I have officially been elevated into a highly respected tier of hard core travelers as I book my place for a trip to Danakil Depression. Named as the most hostile place on earth, Danakil Depression is located in the northeastern corner of Ethiopia and encloses possibly some of the world’s hottest and lowest spots.
How did I end up on such a trip? I’m not even a good backpacker. I am terrified of traffic accidents. I can hardly ever sleep in a car I am not driving myself – instead I stare at the road obsessively. I do not enjoy danger and intensive social encounters tend to exhaust me. All things considered I have decided I am still doing the trip. I know I will never embark on such an adventure if I don’t do it now that I live here in Ethiopia.
Our trip begins in Bahir Dar from where we head northeast towards the city of Mekele. It is an 11 hour drive, landscapes varying from dry mountains, churches, traditional houses, and cattle to lush, fecund pockets of mountain springs and banana trees. We pass town centers with kids loitering around coffee shops which look identical in every town; only the scarf colours in the clothing shops may change according to which region we are in. When you are roadtripping on sometimes astonishingly smooth roads in Ethiopia, you realize where China has invested their money in. Only from the beginning of 1990s the amount of paved roads in the country has increased fivefold.
We travel for 11 hours but on the map we have only moved a tiny fraction of what constitutes the whole country. Africa is not a country, they say, and correctly so. It is road trips like these that make me realize that the scale of our misunderstanding of Africa is sometimes as gargantuan as Africa itself is.
In Mekele I take advantage of an internet connection, a luxury which will be missed during the next three days. I watch the news channel which confirms a universally accepted fact these days: the world is a foul, dark place in which horrible things happen all the time. Horrible news seem to coming from particularly Africa, it seems, when I watch the news: violent clashes in Zambia and DR Congo. Not to mention ebola. By watching TV no one should ever travel to Africa. The news channels always bring out the bad stuff.
Not that I don’t have the jitters myself. I know that the Danakil is not the safest travel destination. In 2012 five tourists were killed and five more kidnapped in the area. In 2011 a french tourist disappeared without trace. Minor details which I have ‘forgotten’ to mention to my parents and assure myself that the security situation is better now. It is, that’s for sure: according TripAdvisor the Danakil is visited almost weekly by foreign tourists and no threats have been observed after the horrible 2012 incident. Yet we, the world, all of us, are doomed, I think as I glance Al-Jazeera one last time and fall asleep.
The morning after, however, life seems to go on. Kids are playing football outside the hotel window and two street cats are having a fight. Injera, the center of the Ethiopian food universe, is served at our hotel breakfast which proves that the world is still on track. We meet our tour operators and the rest of the group outside the tour agency.
We are a group of five joined by another 15 or so. Off we drive in our generic white land cruisers, the four wheeled hero for all adventurers in Africa. It takes roughly four hours to reach the Danakil. This is only the beginning of what I will observe during the next three days; in addition to seeing truly miraculous wonders of nature, this trip is most of all a sitting spree in a land cruiser. And this is also the time when one realizes how important a good road trip soundtrack is. Not that I don’t love Ethiopian music. But its trans-like mantra beat can be tiring after hours and hours. One can only tolerate so much synthesizer.
We’re a versatile group. Mostly adventurers, I guess, judging on the sheer number of proper and expensive hiking boots and gear. For the majority here it’s not the first time to do something this adventurous. We have a group of South African women who have climbed Annapurna and are now here before they continue to Mount Kenya. Then we have the lone world travelers. We exchange some book tips – Ryszard Kapuściński is the man for all travellers in Africa, has been, and will always be. Nothing else than a couple with a selfie stick reminds me of a normal holiday. Then there’s the backpacker with folky hair who plays his guitar at dusk. At nightfall I’m guessing Redemption Song will be played, and my guess turns out to be correct. I don’t mind, though. There’s no other song I’ve sung as much during my 14 months in Ethiopia. The folky backpacker also plays Twist and Shout and tries to get the echoes from local kids who by now have formed a circle around him. It sounds comical when a bunch of local kids are singing you know you look so good. Come on and twist a little closer. If you can play the guitar, you’ll find friends anywhere in the world.
Danakil is a geologist’s wet dream. Located at the juncture of the African, Arabican and Somali tectonic plates, it comprises a surface of which most parts are below sea level. There was a time when the whole low-lying surface was submerged by saline water. Start with Lake Asale, for instance, our first stop for the visit. This is a salt lake which gets is water from the Red Sea located only 80 kilometers to the east. Our guide tells us we are currently standing in the lowest spot on earth. Lake Asale is located about 116 metres below sea level. We are told that we are lucky that the day is cloudy. Usually this spot is unbearably hot, and travellers in general are advised not to plan their travel to the Danakil outside the months from November to March. In its surreal beauty – we are in a desert – it reminds me of home, Finland. Lake Asale looks like an icy Finnish lake.
In this part of the world average daily temperature lands somewhere between 35 and 40 celcius degrees. In this heat the lake’s water evaporates and salt is formed. Thus salt production is the main livelihood of the local Afar people. Afar is the region Danakil is situated in, it is one of the nine regions in Ethiopia.
