Danger in the Danakil … or so I thought

by Elizabeth Mooney (United Kingdom (Great Britain))

A leap into the unknown Ethiopia


Leaving the refugee town of Barahle, navigating the desolate rocky landscape I was glad of the plucky Toyota Land Cruiser that had safely transported us across the remote and adverse terrain of northern Ethiopia that morning. I was also glad of Security, in the form of Barahle’s stern-looking Chief of Police, who would be accompanying this part of my expedition although I was none too comfortable with the business end of his revolver that poked me painfully in the ribs at every jolt. It was a relief to be on our way after the animated negotiations with the town officials, which involved wads of 50 Birr notes and bunches of khat being handed over by my guide Kato to ensure safe passage. Situated on the main road observing the discussion out of the car window I noticed a mosque to the left and an Orthodox church to the right; a town of two halves, symbolic of the region we were about to enter. Sitting in the hot and now crowded 4x4 – an AK47-toting Afar tribesman who would act as our ‘scout’ had also joined us making our party seven – I wondered for a fleeting moment what I was doing entering a hostile area, ravaged by a half century-war over the disputed boundary between Ethiopia and Eritrea that had left tens of thousands dead. Both country’s leaders had signed a peace deal a month previously and the border, shut for 20 years, was opened with great ceremony and celebration. Despite the presence of the Chief of Police and the silent scout up front, Kato cheerfully assured me that our visit to the Danakil Depression would be perfectly safe. A few hours later as we turned off the mountain road onto a dusty track to descend into the crater of the Dallol volcano I wondered whether in this isolated region absolutely everyone had received the memo! The Danakil Depression is not for the faint-hearted. Billed as the most inhospitable place on earth, it lies over 100m below sea level and temperatures regularly top 50 degrees centigrade. What people are drawn to are the amazing bright yellow and green sulphur lakes nestled in the middle of the salt flats, a sight I was looking forward to experiencing the following day. It was late afternoon as we reached the bottom of the crater and set off across the vast expanse towards Hamad Ela, our overnight camp. Hypnotised by the blue of the sky against the white of the salt flats I’d fallen into a slight doze when I was jolted awake by the sound of music blaring from the car speakers. Loud music is a staple of everyday life in Ethiopia and as the music persisted the tension in the car slowly began to dissipate as, united by the latest pop song, our guests and I began to tap our feet and smile as Kato sang along. Hamad Ela has a community of a few hundred people who work the thriving salt trade, although when we arrived the camp looked deserted with a few traditional bed frames dotted around and a hut that would serve as a kitchen-diner. While the crew were unpacking the mattresses, table and chairs, cooking equipment and supplies Kato and I wandered over to some rocks to find a ‘natural' toilet and came across a football game! Even at sunset the heat was still intense and watching the kids having fun I began to realise that any hostilities we might encounter were going to be from the environment, not the locals. As a seasoned traveller I always carry a pack of cards and after dinner, eager to interact with my companions I asked Kato to invite everyone to play. Trying to communicate the rules of rummy was a challenge but with smiles, demonstrations and some help from Kato our previous reticence vanished and all of us, including the stern Police Chief, were soon enjoying ourselves. Sitting on the thin mattresses playing by moonlight and our torches I reflected that there were many things that divided our little group – religion, culture, nationality and beliefs – but at that moment we were united by the simplest of things; shared laughter and companionship.