The Danakil desert of northeastern Ethiopia and southeastern Eritrea is one of the planet’s most extreme environments. Despite the hardship involved with getting there and getting around, a growing number of adventurous tourists are visiting the Ethiopian side of the Danakil. Stuart Butler joined them in order to see what was drawing them there.
The Afar people, who call Danakil home, have long been renowned for their pride and independence. Before the 1930s almost every outsider who tried to explore the area found themselves being castrated by some not-so-friendly locals. Today the region and its people retain their reputation. Guns are common and tourists are required to travel with armed militia and in an organised tour.
Tourists drive through over a salt pan in the Danakil desert. Organised tours can be arranged in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa or in the large city of Mekele.
Sandstorms, whipped up by hot, violent winds, are a frequent occurrence in Danakil. Here a camel melts into a haze of sand. In addition to camels, other large mammals live in this extreme environment. I saw a number of gazelle surviving in areas with a little more vegetation.
Dallol, an old mining town in the middle of Danakil, is said to be the single hottest place on Earth, with a year-round average temperature of 34 Celsius. Between May and September afternoon temperatures in Danakil are almost always above 50 degrees Celsius.
One of the major tourist attractions in Danakil is the sulfur fields around Dallol. Here the Earth has ripped itself open and created a colourful canvas of yellow, red and orange sulfur deposits that have left a landscape that would make an alien from Mars feel at home.
Danakil is the point at which the Great Rift Valley tears into Africa and sets off on a near trans-continental journey of destruction and construction. So powerful are the forces at work here that ever so slowly Africa is being torn apart, and one day, way in the distant future, this searing desert will be the bed of an ocean.
Highly volcanic, there are numerous extinct and dormant volcanic cones throughout Danakil, but at Erta Ale the guts of the planet spill out in the spectacular form of one of the world’s only permanent lava lakes.
Tourists can spend the night sleeping in flimsy stick shelters on the rim of Erta-Ale. In January 2016 the volcano started to overflow and at the time of this authors visit a fresh, ever-so delicate layer of freshly cooled lava covered much of the interior or the main crater.
Like most desert people the Afar live a hard life but hospitality is always on hand. Here a cup of sweet, black tea is brewed up for the author.
Change is coming slowly to Danakil. New roads, phone towers and public services are starting to tame this wild land and ease travel conditions.
Local legend says that the Danakil was once a desert of gold, but that the people who lived here became lazy in their wealth and forgot to pray to God. In retaliation He turned what was gold into salt. It’s said that one day, when humans again live in peace and pray to God that He will turn the Danakil back into gold.
Perhaps more than anything else the Danakil is known for the salt ‘miners’. These men, who come from the highlands of Ethiopia, walk down into the heart of the Danakil to a vast salt pan and then dig slabs of salt out of the ground, load them up onto huge camel caravans hundreds strong and walk them back to a collection point where the salt is transferred to waiting trucks and taken to highland markets.
It was only a few years ago when the salt caravans actually walked for a couple of weeks all the way back to the markets in Mekele, a large city in the highlands. Today new roads are changing this trade and with a road being laid right up to and into the salt pan it’s quite likely that this trade that has lasted for generations might finally vanish like the Danakil’s once legendary gold.
Stuart travelled to the Danakil desert with Ethiopian Quadrants, Ethiopian Airlines and SMOKESILVER TRAVEL. Ethiopian Quadrants is one of the best regarded and most experienced local tour operators. Ethiopian Airlines, the national carrier, flies to Washington DC, LA, London and other western capitals. SMOKESILVER TRAVEL is a small, bespoke African specialist tour operator that focuses on experiences rather than sights.
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