“Only the road and the dawn, the sun, the wind, and the rain,
And the watch fire under stars, and sleep, and the road again.” ― John Masefield
DAY 1, Weds 25 Nov. Lake Assal.
Whether to embark on this expedition to the literal ends of the earth or not, was something Anne and I had been grappling with ever since I began researching the Ethiopian leg of our travels. This area of the Danakil (or Dallol) Depression is in the north-east of Ethiopia close to the unstable Eritrean border. We are not the fittest, strongest or youngest of people but felt that we would never forgive ourselves if we did not at least put in a determined effort. To be so close to this unique natural phenomenon and not experience it would haunt me forever. The opportunity of joining an organized convoy and self-driving to one of the lowest, hottest and driest places on the planet and one of a handful of accessible, active, molten volcanic lava lakes in the world, is an opportunity that has been accorded to only some handsfull of tourists. In mid-summer temperatures reach into the 50s(C) and a daily average of 35C, but we were told to expect only the low 40s close to the middle of the northern winter. The Depression was caused by the Great Rift. ETO tours, only in the last few years, had been allowing self-drivers in suitably equipped expedition vehicles to accompany their tourist convoys. Not only is the environment of the very harshest, but until very recently the security situation had been fraught with danger. One is provided with an armed military escort. The local Afar tribesmen had been inclined to kill intruders and castrate them for trophies and all this not so long ago. A few years ago a group of tourists had been attacked by hostile Eritrean soldiers, some killed and others abducted. On a few occasions tourists had died whilst attempting to breach this extreme environment. Because of these conditions self-drivers are not permitted entry into the Danakil Depression on their own.
This is a 3 night, 4 day expedition of which the highlight is the nocturnal ascent of the active Erte Ale volcano to eyeball one of only a couple of accessible active volcanic lava lakes, described as being alike to staring into the bowels of earth. It is billed in Ethiopia as the world’s only “permanent” lava lake and last erupted fully in 1967, due again soon perhaps? Hopefully not when we are there. Erte Ale volcano-mountain has a base diameter of 30km and a 1km caldera.
The other features are a visit to the Depression, formerly part of the sea bed and 116m below sea level and witnessing the ancient tradition of mining blocks of salt and transporting them out of this hell hole via caravans of camels. Finally a feature is the visit to the seismically active salt lake, Lake Assal, where in places the thick salt layers are wondrously coloured by the mineral waters bubbling up from earth’s core. Would we and our vehicle make it? Well we certainly planned to give it our very best shot.
This expedition proved to be one of the most memorable of our entire trip and probably of our lives, mainly for the positive experience, but also for some pain and suffering experienced. Would we recommend others doing it? Undoubtably yes, but you do need to have a degree of hiking fitness and do not elect to take the camel ride up the volcano. It is simply unplayable and few would be able to tolerate the discomfort involved.
We were at the ETT offices promptly by 9H00 and got to know the rest of the group and the drivers. We were a group of 16 tourists and quite a motley crew. There were 6 Spanish, 2 Japanese, 1 Chinese, a Brit working in Lagos, 2 Germans and their young guide and of course the 2 of us. For the first half of the trip we had 2 American ladies and for the volcano a Fin. So one can do just part of the trip. Then there were the 2 kitchen staff, Akile the efficient tour leader and 5 drivers for the rest of the vehicles. We were the only self-drivers who are evidently not frequent. All the vehicles were Land Cruisers, most 76 series as is Slow Donkey. These drivers for the most part drove with their foot flat on the accelerator of the sluggish 76s. We left at 9H30 sharp.
We headed out on the road to Adigrat on which we originally had entered Mekele. On a hilltop with a great view of Mekele we stopped for our first briefing. Aki was very thorough with his briefings and we also had regular stops for photographs, nature’s calls and explanations of the amazing topography. Our second stop was to view the spectacular pedestrian suspension bridge, the Kawa Trail Bridge, many of the group were crazy enough to trek down and cross the bridge in the scorching heat.
Just before turning east in the village of Agula we stopped we stopped for coffee and tea. The ETT personnel did their best under very adverse circumstances to serve our needs. One passes through the small Tigrai villages of Tsebat and Desea before descending down ear-popping hairpin bends leaving the Tigrai and entering the Afar region. We stopped to view the Afar Valley, this area is always dry but was particularly so with the recent drought. Here’s hoping that the world is not about to witness those tortured images of starving Ethiopia again if the rains fail for a second year. This area is the home of the fiercely independent Afar tribe, formerly considered dangerous to travelers. Just as with the traditionalist tribes in Kenya (Masai) and Uganda (Karamajong) they wear skirts although their’s are more dull in colour, grey or dark green.
On this road we encounter our first camel caravans travelling to the Danakil to mine blocks of salt. This age-old occupation is a really tough one and goes back to pre-biblical times. Unfortunately this intrepid tradition will probably die when plans for large-scale commercial salt mining come to fruition soon. At this time, the northern winter, multiple camel trains can be seen along the roads and at the salt mines, they are far fewer in summer when the temperatures usually reach 50C. Apparently about one million camel-loads of salt are carried annually. It takes a train of about 10 camels 7 days to journey from Mekele to the Danakil, a few days to chop out the slabs of salt and then 7 days for the return trip. The men that specialize in chopping out the salt slabs get paid Birr3 per slab and can cut about 250 per day, a small fortune in Ethiopia. It would take far more money than that for any of us to live in this extreme environment. Each block is sold for Birr50 in Mekele, where they are mainly used for animal licks. Each slab weighs 3-4kg and we estimated each camel carries about 20 or more. What a harsh way to make a living, these Afar and Tigrai people are really tough!