Salt is extracted by first removing it from the ground by using a simple axe. It is then cut into smaller pieces and finally refined into fine squares. The squares are then packed onto camels. One camel can carry about 140 kilos. When the caravan is ready, the camels start their seven day journey to Mekele where the salt is sold on the market, about 50 Ethiopian Birr for one square. This is how it has worked for a long time.
Lately there have been discussions about building modern roads and modern salt processing facilities to the region. Undoubtedly that would make the whole process more efficient but the Afar people don’t seem too happy. It is again one example of how vexed and sometimes unwanted the process of modernization can be, leaving the lifestyle of the locals into a precarious state. During our visit to the region it seems like there are a lot of prejudice against the Afar people. ”They are lazy, they don’t like work” or ”They are violent” seemed to be the most common comments. If history is to be believed, the Afar people do indeed share their part in violence. The story goes that during the short Italian occupation in the country any Italians who dared to enter the region got their testicles cut off. But most of the prejudices echo a far too familiar hostility against Muslim people.
Back to the lake which offers me an experience I will never forget. We take our shoes off and slowly walk in the salty water – a great treatment for my dry legs – and suddenly I notice something in the water. It’s a foot. It’s definitely a foot. It is a not as wide as a normal human foot but there is no doubt that it is a foot, I can see the toes and toenails and all. Why on earth would there be a foot bone in the salt lake? I call upon our friends and they act as my witnesses. Yes. That’s a foot. We feel somewhat disgusted now to be walking barefoot in the water and decide to walk away.
Then slowly my brain starts to pick up. What did I just walk away from? We are currently in the horn of Africa, scientifically proved as the birthplace for human beings. Some of the most important archeological findings have been made in the country I am currently living in. Heck, Lucy was found here! Frantically we head back and desperately – although in an elegantly silent desperation – we try and find the foot. It’s impossible. The lake is very shallow, but we have mobilized the mud from the bottom. The water is no longer clear but congested with brown mud. The foot is gone, gone, gone. What if this was my very own Indiana Jones moment? Would they have named the species Laura? These are the thoughts that go through my head. The disappointment is too huge to admit, and to calm myself down, I believe my boyfriend who says it was an old wooden stick (it really wasn’t a stick). This is what denial feels like.
After a bitter almost-but-not-quite Indiana Jones moment we set to our camp. We’re located right next to a site of a Canadian company extracting potassium from the soils of Danakil. It’s a strange world, the world of minerals that is. We are sleeping on simple woven bed-like thingies. It’s difficult to fall asleep, and for a long time I stare at camel caravans walking from the salt fields towards the city. When it gets dark, I can still hear them. It’s all very strange. What are we doing here? Why are the Canadians here? Has anybody ever thought where their salt comes from? Apparently from here, only a few dozen kilometres from the Eritrean border. I fall asleep sometime after midnight.
Staying at a camp with about twenty people in the middle of a desert sooner or later raises the same question: Where’s the toilet? We have been warned in advance that circumstances during the trip will be extremely rudimentary. Yet the poor sanitation situation surprises me. It is open urination and defecation, folks. Find your spot and hope that no one will disturb you (if you don’t like company) and remember to wash your hands (or wipe them with hand sanitizer since there is no running water) neurotically. By the way, it is not always easy to find shelter in a desert. Good night and good luck.
Here’s the thing. I am not of the opinion that the Western style water closet is the most sustainable and best way to tackle the sanitation issue of the world. But on this specific trip, I would assume that a tour company which is receiving hundreds and hundreds of dollars from every single visitor should bear the responsibility of building latrines or some sort of toilets around the camp sites. They should also provide trash cans and all in all inform tourists about the whole thing a bit more. As it is, the Danakil, despite its unreal beauty, is becoming a wasteland of human feces and empty water bottles. It is a sad and unwanted development which I hope they find a solution to.
But back to the beauty part. On our second day we see some of the most amazing places. Most of the time I feel like we are in the set of Star Wars or Star Trek or any upcoming space movie. Space oddity, below my feet, next to me, around me. Why don’t they shoot movies here in the Danakil? We see hot sulphur springs, crazy rock formations, salt fields. We walk through narrow caves and spot small rocks that look like diamonds. We meet local people and learn about their nomadic lifestyle. They live in temporary homes for about four months before they move on to a new place.
We overnight in a guest house and take a walk to a small waterfall. As often happens in a small Ethiopian village, kids start following us. Faranji! You! Money! You you! Where are you go? Usually I can handle it but this time I feel so tired. I am ignoring the kids and feel like a total asshole for doing that. But they are not being too kind either. One of them does a throat-cutting gesture to my friend as she refuses to give her water bottle to the kid. I wonder what previous tourists have given the kids to make them so anxious. I manage to talk to one local little dude. In my elementary Amharic, I tell him that I live in Bahir Dar and that I work in agriculture. That makes him laugh. What? Why? Why would you work in agriculture? He laughs again. Then he asks me about my religion. Ortodox? No. Muslim? No. What are you? No religion. That is very bad, he says bluntly and walks away.
