Sunday, December 28, 2014

Depression in the North, but no Need for Valium



18 to 23 December, 2014 - Mekele, Danakil Depression (Harmadela, Erta Ale, Lake Asale, Dallol) - (Ethiopia)

Our next stop north was Mekele. We managed to score a ride meaning we covered the distance in a single day instead of the anticipated two. The extra day was spent enjoying town and shopping.

In the Market at Mekele
In the Market at Mekele
A beautiful smile, spinning by hand, selling her spices and coffee pots.


Berhale Market
Berhale Market

Our reason for coming to Mekele was to arrange our time in the Danakil Depression. The Danakil Depression is a vast low area in northern Ethiopia, largely below sea level. It is hot. In summer it regularly goes over 50 celcius (although it only makes high 30's at this time of year). It is desolate. And it has some beautiful sights to see. Not least of all is the opportunity to see the way people live in such a place. Being close to the Eritrean border, soldiers and guards are never far. There are some who make a bit of money from tourism, either directly or otherwise. However, it seems the vast majority live here because of the salt extraction. They cut salt, or they transport salt, or they trade with the camel caravans. Such a brutal environment to live and work in. Sometimes, we drove kilometres without seeing a single thing growing, yet people live there, with a handful of goats. Oasis dot the land, and we were told there was no shortage of water just below the surface, suitable for animals at least. Or human consumption if desperate enough, but the people know how to make it OK for drinking.

Afar Man with Camel
Afar Man with Camel

Jo Gets her Hair Done
Jo Gets her Hair Done
While sitting in a small village, waiting, the children gathered, and soon Jo was getting plaits done from all angles.


Camel Train Near Harmadela
Camel Train Near Harmadela
Camels laden with salt. Destination, Mekele. Seven days travel from the salt flats.


Mum and Bub
Mum and Bub
Mother and baby camel in the Danakil depression.


Living where Almost Nothing Grows
Living where Almost Nothing Grows
Not many people live around here. The environment is incredilbly harsh and unforgiving. How anyone manages at all is beyond me.


Egyptian Vulture
Egyptian Vulture
Despite the feeling that nothing could survive here, it obviously does. Occasional birds this size must feed on small prey, which in turn feed on bugs and insects, which all have something to survive on. The complete cycle is here, difficult as it is to find.


While that was all interesting and worthwhile, nothing was even a close second to the main reason for our trip here. To climb Erta Ale and spend a night on the rim, next to the world's only permanent lava lake.

View in to Erta Ale
View in to Erta Ale
The thin fresh crust of rock tries to form over the massive lake of lava, but it is quickly liquified and absorbed once more in a cycle of heating and cooling.


Late at Night, Erta Ale Volcano
Late at Night, Erta Ale Volcano
We ascended after dark to avoid the desert heat, and spent most of the evening and morning admiring one of the most amazing sights. I even singed the hair on my arms standing there. We camped on the rim of the crater (not precariously near the edge, though!) and admired the lava lake for sunrise, heading down before it got too hot.


Rolling and Rippling Molten Lava
Rolling and Rippling Molten Lava
Mesmerising changing formations in the Erta Ale lava lake, as rock changes state between molten and solid and back again.


Surreal Vistas Created by the Shifting Crust
Surreal Vistas Created by the Shifting Crust
Erta Ale lava lake. The cracks caused by the molten lava expand into immense bubbling pools before cooling just enough to crust over.


Bubbling Lava Shooting Dozens of Metres
Bubbling Lava Shooting Dozens of Metres
Beautiful shapes and patterns appeared when large pools of lava became so intense that they bubbled and frothed erratically and spurted skywards.


Like Lightning
Like Lightning
Lava in the Erta Ale Volcano crater.


Lava Bursting Through
Lava Bursting Through
Pressure beneath the crust causes a dramatic break out of lava. Erta Ale Volcano.


More Lava Leaping
More Lava Leaping
Erta Ale Volcano.


A Gigantic Spurt of Lava
A Gigantic Spurt of Lava
Besides the need to avoid desert heat, the lava activity is so much easier to take in when it is dark. Erta Ale creates an incredible, though momentary, lava "tree" for us.


Wide Angle - Erta Ale Crater
Wide Angle - Erta Ale Crater
Thankyou, Carl, for lending me your lens. Last photo before going to bed.


Sunrise by a Lava Lake
Sunrise by a Lava Lake
No reflections in this lake, though. Dawn comes, and there was a new appreciation of Erta Ale. The lava activity and the sun rising were a perfect pair.


Daylight Begins to Enter the Crater
Daylight Begins to Enter the Crater
As the sun rose, we could finally see the warped countours of the lava lake crust. But day or night, Erta Ale never sleeps.


