Thursday, March 29, 2012

Mekelle to Munich

The bus ride from Mekelle to Addis Ababa turned out to be not too bad. It actually turned out to be rather amusing because sitting beside me was a first year law student of Mekelle university and behind us a group of his female classmates. Being law students their English was really good and the girls we quite funny and the 11 hours of the first day went by "quickly".
I can understand why it would be a bad idea to drive in the dark in Ethiopia and buses actually don't do it. We left at 6am and stopped at 5pm, well before sunset, at some random tiny town and some seemingly random little transit hotel with dinky little cheap rooms. The following morning we woke up at 3:30am for a 4am start for the final 5 hour drive to Addis. Why start so early that you arrive in time to hit rush hour heading into the city? If the whole ride took 16 hours and you are driving half the 2nd day in the dark then why not just finish it off on the first day? Oh well, part of the experience as always and I was just happy to be done with long rides for a while.
I spend the next 2 days in Addis couchsurfing with Maski, a truly amazing host, and just chatting travel the whole time. She's an African woman that has travelled all over the globe, a very rare kind of traveller indeed and it was great to swap stories and inspire each other to continue to travel.
From Addis it was a long flight to Frankfurt, Germany. From Frankfurt I got a rideshare to Munich. I had to wait a couple hours and got the ride from Frankfurt central station. I've flown in and out of Frankfurt now a couple times but I've never actually visited the city. I don't think walking 2 blocks down the road from the central station really counts either. It was my first time doing the rideshare thing in Europe though I'd heard about it before and it's said to be the cheapest way of getting around now.
The English language website is
The ride was good but squishy which was about the only thing that didn't culture shock me on the day. I swear I get culture shock worse when I get back to the first world than when I leave it. In this case the cold was a shock and the grey buildings and bare trees had me immediately understanding why so many Germans want to move to Australia also. After all my days on the buses in Africa, the autobahn was definitely a shock. The ride from Frankfurt to Munich took 4 hours and we were going 150km/h most of the ride. The roads are beautiful and not busy on a clear night so you don't even notice the speed but the shocking part was how many cars were passing us like we were standing still...
Verena met me in Munich (and had arranged the ride for me) and I'm staying with her at her mother's place. I'd been there before last year for a night before we went and stayed in Nuremburg together. She's just starting to work on her thesis here in Munich and I'm more or less hanging out distracting her as much as possible.
Generally it's too cold but the weather has been sunny and beautiful and I've been into the center for a quick look around. I didn't see anything a year ago when I was here and only visited the city for 2 days back in 2000 so I really couldn't remember anything at all except for the town hall. Munich is a really wealthy and expensive city apparently and the people look it with their nice clothes and BMWs. I've been told we are staying in one of the worst areas of the city and I would never've guessed, it still looks like luxury to me. It also feels really quiet here. I go out on the street and feel like I'm in a library or something.
The coolest unexpected thing about being in Munich now was that I was able to meet up with Jetti for a couple hours. Jetti is someone the girls and I met on the film set in Delhi, India 6 years ago and have kept in touch with ever since. She's very cool and are paths have almost crossed several times in the years since but we'd never quite connected and I'd recently been in touch with her and was not expecting her to be in Munich this time around. She's from Munich but currently working in Kabul but was on an emergency visit to see family and was able to take a bit of time to meet up before leaving the country again. It's amazing how you can meet someone for a single day and then meet them again years later and feel like such good friends. I love that.

Clean, quiet streets, even in the center.

Theatiner church.

With Jetti in front of the town hall.


Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Danakil Depression

I was lucky that on monday morning I found a tour company with a group leaving to the Danakil the following day on the standard 4 day/3 night trip. It had originally been scheduled for a departure that day but had been pushed back a day. There are not a lot of tours going out there right now and if I had not gotten on that one I might not've had time to go with the next one out. Organized tours in Ethiopia are quite expensive, including this one, but as it was going to be the highlight of my trip to Africa this time, I didn't have much of a choice.
The Danakil Depression is the lowest part of Africa and marks the most active section of the great rift which is slowly tearing Africa apart. The Danakil stretches to lower Eritrea and into Djibouti, with Djibouti actually having the lowest point on the continent but with a difference of about 10m, Ethiopia's lowest point will have to be good enough for me. It is an extremely harsh climate, considered to be the hottest average annual temperature in the world, with most of the volcanic activity of the continent and characterized by natural springs and salt lakes and formations. It is sparsely populated by the equally harsh and aggressive Afar people who somehow make a living out there with their herds. Their most famous economy being the use of “camel trains” harvesting salt and transporting it back to the markets of Mekelle or elsewhere.
I was especially lucky to be able to find a tour because it is the end of the natural tourist season which this year was cut short when 2 months ago a tour group was attacked, with some tourists killed and others kidnapped. The attack has been blamed on the Eritrean government who are believed to have supported a rebel group, with the intention of destroying the tourist economy of Ethiopia. Sounds a bit far-fetched perhaps but the 2 countries do hate each other and the Danakil area is in the somewhat disputed border region still. At one point we were just over 10km from the official UN-recognized border, but the Ethiopians claim we were still 30km away and no doubt the Eritreans have their own idea of where the line should be.
Anyway, from the sounds of it there were a dozen of us tourists funnelled into this tour through various sources and for some after weeks of advanced preparation. In total there were 4 Landcruisers, one for the staff and security and the other 3 with 4 tourists each. I was with 2 Dutch girls and a Polish guy in mine. We descended from the mountains (Mekelle is at about 2200m) onto the flat Depression the first day, stopping halfway along for lunch in the town where we picked up our mandatory 2 Afar police escort guards who were a couple of tiny old local men with AKs. (My strategy in the event of an attack would've been to stick with the 4 Israelis in the group instead of with the guards.) This has always been the case for trips to the area. It was roughly 6 hours of driving on gravel/dirt roads but it was pure luxury to have air-con and not be totally squished in my seat or get covered in dust. Along the way we passed many camel trains carrying salt back to Mekelle. The camel drivers must be completely nuts and I'm sure the lifestyle will die out quite soon as there is a road already being built further into the desert now. These guys tie camels nose to tail in long chains (we saw up to 30 in a chain) and spend 2 weeks walking in either direction between the salt and market, each camel capable of carrying up to 200kg of salt in 6kg blocks.

