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Canyonlands of Africa: Ethiopia and Namibia

A Life's Work Left Unfinished?

Two decades ago I unknowingly embarked on the first comprehensive survey and documentary of the earth's most profound canyons. At the end of the 20th century many of the earth's greatest gorge systems remain mysterious and for the most part unexplored. These geographical regions were unique as they remained, in many cases, undeveloped, natural and cultural gardens, perhaps much like the mystical definition of Shangri-La. What was an obsessive passion for exploration developed into a global perspective resulting in the first comprehensive documentary of the major canyons on the six inhabited continents.

I was reflecting on an evening walk that I had had the great fortune to have explored all of the earth's deepest canyons. Since all of the top ten deepest canyons are in Asia and South America, I had never considered Africa as a candidate for this comparative survey. As I thought about it more deeply, I realized that not photographing the Canyonlands of Africa would leave a life's work unfinished. I had never had any interest in Africa as perhaps I had the modern American stereotypic view of the continent.

It occurred to me that I had been in plenty of what might be considered very dangerous regions in Mexico and South America, and that there was no reason for me not to test my skills learned in diverse canyon systems around the planet in Africa. Besides, every place that had been identified as "extremely dangerous" had turned out to be less dangerous than the park where I take my sunrise or sunset daily walks.

My first order of business was to head for the local library and look up what the geographical authorities had to say about the region. The first snag came when I found there was no comparative study or even specific insights into the Canyonlands of Africa available through the normal institutional media. There was a lot of talk about modern day explorers "risking their lives" in the tribal homelands of the Ethiopian backcountry. A lot was made about the elusive "shifta" who might shoot strangers on sight. Modern day explorers did not do much for me when looking for hard geographical information on African Canyonlands.

I then turned my attention to the historical accounts availabale in the local library and on line. Historically know as Abyssinia, Ethiopian history goes back to the earliest known humanoids that lived in the Afar region more than three million years ago. Named "Lucy" by her discoverers, Donald Johanson and Tom Gray, on November 30, 1974, she is known as Dinkenesh which means "thou are wondeful" by Ethiopians. Her bones now rest in the Ethiopian National Museum in Adis Abeba.

Ehiopia's next major entry on the world stage was in about 1000 BC when the Queen of Sheba had a state as well as personal liason with King Solomon which produced a lineage of rulers that came down to the modern era, it is said, as Haile Selassie who was proclaimed emporer in 1930.

The first capital of Ethiopia was in the northern region at Axum. The primary items of trade over time was ivory, gold, and slaves. Christianity was adopted as the official state religion in AD 330. The Christians conquered parts of Sudan, Yemen, and southern Arabia and remainded a great power throughout the known world until the expansion of the Islamic faith in AD 1100 or so. In about AD 1400 with the expansion of the Ottoman Empire, Ethiopian fortunes took a dramatic turn for the worse. Ethiopia was saved from collapse by the Portuguese in AD 1542. In AD 1865 the Ethiopians engaged in a major skurmish with the British Empire and in AD 1896 the Ethiopian King Menelik defeated the Italians.

In 1936 Mussolini over ran the country, but it was liberated in 1941 with the return of Haile Selassie as Emperor. In 1974 Haile Selassie was overthrown by junior military officers who set up a Communist regime with the help of Russian and Cuban troops.

In May 1995 Ethiopia's free and democratic elections were held. It has remained a healthy and vibrant democratic country from that time. Due to climate and population pressures, Ethiopia experiences periodic droughts and famines that cause a great deal of suffering for the people and the natural environment to this day.

I then came across some hilarious accounts by my good friend, Richard Bangs, concerning exploring the Ethiopian Canyonlands, especially the Blue Nile and Tekeze canyon gorges. Richard is so funny when faced with what might be considered the very real dangers posed by hippos and crocodiles. As any great explorer, his sense of humor could levitate the reader right offthe page into a fantasy land of adventure and misadventure. He also related that the Ethiopian people were some of the most civilized on the planet today as well as throughout history. Even more importantly, from my perspective as a photographer, he said that Ethiopian women rivaled the classic beauty of an Egyptian goddess. Since his books and published stories were notably lacking in even basic documentary photography, I felt I might be able to contribute to the human knowledge of these exotic and virtually unknown Canyonlands here in the USA. For anyone interested in modern Ethiopian canyonlands adventure, I highly recommend The Lost River by Richard Banks, available from Sierra Club Books 1999.

September 11, 2001 was a wake up call that if I was going to finish the first inventory of all the earth's grand canyons, I might have already lost the opportunity to go to Africa. At that point I had no idea where Africa's grand canyons were or that Ethiopia was a Christian country. It looked like the Afghan war of November 2001 was over by Christmas and perhaps I would get the chance I was looking for to explore northern Africa for canyons. I booked a trip with several friends for Ethiopia, but as the Middle East war flared up again in March of 2002, it ended up that I needed to do the trip solo in April of that year. I was very apprehensive as I flew into Adis Abeba in the middle of the night. I was met by Yohannes Assefa of Red Jackal Tours and my apprehensions were soon put to rest by his very professional guide services.

With Red Jackal bilingual tour guides, Asrat Solomon and Dereje Wondaferew we set off to explore the deepest sections of the Blue Nile Gorge and the Tekeze Gorge further north. Along the way I spotted some incredible red rock canyonlands near Mek'ele. This area was very much like Monument Valley in Arizona, USA. During this expedition I was able to cover most of the canyonlands which dominate the north central section of the Ethiopian Plateau.

I was joined by my friends, Gil, Troy, and Todd Gillenwater, on a followup expedition the following October. My first trip was in April, 2002 which is the dry season and the October rainy season trip was an incredible contrast in color. April was a stark, hot, and hazy desert expedition. The October trip was a voyage through an ocean of lush green mountain pasture lands and high desert chapparel.

The back country people of the Ethiopian Plateau and the northern Tingre desert provinces were exotic, friendly, and beautiful. The Amhara ethnic group were an African people that I had never imagined. They were extremely poor yet open to friendship at every opportunity. What surprised me was that while this area might be considered deeply impoverished, there were excellent hotel, meals, and transportation services available throughout the country.

For my canyon explorations, however, it was understanding geology of the Ethiopian Plateau that made the canyonlands come to life. The entire plateau is capped with a volcanic strata that is 3,000 to 6,000 feet thick. The highest point on the plateau is the Ras Dashen Peak which is approximately 4,620 meters (15,250 feet) above sea level, the second highest peak in Africa. This volcanic cap is made up of Early Tertiary Volcanics (2-66 million years old) which are consistantly made up of thick basaltic lava and ash flows. The Blue Nile and Tekeze rivers spill over water falls and treacherous class six rapids through these basaltic stratas. The basement rock is made up of relatively soft red Mesozoic (225 million years old) sandstones. Here the rivers widen and become much safer for white water navigation.

Near Mek'ele this sandstone strata emerges from the surrounding deserts into beautiful Monument Valley red rock cliffs topped by carved cave churches and Christian temples. It is very interesting to note that these cliffs look exactly like de Chelly sandstone which sits atop a terrace of oregon rock shale (permian 245-286 million years ago). This geology may perhaps be exactly the same type of geology stone islands found in Monument Valley, Arizona. The texture, coloring, and strata are essentially identical. It would be worth studying why such similar geology ocurs in an almost identical environment half a world apart.

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