Danakil Ethiopia: Scorched earth

Danakil Ethiopia: Scorched earth

YVONNE VAN DONGEN

Erta Ale at midnight. Staring at the lava lake in the dark is like looking into the sun.

A sickle-shaped machete is draped across his waist, a Kalashnikov slung over his back and his teeth are filed to points. The man standing in front of me is from the Afar, a tribe known for their ferocity, a tribe that has historically castrated upon capture, a tribe given to ancient enmities. And the guide wonders why I don’t want to sneakily take his photo?

“Quick. Quick,” urges Yegerem. “Don’t ask.” Exasperated. “They will only say no.”

Yegerem takes my camera, takes the photo, hands it back. Exasperated. Again.

And well he might be. But I’ve read the foreign affairs travel advice (ours, Australia’s the Brits’, Canadian, German, anywhere you like says basically don’t go, the people are fierce). I’ve already seen too many revenge towers, none of which are ancient artefacts but living records of scores to be settled. And I know that in 2012 five tourists were shot in the head by local gunmen though the who, what, why of it is still a mystery.

So, yes, the Afar have my complete respect.

Yegerem’s not burdened by such flabby concerns. He asks the Afar man to open his mouth wider and surprisingly, obligingly, the man’s smile splits into a grinning maw of filed fangs. He could be a vampire – or a crocodile.

Afar teeth are filed when young, explains Yegerem. Slowly slowly. It’s a painful business. Yegerem snaps away again with my camera. Hands it back. This will become a pattern of the trip. Fortunately he’s a good shot.

Afar dwellings on a bed of scoria.

He’s also the boss of this tour. Even though Pamela Robbie, the New Zealand co-owner of the tour company, is with us, it is Yegerem who will negotiate with local chiefs, arrange payment, agree on how many local police and escorts we need and generally set the pace of the trip. And, as Pamela Robbie says, since she’s never had a problem with a tour Yegerem has led, why would we quibble with any of his decisions? Especially on a trip to the Danakil, one of the more dangerous places on Earth. Certainly the most dangerous in Ethiopia.

The Danakil depression is one of the lowest points in Africa and extends from north-east Ethiopia through to Djibouti and Eritrea. The lowest point (156 metres below sea level) is in Djibouti but in northern Ethiopia, where we are travelling, it’s around 90m. Those are just bald facts. It’s not till you get here that you realise actually you’re going to hell and back. Or the closest thing to it.

National Geographic once dubbed the Danakil “the cruellest place on Earth” and with an average temperature of 35 degrees Celsius and daytime temperatures in the 50s, they’re right on that score.

But the landscape is devilish too. At its most benign are the vast tracts of salt deposits, the result of ancient ocean floods in the desert. Salt has been prized by Afar for centuries and they still gather it using camel trains in the same timeless way. We’ve already seen these on our way here.

At its most ferocious the Danakil appears to be birthing a new world. The Danakil is a dangerously beautiful geologic nursery with volcanoes, fissures, faults, hot springs and geysers, particularly up north at Dallol. The Earth’s crust is crispy thin here and is in fact ripping apart along three rifts.

In another 100 million years or so, the salty waters of the Red Sea will spill across this region, wiping out us as well as the Afar.

In the meantime we want to see Erta Ale, a volcano with one of only four lava lakes in the world (the other three are in Hawaii, the Congo and on Mt Erebus in Antarctica). It was discovered only in the 1960s but scientists estimate it’s been active for more than a century. We’ll also go to Dallol in the top north of the desert, famous for its sulphuric sculptures and colourful minerals.

As might be expected in such a hard land, travelling here is quite a production, requiring a permit plus many official and unofficial payments. Then we need a convoy of vehicles (for us, the cook, the guides, the police and simply as back-up). And at various points we need permission from the local chief to enter his territory and that’s where Yegerem, and no doubt a fair whack of birr (the local currency), comes in.

Local police who act as escorts for visiting tourists to Danakil.

The Afar are a tall, lean people and, like the Danakil, they are spread between the three neighbouring countries. They’re also highly territorial, given to fighting amongst different groups and clans. The revenge towers we sight periodically are tall piles of stones commemorating the death of a tribesman by an enemy. Once that death is avenged, the tower is lopped in half.

