The Afar desert

Is said to be the hottest place on Earth

The Afar Rift

Is said to be one of the few places on Earth

Where we can witness plate divergence


How does the hot, molten rock migrate and evolve

As it rises towards the surface?

How does the surface of the Earth react

As it is thinned and split apart?

How is the magma intruded into this thin crust

To form the beginnings of a new ocean?


The continental crust is cracking open

The horn of Africa will fall away

Creating an island in the Indian Ocean

Splitting the African continent in two

The sea will flood in


All this will take about ten million years.




Tigray, the cracked desolate landscape of the far north

The site of a once Biblical famine

The closest thing to hell on earth


Now, in a valley, across the plains, summoned by horns

They use picks shovels iron bars bare hands to tame the desert

They build terraces

They force water to seep into the soil

In flash flood canyons they build dams

They terrace entire mountains


Community leaders barking orders into mobile phones


Now, families reap three harvests a year

Now, malachite kingfishers live in the desert

Now, people want electricity


Not godforsaken, not now, not then.




One of the great, extraordinary landscapes of the world

High uplands with tremendous ravines

That plummet for thousands of feet


You’re compelled to stay in designated campsites

This did not appeal to the Johnnie Walkers one iota

We just want to trek and camp on our own.


We encountered rain, hail and snow

Which in November is considered to be extraordinary

And very unlucky.




Addis is a city of skyscrapers, surrounded by poverty

Three, four, even five dual lane roads

Crossing each other at different angles

No traffic lights, no stop signs

All the cars driving to the intersection at the same time

Yet the cars continue to move

I simply don’t understand it

I can see no logical structure.




Crazy grey mountains

Huge blue lakes flashing like mirrors in the sun

Vast rigid squares of plastic sheeting


Subsistence farming

A step-by-step approach, communal

Dependent on rain, prayers and aid


Flower farms

Yielding more than fifty per cent of export earnings

Dependent on complex chains of production and transport


The water table is going down

Everyone says

The priority now is water


How will the flower farm coexist with agriculture

That is done by hand

And dependent on rain?




When we get more money we rent more land

And we send our children to school

Investing in land is safe

A house is an asset

And from cattle you get money for milk.




We started to discuss common issues

We started to invest in sheep, goats and cows

We started to learn to read and write

Our life is not comparable with the old days

It is the difference between earth and sky


Some men had three or four wives

The oldest was abandoned

And had to go on working

Female genital mutilation was common

Now, it is almost stopped

There is still dominance of men

But polygamy is rare, now.




Every village had a church, with trees around it


It was 1980 and I was 24

The first foreigner to go into rebel-held areas of northern Ethiopia

I went under the protection of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front

And travelled with foot soldiers for three months


I walked into one village and they ran away from me

They had never seen a white person

People were running up the hillside to get away


They lived in circular houses with straw rooftops

Where there was no electricity they used oil lamps

They lived off the land, using oxen and wooden ploughs

And walked long distances to get water from the streams


I hooked up with the TPLF band at one point

I played to a crowd of three thousand in an open-air auditorium

They pressed money into my clothes to show appreciation


The land hadn’t seen rain for a long time.




Pizza places and ice cream parlours

Locals sipping on macchiato

Injera, huge sour pancakes made from teff wheat

Eating with their hands, feeding each other

The ancient sound of music, spellbinding

High emotive pitches, beautiful Ethiopian women

The talk of young men in a chat house

Reminiscing over the glorious past

Water and electricity coming and going

The enormous dust bowl that is Addis

Ethiopia was never colonised by European settlers

Everyone in Addis knows this.




I led a documentary film crew into Ethiopia in 1984

Media reporting, Band Aid, Live Aid

I was a guest at the independence celebrations in 1991

I went back in 1994 and had dinner with Meles Zenawi

All he wanted to talk about was the old days


In 1991, the story goes

Donors with embassies in Addis started to flee

So Meles Zenawi went to the airport

He stood in the airport giving a speech

They stood there with their bags ready to leave

Ready to get onto the plane

Only twenty per cent of them actually left

The other eighty per cent turned around, came back


He was that persuasive

He was that good

He was an extremely clever guy


Tigrayans, Amharas and Oromos

They have dominated politics in the country since forever

Since the time of Solomon.




Most of Ethiopia is at altitude

The border with Somalia is extremely low-lying

It may be the hottest place on Earth


The people are pretty poor

But they’re a nice, open people

Very proud of their country


If you go to the former Imperial palace

You’ll see a picture of Haile Selassie and his retinue

Accompanied by James Bagge’s father


They have no colonial history to talk of

The Italians were only there for a few years

What they did do was leave some quite good architecture behind


Addis Ababa is quite a nice city

It’s at height so you get a beautiful clear sky

We loved it.




Addis used to feel like a timeless city

People walked slowly as if on a long stroll

Now, they march the streets

With speed and urgency


Hammering, grinding and showers

Of glittering acetylene sparks

Proclaim the arrival of armies of Chinese workers

And the rise of mighty steel and glass constructions.




Ethiopia is slow to move

It has to step up the game

Keep up with the pace of change

It’s insular

It’s over regulated

It could be a powerhouse in the region

A global player

There are hydropower and geothermal resources

There is the consumer base that consumer-related industries seek

There are natural water reserves—the lakes

There is agriculture, flowers, fruit, vegetables

There are secondary markets outside of resources

There is telecoms, technology coming onstream

Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda

Freedom of movement of people

Freedom of movement of jobs

African countries are almost leapfrogging ahead

Ethiopia is slow to move.




Sylvia Pankhurst is buried in Ethiopia

The ashes of Bob Marley were brought to Ethiopia

And tourists flock to the rock churches at Lalibela

It is true

There is a church that is guarded by priests

They won’t let anybody in

Nobody at all

Under any circumstances

And that is supposedly the site of the Holy Grail.




The monastery at Debre Damo has stood for 900 years

High among the vast Tigrayan mountains

There are carvings of birds and animals

There are deep sunken pools

Dug over the centuries by the monks

To hold the rain water


Ethiopia is old


Ask any passing Ethiopian

What is the story of Ethiopia:

It begins with the visit of the Queen of Sheba

To King Solomon

Who tricked her into sleeping with him

And their child was King Menelik I

The founder of Ethiopia

And King Solomon, as a parting gift,

Gave the Ark of the Covenant to the Queen


You will be told this as simply

As if it were yesterday’s weather.



More than three million years ago

Our hole in the ground

The Afar Rift.



With thanks to: British Geological Survey; Chris Haslam, BBC Radio 4, From Our Own Correspondent, 2015; Owen Jonathan, the Johnnie Walkers hiking group; Rob Otty; Richard Dowden, Royal African Society, RAS blog 2014, 2012, African Arguments 2013; Jon Bennett, Oxford Development Consultants; Nick Parish