For the umpteenth time that day one of the four-wheel drive cars in our caravan was bogged down in the mud and sand. Our vehicle was forced to stop behind it and was soon stuck as well. Night had fallen and we stayed in our car as it started to rain, bright bolts of lightning piercing the vast openness that surrounded us. Our journey through one of the hottest, driest deserts on Earth was thrown off course by rain storms. Go figure.
In northeastern Ethiopia lies the Danakil Depression, a baking hot desert where temperatures frequently go above 120 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s the home of the aggressive and resourceful Afar people, ancient salt mines, and amazing geological formations. To visit the area you have to join a caravan of cars. Going alone would be suicide. Not only do cars frequently encounter problems on the rough tracks that serve as roads leaving them stranded in the oppressive heat, the area is close to Eritrea. Eritrea won its independence from Ethiopia in 1993 but fighters still sometimes cross the border and four years ago kidnapped a group of tourists. We joined a massive budget tour group of 23 travelers going in seven cars.
The tour company was recommended on the Lonely Planet website so a Belgian couple organized the trip, and we decided to join up with them. We exchanged a few emails and short phone calls with the company before arriving in Mekele but didn’t know much about them. At about 9 pm our first night in the departure town, a skinny young Ethiopian woman knocked on our door. Clad in tight jeans and a sparkling t-shirt, she looked like she had just come from a celebration. Abeba was our company representative. The very friendly woman hung out in our room, told us the itinerary, and then sleepily wandered off. She had returned from a different excursion to the Depression earlier that day.
After our brief interactions with Abeba and two ten-minute phone calls with the tour operator we never actually met, they decided they liked us and assigned us to the best car in the caravan. We were joined by Marie, a lovely French woman we met in the Simen Mountains and convinced to join us, and Peter, a biker from Australia. With his deeply tanned, weathered skin and his messy white hair and beard, Peter exuded “traveler.” Within a day of meeting him we had heard his favorite travel stories multiple times, were convinced of the quality of his BMW motorcycle, and knew that after almost three years on the road, he needed to head home. What he kept hidden for at least the first day was his innate ability to lead a group and solve a problem all with good humor and precision.
The first day of our excursion went without much trouble. We left almost two hours late, which means “on time” for most of this continent, and arrived at our lunch spot around 4 pm. The road was good quality gravel, and we got to the campsite shortly after dark. It was unclear where our band of 34 people would sleep until villagers started walking up carrying bed frames made of wooden poles and woven mesh. The beds were lined up outside next to the array of dilapidated stick and mat huts that served as the village. Sleeping inside would have been too hot. Only the strong breeze made the temperature bearable. For toilets we were sent to the ditch next to the site. In the wide open desert, privacy was impossible as we contributed to a public health nightmare. No one in the village had pit toilets and piles of excrement dotted the landscape. It’s still unclear to me if we helped the community by paying exorbitant amounts to rent their bed, or led to their ultimate downfall by introducing more diseases to the area.
On our second day we piled into the cars to head to Irta’ale, an active volcano. It was supposed to take about six hours to reach the base of the volcano. An hour into the drive over dried mud and sand we came across some wet patches. Six of the seven cars drove around the mud. The seventh, after watching the others circumvent the area, drove through and was immediately stuck. We waited in the 100 degree heat for half an hour while they pulled him out and were off again. Twenty minutes later we turned around. Communication not being the strong suit of any of our intrepid tour leaders or drivers, we can only assume the way was deemed impassable. As were the next three routes we tried. Finally, about mid-day, the drivers and the local Afar guide decided that driving the normal route on the rain-soaked mudflats wasn’t going to work. Instead, we drove through a sandy plain dotted with shrubs and camels.
We thought we were safely on our way until we reached the first river. In this case I use the term river loosely. It was a thin, shallow trickle of water through mud. Instead of getting out of the car to see the best route through, the first car plunged ahead and was stuck in foot deep mud. The next car drove easily around the beleaguered behemoth and tried to pull it from the mud. It got stuck in the process, as did the third car. Peter, who was used to driving around the Outback of Australia, tried to communicate via our driver, who spoke a bit of English, different ways of getting the vehicle out. He was largely ignored, and it took over two hours to move on.
The afternoon was riddled with small incidents. One car was stuck, then the next, then another. It was nearing dark when we decided to drive on a mining company road instead of plowing through the nothingness. It was pitch black when we finally extracted the cars from unexpected sand dunes and dramatically changed course. First we were told that we were lost and had taken the wrong turn. Most of the tourists were flabbergasted by the incompetency. Didn’t we ask for directions an hour before? Didn’t we have a local guide with us to prevent this from happening? Then, the story changed. According to Abeba, the Afar police man we were required to have accompany us had changed his mind. Originally he said we could skip the village where we had to buy another permit to visit the volcano and just return to pay in the morning. Now we had to backtrack to the village.
The caravan plunged ahead into the darkness. As we swerved around clumps of bushes and piles of sand, the wind started picking up. Soon, it was impossible to see around the vehicle and the other cars became vague lights in the distance. We were caught in a sandstorm. In truth, we felt lucky. The air conditioning worked in our car and all of the windows closed. One of the other cars didn’t have such luck. As we attempted to drive through the storm, unable to see out of the car, we envisioned their car filling with dirt. Our pity subsided when the most of the cars were far ahead, we were stuck in the sand behind one of the less competent drivers, and it started to rain. The lightning bolts were so bright and seemed so close, I was certain that our metal car sticking out in the empty desert would be like a lightning rod.
