The lost world of Socotra; vultures, sharks and bleeding trees.

Socotra is sometimes described as a lost world. Located in the pirate-infested Gulf of Aden, off the coast of Somalia, and belonging to Yemen, it does have a few marketing problems to deal with. However, while it is not a particularly easy place to visit, it is perfectly safe. I don’t mean that the risks of terrorism or other such violence are low, I mean such things have simply never happened there, as far as I know. Even last year’s revolution in Yemen didn’t result in any troubles on the island, where many inhabitants describe themselves as “Socotrans” and don’t feel very involved in Yemeni politics. To avoid travel there, as recommended by most Western Governments, is like saying that because of some riots in French suburbs, you should avoid going to Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon. That being said, while you can get there from Sharjah, UAE, and avoid mainland Yemen altogether, I had to go through Sana’a, but survived that quite easily.

Socotra is not really a do it yourself destination. Nothing prevents you from going around on your own, but it is much more practical to do business with an agency, as there is very little public transportation and the main attractions are natural and not necessarily close to any inhabited areas. There is really nothing to do or see on Socotra, except for the nature. So here is a little photo essay in three categories:

1. The land.


The Detwa Lagoon, seen from the mountains. It is much larger than it looks, as I learned trying to walk on the very long strip of sand you see in the distance.


As you can see, the sun is about to set and I am sort of on the wrong side of the water! Annoying but without risk, as the lagoon is very shallow and you can walk across most of it. I ran a bit and made my way around before total darkness.


The sand dunes of Zahik. OK, this is not Sossusvlei, but it was nice anyways. There are bigger dunes on the East side of the Island, but they were not as photogenic for me.


Salt production in a natural sinkhole, near Hadibo. The process is very simple, they fill the little enclosed areas they built with rocks, let the salt water evaporate and collect a little salt a few weeks later. Basically the same process I saw in Namibia, except the Namibians make ponds the size of cities and collect salt by the tens of tons, with giant mining trucks!


Hoq Cave. After a steep hike of about 60 or 90 minutes, you reach the entrance and can walk several hundred meters inside, until the cave becomes “flooded” (it looked just a little wet to me, but that’s as far as the guides would go). The whole complex is a few kilometres long. I took this picture at the end of the path the local guides take you on. For the technically interested, this is a 30 second exposure, during which I moved my headlamp across the whole field of view.


On the way back, the entrance from a distance.


And the first ray of light.

2. The trees.


Socotra, like much of Yemen, used to be a very wealthy place in days long gone, mainly from the production of frankincense, myrrh and other such previously very valuable stuff. As a man in Sana’a told me, “We used to be like Dubai”! This is a frankincense tree.


The Diksam Valley, probably one of the largest frankincense tree forest in the World.


A frankincense tree who was late the day the trees picked where they would live.


The most recognized tree of Socotra, which grows nowhere else, the blood dragon tree, so named because its sap is bright red. Of course the mythological stories of its creation involve all sorts of blood soaked legends. A significant proportion of Socotra’s vegetation and animals can only be found there. In that respect, the only two places on Earth that have more endemic species are the Galapagos Islands and Hawaii.




And my favourite, the bottle tree, also endemic to Socotra. It grows just a few leaves, but enormous trunks in which it stores water. This is a baby version.


A medium sized one.


And some mature ones, next to some blood dragon trees.

3. The animals.


OK, these are boats, not animals, but they are used to catch animals! We went there late morning to get some fish for lunch, straight from the fishermen, as there is no market per say.


That’s an animal, and an expensive one. I think they were asking for about $100 for this small shark. I can’t imagine how much it’s worth once it gets to a fancy Aden restaurant. Most of the fish caught gets consumed locally, between October and some time around April. After that, it gets too windy to fish and people eat the goats, or dried fish. Shark and kingfish are worth too much for people to eat, and they get exported to the mainland. About the wind, Socotra, during its windy season, is one of the windiest places in the world, with winds of 90 km/h or more being a daily occurrence. In fact, because of this and the resulting sea conditions, the island was completely cut-off from the rest of the world between June and September, every year until 1999, when the only airport was built.


Another animal, disturbed in its home renovation project by my presence. The beaches are covered with these small crabs, but they are quite fearful and start moving away as soon as they can detect someone walking on the beach, which means a good 30 meters away. They probably sense the vibrations on the sand. I guess this one felt brave knowing safety was right behind him, but the few times I surprised one in the open, they darted away at an impressive speed.


The Egyptian Vulture, endangered in most parts of the world, but everywhere on Socotra. I have yet to decide if I find them ugly or beautiful.


I regret not having filmed this scene. We had just finished lunch and my driver threw the leftover food on the ground. There is no garbage collection in Socotra and people just throw garbage everywhere. Around any place with humans, the ground is covered with trash, as in most of the Middle-East. The good thing on Socotra is that the vultures eat most of the organic garbage, and the goats eat the rest (even paper). So back to the leftovers. They fell in two piles. The vultures started eating, but a more dominant vulture arrived, chased them away and started eating from pile 1. The others moved to pile 2 and started eating there. When the dominant bird saw that, he abandoned pile 1, chased them from pile 2 and started eating there. The others just moved back to pile 1, got chased away, etc. In the end, I am quite sure the dominant bird ate less, as he was so busy trying to protect both piles! It was hilarious.




A rare and endangered Socotra Buzzard. They are in very high demand in the UAE, but exporting them (or any other Socotra animal or plant), is illegal. I am not sure what the Emirati want with them, but if I was rich but my society said all I could do is drink tea all day with a bunch of other dudes dressed in robes, while we pretend to have jobs, maybe I would also get into birds? Anyways, one guy exported one last year, but got caught. Someone suspected he had seen him with a bird. Soon after, he flew to Dubai on “vacation”, and returned with a new car! Difficult to explain in a closed society where everyone knows your business…

So Socotra? Nice nature, but before you go, understand there is absolutely nothing else. When you want some quiet time, you can walk on a deserted beach (although you will always run into some villager, fisherman, kids, as there are small villages all around the island). When you want to eat, you can get food from your truck and eat it on a deserted beach. When you want a drink, you can forget about it.


Around Sana’a: the villages, my fake identities and the hostage takers.

