Saturday, October 21, 2017

Visit to the Hottest Place on Earth

Locals call it the "Gateway to Hell."

This barren, inhospitable landscape named Dallol is located in the Afar region of northern Ethiopia near the Eritrean border. It's one of the world's most geologically active areas.

Earthquakes, volcanoes, lava lakes, and bubbling sulphur springs are the norm.

It's also the hottest place on Earth. The average annual temperature is almost 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius),

and the average daily high temperature soars to 106º F (41º C).

Mother Nature offers little relief. Rainfall is rare, and the "Afar Wind" is characterized as a boiling breeze that leaves one's skin feeling as if it's on fire. Stepping out of an air-conditioned vehicle is truly like stepping into a furnace.

The otherworldly colors are caused by hot, liquid sulphur mixing with iron oxides, copper salts, and other minerals.

The acid lakes are as deadly as they are beautiful.

Dallol is part of the larger 124 by 31-mile Danakil Depression, an area 410 feet below sea level (125 meters). The extreme geological activity is because the depression lies at the junction of three tectonic plates, which are violently tearing apart the land from the rest of Africa. Millions of years from now the Red Sea will once again engulf Danakil and create a new ocean.

After an additional, multi-hour, 4 x 4 journey through

the unforgiving, desert depression,

another natural marvel awaits – the Erta Ale volcano.

The daytime heat is far to intense for the three-plus hours hike to the top of the volcano, meaning visitors depart after dark, arriving at the summit shortly before midnight.

This is what lies inside the continuously active volcano ...

Erta Ale contains just one of five lava lakes on the planet.

In addition to battling the intense heat, visitors must avoid the poisonous sulphuric fumes rising menacingly

from the crater.

Even though there's always the fear the volcano could erupt again at any moment, it's nearly impossible to walk away from the hypnotic spectacle.

After a couple of hours sleeping under the stars, it's time to descend before the harsh sun rises again the next day.

It's hard to imagine anyone living in the Danakil Depression, a sight National Geographic once described as the "cruelest place on Earth."

However, the nomadic Afar people have been crisscrossing this desert for centuries, seeking to eke out a living through the salt trade.

It normally takes the caravans at least a week to arrive ...

at these salt flats.

Miners first pry the salt free.

Then cut it into large slabs ...

before shaving it into uniform blocks set for market.

For such backbreaking work, a miner, on a good day, could expect to earn a little over seven dollars, which isn't bad considering some laborers survive on about one dollar a day.

The blocks are then loaded onto the camels for the arduous return trek.

The Danakil Depression would be a highlight for even the most adventurous of travelers, but keep in mind it's a remote, hard-to-reach region; lodging facilities are nonexistent, so sleeping is done under the stars and toilets entail squatting behind rocks or sand dunes; and there are some dicey security issues.

The border with Eritrea is always politically volatile. Back in 2012, terrorists kidnapped four tourists and killed five others. Now, solo traveling is outlawed, and all groups must be accompanied by armed guards.

Still, it's not often one gets to stare into the mouth of an active volcano or visit the hottest place in the world.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Zimbabwe: World's Worst Service

We've all suffered through poor customer service – being put on hold on the telephone for hours, rude clerks seemingly having little to no interest in our business, field technicians who may or may not ever show up at our homes.

However, nothing compares to the ineptitude of customer service in Zimbabwe, where futility is often measured in weeks not hours.

Two days ago, my power went out and is still out.  Electrical outages are certainly nothing new in Zimbabwe, a country characterized by an abysmal infrastructure and an ever-deteriorating economy, but after more than a day in the dark, it seemed like the right time to contact the electric company.

The phone attendant had obviously fielded dozens of complaints by the time I got around to making a call because when I shared my address he immediately said, "Your power is out because someone stole the oil out of the transformer."

What? I must have misunderstood.

"Excuse me," I replied. "What do you mean someone stole the oil out of the transformer?"

He said it again. "Someone took the oil," without offering up any additional explanation, seemingly implying everyone is familiar with transformer-oil thieves.

I couldn't resist.

"When do you think the oil will be put back into the transformer?" I asked, assuming it would be a matter of a few hours. "Give us at least five days," said the clerk.

Had I been back in America, my blood pressure might have already spiked 20 points and the phone been sent sailing through the window, but this is Zimbabwe, where patience is a necessity, not a virtue.

"O.K.," I said dejectedly, as I hung up

Disappearing transformer oil is a new one on me. I had to get an explanation. I went to a trusted source, Shadreck, my gardener who is correct much more often than not when it comes to understanding how the community works.

Shadreck smiled, informing me that transformer-related theft is fairly common. The crooks take everything from copper windings, to oil, to nuts and bolts, hoping to resell the items on the black market in a country always facing a shortage of spare parts. I've since read that some clean transformer oil has even been traced to restaurants where it's used to fry food because of the high-burn point.

When I told Shadreck it might take five days for the transformer to be fixed, he just laughed. "It will probably be two to three weeks," he said.

Our conversation brought back memories of last year when I called Zimbabwe's national airline to confirm an upcoming flight.

"Our computers are down," said the operator. "You'll have to call back later."

I asked her when, expecting to hear later that afternoon. "Try in two weeks," she replied.

You might wonder why I tolerate such appalling service. The answer is simple. Zimbabwe is constantly teetering on the brink of disaster – dealing with 90% unemployment, almost non-existent industry, drought, political persecution, and disease. Why get upset when there's so many other pressing issues no one is willing or able to solve.

That's Zimbabwe, and in many respects, Africa. Yet, somehow, life continues rolling along, despite the daily obstacles.

And so as I approach the third day without electricity I remain optimistic it will eventually come back on, hoping my transformer oil isn't be used right now to cook french fries.