With so much land below sea level, so much water coming in, and so much sun, salt is the natural by-product. We stoon on Lake Asale's shore at sunset, seeing white in 3 directions almost to the horizon, and blue in the 4th.

Lake Asale, Ethiopia
Lake Asale, Ethiopia
Standing on the shore of the salt laden Lake Asale, in the Danakil Depression.


Another amazing area is the volcanic active area around Dallol. After climbing over centuries old lava flows, we came to the sulphur springs. Smelly? Actually, not as bad as you might imagine!

Sulphur Formations
Sulphur Formations
Sulpur laden water bubbles to the surface and evaporates. Dallol in the Danakil Depression.


Striking Yellow - Sulphur - Dallol
Striking Yellow - Sulphur - Dallol
Another cluster of sulphur formations in the Danakil Depression.


Ethiopian Soldier
Ethiopian Soldier

And before leaving the depression, we stopped in a much drier area to see the salt extraction in progress.

Salt Extraction Site
Salt Extraction Site
A camel waits while in the background, salt blocks are cut and cleaned, ready for loading. Ragad, in the Danakil Depression.


Cutting Salt Blocks
Cutting Salt Blocks
A worker cuts blocks of salt into manageable sizes, ready for transport by camel to Mekele. Ragad, Danakil Depression.


Saturday, December 20, 2014

Where the Streets Have No Name



12 to 17 December, 2014 - Addis Ababa, Woldia, Lalibela - (Ethiopia)

Our plans for a morning snooze before lunch never quite fell in to place. We arrived early, but the debacle which is Ethiopian immigration meant we did not emmerge with our bags for at least an hour and a half. Then, our attempts to find a working ATM left us feeling flat and worn out. Eventually, we ended up in a hotel, only to be told we could not get in to our room till after midday.

But, let's go back one step and highlight some of the fun on Ethiopian Air. 1) The number of seats on the plane is known, so why not carry enough blankets so that there is enough for everyone? 2) Ditto for refresher towels. 3) Ditto for headphones. 4) Nice to have in-seat entertainment systems, but as it turns out, we were missing nothing by not having headphones - somebody decided not to run any movies. 5) Do Ethiopian men not lock toilet doors? Jo stumbled in on a man who had decided the lock was unneceassary. 6) Ditto for Ehiopian women, as I stumbled in on a lady sitting on the toilet. 7) I was both amused, and not at all amused, when a man four rows away and on the other side of the plane decided to watch music videos on his phone - without headphones. Even at that distance, it woke me up and kept me awake. I assumed somebody closer would complain, but I soon worked out the task would fall on me.

We decided to push through the incredible tiredness, and see a bit of Addis. Nothing too strenuous, a wander through Africa's largest market, followed by a beer on a cafe's balcony. Trying to orient myself, I asked "What is the name of this street?" "No, no" the waiter replied, almost agitated. "I don't think you understand. This street here, what is it called?" He shook his head. He appeared to be angry, and left us. Had we touched a raw nerve? We had read about the lack of knowledge of street names, but this was like we had asked about one of Addis Ababa's deep dark secrets.

Our First Enjira on Ethiopian Soil
Our First Enjira on Ethiopian Soil
Yum. We were looking forward to our enjira meals, and they have not disappointed. One dish is with lamb, and the other is kitfo, warm raw mince with spices.


Coffee - It's Always a Serious Affair in Ethiopia
Coffee - It's Always a Serious Affair in Ethiopia
In Ethiopia, coffee is NEVER instant. Most establishments, even if they serve burgers, has a person sitting in the corner with a fire and cups. Sometimes you get a full service, with scattered grass and incense, and sometimes you just get the coffee in a ceramic pot. It is always made with beans they have just roasted then and there. It is strong, very strong. It is good, very good!


The road north from Addis Ababa was lined with dozens of tiny stories. Countless sheep and goats being herded along. Children shoving the rear ends of cows to keep them off the bitumen. Men wrapped in white leading camels. Women berating disobedient donkeys. Groups of wandering people huddled under parisoles. Families laden with supplies from market. Even a number of long distance runners training on the highways. The backdrops for these activities varied. Mountain ranges at times, stone fences surrounding mud houses and barns at others, but more frequently, expanses of scrubland with flat topped trees dotted around. Each sight a story in itself, and some of it so stereotypical Ethiopia that we wondered if it was a show for the tourists.

Along the Road, North of Addis Ababa
Along the Road, North of Addis Ababa
A typical sight along the road as we headed to Dessie.


Our destination, Lalibela, would not be reached in one day, like we hoped. As expected, we had to overnight in Woldia before catching the bus in the morning. It's nice to have a freshly painted room, but the rooms had just been painted that day! I'm not sure if we slept, or if we just passed out on the paint fumes.

