Ethiopia of­fers a very, very hot spot

An un­for­get­table trek to one of the hottest places on Earth

Ottawa Citizen - - FRONT PAGE - PAUL SCHEMM

In one hand I held a flash­light; in the other, the hand of my sev­enyear-old son, Ray, the youngest mem­ber of our in­trepid troop that had set out to visit one of Africa’s most ac­tive vol­ca­noes. Be­hind us stretched a faint row of flash­lights and head­lamps from the other mem­bers of the team. The camels car­ried our bags. The lo­cal guards car­ried old bolt-ac­tion ri­fles across their shoul­ders. The dried lava around us still ra­di­ated the pun­ish­ing heat of the day.

This fi­nal trek up to the Erta Ale vol­cano had to be made af­ter the blaz­ing sun had set.

Af­ter a three-hour hike, we crested the ridge. Be­fore us was the glow­ing caldera, filled with danc­ing foun­tains of lava.

Ethiopia is in­creas­ingly mak­ing its mark on the global tourist map. But even for the most vet­eran trav­eller to Ethiopia, the Danakil is in a cat­e­gory of its own.

This pun­ish­ingly hot low­land, set be­tween the moun­tains of the Tigray Re­gion and the Eritrean Red Sea Coast, is home to im­mense salt flats that once were a ma­jor source of wealth for the me­dieval Abyssinian Empire, as well as colour­ful sul­phur pools and the Erta Ale — or “smok­ing moun­tain” — the most ac­ces­si­ble of the re­gion’s vol­ca­noes.

One of the first Euro­peans to make his way through the Danakil in the 1930s was the young Bri­tish ad­ven­turer Wil­fred Th­e­siger, who left be­hind the Danakil Diaries about his trips through a land that had meant the death of so many ex­plor­ers be­fore him, thanks to the ex­cep­tion­ally fierce and no­madic Afar peo­ple. He wrote about how, for the Afar, you weren’t truly a man un­til you had killed some­one. “A man can marry be­fore he has killed, but no other woman will sleep with him,” he wrote, adding: “They in­vari­ably cas­trate their vic­tims, even if still alive.”

Thank­fully, the rigours of the jour­ney are much less now. New roads have been cut through the moun­tains from the neigh­bour­ing Tigray Re­gion, so a jour­ney of days is now a mat­ter of hours.

We set off from Mek’ele, the cap­i­tal of the re­gion and a bustling, com­par­a­tively new town lo­cated a short flight from Ad­dis Ababa. Our con­voy con­sisted of two Toy­ota Land Cruis­ers for our seven-mem­ber group (me, my wife and son, and the other two chil­dren who had a par­ent each) and the guide, as well as a third ve­hi­cle car­ry­ing food, equip­ment and the cook.

The twist­ing road into the moun­tains above Mek’ele is a beau­ti­ful drive with sharp-faced peaks, wild veg­e­ta­tion and cool tem­per­a­tures, but soon we were de­scend­ing into the low­lands of the Afar Re­gion and the heat set in.

The first stop was the town of Ber­hale, lit­tle more than a col­lec­tion of makeshift huts made of flap­ping can­vas and cor­ru­gated iron near the high­way. Truck­ers, ex­plor­ers and oth­ers must stop here and pick up the per­mits to head into the rest of the re­gion. A string of restau­rants popped up and our guide led us into one, where our group gath­ered around a com­mu­nal plat­ter of the grilled Ethiopian meat-and-chilies dish known as tibs, ac­com­pa­nied by shiro, a chick­pea sauce that is a na­tional sta­ple. We washed it down with cold beers in the swel­ter­ing noon heat.

In the dis­tance, there was a col­lec­tion of tents from a refugee camp of Eritre­ans that had fled across the not-very-dis­tant bor­der.

By late af­ter­noon, we were slammed by the first of many un­for­get­table sights of the Danakil — the camel car­a­vans of the salt trade, a time­less im­age that prob­a­bly hasn’t changed in cen­turies.

Mov­ing along at a steady pace, hun­dreds of camels marched across the brown, flat land­scape in sin­gle file, with a herder walk­ing along every dozen an­i­mals or so. Each camel car­ried tablets of salt that have been carved out of the ground for the last two mil­len­ni­ums.

This “white gold” is the prin­ci­pal re­source of the Danakil. There are about 700 reg­is­tered salt min­ers from the Mus­lim Afar peo­ple and the Chris­tian Tigrayans. They called out to us in Ara­bic, ex­changed greet­ings and asked for cig­a­rettes and wa­ter.

By late af­ter­noon, we were slammed by the first of many un­for­get­table sights of the Danakil — the camel car­a­vans of the salt trade, a time­less im­age that prob­a­bly hasn’t changed in cen­turies.

PHO­TOS: PAUL SCHEMM/WASH­ING­TON POST

An Ethiopian guard looks across the brightly coloured sul­phur springs in the coun­try’s swel­ter­ing Afar Re­gion.

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