While I felt relatively confident Sana’a was safe, I wasn’t so sure about the rest of the province. The agency I was dealing with assured me the areas around the capital were safe as well. To leave the capital, you need permission from the tourist police and the idea is that if you are trying to go to an unsafe area, they simply won’t grant the permit. Going without is not an option, as you won’t make it through the Army checkpoints that block all roads in and out of Sana’a. The checkpoints were serious operations; at the first one, they even called the HQ to confirm my permit was real. They were also packing heavy. The couple of dudes with AK-47s didn’t seem too menacing, but at every checkpoint, if you looked to the sides, you could see pick-up mounted heavy machine guns or armoured vehicles with different sorts of chain guns or small caliber cannons. In other words, forcing a roadblock can cause severe lead poisoning and that has limited the movement of armed tribesmen into Sana’a (since I was going out of Sana’a, I guess that didn’t help me).

Just as I was starting to feel safe, my guide casually mentioned: “In the villages, some people will want to practice their English, ask you your name, where you’re from. Tell them you’re from Turkey.” Hum… Not a good sign. This was actually one of several fake identities I adopted that day!


Our first stop was Wadi Daharh, or rather the top of the cliff overlooking the Wadi (Arabic for “valley”). The cliff is lined with little shaded areas with benches and the place is a very popular destination for Friday family picnics or wedding pictures. The valley below used to produce all sorts of fruits, nuts and other agricultural products. Now, nearly all such trees have been uprooted and replaced with qat, the mild narcotic that 70-85% of Yemeni men chew on a daily basis. Qat leaves need to be consumed the day they are taken from the tree, so this is a major daily activity. The leaves are collected in the morning and start selling in town around noon. By early afternoon, most men have purchased their bag and most activities stop. The problem is not so much the health effect of qat, but the economic cost of sitting with your friends, chewing it, 4, 6 or 8 hours a day, everyday. Essentially, Yemen has a morning-only economic output.

While some movements within the country push for its elimination, it is difficult to imagine how the country could turn away from something which has become so prevalent. Farmers can harvest qat 5 times a year (vs one for fruit trees), and they get a guaranteed daily income from it. I was told that when people involved in transport and resale are counted, 4 million people rely on qat for a living, out of a population of 25 million.


Continuing our little tour of the countryside, we stopped at one of the major local attractions, the rock palace of Wadi Dhahr, a five story palace built on top of a rock by the King of the time, in the 1930’s. For years now, it has been a tourist attraction, although sometimes it is closed and used to host official foreign delegations for meetings or lunches.


While the architecture includes fairly intricate details, the rooms are all quite small for a palace. Sultan or not, if you want to build a palace on a rock, you can’t make it bigger than the rock!


Royal washroom (shot through a glass plate). Glad I didn’t have to use it, as I would not have been sure what was to be done where!


Seeing me pull out the big DSLR camera, these local tourists decided to pose for pictures of them at the palace (it was hard to stop it, I must have shot half a dozen different scenes). They probably will never see the shots, but they seemed happy watching them on the camera’s small screen.


My driver had no intention of picking up hitchhikers along the way, but these guys seemed happy just to stand on the bumper for their short trip. Unfazed, my driver just went along as if they weren’t there, driving at a speed which probably would have killed them had they fallen off. Oh well, “Insha’Allah!”

Arriving at the village of Tuhla, I assumed my first fake identity. My guide informed me that before the revolution, this used to be a super touristy place. He said we would be hassled by touts trying to get me to visit their souvenir shops, and that they could talk to me in many Western languages. He said: “Just tell them you’re from Djibouti and you’ll buy things when you come back with your family”! OK, I did, and the first guy I tried this on started talking to me in French. Good thing I speak French. They were not that bad for tourist shop owners, but since I was the only tourist in town, I got all the attention. The shops were not even open, but they opened a few for me. Seeing I wouldn’t even go in, they gave up after a while.


This cistern at the entrance of the village was built centuries ago to contain rain water. For decades now, residents have had running water in their homes, but they still use the cistern water for their animals and for laundry, to save on the water bill (even in villages they have water meters).


Another village, another cistern, with a mosque on its edge (the three white doors). Here in Hababa, I was Turkish. Of course, the first guy I mentioned this to was very keen to discuss Turkish politics but luckily, he spoke no Turkish at all and accepted my complete ignorance of the Arabic language! I thought it was all quite silly, but I suppose in the unlikely situation some tribesmen decided they needed something from the Government and were looking for a hostage, they might have passed on a Turk and looked for a better target. I just can’t see “Lone Turkish tourist kidnapped in Yemen” making much headlines in Western media. What can I say, not all hostages are created equal. As I am writing this, three “tourists” were captured downtown Sana’a just this week, but they really weren’t tourists; two were students who had been there for months. Most of the kidnap victims have been people who can be targeted, like expats and diplomats. Almost all have been released unharmed, but it is still a danger to keep in mind.


The village of Kawkaban, on the edge of the cliff.


I usually try to take pictures of the places I visit in a way that showcases them at their best, but I thought I would display one unfortunate reality of Yemen (and most parts of the Middle East which I have visited). There is garbage everywhere in the villages. Most have no sanitation plan of any kind, some try to pile most of the garbage just outside the village. The only good thing is that there is no rotting organic waste in the garbage. While that gets thrown on the ground like everything else, the goats eat it all (including all the paper), leaving only plastic and metal.


Kawkaban overlooks another valley, where the village of Shibam is located. Just as anywhere near Sana’a, there are water shortages everywhere. The problem is exacerbated by private wells. The Government owns about 2,000 wells, which provide water to the area (the water is metered). However, an estimated 5,000 private wells also tap the same water. So, if you can afford to have a well drilled, and the operation of a pump, you get free, unmetered water. Looking at this picture, do you see any hint that someone might have such a well?


We stopped in Shibam for a late lunch. Three of us in this massive room designed to host busloads of tourists. The hotel/restaurant was built just a few years ago and has been mostly empty since the revolution.


I am not going to pretend I like the style, but this is a nice illustration of the economic realities of Yemen (and other poor countries). A lot of work went into making and painting the shapes that adorn all the walls and ceiling, but the light fixture is a piece of junk you would find in a “Dollar store”. Things are expensive, people are not.


