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Two unbelievable days in the Danakil Depression. We saw much more than we thought we would and didn’t get hit hard by the high costs of a tour operator in the process. Not only is it a hard place to travel alone, the Afar people make it even harder for you with their tribal system of dealing with things.

We completed formalities in Berahile, dealing with the permits and working out who needed to accompany us on the trip. It ended up that we required a guide and a policeman, who ended up doing absolutely nothing.

The Afar, known to be hostile, have been trading in salt  to the highlanders for thousands of years. Their nomadic lifestyle is still widely practised outside of the towns. They must deal with specialist tour operators in Addis and Mekele and tourists come here with lots of money but have no idea what they are paying for. On the ground, the system is even more complicated. Everywhere you go in the Danakil, as you move on, you cross onto another villagers land. This is the case when you see Erta Ale. We left seeing this, but I’ll be back one day to see it.

On our trip to the first camp, we followed caravans who were heading to the salt mines near Dallol. We were amazed at the numbers of them. Each caravan had at least twenty camels, tied to each other as they walked in a straight line. The donkeys walked in front, unattached, going about their own business. They would drive us mad as we tried to pass them on the track as they would scatter everywhere very, very slowly. Before long the owner would run up and hit the donkeys to move them out of the way.

The weather was a little cooler than normal so they were probably taking advantage of it. We saw hundreds of camels. They would have walked up a to a week at that point. I can’t imagine what it would be like doing this when the temperature is 40 degrees c.

We arrived at Hamid Ale, an army camp on the edge of the salt pans. We set ourself up here for the night. One other tour group was there. It was basic, but they had huts made from tall sticks where we could make food. Part of the deal when you take a guide and a policeman with you, is that you have to feed them!

That night we got a better idea of what we could see. Earlier we got excited about the idea of getting as far as Erta Ale, but as we spoke to a friend of our guide, we knew it would become costly for us t have to deal with the villagers near the base of the volcano. We would decide the next day if it was a good idea, depending if there were any tours going there.

The next day we went to Dallol, a strange landscape of craters and hot springs. Hot yellow sulphur fields are set among sparkling white salt beds. Tremors under the earth are felt here regularly. The most recent craters were formed during an eruption in 1926. We crossed the fields, and stopped for a while in places taking it all in. The smell of sulphur was strong and we could lick the salt off our skin.

We found some vents quite open and watched and listened to the liquid bubbling away underneath. It sounded like a mad professor’s laboratory, with vivid coloured liquid boiling away. All the time we were there , we could see armed guards around on the edge of the field keeping a look out.

We drove over the salt pans to get there. It was a combination of salt and mud which made it quite tricky to drive in. It didn’t feel like we would get stuck, but when I drove off the track I noticed deep wells dug out of the salt that were quite large. It could have been the Artic; it looked very similar. We had to pick up new guards and a local guide.

The two original men stayed behind, to do nothing! We needed two guards as one would stay with the vehicle whilst the other would race ahead when we arrived to make sure if was safe to visit. One of the guards sat on the roof as we made the 20 km trip to Dallol.

After Dallol, we visited two other sites. One was a black lake (local name Ale Limbed). It wasn’t massive but it was very strange. The liquid level was as high as the surface. Our guard took a piece of metal from his rifle and placed it in the liquid. it was very hot and stripped the metal of some colour. It wasn’t water but had an oily look to it. It didn’t belong on this planet at all, and could have been something from a sci-fi movie.

Then came the salt mines (Dagde). I had left my sunglasses behind and by this time of the day, it was starting to get very hot. I could hardly open my eyes as the reflection from the salt was too much. We saw men working away digging the salt from the ground and then men carving the salt so it could be carried easily by the camels.

After the long walk, the camels sat and made alien noises while all the activity was going on around them. Salt fetches high prices in Addis and other big towns such as Mekele. The Afar trade the salt and then walk it back the one week trip to sell it. It’s a quick and productive set-up. One man we watched had chipped away one block in a few minutes so it was ready to load up. We were told they work for ten hours a day here. They move on before night and never sleep in the salt fields. As the caravans returned, others were on their way out to take over. It was very tough work. Our guide tried to make a line in the salt with an axe so it could be extracted. He was out of breath afterwards.

On our return journey there was a young man, who looked like a boy, wanting a lift back to Dallol. I said OK and he jumped on the roof with our guide. Later on he said he made 3000 birr a month (£150) extracting the salt which, by Ethiopian standards, is a lot. Our guide wanted us to buy a slab to take back after he noticed we were low on salt. Bun grabbed a few stray pieces and we tasted it on our way back to the vehicle.

Erta Ale would have been a hard two or three days extra on top of what we had already seen. We were amazed and happy at what we had seen so far and decided to make tracks back to Bare Ale to drop the guide and policeman back, after they had done nothing for two days! Once we mentioned we were not going to Erta Ale, they were happy. I was getting more annoyed with them and wanted to get rid of them.

We headed back to Wukro from there. Once we started to climb into the mountains we knew we were back in Tigrai. The Afar region only starts when we drop from the Ethiopian highlands down to sea level. The guide we’ve had since Axum said he wasn’t coming back to the Danakil. He had never seen it before, but wasn’t too keen on the Afar people.

We did have a great guide when we saw Dallo and the army were good humoured. It was very foggy and muddy on the climb through the mountains; it was like being in England. We carried on, passing camel caravans walking through the dense fog. It was going from one extreme to the other, with the temperature being in the mid-thirties, then heading through thick fog later in the day.

Over the next few days we book into the Gheralta lodge. We have to head a few hours north again, but it will be our chance to catch up on things before we head to Addis and then south to Kenya. Time for a few days taking it easy.

Some recordings made at the Sulphur springs

Audio Sample 1

Audio Sample 2

Some of Buns videos. Cheers Rich for putting these videos up. More to come from now.

February 2010