‘Better to die than to live without killing’.

The semi-nomadic Afar, situated in the northeastern deserts of Ethiopia by the Eritrean border, were for centuries feared for their ferocious nature and warlike culture. Legendary British explorer Sir Wilfred Patrick Thesiger, born in Addis Ababa the son of a diplomat, maintained in his memoirs that the most dangerous journeys of his life were those in the Danakil region of Afar – and this after having lain starving to death on a sand dune for three days in Saudi Arabia’s Rub’ al Khali before his Bedu companions brought him desperately needed supplies. The Afari reputation has certainly been enhanced by their tendency to carry off the testicles of the men they have slain as trophies, presenting a fresh pair to their brides on their wedding day as a sign of their bravery. Thesiger, who saw at least one young Afar man flushed from the exertion of slaughtering and mutilating four victims in a single day, commented of him as, “the equivalent of a nice, rather self-conscious Etonian who had just won his school colours for cricket.”

In the 10th Century the Afar came into contact with the Arabs and converted to a form of Islam, merging it with their old indigenous beliefs, as they continue to this day to worship a dominant sky-god. Much of their once proud culture has now been lost however. The Danakil Depression, in the northern part of the Afar region is the hottest place on earth in terms of year-round average temperatures, as well as being one of the lowest, registering 116m below sea level at its nadir. As if this wasn’t enough it is also one of the most tectonically active areas in the world resulting from the presence of three tectonic plates, causing several lava crater lakes to bubble up from the earth’s core. It is referred to as the cradle of the humanoids after the famous ‘Lucy’ Australopithecus fossil was discovered here in 1974, dated at 3.2 million years old. Myself, Tal and Elad reluctantly joined a tour group to scope out the region, as we didn’t particularly feel like going this one alone. We set off from the town of Mekele in a convoy of seven Toyota Land Cruisers and farmsteads and rocky scrub-covered foothills soon gave way to desolate, enclosed plains.

Heading into the Danakil Depression 

A blue sky was interspersed with clouds and the shadows of these moved across the sandy mountains encircling the flatlands. It was Christmas Day and the air was starting to get hot. We drove up from one plain then down into another, filled with bright green bushes, then up again into green-freckled mountains. The freckles grew into strange cactus-trees with circular clumps of foot-long tendrils. These were interspersed with dragon trees [Sodom’s Apple] as the mountains started to become more impressive rising up towards the cloud and then they got really good. Everything was painted in pastel colours with ridges falling down in tangerine orange and aubergine lilac, leading from far-off shades of emerald and silver glinting on the high peaks. Children played by the roadsides of the tiny towns. A woman with piercing green eyes stood on a hillside, a red and black chequered shamma draped around her head and body, looking like a model in a photo shoot. Villagers collected water from the thin streams meandering through wide river plains in yellow plastic containers.

Two women were walking down to one of these dressed in dark colours. One had a baby strapped to her back in a sheet of black cotton flecked with green, a similar print on the shamma covering her head and thrown back over her shoulder. Her companion wore a black headscarf with a silvery latticework grate on her forehead like a tiny portcullis, with a belt of similar design. Despite the extreme sparseness, filth and drabness of these mountain villages, both women were elegant and carried themselves with dignity. The men wore their shammas as long skirts wrapped around their waists, occasionally tied up at the front at knee-level to allow greater flexibility of movement. I often saw them play fighting or just plain fighting with one another. The pastel shades gave way to limp watercolours in the haze as the plains grew larger with small hills occasionally rising up like breakers. Termite hills and lone camels began to appear. Children sheaparded flocks of goats alone in the wilderness.

