Four Days in the Danakil
Exploring the fierce desert of northeastern Ethiopia.
The first flat tire is not a big deal. Our driver gets out, unscrews the broken tire, replaces it with a new one, and we are on our way again. Simple. With the second flat tire comes the same procedure, but this time it’s accompanied by a slight look of worry and some cursing. By the third, facial expressions are serious, almost grim, and voices are tense. The crew abandons its car after encountering the third flat tire within a few hours; someone will be sent back for it later.
We have used our last extra wheel. The 40º C (104º F) air lies like a heavy blanket around us. With every breath, I feel it pour down my lungs, thick as honey and dry as sand. This is not the place to get stuck without a car. In fact, it’s one of the last places on earth you would want to be trapped.
We are in the Danakil Depression, a burning hot, hostile desert in the northeastern corner of Ethiopia — named the cruelest place on earth by National Geographic. In 1927, L.M. Nesbitt became the first European explorer to successfully cross this land. Afterward, he wrote: “We were fortunate in getting through with the loss of only three men killed by the Danakils, one turned insane through heat, and ten camels and three mules died of fatigue.”
The average annual temperature of 34º C recorded in the Danakil Depression is the highest in the world. In the summer, the temperature often comes close to the 50º C mark.
The people living here call it “the place the devil plows.” This is where three continental plates meet or, more accurately put, pull away from each other. The gap formed between the separating plates is swallowing the land and soon, in geological terms (that is, around 10 million years), the waters of the Red Sea will rush in, drown the entire region, and a new sea will be formed. Africa will lose its horn. But for now, this is far from being an ocean; it is nothing but dry desert.
At the same time, the Danakil is one of Ethiopia’s fastest-growing tourist attractions. A total of 1,903 tourists visited in 2010–2011. The next year, that figure rose to 2,950.
I traveled here with a photographer to discover what it is about this brutal location that keeps drawing people in. With us is our guide, Negasi Teklay, plus four drivers and two guards. In four Land Cruisers loaded with water, food and fuel to last us through our stay, we left the town of Mekelle a few days earlier to explore the Danakil and meet its people, called the Afar.
This resilient population has inhabited this corner of the world for centuries, probably millennia, moving with their herds through the tough land. It is believed they used to grow crops in the Ethiopian highlands but then transferred to a nomadic lifestyle in the lowlands of the Danakil. Exactly when is not known. Their traveling lifestyle hasn’t left many traces behind, although 2,000-year-old stone inscriptions reveal that nomads inhabited the Danakil at that time.
The Afar language is believed to come from an old Ethiopian tongue of the highlands and is classified as a Cushitic language.
The Afar are known to be a fearless and harsh warrior people organized into clans. About 2.5 million Afar live in Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti, with approximately 1.5 million in Ethiopia alone. Most still live a nomadic or half-nomadic life.
Camels on the moonscape
We are sitting in the broken-down car, the heat waiting outside like a predator. I can feel it trickle in through the door, reaching for me. Here, the landscape tortures cars, plaguing them to death with sand, heat and pure roughness. “A car you can operate for 20 years elsewhere in Ethiopia is done after a year here,” says Yemane Gebre Anenya, one of the drivers.
We abandon the car; somebody will be sent back for it later. The repacking is done quickly, the journey continues, and the left-behind vehicle soon disappears in the clouds of dust rising from the rushing wheels of our cars. We drive through what looks like a moonscape, barren and dry, with big rocks rising along the road like dried-out, cracked-up beasts.
Apart from the occasional truck driver stirring up massive storms of dust, we don’t see anyone or anything for hours. Then, all of a sudden, we spy movement on the horizon. Camels. Hundreds of them.
The animals are tied to each other from tail to mouth, creating a pearl necklace of the desert, trudging along in a slow, constant trot. Around their big feet lies a soft haze of dirt and dust, like clouds hovering around mountaintops. They are coming from the salt mine in Dallol.
The camel caravans look and operate pretty much the same as they have for at least 2,000 years. They travel from Mekelle to Dallol, a seven-day journey, and then back. Going to Dallol, they are loaded with water and cattle feed that they consume during the trip. En route to Mekelle, they carry salt. Some stop halfway, and the drivers sell the salt in the town of Berhaile instead of taking it all the way up to the highlands: The travel is shorter but the profit smaller.
The source of the salt is Lake Assol; the landscape here is totally flat, covered in white salt and a thin shroud of clear water. Underground passages connect the Red Sea with the Danakil, creating the salt lake. Winds and rain every now and then make the lake flood. When it retracts, it leaves behind enormous amounts of salt on the surrounding plains, creating a giant salt mine covering 1,200 square kilometers (463 square miles).
Salt as valuable currency
Until the early 20th century, salt blocks (amole) were used as currency in Ethiopia. The salt mine — together with tourism — is the most important source of income for the Afar living in the area. The majority of the people running the trade caravans are Christian highlanders from the Tigray region, but the Afar tax every single camel, donkey and mule that carries salt. They also run commerce along the trade routes and find temporary employment cutting and loading the salt.
