Have you ever found yourself standing in a foreign land complaining about the excessive number of tourists? Hypocritical as this undoubtedly is, it masks an inconvenient paradox of modern travel – many of us would like to see the marvels of the world while avoiding the crowds of others who wish to do the same.
This challenge has only become harder over recent decades as falling costs of flying, an expanding middle-class and the likes of AirBnB have made travel more accessible. Venice, Machu Pichu or Everest Base Camp may once have held some appeal but all have been overrun by hordes of visitors, to the point of ruin. Instead we listen wistfully to past tales of the days before the tourists arrived, forgetting of course that such romanticised nostalgia has probably always existed.
In Northern Ethiopia there’s no need for such nostalgia: at the Danakil Depression – undoubtedly a geological wonder of the world, there’s not a crowd of tourists in sight. Erta Ale, one of several active volcanoes in the area, offers a rare opportunity to see a persistent surface lava lake (or at least it did until shifts left it largely obscured by smoke). Salt-flats extend for mile upon shimmering mile in every direction. Acids bubble from the ground before evaporating into acrid smoke and leaving behind magnificent otherworldly formations of magnificent greens and yellow deposits (if you can brave the acrid smell).
Long before appreciating any of this one is hit by the oppressive heat. At 120m below sea-level Danakil is infamous as the hottest place on earth (by average temperatures). The region is sometimes referred to as ‘the cradle of the hominids’ after the fossilised remains of our 3.2 million year old cousin, Lucy, were discovered in 1974. But today it must rank as one of the most barren and inhospitable places on the planet.
This inhospitality plays a crucial role in putting off visitors. The Afar tribe scrape out a living from hacking slabs of salt from the ground and transporting them hundreds of miles on camels. A few trucks could easily do this backbreaking work far quicker but they fear that such development would threaten their way of life. In fact the Afar eschew modernity wherever possible and are notoriously hostile, chopping off testicles of unwelcome visitors well into the 20thcentury. The explorer Wilfred Thesiger likened an Afar warrior who had just de-balled four victims to a proud Etonion claiming his cricket colours.
So far the surly Afar have successfully opposed any meaningful construction of hotels or other facilities. Consequently any visit to Danakil requires bumpy drives, rough camping and days without a shower or loo – privations that, although well worth it, do a good job at keeping visitor numbers at bay.
A few hundred miles to the west, the Mountains of Tigray are blessed with very different but similarly effective natural defences against modern tourism.
Ethiopia was one of the first areas to adopt Christianity and from the 3rdcentury onwards locals began chiselling churches into the cliffs of the Gheralta Mountains. Their objectives were threefold: to be physically closer to god, avoid the temptations of life and protect against attack and persecution.
Unlike the Afar, the Tigrayans could hardly be a friendlier bunch. Which is fortunate because any visit to the magnificent rock churches requires entrusting one’s life to them. To reach Abuna Yemata Guh, one of the most famous of the man-made caves of worship, one must first scale several hundred metres of precarious cliffs; apparently ropes are available on request but the locals clearly see such measures as superfluous. After being overtaken by an 82 year-old priest on his way to conduct a seven-hour services, I’ll never again listen to my parish vicar complaining of overwork.
With several dozen churches hidden among the mountain outcrops there are days of walking to be enjoyed. And to camp on top of a Tigrayan cliff, after an exhilarating day and a sumptuous meal, with panoramic views stretching in all directions is to wonder whether the early Orthodox Christians were right about the proximity to God. Rarely have I slept so peacefully or awoken so energised.
A peace agreement with Eritrea and a reformist government has led to a relative boom in Ethiopian tourism in recent years. But visitor numbers are still a fraction of comparable sites of natural beauty and wonder. For those who can tolerate rough sleeping and a touch of vertigo Northern Ethiopia offers a delightful remedy to the excesses of modern tourism. Just remember to be polite to the Afar and don’t look down.
Gheralta Tours (led by the ever-reliable Gebre) offer tours across Northern Ethiopia including both Danakil and Tigray.