Navigating the barren wasteland 

There were a few tiny lakes for pasture. Some of the dwellings were made from sacking, others from rock, others from branches, or simply pulled together from anything else that could be salvaged including the tin roofing from a now derelict health center, and car tires. One young man was standing outside one particularly bleak construction holding an old Nokia-style mobile phone in his hand, around him a complete desolation of black lava rock. I wondered what he was texting. The plain gave a last gasp of undulation then gave out to the dead flat pan of the depression. More desperate looking hamlets clung to the brand new road. I found it hard to imagine the life of the people living here. A group of middle-aged Japanese tourists were camped by a large salt lake and I chatted with some of them for a bit. The saline water is pumped into rectangular lakes at three levels of varying temperatures to crystalize the salt then evaporate the water. Huge piles of the mineral were heaped all around the shores as far as the eye could see. It was not what you would call beautiful. The local town little more than a propped-up shithole littered with trash.

After floating on the surface of the salt water in the sunset we rinsed off in the baking hot natural pool of a freshwater spring. Someone had left their AK47 lying around. We slept in the open in a compound on the edge of town on goat hide latticed beds. We built a huge fire and got very drunk on ouzo with the locals, dancing around it long into the night. It was Christmas after all. During the night I realized I was getting a mauling by bedbugs hidden in my mattress, which I subsequently hurled onto the floor, sleeping on the bare hide thongs. Then it started to rain so I dragged my bed in underneath a tin shack. “It never rains here,” said one of the guides the next morning. We drove off-road across a dusty plain at the foot of a large extinct volcano. The going became more difficult when we hit a laval rock field and we slowed to a crawl over the track in the unforgiving landscape. The rock was extremely sharp and I was amazed we didn’t blow a tire. After a long day we arrived at the military outpost and base-camp for our ascent to the active volcano of Etra Ale.

Climbing up Erta Arle volcano

We were very close to the Eritrean border. To the bemusement of my driving companions I had managed to consume a couple of hundred pages of modern Ethiopian history during even the bumpiest sections of the journey. I had lost count of the number of invasions and counter-invasions over the centuries between Ethiopia and her northeastern neighbor, the latter now keeping her land-locked from the important trade links of the Red Sea. Relations continue to be strained and despite the nonchalance of our tour company, it is still an unstable region. News of skirmishes and arrests are restricted from press publication by the government. Some German tourists were murdered here a few years back for no particular reason. Aware of the facts, I was happy to take my chances along with everyone else. The command post was comprised of sturdy dry stone huts populated by well-equipped soldiers. Camels lounged on the ground with forked sticks like dowsing rods down their sides for baggage or two sets of crisscrossed poles for passengers. One Indian family with three young children opted to ride instead of the three-hour hike, the children quite obviously having the time of their lives.

We set out after sunset to avoid the heat, a moderate 35°C (temperatures can reach up to 50°C in the summer) due to cloud cover. A full moon lit the way of our track over the laval field as the volcano came into view, a scarlet glow emanating from the top, reflected on the underside of the cloud. Upon reaching the summit we encountered more dry stone, thatched huts and camels reclining on folded legs, tied at the knee, chewing the cud. Between two of the huts the flat summit dropped thirty meters down some steep rocky steps to violent folds of dark black stone and clinker. On the right a peak jutted upwards in a 45° incline ending in a sheer vertical drop, exactly as I had imagined the setting of the orc tower when reading JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. And there, a few hundred meters away across the stone field, we could see the rim of the huge lava lake smoking gently, a mist of angry red hovering above it.

The lava lake of Erta Arle

It started to rain. “It never rains here,” said another guide. We stood facing the lava pit, with cold, wet backs, then turned around so our clothes could dry off instantly in the scolding heat, then repeated the process. “So,” I heard someone say, mirroring exactly my own thoughts; “this is how the world was formed.” It was a humbling experience to see solid rock reduced to a malleable liquid, solidifying momentarily in a thin skin upon contact with the cold night air, then cracked apart, revealing its shining underbelly, pulled down again into the depths of the perfectly circular lake. The rain hissed as it evaporated. The lava bubbled up on the left side of the lake with a palpable force, hitting the lee of the overhanging lake’s crust, spewing the walls and air with tiny missiles. The lava would then drift along to the right side where it was pulled back down into the depths once more if not caught in one of the eruptions in the middle. The molten rock shone a bright amber and blood, as hypnotic as the innermost embers of a log fire. A furry, lichen-like moss grew on the banks of the crater. The skin on my face burned.