A few hundred kilometers to the west, huge trucks can be seen working the saltfields of Djibouti, but here in the Danakil, everything with an engine is forbidden. “The Afar believe that the introduction of machinery would bring bad luck and destroy the salt,” Negasi Teklay tells me as we make our way from the salt lake toward the mine.
It’s five o’clock in the afternoon when we reach the salt mine in Dallol. Out on the plain we meet Futsum Zbelos, one of hundreds of caravan drivers who profits from the salt trade. He is loading up his camels and donkeys. His clothes are torn and dirty, sweat drips from his chin, and a stream of blood from a cut is painting a red stripe down his right leg.
He’s been here since four in the morning, working with intensity as the heat grows ever more ferocious. “I have to hurry up,” he says. “All the camels are loaded and waiting.”
On the ground there is a big pile of prepared salt blocks, each the size of telephone directories, cut from the ground with a steel blade. The blocks are tied together in clusters of four or eight, and Futsum picks them up from the ground and throws them over the back of a donkey. He secures the load with a rope, pulling it tightly around the animal. Scars from where the rope has been tied before draw lines on the donkey’s belly.
Futsum has just a few more salt blocks to load before beginning the seven-day trip on foot back to Mekelle. He will walk through many of the nights to stay out of the heat, eating bread cooked on an open fire and praying for the salt price to be as high as possible when he reaches Mekelle. It’s 14 birr (roughly US$0.78) per block today. Could be 15 birr tomorrow.
A beautiful, alien landscape
We spend the night not far from the salt mine in a dusty settlement called Hamedila. It consists of about 100 simple huts built around a radio tower and is home to roughly 500 Afar people. I’m sitting in the shade on a rickety wooden bed when Abdullah Ali Noor, the village administrator, approaches.
He first came here 20 years ago to work at the salt mine. In the last few years, the area has seen a large increase in the number of tourists — a boost that he says is good for the village. “It’s not easy to make a living here,” he says. “Nothing grows.”
But even while he and his fellow villagers welcome tourists, they don’t want to see the landscape changed in the hands of outsiders. “Many people are interested in coming here to build hotels, but we don’t let anybody build anything — not even a toilet,” he says. “This is our land.”
During the rainy season, water from the surrounding highlands pours down into the Danakil, flooding large areas and destroying roads while the temperature starts rising. It gets too wet and warm for tourists, and even the Afar abandon Hamedila, moving on to other villages or towns as their huts — built from pieces of wood, plastic and burlap — slowly fall apart.
I remember years ago when I first read about the Danakil Depression. At that time it was even more unknown than it is today. What caught my attention was a description of sulfur fields as a “weird alien landscape full of colors.”
That location, it turns out, is not far from Hamedila, on the other side of the salt fields behind a rocky mountainside. We take off — drive through the fields, pass the camels getting loaded, climb the rocky mountain. Suddenly it’s there. And it exceeds all of my expectations.
The fields look as if they’ve been picked out of the imagination of a child: The entire area is an explosion of colors, a firework of thousands of nuances of red, yellow, orange and green. Chemical reactions in the ground form a giant field of small, bubbling and spurting sulfur volcanoes that constantly reform the structure of the landscape. Negasi Teklay tells me that he comes here often, “and even from day to day, the landscape changes."
At the edge of hell
The next day, we head toward the “gateway to hell” — the active Erta Ale volcano. After a rough, five-hour car ride on what one of the drivers calls “the worst road in Ethiopia,” we reach a small village at the base of the volcano. From here we have to walk. But as the sun is still high in the sky, starting out now would be suicide. So we wait. There are only rocks and a few stone huts around, so we sit idly in the shade.
When dusk arrives, we start our trek up the side of the volcano. The walk is steep, and soon night tumbles upon us, pitch-black and dense. The light from our flashlights dances like fireflies around us as we slip, stumble and stagger up the mountainside.
After three hours of walking, we get to the top. We are not far from the crater — perhaps the area’s greatest draw for adventure tourists like me. I look into the night and out there, a few hundred meters away, the compact darkness is disturbed by a deep red glow as if a city is burning behind the rocks. I take a deep breath before walking the last hundred meters over to the edge.
Looking down, each of us falls silent, staring at the glowing lava, lost in thought.
The cruelest place on earth, perhaps. A spectacular, beautiful, harsh place of endless desert, fiery volcanoes and baking heat. Yet for the Afar, for thousands of years, it has provided the backdrop for everyday life. It is home.
Malin Fezehai is a photographer and filmmaker. After studying photography in her native Sweden, she moved to New York to attend the International Center of Photography. She now specializes in portraiture and reportage photography. Fezehai has worked in Ethiopia, Brazil, Peru, Ghana, Sri Lanka, the South Pacific, Haiti and the United States.