Ethiopian Journey I: A Most Inhospitable Place

Do not get the wrong impression. Ethiopia is wonderfully hospitable, full of friendly, welcoming people. But it is also home to the most inhospitable place on this planet. Some background…

I have been twice thwarted in my attempts to visit Ethiopia, first in 2006 due to a famine and again in 2017, when violence caused by tribal tensions forced my tour company to cancel the trip. Optimistically, I signed up for another tour in December, 2019, but when an e-mail arrived from the tour company 10 days before the start date, I feared the worst. I opened the email to read that violence had broken out in the medieval Islamic town of Harar (more about that in a later post), but rather than cancel the trip, the tour would now visit the Danakil Depression and the Dallol hydrothermal field. CNN had recently broadcast a story about it, titling it the most inhospitable place on earth. I couldn’t wait to visit.

The Depression is located in Northern Ethiopia close to the Eritrean border where 3 tectonic plates collide deep beneath the earth where Asia once met Africa. Above the plates, a depression forms one of the lowest places on earth, 100 metres below sea level, and a very dry desert with the world’s hottest average temperature of 35 degrees Celsius. The plates below are still moving, still separating the earth, still playing havoc with the ground above; geology at play, Mother Nature at her best and her most frightening.

In the Dallol, volcanic activity mostly deep below causes pools of sulfuric acid to spout, congregate in multicolour pools, then disappear after a few days. The landscape is ever changing. A sulfur pool there one day is gone the next.

Our visit started early from Mekele, 3:00 AM early, in land cruisers, along with a local tour guide, for a 3 hour drive on a newly paved road (thanks to the Chinese) to arrive at the Depression for sunrise. Our goal was not so much to see the sunrise but to beat the worst of the heat when we walked into the Depression.

We also picked up a local guard, complete with a rifle. The area was relatively safe; the British foreign office had rescinded its NO GO advice about a year ago when the current Ethiopian president signed a peace treaty with Eritrea, ending a war that had been raging since 1998. Raiding parties from Eritrea, just 100 kilometers away, had been common, including the killing of 2 foreigners, but the peace has held here. The guard was mostly a make-work project, offering employment and engaging the locals in the tourist trade.

After 3 hours and the sunrise, the road petered out but none was needed. We had reached the salt flats, miles and miles of white salt perfect for driving on to our destination. Although not quite as extensive as those in Bolivia, and lacking a salt hotel, they were still impressive:

We reached the start of the Depression and began the 20 minute walk to the sulfur fields, gingerly stepping on large, craggy stones rising out of the earth, punctuated by mini-rock toadstools and rounded dried up pools of salt, all very unworldly:

The stench of sulfuric acid greeted us as we neared the first pool, followed by puffs of smoke floating in the air. Our guide showed us the safest path, reminding us not to get too near to the springs and to stay away from anything damp – an indication the earth below was not stable.

The hot springs were all around, in the most vivid colours produced by nature – bright yellows, lime greens, rusty oranges- with blue indicating the newest pool, progressing to green, yellow and orange before finally turning brown and drying up. Pictures speak louder than words:

Scientists have recently begun studying the Dallol, seeking to determine if anything lives in it. Tiny little microbes have been found, leading to examinations as to how life might form in outer space. But I saw only an occasional fly blown in by the wind, buzzing haphazardly about before dropping dead in the dry heat.

Just a few kilometers away, back on the salt flats, men laboured in the blazing sun, carving out blocks of sand and placing them on camels, 7 blocks per camel. Thus laden, camel caravans will walk for days to the market, as they’ve done for time immemorial. The Depression rightly earns its moniker The Most Inhospitable Place on Earth but life teems all around it.

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Next: Ethiopian Journey II: A trip through history

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