It all started when I saw a photograph – a dark crater filled with smoke and fire with a lake of bubbling lava flowing aggressively in the foreground.
The image lived in my mind day and night. I was consumed, and I knew the only way to cure my wanderlust was to see this amazing location myself. With a little research, I discovered the photo was of the Erta Ale Volcano in Ethiopia – one of only six lava lakes in the world. Just 6 months and a couple of layovers later, I was on the adventure of a lifetime throughout one of Africa’s most fascinating countries.
Ethiopia is raw, authentic and unforgettable. Each region is like stepping into a time capsule. Each village and town feel like a different world. Salt mines in the north are still excavated with primitive tools and transported by camel. The Southern tribes take pride in ritualistic scarification, lip plates and body war painting. Ethiopia is one of the first countries to adopt Christianity, in the first century AD. The numerous monasteries of Lalibela protect many of the ancient Christian texts.
Traveling through Ethiopia is not comfortable. Scorching heat and suffocating humidity, the risk of food poisoning, scarce water resources and hostile territories in the north all make Ethiopia a challenging country to photograph. Most roads are not paved and shared with pedestrians, cattle, and horse buggies so the travel is slow going. Accommodations are basic and running water and electricity is not guaranteed.
Rough conditions test you physically and mentally almost every single day. But if you stop resisting the discomfort, let your body acclimate and take it a day at a time, Ethiopia will open up, welcome you and show you some of it’s most precious treasures. This unique and incredible country and it’s people will also teach you to accept things how they are and embrace the present moment. After all, the present moment is the only thing we truly have right now. Live it to the fullest.
Words and photos by Natalia Stone
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As the sun rises over Lake Asale, the salt traders are nearing the end of their three-day trek from the nearest town of Mekele. They will spend the next day excavating salt, cutting it up into bricks and loading the camels for the trip back. Each load a camel carries earns around $10, barely enough for the miners to feed their families and survive in this barren land with little resources. The entire region feels as if it is frozen in time. The local Afar people still live and work as they have been for centuries.
Lalibela, the center of Ethiopian Christianity, is famous for its monolithic churches built underground and undetected by enemies for hundreds of years Most survive to this day in their original state. All the churches are active and priests still use century old books for prayer with the only source of light shining though small windows cut in the massive walls.
As we were photographing around the Bodi tribe’s village, a man approached us and communicated that he wanted a portrait with a gun. He started with a few typical poses with him standing and the weapon up, but soon got really into pointing the gun at everyone, including our group, clearly having a lot of fun with the photo session. Later he said “I was imagining I shot you all”, laughed and walked away. Luckily we made sure the gun was unloaded before handing it over.
Erta Ale is a challenging place to photograph. There are cracks all over the rim so it is dangerous to get too close as top shelf could collapse at any moment. Toxic gasses and fumes rise up and are carried by the wind, sometimes completely covering the crater. Even with a good respirator it’s practically impossible not to cough and run for cover to catch one’s breath and hope for breaks in the wind.
Mursi women are known for their lip plates and decorative scars. Every girl has her lip cut at the age of 15. A small clay plate inserted into the opening and replaced over time with a bigger one as the lip stretches. The larger the plate the more the woman is worth by the time she gets married.
As I was walking among the church worshipers at Sunday’s mass, most seemed totally oblivious to my presence and me taking pictures of them. After a while I couldn’t help but put my camera down and just take in the serine atmosphere of this magical place. I wondered what were they thinking and feeling, or if they were thinking at all and just being in the moment.
Karo men paint their bodies and faces with white chalk to look as fierce as possible. It’s a daily routine that scares off enemies and also serves the purpose of making themselves more attractive to the opposite sex.
Dassanech people live near the border of kenya by the shores of lake Turkana. One of the most interesting tribes to photograph it is not so easy to get to. After a 3 hr drive through dusty roads we had to cross the river full of crocodiles on dugout tribal canoes. What sounds like a dangerous place to live, actually helps the tribe survive. In times when cattle is lost to disease, local men hunt crocodiles, even a small one is enough to feed a family for days.
Being inside a church in Lalibela is a fascinating experience – the walls are blackened from years of candle burning, you must take off your shoes and walk on uneven stone floor, loosely covered with a thin layer of carpeting. The priests rarely break from prayer during Sunday mass, if only to welcome worshipers. As your eyes adjust you see the church is bigger than expected with many intersecting rooms to some of which the entrance is forbidden. I couldn’t help but wonder how many centuries of secrets this place must hold.
The legends of Lalibela state that angels and men built the churches together. To this day the exact details of their construction remain a mystery. Each one is hewn from solid rock top to bottom. Pictured above is the famous church of St George. It took us a while to find it – one can only see the top when up close, at first glance it’s difficult to imagine the church is actually 50meters (150 feet) tall underground.
The price of living as you have been for centuries is that tribal medicine is still very basic. As I walked through a market of the Hamar tribe, I noticed a lot of the women suffering from what looked like cataract. As many as 30% of Hamar women have some vision loss after the age of 40, with 13% completely blind. A clear reminder that what we now consider an easily treatable condition was is a big problem in many part of the world.
Annual whipping ceremony is an integral part of the Hamar tribe’s tradition. Women dance, drink sorghum beer until they have worked themselves into a frenzy. They then taunt and shout insults at the men of the tribe until they get whipped. The whips cut through the flesh and leave life lasting scars. The more scars a woman has the more she is loved and appreciated by the men.
Erta Ale which means ‘Smoking Mountain’ is one of only six lava lakes in the world. After a 9 hour drive from the closest village over lava fields, salt flats and sand, it is another 3 hours on foot in the dark until you finally reach the rim of the caldera. As you descend there is no trail, you have to watch every step when walking on freshly crusted lava that cracks under your feet, one false move and you can fall into an air pocket. The volcano is alive – you feel the heat, hear the roaring sounds, see the ash and sparks flying up in mini explosions – one of nature’s most mesmerizing and dangerous shows.
Life in Omo Valley is not all about tribal rivalry and warfare. Behind their initial serious demeanor and war body painting, the Karo people are very welcoming and friendly. On the morning of our visit, as adults were tending to livestock and brewing coffee, several boys were having a jumping contest. Even in these harsh lands sometimes it’s all about living life in the moment and having fun.
Every Sunday all the villagers around Lalibela gathers near the ancient churches for the weekly mass. A truly fascinating sight as hundreds of people adorned in yellow and while cloaks are chanting or standing still in a moment of prayer, completely ignoring the outside world and just being present.
Mursi is one of the 20 tribes living in Omo Valley in southern Ethiopia. Cattle is the main way of life for the people of this region. Not only essential for survival, the number of cattle determines the wealth and status of a village. Almost every adult tribe member whether male or female carries a gun. Cattle stealing, clashes over grazing land and water access disputes are quite common in the area. Ethiopian government does little to interfere and lets the tribes be and sort our their problems on their own.
Ethiopian orthodox church is know for its many types of ceremonial crosses, each one, uniquely made and decorated is considered sacred. As worshipers come into a church, a priest touches them with the cross to bless and heal any ailments.
Hamar men pay a very special attention to face painting and hair. They use ostrich feathers as part of their hair dress which symbolizes hunting and the domain of nature. To protect the hairdo, men always carry a wooden headrests they use for pillows.
Unlike in other tribes of the Omo Valley, Dassanech girls must be circumcised at the age of 10 in order for them to eventually marry and for the family to receive dowry. Interestingly the tribe accepts both men and women of other ethnicities as long as they will partake in the circumcising tradition.
Danakil Desert is one of the hottest and cruelest places on earth with temperatures rarely falling below 40-60 C (104-140 F) during the day. Salt mining has been the livelihood of the Afar people for hundreds of years, and still continues to this day. Barren landscape, dust storms, unbearable heat and no water – hard to believe how anything can survive here. As the caravan neared, I heard the men yelling something and pointing at my water bottle, without hesitation I gave them all the water I had with me. The setting sun does little to relieve the heat and they still had at least an hour to the nearest village.
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