The Danekil desert lies in the north east corner of the Afar region of Ethiopia on the border or Eritrea. It is an area of volcanos and stark beauty with unique archeological, geological and geographical interest. There is little rainfall here and the Awash river pours into the sandy expanse ending in a string of salt lakes. It lies on the junction of three tectonic plates and was formed when Asia and Africa moved away from each other. The Danekil depression is 100 m below sea level and is claimed to be the hottest place on earth with temperatures regularly reaching over 50C. No problems for Zululanders then, just another day in paradise! It is also claimed to be the site of the origin of hominids with the discovery in 1974 of the fossil remains of Lucy. She must have died of heat stroke!
We leave Addis and travel down the new express way , a toll road with new tar and a decent speed limit for once. Here, unique to all Ethiopia , anyone allowing animals to stray by the road will have them confiscated which is a strange reversal to elsewhere where drivers are fined for any livestock loss. Still it means we make good time for the first part of our journey which is a relief as this will be a long long day to our destination, a two day journey must be telescoped into one because of the delays in Addis. As the sun sets with glorious red and orange hues we are still bowling along. The landscape is now very bleak with little signs of habitation. 2 hours after sunset we wearily pull into a truck stop. At least that's what it looks like. It is however what passes for a hotel in this place. A field lined with parked trucks, we are after all on the main route to Eritrea. In the middle of the field is a long line of beds in a row, perhaps 50, with blue mosquito nets over each bed and a pillow and blanket.
Many are already occupied. We head for the office and secure 7 beds at the end of the row and join the weary truck drivers. The sheets are a bit dubious and the mosquito nets have holes big enough to fit your head through but we were tired and lying in a field looking at the stars while being serenaded by the snoring, giggling cacophony of strangers, dogs and working girls was priceless. I slept like a bomb, the others not so much! The ablutions were long drops serviced by a little old man who threw a bucket of water in after you. You needed to move smartish to avoid an unscheduled shower. He took a shine to me and opened up a little shower cubicle for me to use at the other side of the camp. What a sweety or maybe I looked very dirty indeed!
Breakfast was fresh and hot , egg and coffee and our third car carrying cooks, guide and driver joined us to continue the journey. During the course of the day we continued to collect guards with guns from random spots along the road until we were sandwiched into the cars bristling with rifles through every window. Clearly we were now reaching the serious stuff.
This is the land of the Afar people, a fearsome tribe living in this inhospitable region and not surprisingly renowned for their tough and fierce characters. The men wear a long sarong with a curved knife in the belt and the rumour has it they would use this to cut off the scrotum and penis of defeated enemies. The modern version also sports an AK 47 slung over his shoulder so clearly not someone to mess with. They run the salt mining in the Danekil , driving caravans of camels into the desert but more of that later.
We were scheduled for our first adventure, climbing Erta Ale, one of the active volcanos in the region. Carmen and I have decided on a camel for the journey as I for one would not be able to manage this on foot. We stop at the village to arrange the camels and camel drivers and pick up yet another armed guard before continuing on bone jarring roads to the base of the volcano at El Dom. The wind is baking hot making each breath unpleasant, burning your chest. The locals call the wind the Gara or fire wind. The landscape is bleak, stony and dry with mirages shimmering in the heat. Yep it's getting hot. For this reason the plan is to climb the volcano after sundown. It would be suicide to do it in the heat of day. There is not a scrap of shade anywhere. We wait patiently for the camels to arrive. They are walking from the previous village.
The chefs get to work and provide us with an evening meal. Pity it is too hot to eat. The entourage, and the rest of the village, enjoyed a happy feast however. Now I know why they needed so much food! Finally at 830 the camels are here and after an excruciatingly hot and exhausting day we set out to scale the volcano. Our caravan consists of 5 camels, 2 policemen, 2 scouts, 1 driver, 3 military okes, 5 camels herders and the 5 of us. Carmen and I are perched precariously on top of camels with saddles made of sticks lashed together with twine. Comfy it is not . Within 10 minutes I am wondering if this was a good idea. Within 30 I know it was not. It will take only 2 hours we are assured but it is nearly 1.00 am before we crest the top of the volcano. Numb with pain I am convinced my lady parts will never work again. The walkers are stoical but clearly exhausted. Next we must climb down a steep rocky slope about 80 m to the volcano crater and stumble forward. The rock gets hot under foot and we reach the rim of a crater of boiling larva. It is red hot, incandescent, erupting, bubbling and shifting , belching flame and sparks and mesmeric to watch. Tripods are set and cameras click furiously. I hope we get a good images. 2.00 am we crawl onto mattresses in a roofless hut under a magnificent canopy of stars and into exhausted slumber. 3 hours later we must wake to get down the mountain before the sun heats the day. The journey down is quicker, about 3 hours but when we tumble into camp we make short work of 20 L of water and the breakfast provided by the chefs. Bonus!