We stayed for a couple of hours then headed back to the collection of huts in the rain. Fortunately they were mainly waterproof and after giving ours (the best one) to the young Indian family, we found another that was just about watertight. The mattresses that the camels had brought up for us were all sodden, although I had had no intention of using them anyway. With great foresight I had smuggled a bottle of ouzo up the volcano and, joined by a Finnish contingent of tourists we had befriended, we sat in a circle taking long pulls of anise in the night. Our sleeping bags were still dry and we got a few hours sleep on the earthen ground and I have to say I slept remarkably well. During the uneventful descent through a bleak sunrise we encountered the middle-aged Japanese posse armed with sunhats and walking poles, starting to climb just as the day was heating up. Although ill informed, I had to respect their pluck. We embarked on the daylong journey out to the salt flats, arriving at another army base in the evening where we slept outside on wicker beds.

A local story relating the life of young women in the region:

The only highlight of the drive was a huge eight-foot wild ostrich who came belting across the track in front of us, running from nowhere to nowhere, its huge legs working like mechanical pistons kicking up dust and gravel. A strange creature in a strange place, a desolate and hostile land. British writer Elizabeth Laird spent many years travelling around Ethiopia in collaboration with the British Council collecting folk stories from all of the different regions, the experiences of which she narrates in The Lure of the Honey Bird. Although taken from the stories collected in the Somali region (not to be confused with the separate country of Somalia) directly to the south of the Afar region, the following resonated very strongly with me as I looked at the young Afari girls, considering the life in store for them, and the suffering of young women in the country as a whole:

“The one [story] I shall never forget, one of the most remarkable I ever heard in Ethiopia, expresses in the most poignant way the terror of a girl-child, barely in her teens, facing her unknown bridegroom on her wedding night. She will have already have suffered a brutal and unhygienic circumcision, her labia excised with a dirty knife or piece of broken glass, and her vagina may have been crudely stitched, leaving only a small hole for the passage of menstrual blood. It will be slashed open with her new husband’s knife before he penetrates her. Looking ahead, she will soon have to face the terror of giving birth, which many young brides are too small to survive. This story…is truly a woman’s story.” [Due to its protracted length, I give a brief summation of the story here:]

A man went to take some cows as a dowry to the father of the girl he was to marry but on his way he was eaten by a lion. The lion dressed himself in the groom’s clothes and went to the bride’s village where he was greeted with songs and ululations. When he was finally alone in a hut with his new bride, Fatima, he took off his clothes and when she saw his fur she ran in terror to her family:

My Father! My Mother!
This is no man.
I have seen his fur.
You have given me to a wild animal!

But her father was angry and told her not to bring shame on the family. When she protested he agreed to a test: ‘In the morning the village will move in search of grass and water and everyone will shout “The time has come!” and begin to pack up their huts. If he doesn’t shout like the other men I will believe you.’ But the lion was listening outside the hut and in the morning he shouted:

Why is the village still asleep?
When will the people begin to wake?
The time to move has come!

The story continues:

Fatima’s father was angry with her so the lion took her to meet his relatives. On the way the lion insisted she remove all of her clothing piece by piece until she was naked. The lion called a halt and Fatima unloaded the hut from the camel and set it up while he went to fetch his relatives. She knew the lion would bring back other wild relatives who would eat her, but that she also couldn’t return to her family. So she cut off her little finger and put it in the mortar and then she ran away and hid in a tree in the middle of a lake.