Once in the Afar region one descends still further along the Desae River valley. This river arises in the highlands and feeds Lake Assal, which is intensely hypersaline, having no outlet. Apparently in Danakil they only have 4 or 5 days of rain a year and it sure looks like it. The lovely, fairly new tar road we are travelling on was built for present and future mining in the Danakil depression. An Israeli company is undertaking extensive Potash mining there and the government has plans for a lot more mining.
We stop for a lunch prepared by the expedition cook who travels ahead. This is in the Afar village of Berhale and here we can witness the extremely severe and completely basic conditions these hardy people exist under. The huts are made of sticks and grass. We descend further through what are named the Danakil “Alps”, aptly named for their statuesque peaks but consisting of brown earth and rocks only.
After 126km and 5hr 30min we emerge onto the flats, all along the way I have had to be at full throttle to maintain my third position in the convoy. Here once again we are in a world of black volcanic rocks, boulders and scree as at Lake Turkana. Here we are 100m below sea level and the temperature is at 41C. In retrospect, considered in its entirety and despite the long stretches of excellent tar, this expedition probably just about equals the Turkana route for severity. Twenty two km further on we have our first sighting of Lake Assal and the huge expanse of salt flats in the Depression. Quite a view to assimilate.
Finally, after 160km and about 6hr 30min, we reach Hamedela village which was to be our overnight stop. This is the end of the tar road and feels like the end of the world. After completing the security formalities we head out on the rippled salt surface onto the lake bed. I think this is as far (if at all) that someone self-driving independently will be allowed to travel on their own. We took about 4 soldiers from the military base with us. After security problems in the past, the Ethiopian government appear to be unwilling to risk any further threats to tourism. I am not absolutely sure but think that independent travelers just arriving on their own , not in a convoy and without a guide, would be turned away even if willing and able to carry soldiers. I am pretty confident that it would be difficult to obtain advance security approval even in a major center like Mekele. Actually this is a remote, harsh and unmapped area and I cannot see a sortie into this area being successful without guides and in an organized convoy. It was intrepid enough to drive ones own vehicle in as we were doing.
This was the first of many environments the likes of which we had never seen before. We first drove a km or two on the rough rippled track to a salt excavation pool. We had been warned to bring bathing garments if we wanted to swim. As it turned out only 2 of us ventured into the intensely hypersaline water, more salty than even the Dead Sea. The salinity is an amazing 37%. The water bubbles like a jacuzzi and is about 28C. It obviously allows one to float freely but when I dipped my head under the water foolishly the saltiness caused intense burning of my eyes requiring washing out with fresh water. The other hazard is the very sharp edges of the salt crystal forming the wall of the 15m pool. Strangely enough, even though there was not enough water to rinse adequately afterwards, the salt caused no skin irritation but I later had to rinse my face and head thoroughly as the sweat from the heat would cause severe burning of my eyes as it ran down. This sensation of floating effortlessly was a new experience for me and one that I would recommend to all.
We then moved further out onto the salt bed where we parked the vehicles at the water’s edge. We were passed by multiple camel caravans heading out onto the salt mining area or heading back loaded with salt slabs. This was the peak season for these really intrepid excursions. What a harsh life for man and beast, dating back for many ages. Unfortunately this evocative spectacle is due to vanish over the next few years as massive commercial salt mining swings into operation. Here we could walk out into the shallow water and take pics of the amazing salt formations. We waited until sunset for more great photos before having a great party on the lake edge complete with Ethiopian music, dancing and drinks, including rough Ethiopian wine and Oozo. My ice-cold beers went down a treat.
The night was spent in the very basic Afar village. Here most spent a rather uncomfortable night in the open “million star” hotel. The very rickety beds of wooden poles and a woven base proved not very comfortable. But we were most comfy in our roof top tent. Unfortunately the all too common Ethiopian habit of lack of consideration proved irksome with the village children and even adults trying to score gifts from us. They were also rather noisy through the night causing the first of a few nights disturbed sleep. A generator was present powering a fridge with cold drinks. Unfortunately as Moslems they did not serve cold beer and these were obtained after a short walk to the nearby army canteen. There is no running water here and even the tank water here is like gold so there is no opportunity to wash at all. There are no toilets and one has to sneak off across the road where one is not granted much privacy and then stumble around in the dark where the chances of standing on previous tourists’ landmines is a major risk. These tough conditions would continue for the rest of the 4 days. This trip is certainly not for the fastidious and is particularly tough on the ladies as one would predict.
Main. Floating like a piece of… err… soap.
1 and 2. The pedestrian suspension bridge near Mekele.
3. The first camel train near the beginning of the 7 day trek to the Danakil.
4. An Afar village.
5. The Danakil Alps.
6. The indigenous beds some slept on.
7. The end of the tar road at the edge of the Danakil Depression and the salt flats.
8. A hero of the struggle, far from.
9. The salt formation.
10. On the edge of Lake Assal.
11. Sunset over Lake Assal, a special moment.