The first night we stayed in Hamed Ela, a sandy little village/tour group staging point at -75m. I think all little desert villages more or less look the same. The people, architecture and poverty all end up with more or less the same feel in the end as there really aren't many ways to live in such conditions. When we arrived just before sunset it was still in the high 30's. We had dinner and went to bed early as there really isn't anything to do in the middle of nowhere after dark. We all slept outside on rope beds with mattresses that we'd brought. The stars were great, as you can imagine.

Hamed Ela.

Sleeping outdoors.

The following day we left after a dawn breakfast for a “quick” 5+ hr drive the 80km to Erta Ale volcano. At certain times of the year or just through general bad luck the route is impossible or can take 2 days to make. We were much faster than normal. The road is a very dusty or sandy track through mostly emptiness, sometimes flat enough that all 4 vehicles could pretty much race at will, at other times requiring the 4WD mode to get through very soft sand. We passed a few hamlets of camel-herding families but for the most part it felt very empty. After a few hours we reached the edge of the lava flows and had to drive very slowly for a couple hours to the base camp of Erta Ale.

Through the desert....

And onto the lava road.

Erta Ale is nowhere near the most interesting looking of the volcanoes in the area and is actually pretty small at only 614m high. The attraction is the lava lake inside the crater. It is one of only 5 lava lakes in the world and claims to be the only permanent one as some others have come and gone and this one is the oldest and most consistent in the world, having been around for most of the last century. Not that people have been visiting it long. 10 years ago it was only accessible by helicopter.
In the afternoon when we arrived it was 40C so the usual plan is to rest and then make the ascent at sunset. Some of the group insisted upon going up earlier. I wish I'd joined them and probably would've if I hadn't been sick the night before and still feeling the effects of it at the time. As it was, the 3 hour ascent in the evening still nearly killed me (and it's a really easy, shallow-incline, walk). You could see the glow of the lava at the top as you made the ascent though so that was a cool part of the climb.

The crater is roughly 1km in diameter. There is a camp with some huts at the top on the rim of the crater where we spent the night. Due to the recent attack there is now military present in the area, including at the base camp and lots at the rim. I didn't realize it until I got there but the tourists were actually attacked while they were sleeping up at the top. Everywhere we went and including during the hike up they were accompanying us. There must've been about a dozen of them total on the top. I don't know that I felt that much safer with them around though. Yes, it is comforting to know the Ethiopian government didn't want to just shut down the area to tourism instead, but now there are guys up there with guns that have no care in the world about which way they are pointing them including often directly at us while they were walking or lounging around.
The lava lake itself is maybe 50m in diameter somewhere in the middle of the crater so we had to descend into the crater (maybe 10m) and walk across to the lake. It's really weird. The surface of the crater inside is cooled lava and totally uneven. As it cools it forms a lot of hollow tubes just beneath the surface so as you walk it crunches underfoot and sometimes you fall through a couple inches. As you get closer to the lava lake and presumably the newer stuff, it is even more crunchy but more solid and is like walking on snow.
Seeing a lava lake was very high on my bucket list and it did not disappoint. It is definitely one of the most amazing things I've ever seen. As you approach the rim of the lake you start to breath the fumes as the wind blows them at you. It can't possibly be healthy as it totally burns the eyes and throat, even breathing through scarves. People were approaching within a couple feet of the edge, though the usual distance was 10-15 feet. The ground is all cracked and as the lake is unstable and active it could all fall in at any time I guess. The lake itself goes through cycles of low and high activity and it's level even raises and lowers by several meters. As I said before it was maybe 50m across, and about 10m below us and at times you'd get some very hot wind but generally it wasn't too bad. Most of the surface is covered by a thin dark crust as the lava cools but convection bringing new lava, combined with the insulating affects of this crust means that the surface is constantly changing. There was always at least one place where the lava was actively bubbling and spitting itself (I never saw it get close to the rim but the others that had gone earlier said they did see some go higher) but periodically one or 2 more places would also become active.