The lion returned with the hyena, the leopard, the snake and other wild animals but he couldn’t see Fatima. The little finger in the mortar cried out ‘she is not here!’ so the lion ate the finger. A rat told him where to find the girl so he went to the lake with the other animals. He climbed the rope to the tree but Fatima cut it and the lion fell in the lake and drowned. All the other animals tried to climb the tree but she played the same trick on them and they all drowned. A bird came to Fatima and she fed it a date in return that the bird fly and give the following message to her mother:

You, woman, churning your butter,
Your daughter hides in a tree in the lake,
And she cries, ‘Ohe o byo, Hoge o bayo!
How can you make butter, bad woman,
When your daughter needs your help?

But the mother did not listen and it took a long time for the bird to persuade the family to come to the lake. When they came they asked Fatima to come down but she would not as they had given her to a wild animal. The youngest brother prayed to Allah to fell the tree and it fell so Fatima returned home with her family. She takes her mother’s butter churn up onto the roof of their hut and is carried away by the wind. When she is dropped she turns into two sticks, which are found by a boy who beats his camel with them. She enters the camel as the sticks. The boy is afraid and runs home to tell his father who kills the camel and searches its belly for the sticks. He is unable to find them as they hide and in his anger he kills his only son. The sticks then fly out of the camel and sing:

I made you kill your camel,
Which gave you milk.
I made you kill your son,
Your only one.

This is the end of the story. Laird’s summation of the tale is perhaps the most chilling of all: “The girl, terrified by her husband’s nakedness, then stripped by him until she too is naked and thrown to the mercy of his hostile relatives, will have no sugary finale to her story. No prince coaxes Fatima from her tree. She takes the escape route of an Ovidian metamorphosis, and, in an echo of Daphne transforming herself into a laurel tree, she turns herself into sticks. The revenge she takes is not even against her own cruel family but against the first humans who come her way.” But of course, girls in real life don’t get to magic themselves out of their situation.

Seeing the camel trains carrying salt 

In the morning we drove down to the salt flats past the longest camel trains I had ever seen. Hundreds of them marched out in single file into nowhere. Sand gave way to dirty salt then to a thin covering of saline water. The camels loped through this unfazed, the glare of the sun reflecting up from the floor, encircling their dark moving silhouettes in the distance in an unreal scene. Our Land Cruisers rolled through the shallows creating small ripples of golden sunlight. We reached an island and walked up towards natural sulfur formations of bubbling, smoking green and yellow pools with an abandoned rusting Italian sulfurworks in the distance. I was surprised at the squealing exclamations of many of the tourists. Even Tal and Elad seemed kind of interested. The eggy fumes made me gag and retch and I retired to a rock outcropping alone overlooking the wasteland to sulk, just waiting to get the bloody thing over with. But I had one final leg to go.

Salt blocks have been traded and used as currency in Ethiopia and the surrounding regions for a millennium. The Afar dig and shape the salt from the flats of the Danakil Depression. Loading them on to their huge camel trains, which transport them to the interior, whence they are loaded onto donkeys for the higher altitudes. The further a block is transported from the Depression the higher its value. On average a block of salt (they are large, at about a foot squared) is worth 45 Birr (just over two Dollars US). Afari cutters receive four Birr per block shaped, non-Afari cutters three Birr. This pay doesn’t include the two week round trip needed to transport the blocks to buyers. Temperatures can top 50°C in the summer, making working conditions deplorable. The seven Land Cruisers pulled up to where a hundred or so workers were hacking salt from the baking ground, the tourists jumping out, shoving their cameras in the workers’ faces to take pictures.

I felt awkward and mildly disgusted. One sharp-witted cutter with wraparound sunglasses remarked to one particularly portly German in a khaki waistcoat: “I live on the moon.” I went back to my vehicle and sat in the shade of the engine with one of the Finnish Contingent who was having a similar reaction to situation. An overwhelming number of tourists say that visiting the Danakil Depression is by far and away the highlight of their trip to Ethiopia, some even their lives. I wasn’t so sure. But either way, it is certainly worth a look.

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