Like anywhere I’ve been in the Middle East, all businesses have a picture of the Big Man. The problem here is that this is the wrong “Big Man”, the President deposed by the revolution! Yemen has divided loyalties for sure.


My bodyguard/driver (left) and my guide, with enough food for 10 (2-3 more dishes arrived later). I’m not sure how my bodyguard’s pistol would have helped against a dozen AK-47s, but luckily, we didn’t find out, although we came close!

On the way back to Sana’a, we arrived at a roadblock. Unlike the 10 roadblocks we had already gone through, this one was not manned by the Police or the Army, but by local dudes with AK-47s (pretty much every man has an AK-47 in Yemen, although they are not allowed in Sana’a). This was my first and only time not feeling quite safe. Sure enough, they were looking to take a “hostage”, but this requires a little bit of explanation.

In most parts of the World, taking a hostage is a pretty serious thing, but not so in this area. The local tribe, which is very ancient – their name even being mentioned in the Koran – asked my driver for his license. They wanted to see his name to determine which tribe he belonged to. Had he belonged to the tribe they had an issue with, they would have “captured” him. Then, his tribe would have been contacted and he would have been held until the issue was resolved. These issues are village-level stuff and usually get resolved quickly, without the Government’s involvement. This has nothing to do with Al-Qaeda taking a hostage and demanding the US military leave Saudi Arabia. This is detaining someone from another tribe until some stolen goats are returned.

A few months ago, at such a roadblock, some tribesmen decided to detain a driver taking two tourists around the same area. The driver told them they couldn’t detain him, as he had to drive the tourists back. The tribesmen held him anyways and asked him where the tourists were staying. They then loaded up the tourists in one of their own vehicles and drove them back to their Sana’a hotel, over an hour away! This strange practice appears to be tolerated by the authorities. The roadblock was certainly not discreet, it was in the middle of the highway. My guide said the Government only gets involved if someone complains, things get violent, or a foreigner gets held, which rarely happens.

Just to clarify something, my comments are very area and time specific. There are parts of Yemen where getting taken hostage is a very different – and very bad – thing. You have to do a bit of research about where you intend to go, and there is always a small risk of kidnapping or other such violence. Given that on average, around 250 people are killed in traffic accidents PER MONTH in Yemen, the most dangerous part of my visit was, by far, the driving around, not the terrorists!


Three days in Sana’a – Number of tourists met: zero.

Sometimes, the logistics of travelling take you to unexpected places. I had set my mind on visiting an island way off the beaten path and, to get there, I had to transit through Yemen. I did some research and realized that despite all Western Government’s warnings that travelling to Yemen is suicidal, the capital and the area around it are quite safe for a short touristic visit. Some day, I will write something about travelling to so called dangerous places. In the mean time, here is a brief description of my Saturday in Sana’a, which I spent walking around with an elderly guide, who had just started taking tourists around, after a forced break of nearly two years. Of note, I arrived late Thursday evening but, wanting to be prudent, I avoided going anywhere on Friday and stayed at the hotel, updating the blog and reading. Sure enough, after prayers, there were some protests, although none turned particularly violent.


The Old City of Sana’a has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1986. As such, any repairs or new buildings must be done in the prevalent style of the area. What is surprising in Old Sana’a is how prevalent the prevalent architectural style really is. In other words, all the buildings are the same! It gives the city a unique and spectacular look, and makes it impossible to find your hotel, as every building looks exactly like your hotel. I had never seen anything quite like that in such a large city.


The traditional windows are one of the most interesting architectural feature. Unfortunately, they are worth quite a bit on the antiques market, and many impoverished residents have not been indifferent to the business opportunity. If they were merely moved to the houses of wealthier Sana’a residents, on the whole nothing would be lost. Unfortunately, the windows, doors and other hardware I saw in the antique dealers’ shops are mostly purchased by diplomats and the odd tourists, and taken out of the country. I’m sure they don’t look out of place at all in Rome or Moscow.


My guide was quite keen on pointing out numerous architectural details I would never have noticed. This house, like many, has animal horns embedded in the facade. This practice predates Islam by many centuries, but has persisted to this day. While the original purpose belongs to a long forgotten religion, they are still installed as a sign of prosperity, good fortune, or something else, I forget.


A most unusual local practice is to dig up archeological sites, take a stone with writing on it, and embed it in your new wall. This wall, just outside Sana’a, can’t be more than 200 years old, but has a stone engraved in a writing similar to modern Ethiopian Amharic. This means it predates the arrival of Islam in Yemen, in the 7th Century. I don’t know what to call it: Preservation? Looting? Recycling?


And my final picture of strange architectural details, this door. If you zoom in on the brownish piece of wood above the door, just below the arch, you will see two Stars of David. One could easily think this house belonged to a Jew, but this is the wrong neighbourhood. Different communities may have lived peacefully at a time in Yemen, but they lived in distinct neighbourhoods. Today, the Turkish Neighbourhood and the Old Jewish Quarter look just like any other part of Old Sana’a, unless you really know what to look for. The original communities almost completely disappeared with the fall of the Ottoman Empire (after World War I) and the creation of the State of Israel (after World War II). So, back to the Stars of David. According to my guide, someone involved in the construction project was Jewish, probably the builder or the architect, and had them included. “The Jews were smart”, concluded my old guide!


Old Sana’a used to have many beautiful courtyards covered with small gardens, where residents would grow herbs and vegetables. The courtyards are still there, but unfortunately, most of them are just patches of dirt. This situation has little to do with political events, but rather with a chronic shortage of water in the area. All houses have water meters, and the high rates mean that growing your own vegetables in Sana’a has become more expensive than buying ones imported from other parts of the country.


Busy market on a late Saturday morning. This is the women’s clothes area, where I had two surprises. The first was that only men worked in women’s clothes stores, and the second was that, just as in slightly less conservative parts of the Middle-East, women certainly wear very different clothes indoors and outdoors. All wear a black abaya outside, but the clothes for sale looked just like what Western women would wear to go to a cocktail party. Some looked like what women in the West would wear to go to work, on a street corner! The old Sana’a markets are pretty impressive and you can buy everything there: salt, spices, generators, cashews, spatulas, spare parts for your AK-47 and, until 1962, slaves. That’s right, no typo, one-nine-six-two. No so bad for the region, I think Saudi Arabia officially abolished slavery in the late sixties (I don’t think it changed much in practice).

