Outside Terminal 1 at Dubai International Airport on a Wednesday afternoon, ready to catch my evening flight to Ethiopia.
Ethiopian Airlines had emailed me at midday that the flight had been delayed by 1.5 hours due to mechanical reasons and a subsequent aircraft swap and I now had a 6:45pm scheduled departure.
I had some mild panic after Ethiopian Airlines was missing from the check-in display board but after a quick chat with an Airport employee I was directed to the correct check-in line.
There was only two or three other people checking in, even though it was 2 hours until (the new) departure time with the majority of passengers seemingly checked in well before with the original departure time.
After heading through immigration and security, I went to catch the train to Concourse D.
Looking out to the very empty and under renovation Concourse C.
Grabbing a bite to eat at the Marhaba lounge.
I had flown Ethiopian Airlines numerous times to / from Lagos, Johannesburg, São Paulo, Mahé, Niamey and Djibouti. I had yet to step outside Addis Ababa's Bole International Airport though and officially visit Ethiopia.
While looking for possibilities for the four day Martyrs Day / The Prophet's Birthday / UAE National Day weekend I chanced upon a special for a five day tour to Lalibela and the Danakil Depression offered by Ethio Travel And Tours for $750 including domestic flights, accommodation and most food. I wanted to see a bit of the Capital too so also booked a day long tour with Go Addis Tours.
All of my flights for the trip were on Ethiopian Airlines:
Day 0: Flying from Dubai to Addis Ababa (DXB-ADD).
Day 1: Flying from Addis Ababa to Lalibela via Bahir Dar (ADD-BJR-LLI).
Day 2: Flying from Lalibela to Mek'ele (LLI-MQX).
Day 5: Flying from Mek'ele to Addis Ababa (MQX-ADD).
Day 6: Flying from Addis Ababa to Dubai (ADD-DXB).
Our Ethiopian Airline 777 belatedly waiting at the gate.
Watching the film Baby Driver soon after take-off.
Fish and rice served for dinner.
And on finals for Addis Ababa Bole International Airport.
Disembarking at a remote gate.
Although visa on arrival is available I had applied and paid for an e-visa to save a bit of time at immigration.
After meeting up with my driver we drove into the city to the office of Ethio Travel And Tours to pay for the remainder of my trip.
And about to get some sleep just before midnight at Hotel Lobelia.
I was up at 5:30am for a quick shower and downstairs in the hotel lobby by 6am. Breakfast at the hotel didn't start until 7am but they kindly russled me up an omelette, some cornflakes and coffee.
And in the hotel minivan for the short ride back to the airport. For $52 a night including breakfast and airport transfer it was quite reasonable.
Outside the domestic terminal at Addis Ababa Airport. Like the international side, it was running well over design capacity but relatively efficient and well run.
With my boarding pass to Lalibela. There is a direct flight five times a week but today I was flying via Bahir Dar (BJR).
Boarding on time just after 8am onto the Bombardier Q400. As well as locals there was a fair few tourists on the flight as well.
Looking down on Addis Ababa soon after take-off.
Cake and orange juice served on the 1 hour flight.
At Bahir Dar Airport for a short stop to offload and then board a handful of passengers.
Looking down on Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile and the largest lake in Ethiopia.
And walking across the apron just after 10am after arriving at Lalibela Airport.
After collecting my bag off the baggage cart I headed out to meet with our guide. Also on the tour was Charlotte and Avinath who had also flown in from Dubai on the same flight the night prior. Both colleagues at Emirates, they had also coincidentally thought that a 5 day tour in Ethiopia was a great idea to spend the long UAE weekend.
We then headed out on the 40 minute drive into Lalibela.
Rolling into town. We each got dropped off at various hotels in town just after 11am.
Clearing the path to some to some of the city's famous monolithic rock-cut churches.
My room for the night at the Lalibela Hotel.
Our tour to the churches wasn't until 2pm so I decidedly to head out and see some of Lalibela and its surrounds.
Looking down on Lalibela with Mount Abuna Yosef in the background.
The city is situated at an elevation of 2,600 metres (8,500 ft).
The brown, rugged and mountainous terrain extending out to the west.
It was perfect weather with blue skies and plenty of sunshine.
Green trees sprinkled throughout the arid landscape.
Looking to the east with Lalibela in the distance.
A small village nestled at the bottom of a valley.
I then walked back into town and stopped to buy some water at a corner shop along the way.
Back at the hotel with the national flag of Ethiopia flying in the breeze.
For lunch I settled on something to eat at the very colourful hotel restaurant.
And enjoyed some tasty tibs, egg and injera.
At 2pm I was picked up for our tour of the Lalibela rock-hewn Churches. The entrance tickets were surprisingly high at $50 each (but included as part of my tour package).
The 11 churches are separated into four groups. We would start at the five churches in the northern group; Biete Medhane Alem (House of the Saviour of the World), Biete Maryam (House of Miriam/House of Mary), Biete Golgotha Mikael (House of Golgotha Mikael), Biete Meskel (House of the Cross) and Biete Denagel (House of Virgins).
