“To move, to breathe, to fly, to float; to gain all while you give; to roam the roads of lands remote; to travel is to live.” ― Hans Christian Andersen.
DAY 2, Thurs 26 Nov. Lake Assal, mineral springs, salt mountain; to Abalaa village towards Erta Ale volcano.
This was yet another day of being exposed to the wonders of this almost otherworldly environment. Again we would see and absorb sights the likes of which are found in few places on earth, let alone visited by tourists. We were all spellbound to the extent that we hardly noticed the very harsh environment and the primitive conditions that many otherwise would not have tolerated. It was tough.
We had the first of several poor nights’ sleep, us in the luxury in our roof top tent, others in the open on the thin, “dirty” mattresses the vehicles carried. We were on the road by 6H40 heading further onto Lake Assal to see firstly the mineral springs with their fairyland colouration of the salt and then the martian-like salt mountain. Initially we head due east on the salt flats on the same route towards the swimming hole but then swing north. This is on a well-used track of compacted salt. The road surface is a little bumpy but not too bad at all. The drivers we were following tended to drive quite a bit faster than we would have liked, but as would be the case later, it is different when not driving your own vehicle. After a 15min drive we stop at a hillock of salt and hike for 15min to the mineral springs, this is the place known as Dallol. This is definitely best done in the early morning, but already the heat was intense and the sun glaring on the salt surface. Best to wear headgear for protection from the sun, carry at least a liter of water to drink and wear walking footwear. The tour company carry plenty of bottled water for everyone.
Already the temperature at 110m below sea level was in the very high 30s, to reach the low 40s later in the day. In May to September it ”un”-comfortably reaches the 50s and even the people living in Hamadela and the salt caravan trains move out for the worst few months. At the lowest point of this depression complex of Dallol in neibouring Djibouti, it is 150m below sea level. (We later bumped into travel friends who reported that they had been a little disappointed in Djibouti where little effort was being made to preserve this unique environment). No smoking is advised at this spot because of the risk of explosions from the volatile gasses belching from the bowels of the earth. One has to be carefully guided as to where it is safe to walk as many areas of the salt layers cannot carry the weight of a human. The underlying mineral waters are both scaldingly hot and highly acidic with sulphuric acid. The very strong and astringent whiff of sulphuric acid is ever present and the heat radiates into the already hyper-heated atmosphere. This spot is 116m below sea level and is the 4th lowest place on earth. It is reputed to be one of the hottest places on earth as well.
We were met with a sight of jaw-dropping beauty. The coloured salt slab and mega-crystals stretch over fields of 100m or more with various areas of steaming and bubbling water lakes and pools. These waters from the depths of the earth carry various minerals, each mineral causing a specific colouration of the salt due to the chemical reactions. The dominant colour of yellow is from sulphur, brown – magnesium, green – copper and zinc and finally white from gypsum. We spend almost 2hr eyeballing, absorbing and photographing this natural marvel, it is trite to state that even the best of photographers will fail to convey the overall impact. This experience alone would have made this stamina sapping expedition worthwhile. Next we drove to the nearby salt mountains towering about 30m high. If I remember correctly this layer of salt on the bed of Lake Assal is something like 300m deep, partly from the days when this was part of the ocean, before the tectonic events of the Great Rift Valley, the formation of the Red Sea and leaving this area as a sealed off area of sea water. The mountain and salt cliffs are caused by erosion of the salt at varying rates by rain and wind. This is a large area of about a couple of km2 and could be on another planet. We do a short hike along the canyons and through a 30m cave/tunnel through the salt mountain. Once again the cameras are red hot, thank goodness for digital imaging.
The tour company certainly keep one busy and next we drive over the salt to the area where the salt is mined in slabs chopped out from the surface. Although there are no structures here and it is absolutely desolate, this area has a name, that of Ragad (or Asebo). Both the people mining and transporting the salt are tougher than leather, as are the camels. It might be easier to earn ones living in Hades. I found it deeply thought provoking to spend even those few moments with them in their harsh of harshest existence.
