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  • The Danakil Depression

JAMIE MORGEN PHILLIPS: The Danakil Depression

The Danakil Depression in the Afar region of Northern Ethiopia, about fifteen kilometres from the Eritrean border, is one of the hottest and most hostile places on earth. The lowest part of the geological depression is about 125 metres below sea level and is the result of three diverging tectonic plates, like the soft spot on a baby’s head after it’s born.

We arranged a two-day tour into the Danakil from Mekele. Everyone told us before we went that it’s the most physically challenging thing you can do in Ethiopia, and they were right.

Fun Fact: Dust from the Danakil gets into the upper atmosphere and fertilizes plants in the Amazon; the trail of dust can be seen from the space station.  — from One Strange Rock: Miniseries, National Geographic

The jeep caravan, five jeeps with four tourists in each and trunks heavy with cases of bottled water, wound down the mountainous road from Mekele. We stopped for lunch in a crowded restaurant in a small Afar town. There was a UNCHR refugee camp nearby. This would be the last bathroom facility of the tour – a malodorous squat toilet walled off with ratty UNCHR tarps and guarded on each side by a goat. I thought, again, of Martha Gellhorn’s Travels with Myself and Another: “The latrine broke my lion heart.”

We drove on. Mountains sank into dusty foothills. Foothills stretched out into white and brown desert. We stopped to watch a camel caravan bringing salt to the market in Mekele. The ground was crunchy with salt and the dry heat took my breath away.

It takes a week for the caravan to reach to the salt mines, load bricks of salt onto the camels’ backs, and a week to return. The camel driver had a piece of cloth tied around his head and walked in front of the camels, holding the lead rope casually in one hand. The caravan trudged steadily onwards, ignoring the jeeps and us holding our phones out to snap photos and the whining of a camera drone hovering overhead.

The voyeurism of watching the camel caravan and having lunch next to a refugee camp made me feel like this was really not a great place for tourists to be. While the Danakil Depression is easily one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen, it also felt intrusive and wrong to travel for pleasure where people are working so hard to survive and/or escaping from somewhere worse. Plus, this region is known for violent skirmishes over salt and the border with Eritrea. Over the years, some tourists have been kidnapped and killed too. We had an armed guard to protect us and were assured that the last tourist killing was a few years back, before the ceasefire with Eritrea, and which happened only because the unlucky tourist had strayed from his group. This is certainly a hostile place.

Back in the jeeps, we drove over increasingly rough, salty “roads” toward Dallol, the lowest land volcano on earth. We were to take an afternoon stroll through the field of sulphur springs on the gentle slope of the volcano. The guide told us that it was just a quick twenty or thirty minute walk to the top; it turned out to be quite a bit longer than that since we walked slow and stopped often. It’s a small hill but it’s so, so hot. It was about three pm, the hottest part of the day. Clearly, the perfect time to go traipsing around on an active volcano in the hottest place on earth.

The sun shone menacingly from a perfect blue sky. The cooled basalt lava flow was solid at the bottom of the volcano but as we neared the top, the pieces became loose and hollow, like a heap of broken china. I heard bubbling underfoot. The guide told us to follow exactly in his footsteps and not to step on anything green or white – we didn’t want to fall into 145 C acid pits, did we? Probably we did not, no.

Soon, the guide was far ahead of me and I couldn’t see where he had placed his feet, so I kept away from the white and green bits and hoped for the best. Heat radiated from below. The soles of my shoes felt warm and slippery; the rubber was melting a little. The Dallol was as visually striking as it was physically uncomfortable.

I watched as a translucent red spider the size of a tarantula scuttled into a crevice. The landscape looked like the bottom jaw of a cave with the top ripped away. Salt like desiccated coral reef clung to pitted, muddy basalt. Acid green and sulphurous yellow hot springs pooled in rust-red volcanic rock. Geysers gurgled and spluttered. A few metres away, the open maw of the volcano sent up gentle, wispy clouds of smoke, like an open-air sauna. I had a scarf wrapped around my face, insufficient protection against the poisonous air. It was ghastly and beautiful and too hot to be annoyed by the incessant whirr of the camera drone.

We watched the sunset from the edge of a vast salt lake. A warm wind picked up and raced unimpeded across the flats. Tourists stood in clumps, shadows against the setting sun, taking photos and drinking wine out of plastic cups. The heat subsided just enough to be bearable. Someone turned on a stereo and there was a little dance party.

Our camp was a gravel expanse dotted with stick huts, other tour groups and Afar people. Two rows of cots laid out in the open air between jeeps parked in a semi-circle and the kitchen hut. There was no bathroom, just an empty patch of gravel next to the cots. We had dinner in the dark, the wind tugging at our hair and clothes. Stars crowded together in the night sky.

After dinner, a group of us walked over to the military bar: another hut with long tables and chairs set out on the gravel. Almost every chair was full, mostly with guides, drivers and military guys. We drank lukewarm beer and a nature show played on the large flat screen TV inside. When the power cut out, we packed it in for the night, returning to our cots in the dark. I tucked the blanket around me like a burrito so it wouldn’t get snatched away by the wind. I had a restless night. Sand and grit blew into my face and got into my eyes. My skin was salty, like after a swim in the ocean. Orion’s belt stood out against the rest of the overcrowded, luminescent night sky.

We woke with the sun, ate breakfast and pretended we couldn’t see each other taking baby wipe showers. The ride back to Mekele was quiet and a little melancholy, like the end of all great and terrible journeys.

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