Freelance photographer, Jon Collins, has traveled to more than 20 of the world’s countries, many of them not yet popular spots on the traditional tourist trail. Here, Jon shares reflections from his time in the Horn of Africa, where he journeyed from Ethiopia to Somaliland, to Djibouti, and to parts of Sudan, and tells us why we should add that part of the globe to our own bucket lists.
You recently spent 18 months traveling through Asia and Africa. What inspired your journey and how did you determine your route?
The journey was three years in the making. I had no route in mind, just a desire to experience and document something other than the ordinary. I’ve always been inspired by photographers like Steve McCurry, Stephanie Sinclair and George Steinmetz to capture my own experience with the world. I found a cheap flight from Sydney to Sumatra, and from there the route was very fluid (and changed often) in order to include places I had always wanted to see. Along the way, I met other travelers who recommended countries that I hadn’t previously thought to visit, such as China (where I spent 2.5 months) and Ethiopia (1 month), which to this day are my two favorite countries. Most important was that I traveled slowly and locally so that I was able to have ample time in each country, sustain my budget, and connect with people.
The Horn of Africa is not as popular a place for independent travelers as, say, Asia or Europe. Why, in your opinion, is that? Why should more people venture to the area?
There is definitely a preconceived notion of the Horn as being associated with what we see in the media: famine, war, drought, inequalities, and danger. While these issues are all undoubtedly present and very real, the people have formed a strong and resilient culture which is unlike anywhere else I have been. The Horn of Africa not only has historical sites and an unrivaled beauty of deserts, mountains and seas, but the region also hosts the most accommodating people, a unique cuisine, and fascinating cultures that vary from country to country. It is much more accessible than people perceive it to be, and offers the traveler an incredibly deep, rich and unique experience.
What were some of the similarities and differences that you observed between countries in the Horn?
The differences between countries are apparent the moment you cross any border. Ethiopia, which serves as a melting pot of sorts at the center of the Horn, is one of only two countries in Africa that was not successfully colonized and, therefore, has its own unique feel in which Orthodox Christianity and Islam collide and a hipster macchiato culture thrives. Heading north to Sudan, the mountain highlands turn to the Sahara and the Middle Eastern influence is more obvious: marketplaces sell spices and freshly fried taamiya (falafel), men wear white jalabiya gowns, and the people’s skin and eyes get lighter. Similarly, as you cross to the western desert towards the Gulf of Aden, Orthodox churches switch to a realm where the Call to Prayer echoes from the minaret of mosques, women are adorned in niqabs, shadows are cast by French or British colonial buildings, and container ships line the horizon. Each country has its own unique vibe.
“Just because an area is less known for its ability to accommodate travelers does not mean that travel is impossible.”
The greatest similarities between countries is best explained by the story of Lucy, a skeleton found in Ethiopia dating back to 3.2 million years ago; one of the oldest humans to be recorded in existence. The rich, ancient history of the Horn is undeniably noticeable in the everyday. It enables traditions to continue even in a modern world that is forever changing, whether that be through a Tigrayan hairstyle, a tribal ceremony, 7000 year old Somali cave drawings, the preserved walls of a 12th Century church, or the dependency on livestock for survival. People in the Horn have historically faced an array of complex socioeconomic and political hardships that persist in the present. When I first saw the title ‘Lucy Welcomes You Home’ outside the national museum of Ethiopia, I saw immediately how well it captured the human spirit that unites the people in the Horn. Through triumph and tribulation, the culture cannot be broken as it is, after all, where the human spirit historically began.
What was your primary mode of transportation between towns, cities and countries?
Transportation across all of Africa is very bittersweet, and in the Horn even more so. Due to issues of underdevelopment, transport infrastructure is challenging and you often have to find crazy, bizarre ways of getting from point A to point B. It may involve fitting 30 people in a 12 seated mini-van, holding someone’s baby or live chickens on a bus, or sitting in the back of a pick-up truck to cross the border between countries. The trick is to take anything you know about distance or time in any other part of the world, scrap it, and join a system which doesn’t really make sense.