Gotta love Ethiopia's lack of safety barriers ;)

The lava lake is constantly changing.

I don't know how to accurately describe it but it's completely mesmerizing watching the cracks come and go through the surface and the periodic new eruptions. I could've pulled up a chair and watched all night and day long. It's like watching a waterfall but 100 times more so. We didn't spend nearly enough time there actually. The guide was later heavily criticized for it by his boss and it probably didn't help that all the military guys didn't want to stand around suffering in the fumes watching us either and were pushing for us to quit and go to bed. We did descend to the lake for sunrise and it was more active in the morning, but once again we couldn't stay long because we had to descend to the vehicles and drive back to Hamed Ela again where we spent our 3rd night.

Cooled lava inside the crater.

The descent.

For me that was really the purpose of the trip completed and I had no idea what was next. The next morning we drove about ½ hr to Dallol, once again with 4 armed military guards. It was this point that we were closest to Eritrea. Dallol is a sulfur spring. We climbed up a hill whose crater was the sulfur spring. This time suffering through “rotten-egg” fumes we actually walked through and on all the sulfur formations and around the pools of acid. I've seen hot springs cool colours before but these was never anything so naturally pure yellow. It was a psychedelic combination of yellows, whites, greens, reds and browns. The formations and colours made it really feel and look like coral and it felt so wrong walking around on top of them and destroying them. There are lots of bubbling pools and it's very active so I'm told that they actually reform quickly and there wasn't any real obvious sign of destruction from previous groups. We ran around taking tons of photos and they all look totally fake, like someone photoshopped the weirdest colours into them.

Dallol sulfur springs. These colours really are naturally that bright.

We also stopped at large salt formations of both red and white salt, went through a small salt “cave” and then went to see another area nearby that they call an oil lake. It's some kind of mineral oil lake though the guide couldn't clarify. We could touch that one and it's yellow and definitely felt oily but not excessively so. Kind of like a small pool of bubbling vegetable oil. There were other smaller actively bubbling pools nearby and all were ambient temperature.

The hills are red salt, the ground is white salt.

Our driver and vehicle.

A salt canyon.

Salt formations.

A mineral oil pool.

On our way back we stopped at the salt flats at Lake Assal. This area is the lowest point at about 120m below sea level. Like any lowest point there is a salt lake and this one was pure white. I'm not sure if there is an actual lake or not. They say there is but we didn't see the shore as it was too dangerous to drive all the way and apparently it changes a lot. But we did see a lot of small salt water springs that formed pools. There must be a lake formed by drainage from the wet season also but the Danakil is really active with so many different types of springs.

Salt pools near lake Assal.

This area is where the camel trains get their salt and normally we'd've seen the salt cutting activity but it was a friday so the Muslim Afar people were not working. This actually became a huge sore point for some of the members of the group and ended up starting a huge mutiny when we got back to Hamed Ela to pick up the last of our things and start the drive back to Mekelle. Some had it in their heads that such things had been guaranteed and that they therefore had to stay an extra day to see it the following morning. It was highly debateable whether or not the camels would even be there the following morning but the guide handled the whole thing very poorly, lost control of the group and the battle. Some of their complaints were valid and I initially supported them (surprise, surprise right?) to see if something interesting would ultimately be sorted out. As it all got more ridiculous I bailed out at the last second and took the last of the jeeps heading back to Mekelle. I didn't care enough about probably not seeing salt cutting the following morning to spend another night out there with little food and water and drive back in a squishy Landcruiser with the 5 guys that forced the stay. I must be getting old and wimpy.....
There are a few other things I can do I suppose with my last couple days before leaving but I've decided to take it easy instead. I like Mekelle a lot though. It really is a nice town with very little hassle. I even went to the market and took pictures and wandered around with no tout hassle at all. There are still plenty of beggars but they are legit ones and everyone else just leaves you alone. It's grown really fast in the last couple decades but somehow feels really small and quiet. It has nice streets and very little traffic, which I love. I've decided to compromise on the splurge back to Addis and I am taking the luxury bus line for a day and a half tomorrow instead of a flight. We'll see if it makes the whole ordeal any more comfortable.