That night we have a lovely dinner at our guesthouse. A goat has been slaughtered in the backyard a few hours ago and the dinner is plentiful with meat, injera, vegetables, and delicious Afar bread. The bread in Amhara region, where I live is sweet, sugary and more dessert like. The bread they serve in Afar is a delicious pita bread type. Over dinner our fellow travellers from Japan share their journey plans with us. Next up for them is Egypt and for the other one the trip continues from Egypt to North and South America, then maybe Australia, then back to Japan.
The last full day of our journey is a day of driving. So far we have been blessed with weather which is not at all hostile but in fact genial. But now, for the first time, I can feel the heat as we drive through the white desert sands. It feels almost dreamy, driving through the relentlessly hot landscape, dust colouring the air beige, huge ostriches standing there among the few green bushes. How can anyone live here, in such a place depauperate in vegetation. The dearth of suitable farmland has not meant that people couldn’t live here, though. Locals have their camels and goats which in turn can eat the one plant which is abundant around us. They call it the Dead Sea fruit. It is poisonous for humans but suitable for camels and goats. And these scraggly goats and tractable camels, they are everywhere, in huge pacts.
On that final stretch of the long day we spend three hours on a distance of 30 kilometers. Our guides tell us this is the worst road of the world – I don’t know which criteria have been used for the selection but this one definitely is a bad road by all standards. Finally those four wheelers get to show us what they are made for. What we are driving on is at times not even a road; it is just black lava surrounding us by the mile.
The camp site we arrive at hours later is just a quick preparation site for our upcoming hike. We set off almost immediately. The trek to the volcano has to be done in the dark or otherwise the hotness is too much to bear. According to researchers about 30 active or dormant volcanoes can be found in the Danakil area. These volcanoes are, in a geological timespan, youngsters as many of them took shape only in the past 10 000 years.
Erta Ale is one of the most active volcanoes in Africa and has been in a state of continuous eruption since at least 1967. What we are about to see is unique in many ways. There are only five active lava lakes in the world; Erta Ale in Ethiopia is one of them and in addition there is Nyiragongo in Democractic Republic of Congo, Kilauea in Hawaii, Mount Erebus in Antartica and Villarrica in Chile. Lava lakes are rare because they require the volcano to be active enough to produce a constant flow of lava.
We approach the volcano silently in the night, only headlamps and the stars to help us stay on path. Far away one can already see the volcano; the crater is omitting a strange orange glow. Did J.R.R. Tolkien really never travel in Ethiopia? The landscape looks so much like a Lord of the Rings scenery. Even the names of some places in this country (Shire, Aksum, Gonder) all sound like the places mentioned in the trilogy.
One of our tour members seems to be afraid of the dark or of whatever is lurking in the dark. When we take breaks during our hike he keeps his flashlight on all the time and checks all corners, he carefully examines every little spot. Maybe he is afraid of spiders.
When we finally reach the volcano a strange buzz takes over the group. We try to stay cool – we are adults, after all – but I feel like everyone would like to run to the crater and knock over anybody who gets in their way. This is what we have to come to see at the Danakil. Despite all the rest, this is it, this is the main attraction. And nothing could have prepared us for it. It is more spectacular and more raw than I could ever have imagined. It leaves you speechless.
We are standing at the brink of the crater, just a few meters from the edge of a fall that would lead to an immediate death. The lava underneath us is too hot to understand – at a temperature of 1300 celcius degrees it keeps flowing from the insides of the volcano. Strange details call my attention while I am standing there: is lava really that yellow? It looks golden, almost fake. It looks as if the volcano is a war scene. The lava explodes on one side and immediately the other side retaliates. Then it is silent for some time until it explodes once again; this evokes spontaneous cries among our tour members – it just feels like we are witnessing the force of nature more closely than ever before.
We sit there for a long time. As we finally walk away around midnight, we spot huge spiders and cockroaches around the crater. Come on, nature. You never seize to impress me! Of course you would inhabit huge spiders and cockroaches around Mordor.
As I lie there in my sleeping back that night and look at the sky I get an inkling of what life might have been like for us humans some time not so long ago. Not carrying too many possessions, eating only when we are hungry, and when we eat, we eat, instead of simultaneously performing a range of other activities. We walk to a destination and have to get along with other people. If we don’t get along, we don’t survive. When we are tired, we sleep. There is no multitasking, we are doing what we are doing, just being.
As human beings, we have become strangely isolated from that being part. Maybe that is why we need to go on these extreme trips, to force ourselves to be in the moment, to be in touch with nature, our oldest pal.
The night at Erta Ale is warm. Behind us the volcano is incandescing across the sky. The local Afar people call Erta Ale the gateway to hell and have an atavistic fear towards it. I have to admit that there’s some truth to that fear. The volcano has this ominous glow to it. But most of all it makes me feel humble. And blessed.
p.s. We organized our trip through Tankwa Tours & Travel Agency. I can recommend it with pleasure!