The Gates of Hell Opened, But Only Just!
Curiosity leads to an adventurous spirit and a way of interacting with the world which enables discovery and learning. Learning can only happen if we are curious to discover, which implies we don’t already know everything there is to know. In fact the first stage of learning requires us to become consciously incompetent. I have lived most of my life sensing how extraordinarily much I don’t know and this has led to a lifetime quest to learn more and a very adventurous and exciting life has followed, for which I am deeply grateful.
This curiosity crescendo’d in November last year. I had been invited to join a group of women called Women on a Mission. They are mostly based in Singapore, but they hail from all over the world. They have a common desire to help and uplift women and children who have been the victims of war and violence. Every year they go on a pioneering mission, tackling something that has never been done before in order to raise funds for and awareness of, the plight of downtrodden women from around the globe.
I was deeply honoured to join the group and was inspired to do what I could to help. Here in SA one in five women who dies in Gauteng, dies from domestic violence. This situation is very close to my heart and I didn’t even hesitate to take my place. I was so keen to go, I didn’t care where it was or what it was about. I didn’t even really research the place I was visiting. Most of the information I attained before leaving came from my partner and friends who spent their time finding out what I was planning to do!
“Why the Danakil?, is a question I have been asked a thousand times! There is a certain intrigue when a place is called the Gateway to Hell! And there is a certain lure when it is called the most inhospitable place on earth. What is such a place really like?? It is located in the Afar Region of north-eastern Ethiopia near the Eritrean border. It is part of the East African Rift System, a place where the Earth’s internal forces are currently rupturing three continental plates, and creating new land. The Danakil Depression sits along fault lines, and so is often disturbed by earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. The result: an ever changing landscape, new fissures that spurt out molten lava, sulphuric acid and toxic fumes. The other fascination is that a few people do in fact call this place their home! The Afar people, I couldn’t wait to find out how they could live in such a place and what gave them the resilience to survive where even most plants couldn’t live.
I bought a bike and started training as hard as I could in July 2017 and by November, I was as ready as I would ever be! I packed and left in a daze, because it's not easy to leave your life for 11 days when you are a Mum, a business owner etc and when you will be unreachable in any way for the duration of the trip.
I arrived at 5 am in Addis Ababa not knowing who I was looking for or how to find them. It's not a big airport and 9 fellow travellers all carrying bikes and wearing team jackets are not that hard to spot and before long we were loaded in a bus and heading for our hotel in the city.
I set about discovering the women I was to travel with. Again my spirit of curiosity stood me in good stead as I engaged the daunting task of finding out who these people were and what their hidden treasures were. Overwhelmed is a good way to describe my emotional state that morning. But after a day touring with these women and meeting the Ethiopian government minister in charge of women and children affairs, visiting a shelter for abused women and eating delicious local food, I relaxed. Anticipation started to unfurl in my belly. I stuffed any remaining apprehension down my throat and took the next step into the unknown.
We left the capital city for Mek ‘ele well before dawn the following day. We had to fly 11 bikes (our mountain bike guide, Rachael also had a bike) on a small plane, meet our new Ethiopian guide and the 5 drivers who would accompany us into the desert, assemble our bikes and drive from Mek’ ele to the starting camp Ahmed Ela. It was a busy day! We arrived at Ahmed Ela, the northern camp of the Danakil Region, at dusk and set up camp. We were filled with excitement and felt pretty shocked by the first onslaught of the oppressive heat. It was 38 degrees that night as we tried to sleep on mattresses and rustic wooden cots under the stars. The noises of the night made sleep hard to enjoy. There were several camel trains passing us on their way to the salt lake nearby and their drivers who cajoled and moved the camel train. These are not sounds any of us were accustomed to hearing as we slept!
At first light we woke and started to prepare to leave. Amazingly it took us till 8am to get sorted and breakfasted and we gaily rode off into the desert, headed for Dallol. This is a cinder-cone-shaped volcano, twenty-three kilometres northeast of Ahmed Ela. The cycle across the salt plains was extraordinary and really easy. We met our hot spring guide Arata, in my case changed shoes and hiked up to the luminescent hot springs. We indulged in the experience, feeling pretty relaxed about the cycle and what lay ahead. We noticed the heat, as one does at 45 °C, but somehow it didn’t set off any warning bells for us.
Dallol was formed in 1926 by a phreatic eruption. Groundwater, heated by magma creates, a steam eruption without lava. It is created by hydrothermal activity. These eruptions led to a series of spectacular, bubbling sulphuric acid pools, with an immeasurably low PH and a very high salt content. This region was below the sea millions of years ago. We saw springs that had not been there a week ago, Dallol is constantly changing and extremely unstable. We had to follow our guide’s footsteps for fear of slipping and touching the hideously acidic water, which would have burnt off a limb in no time had we got near! Imagine seeing before your eyes how changeable the earth really is and how insignificant we really are.
