Ethiopia — the Land of the Donkey

Katya Kobrina

Extracts from “Elephant Caresses. A Journey through African Frontiers: Anger And Pure Joy”

In 2014 I was unemployed, living on my Mom’s couch in London. An old friend of my parents’, who I call Owen in this book, was also in London at the time, working a boring job, and mostly grieving his wife who passed away. His wife was the reason I became vegetarian, and then later on vegan. Owen and I met up a few times for drinks, and somehow got talking about traveling. The talk turned into a vision: how about we travel through Africa for six months, and because we are vegan, why not show the world that it’s entirely possible? And somehow that question turned into real planning, and a real trip. Owen bought a used Toyota Cruiser that was half-turned into a camper vehicle. I researched countries and places, made stickers for the car, designed our website, and mostly just hoped every day that this dream would come true.

On the sixth of June we set off from London, and we returned in mid-December.

This extract is from our travels in Ethiopia. I loved everything about this country, but the country was not easy to love. There were many problems on every corner, but there was also delicious food, very friendly and curious people, insane mountainous landscapes, and donkeys — so many donkeys on every road. To this day I can still remember the smell of Ethiopian villages, they burned some sort of wood that had a very particular smell, unlike any other chimney or firepit smell I’ve ever encountered. I really hope I get to visit this country once again. I would love to see all of my favorite places, and visit the areas that we didn’t get a chance to see.

24th August — Sunday

In the morning, bright and early, we drove to the Simien Mountains tourist office to organize a scout and pay all the fees for the national park. The excellent workers at the office whistled at some homeless-looking guy on the street, who came into the office and was introduced to us as one of their scouts. He had no teeth and a very old gun, so old that it seemed comical how he was just randomly waving it around and using it as a walking stick. I forgot to mention that he didn’t speak a word of English and was constantly freezing. A strange phenomenon since he’d lived and worked there his entire life. He had a particular smell about him which forced us to keep the windows open at least a tiny bit and obviously inconvenient to our scout as he sat shivering next to me. His smell lingered in the car long after he was gone, and reminded us of his peculiar non-physical presence, watching us through those yellowing energetic eyes and accidentally waving his wooden semi-toy gun in our general direction.

He took us to the market to stock up on food, and the ladies in that miserable town didn’t want to sell us anything because we were tourists. I guess the food season was terrible that year, they only had some half-rotten potatoes, tomatoes and cabbage to offer us, and even that they refused to sell until our brilliant guy engaged the lady in an awful shouty argument, after which, through gritted teeth, she handed over the food in exchange for our money.

We drove into the mountains in clear weather, although the clouds were starting to gather. The road was tricky in places, and at one point we saw a “bus” (a truck full of people in the back) stuck on a particularly muddy corner. We aced the muddy puddle without problems. They have incredible gelada baboons in the Simien Mountains, unlike any other species, they dwell only there. They are loud and rude, and don’t care much for the humans. One of them decided to masturbate while staring at me, another pissed in our general directions and bared his teeth. As we drove higher up the mountain, we stopped to look at a cascading waterfall. The view was absolutely spectacular, the kind of shots you’d expect in Lord of the Rings or some other CGI enhanced film, but this was real, tactile, we could smell the water across the abyss, we could hear the rare Ethiopian wolves howling far off in the distance, we were aware of how thin the air was and how it hung around our faces when we breathed and held the air inside our lungs, looking down, into the unknown, cloudy abyss below us. One wrong step, one foot slip, and you’re gone forever. Nobody would find your broken body, only the vultures would pick at your rotting flesh.

We had a short stop for a hot cup of tea, mostly to warm up our poor scout who looked like a frozen snowflake by this point, and then we drove to the campsite — a clearing by the road with outside/inside toilets and a stream not far off. There were women and domestic animals running around, but we politely declined offers of slaughtering a lamb for us. As we learned later that night, an animal was still slaughtered for the family that lived there and the scout happily joined in their festivities by the fire while we ate droopy soup and sat in all of our clothes plus sleeping bags to combat the constantly decreasing temperatures. It must have gotten to zero degrees that particular night, and our car was only equipped for temperatures above fifteen.

At night the wind rose. Stupid Owen decided to put up the back awning again for some reason (he only did this on particularly windy nights), so of course in the dead of night we thought our car was going to fly away. The awning broke, and we had to pull down the roof because the top bunk was swaying freely from side to side. Somehow we survived the storm but I barely slept, the wind and the rain and the noises were absolutely terrifying. I was glad that in the morning we quickly packed up and went back down to Debark, leaving these mysterious lonely but vicious mountains to themselves.

