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Published: December 16th 2011
You scratch another flea byte as you head deeper into the Danakil Depression. As the temperature exceeds 47°c sweat pores down your face saturating you stinking clothes. Choking on toxic fumes you study the alien landscape while you pass turquoise lakes and blinding white salt pans. For a moment you feel a sense of vulnerability as your mind drifts back to the 2007 kidnappings. Losing your concentration you fall once again as a frozen lava chamber gives way beneath your feet. Suddenly Afar nomads surround the expedition team and the real adventure begins.
Under the protection of the Ethiopian army, you drive in a convoy for security. With the recent infiltration by Eritrea terrorists and temporary closure of the Danakil Depression, you remain vigilant while Ethiopian soldiers scout the region, remaining on high alert.
“Those who wish to brave the Danakil Depression must seek special permission from the Ethiopian government if they wish to visit the region; they must also travel with armed guards. As strangers to the region, these guards may be as much a hindrance as a help, and their weapons offer little protection in a region where guns are common and there is little central authority”
(Xian Rice, The Guardian, March 2007)
With regular earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and extreme heat, you nervously descend 116 meters below sea level along desert tracks while your vehicle is surrounded by the Afar and their camels. Regularly carrying AK47s you become alarmed by the number of political fractions with weapons on show. You push on, leaving them in a cloud of dust, thrown into the air by a convoy of soldiers and vehicles.
“The area is known for frequent banditry. These armed groups engage in kidnapping and looting. Traveling into the Afar region and the Danakil is testing. But the Danakil Depression remains a lure. The terrain and the temperatures in the ‘Land of Death’ are lethal and few people travel there without serious intent.” (Patrick Dowling, Legal Aid Board, 2011)
As you listen to stories of the 2007 kidnappings, you are told “foreigners are the target. With travelers visiting the Danakil Depression once again, Eritrea fractions are envious of Ethiopia’s emerging tourism industry. They want Ethiopia to stop profiteering from the disputed land. They want to create an international incident.” (Gilmer, Ethiopian Tours, 2011)
With Ethiopian Soldiers, Nomads and Camel Caravans heading through the desert,
you can’t help but stop and stare at the stunning tectonic triple junction before you. With the ridges of the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and the Rift Valley meeting at a single pressure point, you stand in awe, looking up at the ground forced into the sky, revealing prehistoric sediment created by a sequence of ferocious earthquakes.
With the Danakil Depression being one of the most inhospitable regions on earth, your body is subjected to the extreme. As you begin to suffer headaches and hallucinations, your blood pressure rises. Realizing you have only traveled eighty kilometers in nine hours you begin to wonder how much more dust you can eat. You get the feeling of an endless journey, traveling through alien moonscapes, following the world’s worst road.
As you cross deserts, grasslands, brimstone, rivers and salt pans, you are curious to see Afar soldiers wearing dresses and turbans. With their teeth filed into fangs for fashion they proudly smile, guiding camels, carrying AK47s for protection. While Ethiopian soldiers get agitated at the sight of a camera, desert children wave the ‘no’ finger while you pass deeper into Afar territory.
Visiting nomads mining the salt pans, it
is hard to believe they work in these conditions. With extreme heat and no shade they mine by hand, carving the salt into slabs. With animal remains scattering the landscape and no immediate source of water, you can’t help but wonder how the Afar have adapted to survive the cruelest place on earth.
“How the Afar people manage to live in a place like this, and why they choose to, puzzles the rest of Ethiopia as much as it does visitors… They do not hesitate for a minute to let you know that once you set foot in their salt kingdom, you are subject to their commands.” (Virginia Morell, National Geographic, 2005)
As you travel further into the depression, it is like being transported through time. A time before life existed on earth. A time when devastating earthquakes tore apart the tectonic plates, a time when volcanoes created the continents on which we walk.
Sitting on the rim of Arte Ale Volcano, you are mesmerized by the lava lake. While your eyes follow ripples across the surface you are entertained by a ballet of orange cracks violently moving and rolling, changing shape, changing size, rising and falling.
One moment the crust takes the form of a calm lake, the next an exploding array of fire and brimstone.
As the stunning orange geysers explode into a symphony of fire balls, you carefully hang from the rim, feeling the heat and choking on the toxic fumes. Both spectacular and terrifying the lava lake seems alive, breathing, moving, changing mood, ready to explode, ready to consume.
“There’s nowhere else quite like it on Earth. More like hell say the very few who’ve made it there… The heat is intolerable and there is no shade. It’s a place where rivers die, boiling water spurts out of rocks and smoke curls up from holes in the ground. The landscape is dotted with bright yellow sulphur fields, green crystal pools and sparkling salt beds” (New Scientist Magazine, 2005)
With each step you feel guilty. With no walkways for protection you are free to walk the alien landscape. As you feel millions of years of salt and lava formations crumble beneath you feet, you can’t help but stop and examine the fresh layers of sediment, unusual formations and rainbow rocks on the ground. With striking colors and volcanic lakes bubbling to
the surface, your common sense tells you this area should be classified as a natural wonder, protected by the governments around the world.
Hell on Earth, Walking on Mars. The Danakil Depression.
More Photos Below & On The Next Page... Warning
Ironically one month after visiting the Afar region (Danakil Depression) and writing about the risks from Eritrean terrorists, at least four people have been kidnapped and five foreign tourists killed in an attack during the early hours on Tuesday 17th January 2012. Please check the latest security update before visiting the region. On another note, once security is under control, I wouldnt hesitate to go again.
News: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-16610890 How To Do It
Arrive in Mekele (Northern Ethiopia). Ask a Bajaj driver to take you to the Axum Hotel. There you will find three agents capable of organizing 4x4 convoys including soldiers into the Danakil Depression. Alternatively there is another company operating from the side of Milano Hotel. It does not matter which agency you go with, since they all travel together in convoy. They will compete on price, often starting at around $700USD for a 4 day adventure. With a bit of
negotiation you can get it down to $450USD all inclusive.
Note: Do not go to the Tigray Tourism office as the Lonely Planet recommends. It is a government office, not a public agent! A lot of people report getting sick from the food. A couple of people got Typhus Infection. The temperature can get in excess of 58°c. Take plenty of water!
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