5:15 the following morning, we had one of the more bizarre hotel exits. First, I must highlight what this room was. There was a shared squat toilet down the hall, a shared cold shower next to it, so our room was just the one room. There was a bed, and it was pulled away from the freshly painted wall, and that was the entire furniture. No chair, no table, no wardrobe. And because of the fresh paint, no curtains. And yet, when we left at 5:15, the guard who was supposed to let us out came up and checked the room. Maybe the minibar? What did he think might be a problem? As it turned out, there was a problem. Jo's pillow! She always uses the provided pillow slip on a folded towel for sleeping as the pillows are too fat for her liking. So, this perplexed guard first couldn't find the pillow (next to the bed - in a room with no furniture in it - how could he miss it), and he looked accusingly at me like we had purloined it. Then there was the missing pillow slip to be found, which was caught up in the sheets. He seemed even more convinced we had taken that!

And the reason for all of this? To visit the ancient rock-hewn churches of Lalibelela. These incredible buildings started as pure rock, have been hollowed out, and then cut free from the surrounding rock. Effectively, they are entire buildings, each carved from a single piece of rock. There are 11 visited churches, most still functioning, and some are connected by trenches and tunnels. And all of these were created about 700-900 years ago.

Bet Maryam, Lalibela
Bet Maryam, Lalibela
The church of Bet Maryam, carved out of the rock. Essentially, it is all one piece!


Interior of Bet Mikael
Interior of Bet Mikael
Some of the interior details of the rock hewn church Bet Mikael, Lalibela.


An Apostle - Lalibela
An Apostle - Lalibela
Inside Bet Golgotha, a "men only" church in Lalibela. This is one of the four apostle carvings that is publicly viewable.


The Top of Bet Giyorgis, Lalibela
The Top of Bet Giyorgis, Lalibela
This is Bet Giyorgis. It truly is a marvel. The church is actually quite large, hollowed out inside the "cross". Inside, it has no supporting pillars.


Looking Down Bet Giyorgis
Looking Down Bet Giyorgis
Peering over the edge at Bet Giyorgis.


Bet Gyorgis, Lalibela
Bet Gyorgis, Lalibela
This angle of Bet Giyorgis allows some true appreciation of what a magnificent feat this rock hewn church really is.


And a funny translation to finish this entry off.

Racial Salad?
Racial Salad?
No idea what it was supposed to be, but really, a very unfortunate name for a dish.


Friday, January 17, 2014

A Windy Beach Ending



10 to 18 January, 2014 - Tagaytay, Naga, Caramoan, Manila - (Philippines)

It turns out that the back to back transports of getting to Pinatubo were not the end of it. After getting down, we went straight to the highway; caught a bus to one terminal in Manila; negotiated traffic in the chaotic capital to get to another bus terminal (over an hour and a half, and it wasn't even peak hour); and finally got out again, heading south, to Tagaytay.

Volcanic Cones in a Crater Lake
Volcanic Cones in a Crater Lake
The outer crater is 75 kilometres round the rim. In the lake (Lake Taal) are numerous volcanic islands, cones, and craters, many still quite active. The main cone has a lake, which in turn has a crater with a lake, which has an island in it.

Unforturnately, that "matroishka doll" of craters is not visible from the rim. And, unfortunately, due to the haze, we were lucky to get anything at all in our photo. But here it is, anyway, albeit with the levels adjusted somewhat.


It did take us an extra night to recover from all the travelling, but after an extremely lazy day, we were ready to face travel again.

Lazy? Well, we got up, and went for brunch at a place on the crater's rim with a fantastic view. But the real marvel was how early everyone was eating lunch! Then we finally looked at a clock to find that our brunch was commencing, and it was nearly 2 o'clock. We dragged brunch (now lunch, or more correct in Seinfeld terms, linner) until about 5, when we went to another venue to celebrate beer o'clock while looking in to the crater from a slightly different angle. Yes, lazy.

Windy at Caramoan
Windy at Caramoan
We had visions of this dog doing a Sally Fields impression, from the Flying Nun. He seems to be angling his ears in to get the aerodynamics right for a lift off.

The wind blew so hard on our second day at the beach. The rain was not as constant, but still had us running every now and then, sheltering for only a few minutes at a time. Coffee shops, behind beached boats, under random tarpaulins, beneath the biggest tree, or sometimes, well, it was too much trouble, and easier to face getting wet.

Despite the weather, we found the place very beautiful, and although we obviously would have enjoyed more if we had been able to enjoy a swim or a trip to islands, it was still a great final stop before returning to Manila for our flight home.


Queueing For Lumpia
Queueing For Lumpia
We walked past and saw more than 40 people lined up at this Lumpia House, which proudly proclaims it has been here since 1956. Knowing nothing more than its apparent popularity, we waited our turn. It was nearly an hour, and as it was take-away only, we found a space on some nearby steps to eat.