Sunday, March 11, 2012


After leaving early from Berbera and arriving in Hargeisa again without incident, I said goodbye to Charlie and Tyler as they left me for their journey back to Harar. I had some time to kill so went back to the police headquarters again to get permission to travel to Djibouti overland (something I didn't actually have to use in the end) and then found the area north of the city center where the 4WDs that go to Djibouti are.
Because the area is so hot during the day, transport leaves in the evening and drives through the night, arriving the following morning. The “road” is not a road at all but sand tracks and very rough. Much like the road to Moussoro in Chad only a lot longer and bumpier. They use old Landcruisers and pack them as full as possible. I was told 2 in the front seat, 4 in the back row and at least 6 in the rear section. After a few hours of waiting I thought I was going to be lucky because the 4 of us in the back row were all pretty small and so we fit rather easily. 10 minutes later we were in a furious uproar when they decided to squish a 5th in with us and put 3 in the front seat. 5 across does not work, don't try it at home. Whenever one of the doors got opened, whoever was on that side would literally pop out the door with the release of pressure. We couldn't really sit side by side, hip to hip, so the guy in the middle had to be scooted forward in the seat and turning his legs to the side to avoid the seat in front. He always chose to turn towards me, probably because he couldn't turn towards the girls on the other side. It was miserable. I'd tried to get the window but couldn't and us 3 guys had about 1/3 of the available leg room while the 2 girls had the rest. We were the first 4WD to leave Hargeisa at about 6pm.

It looks like it could be fun...

The "road".

By 7pm I was uncomfortable and we were already stopping because the engine had a small issue and they'd have to stop and tinker with it (which became a common theme through the night)..
At 8pm we stopped to eat and I learned that the young guy sitting beside me was Djiboutian and spoke English really well because he'd studied IT in India. He bought me dinner and invited me to stay in his home when we got to Djibouti. I started to feel a little better about my prospects... He told me that pretty much everyone else in the Landcruiser (it was a very large group of women, girls and children) were Somalis from Mogadishu (they call all of Somalia proper Mogadishu I think) heading to the Djibouti border as refugees. He was convinced they would never cross.
At 9pm we were back on the road.
By 10pm I was nauseous and really regretting the big plate of spaghetti for dinner and had to focus all my energy on not getting car sick.
At 11pm we broke down enough that we had to wait 1/2hr on the side of the road (yay, I could try to rest with space and let my stomach digest) until one of the following 4WDs caught up to us and helped us out. It then promptly took off and disappeared ahead of us.
By midnight I knew any sleep at all would be hopeless. The road was so bumpy and/or soft that we were rarely going more than 20km/hr and I was tempted to believe that if you simply walked the route in a straight line you could actually make it faster than the trucks turning every 5 seconds onto a new sand track. I stared out the window in a daze and could see the sandy landscape under the light of a nearly full moon. I saw antelope, rabbits, fox and the occassional campfire of a nomadic camel herding family in the distance.
By 1am I was doubting my ability to survive, but had resigned myself to living the refugee life, fleeing to the border in the dead of night in miserable conditions....
By 2am my neck was sore from nodding off and cracking when we hit bumps I was not prepared for. My legs were completely cramped and my butt and back bruised (and were still hurting days later). The spaghetti had finally digested though so that was one less thing...
By 3am I was ready to run screaming into the desert and never set foot in or even see another car again or at the very least throw myself under the wheels to see if I could even feel anything anymore.
At 4am.... No, fortunately I have no recollection of 4am....
I recall at 5am thinking it was a bit ridiculous that I had 4 people leaning against me to sleep. One was from the area behind me. The guy in the middle beside me was leaning over in addition to having his legs completely squashing mine. The girl on the other side of him was trying to rest against his back but had slid all the way over to be against me too, and my new friend by the window, Jabril, was actually holding my arm and snuggling against my other shoulder. I never suspected I was so comfortable and comforting....
At 6am the rising sun did not improve our conditions nor help us to drive faster.
At 7am when the driver stopped for his breakfast at a collection of sandy lean-tos pretending to be a village, 5 crippled zombies fell out of the back row to go lay in the sand and try to rediscover their limbs. We were the last of 6 4WDs to arrive at the breakfast stop and the last to leave despite leaving first from Hargeisa.
At about 9:30am we finally made it to the border. Unlike the border with Ethiopia, this one was slightly more lively, slightly bigger and a more complicated. Crossing from Ethiopia was just a minor issue of stamping out and walking past a rope tied across the road and stamping into the next. At this one we had to leave the 4WD while it was inspected by customs and go to immigration on our own. The locals have to pay a departure tax, of $20 if they have a passport or 20,000 Shillings (about $3.30) if they don't. So they just hide their passports and say they don't have one and pay less tax. How that is a legit people control strategy I have no idea as there is no identity check at all.
That was the easy part. The part where everyone gets stuck comes after. The Djiboutian side is totally militarized in comparison. I say in comparison because I've seen truly militarized and nasty borders (the ones at Ceuta, Israel and North Korea instantly come to mind) but where the one with Ethiopia was so lax, it was a shock to see soldiers and rusting barbed wire on trying to enter Djibouti. This is because there are so many Somali refugees trying to cross. There were a large group of refugees stuck in no man's land and while I was getting stamped in on the Djibouti side a big truck of refugees under guard was being driven across from Djibouti back to Somaliland to get rid of some. They are very thorough in the customs inspection also so we had to wait a while for our truck to catch up to us. In the end it took about 2 hours to get across. I had no problems at all but of the ~20 people that started our journey from Hargeisa, only 3 (including me) made it into Djibouti.
Djibouti seems to be one of those countries that people have only heard of because it has a funny sounding name. It doesn't really do much and would rarely be in the news otherwise. I've heard it described by both other Africans as well as Europeans as the most fake and pointless country in Africa. It serves mainly 2 purposes, as the port country of Ethiopia and as a military outpost for everyone else. It was a French colony until 1977 but unlike it's other colonies in Africa or elsewhere, it was nowhere near any other French colonies and so it received relatively little attention and functioned mostly as a stop over to any of the other ones. In a region of instability Djibouti remained totally stable and intact because it housed such a large French military presence. I've been told that now the largest military here is American and it is supposedly the largest military base they have in Africa. The French and other Europeans are still here of course and there is even a Japanese air force base too. Djibouti is also known to be significantly more expensive than elsewhere in the region, approaching Arab Gulf state countries in price. Why? I do not know.
With these thoughts in mind I crossed into Djibouti, expecting to be greeted by a beautiful new road and somewhere clean and organized like the gulf countries. The road was still a mess though it was paved and did exist. Djibouti city, the capital, is only about 15km from the Somaliland border but to get there we passed garbage dumps, wrecking yards and then some military bases. First the US one and then the Japanese. Fighter jets patrolled the skies. We were dropped off at Jabril's family home, south of the city centre, 18 hrs after leaving Hargeisa.
After a much needed afternoon nap Jabril took me into the centre as the sun was setting. It's filthy, though not quite as bad as Somaliland. I was still shocked at how much litter there was and how disorganized and run down much of it looked. It has to be the most overpriced non-war torn country in the world. I can't see how they justify it. The old city centre and European quarter are quite small and it didn't take us long to see it, though mostly in the dark and with nothing much to specifically see. Djibouti city isn't exactly known as a tourist hotspot.