28th August — Thursday

When we drove out of Gonder and turned east to go to Lalibela, the sunset sneaked up on us. We were terrified of driving at night, what with the dangerous mountain passes, the people and animals suddenly coming around the corners in pure darkness, the fog hiding other essential details on the road, and the roads being half-beaten to death. We decided to camp just off to the side of the road in a tree clearing, but almost immediately after we stopped, a police car came around the corner and told us that it was too dangerous to camp wild because of thieves. We had no choice but to drive to Debre Tabor, the closest town, and sleep in a hotel. We managed to get there without any more incidents, and we found a nice enough hotel which even had a restaurant. I don’t quite remember what happened, but the night ended in yet another argument. I stormed out of the restaurant after a slightly loud fight with Owen and went to our room. He stayed at the table alone for a bit, and then came to the room later. I guess we made up by morning. Laundry was still wet after hanging all night in our room. The laundry and the room and all of our stuff was starting to smell like stale fungus and I was a bit worried for our skin at this point.

In the morning we went down to the restaurant for some breakfast. I probably ordered breakfast injera (shira fir fir), but Owen decided to get fancy and order oatmeal “made with water, not milk”. The result was absolutely hilarious: they put raw garlic in his porridge. I am not sure if this was their confusion, their sense of humor, their revenge on my behalf since they heard our fight the previous night, or if they simply dislike foreigners. As we left this town, Owen was in horrible spirits but I was actually amused and laughing on the inside.

The drive to Lalibela was typical for Ethiopia: a lot of people on the roads, children with cattle, but we had no more run-ins with the police or with mud. The scenery was fantastic, the sun came out to shine on the mountains and made the forests and the grass look lush and emerald. We still had wet clothes hanging off all the rails inside, and the car was starting to smell really bad of fungus as well, which is a very unpleasant smell. The villages around this well-built road looked more upscale and we saw a lot of people with rainbow umbrellas, and the children shouted “you-you-you-you” and waved at us (a strange phenomenon in Ethiopia, for some reason children had picked up a habit of shouting what sounds like “you” and pointing, but someone explained to us that it is their way of greeting foreigners). We got to Lalibela late in the afternoon, the sun was still up and life was busy all around us. If we thought the previous mountainous towns were impressive, they simply couldn’t compare to Lalibela. The whole town was built on cliffs. One house could be dangerously sloping almost on the verge of crumbling off the rock, the next house could be built almost above it, dangerously peeking over the edge or threatening to fall on top of the lower one, and both could be on the same street and actually be considered next door neighbors (up-down neighbors? above-below neighbors?). The buildings were quite typical low one-story affairs, graduated from huts but not quite real city-dwellers yet. There were many roads that led absolutely everywhere and absolutely nowhere, and my job was trying to figure out how to drive from one cliff to the next, following the roads that turned into mud or roads that ended in someone’s house, seeing the exact location across the abyss but being at a loss how to actually reach that place on four wheels… Those were all difficult problems I kept trying to solve while navigating in this incredible vertical maze. The roads led into almost every crack in the cliffs but seemed to be useless at going straight, following the same direction, or differentiating between main and secondary roads. The view from afar was astonishing: you can imagine an animator thinking up this crazy cliff town for a Miyazaki film, but wonder how the hell it could even be possible in reality, where gravity and other laws of physics apply. And yet here it was in front of us, a historical town known best for its rock-hewn churches.

We decided to leave the churches until the next day and comfortably settled into one of the better establishments we came across in Ethiopia, mostly thanks to their food. It’s called the Seven Olives Hotel, and to be honest I don’t remember anything particularly fantastic about their rooms, plus the blackouts were still a daily occurrence and it was freezing too, therefore I assume the hotel was generic, our stay made up of a shivering night, unpleasantly cold floors and problems with electricity. But none of it mattered because the food went above and beyond to satisfy the needs of weary travelers. I guess the feast wasn’t actually planned, we just sat down to dinner and a couple of beers, but looking back on it I have to say it was the biggest amount of food I had eaten during the whole trip. I ordered bayenetu (a collection of meat-free dishes on one flat injera, with extra injera to use as edible spoons) and it was simply delicious. Anything with berbere is a celebration of taste in your mouth, especially the chickpea dish, although every single part of that injera plate was the best food I have ever eaten in my life to this day, and as I sit here reminiscing in rainy Europe, I still remember this culinary explosion in Lalibela. The idea is to rip small pieces of injera and use it to scoop up the different sauces and dishes on top of the main injera plate, until all the toppings are gone, your hand is covered in juice and oil, and your belly is happy and full.

29th August — Friday

We woke up early to get a head start on the day. We wanted to visit all the rock-hewn churches before lunch and then set off to Mekele so that we could arrive there before dark.

