Extremes are compelling. As a child, I remember being very excited if the forecast predicted a record breaking day — either very hot or very cold. Under -30℃ or over +30℃ for Montreal. There’s something thrilling about simply experiencing the exceptional.
And what kid doesn’t pass through a volcanism infatuation? The idea of boiling rock. Explosions. Fire. You outgrow it but the sediment remains.
The combination of these two — extreme temperatures and volcanism — in the Denakil Depression captured my attention more than any other attraction in Ethiopia.
After coffee, of course.
The Hottest Place on Earth
Leaving aside the prickly details of particular measurements and their caveats, the Denakil depression stakes it’s claim on this extreme from three facts: it’s in a desert near the tropics, it’s a depression far below sea level (125 m (410 ft) , acting as a bowl for the heat), and it is very seismically active, with several volcanos spewing magma to the surface and boiling mineral-rich underground waters.
It’s also hot politically. As someone who cares for my safety pointed out, several governments (including 2 out of the 3 I’m a citizen or subject of) warn against traveling there, for fear of political instability from the Tigray people and border disputes with Eritrea (a few dozen km away)
Because of these environmental concerns, both political and physical, travel there is difficult. Permits are required. Armed guards. Multiple vehicles to carry extra supplies. While I suppose it’s possible to visit the Denakil independently, even hardened travelers — people who generally disdain holiday packages — take a tour.
With all that understood, I took the plunge and booked a four day trip.
The tour starts in the northern Ethiopian town of Mekele, the capital of the Tigray region. It’s 740km from Addis. A cheap flight would have been an easy hour, but none was to be had. While many countries have lots of budget carriers for short flights, Ethiopian Airways has a stranglehold here, and they reserve inexpensive fares for residents and those who fly into the country on Ethiopian.
I flew in on Lufthansa.
So bus it was. Thirteen and a half hours of twisting mountain roads and blaring Ethiopian music and films. Thirteen and a half hours starting at 4:30 AM in Meskel square in Addis. It was a tough way to avoid an airfare, even at a tenth the cost.
The day after the bus ride, the tour started at 9:30 AM just outside the hotel.
A tour group always starts off the same. As strangers, we feel each other out, looking for common ground. Names are mentioned and forgotten. Later, we will scour our memories to avoid the embarrassment of asking the names of people you like and feel you know well.
Our group consisted of 4 Poles: a father-in-law and son, Woijcek and Raphael, and a young couple Benedict and Lina. A Swiss woman, Sandra and an Israeli couple Shay and Shinan on their honeymoon. We were joined on the first day by a foursome of Chinese who work in Addis and a pair of Japanese spending their meager vacation (1 week!) halfway across the world in Ethiopia. On the second day, two German couples and a long term nomad, Simon swapped in for the East Asians. An Australian, Simon walked barefoot almost exclusively and was finishing his second year of traveling in Africa.
He was the longest on the road, but others were also on epic journeys: Sandra was just finishing up he first year (and treated us to astonishing pictures of Tanzania and Iran to show for it). Benedict and Lina, were diving exuberantly into 9 weeks of travel. Others had more limited timeframes, but most had extensive travel pedigrees.
Denakil attracts those who’ve already seen a lot. Those who’ve already had the easy-to-access amazements of the world.
The plan for the first day was to drive to the base of our volcano and the hike up to the camp. Leaving from Mekele we headed north. Our small convoy sets an ambling pace, stopping at small towns for coffee and permits. We picked up the obligatory police officer wielding a machine gun — in case of kidnappers, though they’d have to be very lackluster criminals to be deterred by this tattered and worn cop. We watched increasingly small and desolate towns wheel by. The landscape dried and filled with rocks and cacti. Then rock alone. The boredom of the residents of the little stopover towns was evidently improved with abundant khat.
After 3 or so hours of stops and smooth highway, we abruptly left the road for a path though a boulder and lava rock strewn desert. The temperature in the LandCruiser’s dash gauge had climbed to the high 30s ℃.
Soon the gravel path gave way to raw desert, alternating between classic sand dunes and scrubland filled with some hardy green plants. Plants strong enough to sink a taproot down into the remnants of the last rainy season’s water hidden far below the surface.
As the temperature passed 42℃ we stopped for lunch at an utterly improbably village in the middle of the desert. We were fed just outside it in a large rough building. The stick walls were barely enough to keep out the swirling dust as we ate our meal of goulash, cabbage and potatoe something and bread. Watermelon for desert and tuna fish from a tin as garnish. Very bland but palatable. This style of cuisine, which I’ll call “international flavorless”, was sadly to become the default on our journey. Evidently actual Ethiopian food was considered too exotic and costly to be offered more than once.