The Hamoudi mosque, the oldest in Djibouti.

Djibouti is Muslim, it's part of the Arab League and it's official languages are French and Arabic. Jabril, like much of the population is not Arab (he's ethnically Somali) so doesn't speak any Arabic and French is his first language. This of course means that his French is too good and I can't understand any of it. It was much easier in Cameroon where it is an official language but still secondary to the tribal languages. Because of the military presence, there are lots of bars and French restaurants in town and some of the population is very “modern” with not all the girls covering their heads. It's kind of a weird mix actually because at first glance it does look very Muslim but the French influence has been strong here.
I met numerous members of Jabril's friends and family, ate good Djiboutian food and slept at his future brother-in-law's home. Thinking I'd gotten a pretty good deal I agreed to stay the following day as well, but we ended up just chilling in his brother-in-law's home and I didn't actually get to go out and see and do anything new. They had a bunch of friends come over and chew chat from lunch until well into the night. The chat culture is a little obsessive out here.

Lunch with Jabril and his friends.

The following morning, with no real idea what I was doing, I followed Jabril's instructions of where to get off the bus and which direction to start walking to the port. My intention was to find a cargo truck to hitch back to Ethiopia with. Ideally I wanted the highway out of town but was directed by everyone straight to the port.
It didn't take long to get a ride but that truck ended up just taking me to a huge truck staging area several km out of town. There were well over 100 trucks there and the driver told me that since he had to wait for his paperwork to clear, I was better off finding someone leaving sooner. Because Djibouti is Ethiopia's port, all the trucks and drivers are Ethiopian, which means the truck stops are run by Ethiopians and they even use only Ethiopian currency for their transactions. The downside of this Ethiopian-ness is that I was instantly mobbed by touts wanting to sell seats on trucks for stupid amounts of money. Still 200km from the border, already sick of Ethiopians again and convinced I'd found one of the worst perversions of the concept of hitching, I started walking down the road in the direction of Ethiopia. At the very least I wanted to get past a nearby roundabout where someone would eventually stop and I'd be away from the tout interference.
What I hadn't counted on were the gendarmes sitting on the other side of the roundabout. I still have no idea what the difference is between gendarmes and police but I know I don't really want to deal with either under any conditions. They of course pulled me over and asked me what I where I was going. With a stupid grin on my face and pointing off into the emptiness ahead I said “Ethiopia???”. The look I received in return had me thinking I was about to be nominated for Stupidest Person of the Year by these guys. Of course I was not about to walk out into the empty desert in the hottest region of the world to get to Ethiopia but if they wanted to believe that then so be it. They decided to protect me from myself, even when I explained I was just about to hitch a lift from exactly that spot in one of the numerous trucks now passing us by because I had no money left and thus could not hire a car or fly. They were not convinced and were only confirmed in their suspicions that I was on a suicide mission when they found the Somaliland visa in my passport...
Wonder of wonders, the gendarmes actually decided to do something helpful for me for a change and walked me across the street to a different small truck stop and find/threaten a driver to take me....for free! The only driver there that spoke English got roped into the job but I still had to wait around a couple hours for his paperwork to clear. He was driving an old double tanker full of diesel and we were about the slowest thing on the road. But it was just the 2 of us and the leg room and view were glorious!
Not that there was anything to see but empty sand leading to low rocky hills with hardly any vegetation on either side of a relatively good tarmac road. The only traffic was cargo trucks and the only litter old, blown-out tires.

