ETHIOPIA: JOURNEY TO ANOTHER WORLD
Of all the places I have visited, very few – if any – have felt as remote, as other-worldly, as Ethiopia’s Danakil Depression.
It’s not because it’s particularly inaccessible. It might not feature on many run-of-the-mill charter itineraries – it is, after all, in a far-off corner of the Horn of Africa, in the same part of the world as troubled Somalia and South Sudan (at least as far as a travel agent in California or London would be concerned), and tourist facilities leave a lot to be desired. But it’s only a half-day drive from the nearest domestic airport, Mekele, which connects Ethiopia’s Afar region with the rest of the world via Addis Ababa and Ethiopian Airlines’ extensive flight network. Chances are you won’t even be alone, as a number of tour operators shepherd more or less intrepid travellers here on a regular basis.
Still. The feeling of being just about as removed as you can be from the rest of the world is definitely there. For one thing, it’s one of the hottest and lowest (terrestrial) places on the planet, situated some 100 meters below sea level. Summer temperatures often linger in the 50s, and even in winter (November to March) daytime temperatures rarely drop between 40°C. The nights, I’m sorry to say, aren’t much cooler. It was… unpleasant. And domestic airport and tour buses aside, it is remote.
More than that though, it’s… well, otherworldly. There really is no other way to describe it. The temperatures, the colours, the landscapes – there surely can’t be anywhere else like it on Earth. After picking up a military escort (this seems to be a pre-requisite because of the proximity to Eritrea, a country that doesn’t enjoy particularly cordial relations with Ethiopia), a sunrise visit to the Dallol sulphur springs is a mind (and nose) numbing experience. These bubbling and boiling wet patches are of great interest to astrobiologists who hope it might help us understand how life could arise on other planets.
Then there’s the salt lakes: huge expenses of white, easily mistaken for sand (or even snow or ice) at first glance. Mining salt in the Danakil Depression must surely be one of the worst jobs in the world. Large slabs of salt are hacked out of the ground, slung over camels, and taken back towards Mekele in huge caravans. All for a measly sum, of course. The photographic opportunities are great, but between 8am and 4p you mostly try to imagine you are anywhere but here as the heat becomes increasingly unbearable. Personal hygiene is, unfortunately, not a priority anywhere in the Danakil, so come prepared to see litter everywhere and to do your business pretty much anywhere but in a toilet.
The triad of Danakil highlights is completed by Erta Ale, an active basaltic shield volcano that continuously splutters lava. It is one of only six lava lakes in the world, and the one that has been around the longest: since 1906. Erta Ale, not so surprisingly, means ‘smoky mountain’ in the local Afar language. The hike here is straight forward enough and is best undertaken after dark, and while the camp is filthy the volcano itself is immeasurably cool. Figuratively speaking.
With Africa and Asia continuing to pull in opposite directions, it is believed that the African Great Rift Valley – the result of this divergent tectonic plate boundary – will eventually be flooded by the Red Sea, separating the Horn from the rest of the continent. If so, the Danakil Depression will probably be the first place to be inundated. So, you know. Visit it while you can. Definitely within the next few thousand years.
(To book a trip to the Danakil, I would recommend the local operator Agape Tours; from March you will be able to book through their partners in Europe, award-winning Matoke Tours, which also run tours all over East Africa and Madagascar.)