dark, not to miss the sunrise over Erta’ Ale and of course to see the lava lake in a daylight.

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The volcano was still active and slowly the sky start brighten up and the sunrise against the red glow. This magical transformation of darkness to light had its own effect on Erta’ Ale as well. Erta’ Ale look different in a daylight and still striking in its uniqueness.

It is at this very moment that I truly understand why it is called Erta’ Ale – the Afar word which literally means Smoking Mountain. The intensified red glow that we were hypnotized by last night faded away and turned into a smoke.  Inside dark black lava with red strata running through revealed.

Sunday morning up on the rim of Erta’ Ale, standing still watching the sunrise is one of the unforgettable memories as the magnitude of the universe flashed before me for a split second.

While I was standing on the rim, which once was bubbling lava, granted another defining moment to contemplate UNCERTAINTY.

Scientist suggestion that another major eruption is looming but it is the universal fact that no one knows what the future holds that inspired me to be present enough, to take good look at Erta’ Ale for the last time and say Good Bye!

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The camels loaded again and time to walk it back to the Dodom camp. In the daylight we were able to clearly see the slope we climbed up in the dark. Could not help wondering how in the world we walked on it. The daylight revealed the grayish solidified lava rock’s interesting pattern which created while the molten lava cascading out.

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We needed to move quickly because we want to make it to the camp before it gets hot. I learn not to take walking back lightly as it took us almost as long to walk down as going up and this time without that dynamite keen and curiosity of seeing Erta’ Ale for the first time to serve as a driving force.

It does get hotter quickly in a desert. The heat definitely played its role in making the way back a bit demanding but we kept on walking.

To be continued…

Posted in Adventure, Afar, Danakil Desert, Erta' Ale Volcano, Ethiopia, Lava Lake, Travel and Tourism | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments