Written by: Neil Thomas
I’ve been obsessed with Ethiopia for years now but previously have only been able to take a couple of short trips to go and explore. However, as a photographer, I really wanted to immerse myself in the country and take my time to get the images I wanted.
The only way to do that was to pack up a team into a couple of cars and drive there from where I live in Nairobi, Kenya, and make it into an incredible adventure. We also made a film of the journey. Even though two and a half months seems like a long time, it really isn’t, especially when you are driving through a country of roughly a million square kilometres.
I wanted to hit what I believe are the highlights of Ethiopia – namely the Erta Ale volcano and the Danakil depression, Tigray and the rock hewn churches of the north, the ancient city of Lalibela and finally the tribes of the Omo River valley in the south.
It took two days to reach the Ethiopian border from Nairobi. From there we drove over the Bale Mountains, which top 4,000 metres in some places, heading straight toward the Danakil Desert. The first proper stop was Erta Ale, a shield volcano with a one square kilometre caldera at the summit that tourists can climb. The climb takes about three hours, done in the evening because of the heat, and at the summit is a pit crater with the world’s only permanent lava lake, measuring about 100 metres across. It’s a wild experience – there are no fences, no safety measures, and there’s extreme heat on your face and the heat of the desert on your back. But the sights, and the images made, are beyond belief. You sleep there on the edge of the caldera and head back to the lava pit in the morning for a few more images before heading down the mountain before it gets too hot.
Next stop, the Danakil depression, the lowest and hottest place on the African continent, which is practically uninhabited. For centuries the Afar people have been mining the salt and transporting it to the highlands on camels, and the trade continues to this day. I had been expecting to see a vast, flat, white expanse but we had arrived right after a few weeks of torrential rain so the desert was flooded! We photographed the camel trains heading to the salt mines splashing through the shallow water, which made for a different kind of image.
After that we headed off to the Tigray highlands. What sets Tigray apart from much of Ethiopia, and Africa in general, are the religious sanctuaries in the form of rock hewn churches that have been ‘practically unknown to Ethiopians, let alone the outside world, before 1966’ (Briggs). There are about 123 rock hewn churches in Tigray and at least three quarters of them are in active use. That fact makes them so much more appealing to me, and we spent the best part of three weeks visiting about 15 churches, and we are pleased to have amazing images from the visits.
Next stop was the famous Lalibela complex that I think no tourist to Ethiopia should miss. Its found high up on some rocky mountains at 2,600 metres and has ‘two clusters’ of churches totalling 12 independent churches. All of them are within walking distance of each other making them a compelling place to visit.
Next stop after the long drive south was the Omo River valley. I’d been here before but I’m still struck by how different it is to the north. You descend out of the highlands and into the hot lowlands, which has a culturally diverse and colourful set of inhabitants. There are 20 or so tribes there and I wanted to see certain groups, beyond the people I had seen on previous visits – these included the Arbore, Hamer, Karo and Dassanech people. I had with me a small mobile studio so spent the long hot days photographing people with their permission.
The final leg home took me back into Kenya, alongside the ancient Lake Turkana and down to the Samburu region to take some final landscape and people shots on the way home.