The juices and provided dipping sauce ran down our arms, over our shorts and shoes, and generally covered our faces. This elicetted comments from passers-by: "Enjoy your food."; "Looks good."; "They are tasty, aren't they."; "We wanted some but didn't have time to wait." All we could do was wipe our faces with our fore-arms, further smearing the mess, smile, nod, and keep eating. They were delicious, but impossible to eat with any decorum.


Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Rest of Northern Luzon



5 to 10 January, 2014 - Vigan, Pagudpud, Mt Pinatubo - (Philippines)

It was time to lose some altitude. After all, we didn't come to The Philippines to be cold. The most obvious route, on a map, was not the easiest, with very few transport connections and options. But soon enough, we were delighted to be in the warmer climes of the coast.

Our first stops, though, were not to be beaches. World Heritage Spanish Colonial architecture was our focus for a couple of days, and Vigan was a great place to have our anniversary. We upped the accommodation a bit, and spent two nights in a former mansion, full of delightful antiques. It had that touch of class that we are becoming familiar with, now that we are "business class worthy" travellers!

Spanish Colonial Architecture
Spanish Colonial Architecture
The Spanish centre of Vigan, The Philippines. It was spared in WWII just minutes before being flattened by American bombers. The architecture is actually a mix of Spanish and Chinese influences.


Frangipani and Bell
Frangipani and Bell
At Santa Maria.


Santa Maria
Santa Maria
Church of Santa Maria, near Vigan. Huge, and solid.


Happy Anniversary
Happy Anniversary
Celebrating 24 wonderful years together. Vigan.


Spacious Interior
Spacious Interior
The incredibly light and airy interior of the church of Paoay.


Paoay Church
Paoay Church
We saw this style referred to as "Earthquake Baroque". Made primarily from coral rocks, the walls are incredibly thick and have huge fortress like reinforcements. While very Spanish, it still displays many other influences. Hints of Indonesian and Chinese can be discerned.


A bit further north, and we reached our first beach stop.

Saud Beach, Pagudpud
Saud Beach, Pagudpud
An idyllic stretch of sand in the north Luzon, Phillipines.


Art Effect
Art Effect
A nice "art effect" added. Saud Beach, Pagudpud.


After some confusing phone calls, and a bit of weighing up of options, we hopped on what was supposed to be an "overnight" bus south. Have you ever noticed, that when you want a bus trip to take a bit longer, it is usually a bit shorter? Subsequently, we were deposited by the side of the highway at 2:30 in the morning. A couple of motor tricycle rides later, and we were near the foot of Mt Pinatubo.

The driver implied that the building was accommodation of some sort, and proceeded to wake the inhabitants up. Dogs barked wildly. Chickens started flapping through the yard. And after a few minutes, lights appeared from within the building. It was nearly 4 a.m. We asked about the possibility of a room, and were dutifully informed that perhaps we should forego sleep. After all, we could commence ascending the mountain at 5:30. Jo managed to convey our level of tiredness, having been deprived of rest for much of the bus trip, and what sleep we got being very light and intermittent.

By now, most of the family seemed to have been awakened by our arrival, and they began busying themselves with various jobs, one of which was preparing a room for us to sleep in. As we went to the room we passed a figure, covered head to toe, trying to sleep on a couch. Perhaps the only person in the place still doing so. Nearly two hours later, when we got up and had breakfast, we worked out that the person on the couch was the teenage daughter. She had been evicted from her room so that we had somewhere to sleep!

6:30, or maybe approaching 7:00, and we were in a jeep taking us up to where the walking was to commence. Less than 3 hours later, we stood on the rim of Mt Pinatubo, admiring the incredibly beautiful crater lake within. The sulphurous smells, the discoloured rocks and water, these reminded us it was active. And the local guide we chatted to, his story of lost loved ones in the 1991 erruption, that reminded us that looks can be deceiving.

Looking Down Into Mt Pinatubo Crater Lake
Looking Down Into Mt Pinatubo Crater Lake
After an overnight bus, and feeling very sleep deprived, we climbed Mt Pinatubo. Admittedly, we got driven a fair way up, but the last couple of hours to the rim were on foot. And looking down in to a superbly beautiful lake with some stunning scenery made it all worthwhile.


Lakeside, Mt Pinatubo
Lakeside, Mt Pinatubo
Photo from the shore of the crater lake inside Mt Pinatubo. There is little evidence of the fact that the volcano is still very active, having significant erruptions in the last few decades.


Driving Down, Mt Pinatubo
Driving Down, Mt Pinatubo
The river down from Mt Pinatubo is largely just loose ash from recent erruptions. It is a significant hazard, as any decent amount of rain, particularly a typhoon, does not get absorbed, but turns the river very quickly in to mud and ash flows, with dangerous land slides possible at any time.