Salambo in Addis

Salambo discovering Ethiopia

A trip to the Danakil (part II), following the camel caravans

My friend Isabelle’s face dropped when she realised that the so-called “Melabeday camping” on the program was no more than an Afar bed of wood and straw planted outside in the middle of the village.  Past the initial surprise, those beds turned out to be the best solution on our trip. Because of the way they were made, they stayed cleaner than the old mattresses potentially infected with bugs that were offered as an alternative. So each night, we would lay the yoga mats we brought with us on the bed and sleep outside watching the stars. For food, a cook came with us, whose job was to cook for the whole team. She was very good at preparing different dishes out of the few ingredients she took with her, and tried to vary the meals as much as possible. Infrastructure in this region is non existent, there is no place to stay, no hotel, no lodge, nor any organised camping site. It was basic at its most basic. There was no toilet or bathroom either and we had to use nature for that purpose, a difficult exercise sometimes considering that there was no bush or place to hide within a radius of 200 metres. The Afar people are used to it, that’s what they have to do all the time, and in passing,  Afari men do not stand up but squat to pee. So they are completely oblivious to the fact and ignore anybody in the same position.

Landscape in the Afar region

Landscape in the Afar region

At dawn after our first night camping outside, I was woken up by some tinkling noise. I opened my eyes just in time to see a camel caravan passing by our makeshift camp. It was a biblical vision. In the half-dark, I saw the shadow of the camels walking at a slow pace against a backdrop of gentle hills slightly lit up by the moon crescent. I could not believe my eyes, it was a picture straight out of my childhood when in the exotic stories read to me, camel caravans were the vision of a far away land in bygone times. That brief instant was like an image from a book. Maybe African children feel the same way when they see snow for the first time.

A camel caravan in the Saba river gorge in Afar

A camel caravan in the Saba river gorge in Afar

For the Afari people, camel caravans are a harsh daily reality, as we saw that day when we walked through a gorge following the same path as the caravans. As someone pointed out, we did it for fun and after the six hour walk on a rocky terrain in the heat and with very little shade to protect us, we had a car to pick us up and take us to the next camp. The caravans have to take that walk every day for years and years as this is their livelihood. They do not walk 20 kilometres as we did, but much more, going all to the way from Mekele to the salt plains where they still extract salt by hand.  They have no respite, they go one way and then back the other, setting camps along the way to spend the night and give a break to their camels. Their way of living has not changed in two thousand years, they survive on very little, eating mainly porridge and goat meat sometimes. Their land, covered with rocks and stones, yields nothing by salt, and that’s what they have to live on. Transporting salt back and forth until they collapse.

a camel loaded with salt plates on its way to Mekele

a camel loaded with salt plates on its way to Mekele

However, their ancient way of living will not last forever as we came to realise at our next stop, the Hamadila camp, which is quickly turning into a sedentary village due to the development of a nearby potash mine. An asphalt road is being built which will enable trucks to drive to the mine to take the potash to the highlands. Until now, only 4×4 vehicles could safely take the road, but not for long anymore. The Hamadila village has a couple of shops and restaurants, which, I was told, is a novelty in nomadic Afar land. Our guide even told us that they were mainly run by Tigreans (he is a Tigrean himself). From what we discovered when we tried to buy a beer, Hamadila is divided into two parts: the Afari muslim side where no alcohol can be sold, and the Orthodox side occupied mainly by the Army and mine workers where beer can be discreetly consumed. Such development will change forever the Afar way of life as they will become more sedentary and the camel caravans will soon be replaced by trucks.

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