- Posted August 18, 2014 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
The Africa we don't see
Discover Danakil, the world's most inhospitable corner II.
Start packing because I am about to introduce you to a different world… Namely to the Danakil Depression, the hottest and most inhospitable corner of Earth.
The Afar Triangle or better known as the Danakil Depression is situated north east of Ethiopia and extends into neighboring Djibouti and Eritrea. Famous for being one of the most inhospitable places of our Planet Earth, it really is not attractive as a dream destination. However, if you are one of those “Indiana Jones explorers”, hungry for real adventure and undiscovered places then this may just be your next stop.
First of all, it is not a joke: temperature reaching up to 60(!) Celsius degrees attempts to and will break your limits. It’s a good idea to ask yourself whether you are able to cope with such heat and desert winds or you’d better be off looking for something cooler. As Danakil is one of the most remote places on Earth, bring along your patience because driving will be gut-wrenchingly slow and bumpy. Due to the border disputes between Ethiopia and Eritrea and for your own security you need to travel in groups as it is also required by the Afar government. Tourist kidnapping is something predictable in the area. Tour companies will ensure you have armed guards, local guides and the rest of the necessities with you such as a cooker and drinking water. Be prepared that you can be exposed to become dehydrated in no time but the water you will be drinking is far from refreshing because it is almost boiling. The only asphalt road you will encounter is the way out of the city - called Mekelle - where you will be arriving by flight on the first day. A few hours of driving into the mountainous area and after your first briefing by the local guide the real journey will begin. The landscape starts to change, temperatures will go higher and higher and by the time you reach the first village for lunch you will have an idea about what is waiting for you further away. It is about time you start to believe that the Danakil depression is so much more than perishing heat, unpaved roads and countless hours of driving in the middle of nowhere.
The people of Danakil
The fascinating Afar people are an ethnic group of East Africa who live in the Afar Region covering three countries: Ethiopia, Djibouti and Southern Eritrea. A kind of Cushitic language, the Afar is spoken by about 5 million people who are predominantly muslim but still holding onto their own customs and traditions. Their history goes back many centuries, proving their early association with Islam however little is known of their actual history. Traditionally they were organized into independent kingdoms, each led by its Sultan appointed by his people. They are nomadic pastoralists herding goats, sheep and cattle. They move with their houses into each of their temporary settlement. The Afar claims to be a descent of Arabs through a Yemeni ancestor, although they differ racially, culturally and linguistically. Little is available about the Afars as they are hardly accessible and it makes it difficult to source reliable information. They tend to keep themselves very separate from their surrounding people such as the Somalis and various Ethiopian tribes. Due to the scarcity of water and with no natural sources you may see that majority of them are dehydrated and malnourished. Water is brought to them, tanked and sold in a relatively high price.
Driving across arid deserts, salt rock formations, volcanoes or seemingly uninhabited places, the Afars would and will show up at the most unexpected moments out of nowhere.
All these will make you wonder how they are able to cope with the inhuman conditions and whilst you are thinking you will soon realize that you have developed a strange but well deserved respect towards them.
Driving into the region must be well organized and planned ahead of time.
You should give a comfortable 5-6 days for the trip excluding your flights in and out of Ethiopia. You will be arriving into Addis Ababa, the bustling capital. I recommend taking a flight to Mekelle a day earlier before your departure to the desert. Mekelle is the closest, biggest and most developed city by far if you plan to venture into the Danakil.
You will rise early morning and drive through the impressive mountains that surrounds the city. Mekelle lies between 2000-2200 meters above sea level providing a very pleasant temperature. Driving into the mountains will give you a spectacular sight of the city, the valleys and it’s surroundings. As you are moving forward you are going to enter the Afar region. The road will change, the land will get drier and drier, rivers will disappear and only their dry riverbed would remind you about their existence.
Your first stop is Berhale. By the time you get to this town, the nice temperatures and pleasant breeze will just be a fading memory. I would describe it as the doorstep into the Devil’s Kitchen. It is a place of transition between the Tigray and Afar region of Ethiopia. You will see an interesting mixture of Tigraian stone houses and Afar huts. It is not truly the desert lands yet but nevertheless you will be inspired by the sights. Useful hint: according to my experiences this was the last stop I could enjoy cold drinking water!
And do not get fooled. You are still very far away from the “real” experience. It is another 3-4 hours driving until you reach your first camping site, a town called Hamedela. Its the ideal base camp for your upcoming tours to the Dallol volcano and to the salt flats. People there live in extreme poverty and in a harsh environment. The Danakil Desert said to ‘begin’ here as well. The tracks that you will call the road begin to fade here and will often become invisible in the dust. The land is burned by drought; less than 10% of the population have access to drinking water. Hamedela and the Danakil lies around 100 meters below sea level with an average temperature over 34 Celsius degrees. Wonder why it is called the hottest place on Earth?
If you want to make up for the difficulties of your first day out in the wilderness I recommend you to spend the sunset at Lake Assale. Spectacular colors and nothing else but the horizon in all directions. The area is partly lake and partly salt deposit so you will literally walk on water. The main economic activity is salt mining by the Afars.
The only way to spend your night is to stay in Hamedela sleeping under the stars. If you visit during summer time, those nights will be the hardest one of your life. Desert wind, heat, sand all over you and no cold or room temperature water. 5 AM is the first time that you would get a piece of mind as the heat will ease a little until the sun rises.
But there is no time to waste. Before it would get hot again you will be on your way to Dallol, to one of the most active tectonic regions in the world. Dallol is little known and seldom visited but quite extraordinary. Due to those volcanic activities you will see the most colorful geological formations, hot sulphur springs, sulphur pools and mini geysers.At this point you must be accompanied by armed guards. There are existing tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea along with local banditry. Dallol is only visited by few hundreds of people per year and the site opened for foreigners not a long ago. If you can bear with the heat and fumes you will be walking one of the lowest points on Earth. As the day gets hotter the afternoon will find you driving towards the Erta Ale volcano.It is said to be one of the worst roads on Earth and covering that 80km may take you up to 6 hours. Erta Ale is notable for having the longest existing lava lake. The trek will take 3-4 hours and by midnight you shall be looking at the dramatic actions of the lava.
Danakil isn't for the faint hearted but the wilderness waiting for you there will transform anybody into a brave hearted knight.