Descent into the Danakil Depression

There is a place on this planet where the earth sinks to 100 metres below sea level, where shifting tectonic plates have created an otherworldly landscape of bubbling lakes and stinking fumes, hallucinogenic colours and blazing heat, saline fields and crystallized caves. This is the Danakil Depression.

A 4×4 convoy takes us out of the Ethiopian highlands and descends down, down, down into a terrain of unknown landscapes, dust, and heat. Alien territory and alien conditions for this group of 12 faranjis – foreigners – who would perish if left to our own devices for longer than half a day. Holding the dubious titles of “the most inhospitable place on earth”, “the hottest place on earth”, and “the cruelest place on earth”, we see temperatures soar to 49 degrees Celsius.

It is survived by only the Afar, the resilient tribespeople who are able to withstand the extreme heat and who call this place their homeland. Settlements and villages in the most unlikely of places, in the middle of the desert wasteland, in an expanse of black volcanic rock. They live, but they move: walking the 10-day long road to Mekele with caravans of salt-burdened camels who have lost their humps, subsisting in nomadic homes that are ready to be repositioned at any time. Nobody ventures onto their territory without their permission. Although employed to protect us, we look at them with uncertainty. We sense that the slightest offense could turn the smile of sharpened teeth into a snarl, the barrel of the rusted machine gun (slung casually over one shoulder) towards you. But perhaps the land wasn’t always so harsh: the Danakil is the land of our collective mother australopithecus afarensis, Lucy (in the sky with diamonds).

Our vehicles crawl towards Erta Ale, “The Smoking Mountain”. We lay in the blistering shade, waiting for dusk to fall, then begin our ascent over the rocky terrain. Each of us holds a torchlight to light a small dim path up the mountain, following the spray of camel’s piss emerging from the creatures carrying our beds to the top. The crust of lava breaks underfoot. Then, the top. A red glow in the distance. The way down to the crater… Where??

We have seen volcanoes before, but this one is close. And angry. Molten rock bubbling and shifting, leathery black and waxy, red appearing in places where her anger flares up. The lava rock is unstable and brittle, leaving charred remains where a heavy hiking boot has broken through. Stay a good distance away from the crater edge… but the lava draws you in, and even far away may be too close.

Descent by the dawn’s light. The volcano is quieter, in her resting hours now, but the sun threatens to rise any minute to cook our bodies under its scalding glow. The downward journey cannot end too soon.

Under the sun’s glare, the only respite is the air conditioning in our vehicles. We faranjis hide inside, emerging to see sight after sight of unimaginable impossibility. “Sulfur springs, salt caves, oil lake, salt lake,” says our young guide Negasi as he outlines the day’s itinerary. What??

Dallol: fluorescent colours spread out before us, dark bubbling liquid rises up out of the earth, beautiful harsh rocks take crystal shapes under our fingers. We cover our faces at the unbearable smells, the poisonous fumes. We listen to the sounds of volatile liquids spurting out of the earth’s crust, threatening to erupt into the atmosphere at any moment. We crawl through alien rockforms to reach a beautiful puddle of saline, slick under the fingers. We see a thousand huddled figures in the distance, and venture near to find multitudes of animals and people, unprotected under the blazing sun, chipping away at the bounty of salt provided by the earth. Nearby, Lake Assal: an exquisite white saline lake blinds our eyes and tempts us to believe that we are on a glacier (or on an immaculate white beach of the Seychelles Islands), except that the salty liquid warms our feet and burns our blisters when we take off our shoes.

Back to camp, for a last night’s sleep under the desert sky. The gara (fire wind) blows. A goat is purchased and slaughtered in honour of a birthday, and appetites vary from repelled to ravenous in strange reactions to the heat. A mysterious woman appears to do the Ethiopian coffee ceremony, then disappears again, as woman usually seem to do in these regions. Dust, grime, and sweat. But a feeling of celebration and companionship during our last night together.

Night falls. The dust sweeps over us in our desert beds, sprawled in the unbearable heat, dreaming of cold Coca-Colas and ice cream. But the stars stretch out endlessly above us, telling a story throughout the night about the universe where we live, and the Danakil reminds us of all that there is out there to see.