The Wandering Scot

An occasional travel journal.

And you thought your job was tough…

The Danakil depression in Eastern Ethiopia is one of the lowest and hottest points in all of Africa. It’s at -127 meters and is dry, HOT, and salty. For centuries, the locals have mined the hot salt flats and exported blocks of salt to the farmers in the cool, green, Ethiopian highlands.

They still do it as they always have, entirely by hand. The salt blocks are cut out with wedges and axes and then finished with hand chisels. They are loaded onto camel caravans and shipped off to the farmers.

The miners work 8 hours a day, 6 days a week, 10 months a year. Did I mention it was hot?

The camels can survive the ten day round trip without water, but they need fodder. So they wisely bring giant bales of hay down from the highlands and stage half of it along the way, to eat on the return journey.

The 5kg salt blocks sell for 5 Birr (20 cents) in Danikil and 25 Birr ($1) in the highlands. There was an attempt to use trucks to move the salt, but the local leaders in the Danikil blocked it, as they think their community makes more money servicing the camel caravans.

Seeing the miners at work and the camel caravans was extremely striking. This felt like an unexpected glimpse into a very different world.

Camels coming down from the highlands, carrying hay.

Erte Ale: A Lava River

 

I trekked up Ethiopia’s Erte Ale volcano to admire its fine lava.  Formerly there was a lava lake at the summit, but this was disrupted in the January 2017 eruption and the lake drained away. However, it has been replaced by a fresh flow of lava being forced up from below. This lava flows across the crater and then plunges down into a subterranean passage, most likely heading down to the new lower crater.

The lava definitely isn’t “oozing” – it is flowing rapidly like water, with maybe 5 – 10 meters/second flow, with stripes of grey mixing with bright red on the surface and with turbulent eddying, splashing and sloshing at the exit. You get to see the flow through a wide fissure near the floor of the crater, perhaps 50 to 100 meters below. There is a good clear view and it is quite remarkably good fun to sit and watch.


A lot of the fun comes from seeing the turbulent flow, so here are a couple of very short video loops of the lava river in action:




 

It was really fun to sit and watch!

I visited on a private tour with Magma Flow Tours who did a really great job of looking after me and guiding me around both Erte Ale and the Danakil. I strongly recommend them!

Greetings from Myanmar, land of giant golden stupas.

I came in overland from Thailand through Mawlamyine, where there is an ancient stupa visited by Kipling and referenced in his poem Mandalay:  “By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ eastward to the sea …”

Neither the temple nor Mawlamyine/Moulmein seem to have changed much since then.

Here in Yangon (Rangoon), I visited the giant Shwedagon Paya complex, which has a 326 ft tall central golden stupa. It sits atop a hill, looking like a great golden mountain from afar, aglow in the early morning sun. It is truly a wonder to behold! Stupendous!

According to the temple authorities, backed up by photos, the very topmost tip of the Shwedagon Paya stupa has various golden ornaments and gems, topped by a 76 carat diamond. If I put a gem like that so high up, I’d be very nervous of magpies…

Tomorrow I’m off on the road to Mandalay and then to Bagan, for many more stupas!

A Bridge on the River Kwai

A quick “Hi” from a Bridge on the River Kwai. Yes, there really is such a place and it is a (mostly) authentic relic of the Death Railway.

The book/movie “The Bridge on the River Kwai” was satirical fiction and the wooden bridge they showed never actually existed. But a steel bridge was built in roughly the right area as part of the Death Railway and after the success of the movie the ever-helpful Thai authorities applied their creative geography skills to stretch the definition of the River Kwai a little to cover it.  The central section was destroyed by allied bombing but repaired after the war, otherwise it’s the original forced labor bridge.

 

For a small fee I was able to ride a train across the bridge and along a section of the Death Railway.  It was a scenic but slightly spooky trip.

Carcassonne: Medieval Walls

I’m enjoying the historic medieval French city of Carcassonne.  It is perfectly formed, with magnificent double curtain walls, a grand fortress, tall round towers with spiky roofs, portcullis gates, the works.  It is very cool!

Note that this is not like one of those recent Chinese “restorations” of Ancient City Walls.  Mais non!  This is an authentic 19th c French restoration!  By an eminent architect who had a very clear vision of what a medieval walled city ought to look like and spared no expense to implement it!

Alas, some pettifogging historians objected to some of the details, and so in the 1960s some of the towers got re-restored with more plausible battlements and flattish tile roofs.  But most of that wonderful 19th c. vision is still intact.

Kidding aside, the bases of the walls and most of the castle made it into the 19th c, so the restorative creativity was mostly around the battlements and the roofs.  The core structure is real.  And it is seriously impressive!

The Restored Castle
The 1960’s Re-Restoration

Idaho: The Black Sun

The Black Sun

I was in Idaho Falls for the 2017 US Total Eclipse.  The local authorities had been unsure what to expect: hotels had sold out far in advance and there were fears of a vast insurge of eclipse watchers up Interstate 15 from Salt Lake City.  So Starbucks and the local police had all hands on duty.

I had paid a premium price for a hotel room within totality, but  I strolled a couple of miles further away from the Interstate to a quiet park in order to have a relaxed view of the great event.  Like others, I was struck by the abrupt change from the almost-normal daylight provided by a tiny sliver of visible sun, to sudden dusk-like totality.  And the sight of the Black Sun in the sky was extremely cool.

As predicted, totality was accompanied by loud noise from the local wildlife, in this case in the shape of much loud “Yay”ing from young primates.   But contrary to the fears of the local authorities, there were no giant traffic jams, cell phone outages, or mass cannibalism. Alas.

The Eclipse Watching Hordes