An un­for­get­table trek to one of the hottest places on Earth

Windsor Star - - TRAVEL - 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.

The salt is white and looks like snow, mak­ing the lines of camels walk­ing across it seem es­pe­cially sur­real — a bit like a Na­tiv­ity scene in a Mid­west town af­ter a snow­fall, but re­ally hot.

The next morn­ing, it was on to Dal­lol, which has the un­en­vi­able rep­u­ta­tion of be­ing one of the hottest in­hab­ited places on Earth, with an av­er­age tem­per­a­ture of 100 F (38 C). It is one of the low­est points on the con­ti­nent, more than 91 me­tres be­low sea level.

The ground be­came a grim, cracked brown with streaks of colour un­til we reached a low rise that held bub­bling sul­phur springs. Crest­ing the hill, our eyes were as­saulted by colours that should not ex­ist in na­ture.

Bright yel­low, red and orange min­eral de­posits sur­rounded bub­bling pools as steam poured from vents in the ground.

It was just 8 a.m., but the heat was in­tense: a hot, hu­mid, cloy­ing sen­sa­tion that had us sweat­ing pro­fusely in a mat­ter of min­utes. Faces soon turned red and clothes be­came suf­fo­cat­ing. I felt for the guards, in their heavy green cam­ou­flage uni­forms, but they seemed to be fine as they mer­rily took more self­ies and helped my son clam­ber over the rough ground.

We drove south along the edge of the high­lands to Erta Ale. Close to the moun­tains, it once again was a dif­fer­ent Ethiopia on view, with green fields of bar­ley and the lo­cal teff grain, as well as herds of cat­tle with im­mense, curv­ing, pre­his­tori­clook­ing horns walk­ing be­neath the aca­cia trees on the side of the road.

That night, we slept out un­der the stars again and dined on grilled lamb. There was an un­com­fort­able mo­ment when a scor­pion scur­ried out from the cor­ner.

“Just kill it,” shouted one of my fel­low par­ents, and it oc­curred to me that with at least three chil­dren around, it might be time to put aside my Bud­dhist sen­si­bil­i­ties. I stomped on it with my Birken­stock-clad foot.

The ex­plorer Th­e­siger talked about the scor­pi­ons dur­ing his Danakil trav­els. He de­scribed putting on his pants with one in­side af­ter a dip in a lake and get­ting “se­verely stung.” He re­served his main ire, how­ever, for the hairy taran­tu­las that be­dev­illed his camp­sites.

“They scut­tle around the camp as soon as the sun sets,” he wrote.

“Last night we killed 12 in the camp. In my dreams they as­sume the most night­mar­ish pro­por­tions.”

Luck­ily, the taran­tu­las seemed to have gone the way of the big game that Th­e­siger so de­lighted in hunt­ing dur­ing his trav­els. The trip the next day to the vol­cano was a study in the de­clin­ing qual­ity of roads. We went from a broad, paved high­way to a wide, gravel track be­fore driv­ing over the tor­tu­ous, bumpy lava fields at just a few miles per hour.

Fi­nally, it was even too much for our in­trepid Land Cruis­ers and we reached a col­lec­tion of round, stone huts with thatched roofs that be­came a kind of base camp for trips by foot up the vol­cano.

Here, camel driv­ers, sol­diers and lo­cal mili­tia mem­bers of­ten hang out un­til ex­pe­di­tions like ours come for the fi­nal three-hour, sixmile trek to the caldera.

With our cars left be­hind, it sud­denly felt like we were in the true Th­e­siger ter­ri­tory from his 1930s diaries, in which he talked end­lessly about the state of his camels and don­keys, and ne­go­ti­a­tions with their own­ers.

We hired three camels for the trip, one for our gear and the other two for any­one who grew tired dur­ing the hike. We also had a few mili­tia mem­bers to ac­com­pany us.

While the Danakil to­day is noth­ing like it was in the time of Th­e­siger, when strangers were of­ten killed on the spot and ri­val tribes were en­gaged in in­ces­sant raids against each other, it does have a bit of a lawless rep­u­ta­tion, mak­ing armed ac­com­pa­ni­ment now an of­fi­cial re­quire­ment.

In 2012, a group of tourists was at­tacked at the vol­cano by armed tribes­men. Five died and two were kid­napped. In 2007, an­other group that in­cluded Bri­tish Em­bassy staffers was also briefly taken hostage. Since then, there has been a se­cu­rity post in­stalled at the vol­cano, and em­bassies have grad­u­ally lifted travel re­stric­tions.

It was a rare cloudy day, so we were able to start the trek in the late af­ter­noon in­stead of dusk, which is the tra­di­tional tac­tic to es­cape the sun.

We walked across a stark, beau­ti­ful land­scape of dark-grey lava flows that con­trasted sharply with tufts of straw-coloured grass.

The lava had the cracked and folded ap­pear­ance of as­phalt at an aban­doned city bas­ket­ball court.

The three-hour trek on a slight in­cline isn’t chal­leng­ing for some­one in shape.

The fi­nal hour, how­ever, was in pitch black lit by our flash­lights and the dis­tant glow of the vol­cano.

At the sum­mit, our guide led us down into the plain around the

crater and we scram­bled over lava flows that were just a day or two old. Once, you could camp right next to the crater. In the past year, though, Erta Ale has be­come quite ac­tive. We only made it within about 70 yards of the bub­bling caul­dron be­fore the heat kept us back.

We watched in awe as the lava leaped and fell back into the glow­ing bowl and made a strange hiss­ing noise. Ex­hausted, we made our painstak­ing way back across the

lava plain and up the cliff to watch the light show.

Th­e­siger of­ten wrote about start­ing his treks at 5 a.m., be­fore the sun grew too hot, and so we too started the climb down in the predawn grey­ness.

A last glimpse of the vol­cano showed it to be as ac­tive as ever, with red patches of lava, cool­ing in the plain, vis­i­ble to us even as the sky bright­ened.


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

Trav­ellers ad­mire their re­flec­tions in the mas­sive salt flats of the Afar Re­gion. Salt is the main re­source of the Danakil, and about 700 reg­is­tered min­ers work in the Ethiopian low­land.


A herder leads camels car­ry­ing tablets of salt in the Afar Re­gion.

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