In northern Ethiopia, there is a strange land of acidic colours and baking temperatures that has the reputation of being the hottest place on the planet – and believe it or not, people actually live there.
After sleeping in the city of Mek’ele, known as the New York of Ethiopia for being a relatively new city with a heavy dose of good atmosphere, I rose at 6am to take a four-hour ride in a beaten-up (but still air-conditioned!) 4×4 deep into the scorching Danakil Desert. Reaching 55 degrees Celsius in the mid-year months but mercifully “only” 35 degrees the day I visited, this is the place famous for its extraterrestrial geology, hot winds, and vast salt flats.
After picking up a breakfast of home-made veggie burger at a small bar, we stopped at several checkpoints in small, dusty villages swarming with little children and goats, giving free rides to various villagers along the way. At what must have been about the halfway mark, we stopped for Ethiopian coffee (very strong and best with a dollop of sugar) at a refugee camp named Aysaita. (There’s a good article here outlining the unique situation of the camp.)
Small, elegant people stared and said hello as we went by. This Muslim minority is from the wonderfully romantic-sounding Afar region in Ethiopia’s northeast, also known as the area where “Lucy” – the oldest known hominin, or human relation – was found, in 1974. There’s a great story about how this incomplete skeleton is apparently thus named because “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” was playing nonstop by the archaeological team when they discovered her. (Lucy is known as Dinkinesh in Ethiopia, which means “you are marvellous” in Amharic, the national unifying language of Ethiopia.)
Lucy can be viewed at the Ethiopian National Museum in the Arat Kilo area of Addis Ababa, which, while sadly lacking information about its artefacts, is well worth the visit especially for its artwork and ethnographic sections.
After driving for several hours, with the elevation dipping and the temperature rising by the minute, we eventually reached the part of the Danakil Desert where we would disembark, 125m below sea level. The air was thick with heat, and pulsating with shimmering waves that seemed to hang suspended above the vast salt flats like a mirage.
Wrapping our faces in scarves and hastily smoothing factor 50 sun cream onto our exposed skin, we picked our way over terrain crusted with minerals and battled the strong, hot winds that blew endless dust in from the east.
Stumbling after our guide, clutching big water bottles like the lifeline they were, we emerged onto Dallol, an otherworldly, volcanic rockscape of luridly colourful protrusions and softly spitting cones of potash. It reminded me a little bit of the episode of Wallace and Gromit where they go to the moon, scooping up cones of cheese to eat with their Jacobs Crackers.
Stinking waves of sulphur-smelling air clogged our nostrils and mouths as we rushed up crackling piles of minerals the better to survey the acid-green pools and dried-out sulphur lakes of stinging yellow.
It is mandatory for all tour groups to be accompanied by an armed “scout” – usually a local man with a gun – since a couple of tragic incidents involving tourists in the last decade. Very occasionally, there have been robberies and even shootings by rebels from Eritrea, whose border is not far from Danakil.
So by this time we had picked up our scout from a village we passed through, and armed with his Kalashnikov he strolled around in the heat quite casually as we struggled to breathe in the fume-filled air. Needing a scout sounds scarier than it is – although the presence of the gun is certainly disturbing, the landscape is quite deserted but for other tour groups, and one doesn’t feel any imminent threats from beyond the parched horizon. It is very much just a precaution, and I welcome the fact that Ethiopian authorities seem to take visitor safety seriously.
The best part of the day trip was a visit to a small, deep, extremely buoyant saltwater pool. After some persuasion from the guide, I went into the pool for a dip and it was remarkably cool and pleasant to feel salt on my skin and to wash off the dust that had gathered in my pores.
It was like being in the Dead Sea in Israel, but the water was much cleaner – you could see down into the eerie green depths with a clarity reminiscent of ice holes in the Arctic (at least based on what I’ve seen on BBC nature documentaries…).
We rounded the day off at the refugee camp again, eating delicious shiro (the vegetarian fasting food that’s very common here) and injera, the amazing sourdough bread that is an Ethiopian staple and which I’ve raved about before.
We were so sun-parched and windswept by this point that we promptly fell asleep in a heap in the back of the 4×4 – but not before eyeing a fabulous camel caravan, transporting salt from the desert.