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.