Lalibela is one of Ethiopia’s holiest places and people from not only this country but from all over the world take pilgrimage trips to this city and its churches. Rock-hewn, or rock-cut, is an interesting architectural moment in history. Instead of being built from the ground up, the churches were cut from within the earth from living rock, therefore you could say they are “underground” since they are below the level on which people walk. Ethiopia was actually one of the earliest nations to adopt Christianity in the first half of the 4th century, and the established religion is called Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity. Most of Lalibela’s churches were built during the 12th and the 13th centuries and there are 11 churches in Lalibela. There are two clusters, the Northern Group and the Eastern Group, and the Church of Saint George, the most famous of the 11, stands alone in the Western Group, and it is considered the finest example of this architecture and also happens to be the best preserved. It has the famous square-scaled cross cut out on the “roof” of the church, and easily recognisable on aerial pictures of this particular area of the town.

I think I was most impressed with Biete Medhane Alem (House of the Saviour of the World) because it was the biggest church and seemed a bit of a labyrinth to actually get inside. Rumour has it that it is the largest monolithic church in the world. I am a little disappointed that we didn’t make it to Aksum because that city also has amazing churches, it was the original capital of the Kingdom of Aksum and it was one of the oldest inhabited places in Africa. In Aksum two religions dominate, Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity and Islam, but Lalibela is almost exclusively Christian, and its churches seem to be untouched by reality or modern life for an eternity already.

The churches in Lalibela are dark inside, crammed, with nooks and crannies and creepy tunnels, priests looking older than the churches themselves; they have strange icons and paintings, flea-infested carpets that millions of visitors have walked on, areas which women can’t enter and areas where I saw women weeping, wailing, rolling on the floor, completely absorbed in their faith. I can’t compare this experience to anything else in my life so far, because for the first time in my life I entered a very ancient structure and actually felt the weight of the centuries brooding heavily on every element of every church, both inside and out. I could taste the age of the cut rocks just by breathing the air, I could feel it on my skin as I slipped and climbed up and down the stairs and through the tunnels in complete deafening darkness. It was terrifying to feel the might of human persistence in religion, the dedication of human nature to God, it felt less strictly or clinically religious and more magical, as if the churches were in actuality dwellings of magicians and bizarre dark rituals took place inside. The atmosphere of the labyrinths and the dangerous passageways also added that extra element of dark magic. It’s as if the churches have forgotten that life continued on, they live in their own bubble, but progress and centuries also avoided them, and they were left to their own elements, mysterious and ancient. Ancient objects we see in cities like Rome or Athens don’t read entirely “ancient” because they are among the modern era, among modern architecture and skylines. But Lalibela’s rock-hewn churches are hidden in the rock and nothing spoils these visions. But overall I was especially impressed with the innovation of cutting churches out of rocks instead of building them upward, because I had definitely never seen that before or even knew it existed.

After doing touristy things in Lalibela we set off on our journey to Mekele. There was a road on both of our maps, almost exactly matching, through the mountain passes, but we pondered whether the winding slow rocky road was going to get us to Mekele in six hours. We could have taken the definitely tarmac road east and then north but we would have lost a day, would have had to look for a place to sleep overnight (another raw garlic porridge incident perhaps) and therefore we vetoed on the (possibly dirt) road through the mountains. As we were leaving Lalibela, we started to notice a strange new trend with the children on the sides of the road — they were dancing! As soon as the car approached they broke out into a strange dance routine that looked as if they had convulsions. The first time it was amusing, the second time it started getting bizarre, the third and other times it just became slightly uncomfortable and even disturbing. A few days later I actually figured this out — the dance was a commercial shown on TV all the time, it was a commercial about Ethiopia and it was made for the approaching New Year’s Eve. Still, the convulsing children on the roads were a bit unnerving.

The first part of the drive was relatively doable, as most of it was tarmac and before the downpour started. Once we left the northern road and got onto a smaller dirt trek through the mountains going northeast, the clouds gathered, the path became slippery, and the vastness of the mountain range unfurled. The sky opened and the heavenly rain beat down like severe punishment. The path quickly became a running stream, the fog thickened. Thankfully this area was a lot more isolated, and there were few people that we could potentially run over.

At one point we were climbing up one peak and saw a few faces looking at us high above and around the next bend. As we reached them, we realized there were about 20 school girls, all dressed in a variety of traditional garb. The first thought that struck us was: what the hell were these young girls doing in the middle of nowhere, without a single village in sight, on a lonely forgotten road, completely unsupervised, wearing slightly ridiculous and inappropriate clothing for this particular occasion, in the rain, as it started getting dark outside. Then it became more bizarre. They blocked the road with their bodies and as we were forced to slow down, they started singing, beating their drums, dancing and pounding on the car. Why?