Beautiful in a desolate kind of way?

A rough place to live...

2 hours and about 60km later we pulled off the road at a junction truck stop and the driver announced that he was done for the day. We ate and then he started to go to work on the chat and hooka in a serious way. As it was only 3pm, I was disappointed with our progress but fortunately he anticipated this and found a friend of his that was continuing and passed me off to him.
The new guy had a big single tanker full of diesel and a much newer truck so we head down the road at a much faster rate. He told me that 2000 trucks pass along the road every day and it's easy to believe it could even be more. Maybe that's the number crossing the border each day, but as it's a 2-3 day drive back to Addis Ababa from Djibouti for them, there must be even more strung along the entire distance. The entire economic livelihood of the 2nd or 3rd most populous nation in Africa (at 80 something million people) depends upon this continuous convoy of trucks. Thus the road has been redone (especially on the Ethiopian side, though it is still only a 2 lane road) though it is often still very narrow and with many turns so there are plenty of old wrecks lining the road. I saw 2 or 3 fresh accidents on that drive alone.
We arrived in some random truck stop town just before midnight and as there was nowhere to stay and no way to continue, I was given the trucker's bed in the cab, while he slept in a spare bunk bed in his friend's cab. Sweet.
At 6am we started off again and he dropped me off at a small bus station in Logiya, another town just a few km down the road from where we slept. The route I required from there was not a major one so only the occassional minibus does it. I was immediately touted in a retarded way and decided to start walking out of town to continue hitching. I was eventually picked up by another double tanker (I think the tanker drivers must be the nicest.) who took me another hour down the road to Mille, where the road splits 3 ways and all the trucks would continue on the wrong one for me as they all go to Addis.
There was of course no transport from that town at all, so I once again started walking out of town to avoid touts (I swear they just materialize out of thin air as soon as you go outside because they are everywhere, even the most random, no-tourist-could-possibly-end-up-here kind of place) until I was eventually stopped by a septic tank truck that was heading towards Mekele, my ultimate destination. He, of course, wanted money for the ride and already had 2 women as passengers. Starting to get fed up with all the hassle and realizing I was quickly running out of options, I gave in and accepted his offer as far as the next town, Woldia, on the main road north that we were trying to cut across towards. We never got there with him. A couple hours later he blew his back double tires and didn't have a tire iron to change them. We were stopped in the heat of the day on a beautiful new road with no traffic and a long way from anywhere. Typical.
He'd just flagged down one of the rare passing trucks to help him change his tire, when 2 guys in a UN WFP Landcruiser pulled up and offered to take the ladies and me to the junction to Woldia. They were also headed to Mekele, but said they weren't even allowed to have passengers but felt sorry for us since we were really nowhere and there would be no public transport passing by to save us. Yay, finally a free lift with the UN (non-flying)! I can check it off my list.
They got more sympathetic at the junction and after dropping off the ladies allowed me to continue further north with them. We ended up stopping and splitting up at Alamata as they decided they couldn't make it to Mekele that day. Alamata was a nice enough town to stop over for a night on my way to Mekele. From Alamata it was up and up and up into the mountains by psycho minibus. It's a good thing they don't get rain here or everyone would just fly off the cliffs on every corner... The highlands of Ethiopia really are beautiful though and Mekele has been surprisingly low in hassle factor so far. I am currently looking for last-minute tours to the Danakil Depression area from here.

Heading up into the beautiful highlands again.

If it sounds like most of my blogs are about transport lately it's probably because I've been spending a stupidly high percentage of my time moving around. I don't like the idea of having to move so quickly all the time and I could've spent longer in a few places, but this time I'm on a short trip and actually have a flight out on a specific date. I don't like having that kind of confirmed schedule but there is no real choice about it this time.