After indulging in our touring, we went across to the salt mountain and investigated the incredible sight of these “mountains” created by the flow of the river through the parched landscape whenever it flooded. The salt deposits had created these mountains. Wow. Extraordinary, just like a landscape from Mars. We climbed and explored and only thought of getting back to camp when it was almost mid-day and a stifling 50 degrees!
The team dropped like flies as we rode and they felt themselves becoming increasingly distressed. By the time we rode into camp only four of us were still going and it was 2.30pm! We had been warned to avoid the midday heat but we didn’t know what we didn’t know and nothing could have prepared us for the onslaught of heat stroke that struck more than half of the team as the afternoon progressed. One girl fainted and scarcely regained consciousness until the early hours of the morning. Others vomited, were delirious and almost all burned with fever. It was horrific. Heatstroke is very dangerous, it can be fatal. We were 5 hours away from medical care and it wasn’t simple to just drive to a hospital. You have to get permission from the chief of the region before you can travel through the Danakil, and you need security guards and a militia man. If one Jeep left with the sick people, who would guard the rest of us? Those of us who were unaffected, used wet T shirts and trays to fan the sick and kept a through the night vigil on our burning team mates. We were over joyed and so relieved to find that they had all turned the corner back to relative health by morning.
Only the unaffected were allowed to ride the next day. The rest reluctantly travelled in the Jeeps.
We made better plans and left earlier in the morning after that. We stopped every 10 km on our rides and drank plenty. Drinking hot almost boiling water is hard to do! But the consequences of not doing it were dire. We rode without camel packs to help us cool down and we all took better note of how our bodies were coping. We had 6 days to go and each day we were riding further from medical care and further into the deep unknown. We had been deeply shaken by our catastrophic first day and we recognised we couldn’t afford to make the same mistakes again. We all adopted a growth mindset: we were here to do a mission, not risk our lives. Our drive to make a contribution to the planet couldn’t override our drive to survive! After that we only had Rachael get heat stroke (and hers lasted 3 days!) and everyone else seemed to be able to cope. Or they coped until gastro set in and we went back into a state of catastrophe.
I was one of the lucky few who never got heat stroke or any other sickness. I think my life’s work in listening to my body and tuning in to it's voice stood me in good stead. It's hard to share what you know when you don’t know what other people don’t know. It comes so naturally to me by now to listen and respond to my body’s needs. I never realised other people weren’t doing the same thing I was doing. This was one of the greatest lessons I learnt from the whole experience. Your own self-preservation has to come first. If it doesn’t, you will be knocked down. It's not success at all costs and neither is it achieve the goal no matter what. There has to be humility and re-evaluation every step of the way. I am more inspired than ever to stay tuned into my body’s voice and keep my drive to achieve and my drive to make a difference firmly in perspective. If I leave it up to my ego, the balance will never be found and disaster may present.
Every day from that disastrous first day only 4 people got to the finish line, but that was all we needed. We were a team and everyone had a role. We didn’t all have to do everything. We had extra ordinary diversity in our team: we could use each person’s talents and strengths to get the expedition done. It was fascinating to see how when everyone used their strengths the whole team got closer to achieving it's mission. We had an Ethiopian guide, Mull’eh who was incredible. He knew the region and the people so well and he was a magnificent leader. Christine was a leader too, she had a way of making people feel really great about themselves and she was a master at getting media coverage and great photo’s. All of this is vital for fund raising! Jenny kept us all laughing, Valerie, kept everyone in line and kept the time schedule and the logistics happening as they should. Vittoria, kept harmony and peace, Milena made sure we didn’t sweat the small stuff. Rachael helped us with our bikes and made sure our bikes weren’t destroyed as they were slung on and off the roofs of the Jeeps. I played medic and took care of the sick. Jacqui, although very sick on two occasions, reminded us to remain Britishly calm and sanguine. Prittika, nurtured and complimented everyone, making certain everyone felt seen and appreciated for who they were and for what they did. Katernia got on with the job of cycling with zero fuss and in her Swiss-French fashion, she brought clarity and calm. We had cooks and drivers and security people. We became a high performance team in time and we made history. We crossed the Danakil Depression on our bicycles. No-one has ever attempted that before and in truth I hope no-one ever does in the future either.
