The Danakil Part Four: The Gateway to Hell

The Danakil Part Four: The Gateway to Hell

If you were woken up and told that today, was the day you would be heading to the Gateway to Hell, what would your choice of breakfast be?  A Full English perhaps? Or maybe a giant stack of pancakes complete with all the toppings?  I tell you what it probably wouldn’t be: a packet of banana cream biscuits!  Yes, remarkably someone has actually created this monstrosity, and they are, as you can imagine, absolutely terrible!  This was the reality we faced as we waited outside a small police check point, deep in the Ethiopian desert, for our paperwork to be signed, before we could continue our journey; fortunately, we had been given some excellent coffee to offset the taste of the biscuits, and we both agreed that this was a journey well worth enduring any number of banana creams for.

The Danakil Part Three: Venus is a place on Earth

The Danakil Part Three: Venus is a place on Earth

In the truest sense of the word this was an alien landscape: well below sea level, a landscape of green and yellow hues and weird shapes, with day time temperatures reaching 50°C, and geothermal activity rife throughout the area, my rudimentary understanding of geology was struggling to interpret what was going on.  If NASA ever send a mission to Venus, this is where I suggest they test their equipment, as there was very little left to suggest we were actually still on the little ball of green and blue we call earth...

The Danakil Part Two: Salt of the Earth

The Danakil Part Two: Salt of the Earth

The first thing we saw to break to beautiful monotony were the camels; there were hundreds of them all relaxing out in the sun, so well adapted for this oppressive environment that they barely batted a long-lashed eyelid at the baking sun, which, despite the early hour, was already pushing the mercury well into the 40s.  If camels are the ships of the desert, then donkeys are the sort of raft you’d expect from a particularly awkward team-building day, and the lack of shade was clearly getting to these poor beasts of burden, desperately trying to utilise the bulks of the camels for their own personal parasol...

The Danakil Part One: Bridge Over Salty Waters

The Danakil Part One: Bridge Over Salty Waters

The Danakil depression in Northern Ethiopia is one of the most geographically unique places in the world.  Remote and truly hostile, the Danakil can lay claim to being one of the hottest and driest places on the planet, with daytime temperatures surpassing 50°C and less than an inch of rain falling in the region each year; it is also one of the lowest parts of Africa, and one of the most tectonically active, with steaming acid lakes, rivers of lava, and clouds of volcanic gases creating an almost extra-terrestrial environment.  It is little wonder then, that the Danakil and its features have inspired such enigmatic nicknames as ‘The cruellest place on earth’ or ‘Gateway to Hell’.

A Volcanic Love Affair

A Volcanic Love Affair

There was however one exception; It started like any other video lesson, the ancient television was wheeled to the front of the class and the on screen static was replaced by a poorly edited opening sequence, but instead of a ‘fun’ take on soil substrates or a cheesy animation explaining food mountains, the reassuringly familiar bearded old man, now stood at the top of a dusty hill; as the camera panned out, the hill revealed itself to be the edge of a crater, and there, far below the natty jumper, was a lake of bubbling lava, a real life version of a child’s drawing, it was the first time I had realised volcanoes like this actually existed – I was hooked. 

Would you like some lime with your vomit?

Would you like some lime with your vomit?

After asking around, we discovered that there were no direct buses from Lalibela to Mek’ele.  In addition, the route was over 400km, on roads of varying quality.  We knew it was going to be a bit of an ask to make it to Mek’ele in a day; still, it would be an experience if nothing else, and when some people laughed at our enquiries, and told us that it would be almost impossible to make it in a day, we had no other option but to accept this as a challenge, and commit ourselves to spending several hours crammed into the back of various buses, with no other plan than relying on chronic optimism to get us where we wanted to go.

The Adventures of John Barnes and the Stone Churches of Lalibela

The Adventures of John Barnes and the Stone Churches of Lalibela

A cheer bean to ripple through the crowd, and the singing and chanting intensified in volume as a procession of priests all dressed in beautifully elaborate tunics and carrying sparkling umbrellas entered the area.  As well as the umbrellas, they were carrying with them that most holy of Orthodox relics: The Ark of the Covenant; the day had just taken a turn for the Indiana Jones. 