Sunday, March 04, 2012


Believe it or not but Somaliland has been awesome and probably the best part of the whole trip. In the end I crossed over to Somaliland with the 2 Canadian guys, Tyler and Charlie, as the American teachers disappeared in a flaky kind of way and we didn't want to wait around for them any longer. We had to take 3 different vehicles to finally get to Hargeisa, the “capital” of Somaliland.
What is Somaliland? We've all heard of Somalia, but what many people don't realize is that there are actually 2 breakaway regions of Somalia that have become de facto independent (yet internationally unrecognized) countries that are more stable and safe than Somalia proper. One is Puntaland, which is still pretty dodgy and a no go for tourists without a well armed escort and major visa hassle. The other is Somaliland. Somaliland itself is a bit of an oddity anyway. While Somalia historically was an Italian colony, the region that is today Somaliland was at one point a British protectorate so there is surprisingly a decent amount of English spoken. They broke away from Somalia in 1991 I think so they've been operating on their own for quite a while and have a stable government, their own ministries, military, currency, visa, etc.
None of it is recognized though so the money is more of a black market situation with guys on the street with piles of money to change. They quote you prices in US dollars all the time and it's the best currency to have here, but it's more fun to change your money over to Somaliland shillings and pay that way. $1 is worth 6200 shillings. I have seen a just-introduced 5000 shilling note, but nobody has them to use yet. They also have 1000 notes since last year which we mostly use, but most stuff seems to operate off of the 500 note. We would change between $10 and $20 at a time because otherwise we'd end up with a huge pile of bills that no pocket could hold. It's just like in Uzbekistan and fun to once again be paying your $1.5 lunch with a big wad of cash. For some strange reason Somaliland is also said to have the fastest internet in Africa and the cheapest local calls as well.

Money anyone?

We arrived in Hargeisa after dark, after a long an painful journey from the border in the trunk section of a station wagon shared taxi. 4 ½ people in a space that should've been 3 max but more reasonably for 2. My first impression of Hargeisa was that it was a lot more active than I expected. It may not be the most developed capital around, but it felt a lot more lively and interesting than N'Djamena for example. But that's a bit unfair. Hargeisa has a larger population crammed into a smaller space and upon further inspection, has nothing at all to see or do. The main attraction is a monument in the centre with a shot down MiG jet on top. The monuments all seem to commemorate the fight for independence and many have very graphic murals painted on them.

Must've been a brutal fight...

The main attraction to see in Hargeisa.

Compared to Ethiopians, the Somalilanders are super friendly. It's really night and day after crossing the border. From all the hassle in Ethiopia to suddenly everyone coming up to you to say hi and welcome and ask where you are from. Yes there are some beggars and some kids still ask for money but on the whole it’s really tame. We had a few people ask us where our armed guard was and warned us to be careful in Somaliland but actually we have felt no threats or anything thus far. There is of course a big safety risk in being here still. The border is super porous so the risk of extremists coming from Somalia proper to attack westerners is very real. In 2008 we were thinking of coming over this way but right before we would've there was a terrorist attack in Hargeisa on western targets including the Ethiopian embassy. Somaliland is also in dispute with Puntaland about where it's borders are so it's not possible to go very far to the east. Somalia of course, like everyone else, does not recognize its independence... I would say though that Somaliland tourism is starting to develop in the sense that I've met a handful of people that have been over here now as it's quite an easy process from Ethiopia. There are probably many more tourists visiting Somaliland than say Chad or CAR at the moment.
So our first night we ended up in a very nice hotel that cost too much because we'd arrived late and had no better options. The next day Tyler and Charlie checked into a cheaper hotel and I couchsurfed with Melissa.
I was very lucky with the Melissa situation. The family met Melissa in Mali in Dec 2007 through couchsurfing though we didn't stay with her at that time. We hung out a bit in Bamako and I've kept in touch since. She's also from Vancouver but has been in Africa for the last 5 years working with different aid organizations and after Mali lived in Liberia, Sudan, South Sudan and moved to Somaliland only a couple weeks ago. She sent me a message as soon as I got to Ethiopia to come say hi as she correctly suspected that I would be coming to Hargeisa. I couchsurfed with her for 2 nights in their organization's compound and got a bit of the inside story from some of the other people working there. She is currently working with the Danish Demining Group which is pretty cool. Her work range currently includes Somalia, Kenya, Sudan and Uganda as well and she's actually replacing the previous worker who was kidnapped on the job (and later released). One of the nights we hung out at the compound behind ours where the group Merlin (a British medical mission I believe) lives. It's really weird to go to a “party” of these people. Between the half dozen people in the group chatting away they've been to everywhere sketchy in the world to work. In addition to Melissa's countries, places like Afghanistan, East Timor and Congo were mentioned. It really is a lifestyle kind of career I guess and I suppose you get used to the risks, restrictions and general bizarreness of it all.
Somaliland is a boring country with no nightlife and alcohol is illegal for Muslims (which is the entire population). The American teachers, being less restricted by their company go to Ethiopia to party it up on their spare time. Other aid workers just fill their luggage with alcohol from Kenya or Djibouti and have house parties with each other. But even walking from the compound next door to ours, literally a 2minute walk max, we were escorted by the 2 armed guards that stay at the compound. Within the city it is not required to have an armed escort, nor was it in travelling from the border to Hargeisa but technically after 9pm you are supposed to have one if you are out and about. Hargeisa itself is “safe” enough that this rule is not really enforced on the street, though honestly I never went out that late anyway.
During the day we would walk around the city a lot, got new Ethiopian visas and went to the police HQ to get permission to go to Berbera on the coast. It isn't necessary to get permission, but it's necessary to get permission to be allowed to go anywhere without an armed escort. The road to Berbera and Berbera itself is considered safe at the moment and so you can bypass the need for the guard if you ask the police. So after 2 days in Hargeisa we took a minibus to Berbera, 3 hours down the road for about $6 in search of a beach to relax on. For someone like Melissa, because of their restrictions (by the DDG, though all the aid groups have similar self-restrictions) they have to take an armed escort but because aid organizations all want to be known to not be armed and not have weapons in their vehicles, they need a separate vehicle for the guard. A little trip to the beach becomes an expensive convoy and so they rarely go. Sad.
It's all pretty crazy though. After seeing missionary and NGO compounds in these types of places I can understand in some ways how people can do it. It's rough, but it's a totally different level of comfort, security and service to some dumbnut like me running around totally exposed and trying to do everything on the cheap. Just make sure you get in with a good group if you're into that life I guess....
Hargeisa was still cool at night because it's up at 1500m still. The road to Berbera was 1 long sloping road which never noticeably descended but nevertheless brought us down to sea level. The landscape is quite barren, just sand and scrub. It sounds mean but Somaliland is one of the dirtiest countries I've ever seen. There is garbage everywhere. The bushes are all covered in plastic bags blowing in the wind and there are completely crushed water bottles everywhere as well. We had to stop for a flat tire once, to discover 2 tires flat and shortly after passed a truck that had just flipped on it's side sending goats flying all over the road to their deaths. They still drive like maniacs here. It probably doesn't help that they still drive on the right, but the vehicles are mostly right hand drive as well.

