Each day we mounted a different horse. A great deal of wrangling went on, because those owners were paid handsomely. Lots of promises were made to Hussein about a horse's speed or dependability. The horses were chosen, tacked up, and off we headed through unique climactic zones. Each day was a wonder of vistas, new flora, and often challenging territory both for the horses and the humans.
Our group galloped with abandon across open fields, climbed up complex carvings of ancient paths, worn deeply into the ground by millions of hooves and sandaled feet. They looked like dark brown arteries lined by the grass and deepened by rainfall.
While we rode, those villagers schlepped our belongings to the next camping spot. At night, once they had unloaded all our gear, they would remount for the long trek back to their homes, flush with precious dollars for their trouble.
Competition was fierce and sometimes arguments broke out. Eventually we were on our way though, the villagers cheerfully hefting our plastic-encased gear on their backs and on the patient donkeys.
Each night we would arrive at a new spot, where the horse owners had already set up most of the tents, a collection of badly beaten castoffs. I had brought my own tent, which not only meant I was set up faster, but that there was less chance that a well-meaning villager might permanently ruin a tent pole or poke a hole in my rainfly.
In these evenings, the cook would create concoctions of mutton or beef, the cook tent or hut thick with eye-searing smoke. Most of the food was far too spicy for me, as Ethiopians are inordinately fond of chilis. The smoking cook hut was the only truly warm place to be in the high-altitude camping spots, but you paid for your warmth with watery eyes and smoke-filled lungs.
We finished our exploration through the Bale mountains at 12,000 feet. The cook presented us with a large pot of soup into which he had apparently emptied at least two full containers of salt. I think he was trying to get rid of the excess. So did we. We abstained after the first spoonful (which got spat on the dirt floor).
The next morning, we brushed the layers of frost off our tents, packed them up, and returned to Addis Ababa.
Two days later I flew to Mekele, a small town which functions as the tourist gateway to the Danikil Depression. Billed—not entirely accurately—as the Hottest Place on Earth, the depression is famous for its heaving lava lake. Years of civil unrest and battles with neighboring Eritrea have left the area in a constant state of unease. These days, a peace treaty has allowed tourists to explore the stark, rocky, desert-like area without too much concern for their lives, but you still have to sign up with a tour group. And you still have to hike the volcano accompanied by armed guards.
The Danakil Depression is located in the northern part of the Afar Triangle, also known as the Afar Depression. It's a geological anomaly that has resulted from the divergence of three tectonic plates. To get there, you're heaped into a jeep along with a few other intrepid travelers and spirited for endless empty miles as you wind your way more deeply into the earth. The huts in this part of Ethiopia are barely a clutter of sticks woven together to allow the hot wind to blow through. The closer you get to Danakil, the fewer animals, trees, and any sign of life. And, the lower you've gone. The Depression is 410 feet below sea level, one of the lowest places on earth, surround by some of the bleakest country you can imagine.
These factors didn't detract from the vivid colors and fascinating exploration of the camel-powered salt trade, an industry that has continued unchanged for centuries. Nor did it detract from exploring the bubbling, sulfurous ponds and strange growths that peppered the area. We slept outside at night, either on a rickety rattan cot or on a mattress on the black lava beds. The hot winds never ceased, and the stars were clear enough to count.
After all the fee gouging, the negotiations, and threats of violence, the night visit to the Depression itself is a somewhat quiet affair. The hike is about 90 minutes in the dark, and not terribly steep. What is terrible is the smell. We were armed with face masks which did little to either ameliorate the odor or protect our eyes. The winds favored us just long enough to watch a high blast of brilliant orange lava spit in our general direction.
Ethiopia is not a place to view wildlife, at least where I traveled. In the Bale Mountains, we spotted a rare Red Wolf and a few Nyala. Beyond that, all we saw were domesticated animals being mustered along by skinny boys and tiny girls whacking them on the legs with sticks. The Sanga cattle, remarkable for their long horns and colorful coat patterns, are prevalent. One of them gave me my favorite memory from the trip.
On the long drive to Danakil, the entourage always stops in the same small town for lunch. There, in a three-sided open room painted a bilious bright green, the white tourists are fed a lively lunch of Ethiopian dishes while the local kids gather to harangue them for pens, coins, and candy.
On the inbound trip, to escape the kids, I walked half a block down the street to pet a small, mixed-breed dog which was, uncommonly, very happy to receive the affection. The owners demanded payment, which I refused. Then I noticed that I was being watched by more than just the locals.
A large black and white Sanga, her sharply pointed horns easily more than a yard long, was calmly gazing at me. I stood slowly, and put my hand on her forehead. She leaned into it.
Half an hour later, she had settled at my feet, put her great horned head into my lap as I massaged her body. A crowed had gathered, kids and adults who had never seen a cow close her eyes and relax in the lap of a human, much less for a strange white woman.
Sadly, as soon as I had been herded back into the Jeep to continue our journey, people started kicking the cow.
But when we came through for lunch the next day, several of the boys who had watched me work with the cow led their own steers to the restaurant entrance. They entreated me to pay, for the right to massage their animals. I refused.
But they were petting and stroking their cows, not kicking them.
An ancient, but changing country. Time will tell if it's for the better.
Julia Hubbel is the author of two books, a prize-winning journalist, and adventure athlete. Her primary interest is in adventure sports in the farthest reaches of the world, learning about indigenous cultures and discovering the last of the world's pristine places.
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Jumping Into Matrimony in Ethiopia - James Michael Dorsey
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