I visited all the main commercial areas, but only took a few discreet pictures. All of my research suggested my Yemen itinerary was completely safe, but I still wanted to keep a low profile, which is why my pictures are mostly in quiet areas. I have to say I attracted zero attention anywhere in Sana’a (except the mosque). While I obviously fall in the category “caucasian”, I’m not white like a Scotsman. I would say 1 or 2% of Yemeni men have my skin tone. In fashion and advertisement, closer to 45%, while another 45% are lighter and blue-eyed; hilarious! All that to say that if you saw me with my guide, you could think I was an extremely light skinned Arab, or maybe a Turk, or you could think I’m a tourist. Given the number of tourists currently in Yemen, the first possibility is much more likely, and nobody even looked at me twice, unless my guide was talking to me (in English).


I was glad we walked around the Old City; driving looked painful. The impact on pedestrians is the same as in the rest of the Middle-East: Arabs everywhere believe the horn makes a car go faster!


Like many Arab capitals, Sana’a has a Tahrir Square. After the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt began, former Yemeni President Saleh preempted any possible occupation of Sana’a Tahrir Square by potential opponents by having his supporters occupy it first, before real protests had even begun!  The tents and other temporary structures are still there today. My guide speculated the supporters may still be waiting for payment for their support and thus holding out on the dismantlement.


Just a few years ago, a massive new mosque was completed in Sana’a. You can easily see it and its seven minarets in this skyline picture, taken from a rooftop hotel.


Like when visiting the Hassan II mosque in Casablanca, I was impressed, but left wondering if such opulence was required in a country facing so many basic needs and shortages (much more so than Morocco). But, who am I to judge? This is a decision for the Yemeni taxpayers and electors. […] That was a joke; it was a decision for the President, who had been in power since 1978.


I always feel awkward in any religious building still visited by modern followers. This mosque was no exception. I asked my guide where the Imam would preach from and we went there. I thought he was talking a little loud, given that a man was sitting on the floor right next to us, praying I guess. But then, the praying man’s cell phone rang and he pick-up, leaving me both amused and indifferent.


As I was admiring the details of one of the many vaulted ceilings, my guide said something and I had a quick return to reality.

– “You see that guy with the white beard?” I saw a big guy with such a beard, with a few people around, making him look important.

– “Yes”, I said.

– “He spent 2 or 3 years in Guantanamo, accused of giving millions to Al-Qaeda”.

Having traveled quite a bit, often off the beaten path, I can sometimes get a little blasé and everything just feels totally normal to me. Not then; this was very much a “you’re not in Kansas anymore” reminder. Needless to say, I did not take any pictures!

At the end of the day, I went out for dinner, invited by the general manager of the agency my guide worked for. Being among the very few tourists starting to return to Sana’a after an interruption of nearly 2 years, I guess I was a bit of an honoured guest. The tourism situation is really quite sad nowadays. Last year it was unfortunate, but normal and understandable, that tourists were nowhere to be seen. Now, there is no reasonable reason not to visit Sana’a, but revolutions kill tourism in a day, while stability restores it in a couple of years.


We went to a traditional restaurant where tourist groups used to go in the old days. Because the restaurant is good and not a tourist trap, it has survived well on the local clientele’s business, just becoming a little less busy. Being with a long-term important client, I was allowed in the kitchen and snapped a few shots of the gigantic bowl-shaped ovens. These are very traditional, the only concession to modernity being the replacement of wood with gas. Bread is prepared a bit like one spins a pizza dough, and is then thrown violently on the interior side, where it sticks and cooks. Using a long instrument, fish is lowered and picked up from the bottom.


The manager, holding the gigantic flatbread we shared with some vegetable dishes and minced meat. It was delicious, and the bread was so much better than Ethiopian injera. I had perhaps six complete meals in Sana’a (excluding breakfast), and I must say I was very impressed. Simple but beautifully seasoned dishes, and sharing meals using pieces of bread to pick-up the food is so much fun.

Postscript: a week later I went back to Sana’a and did meet 4 other tourists. Still, not quite Vegas yet!

Postscript 2: a week later 3 Europeans were kidnapped right where I took picture #9, but they were released 4 months later, unharmed, as is usually the case in Yemen.


Djibouti: big fish and not much else.

I am not sure how to start this post. In every country I have traveled to over the years, I encountered things I didn’t like; sometimes many, sometimes very few. However, I always try to convey my positive experiences to others, perhaps to convince myself it was worth going, perhaps to make my memories better than the experiences themselves, or perhaps because I like to give people the desire to travel. It will be hard to do this time. 

Djibouti is a little bit of Somalia which, for various colonial reasons, became a minuscule independent country with all sort of soldiers from other countries’ militaries living there. Think of it as a Third World version of Gibraltar. If memory serves, it was the 47th country I visited in my life and I have never felt such profound dislike for a place. Nothing particularly bad happened to me, but from the Soviet-style bureaucracy to the Third World efficiency at First World prices, I just hated everything about it. The immigration agent didn’t seem to believe I was a tourist who just wanted to visit the country even though I knew nobody there. Now I understand why. Unfortunately, after waiting for an hour and a half and much questioning, his boss, the officer in charge of airport immigration, granted me a visa. I was doomed to visit Djibouti. 

When you don’t have anything else nice to say, better to shut up, so that’s all I have to say about Djibouti, and I didn’t take a single picture of anything except in the water.

Two good things happened though; my Saturday flight out was cancelled and I was re-booked on a Thursday flight, cutting my visit down to 4 days, and I went on an expensive and poorly organized snorkelling tour with whale sharks. Since I got there early, I was probably the only participant to notice the main problem. The French-owned company picked us up at a dock which they essentially squatted from another competing company. Very awkward when the lawful renters happen to show up at the same time. Since they also miscalculated the number of people, we were short a pair of fins and the boat driver went without lunch (we would have been short a diving mask if I didn’t travel with my own). Nevertheless, whale sharks were awesome! They are the largest fish in the world and you can swim right up to them, while they feed on minuscule animals near the surface. There is no real danger; they are filter feeders. Seeing them was the main reason I had come to Djibouti and I was not disappointed. 