In our exhausted frenzy we started to devise a plan – who would sleep where, what food and water we had available in case the others didn’t come back for us. When the rain started, the wind died down, and we could see a ways into the distance. A single blue light was moving toward us. At this point our driver piped up. “I don’t want to scare you, but the Afar people say that devils appear in the desert at night carrying lights to confuse you. Not that I’m trying to scare you.” Thinking that a devil was better than nothing, we took out a headlamp and tried to flash S.O.S. into the distance. It was unclear if the other light flashed back, but by that point the rain had slowed and we decided to assess the situation on our own, or so we thought. We were quickly reminded of one of the cardinal traits of rural Africa: people materialize out of nothingness.
With the help of random village men and children, we quickly extracted our car only for the other car to be mired in an easily avoidable puddle for about an hour. The “devil” in the distance turned out to be the nice French man coming back to rescue us and to tell us that we had reached our destination for the night. After 14 hours of driving we were to hole up in another tiny village with mats laid out under random structures. One of the cars was now inoperable and our car of five became a cheery car for eight.
In the morning, we tried once more to head to the volcano. We followed a suggested route only to reach another river. As we got out of the cars to consider where to cross, water began surging down the river bed. All of the rain from the night before both in the depression and in the mountains was creating a flash flood. We quickly moved the cars and headed back to the village. Then the arguments began.
Some drivers wanted to stop trying to get to the volcano. Word filtered out that we also couldn’t get back to the original camp because of the floods. Our crowd of tourists began to panic. What if we ran out of water? They didn’t pack enough water, one group cried. Some went to count the number of water bottles in each car. Jeanette rolled her eyes. They were panicking about water when we were surrounded by rivers and had plenty of water treatment drops between us. They were worried about food when, if we got to dire straits, we could easily kill one of the innumerable camels. It was all a bit silly, really. People probably wouldn’t have panicked as much, though, if the communication was better. None of us understood the heated conversations in Amharic between Abeba, the guides, and the locals. All we knew was that after about an hour, we decided to try a different route.
This time, it worked. Smooth sailing. Okay, smooth sailing until the typical problem car was stuck in the mud again only an hour from the volcano base camp. After about an hour, we decided to eat lunch. More time passed. The Ethiopians gave up; they had tried nearly everything to pull the car out. Finally, Peter stepped up to the plate again. He directed all of us to start grabbing the innumerable volcanic rocks that littered the landscape. He and a few others started digging the mud out from under the tires and shoving rocks into their place. In twenty minutes we had a mini-rock highway and the car chugged, chugged, and was out. An hour later after a bumpy pumice road, we were there.
The hike up took about three hours. Even after dark the air was so hot that we all dripped sweat. We arrived at the peak and looked beyond the small, empty rock huts to a red glow in the distance. Under the light of the full moon we descended into a rock crater and within minutes were standing above a roiling, exploding, ever-changing pool of magma. About 60 meters below us was liquid rock – the mantel of the earth exposed. Depending on the wind direction, we were blasted with heat and sulfur, but it was hard to look away. The lava quickly cooled on the surface turning black and shiny. Red cracks cut through the surface exposing the lava below. Slowly, bits would sink under, red pools would form, and the lava would spurt into the air. Some bits would land like rocks on the fluctuating black surface and skitter across, others would ooze over and pull the blackness back down into the red. It constantly changed, constantly kept us interested. On the far side of the rim on which we stood, bits of rock fell into the pool below. We quickly stepped back, conscious of the cracks on our side of the rim as well. It was one of the most exhilarating and spectacular moments of my life. We watched for hours and celebrated the start of 11.11.11 with the small group who remained into the night.
When we finally decided to go to sleep, we walked back to the group of huts on the ridge. We weren’t allowed to put our mats in the huts or even the flattened walled off areas near the huts. The guide said that someone lived there, but, given that the place was deserted, we figure that the company would have had to pay someone if we were seen there. We bedded down on a rocky patch between a small pile of rubbish and an old animal pen. At dawn, we woke up the guide and returned to the pool. The lava had calmed down, but the morning light made it seem like the lava pool was much closer than the night before. We headed down the volcano and had a rather uneventful trip back to the original sleeping spot. It was a nice change.
Our final day in the Danakil included a visit to Dallol, the second lowest spot on the continent. At first it seemed like nothing more than a flooded salt pan. After a few kilometers of driving we started climbing up a pile of oddly textured brown salt rocks. Then, the salt began transforming. It became strange, round coffee tables that looked like sawed off logs. Then the white tables shrank into toadstools. We were bemused by the formations until we turned a corner and were dazzled. The salt formed fountains of neon yellow sulfur. The surreal formations glowed with the sulfur. Mounds spitting boiling water were yellow, pools were lime green, and plains of bumpy salt were brick red. The small lake felt Martian-like.
After visiting the lake we went to see the salt caravans. Dozens of camels waited to be loaded with salt bricks. The Afar men chopped large, flat chunks of salt from the salt plain, just as they had for centuries. Salt formed so quickly on the plain that even camel droppings were quickly covered. Using angled chisels the Afar chopped the salt into perfect rectangular bricks. Each camel carried four stacks of six bricks for six days to Mekele. Each brick sold for 25 birr each, or about $1.50. Rumor has it a company is trying to build a conveyor belt to transport the salt and put it into trucks. It would destroy a way of life that predates most modern cultures.
At long last, our trip to the Danakil Depression was over. Many different versions of “what went wrong” floated about the group, but in the end it was a success. We saw the volcano, we saw the salt flats, and, in the end, we even had a couple extra bottles of water.