The Danakil depression in Northern Ethiopia is one of the most geographically unique places in the world. Remote and truly hostile, the Danakil can lay claim to being one of the hottest and driest places on the planet, with daytime temperatures surpassing 50°C and less than an inch of rain falling in the region each year; it is also one of the lowest parts of Africa, and one of the most tectonically active, with steaming acid lakes, rivers of lava, and clouds of volcanic gases creating an almost extra-terrestrial environment. It is little wonder then, that the Danakil and its features have inspired such enigmatic nicknames as ‘The cruellest place on earth’ or ‘Gateway to Hell’.
As well as being geographically hostile, the vast 100,000km² of the Danakil Depression is also known for being politically unstable, hosting the long-contested border between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and being inhabited by the notorious Afar people, who come with a fearsome reputation for violence, kidnap, and a suspicion of outsiders. It is therefore understandable perhaps, that the region isn’t usually at the top of most peoples to visit list; however, I like to think that I don’t really fit into the ‘most people’ box, and so the Danakil had firmly been on my to visit list ever since I was a teenager, thanks to man with a beard and a knitted jumper.
Not much is known about this remote corner of North East Africa, with some areas still tantalisingly unexplored as the remoteness and hostility of the environment makes it almost impossible to travel through the area. Even with a full complement of off road vehicles, tools, food, and water, travel through the Danakil remains challenging, and is strictly monitored by various government agencies, with independent travel strongly advised against, after an incident in 2012 where five tourists were killed and two taken hostage by the Afar Revolutionary Democratic Unity Front (ARDUF).
Visiting the Danakil therefore, has become the preserve of organised tour groups, most of which were based in Mek’ele, which was our main reason for travelling there in the first place. Organised tour groups aren’t really my thing, but at times they are unavoidable, and this it seemed, was one of those times. Fortunately, there were plenty of companies vying for our trade, some slightly more dubious than others, and with tensions escalating between Ethiopia and Eritrea at the time of travelling, we thought it would be best to conduct some research before committing. After some worthwhile research, both online and in person, we settled on ETT (Ethio Travel and Tours) thanks their professionalism, relationship with the Afar people, and seriously helping us out acquiring US dollars (which had been a major problem for us). With the tour booked for the next day, there was very little for us to do than send a few emails, drink copious amounts of coffee and avocado juice, and get an early night ready for our expedition to begin in the morning.
The next day, the ETT office was a hive of activity despite the early hour, with around 20 people milling around waiting for various tours. Most people it turned out, were taking an ETT minibus to Lalibela to see the stone churches (Perhaps they were John Barnes fans), I had a flashback to our arduous journey getting from Lalibela to Mek’ele and was glad I wasn’t repeating it, private minibus or otherwise. Behind the clean, modern looking minibus were four dusty land cruisers being loaded up with an impressive amount of gear: fuel, water, tools, spare tyres, engine parts, they certainly looked the part, and it was clear that these vehicles were being prepared for quite a journey. We correctly assumed that these were heading our way, and jumped in a land cruiser at random.
Also in the land cruiser was Derick, a fellow Brit, who kept us entertained with his excellent travelling stories as we pulled out of Mek’ele and began to crawl up the never-ending switchbacks into the highlands surrounding the sleepy town. Derick was one of those characters you meet on the road who is an utter inspiration, and his stories of driving from London to India in the 1960s with lengthy stays in Afghanistan and Iran along the way, were so captivating that we barely noticed that two hours had passed by the time we stopped in a small dusty town for the compulsory Ethiopian Coffee and a leg stretch. The main reason for stopping was for our driver to acquire the appropriate paperwork before we could continue – from this point in we would be heading into the highlands proper.
The highlands were stunning, the sinuous road curved effortlessly upwards, and as we drove along it, the land below us dropped away dramatically revealing huge vistas showing the steep valley sides, plummeting down to the dry river bed below, the cause of this geological drama. The colours of the chalky rocks went from orange, through yellow, and almost pink, all criss-crossed by thick bands of black and grey volcanic rock, like a giant, indecipherable cave painting. We stopped at the pinnacle of the pass over the mountains at a height of 2400m in a thin mist, and looked down towards the sand coloured, featureless plains we were heading for; this is where the Danakil is said to start, and it was a bit of a frontier moment, from here there would be no turning back. We mounted our land cruisers once more, and began to freewheel down towards sea level, and below.
The air began to get drier and dustier, and the temperature rose alarmingly fast. Evidence of human habitation began to dwindle, with the exception of the almost perfect strip of tarmac we were driving along. Completely devoid of traffic other than our small convoy, and seemingly completed only yesterday, the drivers were having a great time racing each other around the bends. After a couple of hours, a dusty collection of houses came into view flanked by a mighty concrete bridge; we crossed the impressive structure, and circled round and down onto the barren river bed below. The width of the river bed, and the size and stature of the bridge suggested that during the rainy season this place is awash with water tumbling down from the mountains we had just descended, but currently the only evidence of moisture were the small trails of urine flowing from the bridge’s uprights now being used as a public toilet by a group of young boys who had chased the land cruisers over the bridge on their bicycles.
Without forward momentum and an open window, the land cruisers instantly became unbearably hot, and the lure of the shade afforded by the ramshackle shelters we had parked next to lured us into their cool embrace. We were told this is where we would be sitting out the heat of the day, and so took the opportunity to relax, rehydrate, and eat delicious plates of rice and eggs. The atmosphere was jovial, and we were well looked after, but there was no disguising the fact that this was a tough place to eke out an existence; resources were clearly difficult to come by, particularly in the dry season, and the plastic sheeting being utilised as a roof was emblazoned with the logo of the UN Refugee Agency, laying testament to the region’s challenging past.