For all that we are accompanied by policemen, both the neutralised shorter towers and still potent untouched ones are an unsettling reminder that this is a fearsome place.

As it turns out, the policemen we get for the final leg of the journey are the smallest Afar I’ve seen to date. These quail-boned homuncules are fair dwarfed by their armoury and it’s hard to imagine them protecting us from anything apart from perhaps a bad-tempered goat.

But Lord they can talk. When they get together these men gossip like nobody’s business and when they do, they’re actually minding everybody’s business, finding out important things like who is in the region, what happened 3 kilometres away, what new alliances or betrayals have been made, plus any weddings, weather, missing camels and that’s just for starters. It’s a bush telegraph called dagu and it’s how they get the news they need.

On and on the little policeman and their mates blather while our group of six rest, conserving energy for the four-hour walk to the top of the volcano in the cooler temperatures of evening.

Apart from the twittering men, the other sound we hear occasionally is the groan of a protesting camel as they are saddled up. But we will not be riding camels up Erte Ale. They will carry only our bedding and food, for we will camp at the top.

It’s fair to say I’m dreading it. The relentless heat, the long bumpy drives over scoria, the lack of toilet facilities are beginning to get to me and I haven’t told Pamela but I’m a rubbish tramper. I know, I know. I should hand in my New Zealand passport. I can’t help it. I hate hills. Mountains bore me. I’d like to flatten the world so we could cycle everywhere. My Dutch genes are obviously the winners here.

Plus, I have to confess, I’m prone to whinging. If only Pamela knew. It’s possible she does sense something since she hands me a pair of walking sticks and a torch I have failed to bring. And that’s it. No more excuses. We’re off.

Camels are used to carry loads, not people.

The tiniest policeman elects to accompany me and instantly proves his 33kg worth by carrying my bag and water. Shamefully, though I am twice his size, and am wearing whopper clodhoppers while he walks in plastic sandals, I let him.

He tells me he has six sons so obviously he is very virile and powerful and more than capable of carrying camel loads of gear. The walk isn’t that bad, actually. It’s very gradual and the gathering darkness is silky and welcome after the bright hot daylight.

The trickiest part is not twisting an ankle on the crusty rocks. But like so many walks, this one goes on too long, even though Pamela says we are making good time.

And just when I think we are there we have to climb a bit more to the summit before edging our way down into the caldera, which also contains several steep-sided pit craters. Then it’s over brittle ground to the lip of the lava lake and just like Pamela promised, it’s all been worth it.

A lava lake is something to behold, a roiling, boiling, spitting beast of a thing, a savage heaving black and orange satanic soup as alive and vital as anything you’ve ever seen. If I stay long enough, I reckon it might even speak to me. If I stay long enough, it might actually move. Three years ago this lava was bubbling away behind me. Then somehow it moved to its current location. A vent or something.

After a fitful sleep on a mattress outside on the ground on the other side of the caldera, the next morning we climb in and down to the lava lake again. In the daylight the brittle ground reveals itself to be twisted into thick coils of rock rope. Pamela shows us candy floss she says is rock hair and over to our right there’s a smoking chimney made of writhing black rock snakes.

Erta Ale is no less impressive in the daylight. She, or is it he (definitely not an it) seems bigger today. Her vital stats: Erta Ale is what is known as a basaltic shield volcano, 50km wide, 600m high with a summit crater 700m x 1.6 km in size.

We gaze at it for as long as we can. We’d stay longer if we could but we have to leave if we want to make the four-hour walk back alive in this killing heat.

As usual the way back is interminable. I feel my face swelling, my legs buckling. I wonder if I’m hallucinating. I see camels everywhere and photograph them all. Just in time I reach the windless base camp where breakfast awaits. I collapse on entry.

My little policeman hands me my bag. He is pleased with me. Despite his wife and six sons he confesses to wanting to join me in New Zealand. He could be my husband, work as a policeman there perhaps. This would make him very happy. So how about it? What do I think?

I think, I say slowly, stalling for time, I think he is needed here. Think of all the feeble ferenjis (foreigners) who need their bags carried by such a strong, nimble chap. My little policeman nods, then shrugs modestly before finally skipping over the scorched earth in his ridiculous sandals to join his chattering clansmen.

Yvonne van Dongen travelled to Ethiopia with the support of Emirates but paid the ground costs herself.


 – Sunday Star Times

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