Looking down on Biete Medhane Alem. The large and very grand Biete Medhane Alem is supposedly the the largest rock-hewn church in the world, measuring 33.5m by 23.5m and is more than 11.5m high.
With our guide Abraham. As well as Avinath and Charlotte, also on the tour was Emily from France who was just finishing up 4 weeks in Ethiopia.
I had seen other examples of rock-cut architecture in Cappadocia and at Petra, but this was my first time seeing them as a free-standng structure. According to legend, all work on the churches was completed in 23 years, with men and women working during the day and angels during the night.
A pool carved into the rock that is used for baptisms.
Some of the original pillars had collapsed and were restored with pillars of brickwork. Since 1965 the World Monuments Fund has supported the restoration of the Lalibela churches.
Inside Biete Medhane Alem. It was hard to imagine that the large monilithic structure was carved from solid rock.
Mary with what Abraham amusingly refered to as 'brown Jesus'. It was interesting to see the local interpretation of the two, and compared with the white European depiction I am used to.
Looking down on Biete Maryam (House of Mary). To protect the churches from erosion and wear from the elements, large protective shelters had been constructed over them.
Some local men chanting religious rhymes with two liturgical kebero drums on the ground in front of them. Ethiopia has been officially Christian since 330AD and claims to be the oldest Christian country in the world.
With the Islamic conquests to its north, Ethiopia was cut off for centuries from the wider Christian world. During this time its church flourished in isolation, untouched by the theological disputes dividing Christianity in Europe. It has been suggested that the Ethiopian Church traditions provide insight into an older, maybe purer and more mystical form of Christianity.
Saint George engraved on the western end of Biete Maryam. Saint George is also the Patron Saint of Ethiopia.
Worshipper. Lalibela is a very important site for Orthodox Christians in Ethiopia with a belief that Lalibela pilgrims share the same blessing as pilgrims to Jerusalem.
A lone candle providing some light inside.
The colourfully painted ceiling inside Biete Maryam. The exact age of the churches is not known, but most are thought to have been built during the reign of king Lalibela during the 12th and 13th centuries.
A blind worshipper exiting Biete Maryam. The Lalibela churches were one of the first UNESCO World Heritage sites, along with 11 others including the Galapagos Islands and Yellowstone National Park that were added to the very first list in 1978.
Abraham leading us through a pathway carved deep into the rock.
A Rastafarian posing outside Selassie Chapel. Ethiopa and its former Emperor, Haile Selassie, is given central prominence in Rasta doctrine.
A pilgirm inside Biete Golgotha Mikael.
Biete Golgotha Mikael is known for containing some of the best examples of early Ethiopian Christian art.
One of the amazing life-size depictions of the 12 apostles carved into the walls’ niches.
Only four of the apostles are visible, with the other eight hidden behind the curtains in the off-limits Selassie Chapel, one of Lalibela’s holiest sanctuaries and also the reputed tomb of King Lalibela himself.
Artist. The churches and the tourism they bring are a vital part of the local economy.
After finishing our visit to the northern group of churches we made the short trek south-west to Biete Giyorgis.
Looking down on Biete Giyorgis, the Church of Saint George that is shaped like a Coptic Cross.
Emily had a 24 shot disposable film camera and trusted me to take a photo of her in front of the very beautiful and the best preserved of the 11 churches.
Abraham taking us down for a closer look. The church was carved from a type of volcanic tuff with the rock being much harder, not as prone to erosion and hence the lack of a protective awning as installed at the other churches.
Luckily no safety rails to blight or hinder the magnificent view.
We then made our way down the rough-hewn steps to the church below. Looking up at the amazing and very beautiful architecture.
The last built of the eleven churches in the Lalibela and thought to be the most finely executed.
As with the other Lalibela Churches, it is still open and used everyday for worship and prayer.
After the breathtaking Biete Giyorgis we made the trek to the Eastern Group of Churches.
A local kindly pausing while I snap their portrait.
Abraham showing us a man-made canyon that was originally made to divert Lalibela's river and renamed after the biblical River Jordan.
Looking across to Biete Gabriel-Rufael (House of the Angels Gabriel, and Raphael).
And with a spectacular drop down to the channel below! Biete Gabriel-Rufael is also a possible former royal palace.
Faded religious artwork on one of the doors inside.
Heading undergound to the next Lalibela Church.
And looking across to Biete Lehem.
The name Biete Lehem is from Bethlehem Hebrew: בֵּית לֶחֶם (House of Holy Bread).
A faded depiction of the Twelve Apostles inside.
Biete Amanuel (House of Emmanuel).
Two pilgrims outside the church. Biete Amanuel is supposedly Lalibela’s most finely carved church and it has been suggested that it was the royal family’s private chapel.
Inside with a priest holding a Processional Cross.
Abraham leading us to Biete Abba Libanos, our final church left to visit.
At the entrance to Biete Abba Libanos.
And admiring the cavernous interior.
We then wandered outside to look out from the hill and to the setting sun.
I decided to grab the opportunity in the fading light to launch my Mavic drone.
Looking down on Biete Giyorgis with the steps down to the Church entrance visible to the left.
The Coptic Cross shape of the Church also clearly visible from above.