We managed to somehow squeeze past their tiny bodies and avoid hitting their tiny ankles, and as we sped off, we heard disappointed shouts in our direction. We didn’t meet a single person or house for miles after that.

As the night fell, it became harder and harder to see and to drive safely. Closer to Mekele traffic picked up again, more cars and trucks started appearing out of the thick black fog, speeding around mountain bends and almost pushing us off into the abyss. People also started coming out on the road with their cows and donkeys for a nightly stroll, completely invisible until the last second before almost running into them. This was not a drive, it was torture. As we passed the last village before Mekele, we noticed two sets of eyes shining in the dark. Owen slowed down the car to shine the beams on them — they were hyenas!

Skinny, slick, shiny and cunning, just like in all the nature documentaries I had ever seen, just like all the popular portrayals of these animals, in the dark dangerous night on a mountain in the middle of nowhere in Ethiopia, these animals proved to be true to their stereotype. They were lurking in the shadows of the road, hungrily staring at our car for far too long, straight into our beams without blinking. Eventually we continued onwards, but as we entered Mekele, we saw even more hyenas, hordes of them skulking on the outskirts of town, on the sleepiest streets, scavenging for food scraps or rats, or maybe baby kittens, who knows.

I guess they don’t attack humans because on a parallel street there were already people walking, happily unaware of the predators prowling the night streets. We drove into the center of Mekele and stupidly decided to stay in an expensive hotel which turned out to be right next to the tourist office, which is what we needed to arrange a trip to the Danakil Depression. We were too tired to go looking for anything else.

The hotel proved to be stupid and expensive. The food was terrible, the waiters and bartenders too pompous, and the guests were mostly aid workers and governmental officials, and we felt completely out of place there.

30th August — Saturday

After breakfast we went straight to the tourist information office, and we got so lucky! It just so happened that this particular morning they had a group of tourists ready to drive to the Danakil Depression for three nights/four days. They organize a kind of tour with the company’s cars, drivers, guides and a cook, and the tourists are distributed among those cars with one guide to lead everyone. These tours are the only way you can get to the Danakil Depression without any permits or problems, because at the time the area was considered red-hot dangerous due to a few local Afar people killing a couple of tourists, and one tourist actually died at the volcano because the hot lava got him, or something like that. The area in general is very unstable, the Afar people do not particularly care about borders and like to travel freely between Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti and Somaliland, but obviously the governments are not so keen on this state of affairs. Therefore to get into the Danakil area you need a guide and a handful of soldiers to protect you, so we had to get attached to a tour rather than going alone.

A few words about the Danakil Depression: it is an area in the northern part of the Afar depression, near the border with Eritrea. The Danakil Depression is one of the hottest (if not the hottest) places on Earth. It is also one of the lowest places on Earth, because the area is below the sea level, between -50 and -150m (and perhaps more in some places). Most days the temperature reaches and surpasses 50°C. Some people call this place the cradle of humanity, as the famous “Lucy” and many other ancient bones were found there, which left many scientists to speculate whether this is where we all originate from. The Afar people inhabit this area and they mostly work in salt mining. Lately there have been conflicts between the Afar people and the government of Ethiopia, because now there are bigger companies which started mining salt in the region with bigger machines and better transportation, putting the Afar people out of business, and considering that this is the only way to survive in the region (where instead of soil you have lava fields and sulfur lakes), this political and capitalist move is angering the population to no end.

We met our future friend and driver of one of the 4WD Toyotas in the hotel’s parking lot. He was with a younger man, and the two of them were in a great hurry to catch up with the rest of the travelers at the first stop of the trip, a village just on the bare outskirts of the Danakil Depression. First we piled into their car to drive to an exchange point and drop off our cash at the company’s office. As Owen and I sat in the back, we realized that this driver was a little insane, and we exchanged looks of “thank God we won’t be driving with him”. He was plump, dreadlocked, and slightly terrifying at first glance. It is a real shame that I cannot remember his name, so we’ll just have to call him Dreadlocks Guy. Later, actually very soon after we departed from the first village, we realized that he was more of a lovable teddy bear, he looked after us, chatted to us, checked our car without us having to ask him to do it. He spoke limited English, but he was a total joy to be around. He had a quick and hot temper when it came to the other drivers and anyone who worked with him, but he was the nicest man to all the travelers and cared about our well-being more than even our official guide did. While we drove to the exchange point, Dreadlocks Guy and his younger slimmer companion bickered and argued about who knows what. When we finally got back to our own car, we were kind of glad to not be driving with them. I mean, he was the loveliest man, but he was a maniac behind the wheel.