By midday we had driven back 60-odd km to the village of Berhale for lunch in the shade of their crude wooden shelters. As elsewhere our meals were prepared by the expedition cook who had travelled ahead. Simple fare in the form of pasta, vegetable rice and the like, it would be very difficult to transport and prepare anything more elaborate under these primitive conditions. There were cold beers and drinks for sale by the villagers and the marvelous Ethiopian “coffee-ceremony” coffee. As we had experienced elsewhere in both Sudan and Ethiopia, the beans are roasted in a pan on charcoal by a village woman, the smoking pan passed around ceremoniously for all to have a whiff of the classical odour. At the same time frankincense is burnt on charcoal to add to the almost sensual atmosphere. The roasted beans are then ground by hand by mortar and pestle and the coffee cooked in the typically shaped coffee urn before ceremoniously and precisely being poured from a height into the small cups. Traditionally it is served black with a generous touch of sugar, to die for!
Next we travelled back on the tar road we originally used to come in through the Danakil Alps and after 32km turn due south on a 6 month old tar road. These road, sponsored by the Japanese government and built by a Japanese construction company is of the highest quality and once again the degree of engineering required is massive. This road goes all the way to the coast at Djibouti, the friendly neighbouring country. It provides Ethiopia with access to a port now that Eritrea has separated and relations remain on a knife edge and will stimulate the planned mining and exportation from the Danakil. Once again, visit it soon as it will very shortly never be the same again. My initial thoughts were that this easy initial approach to Erta Ale Volcano made for a bit of an anticlimax and that it might have been more of a heroic trip before the route was eased. This was partly correct, but largely wrong, we had as much of a tough time ahead as many could be expected to tolerate. I must read older accounts of visits to the Danakil as advised by friends, for instance The Life of my Choice by Wilfred Thesiger. Some groups do the tour in the opposite sequence, beginning with the volcano and ending at Lake Assal. I am pleased that this was not the case with us, I am afraid the undoubted wonders of the lake might have been an anticlimax after the lava lake of the active volcano. We are now travelling into white space on T4A on my GPS but am confident this will soon change once Karin Theron’s updates are included.
We turn off to the village of Abalaa. Here we stay in a very basic locally owned and run establishment rather grandly given the title of a guesthouse. If I have a couple of criticisms of the logistics of this trip one is that things could easily be jacked up here. During the season daily groups of up to 20 or more people move through this accommodation and it must be ringing up an appreciable profit. ETT should pressurize the owners to plough some of this money back into creating a more acceptable environment for guests who all are used to first world standards. Our group were a cheerful bunch determined to make the most of this unique expedition and made light of the conditions. In fact these facilities produced one of the most amusing interludes of the trip. One of the group was a (not surprisingly) rather fastidious, late middle-aged, German physician. After a long period of rather commendable enforced bodily control, he inspected the outhouse toilet, only to find a squat toilet with no running water, with a bucket and rusty tin for flushing. Great was his relief and the amusement of the group when I produced my pride and joy. Our mobile toilet seat with its fold-out legs strategically placed over the squat was thoroughly enjoyed by all, including the hosts I noticed. Small things!
There was only one washbasin, again with a bucket, like-wise only one shower consisting of only a pail and bucket, for 16 fairly filthy guests. Sleeping for the others were on the same flimsy matrasses on the floor of some rooms, about 5/6 to a room. Our humour was restored when the Moslem hosts rather enterprisingly produced cold beers for sale. We were able to reverse Slow Donkey into the enclosed courtyard where we slept most comfortably again to the envy of all. We were unable to keep the gaggle of persistent and totally undisciplined local children at bay and they had a ball clambering around in the faranjee boudoir. Our sleep was disturbed by the courtyard rooster and now it was not only the Ethiopian children that I was strangling in my fantasies.
Main. A salt-carrying camel train.
1 and 2. The salt formations near the mineral flows, with a close-up.
3. Sulphur salt formations at the mineral springs on Danakil.
4. The colours of the salt at the springs.
5. Mainly magnesium.
6. Formations at the salt mountains.
7. Salt mountain.
8. The cave/tunnel.
9. Salt crystal close-up.
10. The hot water spring.
11. The group on Danakil.
12. Chopping the slabs of salt.
13. The salt mining area.
14. The winding roads.