Salambo in Addis

Salambo discovering Ethiopia

A trip to the Danakil depression (Part I): descent into another world

The drive down from the Abyssinian highlands to the Danakil Depresion is like a descent into another world, a world of scarce ressources and bare survival, but equally a world of heightened emotions. The Danakil Depression, also known as the Afar triangle in North-East Ethiopia, is one of the lowest points on Earth at an altitude of around -1oo below sea level. It is also the hottest place on Earth with temperatures peaking to 60° Celsius and for this reason it is best to visit between November and March. It is also known for the Erta Ale volcano, one of the very few active volcanos which can be approached very closely. The result of tectonic activities caused by plate movements in the Great Rift Valley, it is a unique place in Ethiopia and the World. A paradise for geologists and volcanologists.

Because of the harsh conditions and feared terrorist attacks, the Danakil is not a family destination, far from it. So I took the opportunity of my friends Hélène and Isabelle visiting to organise a trip there (with the help of a tour company). Going to the Danakil implies constantly travelling in two 4×4 cars with experienced guides and drivers, bringing enough food and water to last for the six days of the trip, taking mattresses and sleeping gear, contracting local armed militia to accompany us on the trip and in some places, around Erta Ale in particular, paying army soldiers to give us protection.  So it does feel like an expedition into the unknown.

Driving down from Mekele to Danakil. A new asphalt road is being built by a Chinese company

Driving down from Mekele to Danakil. A new asphalt road is being built by a Chinese company

Another friend, Gina, joined us and the four of us started our trip in Mekele, the regional capital of Tigray, where we flew to from Addis.  From there, we immediately took the four hour road trip to Berhale, the first town in the Afar region and a compulsory stop to get all the permission and documents to enter Afar territory. Berhale is like the end of the road,  physically and psychologically. This is where the road stops and new rules begin. The Afar people are renowned in Ethiopia for being an ethnic group of their own with different customs and rules from the rest of the country. They are feared for their tradition of having to kill as many enemies as possible to be considered a man. Traditionally, they are semi-nomadic pastoralists, their land is their house and for them entering their land requires permission and remuneration.  They move from camp to camp in search of better grazing areas, leaving behind only the skeleton of a house or shelter and taking with them the roof cover. Unlike the orthodox highlanders, they are mainly muslim.

a traditional Afar shelter, left abandoned by the side of a track

a traditional Afar shelter, left abandoned by the side of a track

Beside being an administrative stop, Berhale is an important centre for the camel caravans carrying salt from Dallol to the main market in Mekele. They start trading the salt at that stop according to needs and demand, but at a much lower price than in Mekele. It is also the last town of some importance before going into the wild desert. During our one hour break there, we were able to watch some of the caravans unloading salt plates. Once everything was sorted and we had a local militia man joining our group of already nine people (two drivers, two guides, one cook and the four of us), we could proceed on to the Melabeday village, about half an hour away, where we were to spend the night.

The salt market in Berhale in Afar country

The salt market in Berhale in Afar country

(to be continued…)

3 comments on “A trip to the Danakil depression (Part I): descent into another world

  1. Mike
    January 23, 2013

    Another terrific update, Salambo. You say it’s like another world from Addis.. you should try reading this blog from Europe!

    You note that the road is being built by a Chinese company. Is there a large Chinese presence in the country?

    • Salambo
      January 25, 2013

      Hi Mike,

      Thank you!! For the Chinese company, I know I was vague not citing any company name..to summarize, the Chinese government has granted a loan to Ethiopia to develop the road infrastructure. Construction is done by the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC)… in fact, everywhere we go in Ethiopia, we see roads being built, so it is a reality

  2. Mike
    January 25, 2013

    Cheers, Salambo. China’s interest and influence must be one of the major themes across much of Africa at the moment. Interesting to see how ‘the West’ responds. And, more importantly, how Africa responds!

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