Road Rage

Road Rage

Just outside town we turned on to the road heading east, and pulled over to the side; there weren’t any obvious passengers waiting to board the already packed bus, and surprisingly based on our experience so far, there weren’t any donkeys, carts, or young children threatening to leap out in front of us, in fact, there appeared to be no reason for us to have stopped at all.  I looked at the driver, and he looked back with a cheeky grin, and asked if I was able to drive...

Ethiopian Utopia

Ethiopian Utopia

Getting to Awra Amba was part of the appeal, given that its location is best described as ‘off the beaten track’.  After the usual arguments at the bus station, negotiating prices and reclaiming our luggage from over-eager teenagers, we were able to secure a bus from Bahir Dar heading east.  Without hesitation, our bags were tied to the roof, and we folded ourselves into a minibus ready for the mercifully short journey.

I need a dollar dollar...

I need a dollar dollar...

We approached Mr Pink Shirt's desk with trepidation as he went grumpily about his business - with a wave of his despotic hand, we were summoned to his desk, and we implemented our horribly under-rehearsed game plan, which we had prepared in the last 2 minutes: firm handshake, explanation, and definitely don’t sound too desperate...

Hanging out in Sagada

Hanging out in Sagada

It's that time of year again, the nights are drawing in, teenagers are stocking up on eggs and clown masks, and pumpkin farmers are hurriedly stashing away their recent windfalls to see them through another year of supermarket squash frugality - yes it's Halloween, that celebration of all things glucose and gruesome...

Giving it the beans...

Giving it the beans...

Although I'm not often short of ideas, there is only so much you can do whilst waiting for the bureaucracy machine to do its thing, so what better way to pass the time in the Ethiopian capital than to partake in something so ingrained in Ethiopian culture that one is often synonimous with the other - a cup of coffee.

Following in family footsteps...

Following in family footsteps...

They say a picture paints a thousand words, well not this one; after looking at the familiar picture on my grandparents sitting room wall, I was struggling to get into double figures; I had ‘man’ and ‘moustache’ which I had quickly followed up with ‘bicycle’, ‘train’, and ‘silly hat’ (which I was definitely counting as two) but beyond that I was finding it hard to find any words to describe this unremarkable sepia image of a man in a hat – that was until I was told that the silly hatted man in question, was in fact my great grandfather.

Photo Blog: Berlin Graffiti

Photo Blog: Berlin Graffiti

For a city synonymous with walls, it’s little wonder that graffiti abounds in Berlin.  Part political satire, part art instillation, part humour and youth in revolt, Berlin’s graffiti is many things to many people.  This post features a selection of some of those pieces which caught my eye.

A Sunny trip to see North Korea...

A Sunny trip to see North Korea...

In the balmy summer of 1989, there were two major global events taking place which would change the course of modern history as we know it.  The first was a chain reaction of radical political changes,  including the liberalisation of the Eastern Bloc’s authoritarian systems and the erosion of political power in the pro-Soviet governments, leading to the destruction of the Berlin wall; and the second, occurring a little further west, was my 4th birthday party where I was enjoying not only an excellent bouncy castle, but also that most coveted of childhood birthday accoutrements – a caterpillar cake. 

Breaking Batad

Breaking Batad

Stepping out of the bus I literally and metaphorically breathed a sigh of relief.  Having spent the previous week in the stagnant smog of one of the most polluted mega cities on the planet, the opportunity to fill my lungs with the cold sweet air of the mountains of Northern Luzon was pure ecstasy.

That's What You Get For Waking Up In Gangnam

That's What You Get For Waking Up In Gangnam

It was only when I had to sidestep round a rowdy drunk, and avoid a well chewed wad of tobacco from hitting my face, that I realised we weren’t in the normally clean and well maintained streets of the city anymore, instead, I found myself on a street that at best could be described as ‘sketchy’ and at worst ‘down-right scary’.  “Not to worry,  just keep walking forwards, and avoid eye contact, and I’m sure it will sort itself out” I said to myself as the cute Korean disappeared into a block of flats, and I rounded the corner only to discover a dirty dead end full or rubbish and a large amount of shifty looking characters...

Tofa to Tuvalu

Tofa to Tuvalu

They say 1300 planes take off and land every day at Heathrow airport.  Things in Tuvalu are slightly different.  In theory there are supposed to be two planes a week which means at the gloriously named Funafuti international airport there are about 0.28 planes taking off and landing every day – not exactly a transport hub.  That being said plane days in Funafuti cause a level of excitement which you would be hard to find at Heathrow or any of the World’s other major airports.