A highlight of Danakil Desert Adventure. Uninhabited region, roughly 130 meters (420 feet) below sea level. Holds the official record for high average annual temperature of 35C (96F). Dreamlike multihued wonderland of delicate masterpieces of sulfur that situates in the center of the explosion crater – Dallol – Kaleidoscopic, Whimsical and Transcendental
After witnessing spectacular sunset over Salt Lake – Lake Assale, we head back to Hamed Ela military camp to spend a night out in Danakil Desert. The military camp settled closer to Ethiopia and Eritrea border which seem like the edge of the world.
Small shelters built by assembled dry sticks and finished with straw mat as a roof top. The huts built closer to each other in the middle of the camp area. Wooden, woven beds set up outside around the huts in a circular form to keep us from possible windstorm in the evening while sleeping outside. An interesting detail of resourcefulness I noticed by being in a desert – putting things in circular form.
I remember while watching the sunset over Lake Assale, the drivers park the cars in circular form again for wind protection. They put portable little chairs within the circle. The chairs placed against the cars so that we sit inside a cocoon and enjoy little plastic cups of local red wine while they were entertaining us by cracking local tunes and dancing in the middle as a dance floor – enjoying present moment somewhere in Danakil Desert.
Before dinner at the camp, we provided with container of water to wash up our salty legs from waded in salt lake. Meron (Merry) was our amazing cook, who has been with the group cooking delicious local and western fares. Her energy and resourcefulness for cooking amazing dishes in this harsh environment was truly inspiring and definitely an affirmation that WOMEN ARE CAPABLE OF DOING ANYTHING .
A buffet set up outside and we enjoyed eating dinner out in a desert. Our guide gave us brief description for our next day adventure in Danakil Desert. Obviously after dinner, we were craving something cold to drink, so fortunately there was a military joint within the camp compound.
A fridge freezer cornered at the side of the first room which is built by an evenly assembled dry sticks. Long and thick wooden set up at every corner of the room as a bench. There were few chairs were military members were sitting on and around small tables having local beer and relaxing. Within the next room there was big pool table were other military members playing around it.
We got ourselves slightly cold local beer and start interacting within a military bar somewhere in Danakil Desert. The group I was in for this adventure was a compilation of people who came from different parts of the country that one common interest brought us together at Danakil Desert.
WANDERLUST brought Israelis friends, Polish couples, Swiss women wanderer amusing English guy, flexible Japanese guy, core hard traveler Japanese women, Belgian, Russian and American … all at the cradle of humanity: a region where 3.2 million – year – old hominin known as Dinknesh (Lucy) unearthed in 1974 – Afar, Ethiopia. The distance between countries seemed to lessen. A defining moment to rise way above ego (the false self) and to actually be able to see citizens of the universe gather at their great great great… grandmother’s home where it all begins – Ethiopia.
There was no toilet facilities at the military camp for the group to use. Bit further away from the military compound behind little stone hills was where we allowed to take care of nature’s call. Once again comfort in a desert is a state of mind. Another day had to come to an end without taking shower in Danakil Desert at Hamed Ela military camp. Feeling the wet wipe on my skin felt like heaven and actuated me to be present enough to appreciate a sacred experience of feeling all clean and fresh.
It was time to sleep. Thin, colorful and foamy mattresses laid up on the woven bed and sleeping bag. The evening was even warmer than the night we spent at a slope next to the volcano – Erta’ Ale. The sleeping bag did not come to be useful until the wind started to kick off after midnight. Letting go the illusion of sense of security, putting trust on strangers and the universe … was another profound life lesson I obtained while sleeping out in Danakil Desert under pitch black sky with sparking stars.
After a short night, we were awoken by a flashlight and a wake up call coming from our guide 5 in the morning. Sunrise above silvery horizon over Hamed Ela. The camel caravans were already started their journey back to the salt mine looking all energized and this time without loads of salt cubes as it is the double backing journey from Berhale to harvest salt. We had amazing breakfast at the same spot we had dinner. After breakfast we immediately started our last day Danakil Adventure.