I used this device to take pictures while snorkeling. It’s called a DICAPAC (for Digital Camera Pack), and retails for about $75 in the U.S. (probably $499 in Canada). It’s not very easy to use the camera’s controls, but it’s simple, effective and it seals the camera well. I used it a little over a month ago in Namibia to take pictures of the ghost town of Kolmanskop during a sand storm. The main limitation is that it doesn’t protect against pressure, so it can be used for snorkeling, but not diving. Not ideal for sure, but a diving case retails for $2,000, so compromise was needed, since I don’t dive that often.


After about an hour and a half boat ride, we got to the spot where whale sharks usually feed at that time of the year. They were everywhere! Unfortunately, we were not as lucky with the weather. After a couple of days of bright sunshine, we got a fairly dark overcast sky. This is not a big issue for the eyes while snorkeling, but it does affect underwater photography quite a bit. I should rather say, since I am totally clueless about underwater photography, it affected MY photography a lot!


Whale shark! They live over 70 years, have been around for 60 million years, can reach over 10 meters in length and weight more than 20 tons! They are absolutely harmless (as far as I know), but they are a little intimidating in the water.


Next to a snorkeler, for some perspective. By the way, that’s a small one!


Since they are not dangerous, most people are not scared of them.


But sometimes, instinct takes over!


While I kept my cool, I must say sometimes they got a little too close for comfort. The key is to stay behind them, but the shots are so much better from the front!

And that was that. Two more days spent trying to find an ATM that works and I had seen Djibouti. I went to get the airport shuttle I had booked and confirmed twice with the hotel, and after being told it wouldn’t show up, took a taxi to the airport. I might go back to Djibouti, if I get deported there on an Interpol warrant, but I’m going to bet I won’t. A piece of advice: if you want to visit Djibouti, join the US Navy. It won’t be anymore interesting, but at least you’ll get paid to be there.


The Danakil Depression, Part II: The Acid Lakes of the Dallol Volcano.

After seeing the lava lake of the Erta Ale volcano, I was a little worried the rest of the Danakil might be a little disappointing, and started craving getting back to the nice little city of Mekele.


However, it didn’t take long for our morning visit to Dallol to start getting quite exciting. While the desolation remained the same, the colours became stranger by the minute.


One of my fellow travellers had a GPS and it indicated we were 129 m below sea level (in case you wonder, the GPS is in Czech).


As they had done the day before at the volcano, five soldiers went ahead of us to secure the area, while we waited at the base.


As we made our way up the hill, the scenery became increasingly strange, with patterns of erosion I had never seen before. This is not caused by wind or water, but by various volcanic phenomena, such as strong acids bubbling up from the ground.


Even though there are very few tourists in the Danakil, I was concerned we might be damaging the site by walking all around it. I was thinking of stalagmites which take hundreds of years to grow and asked my guide, who has been doing this for over 12 years, if he knew how old these structures were. “About three years”, he said! In another area we walked in, he said the place was a lake last time he had been, about two weeks ago. In such a geologically active area, the scenery changes very fast. I have no comment on the following pictures, other than it increasingly looked more and more like another planet.







Of course, our guide said walking there was safe (everything is safe in Africa). However, when I heard bubbling and hissing noises and my feet starting breaking through the crust, I looked for higher rocks pretty fast! In the end, I was fine so of course, it was safe.


Some water-like liquid was spewing from this structure.



At that point, I would not have been surprised if I had run into Jabba the Hutt!


My favourite picture of the Dallol. It looks like computer generated imagery! The green portions are highly acidic, with a pH value of less than 1. For comparison, gastric acid has a pH around 1.


The colour and bubbling coming from this lake does not make it very inviting.


I don’t know if birds have the ability to tell whether or not water is good for them by smelling or tasting it. One would guess they do. Unfortunately, Mother Nature played a very dirty trick on all these dead little birds. This is not bad water; this is perfectly good sulphuric acid, straight from the bowels of the volcanoes. The birds cannot even take off; they die at the spot where they had that fatal taste and soon get encased in mineral deposits.


I imagined myself exploring these regions in ancient times. Endless expanses of dried mud and salt, crushing heat and mirages in the distance. Suddenly, your are convinced you heard water noises, and this hellish sight is what you come across. The situation is not technically life threatening, because the Afar will probably kill you before thirst will, but it explains why National Geographic called the Danakil “the most cruel place on Earth”. Of course, this is not the ancient times, so I just went back to my air conditioned Land Cruiser.


In the salt flats we started seeing the caravans which carry the salt back to the city of Mekele. The camels seemed very disciplined in their marching order. That may be due to the fact their lower jaws are attached by a rope to the next camel’s tail!


Empty camels, ready to be loaded up with salt blocks.


The Afar use axes and long sticks to break the salt crust and lift up large slabs. Unfortunately, they were not doing it when we visited. Instead, they were cutting up the large slabs into market sized blocks.


Using homemade tools, they remove the mud layer and then carve the slab into a nice square block, of two or three relatively standard sizes.


A large block, once completed. It only takes a short time to make one, and they sell it for about 2 Birr ($0.10). Large camels will carry up to forty blocks, donkeys less than half. The trip to Mekele used to take 7 days, but now they only go half way, perhaps a little more, and sell them to people who do the final journey by truck. In the city market, the blocks will sell for 16 to 20 Birr, or about one dollar. Since the salt mining is a mobile activity, there will be camels for the foreseeable future. However, the Canadian mining company I mentioned in the previous post is building a road that will come very close to this area. The camel journey will get much shorter and it is likely far fewer camels, and handlers, will be required. One can only wonder what these people will do. Probably either return to their small nomadic villages, or kidnap tourists more frequently.


One of our guides, Abraham, bought 2 blocks. I asked him why and he said “For dinner”. He was obviously pulling my leg, but I still don’t know why he bought them.


And then Abraham, who understands a bit of Afar, got tasked by a local boy. The old “can you hold this for a second?” Ten minutes later, he was still holding.


The camels look very docile when walking around, loaded or not. But they are not happy at all during the loading process! To prevent them from getting up prematurely, their front legs are tied, but that doesn’t prevent them from trying. This became quite rough.


