The World from Afar – the edge of Ethiopia
My second visit to the Danakil desert and the hottest place on Earth. Ethiopia continues to enthrall and Afar is one of those regions which is on the edge, in many different senses. It is remote, inhospitable and has a reputation, probably justified, for being insecure. We went as a group of ten in 4 landcruisers using a very experienced local expedition organizer. To do this trip they have to be! We travelled to Mekele, north from Addis, initially along some of the worst roads in Ethiopia – mainly because they are being rebuilt. For some reason in this country road building seems totally illogical. They endeavour to build the whole road at once, hence the chaos and disruption seems endless, as did this stretch of road! We spent the first night in Kombolcha and the second in Mekele.
North central Ethiopia is comprised of a series of tablelands, dissected deeply by rivers which leave remnants of features not dissimilar to the canyon lands of the American west. The area is quite arid and the rocks vary from old lava flows to a variety of sandstones. The road improves after Dessie but topography creates a need for tortuous ascents and descents. The roads, as a result of these ups and downs, challenge vehicles and drivers, the evidence of which is seen by the frequent accidents where cars, Izuzu trucks (locally known as Al Qaeda, because they kill so many!) and intercity buses which have gone over the edge. A sobering reminder of the need to have good drivers, vehicles, and take care. The altitude along the roads north remains high – over 2000 metres and in places rising to 3000. It is only when you leave Mekele, a pleasant town which is well maintained, that the long descent begins.
We had a vehicle break down in Mekele which annoyingly delayed our departure. But despite knowing that we would get to the Danakil late we persisted in our journey. The trip down takes the vehicles down incised river valleys, over ridges and truly provides the drivers, passengers and vehicles with a rough ride. We picked up our police and army escort, needed for the political tensions and potential kidnappings which exist in this area, and our permits, in Berhale. By then it was dark and not knowing what was to the side or ahead was somewhat intimidating. We drove on and even if the night had descended the heat and aridity increased. We were entering the hottest place on Earth where temperatures in the summer can reach record levels of 58C! As we travelled down we passed the caravans of camels who have plied this route for centuries to extract salt from the former sea bed of what was an extension of the red sea. They seemed ethereal in the moonlight and we appeared to be disturbing their lentitudinous, but unending, steady cycle from Mekele to Dallol and back.
We camped, there are no hotels, in Ahmedila. A small Afar settlement which is dependent on the salt trade. The people here control the extraction. They dig it up, they shape it into blocks and then it is transported out to markets throughout Ethiopia. In the evening the men can be seen sharpening their axes and cutting implements. The village is friendly and they have a deep well to help sustain their existence in such a desolate and harsh environment. The salt itself is a sustainable resource. When the water table rises as a result of rivers which flow into the area in the wet season the old workings are dissolved and new salts are precipitated over time. We watched the production lines as they cut, prised out, shaped and loaded the salt. They do this all year in all temperatures. I do not know how, but they do! This is an age old practice and it looks set to continue for the forseeable future.
However, we didn’t just come to the Danakil to look at salt extraction. The Danakil is amazing for some of the most unique landforms and physical features seen on Earth. Dallol, at 120 metres below sea level, has an old volcano which simmers beneath the surface. It last erupted in 1926 but now the gases and heat mix with water and other minerals found as part of the salt deposits to create a bizarre landscape of salt pillars, small yellow, green and orange lakes and fumaroles. There are bubbling pools of sulphuric acid, hot gas emissions, offensive smells and terraces of precipitated minerals. It is highly active and since my last visit there it was more extensive and even more exciting. Despite the heat the sights are incredible. There are former remnants of an Italian extractive industry which was based here in the 1930’s. They came in from what is now Eritrea. Old buildings built of salt blocks and fossilized cars, encased in salt! The colours, steam, smoke, bubbling pools fringed with rocks recently formed and looking like icing make this an incredible sight to see. Not just a desert!
Driving across to see Dallol we crossed the area where the salt was being extracted but the tracks made by vehicles created a strange road made of salt polygons – I have never seen anything like it. These patterns stretched to the mirages on the horizon, where camels floated above the illusive watery surface.