We followed their car down a steep mountain road into the Depression. Soon we reached the first outpost, the village where the other travelers were already waiting for us. The others were very varied. The first one I met was Joseph, a Korean guy traveling around Africa, and he was wearing a Victoria Falls t-shirt, which should have been a weird premonition for what was to be a slippery escape from death in the future for me in Zimbabwe, but on that much much later. We also met Rui, a Japanese girl that we befriended and met up with later two more times during our African adventure. Incidentally, Rui went to university with one of my acquaintances, Wataru, who spent one year at my university in the US. The world is so small that I needed only one degree of separation in a tiny village in the most ridiculous place on earth to meet someone related to my life. I mean the world doesn’t get more random and coincidental than this.

I also met Dor from Israel, a couple of British dudes, a couple of boring unfriendly Northern Europeans and a few other people I just don’t remember, and of course our wonderful guide. He was not too tall, a bit stocky, and he possessed a great sense of humor and a dry and sarcastic outlook on life. I think I learnt a few lessons on wisdom from him on our last day in the Danakil Depression.

Soon after our arrival we all packed into our individual cars (ours was the only private car; all the other tourists were traveling with the company’s vehicles, and all the cars were similar to ours because they were all Toyota Land Cruisers) and sped off into volcano land. At first we climbed down even further into below-sea-level-territory and soon found ourselves driving across a scorched and dead plain consisting of dried-up volcano lava on either side of the tarmac road. We stopped once because one of the cars got a flat tire, and during that stop I spotted a huge disgusting spider scurrying off into the folds of the lava. It reminded me that even though the land might look desolate, there is a lot of life still out there. The heat was already pressing us into the ground, and being below sea level didn’t help. There was no air movement at all, which was unusual, because in the desert during the highest temperatures the wind never died down. At some point we passed through a tiny settlement where lunch was served to us and that is where we picked up a handful of soldiers who were supposed to protect us from the Afar «terrorists».

At some point we got off the tarmac road and continued through sandy/muddy tracks. This was sort of fun because we drove fast, leaving a trail of sand wind behind us, but the cars kept getting stuck in the sand because they were driving on bare treadless tyres, and we soon found out why, as after the sandy bit we continued across the lava field. When I say “we drove across a lava field” what I mean is two hours of pure torture. We basically drove through a field of rocks without a path through them. The fastest we went was about 10km/h. Every rock we encountered, we had to climb over it as if the car was a human or a donkey. I could have walked to our destination in that period, and I did get out of the car at some point and walked nearby because I was extremely nauseous from the constant rocking movement. We climbed over lava rocks and the tread on our tires was shredded to hell, this is why the other guys had bald tires for this part of the trip.

Eventually we reached a tiny settlement where we parked the car, dinner was made for us, and once the sun started setting and the air became a little more inviting for breathing, we packed overnight bags, each person was given two 1.5L water bottles, and we began the gradual climb up the volcano. This was no easy task, don’t get me wrong. The walk was at a constant incline, the path was mostly rocks, my feet kept stumbling and crushing into rocks or cramping up from unusual textures. It was also slowly getting darker and darker, and even with our torches we could barely see anything past what was in front of our feet. We had three short stops, and those bottles of water were drunk pretty quickly because the heat was still oppressing and the air was still not moving, and everyone was sweating buckets immediately after the first five minutes of walking. The walk took us about three hours altogether. According to Wikipedia, the Danakil Depression gets up to 50 degrees on a normal day. This was during the evening, but we were also walking toward a hot active volcano spewing flaming lava into the air every few seconds.

Finally we got to the top and there were a few small huts, but we were told that we would be sleeping on the ground on small blankets under the open sky. Why? I think mostly because it was so impossibly hot that sleeping under a roof was out of the question. And partly because this was all part of the “authentic” experience. You can’t get more authentic than a mouse or rat running across my back during the night, me waking up and being genuinely afraid, not of the mouse, but of the idea that it might have been a tarantula.

Once we reached the little settlement and rested for five minutes, we were told to get all of our cameras and gather together for a steep decline to the actual “mouth” of the volcano which by the way is called Erta Ale. Now, I am not sure how to describe this next part.

There is an active volcano in front of you. It is pitch black outside because it is after sunset and the nights in this part of the world get very dark without light pollution. You see a great monster in front of you, a red and orange and yellow oval-shaped cavity spewing burning hot lava from its innards upwards, sideways, and in all possible directions. You stand a few feet behind the drop-off, but even then you run for your life when you see a particularly fast and large spit of lava heading in your direction. The ground below your feet is covered in what appears to be large unpleasant spider webs, but on closer inspection those are white and see-through lava threads, all tangled up on the ground, forming patterns very similar to spider webs.