When booking this excursion, I asked if I could ride with the camel caravan instead of driving back. I was thinking an long day’s walk, some overnight walking and an early morning arrival, but when I learned it took a week, I quickly changed my mind. I was also told that I would be totally on my own logistically. The Afar carry water in goat skin pouches like this one; I don’t think my stomach would be ready for this! Even though they have access to plastic water bottle, they prefer this system because it keeps the water cool for a longer time under the desert sun.


Donkeys are not the first choice in the desert, but when you run out of camels, they are better than nothing.


We returned to Mekele that day, very slowly, sharing the road with the rest of the traffic. Despite the significant discomfort, the Danakil will be one of my most memorable travel experiences for sure.


The Danakil Depression, Part I: The Lava Lake of the Erta Ale Volcano

Much is being said about the Danakil Depression:

– National Geographic called it: “the most cruel place on Earth”.

– Lonely Planet said: “…a quarter of the continent’s active volcanoes, appalling ‘roads’ and ferocious tribes, visiting this region is no walk in the park.”

– The Canadian Government added: “Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada advises against all travel to the Danakil Desert.”

Well, who needs more convincing? There are plenty of things to see and do in Ethiopia, but visiting the Danakil was the single reason I went there.

Truth be told, it does require a lot of organization, but nothing that can’t be solved by throwing some money at the problem, since a few tour companies organize visits to the area. In theory, you could organize a visit yourself, but you probably would end up spending more than by going in a small group with a tour company. First, you would have to rent a 4×4 with a driver, but going with only one vehicle would be profoundly stupid, so you need to rent two. Furthermore, you will need a guide, an Afar scout, an Afar policeman, an Ethiopian federal policeman and for parts of it, three Ethiopian soldiers. None of this is optional, and the Army won’t let you in otherwise. The only person you could chose to do without is a cook, but I don’t think the guys with the guns would be too impressed when it’s lunchtime and you give them a smile.


Our motorcade had 4 vehicles; three for the tourists and guides and one for the security and cook (they were quite tight in there, we were not).


My truck had a sign indicating we were not armed. I’m not too sure how I felt about that. I think I would have preferred a sign with a much bigger gun, or two, and a green circle around it, but the rental did not come with additional decals. In the real world, NGOs and other groups are keen to distinguish themselves from “unknowns” by making it clear they are unarmed. I can see how that could confer a certain level of protection, by de-escalating any aggressive situation, but this type of dynamics is not something I am particularly used to.


The Danakil tours are all roughly the same. Four or five days of a very hard road trip, with rudimentary living conditions, all to spend a few hours watching absolutely stunning things. It could not have been more worth it for me. On many of the roads, we were moving barely 10 km/h, but on this segment, we were flying at 70 km/h, off road, easily. The reality is that this part of Ethiopia is populated by the nomadic Afar people, and their villages are not connected by any roads. We drove on mud flats and sand for most of the way. You only see roads when the terrain becomes completely impassable without them, and the so called “roads” are barely better. So strangely, the best drive is when there is no road at all!


On the first and third day, we stopped for the night at the village of Hamadella. Our accommodation was rather rustic, although the traditional Afar beds we rented turned out to be quite comfortable, when combined with the little foam mattresses we had brought. There were little wood shacks which could have been useful in the ridiculously improbable event it would have rained, but we all slept outside. It was fine and the only thing that surprised me was when our guide said there were no toilets. I thought it must have been a misunderstanding. I have seen remote Third World villages in several countries, and even the poorest of the poor know how to dig a hole and put a few palm leaves around it for modesty. But it was no mistake. In the morning I saw men and women grab a bottle of water (a roll of toilet paper for tourists) and walk out of the village a few hundred meters; and that was the toilet. Given that this is a flat desert, you need distance for modesty, as there is no cover of any kind. Perhaps the nomadic lifestyle is what hinders – or renders less relevant – the need or desire for basic sanitation.


On both nights, a very strong wind started to blow early in the evening. Sleeping with that wind took a little getting used to, but the nice bonus was that it drove off the hordes of flies which pestered us all day. Keeping the flies off the food was not possible. The only way to minimize food-fly contact was to eat fast!


On thing I did not expect to see in a traditional Afar village in the middle of the Danakil, was a massive cell phone tower. As it turns out, the village was located right next to a camp belonging to a Canadian potash mining project. Their proximity couldn’t have been a coincidence, and I can’t imagine the mining company setting up next to the village to benefit from goods and services, as there were little to none to be purchased. More likely, the village sprung up next to the camp, possibly for occasional employment of unskilled labor, or simply to get some indirect benefits from the camp, if only recycling their construction materials and garbage. As we were walking in the village one evening, one of my fellow tourist and her husband saw a man eating with small children in a very simple hut. They asked if they could take a picture. The family posed graciously and the villager then asked the tourists to move closer together, before taking a picture of them with his cell phone!


The village was certainly a minimal affair, but it did have a shop. The shop had a generator which they turned on from sundown until 10 pm. This powered a refrigerator which produced one of the few luxuries the place could offer, cold water. It also powered a TV around which tens of people gathered every night, and a big maze of power bars, on which I must have seen at least 15 cell phones being charged at once. I thought it was such a missed opportunity for the shop not to sell overpriced beer to the tourists. All over Ethiopia beer sells for around 50 to 75 cents, maybe a dollar in a nicer hotel or restaurant. In the middle of the Danakil, I would have gladly paid $2-3 for a cold beer, and even though I would have been upset at the rip-off, I would have not gladly paid a lot more. I mentioned this to our guide, Abraham, and he gave me some good reasons the shop owner might want to miss on that opportunity:

1) This is an Afar village, part of Ethiopia’s Muslim minority.

2) The shop owner is one of the few residents who is not Afar; he is a Christian Ethiopian.

3) The Afar are not used to alcohol at all.

4) The Afar have a reputation for being violent.

5) The Afar all have guns.

Point taken. Better to keep the tourists thirsty and the Afar sober.


