Salt caravans of the Danakil Depression

May 17, 2013

Danakil Depression, Ethiopia

By Siegfried Modola

To descend into the Danakil Depression is to step into another world.

The thick warm air, the hazy sky and the rugged empty mountains that gradually give way to the immensity of a white, shimmering salt desert all leave the traveller in awe of this cruel yet fascinating landscape. Overlapping the Afar region of northeastern Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti, this is the lowest point in Africa and one of the hottest places on Earth.

Venturing deep into this inhospitable land requires a well organized plan. Getting stuck with no back-up vehicle, no satellite communication or simply not enough water could become life threatening within a matter of hours.

I started my trip from the city of Mekele in the northern Tigray region of Ethiopia. I had not come to explore the area as a tourist. Instead, I was there to document the caravans of thousands of camels which for centuries have descended deep into the depression to extract salt. Mekele was the place where I had to find a good 4×4 vehicle, a driver and enough water and food to be on the road for six days. Most importantly, I had to find a reliable fixer, someone who knew the region well and spoke the local language but who also had to be familiar with the salt trade and could maneuver well within complex Afar clan dynamics.

I had briefly met Mohammed on a previous trip some years back, and we stayed in touch ever since. His company for this assignment proved to be invaluable as he translated interviews, and negotiated with government officials and clan elders. After a four-hour ride from Mekele, we arrived in the small but fast expanding desert town of Berahile in the Afar territory in the afternoon. This is where the camel caravans drop their loads of salt after marching for days across the depression.

From Berahile, trucks collect the mineral and transport it to the city of Mekele from where it is distributed to the rest of the country.

On the way, I was astonished at how far the construction of a new paved road had come along. Just a few years back in 2010, most of the journey to Berahile was on a rough steep route, but now I traveled on freshly laid tarmac for half the way. I couldn’t help thinking about how this new road would affect the region. Surely it will bring some much needed development, helping with the transit of goods, businesses and infrastructure. But what about the thousands of Muslim Afar and Christian Tigrayans from the highlands who depend on the old ways of the salt trade? Would trucks one day replace camels, mules and donkeys and be part of a new, more efficient way of transporting salt from the desert to the highland?

As thoughts became questions, Mohammed explained that he believed this would never happen. All aspects of society in this region come down to clan politics; everything is decided by clan leaders and the local administration. For this reason, Mohammed believed that the community would never allow the caravan trade to disappear, as that would affect the thousands of people who depend on it. After meeting and introducing myself to the clan elders and administrators in the town, it was decided that I would depart by foot with the caravans the next morning.

For protection against possible bandit attacks and for assistance on the way, I was introduced to Hussein, my guide for the next few days and to Mussa, an armed police reservist who in his younger days was a rebel fighter with the Afar Liberation Front. We walked with countless caravans of camels through the day across vast dried valleys and canyons. Hussein explained the vital importance of the river that we followed through the afternoon, saying it was the lifeline of the region. Once you leave it and head into the salt plains, drinking water is impossible to find.

That evening we made camp in the company of a caravan by the banks of the river. We shared coffee and a quick dinner of pitta bread and noodles, then were quickly carried off to sleep by our exhaustion. At 6a.m. we were back on the road, taking advantage of the cool temperatures to cover as much distance as possible. Luckily for us, a car was waiting at the end of the valley for the last 20 kilometers (12 miles) of rocky, flat terrain before reaching the great salt plains of the depression.

I felt that having been on the road with the caravans for a day and a half was enough to be able to understand the difficulties of the journey that the salt merchants faced on a daily basis. We reached Hamad-Ile in the afternoon, a small village on the edge of the desert, which is the last outpost for water and food before proceeding east into the depression. This was going to be a comfortable base to spend the night compared to the rocky terrain where we had woken up the previous morning.

At dusk the next day, we witnessed a spectacular scene of thousands of camels, mules, donkeys, herders, salt merchants, salt shapers and extractors venturing together into the vast, endless plains. They were all trying to reach a suitable spot where the salt was compact enough to be extracted. It was a march of several hours deep in the desert. The sooner they reached the spot, the more time they had to extract as many slabs of salt as possible, load them onto their animals and start the two days’ journey back to the town of Berahile.

The landscape here was incredibly different from when I had started my trip a couple of days back. It was a shimmering white expanse, with water mirages on the horizon playing tricks with your mind. The white hazy sky melted with the whiteness of the desert, giving a surreal feeling that sky and earth had touched and become one reality, indistinguishable from one another. Amid this feeling of spectacular emptiness, the salt caravans moved in a slow but constant procession, cutting across the whiteness of the cracked desert.

It was hard to imagine that they would stop somewhere in the desolate plains and work through the day in temperatures sometimes exceeding 50 degrees centigrade (122 degrees Fahrenheit).

The price: thousands of slabs of salt to sell and to transport to the four corners of the country in a matter of days. This is the “white gold” of Ethiopia, as it used to be called when salt was used as a form of currency throughout the region.


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