The whole spectacle is out of this world. It is something you see on TV, something you might experience in dreams, but never something you actually get to feel, to breathe, to run away from, to walk around, to be in the moment with. It is one of only five active volcanoes in the world, and it is in the hottest place on Earth, where you are standing feet-deep in lava-spider-webs, breathing in sulfur, dying of the 45-50 degree heat, oppressed by the below-sea-level air, in complete darkness where only the spewing red hot lava illuminates the awed faces of your fellow companions, and you realize how small and stupid the human race is compared to these deadly giants, and you also realize how you could never show or explain to anyone this very exact moment, not in pictures, not in videos, not in words.

31st August — Sunday

We woke up at the volcano at the crack of dawn, and had to walk for about 3-4 hours down the volcano to our cars. It was very difficult to walk with empty bellies, with just water to fill us up as the sun started to rise and we started to sweat profusely. I walked alone, unable to be in Owen’s company a second longer, and had to listen to the conversations of two British guys trying to hit on a Ukrainian girl that was with us. It was slightly nauseating that one of the guys had no shirt and was absolutely tomato-red. He actually didn’t bring a shirt to the volcano, I have no idea what stupidity could have possibly caused that decision to happen. So he slept with his bare skin on the rough blankets on the floor, the same night that a mouse or a tarantula ran across my back.

We made it back in one piece, we had breakfast, and Dreadlocks Guy noticed that our car was leaking, so we all decided to spend the day at Mekele getting ready for the next leg of our Danakil adventure and also to repair our car, so we drove back to Mekele, checked into a hotel run by the same company as our tour, had some pretty good food, checked our emails, slept and dreamt amazing things in a slightly colder environment. The climate in Mekele was still mountainous and in accordance with the Ethiopian rainy season. A strange drop in temperature, humidity and air movement.

1st September — Monday

We woke up in Mekele quite early, had breakfast and met a guy who took us to get the car fixed and washed. Then we met the new travelers, some of the previous guys stayed on for the second half of the adventure, and others stayed in Mekele or moved to the next city, while new tourists joined us. Among them was a British couple, a Pakistani family which consisted of the father (apparently a Pakistani ambassador in Ethiopia), his wife and their two daughters, around the same age as me. There was also an annoying American and a tall dark and handsome young man who went everywhere with two tall blonde Scandinavian girls. Rui, Joseph and the Japanese guy also continued with us for this part of the trip but Dor stayed in Mekele.

We drove out of Mekele around noon. We stopped at yet another settlement for lunch and coffee, and the quality of this food was actually impressively good. After lunch I walked around the puff pastry yellow rocks of this tiny settlement, looking for a desolate spot to pee, but none was to be found. So I took Owen and we hid in a small hole in the ground, he stood watching over any unwanted guests while I did my business.

Afterward we drove deeper into the Danakil, we picked up soldiers again and eventually came upon a desolate flat area with a few unfinished straw huts. We were told that we would go to see the salt lake first before the sunset and then come back to the settlement for dinner. Driving to the salt lake was interesting, because it was a completely flat and straight road, first just slightly muddy and then the mud was mixed in with a white substance, which was obviously the salt. Eventually we came upon a huge white plain that looked like the surface of the Moon (if the Moon were white). The “lake” isn’t really a lake, it is a solid 800 meters deep surface of pure white salt with a little bit of water on top. The salt is as hard as rock, and even though you can walk on the surface barefoot, and it is quite pleasant, the surface is sharp and painful in certain places. The sun was starting to set and the view was magnificent: a slow descent into the white glistening horizon of the Moon surface. Everything was coloured blue-green-gray-white and we all took turns taking pictures in this incredible landscape.

We went back to the small settlement and got ready for bed first, the outside beds were brought out for the other travelers and we decided to stay in our car, because even though we knew it would be excruciatingly hot inside, even hotter than the outside beds, at least we wouldn’t have the risk of mice or tarantulas crawling on us at night. The others prepared their beds, I chatted to Rui and the Pakistani girls, and then our meal was ready so we walked into the biggest hut and filled our plates with pasta and salad. As we ate, our guide told us a little about the region, the salt lake and the colorful area, which we would be visiting the next day.

The night was truly excruciating. I think I slept in pockets of one or two hours and then woke up, drank water, and felt suffocated to the core. I slept downstairs and Owen slept upstairs because sleeping in the same bed would have been like sleeping on top of a volcano eruption, just too damn hot. Of course I was only too happy to finally sleep alone.

2nd September — Tuesday

As we drove out of the tiny settlement with the local Afar people staring after us, the children were shyly looking from underneath their eyebrows, the older generation were frowning and seemed rather closed-off. I knew that the Afar people didn’t like the tour guides or the tours that brought tourists into their settlements, they wanted to be left alone by the government and by the tourist industry, but they also knew that with the loss of half or more of their business in the salt lake, they depended on the tourists. The tours pay them a pretty penny for this and they can’t say anything about it. They also have a recycling center for plastic just outside their village and they get profit from bringing recyclables there, and after tourists leave, there are plenty of empty water bottles to be recycled.