Heading to our first stop Dallol was witnessing sand gives way to salt flats. While contemplating the fascinating flatness of the desert, the cars parked under a huge brown mound which seem to be appear by some kind of magic within the endlessness of nothingness and it is the only vertical figure in sight. Dallol is a broad flat –slopped maar formed in 1926, protrudes from the eastern side of a 1,200 km area of windswept salt encrusted flats.
We had to ascend the slope in order to reach our destination – Dallol. Our guides advised to take a litter of bottled water with us. After climbing the hill for a little while we were greeted by jaw dropping rock formations and salt structures which sprout like mushroom with smooth marble like table top. These mineral formations has orange, brown, white and pinkish colors and stopped us cold. Half way up and looking back to witness an orange colored desert and the cars parked under the slope now little toys in the vanishing salt and sand horizon.
After 15 minutes walk, we reached at the top of the hill. Being able to see behind the hill was unimaginable vista. Strange earth formation lead us to another world. Before we knew it while still being mesmerized by the salt structure we walked up on … a live, huge and colorful canvas unfold before us. It seem like stepping into a painting where different kinds of forms, bright and happy colors all over the place.
Obviously with the limited conscious mind, we would be able to see the scientific facts – colored plain of sulfur deposits, iron oxide crust, sulfur geysers and acid lakes – and all the peculiar colors, shapes and forms all over. Drops, bubbles and smoke. Rock, water, sand and oil. Yellow, brown, orange, white, green, red and so on.
Besides being visually stunning, actually being at Dallol is so surreal. We felt the heat not only from the early morning sun of the desert above us but also from the delicate ground of Dallol, and from the bubbling sulfur springs. To make it even more alive the overwhelming smell of sulfur actuated us to be present through our sense of smell.
Our silent reverie loudly complemented by soft throbbing of water boiling underground, bubble up steaming water of the tiny geysers and from crunching over crystal like formations of the brittle earth with our every mindful but adventurous steps we took within Dallol.
Dallol had to be visited early in the morning before the desert start baking. It was around 7:30 we arrived there. Though it sounds too early for the desert to heat up we were already sweating. We had to wear hat obviously to protect our skin from the already scorching sun even in the morning.
No jewelries and it is not because of the adventure but rather to protect your jewelry from discoloration just being at Dallol. Some kind of mask as walking through this whole new world challenges a sense of smell with its intensified sulfuric smell. Trekking shoes as walking within Dallo was a delicate one that one false move leads into bubbling sulfur so being mindful was essential.
Talking about mindfulness, if you let yourself to see Dallol way beyond the scientific label it putted up on it by scientific facts /logical mind, you can definitely stunned by the inexplicable energy of the universe adorned with breathtaking colors and fascinating details. After an hour wandering around within Dallol, we head back to the cars. Dallol equally impressed us all regardless of our travel histories.
Danakil Desert is full of strange and stunning earth formation features. Salt hill and canyon was our second stop. We had to literally crawl for two minutes under salt hill to end up in the middle of the salt canyon which was dark so had to use headlight. It was bit challenging but all worth it as we end up being stunned by what we saw at the end.
Either created by wind and erosion or by the in-explainable universe energy. I choose to be enlightened by the beauty of the details carved on the wall of the salt hill and God lies in details indeed. To get out of the canyon we had to climb up the hill which required a big step, holding on a grip and obviously trusting your own true nature.
Another magical earth formation of Danakil Desert was our third stop which is named as Yellow Lake. A strange little lake with different colors and yellow potash bubbling. According to the locals it has a healing property for skin aliments. I saw our driver taking the water into plastic bottles and he said it is strong remedies but heals any kind of skin problems. A miracle in a desert.
Saving the best for last. Besides being blown by earth formation my Danakil Desert Adventure lead me straight in to a HEART OPENER experience. Our last stop for our last day in Danakil desert was vising the salt mine.
Salt flats in the Danakil Depression, along the borderline between Ethiopia and Eritrea, are located 100 meters below sea level. This huge salt crust often up to 1000 meters thick, goes deep in the earth’s crust. It is where the salt mine is.