The day after visiting the solfataras, the yellow peril, we ventured south into was people might perceive to be real desert – sand dunes. In actual fact only about 5% of deserts are covered with dune systems. Going south there is no road, only a direction and anastomosing patterns of tracks left by other vehicles who have made the journey. One of our vehicles, having lost its four wheel drive capacity, got stuck on a few occasions but in the end, as a result of the driving skills of our intrepid guide, Teddy, we got to the base village where we set off to climb Erte Ale. Erte Ale is a very gently sloping volcano which pours out, from a permanent lava lake, vast quantities of fluid lava. We drove up a very cindery and rocky track towards the parking place. This track was very sadly, a few weeks later, to be the final place that our cook, Assefa, ever saw. He had been on four trips with me and he was blown up on this road, along with several others, by a deliberately placed landmine. This is testament to the fact that Afar is truly on the edge and the Afaris are discontent with Government influence and the fact that a new road is going to dissect their land and expose them to more control. They like their isolation and autonomy. The impact of this on tourism, however, means that the Afar lose a potential source of income even if only a few tourists pass this way.
We started trekking late in the afternoon and we arranged camels to take up our food and gear. We were going to sleep on the edge. An edge with a view! It took two and a half hours to reach the summit along a fairly well worn path. The moon was up and the stars were out by the time we neared the summit. As we got closer the beautiful sky was forgotten about, for the moment, and our attention focused on the orange glow which varied in intensity as the lava occasionally broke through the surface crust. Erte Ale is one of three, I believe, volcanoes in the World which have an active and permanent lava lake. All three are found along the Great Rift Valley in Africa. When we arrived at the summit and took a little time out to rehydrate and rest we contemplated the fact that beneath our feet we had the materials that created our atmosphere and indeed life itself. This, together with the stars above, creates an impression and vista that stays with you for life. The crater lies within a crater and we had to climb down, by torchlight, to walk over old and very fragile fields of lava to reach the cauldron. The lava we walked over was crusty and ropey in nature and the Hawaiian islanders call it pahoehoe. When I reached the edge, even having done it before, I was mesmerized by the sight below. A black crust dissected by serrated fissures of molten red lava. The lava rises in small plumes and in microcosm mimics the great movements of the Earth’s crustal plates. It spreads where it rises and sinks where it cools and when there is a build up of heat and pressure it erupts and sprays lava skywards. It was much more active this time and the gases emitted were, in places and at times, overpowering. Some of the eruptions were really quite big and made us all retreat from the rim. What an experience, to see molten lava seething, breathing and erupting. This was humbling and at the same time exhilarating. Only being there and catching those moments can convey the insignificance you feel for yourself and power of the planet which has created us. I love taking photos and I took many but somehow it is never enough to feel the experience.
We slept in rough hewn stone shelters under the stars and rose early to see the sunrise over the lava lake. The glow still impresses but it is at night time that the pyrotechnics are at their best. It took us two hours to descend and as we did so the air became more oppressive and hotter. Feet were sore and we knew we had two long days of driving ahead to reach Addis. We stayed one night in a very basic hotel in Afdera, a centre for commercial salt mining. We were still in the Danakil. A simple shower, a cold beer and the beds pulled outside made the night more tolerable. It was hot, very hot. Our final night was spent in Awash national park where we went to the waterfall and the hot springs. The latter are beautiful and very hot. But they certainly helped to mitigate against the aching limbs created by the climb and to cleanse the pores which were filled with Danakil dust. The next day we finished the trip and went out to the Irish ball – good training for a night of revelry! I am not sure which was tougher!
Teddy Berhanu runs Acacia tours in Ethiopia. He is one of the most experienced tour operators I know and his service is exemplary. He has been to the Danakil many times and I would personally use no-one else. His equipment, intimate knowledge, car handling and the fact that he takes along a mechanic and cook make it all possible in terrain which is so challenging.
Theodros Berhanu (Teddy) firstname.lastname@example.org Acacia Tours +251 911 201394