It was a searing 43C in the shade, but Dawit, my young Ethiopian guide, told me that I was lucky, as temperatures here in the Danakil can top 50C.
One of the more remote spots on the planet, northeastern Ethiopia’s Danakil Depression holds the title as the hottest inhabited place on Earth, with an average year round temperature of 34C, and, as Dawit informed me, is more commonly known as “The Gateway to Hell”.
You’d think that the harsh landscape would leave it devoid of visitors, let alone human habitation, but this is the surprising home of a disappearing cultural tradition: the camel caravans that carry salt through the brutal desert, led by the nomadic Afar tribe.
The Danakil Depression, formed by the collision of several tectonic plates on the Ethiopian, Eritrean and Djibouti border, is not only a sizzling cauldron but also a place of stunning geological wonders. The majority of travellers who come here do so to visit Erta Ale, a 600m-high and highly active volcano that contains the largest living lava lake in the world. The volcanic lunar landscape resembles a surrealist painting, with sulphurous hot springs, lava beds, hypothermal pools, and a mix of sulphates, iron oxides and salt deposits all combining to create a hallucinogenic palette of otherworldly formations and colours.
The tribal Afar people have inhabited this arid moonscape for centuries, eking out a living by extracting salt from the mineral-laden lakes that dot the Danakil and transporting it across the desert by camel caravans. Similar to the Kurds, they inhabit an area spanning several countries, yet have no political rights or borders they can call their own.
Although these traditional nomadic herders are pastoralists, they are notorious for being fierce, proud, independent, and not exactly hospitable – perhaps mirroring the unforgiving terrain that surrounds them. Up until Italian occupation during WWII, they were known for their practice of slicing off foreign intruders’ testicles as a form of greeting, and while that doesn’t happen anymore, a rebel independence group did kidnap a group of visitors some years ago, bringing Ethiopian soldiers in to police the area.
Dawit navigated us via a four-wheel drive jeep to Lake Assal in the east of the Danakil Depression, where a team of Afar were just finishing loading their camels. The salt trade here is taxing, with workers using basic picks and axes to chop and cut the bricks of salt while standing out in the extreme heat for just 150 Ethiopian birr (£5) per day.
A young Afar camel herder named Mohammed, whom Dawit knows from previous trips, came over to ask for a cigarette. Between puffs, he told us that his father could cut 150 bricks in a day, worth a bonus as most workers earn their daily rate chopping up around 120.
However, Mohammed has opted for an easier job that pays less: that of loading and walking the camels. He guides a group of 15 to 20 dromedaries, each laden with 30 salt bricks that weigh 4kg each, through the desert to the small hamlet of Berahile, an 80km trek that takes two to three days each way. The team receives about 3,320 Ethiopian Birr (£112) for the journey, but most of this goes to the camel owner and the food for the camels, while Mohammed and one other assistant get a paltry remainder.
Mohammed has an enterprising outlook, though. He said that it is sometimes possible between caravan trips to work as a camel porter on Erta Ale, ferrying loads for tourists who are planning to spend the night on top of the mountain. With a gleam in his eye, he also mentioned that he is sweet on a girl in Berahile, which means he’s always looking forward to his next excursion through the sands.
The camel caravans used to carry salt all the way to Mekele, the provincial capital further west, from where the salt is parcelled out to the rest of Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa. But the asphalt road laid down in the past decade changed that, and now trucks can pick up the salt load from Berahile.Even more sweeping changes lie ahead, too. Construction teams are building a road from Berahile to Hamid Ela, the last outpost of civilisation in the Danakil, just 50km and a day’s walk away from the salt deposits. Just how much longer the camel trains and their Afar keepers will continue their age-old tradition remains to be seen.