Thanking Abraham at the end of a great tour through the beautiful and often breathtaking Churches of Lalibela.
I then began the walk through the streets back to my hotel.
Stopping to buy a snack and some water.
End of School.
For dinner I retreated to the hotel restaurant again and had some tasty chicken and rice.
I then headed to bed early to get some rest as it would be my last sleep in a proper bed for a while.
Early dawn outside the hotel at the start of day 2. I went for a run on the hilly streets of Lalibela but the cold, hills and 2,500 metre elevation made it a bit of struggle!
After enjoying my last shower for the next four days, I enjoyed some coffee, toast and jam for breakfast.
I was then picked up just after 7am for the 40 minute ride to Lalibela Airport.
Outside the Airport, ready for our 9am flight to Mekele (MQX).
After putting my bag through the X-ray at security, the security lady wanted to see my 'camera' in my main bag. Figuring she wanted to see my Mavic drone, I pulled it out of my bag.
She then told me to take a seat. 2 minutes later the Airport manager arrived. He was very professional and polite but said I needed a permit for my drone. He said that they would send it back to Addis Ababa Airport, and gave me the contact details of the Security Manager there whom I could contact to arrange collection when I flew out.
I was hesitant to let go of my Mavic but didn't really have a choice. I rationalised that it had made it to eight countries which was a pretty good run if I didn't see it again.
Boarding the Ethiopian Q400 to Mekele with my bag now a little lighter than when I had arrived.
Descending into Mek'ele after the short 30 minute flight from Lalibela. Mek'ele is the capital city in the northern Tigray Region of Ethiopia.
Mek'ele is also the launching point for trips to the nearby Danakil Depression.
After collecting our luggage we met up with our guide and made the short drive into Mek'ele.
Auto rickshaws lined up along the road.
At the local office of Ethio Travel And Tours where there was a slight change to our itinerary. We would still be visiting the same sights but in a sightly different order. We were also now spending our second night at a guesthouse instead of camping which was a bit of a bonus.
We then hopped back in the van to meet up with one of the trip Landcruisers on the outskirts of town to begin our drive to the Danakil Depression.
Todays' plan was to drive a total of 169 kilometres, first stopping at the town of Berhale for lunch before continuing on to Lake Karum, a salt lake in the Afar Region of Ethiopia. We would then spend the night camping at Hamedela just 4 kilometres west of the lake.
Our journey temporarily halted due to a herd of cattle.
Winding through the beautiful scenery. The road condition was surprisingly good as well.
Passing a caravan of camels.
The camels are used to carry salt from Lake Karum to Mek'ele.
At about 1pm we rolled into the town of Berhale and stopped for a break and to meet up with the rest of the group.
Rice and vegetables for a simple but filling lunch.
Some local kids clowning around outside and who kept asking for us to buy them a football at the local shop.
We then headed off in a convoy of seven Toyota Landcruisers and a Nissan Patrol. As well as Charlotte and Avinath, we were also joined by Shane. Shane was a mechanical engineer from Pittsburg who had arrived in Ethiopia a few days ago and was embarking on seven months of travel around the world after taking a sabbatical from work.
Our convoy by the road as the Danakil Depression began.
The Danakil Depression is a geological depression that has resulted from the divergence of three tectonic plates (the Arabian Plate and the two parts of the African Plate, the Nubian and the Somalian) in the Horn of Africa.
The Danakil Depression is about 125 m (410 ft) below sea level and is one of the lowest places on the planet.
We then carried on to Hamedela where there was a small camp and where we would be sleeping tonight.
After a short break we drove on to Lake Karum. Another caravan of camels with slabs of salt on their backs.
Our guide gave one of the herders a bottle of water to quench his thirst in the hot weather. Even though it was December it was still above 30°C in the late afternoon. The Danakil Depression is also the hottest place on Earth in terms of year-round average temperature.
Arriving at the edge of Lake Karum and the source of the salt that was being mined by the Afar people.
It reminded me of my visit to Lake Assal in nearby Djbouti in 2016, and which is also extremely salty and at an elevation well below sea level.
And also a great place for a selfie!
The setting sun reflecting off the water covered salt flat.
Our Landcruisers (plus one Patrol) lined up on the salt.
Our guide then brought out some local Ethiopian wine to enjoy with the amazing view.
Made from grapes grown in the Upper Awash Valley, south-east of Addis Ababa.
For about $5 a bottle I wasn't expecting much, but it was nice to enjoy with the stunning scenery and good company.
With the sun setting in front of us, the moon was rising up into the twilight sky just behind us.
As the darkness of night fell, we headed off across the salt flat in our 4WD convoy back to our camp at Hamedela.
After we setup our sleeping bags on the outdoor beds, we queued up for some bread and warm soup made by our chef while we were out at Lake Karum.
Followed by some tasty spaghetti.
After dinner we went for a short walk to the local pub.
And enjoying a bottle of local Raya beer while I chatted to Shane about his travel plans with his seven months of sabbatical. It was his first trip to Africa and was really enjoying it so far.
At about 9pm we wandered back to camp, crawled under the sleeping bags and drifted to sleep under the moon and stars above.