We drove into the colorful area, which started with a brown landscape with dried-up shapes of alien origin. The road was a little wet, and it was salt mixed in with the mud, and as everyone knows, salt prevents things from drying out properly, so the roads were slightly soggy. It was already starting to be insanely hot. We had aircon in our car, but still every time we stopped to look at a particular area, just two minutes outside guaranteed a waterfall of sweat. The air was oppressive to the lungs, the sun wasn’t the usual bright sun, but somewhat scattered across the whole sky. I guess there was an almost invisible layer of dust in the air because the air was unmoving and smelled like the earth. The first area we saw just had light-brown structures crystalised into weird forms, mostly mushroom-like or in the shape of chairs and tables. Then we started walking toward the red, the orange, and finally over the hill the insanely colorful landscape opened up before us, together with the pungent smell of rotten eggs and 100 year old herring. Here was the entirety of the Periodic Table spewing from underneath the earth in a plethora of rainbow colors, neon-bright and deadly if touched or ingested. There were pools of acid bubbling or shooting out, there were some more oxidized and dried up patterns, there were softer but solid surfaces to walk on and there were gooey dangerous surfaces we were advised against. The smell and the heat was nauseating but the discomfort gave way to wonder. I had never seen such colors occurring naturally in my entire life without photography manipulation or special lighting. There were neon greens and yellows, highlighter colors, deep red and browns, clear acid that looked just like water, and the blue-gray sky reflecting from the acid pools as if they were mirrors, completely still and stagnant.

Later we also drove to a couple of caves, which were little mountains in the shapes of dried up fairy-tale castles, with nothing but desolation all around. Not a single natural sound, not a single droplet of water or vegetation. We saw dead tarantulas and birds, but nothing alive. Finally the last stop for us were little pools of brown water, which also smelled foul but according to our guide actually contained liquid that was rather healing, and people took this water, diluted it, and bathed in it to soothe their skin problems.

Even though I wore my big “Vegetarian Shoes” boots and hoisted my socks super high so as to avoid getting splatters of chemicals on my skin (I was also wearing a breezy dress otherwise I would have suffocated), I still got a bit of the colorful soil on my shins. That stuff is very corrosive! Immediately my skin was raw and itchy and no amount of clean water and soap could get rid of it. It was a few days before the skin stopped itching and a few weeks before it healed completely.

We drove back to the village we stopped at the previous day, got our lunch and coffee, and cold drinks for a few members. This is when things started getting a little bit serious and shitty, in a literal sense. Suddenly Owen, who usually wolfed everything down in one bite, wasn’t too keen on his food. He said he was starting to feel sick and uncomfortable. I figured it was the heat and the exhaustion. He couldn’t wait to leave the village and it was just unfortunate that somebody decided to get extra coffee and we ended up waiting even longer.

On the way back Owen kept farting and he looked a little green altogether. We had the windows open and didn’t speak the entire way. He was very angry and impatient, and once we got to Mekele he could barely move. I had to run and get us a room, and then almost carry him to the room because he couldn’t even drag his feet. Then I carried all of our heavy bags upstairs as well and wasn’t sure what to do any more. I stood outside in the rain smoking, trying to catch a glimpse of someone from the tour and ask for help for Owen, but instead just ended up saying goodbye to some of the travelers. I was sad to be saying goodbye to Rui, but we made plans to meet up again at some point somewhere in Africa. Then I sat in the restaurant/bar area to catch up on social media and drank a couple of beers, trying to gather my thoughts together.

3rd September — Wednesday

Owen Owen Owen. What a day. I got to maybe save a life today? I am not sure exactly what happened but it was the worst experience for me from the whole journey. I didn’t realize the night before that Owen had explosive diarrhea and soiled the sheets and it was everywhere. He was too embarrassed to tell me when it was happening but not too embarrassed to admit to it some time later as he lay ashen-gray, barely able to move, dehydrated and exhausted, fluids and insides coming out of him at both ends. Unable to eat, or to drink anything (or refusing to drink, more like it), but still stubborn enough to say no to hospitals. It was quite a day. I was terrified of going in the bathroom, I was feeling germs everywhere, like big ugly bugs crawling on me. I couldn’t use the toilet or the shower, I had to use the restaurant’s one downstairs. I washed my hands incessantly, I couldn’t look at Owen without disgust. I had to ask for new sheets at the reception and the soiled one had to be thrown in a pile on the balcony, getting rained on.

I know it is an awful thing to say these things about someone so sick and in need of help, but all I felt was disgust and I wanted to be as far away from him as possible. I just couldn’t deal with anything. I was half-hoping he would get better by himself and half-wishing he would get worse so we would have no choice but to send him to the hospital where they would sort him out.

