“There is an old Afar proverb that says ‘It is better to die than to live without killing’,” Mekele, my driver and translator, casually informed me as he picked his way along the rocky riverbed. “But don’t worry, they are not as fearsome as they used to be, and kidnappings have become less frequent too.”
With these words ringing in my ears I was suddenly beginning to question my decision to travel to the Danakil Depression in the north-eastern corner of Ethiopia. Inspired by the great explorer Wilfred Thesiger, it had been a dream of mine to venture into this unique enclave of Ethiopia and experience a life unlike any I had encountered before. Although now, thanks to Mekele, several doubts began to surface in my mind.
Over the years, explorers have charted the vast and barren lands of the Danakil. Even today, the more adventurous traveller braves the soaring temperatures and harsh terrain of the desert to make the arduous journey to a part of the world that seems to be from another planet altogether. For it is here that the earth’s crust is stretched to breaking point, exposing its fiery underbelly in a series of features and colours that the mind alone cannot conjure.
This is a place that you have to see with your own eyes to believe, that is if the heat doesn’t scorch them first. At 160m below sea level, the Danakil Depression is the lowest point on the African continent and could easily be described as the most inhospitable place too. The mercury regularly soars past the 50 degree mark on the thermometer, giving the Danakil the world’s highest yearly average temperature.
It’s not just the extreme heat that creates such a harsh atmosphere, but rather that combined with the bleak, unrelenting landscape that surrounds Hamed Ela – the ramshackle village that is home to the infamous Afar tribe, the last form of civilisation before the Depression itself. On one side of the village, the infertile volcanic desert paves the way to mountains that scar the horizon with their jagged peaks. Stretching far into the distance in the other direction are the glistening salt pans that are the very livelihood of the Afar people.
The heat was almost unbearable... it stifles your very being. It’s bewildering that the Afar people are able to exist here, for that is all they do – exist day to day, extracting salt from the pans.
Sat in what little shade there is to be had in Hamed Ela, I began to question why I was here as the early morning sun sapped my energy as well as the desire to do anything but lay still. The answer came soon after we set off, accompanied by four armed soldiers from the Ethiopian army, towards the Eritrean border and what is, for all intents and purposes, a different planet. The salt pans faded behind us until finally all around was a floor of twisted and bent basalt, forcing us to finish the journey on foot.
With no shade to ward off the scorching sun from my back, I began to feel the real intensity of the heat. Sweat began to pour from my body as the air drew closer, suffocating me with a mixture of heat and the sulphur that was escaping through the ground. Before I even set sight on the highlight of the Danakil, I could feel a guttural rumbling vibrating from the ground and could hear the sound of bubbling liquid. Finally, we were there and I could hardly believe my eyes.
Before me was a brilliant luminous green lake that fizzed and bubbled away like a giant witches’ cauldron, edged by a kaleidoscope of dazzling coloured rocks. Sparkling white stalagmites spewed boiling water into the air as steam curled up from various pools of fuming acidic water and sulphur geysers. Giant lily pads of yellow travertine – a calcium rich deposit – enabled us to traverse the lake, giving the feeling that I was stood on Jupiter and not in a small corner of Africa. After all this is a continent famous for its vast grassy plains and herds of animals, not for incandescent lunar landscapes.
With the earth’s surface torn wide open the conditions could not have been more extreme; the already blistering heat combined with sulphur-rich air that clawed at the back of my throat as I gasped for every breath. It was easy to see why nothing existed here, that is except the Afar salt traders who have made this desolate land their home for hundreds of years. Unlike myself, they were used to the unforgiving environment and thought nothing of a hard day’s manual labour under the strain of hellish conditions that I simply struggled to sit in, let alone work in.
As I sat back in the relative cool of a shady spot in Hamed Ela, I watched trains of camels linked nose-to-tail slowly making their way across the pans back towards civilisation – a journey that would take the best part of three long days. Their load was salt: the only commodity to come out of this barren land. This was salt that was hacked from the earth's surface with crude tools for the most meagre of rewards. And yet without it, the Afar people would cease to exist here. Salt is a lifeline to them, their reason for continuing to endure the hardships of one of the toughest lives known to man.
Every morning for almost the entire year, the men of the village can be seen making their way across the pans, tools in hand, ready to begin an age-old process. From the time when the salt was first traded for gold, to the present day where it’s sold all over Ethiopia for cash, the Afar people have made excavating it from the ground their business. They continually cross the desert with their camels to deliver the salt blocks, known to them as amolé, to the small trading town of Berahile. It's a thankless and never-ending task yet one the Afar people are immensely proud and protective of, as without it they would have nothing.
“It is hard, but this is life as I have always known it,” Ali - one of the Afar salt traders I met - told me, exposing his pointed teeth. The Afar file their teeth into sharp points, an embellishment considered to be attractive.although, when coupled with the Kalashnikov Ali had casually slung over his shoulder, this lent him an air of menace. “We must be able to protect our salt and villages,” Ali continued, as if sensing my slight feeling of unease. “It is all we have and we must defend it.”
The Danakil has long had a reputation for being dangerous and inhospitable, not least because of the Afar tribe themselves. If enemy tribes are to be believed, in the past the Afar would welcome every male visitor to their region by cutting off their testicles. This may or may not be true, but one thing is certain: the Afar are not to be taken lightly. Those who dare venture into the Danakil will be rewarded with a small glimpse into a different world, a world that has been forgotten by the one we live in.
I was left wondering if it was the Danakil Depression Thesiger had in mind when he once said ‘the harder the life, the finer the individual’, for few lives come harder than those lived here, in the face of hell itself.