Waking up in an empty, flat desert is slightly disconcerting. After brushing the accumulated sand out of my hair thanks to last night’s breeze, I donned my sunglasses to avoid the glare of Lake Karum and tried to get my bearings. Despite their late night, the soldiers were up and about loading the land cruisers ready for another day of exploring this vast desert.
Leaving the tiny settlement of Hamede Ela behind us, we drove out across the shallow lake, and the scene from the window was one of complete featureless beauty; So raw, and yet so unique, you couldn’t help but stare out across the emptiness and ponder, a map would have been useless in this featureless expanse, we could have been anywhere, the feeling of remoteness was real, and it felt good.
The first thing we saw to break to beautiful monotony were the camels; there were hundreds of them all relaxing out in the sun, so well adapted for this oppressive environment that they barely batted a long-lashed eyelid at the baking sun, which, despite the early hour, was already pushing the mercury well into the 40s. If camels are the ships of the desert, then donkeys are the sort of raft you’d expect from a particularly awkward team-building day, and the lack of shade was clearly getting to these poor beasts of burden, desperately trying to utilise the bulks of the camels for their own personal parasol.
Leaving the land cruisers next to the livestock, we headed towards the shadowy shapes moving rhythmically in the heat haze; getting closer, these shapes revealed themselves to be dozens of men huddled in small groups working the vast crust of salt which stretched indefinitely to the horizon - we had arrived at the lucrative salt mines of the Afar people.
As we approached, we could clearly see the groups working in near silence save for the thud-crunch of the tools skilfully wielded to extract this most precious of resources. We watched as each group copied a familiar routine, developed no doubt over hundreds of brutal hours toiling out here in the desert: The first man in the team wields an axe which he uses to crudely break the salt crust into giant slabs. As soon as the salty surface has been breached, the second man skilfully thrusts a sturdy wooden pole under the slab and levers it out of the ground so that it can be broken again, this time into more manageable chunks by the axe wielder. These two jobs are the physically demanding ones of the process, and tended to be executed by taller, stronger, seasonal workers from the mountains. Being such a lucrative raw material, these seasonal workers are able to earn a great deal of money mining the salt, and it is an attractive proposition to many, resulting in a large influx of people during the peak mining season.
Once the crust has been smashed, levered, and smashed again, the rough blocks of salt are handed to one or two Afar men who then use a hand adze to carve the salt into identically sized blocks. Incredibly they are able to do this completely by eye, without any measuring tools, and each block really is identical in size and weight; not only that, but when compared to the efforts of other groups, each block matches perfectly. It isn’t a coincidence that these blocks fit the exact dimensions accepted at the trading markets. It is considered a real art form to be able to work the salt to this level of accuracy, which is why this is the domain of the elders of the Afar community, or perhaps a closely supervised apprentice.
Once enough blocks have been cut to size, they are carefully strapped together, and then loaded into giant baskets which are slung over the mighty humps of the waiting nonchalant camels (the struggling donkeys are put to work carrying precious water for the journey). Each camel is attached to the next, with the lead camel being led by an experienced wrangler, who then leads his caravan on the long journey to the important Afar town of Berhale where each caravan is documented and taxed before embarking on the week-long journey to Mek’ele.
We watched engrossed as kilos and kilos of salt were taken out of this seemingly inexhaustible resource by hand, each group following the same pattern, and each block of salt being impossibly carved to the exact size. Despite the rapidly rising temperatures, and the difficulties of their working conditions, the concentration of the Afar elders never faltered, and their attention to detail was formidable. Completely ambivalent to our presence, they were immersed in their work, which had transcended from physical labour, and had become artistry.
The axe and pole wielders from the mountains however were keen for a chat, and were more than happy to take a few moments rest when asked if we could try and replicate their precision work. If I wasn’t feeling the heat before, then after mere seconds of trying to lever the giant slabs out of the ground, the sweat was pouring off me, in some symbolic cycle of returning salt to the earth. There was no doubt that this was hard work, and although I thought I was doing quite well, I think the real difference I made was providing light relief for the workers who found my efforts laughable, even the Afar elders gave a little smirk before fastidiously returning to their expert craft.
The process of mining the salt from the Danakil has changed little in the thousands of years the Afar people are suposed to have been doing it, and with salt being more valuable than gold for much of human history, it is little wonder why they are so fiercely territorial over this incredible natural resource they have available to them.
The reality of working in the harshest of environments means there is very little respite; it’s worth remembering that the Danakil Depression is one of, if not the most inhospitable place on the planet, and to be able not only to survive, but to thrive in these conditions is something which deserves a great deal of respect. Although working in largely autonomous groups out on the salt, there is one man, arguably the most important man in the entire Afar region, who unifies and unites the workers. Set apart from the rest of the men, under a tiny umbrella providing the humblest circle of shade, this man is jovial, and clearly loves his job, almost oblivious to how important it is. As we turned to leave the salt mines, we made a point of heading towards this most important of men to better understand his role in this timeless process. As we approached, his umbrella shade was indeed humble, but we could see immediately why this man was so important to the smooth running of the mine and its men; crouched over a stove in the already oppressive heat can’t have been easy, but this saint was working hard to ensure that the much loved kettle was ready to produce litres and litres of sweet tea throughout the day for the thirsty workers, who, after loading up their camels would come and take a moments break with a cup of tea – a beautiful scene replicated the world over.