I am a cruel human being. In the evening I went to the restaurant to have some food and I met Dor. We chatted and when I went back upstairs, Owen was dying in my eyes. I had to do something. I told him he had a choice of going to the hospital now before it’s too late in the day, or being taken by an ambulance at night. I told him I didn’t think he was going to get any better. So I ran back down to the bar area and found Dor again. I asked him if he could help me find a hospital, and he did, with the help of another friend of his. I asked at the reception how to get a taxi, but she wasn’t very helpful, suggesting just a tuk-tuk. I tried to explain that my friend was too sick for a tuk-tuk, but she just shrugged. I dragged Owen outside, we got into a tuk-tuk, asked him to be gentle, and spent about 20 minutes being banged about on the uneven roads. We got to the hospital though, without Owen passing out or vomiting, and there I sat him down and went to the reception area. I told the nurse my friend needed to see a doctor as soon as possible because he was very sick. I pointed to Owen, barely able to sit up in the chair, and she gave me the details of the procedures and told us to wait, we would be called. We sat there for maybe thirty minutes. All the chairs were taken so the line was quite full. It was dark outside, night time, and raining, but people of all ailments were gathered there in this small hospital with terrible squat toilets and peeling walls. The nurses looked crispy clean and the doctors extremely professional, so I wasn’t really worried about anything except Owen’s health quickly deteriorating. He wanted to lie down, so we took up three chairs in order for him to use my lap as a pillow. But then he sat up again and sort of swayed a bit. Suddenly he turned to me and said “I don’t feel good”. I looked at him, searching his face for clues, and said “How? In what way? What do you need?”

At this point his eyes rolled back and he fell backwards onto the back of his chair, banging his head slightly on the wall. And then he started convulsing with his whole body, like a man in an electric chair, his eyes still rolled back in his head.

I am a rather shy person especially in front of unknown rather gloomy sick strangers in a strange unfamiliar territory that was this hospital, not being able to speak a word of Amharic. But all of that disappeared in a second. I jumped up and started shouting and flailing my arms “Help! Help! Somebody help my friend! Please, he is convulsing! Nurse! Help me please!”

The nurses rushed to us, tried to do something with Owen but he was still shaking and unconscious. Three large men quickly stood up and picked up Owen’s skeletal body in order to bring him into the make-shift patient receiving room with a hospital bed. As he was being carried, Owen suddenly opened his eyes and stopped shaking. His eyes looked completely wild and confused. He was gasping and searching the faces of the men carrying him. He asked “What happened?”

They lay him on the bed and I told him that he lost consciousness so they brought him there. I was shaking from fear but I knew the first thing about helping in first-aid: reassure the wounded person, don’t show your panic or fear, they are infinitely more scared than you. Make them believe that everything will be okay. So I did. I didn’t mention his convulsions or his eyes rolling back. And I smiled and hid my shaking hands, and I masked my shaking voice and swallowed my tears back as the doctor walked into the room. He spoke English and we told him Owen’s symptoms and everything that happened so far in the last two days. They took many samples from Owen and told him to drink something.

The tests came back very quickly, I am guessing Owen’s convulsing act shook up the whole hospital. Everyone was worried about him, people kept coming up to me from the patients’ waiting room and asking how he was. I smoked a few cigarettes in the rain, trying to steady my hands. It is one thing to watch someone convulsing and rolling their eyes back on TV, but it is quite another to see your travel partner, your friend, the person you are responsible for, going through this as they sit next to you on a chair in an unknown hospital in a small town in a foreign country. I was simply terrified, I was more terrified than I had ever been in my life.

After the tests the doctor called us into his office. Turns out they found typhoid in his stool and also giardiasis, the thing I had in Egypt. The combination was deadly. Add extreme dehydration (his own fault I swear, I tried to get him to drink when he got sick but he just wouldn’t) and emaciation from not eating anything for a few days, so a very bad imbalance of electrolytes, that’s why he had a fit. He was put on an IV immediately and given a few prescriptions of different drugs to buy. While he lay on the bed getting his drip, the power went out in the whole hospital. Thankfully we didn’t need the power, as I had already purchased the drugs and he sat with a needle in his arm and a bag of liquid attached to it. The nurse brought us a candle so we wouldn’t sit in complete darkness, but it was rather interesting to witness a full-blown power-cut in a hospital. They don’t have back-ups there so if any major surgery was going on or if anyone was connected to a life-support machine, what happened to them?

Either way, after the drip was done, Owen started showing signs of being alive again, and we were able to leave on yet another tuk-tuk back to the hotel. I couldn’t pass out for a long time because my brain was overworked and emotionally drained from the day.