We didn’t have to travel far before we encountered the “real” nomads. Villages with almost no link to the modern world. One of the few things we could tell they cared about was plastic bottles. I was reminded of the old movie “The Gods must be crazy”. Kids would often come running towards our vehicle and our driver would tell us to throw them empty bottles of water, which we produced in large quantities. It felt so strange to throw what I considered to be garbage at them, but they seemed happy. I asked our driver why they wanted empty water bottles. He answered my dumb question with a smile: “to carry water”.


Finally, we were ready to set off on the trek up to the lava lake of Erta Ale. This is one of only four active lava lakes in the World. If you have been to one, there is a 99.99% probability you have been to Kilauea. Located in Hawaii, it sees 2.6 million visitors a year, or over 7,000 a day. The other three combined certainly don’t see 7,000 visitors a year! Erta Ale is located in Ethiopia’s harsh and dangerous Danakil Depression and Mount Nyiragongo is in a remote, hard to access and now very dangerous region of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The final one is Mount Erebus. It is located in a malaria safe region, with no risks of terrorism or banditry. But, it’s a 4,000 m climb, on an icy mountain in the middle of Ross Island, Antarctica. On an typical year, it probably sees zero visitors. We had an early dinner in a very basic Ethiopian Army outpost and departed shortly before sunset, with a camel to carry our mattresses, daypacks and to serve as an emergency camel in case someone got hurt and needed to be carried back. I had never before heard the expression “emergency camel”! The night hike is necessary because of the brutal daytime temperatures, especially walking on fields of black volcanic stone.


Once at the summit camp, the soldier in charge of the group communicated back to the base. While the soldiers were not exactly world class, they had good basic procedures and behaved quite professionally. It was exhilarating to begin to see the orange glow of the lava lake.


We went on a short, downhill hike for 5 minutes, and got to the crater. It was overwhelming. The temperature is insane, like putting your head in front of the oven at maximum temperature and opening the door. You also have to be aware of shifting winds. If you find yourself downwind, it is much hotter, and the main problem is that sulphurous gases make it hard to breath. The lake is very active and the patterns, level of activity and depth of the lava change every few minutes. Every few months or years, the very location of the lake can change by several hundred meters. Some years, there are two lakes!


After 10 or 15 minutes, some heavy bubbling started near the centre. One of the soldiers started yelling “camera! camera!” I moved in closer. My pictures are all overexposed, but since it’s a good story, I will post them anyways.


After a few seconds, it got way too intense. I kept taking pictures, one eye in the viewfinder, one eye looking at the surroundings, and I started taking a few steps back, resulting in this messy shot. I later learned that apart from a couple of Germans and myself, at that point everybody else was running for their lives! (except for the soldier who was still yelling “camera!”)


A few meters from the edge it felt a lot cooler, but by now the lava was shooting up higher than the rim. I decided to move back a few more meters.


And from there I got this shot of lava landing exactly where I was about 10 seconds earlier! It was absolutely awesome! In most of the Western World, there would be a 10 km exclusion zone around it. In California, you would have to be 21 years old and sign a waiver just to look at this picture. That hour or some spent on the crater at night would justify 20 days of desert hardship to get there.


I moved to the other side and climbed on a small bump to get a better view.


Shortly after, the lake calmed down and I went back to the edge to try and get a complete view. A slightly wider angle lens would have helped, but to get the perfect shot one would need a stepladder, which I rarely carry in my suitcase.


With a little practice, I learned how to capture the “action shots” properly, but I can’t exaggerate how the photos don’t do justice to the phenomena.


Eventually, the volcano got quiet and we called it a night. As impressive as it was, standing on the edge was very tiresome, because of the heat and fumes.


So I retreated to my private chalet. There seemed to be a problem with the hot water, and the cold water, and the wireless, TV, air conditionning, electricity, roof, door and toilet, but everything else was fine. I must say I missed the Afar beds and didn’t get much sleep.


We went back before dawn, with great anticipation. Even when you know what you are going to see, that orange glow is very captivating.


The lake was quite active.


And looked completely different in the pre-dawn light.


We got a mini eruption again, but this time I was on the opposite side of the crater, with the wind in my back, so it was both safe and bearable.


It’s amazing how the surface of the lake solidifies and liquefies in a matter of less than a minute.


A lame picture of “me-in-front-of”. Having not slept much, I didn’t realize I was looking in the flip screen instead of the lens!


Both in the evening and morning, I took a few close-up shots which produced some pretty cool images.


I don’t know if it’s the heat or the fumes, but I started seeing things in the lava. Please let me know if I’m crazy!


The lava whale.


The lava sea snake.


And the great lava tiger.


A year before, there had been a major overflow of the lava lake. My guide was there with a group and they had to make a little run back to the summit camp (which is about 20 meters higher than the lake’s rim). I was surprised some kind of moss grew in this harshest of climates.


My guide informed me it was not moss at all, but rather strings of molten rock created when low viscosity lava is thrown in the air. Like the way one can make cotton candy with molten sugar.


The sun rose and we knew if we didn’t start soon on the 10 km hike back, we would be baking on the way back. This was my last view of the lake, with the sun and my two daring German colleagues in the background. They were on a massive road trip through the Horn of Africa on motorcycles they had flown cargo from Germany! Go to crazy places and you meet some crazy people. Not unlike the people I met on my visit to Tristan da Cunha, the World’s most remote inhabited settlement.

By the time we completed the hike, had breakfast and drove back to the Afar village, it was time to waste the rest of the afternoon away and get ready for the Dallol the next day.


Arriving in Ethiopia: finally no more instant coffee!

In a previous post, I had mentioned how Southern Africa was not an area of coffee drinkers and how limited the coffee options were, outside the major cities. I was expecting a major change once I got to Ethiopia, and I was not disappointed.


I headed for Tomoca, an old cafe in the Piazza (old Italian district). To go from instant coffee in B&Bs to a café which has been roasting its own beans for decades was a very nice change. A round of four coffees also cost me about the same as a disgusting drip coffee in a South African Wimpy fast food!


Along with the three lawyers from Canada and Switzerland I had met that morning, I was the only foreigner at Tomoca. In the less traditional part of town, the Bole Road area, I also found some very nice cafés, catering to a more hip Ethiopian crowd, as well as foreigners staying in the area’s nice hotels. This place, Cupcake Delights, made an incredible mixed juice and brewed some mean coffee. Unfortunately, these two coffee places must have been close to 10 km apart. I never thought I would ever compare Addis Ababa to Los Angeles, but they do have something in common: lots of nice things to be found, but spread over vast distances, with nothing of interest in between and massive traffic jams to get there.