In Ethiopia, 200km journeys take up to 10 hours due to frequent stopping and mountain passes. In Somaliland, a five seat-car will take eight people. In Djibouti, a jeep will stop at 3AM in the middle of the desert so everyone can sleep. In Sudan, orange scented air-freshener is sprayed into the A/C vent of a bus to reduce the smell of dust. It is frustrating and hilarious to say the very least, but it is an excellent opportunity to strike up a conversation with the people sitting in the seats next to you. They deal with this transport system every day and, in true African style, remain incredibly patient and relaxed.
What were some of your favorite local foods or meals?
The Horn is the Holy Grail for food in Africa and offers fare that is completely different from what you often find in the rest of the continent. The main staple is teff flour, a grain used to make a flat and often sour pancake called injera, laxoox or canjeero, depending on the country. In Somaliland and Djibouti, this is served with sugar and tea for breakfast, but for Ethiopians it provides the base for every meal, almost like an edible plate. Wednesdays and Fridays are fasting days and easily the best days to eat bayenetu, a mix of around ten curries, stews and vegetables on a bed of injera. Using your hand, you peel a piece off and scoop up a mixture of the items; it’s vegetarian heaven. Not for the fainthearted is the meal of kitfo; a bowl of spiced raw beef that I would recommend only eating if you have an Ethiopian friend to show you the right restaurants to go.
The coffee plant originated in Ethiopia so it’s no surprise you’ll also be sipping countless macchiatos or full-strength cups during the traditional coffee ceremonies that are common when meeting local people. Crossing to Sudan, you say goodbye to sour injera and coffee and transition into the Middle Eastern inspired charcoaled meats, oven-baked flatbreads, milky chai, fresh dates, and taamiya sandwiches. With a vendor on every street corner across the Horn, it is impossible to resist.
What are 3 destinations that travelers to the area must make a point to see?
1. Danakil Depression (Ethiopia): The closest you’ll get to Mars without leaving the Earth. The area boasts salt lakes, bubbling vents of sulphur, desert tribes, and camel caravans. It is also the only place where you sleep on the top of an active volcano.
2. The Rock Churches of Lalibela (Ethiopia): A chain of 12th Century churches carved from stone and connected via dark tunnelways and passages. Attending a Sunday mass at 5AM is absolutely essential to understand the importance of this pilgrim site to the Orthodox faith.
3. Pyramids of Meroe and the Kassala Mountain Range (Sudan): A group of crumbling pyramids covered in apricot sand dunes. They are much smaller than those in Egypt, but with not a single other person in sight. This is also the beauty of Kassala, a city composed of beautifully dressed tribes, interesting markets and an incredible backdrop of oddly shaped mountains which receives almost no tourists.
What tips or recommendations can you share for individuals who hope to travel to the area independently?
The general rule across all of Africa is that if locals can get somewhere, so can you. It might take you six times as long and it might seem like a completely convoluted way of traveling, but it always works out. I remember when I first told a travel specialist that I was planning to backpack in Africa for seven months. She laughed and asked: ‘Is that even possible?’ Just because an area is less known for its ability to accommodate travelers does not mean that travel is impossible. Just go with the flow. Sit in the shade of a tree, buy a bag of peanuts, and be patient. Then, the real adventure unfolds.
Always carry USD, eat with your hand (it tastes better), dress conservatively, be sensitive when taking photos, and make an effort to learn a little of the local languages because often, people only speak Amharic, Arabic, French, Somali, or another local dialect. Most importantly, don’t put up a barrier; be open to getting to know the people. In countries like Somaliland, locals are curious to see a traveler wander down the street. Their offer to buy you tea or a meal is usually to learn as much from you as you do from them. Even if English isn’t spoken, the exchange is beautiful and so rarely found in today’s globalized world.