The road to Berbera.

Berbera was awesome. We found a cheap hotel in town for $4 each that was quite nice and had a balcony with a view over the quiet harbour with its rusting ships. Berbera has a population of only 35,000 according to Tyler's guidebook and according to everyone it is stupidly hot and humid. We aren't quite at that time of year yet, so it is hot during the day and warm at night and I found it quite pleasant actually. The cold showers were actually bearable and the water at the beach was the perfect temperature. Berbera itself we generally tried to avoid because there was no real reason to wander around in it more than once, except to change more money or to find internet. The people are still nice but we had a problem in that everyone (and I mean really everyone) was calling Charlie “Chinese”. He's Canadian of Vietnamese decent but very Canadian and was getting totally pissed off every time people would tell him, “no, you are Chinese” in response to his answering “Canadian” to their question of where he was from. I remember Paul having this a lot in India and I guess it is a very annoying situation but Charlie wasn't really handling it very well. So we tried to avoid walking around crowds in the centre when it wasn't necessary. A lot of people guess that I am French from Djibouti and we've met quite a few diaspora guys who are from Canada, the US or even Finland that were back in Somaliland to learn their roots or get in touch with distant family for a while.
I liked Berbera right away. Low traffic and population so it's quiet, and a lot of the buildings are abandoned or partially destroyed. Obviously it's not as busy here as it once was, and I have a thing for partially destroyed towns that are still limping along. Tyler and Charlie fell in love with the fresh fish and we at a lot of fish, spaghetti and fresh guava juice while in Berbera. Everyone had a bit of time to kill (I don't really but figured it would be nicer to stay on the beach here than hassled in Ethiopia not seeing what I was trying to see) so we stayed a bit longer than expected.

I still eat from time to time...

The view from our hotel in Berbera.

Berbera from our hotel roof.

Much of Berbera looks like this...

4km out of town is the expensive Mansoor hotel with apparently a really nice beach. It's where all the foreigners go when they come to the beach. We couldn't find a cheap ride out there so decided to just walk along the coast until we got away from the harbour and found some nice water. So here are our directions to the beach: Take a right out of the hotel and walk along the road along the harbour. Pass all the blown out rubble buildings until you get to the edge of town. Continue straight past the extremely stinky fish graveyard with all the fish heads and backbones scattered everywhere (they are the perfect image of fish skeleton though). You'll see a dessicated cow lying in the sand on your left. Continue straight past the walled off compound of no buildings on your right. Continue straight off the road when you see nice water directly in front of you.


With Tyler.

Ok, not exactly the nicest and most scenic walk to the beach of all time but the beach itself was nothing but sand and hermit crabs and completely empty. Off in the distance you could sometimes see a local family in the water or maybe a solo fisherman or something, but they would never come over and hassle us. The water is warm and shallow (and shark infested at depth I guess). We hung out and collected hermit crabs, having built them a large sand maze for them to dig or climb their way through. Oh the joys of wasting time on the beach :) Eat, beach, relax, repeat. It was probably the most relaxed place I've ever been in Africa actually. One of the days we were having brunch (2 whole fish, pasta and fruit juice each for $4 each) when Melissa and a coworker showed up. They were driving through Berbera on their way east and were stopping for lunch. They were the only other foreigners we have seen in the area.
We are still in Berbera now but will leave tomorrow and split up in Hargeisa. They head to Kenya and I'm off to Djibouti next.