The Danakil Depression: Trip Review Part 4

The fourth and penultimate part of the trip report looks at, what for me, was the second reason for coming to the Danakil Depression: Dallol. But before you read on, you may also be interested in part 1, part 2 and part 3.

Day 7              

By now it will be no surprise that it is another early start although alas not to head out to the lava lake. The aim will be to get back down to the base camp in time for breakfast which, depending upon how fast your gear is packed on the camel and how fast you walk, will take about three hours.

The journey back down Erta Ale is pretty easy going and there will be plenty of opportunities for shooting despite setting off in pitch darkness. Sunrise will occur about an hour or so into the descent although aside from the occasional water stop you probably won’t have many – or any – extended breaks. The last time you were here was during the ascent in pitch black so it is interesting to see how various plants have found the ability to survive in the volcanic landscape. There are lots of opportunity for shooting the contrast of the green against the volcanic rock and also the volcanic ash plains that can easily be mistaken for sand. Whether you can make use of the landscape really depends upon your ability to shoot ‘on-the-go’.

Dawn approaches as we descend from Erta Ale. [Click to enlarge!]

Dawn approaches as we descend from Erta Ale. [Click to enlarge!]

I had a lot more success with the camels and, despite having no interest in wildlife photography managed, after a few attempts, to get some reasonable results of them in silhouette against the rising sun.

Once back at the base camp, you’ll likely have a couple of hours before setting off for Dalol. Aside from breakfast, which has to be prepared and then everything cleaned and repacked, the camels have to be unloaded and everything packed back in the 4WD vehicles. This will be your first chance to recharge the camera batteries (unless you packed a solar charger as I did) so make good use of it although as you can probably imagine, everyone will be in the same predicament as you.

Camels are a critical part of the Afar way-of-life and so get treated with love and care. [Click to enlarge!]

Camels are a critical part of the Afar way of life and so get treated with love and care. [Click to enlarge!]

After the vehicles are packed it will be time to head further north and up to the very top of the Danakil Depression. The journey continues along the ash plains and so expect a lot of dust. This is a dry land although surprisingly there are a lot of low bushes managing to eek out an existence here.

Despite not having to cover a lot of distance the journey is slow work; even in 4WD vehicles with skilled drivers it is not a journey to take lightly: Out here in the intense heat a flat tyre will be a real irritation; two of them begins to be a problem. We stopped to help one of the Afar locals and his family after we found their vehicle broken down, after all one day it could be one of the expedition vehicles.

Lunch time is spent at a palm oasis although it is far removed from the idealised ones you’ll see advertising tropical islands. Now that you’re back at 130 metres below sea level and in the basin (the name Danakil Depression is literally from the fact that there is a depression in the ground at Danakil) at midday the sun is really making itself felt. Most people, somewhat sensibly stayed under the cover of the palms, but I had a mission based on a mini-project of capturing the four elements: Fire, water, air and earth. I felt that, after two days at Erta Ale, I had probably captured the ‘fire’ image, and ‘water’ was covered from when I was in Iceland. ‘Earth’ was more tricky as it can be interpreted somewhat broadly but, in keeping with the extreme nature of my fire and water images, I was after an equally extreme earth shot – and the heat-seared, cracked surface I was seeing here may just work. So off I went in search of inspiration.

The sun literally bakes the ground. [Click to enlarge!]

The sun literally bakes the ground. [Click to enlarge!]

I also re-learnt a valuable lesson. I had asked earlier if there would be an opportunity to see a big area of heat-cracked ground as I was initially thinking of a nice big landscape shot with cracked ground as far as the eye could see. Apparently there was “a really nice one” coming up after lunch and so, laying prostrate on the unsurprisingly very hot ground in the noon-day sun, I was really quite tempted to give up and wait for the better opportunity coming up. But I didn’t, mainly as there was nothing else to do and I do get bored easily, so I carried on shooting a series, one of which is above. It is just as well I persevered as the “really nice one” really wasn’t and I had been very close to giving up an opportunity. So my lessons for the day were (1) always make use of the opportunities you are given even if a better one is on the horizon and (2) don’t take photographic advice from a geologist.

Ash, as far as the eye can see [Click to enlarge!]

Ash, as far as the eye can see [Click to enlarge!]

After lunch the 4WD journey continues although as the terrain changes you’ll pick up speed. By mid afternoon you’ll arrive at Hamed Ale, what best can be described as a shanty town whose sole existence is to act as a stop for the camel trains that loop between the Danakil salt flats and the town of Berhale on the Tigray lowlands. After spending a few nights on the ash floors of the shacks at Erta Ale, accommodation is a definite improvement being a bedframe out under the stars. As basic as it sounds it was comfortable and I think most of us slept well. The sanitary conditions also improve, although marginally: we now have a hole in the ground almost surrounded by corrugated iron.