Shortly after leaving the lunch outpost to its dust-blasted oblivion, we left the desert road and climbed up onto the lava outflow for the last 14 km.
Driving in the desert is bumpy. Driving on old lava is like an amusement park ride that lasts longer than is remotely amusing. The driver (“GTK”) had a charming phrase to describe it: “dancing without permission”. The track though the rock tossed the Toyota around like a toy, and us passengers bounced around like there toy’s googly eyes. 14km took about 90 minutes. It was brutal.
Finally, and with everyone’s stomach contents mercifully still within us, we arrived at our destination: a military encampment at the base of the volcano.
It’s an odd military camp. Circular stone buildings of lava rock with straw roofs. No mortar. The soldiers lounging about are camera shy and not too eager to interact with what must be a daily supply of bewildered, parched and slightly carsick tourists who show up incongruously in their post-apocalyptic outpost.
Anyway, they don’t need to put up with us for long. We’re just here to eat, load the camels and await dusk to set off on our 12km trek up the mountain.
“The clouds wanted to be near him, and, to water Him”
*dirk gently holistic detective agency
One of the memorable characters in Douglas Adams’ book “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency” is a rain god who believes himself to be an ordinary person with incredibly poor luck with the weather. Of course, in England getting rained on a lot doesn’t send you looking for paranormal explanations.
Outside of the rainy season in an Ethiopian desert however, it was very odd to see cloud cover rolling in as the sun web down. As we started our trek, the northern sky lit up with lightning. Uh oh.
This prompted a discussion about the “camping” we were to do at the summit, and the “tents” implied by the word “camping”. The answers we got from our guides were vague and not very reassuring and were followed up by questions to us regarding whether we had waterproof bags for our electronics. Just wondering.
Soon the rain was the least of our worries. The clouds had made a quarter moon night black. As we picked our way up the mountain, the terrain our flashlights picked out for us each in our solitary paths went from sand to comfortably solid rock to lava rubble.
This last, we were assured, was temporary. A short stretch. This was good because it was unstable and shifted beneath our feet. It was also incredibly sharp. Soon the member of our company, Raphael, who thought to bring a first aid kit showed himself both wise and a humanitarian as he doused half a dozen bleeding cuts with antiseptic.
As 10 minutes turned into 30 and ripened to an hour, any reasonable interpretation of “temporary” could no longer describe our situation. We blew past the 3 estimated hours for the whole trek. I still thought nothing was wrong.
Others in our party, however, were pretty sure something wasn’t right. Not right at all.
First, we’d lost some of our members. They’d split off with one of the guides and not rejoined.
Second, we were straining the limits of some of the trekkers with this dangerous stumbling. The faintly glowing caldera we could make out on the horizon got no closer as we slaked the mountain’s desire for our blood. Frequent halts were called for. “Could the guides slow down?” Finally, first posed as a question then as an accusation: “this isn’t the path”. “If we continue we won’t be able to make it down.”
Our guide confessed we were not on the right path. But we soon would be. See those lights? That’s the other guide, on the right path, showing us the way.
So we trudged on. Some became increasingly angry as we past the 4 hour mark of stumbling by flashlight in rough terrain which demanded continual concentration to avoid scrapes and twisted ankles.
After almost 6 hours, at midnight, our 3 hour trip ended.
One Does Not Simply…
At the summit, we forgot our bedding arrangements. Any interest in them and the dismay of the trail was set aside by the view of our goal: we could see the glowing maw of the volcano, a short 7 minute walk away.
We took off. The view we saw made the pain worthwhile.
The opening of the volcano we saw glowing on the horizon was a wide bowl. Inside the bowl, about 30m from the rim was a pool of roiling lava. There are a only a handful of lava lakes in the world, and we were looking at one of them.
The pool of lava had a crust like the scum on a tomato soup. The crust was black rock, and convection tore it open in places to reveal the burning red orange lava beneath. These fissures formed a design like the sutures of a skull.
The most amazing thing, however, was a cave at the north end of the pool. Like a cave at a beach in high surf, churning waves of lava pounded against the walls, sending liquid rock spraying out. It was an awesome show of power. And mesmerizing, the mind trying to comprehend how this can actually be happening.
So for almost two hours we stared, photographed and ran from the poisonous sulfuric vapors shifted by the wind.
It was astonishing.
Exhausted, we clambered back through the fractured lava rock fields to the camp. To our camp. To our tents.
“Tents”, it turned out, was not the right word. We were set down for the night in what amounted to low stone pens, lying atop foam mattresses the camels had hauled up the mountain. These loose rock walls sectioned off enough ground for three mattresses in each ‘room’.
