Now back home from a fantastic 4 day trip to the Danakil Depression. 9 of us, plus drivers and guides, took 3 4x4s, loaded up with food, water and fuel off to visit the salt mines and sulphur lakes at one of the lowest points on Earth.
The Danakil Depression is in the Afar region of Ethiopia, it’s a difficult place to reach and even harder to live live there (though some people do). During summer temperatures can be over 50c and although we visited during winter it was still 35-40c, with nothing to give any shade. Our trip took a fair bit of organising, you have to go with at least 2 4x4s, taking all water, food, spares, fuel etc for the whole trip, plus extra for emergencies.
The 2 days before we set off were spent trying to get everything ready and checking we had everything we needed. Andy and I took our huge shopping list out on the day before we left, which unfortunately happened to be the Ethiopian Christmas day, so many shops were shut, but fortunately not all! Whilst chatting to one of the shopkeepers (we were trying to find somewhere selling wheat flour), it turned out that he also worked as system admin at Mekelle Uni (it was his fathers shop), and when we explained where we were going and allt he things we needed, he sorted everything out for us. Whilst Andy and I sat on old beer crates at the back of the shop eating bananas, people we running off to other shops for us collecting up our shopping list. After couple of hours everything was sorted out, 200 litres of bottled water, 20kg potatoes, 10kg onions, 10kg tomatoes, plus tins of tuna, pasta, rice, biscuits etc etc was all loaded into a line taxi we’d hired.
The evening before and morning of setting off were a little tense as the driver of our third car seemed to be reluctant to now come along (we suspect he was angling after more money), but eventually he was persuaded. Turned out that he’s a well-known singer in Tigray, but has never driven in Afar. He slightly delayed our setting off as he went around collecting up boxes of tapes and cds to sell in the villages en-route.
Our first stop (after stopping for our first and only puncture of the whole trip) was when we came across a truck load of armed guards stopped by the road who pulled us over. Although they didn’t look it – with their truck bearing an ‘Afar Education Bureau – Donated by Unicef’ logo – apparently they were the official security guards for the area.
In Berahile we paid our ‘tourist fees’ and collected our local guide and two policemen (both armed) who would stay with us for the rest of the trip. Our first night was spent at a waterfall between Berahile and Hamd Ela, we had been hoping to make it all the way to Hamd Ela the first night, but due to the delayed start we wouldn’t get all the way before sunset. I was quite pleased we had to stop as the policeman next to me had his AK-47 resting between his legs, which meant it kept pointing at my chest or head for most of the journey and I had to keep pushing it to point in another direction.
An early start the next morning to try and get to Erta Ale, the volcano we hoping to reach and camp overnight at the top. The road between Berahile and Hamd Ela is almost non-existent, basically following the river bed, rather than any discernable road or path. Another delay in Hamd Ela as we had to pay yet more tourist fees and the guide wanted us to buy sugar – apparently tea is disgusting without several tablespoons of sugar – and we would need 2kg to get him and the guards through the next 48 hours!
We’d only got a few km out of Hamd Ela when 2 of our cars started to get stuck in the sand every few hundred metres – so we spent almost an hour stop/starting & digging the cars out. Due to the time we spent doing this, and the fact that the ‘road’ got even worse further on, we had little choice but to turn back to Hamd Ela. In a way it ws fortunate that we got stuck where we did, had we gone another 20km and then started to get stuck we might still be there.
We then revised our itinerary somewhat, so rather than seeing the volcano, we’d go up to the hot springs and sulphur lakes at Dallol (the lowest point in Africa) tht afternoon, stay in Hamd Ela overnight, see the salt mines and camel caravans the next morning, then head back to Mekelle.
To be allowed to go to Dallol, we had to take 6 soldiers with us, for ‘protection’, all well armed – though the hand grenades might have been a little more for show. We drove across the salt flats to get to the hot springs and sulphur pools which were absolutely amazing – from a distance they looked plastic, but all the colours in the photos below are 100% real and natural (no photoshop here!):
The next morning we got up early to watch the camel caravan (over 5km long) leave Hamd Ela to collect salt from the mines:
We drove out to see the salt miners in action (again accompanied by our military guards):
Then we headed back to the waterfall to have a relaxing swim and chill out in the afternoon. It would have been a little more relaxing had our singer/driver bothered to tell the guards that he was going to do pistol target practice further up the valley. On hearing the shooting our guards went running up with their guns to find out what was going on – I guess he was lucky he wasn’t shot by them.
Everyone was much happier once we’d bought a goat from the travelling goat salesman (aka shepherd) – I’m not sure our Ethiopian drivers, guides and guards were looking forward to another ferenji meal!
All in all a fantastic trip and I’d recommend it to anyone 🙂