Nearly a Disaster
We move out after breakfast and a makeshift wash behind the hut. At least we feel clean and cool insulated from the baking heat by the air con and all the extra passengers in the car. One guard has taken a fancy to Vicky, our blonde amazon, and continually sings to her. Ian calls him Chirpy. He combs his hair and cleans his teeth while gazing longingly at Vicky. Most definitely unrequited. About 30 km down the track the boys decide on a short cut off road. It is soon clear they have no clue about off roading. The first car digs into soft sand and is stuck. The second car turns round to help although we scream for him to stop. He soon shares our fate and now both cars are dug in to the axles. There is no safety equipment, no jack, winch, rope, sand ladders or even a shovel. The phones have no signal. The sand is scorching hot and burns the hair on your legs when you walk out of the shade. We have 25 liters of water for 10 people and suddenly I can see us dying in the Danekil. Dudley and Ian climb out and take charge, dropping the tyre pressures and digging out the wheels while we search for sticks and stones to give traction. The heat makes movement unpleasant and soon we are all covered in dirt and sand and sweat. Chirpy sits under a bush cradling his rifle and singing softly! Digging is apparently not in his job description. With a bit more effort we free both cars and set off again giving the drivers directions to stay away from hazards and we eventually bump onto tar. We are back in our familiar place, dirty and hot! The rest of the day passes in a sleepy coma. As we travel we slowly shed armed guards and the crush in the vehicles is a bit better. We cross deserts and wind down mountain passes. The Chinese are busy building roads all over, apparently for the mining. The roads do not look like they will last long. There is a rock fall already on one open less then six months. There are many trucks and much dust. The driver has only had 2 hours sleep so we are a little worried. Oh for the resilience of youth!
We arrive at the village of Daloll just after dark. It is on the edge of the Denekil depression over looking the salt plains and our drivers have secured a kitchen, an animal shelter and a collection of outdoor beds and mattresses for us to use. There is one communal toilet in a broken down hut largely open to the elements. You really have to get tough or go home in this place. The village is a staging post for the camel trains winding in and out of the salt mines in the depression. It is rustic but from here we are within driving distance of the salt and sulphur mines, our next destination.
Yet another wonderful night under the stars and we are refreshed and ready to go. Chirpy slept in the animal shelter cradling his gun. He never puts it down so some training seems to have stuck! The cars roll out reinforced by another large group of military personnel. These guys look like they mean business, automatic rifles at the ready, eagle eyed 10000 yard stares and grim expressions. The sulphur mines and the volcano have been the site of previous tourist attacks. Apparently it is the Eritrean Afar that were responsible in cross border raids and now the military have a strong presence in both locations. Every time we stop the boys leap out of the car first and find themselves sniper vantage points until we reload to carry on. I feel like a filmstar.
The pans are amazing, white crystalline surface as far as the eye can see to the distant mountains and we see the salt caravans on the horizon. This is an area rich in mineral deposits and under the salt there are lakes of acid. Some areas the acid lakes sit on the surface, belching the bad eggs smell. We drive to the old sulphur mine and climb up to the top of a small mountain. The heat makes this an almost superhuman task and I take strain but it is worth the pain as the mine is laid out before us as a landscape of vivid yellows, brown, orange and ochre. Rock formations swirl and flow like an impressionist painting. Breathtaking. The surrounding rocky areas look like castles and turrets and there are caves and overhangs but it is too hot to explore.
We move onto the salt mine. In the middle of a vast open plain there are perhaps 100 camels and men sitting in the heat hewing salt blocks from the ground. They use small hand held axes and make perfectly symmetrical and equal blocks which are stacked ready for loading. The camels look on disdainfully . The men have walked for 2 days with their camels to get here and then spend 1-2 days mining and loading the salt before starting the trek home and to market. They get 15 birr per block and each camel carries 24. Not surprisingly they are bronzed and wiry specimens . They need to be tough to tolerate this heat. You can be forgiven for wondering why they have not mechanised with trucks and diggers but the acid lakes just below the surface will not take the weight of big trucks and if you fall through the crust there is no getting back. So the ages old tradition is safe, for now.
We return to the village and lie in the animal shelter. The heat is intense and insane. We lie on the beds, our clothes drenched with water from the nearby well where water is pumped from a subterranean river.
As the clothes dry your skin is on fire and the water must be added every 30 minutes or so. The evaporation is cooling and the only respite. As we lie there moaning you cannot help but think of the salt miners toiling on through the heat. Well that is if you can think at all as the heat scrambles your brain and sucks out all energy. Visions of showers and cool beers dance through your head but they are far away. The flies buzz but the effort to swat them is too much. The Gara wind springs up , like a blast from a furnace, whipping up small twirlies which carry spare mattresses tumbling over the road. We don't care and have no energy to go and fetch them.
So next day it is time to leave this amazing and challenging place. We return along the mountain track. In the light it is scenic with beautiful mountains and valleys and within 2 hours we are up in fertile valleys and fields. It is hard looking at this to believe that anyone chooses to live in the barren salt plains. We are now in Tigray which is the area renowned for rock hewn churches perched on cliffs The bee eaters and birds have returned to the landscape and we are firmly back into Copt