The walls afforded scant protection from the wind. It howled all night long and almost made it cold under my thin sleeping-bag-less sleeping bag liner. If it had rained, we would have simply been soaked. I learned later that our guide “OG” attempted to negotiate our entry into the (roofed!) military huts when it sprinkled some time in the night. The negotiations failed. Who knows what would have happened had it poured?
A pre-dawn start gave us another look at the volcano (despite the guides’ eagerness to get going), before we packed up and headed down. It remained no less amazing in the pre-dawn glow.
And this time we took the right path, which was nice and easy. Smooth rock and sand the whole way. It was enough to make you want to dance down the mountain.
We arrived back at camp for breakfast before facing the grueling car trip out through the lava trail, then through the trackless desert and finally onto the smooth asphalt highway.
As if to complete the experience and justify the cost and the size of the expedition (6 LandCruisers in all!), one of our vehicles became trapped in the sand. The thermometer read 42℃ as a tie rope and the pushing power of all the drivers and guides was deployed to get it free and the wind drove sand into their eyes and turned their skin to jerky.
Occasionally, from our AC bubbles, we’d see unaccountable figures moving through the light-brown windstorm. Where were they going? What were they doing? They seemed perfectly appropriate to the place but yet it was hard to imagine their lives, seeing just a snapshot of wandering through the void. A void whose heat and grit we can steel ourselves to bear only for short periods before retreating to the LandCruiser’s and their endless supply of 1.2L water bottles.
Evidently these Afari nomads herd the free-seeming camels and goats and collect transfer money from the Ethiopian government. But it remains hard to fathom the physical, economic and social ecosystems which support any kind of population here.
Our Africa-standard vehicle breakdown story complete, hours of car rides behind us, a spaghetti lunch in a box building featuring wallpaper made from UNHCR food bags and tourism posters in a town on the way back, we arrived at our guest house.
It was in the first town we visited on the way out, just outside of Mekele. The bucket showers, squat toilets, and the fact we used our same foam camping matresses to sleep on in empty concrete rooms (our room assignments being the same as our car assignments) told me I need not ask for the WiFi password.
Regardless, after 22+ km of hiking in a scorching desert and sleeping rough the night before, the primitive conditions were a definite improvement. The two shower rooms were in constant use for hours as we all slowly got clean of layers of dried sweat and dust. Our meal was very traditional: injera and shiro. Lots of lentils. Likely also traditional were tibs, which consisted of chopped up goat bits, stewed. The goat had been relieved of much muscle and fat, either by a hard life or a butcher. We were left to gnaw what little remained from the bones. Traditional.
Traveling with a group whose common (though not universal) language was German, I was reminded of things I’d noticed and things my brother in law has mentioned about them. It may be a stereotype, but there is truth in it: Germans don’t impress easily.
American scales of description are binary: things are either shit or awesome. For Germans, he world is mostly a sea of “nothing special”. Sure, some things are ‘super’. But most are not.
So it was appropriate that on the second day we were joined by real Germans (the other German speakers being Poles and Swiss) — the day was nothing special.
We left late after a random delay (which delights Germans) and headed out to another outlying town for lunch and permission paperwork in Beharile. The lunch was nothing special: vegetables and rice. Bottles of coke and beer for an extra fee.
Then on to our camp for the night. A military base guarding the howling emptiness of the desert. A salt lake. And a potash mine, formerly Canadian now Israeli. And the tourists.
We picked up our armed soldiers and headed to today’s destination: the salt lake, lake Asale (a.k.a lake Karum) to watch the sunset.
Worth its Salt
On the way we passed camel caravans. GTK told us their story.
For an unclear mixture of motivations: perhaps it’s to prevent too-rapid extraction, or maybe to provide lots of jobs — the salt mined in this area must be taken by camel, at least as far as the lunch/permit city of Berahile. Some even take it as far as Mekele, a seven day trek which increases profit from 3X to 10X. So while trucks could haul tons of salt easily, the roads are empty and strings of camels garland the desert.
The salt lake was interesting, but not exceptionally so. The ground was a patchwork of tiny pools, salt flower mounds and dirty lake mud. Evidently the place gets much whiter, but the recent rains had churned up the mud.
The sunset was likewise lackluster, fading slowly into the western clouds without a firy sky.
Still, very much a worthwhile excursion to wander the empty white plain barefoot in the fading light.
We head back. It’s time to celebrate our last night. We head to the military pub across the street. Unexpectedly tired from the day of little but travel and waiting, we lasted about 90 minutes. It was enough to learn more about OG, our guide. This is his last guiding trip.
