When Jill Craig and a friend embark on planning a trip to Ethiopia, they quickly realise that cheap isn’t always best.
It hadn’t started like this. No, no, no. Several years ago when I first became enamoured with the idea of visiting Ethiopia, I pictured myself skipping through the mountains with the long-haired gelada monkeys (the Simiens), staring in awe at the Debre Birhan Selassie Church with those distinctive angel faces on the ceiling (Gondar), darting around the famous rock-hewn churches (Lalibela), and eating my body weight in injera (everywhere), I had no clue I would find myself designing ruses to avoid a tour guide and then vomiting my way through one of the hottest places on earth.
Indeed, a brilliant way to begin a travel dispatch. And a warning: if you have a delicate stomach and/or sensibilities, you should probably stop reading now.
My friend Kati and I had carefully debated which places to visit on our 10-day trip and quickly realised some spots would need to wait until next time; Axum and the rock churches of Tigray, for example, didn’t make the cut. Because neither of us speaks Amharic, we decided to hire a tour operator.
But, things fall apart. In this case, our travel plans. Kati and I received several quotes, deliberated for a few days, and chose the cheapest guide. Big mistake. After all, you wouldn’t pick the cheapest eye surgeon or the clearance-price sushi.
WRONG CITY, WRONG DAY
And thus we met Desalegn, a man more than accommodating when discussing the finer points of a Western Union transfer, but less reliable with details like flight times, and providing a trip itinerary. One week after I sent him $511, the cost of our domestic flights, we still hadn’t heard from him. In the back of my mind, I remembered the Western Union employee asking if I actually knew this guy, and me laughing. Of course he was trustworthy, I said.
Finally, Desalegn emerged, emailing us a photo of a crumpled piece of paper with a few numbers scrawled on it. Kati, the wiser of the two of us, immediately asked where our tickets were. Desalegn responded that we should go to the Ethiopian Airlines office in Nairobi. “They’ll know what to do.”
It turned out that Desalegn booked two of our four flights to the wrong cities and at the wrong times. I was informed that only he would be able to change those tickets; otherwise, Kati and I would need to pay another $300.
I enlisted the help of Dawit, an Ethiopian colleague, to call Desalegn and explain the situation in Amharic. As he calmly read the printed itinerary from Ethiopian Airlines, I paced behind him like a caged circus animal, jabbing a forefinger into the paper when I heard words in English.
“No, Dawit! You tell him we specifically said we wanted to visit Lalibela on Wednesday, not Thursday! Wednesday!”
Desalegn eventually fixed the ticket situation, but then refused to answer our emails. He wouldn’t tell us where we were staying, what the programme was. Within the span of our month-long relationship, Desalegn had become a bitter soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend; refusing to communicate, but assuming we’d stick around anyway. So Kati and I had to take drastic action: break up with him.
Kati’s email: “Hi Desalegn, I hope this finds you well. We would like to inform you that we are cancelling our trip with you. Best.”
Now, he was awake. He fired emails and calls at both of us, threatening to cancel our domestic flights to get back the 25 percent of the trip cost he said we owed him,.
SUBTERFUGE IN GONDAR
We found a new, professional tour operator, and tried to ignore his rather unorthodox customer service tactics. But since he was based in Gondar, where we first landed, and knew our flight times, I was paranoid he was going to find us. Once we arrived, I insisted Kati and I split up and act like we didn’t know one another at the baggage carousel, just in case. I wore sunglasses. What a start to a holiday.
The plan seemed to work – at first. No one jumped out of the bushes or ambushed us. So far, so good.
But as I was getting a new SIM card, a red-eyed, slightly maniacal man began banging on the passenger window of the car where Kati was waiting with the driver. He yelled that he knew she was Katrin and where was Jill? He accused us of “gambling” with him, and threatened to cancel our tickets. Finally, the driver drove off, returning only to pick me up.
Despite my paranoia that Desalegn was going to appear randomly at one of our campsites in the Simiens, or the hotel lobby in Gondar, or maybe even show up in Lalibela or Mekele, we managed to avoid him. Here is a review of our trip over the next few days:
Simien Mountains – beautiful.
Gondar – fantastic.
Lalibela – amazing.
SICKNESS IN THE DEPRESSION
Then, the Danakil Depression…
When you mention Danakil to those who have visited it, they will probably tell you they loved it. It’s a place of otherworldly, stunning beauty, with its salt flats, camel caravans, sulphur springs and Erta Ale, an active volcano. It’s located in the Afar region of northeast Ethiopia, next to the Eritrean border, and is considered one of the hottest, lowest, and driest places on Earth. The average annual temperature is about 34.4 degrees.
But straight off an incredible hike in the Simiens and some great tours of historic sites, Kati and I knew things were off to a rocky start when the tour guide forgot our luggage in Mekele, the town where Danakil trips begin. Twenty minutes after driving off, Kati asked me to check if our luggage was in the back. It was not. Our driver, who kept himself awake/ entertained by chewing copious amounts of miraa, didn’t seen too bothered and calmly turned the car around.
Back on the road, we met the rest of our group: 12 Chinese tourists, four Americans, two Spaniards, and ourselves – an Austrian and an American.
Our campsite in the Danakil Depression consisted of metal cots perched upon a field of rocks. When I asked our guide where I could find a toilet, he nonchalantly waved his hand toward the rocks. Not a squat toilet, not a hole in the ground, not even a shrub. Just a field of rocks.
Not a huge deal, until you start vomiting. Which I did, around 3 am; hunched over a stone pile, purging the previous night’s rather unsavoury spaghetti dinner in a most undignified fashion.
Following a several-hour long pattern of purge, attempt to sleep, purge, repeat, I stumbled over to our vehicle to get some water. But the nausea followed me, and soon enough, I was loudly retching again. Fellow travellers started to photograph me. Somewhere in China, there are photos of a tourist emptying the contents of her stomach over the salt flats of Danakil.
After everyone except me had breakfast, we drove off and prepared to see the sights. I slept, focusing on sipping water and avoiding direct sunlight. Each time we got to a new place, I would woozily get out of the car, take a few photos, then retreat to my backseat nest.
I decided to attempt the 30-minute trek over volcanic rock to see the stunning Dallol volcano, with its craters containing hot springs coloured yellow, orange, green, brown and white at the surface. Overwhelmed by sulphuric fumes, which are never aromatic, but take on a new level of revulsion when you’re nauseous, I took a quick look at the springs and then headed back to the cars, where the drivers were playing cards and eating snacks. I had barely arrived when the vomiting started again. One driver gave me some water, an orange, and a small chair. Another guy watched me intently from his car and yelled out pointers: “You need to drink more water! That will help!” The others just stared.
Shortly thereafter, Kati made the executive decision that our trip would end here. We would not see the Erta Ale volcano, the highlight of most travellers’ trips to the Danakil Depression. Instead, we returned to Mekele airport and took the next flight to Addis Ababa. That night in the Addis hotel room, I don’t think I was ever so happy to see a toilet.
Thankfully, Desalegn did not appear, and he didn’t cancel our tickets. We never heard from him again.
But in the end, he still got his revenge.