Back on the road we drove for another hour through an increasingly flattening landscape. With the limited topography and heat haze it was difficult to gain a sense of perspective, and we continued to tick off the miles in an almost dream like state, until the wonderfully smooth road ran out; it just simply ceased to exist. Our convoy parked up at the end of the road as if we had arrived somewhere, but as I looked around I was struggling to see where. At the point where the road ran out were a dozen or so small shacks made from the now familiar sun bleached, sand blasted wooden sticks, roofed with a combination of plastic sheeting and corrugated metal. The only other structures in the area were a communication mast, an aging potash mining facility, and a squat concrete barracks, which combined made up the Afar settlement of Hamede Ela.
Getting out of the land cruiser and looking around, this little settlement really felt like the end of the world, or an oppressive post-apocalyptic wasteland, and I felt for the soldiers sitting in the shade of the barracks who had to serve out their military service here. As if to confirm that this was indeed the end of the world, if you looked east towards the horizon, all you could see was a flat, featureless expanse of glorious white, shimmering in the sun, like a portal to another dimension.
This shimmering portal turned out to be Lake Karum (also known as Lake Assale), one of the salt flats at the centre of the Afar region’s salt trade, and the first stop of our tour. Something that shiny and geographically significant can’t not be explored, so we jumped back in the land cruisers for the final time that day, and headed off road towards the lucrative salt deposits left behind by the rapid evaporation of this unlikely placed lake. As we neared the lake, we passed long camel caravans looked after by two or three Afar men who treated our land cruisers with suspicion as we drove past. The caravans were either returning to the salt mines to pick up more valuable raw material, or fully laden with salt blocks heading west towards the Afar town of Berhale, and eventually Mek’ele, a seven-day journey by camel to sell their product, which has been going on for time immemorial. Our driver informed us that each camel in this area is worth $1000, and with some of these caravans being 20 camels long, salt appeared to be a serious business.
The lake didn’t seem to be getting any closer, and the only clue that we had arrived was the change of sound under the land cruisers; instead of the smooth swoosh of the sand, all we could now hear was the audible crunch of driving over salt crystals. We stopped at the shore of the lake and took our shoes off for a paddle. It wasn’t unlike walking around on a thin sheet of ice breaking under each footstep with a satisfying crunch. The salt crystals themselves were beautifully cuboid in shape, and glistened in the light making sunglasses a necessity. I can also confirm that they are incredibly salty (I know you were wondering). Sharp at times, but not painfully so, it was nice to have my feet out of my boots after hours in a sweaty land cruiser. The view went on for miles, and played mischief with perspective, especially as the ankle-deep water acted like a colossal mirror reflecting the sky perfectly all the way to the horizon. We spent an hour mesmerised by the features and shapes created by the crystals, the whole lake seemed to be alive, with any rocks or logs being engulfed by crystals like moss covers a forest floor. The scale of the lake was difficult to comprehend, and even a leisurely amble across the thin salty crust could result in you travelling much further than you thought.
Back at the convoy, the tunes were blaring out of the land cruiser with the largest sound system, and the drivers were enjoying having made it this far. We were handed a plastic cup and given the choice of ouzo, or potent Ethiopian honey wine with which to celebrate our arrival and to start the sunset party, neither of which were particularly appealing. The soldiers from the barracks had come over to say hello and were joining in with the festivities, there can’t be too much to do here for a soldier other than waiting for Eritrean insurgents who will likely never come, so I think we provided a welcome distraction. They didn’t seem to be on particularly high alert, which allayed some fears as to the security situation, and I started chatting to them trying to imagine what it must be like to be stationed here for up to a year at a time. It was all going well, and we were laughing and joking until I asked how many people were stationed at the barracks – the tone changed immediately, and the highest-ranking soldier, who had previously taken a liking to me thanks to our similar choice of sunglasses, looked at me sternly and explained in no uncertain terms that this was a “banned question”. After that I felt it was probably best I didn’t ask any more questions, so left pretty sharpish before I could be accused of being an Eritrean spy.
The singing and dancing continued with one of the drivers showing a particular aptitude for intricate dance moves, which despite trying no one could complete with. Unfortunately, the sunset wasn’t that impressive, which genuinely seemed to annoy some of the group as if by paying money, they should have the right to control nature. By the time we got back to Hamede Ela it was already dark, so we hastily set up our wooden bed frames out of the strengthening wind, and dined on delicious vegetarian food before following our new camo clad companions for a drink at the military bar, the only entertainment for literally hundreds of miles with more than a hint of a wild west saloon.
The wind was up by the time we returned to our beds, and there was a chilled edge to the air, but not enough to warrant any more than a thin blanket. The night sky was a deep inky blue, and without any light pollution, the stars were out in full force; I had an uninterrupted view of this astronomical beauty from horizon to horizon and I was quite literally star struck. A simple wooden bed frame out in the open, with no shower, and drunk soldier karaoke as your evening soundtrack might not be the five star experience some people crave, but I wouldn’t have traded it for the most luxurious hotel in the world; I was exactly where I wanted to be, and I fell asleep grinning, excitedly contemplating what I might see in this beautiful, remote, and fascinating corner of the world.