First, OG stands for “One God” and not “Original Gangster”. OG is tired of guiding; the 500 Br ($23) he receives for 4 days of work isn’t enough to move his dreams forward. These dreams include visiting his daughter in Sweden and bringing great design to Ethiopia. See, OG is a man of passion and strong identity: he’s a designer, an architect and an artist. He insists it’s so and you believe him. His time at university ended when he fought with a teacher and would not swallow his pride to apologize. But he doesn’t need a paper, he said, he wants to design for his own business and he learned what he needed for that.
At 24, he could be the kind to foster his passion and talent into something wonderful. I hope he does. I’m glad our paths crossed.
We spent the night at the camp, sleeping in wicker beds under the stars. Again the constant wind robbed me of sleep, or perhaps it simply blurred the lines between sleep and wakefulness such that it gave the impression of unbroken semi-consciousness. In any event, we awoke with the dawn.
A quick breakfast of eggs and bread with Nutella and we were off. The itinerary explained by OG the previous night evaporated by inattention, the order of our various sights: “the colorful place”, “the salt mines” and “the hot springs” was unclear to me.
Dallol means “colorful place” in Afari, the local language. It provides the vivid imagery which graces the top attractions lists in tourists guides. The reality is just as amazing.
The trek starts out from the salt plain though rocky hills. These hills are formed by minerals spewing out of the seismic holes. We start up a rough brown outcropping, achieving our first remarkable landforms: grey egg-shaped mounds and white salt circles which look like seat-sized marble mushrooms.
Our guides urge us on when we dally with our cameras. This they would often do in this awesome place.
Over the rust colored ridge, the gem: a series of springs secreting multihued delicate rocks onto the landscape. Each spring forms a stalactite tower with a pool at the its base. Around each pool were greens and turquoise of stunning intensity and beauty.
When I see picture of scenes like this, I always ask “is it really like that?” It must be photoshopped, even just a little.
If anything the pictures don’t do the place justice. It’s utterly amazing. The images are more vivid to your eyes, and the feel of the and the sun and the sulfur haze in the air adds to the otherworldliness of the experience.
The guides finally pried us and our cameras away from this magical place, exhausted, thirsty and thoroughly delighted.
After the mineral springs, we headed to a small chain of salt mountains, maybe 100m high at their tallest. What made them striking though is that they drive up from the flat dry lakebed, which is otherwise undisturbed for kilometers all around. The mountains are composed of rock salt, sharp and saw-like but which crumbles easily in your hand and under your boot — very much unlike the lava rock of the volcano.
The “hot springs” were a small lake fed by boiling springs. Evidently the greenish water is prized for its medicinal value by the Afari. Though evidently not also by the birds, who are said to die from drinking it. Some of the party asked if swimming were possible and the question was met by vague dubiousness. It’s deeper than you can stand. Maybe the military won’t allow it. Such a strange question!
Anyway, no one took a dip. Either to swim or to take the cure.
The final part of our itinerary were the salt mines we’d heard tell about. These mines weren’t underground, but rather the salt blocks were cut out of the dry lake’s surface under the merciless sun. The Afaris who perform this brutal labor chop the blocks into 5 kg sections, load 26 of these sections on a camel, string a series of camels so laden together and drive them to market in Berahile. For this incredibly strenuous work, they are paid 6 Br ($0.25) per block.
Neither your job nor mine is anything like this harsh.
Footnote on the Afari people. On the flight back I had the good fortune to meet an Ethiopian cultural expert working for Dow Chemical. He reiterated and gave emphasis to be harsh lives or the nomadic Afaris. They scratch a subsistence living from an incredibly hostile environment. But, he said, the women suffer most: they do most of the work of gathering water and maintaining a home from the meager resources of the land. Traditional Islamic polygamy is practiced and men can acquire up to four wives to run their mean little empires of camel and goat farming in the desert. No wonder the smiles on the faces of be Tigrai people back in Mekele looked like ecstatic abandon after four days in the north.
Back to Mekele
Tours like these, where you take perfect strangers who share nothing but an interest in a particular experience for a multitude of reasons and have them live together for days, act as a microcosm of life. You form relationships and bonds. Gossip and petty resentments. You feel your companions’ character revealed by the heightened stress of the situation.
And then abruptly those bonds rupture as you go your separate ways. Just as the nature of the tour brings you together, the setting, separate vacations or travels, plans made before the trip started whirl you apart. Maybe you keep in contact with those you felt particular attachment to. More often you don’t. Perhaps a few will keep in some kind of contact. And once in a long while, you’ll meet someone you’ll see again.
Regardless, I really enjoyed my time with our little group. I may flatter myself indirectly by saying this more adventurous and out of the way trip (yet not so out of the way as to be unable to support a massive infrastructure of vehicles, materiel, guides and government bureaucracy, of course) brings together more interesting people. But perhaps such an idiosyncratic experience calls to people who are similar enough to like each others’ company. And that’s a pretty sweet deal.