Luxury is relative. After four days without a toilet the sanitary facilities at Hamed Ale were a step up. Toilet is on the left; bucket-shower on the right. [Click to enlarge!]

Luxury is relative. After four days without a toilet the sanitary facilities at Hamed Ale were a step up. Toilet is on the left; bucket-shower on the right. [Click to enlarge!]

Yes, a few days ago at Lake Afdera we were horrified at the prospect and yet now we were thankful: It’s amazing how easily your expectations can change when you’ve experienced the alternatives. As a bonus the corrugated iron toilet is one half of a structure, the other half being an equally-sized shower area. By shower I mean a bucket of water, but after three days of having to use chemical wipes to get the dirt and dust off my face, that bucket was heaven.

The rest of the afternoon is spent relaxing and heading out a short distance to watch the camel trains arrive from the salt plains loaded with their cargo. You’ll probably still be looking to charge the camera batteries – there is bound to have been a queue for in-car charging – but unless your expedition has a generator you’ll be out of luck. I simply set my solar charger up on the roof of a building we were using as a kitchen and for luggage storage and let nature work her magic. Honestly, I really recommend taking a good solar charger.

En route from the salt plains to Berhale [Click to enlarge!]

En route from the salt plains to Berhale [Click to enlarge!]

Our temporary home at Hamed Ale and a testament to the fact that travelling with the right people makes everything fun! [Click to enlarge!]

Our temporary home at Hamed Ale and a testament to the fact that travelling with the right people makes everything fun! [Click to enlarge!]

To be honest Hamed Ale is not particularly outstanding; it is a village of the same semi-permanent structures used by the Afar everywhere. They look, frankly, messy, but the Afar are a nomadic people – building permanent structures is not only pointless but would be time-consuming and costly. There is a military base here, larger than the one at the Erta Ale base camp and on the military compound is a bar with cold drinks, including beer. Indulging in a bed, rudimentary sanitary facilities and a cold drink after the past few days is guaranteed to make you smile.

It will be another early night, but falling asleep whilst looking up at the stars is a wonderful way to nod off…

 

Day 8  

It will be another pre-dawn rise today in order to go and see the second main site that the area has to offer: The hot springs at Dallol. The area is accessible at any time but the idea is to beat the midday heat – a taste of which you had yesterday at the oasis yesterday. It is worth making sure that you have (at least) two litres of water with you: When we leaving the area we heard that a lady in another group had just collapsed, presumably a combination of dehydration and poor choice of clothes from what we saw later. This is another of the “fly-by” stops that the shorter trips visit and so, as they usually don’t camp in the area, an early start also means that you’ll avoid a lot of the other groups.

Dallol was once described by National Geographic as being one of the most remote places on Earth. [Click to enlarge!]

Dallol was once described by National Geographic as being one of the most remote places on Earth. [Click to enlarge!]

The hot springs are in the caldera of the Dallol volcano and although nowhere near as active as Erta Ale – Dallol last erupted in 1926 and now displays no fluid magma – it has its own very unique appeal.

A bizarre landscape that is sadly now but a shadow of what it once was. [Click to enlarge!]

A bizarre landscape that is sadly now but a shadow of what it once was. [Click to enlarge!]

You would easily be forgiven for thinking that someone had been at work in Photoshop when looking at photographs of the area: There is an other-worldly mix of blues, greens, yellows, whites and purples. Although it has been nearly 90 years since the last eruption the area is a fracture in the Earth’s crust and a number of geysers vent here. You should heed the warnings given as although not explosive geysers such as seen in El Tatio or Yellowstone, what they lack in power they make up in substance, the pools of liquid you see around the area are high-molar mineral acid measuring less than 1.0 on the pH scale.

 

You’ll get a few hours at Dalol and despite that fact that the heat will likely have passed the 40°C mark by 10AM it is worth making the effort to stay. A few years ago the area was much larger – and all the more impressive – but a Canadian potash mining operation about 30km distant is disrupting the underground fissures that make up the plumbing system of the area and causing significant damage to the landscape in front of you. The result is a drab brown crust that is slowly replacing the fantastic multi-coloured vents and ground. Talking to the geologist with us it is quite possible that within five years this place will either be gone completely or so compromised that it won’t classify as being an ‘area’ at all.

This is what the stunning, other-worldly landscape of Dallol is becoming due to potash mining. [Click to enlarge!]

This is what the stunning, other-worldly landscape of Dallol is becoming due to potash mining. [Click to enlarge!]

The other thing that may be of interest here is the ghost town left after an Italian mining company deserted the area in the 1960s. There is not much of it left – the salt and acid rich environment likely having something to do with that, but it is a curiousity. Still scattered around the remaining furnaces are lumps of refined sulphur as a testament to the fact that the mineral-rich area is being exploited by everyone except the Ethiopians.