For a team to form and perform in only 10 days and accomplish something extra ordinary is mind blowing. I was deeply surprised that we moved through the stages of forming, storming and norming quite fast. There wasn’t much politeness at the start, everyone except me knew each other so we could almost eliminate the first stage of team development. Some people knew each other really well. There were some intense moments of storming. I was glad to understand, that this conflict is essential and can't be eliminated. For the team to transform and succeed we had to pass through the human stage of jostling and disagreeing a bit. These challenges made me feel quite lonely and excluded. Even although I understood, I struggled and felt like an outsider who didn’t belong.
Remember, there is no way to distract yourself there. You are stuck feeling what you feel: there is no cell reception, it's too hot to read or sleep, you can't eat or drink. So you feel! That was the hardest part for me. I realise how I avoid feeling the unpleasant emotions in my life, because I just get busy and distract myself, immaculately. You can't put human beings together under stressful conditions (and these were excessively stressful conditions) and not expect some interpersonal challenges. These were highly self-mastered women and so for the most part we did astonishingly well.
We sat one afternoon whiling away the time, miserable with the impossible heat and flies, waiting to see the volcano Erta Alle at dusk and in the dark, trying to chat and enjoy each other’s company. This was the 4th afternoon spent in this way, in a row and I just wanted to weep. I have no clue who else felt the desperation and the degree of it that I did, but it was a really low point for me. I had developed a weak left hand. I had no idea why. I couldn’t see a cause for the symptom and I was literally terrified of what this meant for me and my life. I couldn’t do anything with my hand and I couldn’t help running scenarios through my mind of what catastrophic pathology underpinned this. Somehow I could still cycle although with extreme difficulty, but I feared this ability to continue may not continue all the way to the end. In hindsight, it was possibly stress, but it was a nightmare in my state. I tried to share my experience with a few people, but in each case I received a blank stare in return for my news. I guess everyone was busy with their own fears and symptoms. As it happened within a few weeks of returning, my hand strength came back to normal. Thankfully!!
Seeing the volcano made it all worthwhile. What an amazing experience to encounter a place like that and to be there all alone with just our team and the marvel of nature. It's hard to find words to explain it, so I will just include a photograph for you to use to imagine it.
We descended the volcano that night back to base camp. Some girls were afraid of the damage the fumes from the volcano may do to their lungs and they wanted to descend as soon as possible. I wanted to sleep up there and experience the energy and the sounds overnight. We had rented camels to bring our mattresses and night bags up to the top and in a heartbeat, poor Mull’eh had to find more camels and get us back down. I felt we were behaving like spoilt brats by even asking.
Nevertheless, we returned to the base camp in a howling gale of hot wind at 1am. I was so tired I could barely get myself onto my mattress. Every time I turned my scarf under which I was sleeping, blew away and at times my mattress blew away too when I got off it to go to the “loo”. What a night! And we woke once more at dawn to get on our bikes for our last and longest day of riding. We had first to cycle down the volcano which was real mountain biking and great fun, but which hurt if you fell, because the rocks are hot and sharp! Then we had to do 40km through the desert to the edge of the Danakil.
We made it, we did it and never has a cold beer tasted so delicious or so wonderfully cold. We stopped for beer and lunch in a ‘restaurant”.
We left the restaurant with it's fans and cold water and beers, reluctantly and made our way to the “Riviera of Ethiopia”! The salt lake looks just like the ocean and has little beaches on it's shores. We swam and washed our bodies in the salty water. It was wonderful although it stung terribly on our scratched and cut legs. We washed and cleaned in the hot springs next to the lake as best we could without polluting the water with soap and shampoo.
That night we bought a slaughtered a goat and braaied the meat as we danced to Ethiopian music from broken speakers and felt like heroes. Our drivers, cooks and guide were as thrilled as we were and it was a celebration to remember. An adventure like no other and a life experience that changed us all forever.
What shocks me, whenever I think about the trip is that all the people we met are still there. We came, we looked and learnt and we left, back to our complex and comfortable lives. They stayed and they will continue to stay as they have for the last several hundred years. They stay, unchanged by us, although we were so changed by them. They remain unchanged by technology or the information age and in hundreds of ways, I think they have peace that few of us ever find. They live in the moment and they live at one with nature. They live with discipline and they live with faith. I returned home challenged and exhausted, confused and inspired. I still struggle to make sense of all that came up for me during my visit, but I keep finding new perceptions and deeper understandings which were my treasures I brought home. I stay in touch with Mull’eh and the deep respect that developed between us persists and I hope always will. I stay in touch with the WOAM girls and I dream of being included in a future mission. I just pray it will be slightly less exacting. I won’t hesitate to take my place on a future mission, should I be lucky enough to be invited again. At least I won’t be the stranger when I go!