It was 10:00 am when we reached at the salt mine not even mid-day but I clearly recall checking the odometer to make sure as the heat start becoming unbearable and it was already 44 C. The highlander’s Tigray and the lowlander’s Afar salt miners was working harmoniously and with enthusiasm in spite of the inhospitable nature of the Desert.
The salt miners were breaking plates of salt out of the ground using ax. Fitting a set of sticks in the indentations made by the ax. Lifting the big salt slab using the sticks. Cutting the slab into tiles of standard sizes which weight 4kg. Stacking, tying and loading it on the mules and camels for transport.
Carving one piece of cube salt fetch salt miners 3 Ethiopian Birr so they try to make as many as possible before the day ends. I learn they can make from 100 – 200 salt cubes a day and that would be an estimation of earning from 14 – 25 $ a day.
They were so focused on what they were doing to the point it seem they were not aware of being invaded by tourists walking around and taking picture of the action of the moment. Evidently the salt miners get used to the fact being visited by tourists but the very fact they were present enough for the task at hand even surpass the suffering of physical body from the merciless sun and heat of the desert.
As locally know as Amole Chew – is salt block which once was an exchanging commodity worthy as gold here in Ethiopia. Although money notes has replaced Amole, Salt is still “White Gold” for the legendary Ethiopian Afar people who pay price–from taking off burned flab of skin to precious life.
Seeing an Ethiopian within the group who came to visit the salt mine seem flabbergasted many salt miners a bit as it is not an everyday occurrence. I saw a sense of joy on their face in seeing their own person as a tourist and it made me even happier when they took a moment to look at me in the eye and said “HABESHA” – a recognition of souls in a sense of oneness.
By some kind cosmic force I was being able to detach from the part of me who was being a tourist in my own country and start to see the actual native and tourist connection. I clearly recall reading this particular wisdom from a book called A SMALL PLACE by Jamaica Kincaid “For every native of every place is a potential tourist, and every tourist is a native of somewhere. Every native everywhere lives a life of overwhelming and crushing banality and boredom and desperation and depression, and every deed, good and bad, is an attempt to forget this. Every native would like to find a way out, every native would like a rest, every native would like a tour.”
Starting with the natives, it is no brainer that not every native is happy with the fact a lenses put up on their face while going through their everyday life especially without their permission and in spite of what the local tour guide say. And being a tourist should be more than seeing places and taking picture rather it should come with compassion and respect for the land and the people being visited.
Arrogance comes when a tourist ask camel drivers while they are crossing the desert to hop on a camel that already carry enough load just to take pictures and saying I have been there. Arrogance comes when not honoring etiquette of the place being visited. Arrogance comes when a tourist thinks the money paid for the itinerary entitled them to do whatever they like – step on culture, tradition, dignity and needs of the natives of the land being visited. Arrogance comes when getting pleasure out of somebody’s misery for the sake of telling a story.
Everywhere in the world, people want the same thing – shelter, food, family, happiness, love, comfort and most importantly we all want to know that we matter that our being here meant something. Seeing people beyond the cover or beyond given conceptual identity. Emitting that sense of oneness by saluting the same soul that abides within all of us can be a heart opener to all of us native or tourist and then we welcome each other with open heart in our own home wherever it may be.
I packed all the priceless memories and lessons within my heart as my Danakil Adventure has come to an end. Once we reached the city of Mekele which is around 100 km away from the Danakil Depression, the first thing we all wanted to do is dump our smelly and dirty clothes, take real shower, put on clean cloth, have cold drink and sleeping inside and on a bed.
Our car pulled over in front of Ethio Travel and Tours office where it all begins four days ago. At the office we were so welcomed with smile and appreciation. The staff presented us white polo t-shirt – on which JUST DONE IT DANAKIL words sewed on it with green, yellow and red thread– as a trophy which made us feel a hero. Last but not least, I must say I really had great experience with skilled, experienced, and caring team –from sweet drivers, strong Ethiopian woman cook to thoughtful tour guides of Ethio Travel and Tours (ETT)–whom all made this Danakil Adventure possible.