Just as I had seen in Namibia, Addis has a few coffee places with logos that strangely reminded me of something. I just couldn’t quite put my finger on it…


Another nice aspect of local cafés, and Ethiopia in general, is that it is quite cheap, even if over the course of the last 3 or 4 years, prices for most things have doubled or tripled. In this small cafe in Makele, I got a coffee with milk (which was clearly misunderstood, I later learned to just order a machiatto), some local bread and a large bottle of water. It cost me about a dollar, and the water was half the bill.

While Amharic is the official language of Ethiopia, people have many other first languages, and English is a bit of an unofficial language of convenience. All restaurants I went to had some English on the menus and the vast majority of businesses, in Addis and in smaller cities, had at least the main nature of their business displayed in English. This included many businesses which certainly did not cater to tourists, such as driving schools or construction companies.


Despite my appreciation for their coffee, I must say I was disappointed with Ethiopian cuisine. The problem was not so much with what they eat, but with how they eat it. Like in many places in the Middle-East or India, they use food to pick-up the food. Instead of pita or naan bread, they use injera, a sourdough crepe such as the one you see in the picture. I don’t mind the concept at all, but truth be told, I really don’t like injera. That left me in the same situation as a food lover who just landed in Paris, but who hates the taste of forks. Very limiting in terms of options. I ordered this spicy meat dish, with an egg and a side bowl of white cheese, as room service in Addis. I pulled out my spork (spoon-fork hybrid) from my luggage and ate it like stew. It was nice, but the injera was left nearly untouched.


Much stranger than any food offerings is the way Ethiopians tell time. Their calendar is different, but many countries are like that. They have a 13 month calendar, 12 x 30 days, plus a 13th month of 5 or 6 days. They also are in 2004 right now, because they never adjusted their calendar, while Catholic Popes fiddled with it throughout the Middle Ages. What I had never seen before is their way to tell the time. They consider that when the sun rises, it’s the beginning of the day, so 00:00 hours. When it’s six o’clock, the sun has been up for six hours. Quite logical, but very confusing. The picture is one I took of a movie schedule, simply so I wouldn’t have to write it down. You can see the descriptions in Amharic and English, and since the Amharic language uses the same arab numerals we do, you can tell how different the times are. In practice, for the average tourist, there is usually no confusion. In small towns, if you ask for opening hours or something like that, you might get it in the “local form”, but since the difference is so big, you can easily guess it. After all, it’s unlikely the bank opens at 3:00 am!


A slightly less pleasant feature of life in Ethiopia comes from the fact that the Central Bank doesn’t pull old notes from circulation and businesses accept notes which have literally fallen apart. It’s a detail for sure, but in dozens of countries I have visited, I have never been so grossed out at handling currency. The old ones are greasy from dirt and it’s hard to underestimate how bad a big wad of them smells. On the picture is a new and old 1 Birr note. At least these are being replaced gradually with coins, but the 10 Birr notes are awful.


Since in my next posts I will have lots of fantastic things to say about Ethiopia, I will start with all my complaints. Internet is a Government-run thing in Ethiopia. No further comment.


Ethiopia is also not the place where health and safety practices are the most evolved and, like in Zimbabwe, I would not recommend bungee jumping. In case you didn’t know, in Hong Kong they still work with bamboo scaffoldings, tightly held together with nylon plastic straps. It may not have the tensile strength of steel, but on a very high building, it doesn’t have to withhold countless tons of its own weight, and it ends up being very sturdy. This scaffold, however, is made of small wood sticks, nailed together, with incredibly flimsy planks of wood as “boards”. It is an absolute death trap. Something to keep in mind when I wonder about the safety of something.

Originally, I had planned to spend a good three weeks in Ethiopia. Unfortunately, as long-term travel plans change, I lengthened my stay in Zambia and added a week long stopover in Kuala Lumpur over Christmas. Furthermore, I needed a break and some time to do some travel planning. This crunched my stay in Ethiopia a lot. I ended up spending time in the capital and in Makele, where I visited some churches carved out of solid rock in the 4th Century. I also went to the Danakil, the main reason why I visited Ethiopia, but that’s for the next post.


I must say the church tour in the Tigray area was underwhelming. Nothing wrong with the tour itself, but the churches did nothing for me. The fact that they were carved straight out of the mountain 1,600 years ago is certainly impressive, but this is no Petra. Also, not much is known about who built them, how and why. To me they were interesting oddities, not worth the massive detour by 4×4.


The original paintings were destroyed by some Muslim Queen centuries ago.


The new paintings are, hum… Did I mention it was sunny that day?


One church that I was looking forward to visit was Abuna Yemata Guh. It was built at the summit of a mountain and visiting it involves a nice hike. Furthermore, it was so hard to detect or reach that the original paintings were never destroyed by the Muslims. Close to the start of the hike, I enjoyed looking at how a local village could disappear in the background. The fact that it was mid-day and everyone was hiding from the Sun helped.


After an hour and some, we arrived at this little cliff. Now, I used to do a lot of rock climbing, and this cliff is a crazy easy to climb. I could do it drunk while wearing boxing gloves; but I would still properly anchor myself! No such option here, this is free climbing, no rope, no ladder, no nothing, and bare feet, since it is a “sacred” area! I figured I had gone this far and wanted to see the church. The odds of falling were very low, and the consequences were likely to break a few bones, so overall risk, low, and I went.


It looked a little more risky from above, but it was too late.


After more hiking, we got to the last few meters. Basically, you head up these few rocks, with a convenient branch to hold on to, then turn left and walk on that little ledge. The entrance to the church is a few meters further down. The odds of taking a fall were just as low, or probably lower than the first climb.


The problem was that the consequence of falling was now a 200 m vertical drop to your death. The overall risk went to medium. Now, I would take this medium risk to see Machu Picchu, but to see this? Not worth it in my book. I didn’t go and the only regrets I had were making it this far. We all analyze risk differently, but as a moderately experience mountaineer, this call was easy for me.


And this is where I avoided ending up!