Addis Ababa: Nov 23, 2015 – The salt merchant did his best to dissuade me. ‘You don’t want to go there,’ he said. ‘It’s hotter than hell and they’re quite likely to chop your testicles off.’ In the market in Mekele, in the Ethiopian highlands, the merchant was seated among piles of rectangular salt blocks gift-wrapped in white acacia bark. ‘They come from the Danakil,’ he said. He must have noticed a glint in my eye. ‘Eight days by camel caravan. Don’t even think about going there.’
In the atlas of remote destinations, of splendidly end-of-the-world places, the Danakil is a star entry. It has been described as ‘the lowest, the driest, the hottest and the most inhospitable place on earth’. Split between the north-eastern fringes of Ethiopia, southern Eritrea and northern Djibouti, it is stark, elemental and spectacular. Much of it is 100 metres below sea level; temperatures regularly exceed 50°C. Like the polar regions, like mountain summits, like coral seas, the deserts of the Danakil are only tenuously connected to the earth we know. The salt merchant’s anxieties illustrated its status; the Danakil is the kind of place to which myths attach. I have been thinking about going there for more than 30 years.
Historic accounts of travel in the Danakil tend towards the hair-raising. A man called Nesbitt explored the region in 1928. Three of his servants were murdered but Nesbitt managed to get back, more or less intact, in time to deliver a lecture at the Royal Geographical Society. Wilfred Thesiger was here in 1930, after attending Haile Selassie’s coronation. The great desert explorer loved the Danakil; it came with the kind of aloof and sadistic tribesmen – the Afar – that reminded him of his prep-school days.
To say the Afar had a reputation for hostility may be understating things. According to their code, a man was not a man who had not killed other men. A chap without a few notches in his belt might be able to marry but he had no hope of taking mistresses. Mealtimes were stressful for the pacifists. They got the worst cuts of meat and the others, Thesiger reports, would use them as human napkins, wiping ‘the grease and food off their hands on their clothes’. As for outsiders, if the Afar didn’t kill them, they usually castrated them. Apparently they hung the dried scrotums from the rafters of their houses. One traveller reports seeing one used as a snuff pouch.
But tradition everywhere is in retreat, and the Afar have long since given up their anti-social habits of killing, castration and carving the roast according to a man’s police record. They say the murder rate in the Danakil is now lower than in Milwaukee, which may not be entirely reassuring. But the Afar retain their reputation for aloofness. I blame the landscape. The Danakil is a harsh and demanding place. The Afar are its reflection.
Keen to see this dramatic region, and the historic salt trade that lies at its heart, I ignored the advice of the Mekele merchant and set off with guides and porters in a couple of four-wheel-drives. As we twisted downward from the Ethiopian highlands, canyons opened beneath us. The landscape became desiccated and the vegetation thinned. Far below, the world was unravelling into vast horizontals.
We began to spot Afar encampments – round domed tents like upturned coracles, covered in brightly coloured cloths and surrounded by corrals of thorn bush containing camels and goats. Two young girls appeared near the road. They wore complicated silver jewellery at their necks and their hair was plaited and shiny with camel butter. Around another bend a man with a Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder was silhouetted against a white sky. Beyond him camel caravans were descending the pass towards the desert.
At Berhale we found a scrum of belching trucks and bellowing beasts. The town is a key staging post of the salt trade. Some camel caravans still go all the way to the highlands with their cargo but most, having come three days across the Danakil, offload the salt onto trucks here. Labourers stacked blocks and middlemen circulated like vultures while the camelseyed us with a calculating gaze. We drove on. Night fell. Along the road camels loomed out of the darkness. Swathed in dust, highlighted fleetingly in our headlamps, their leering heads looked ghoulish and unreal.
An hour or so later, we skirted the ramshackle settlement of Hamed Ela. Beyond it was our mobile camp, a surreal oasis of safari luxuries. Paraffin lanterns lit the way to tents with comfortable beds and flushing loos. Warm showers sluiced away the desert dust. Cold beer emerged from an icebox. A candlelit dinner appeared, fillets of fish and sautéed vegetables followed by chocolate mousse. The Danakil was proving more hospitable than anticipated. Later we carried our beds outside the tents and slept under the moonlight.