The area was once a riot of vivid yellows, green, blues and white. buy nearby potash mining has had a devastating effect. [Click to enlarge!]

The area was once a riot of vivid yellows, green, blues and white. but nearby potash mining has had a devastating effect. [Click to enlarge!]

The most disappointing aspect of the day was that it was so short. After leaving the bizarre landscape we returned back to the camp for lunch and then just stayed there which was more than a little frustrating from a landscape photography point-of-view simply as there is not a lot to work with, certainly in the afternoon sun. There is a lot more opportunity for portraits and candids, however, so if this is something that you are interested in then you’ll easily while away the afternoon. Some of us used the time to sort though the images from the past few days and some used the time to catch up on sleep, but I and the other photographers would much rather have been out again. The afternoon turned uneventfully into evening and then night.

 

Day 9

Like yesterday you’ll be up for dawn and heading out before the sun realises you’ve gone. We followed the same track out to the hot springs which again took us past the camel train heading out to the salt flats to pick up their cargo. You’ll almost definitely make a stop to watch them although whether you stop today or the previous day may be open for debate.

The daily camel train heading out to the salt flats to pick up their cargo of white gold. [Click to enlarge!]

The daily camel train heading out to the salt flats to pick up their cargo of white gold. [Click to enlarge!]

The camel train is a centuries-old and fundamental part of the Afar culture in Dallol. The salt still being mined on these flats was once the only form of currency and although money is now the preferred method of payment the Afar still make their living off the mining and transport of salt – or white gold as it is called. What you’ll see in the morning is the daily camel train heading out to pick up their cargo – salt blocks – before heading back to Hamed Ale for the evening. Any photographic opportunities here will be constantly in motion so, despite the heat, you may be rushing around a fair bit.

Where you actually head after that I’m not too sure; I thought that we were heading back to the hot springs, but we actually took a turn and headed off into a salt canyon. From a landscape point-of-view there’s a lot on offer here and in many ways resembles a limestone canyon with deep crevasses and odd-shaped sculptures resulting from erosion. I would like to have had more time here and so it may be worth asking ahead of time if you can – we were back at the camp by lunchtime and so the day isn’t a busy one.

Cliffs of salt dominate the landscape and provide some excellent landscape to work with. [Click to enlarge!]

Cliffs of salt dominate the landscape and provide some excellent landscape to work with. [Click to enlarge!]

From the canyon we headed out towards the salt plains stopping to look at more evidence of the fragile nature of the landscape here. The African continent is being ripped apart by geologic forces resulting in the tectonic plate upon which the African continent sits being split in two. This process is happening along the boundary of the African plate and the Arabian place and hence the geologic fault being called the Afar Triple Junction. The process is slow by human standards – approximately 100 million years – but eventually this entire region will be the seabed of a new sea.

More evidence of the destruction of a continent. This fault has only appeared in the last year and mirrors the 6500km fault that is pushing eastern Africa away from the rest of the continent. [Click to enlarge!]

More evidence of the destruction of a continent. This fault has only appeared in the last year and mirrors fault system that is pushing eastern Africa away from the rest of the continent. [Click to enlarge!]

From here you’ll head off to the salt plains, stopping at more hot springs along the way.

The salt plains are an interesting place and offer excellent opportunities for portrait and candid photography. Although not really my area of interest, it is hard not to be captivated in the centuries-old techniques of mining salt that you’ll see here. It is truly back-breaking hard labour under the unrelenting sun and the workers get paid a pittance for each block of salt that they carve from the ground. Most of the workers are not actually the Afar, but rather Tigrayans who leave the highlands to come and earn money working six hours a day, six days a week, up to ten months a year. Working in small teams and using only basic tools – pick axes and wooden poles to crack open the surface and a small, bladed, hand tool – they carve up the salt crust and shape the large fragments into small, rectangular blocks approximately 35cm long and weighting 4kg.

Getting ready to load the camel for the two-day journey back to Berhale. [Click to enlarge!]

Getting ready to load the camel for the two-day journey back to Berhale. [Click to enlarge!]

The resulting salt blocks are then stacked, tied together and loaded onto camels and donkeys for the 50km, two-day journey to Berhale where from where they will be distributed across Ethiopia.

As with the hot springs that you saw yesterday, the salt miners that you see today are living on borrowed time: A new tarmac road – the first of its kind in the area – has just been completed in December 2014 – and with it the ability to get large-scale commercial transport into the area. Given that salt mining is a lucrative business it won’t be long before a commercial mining operation is set up at which point the centuries-old tradition that you see now will all but fade away.

After visiting the salt plains we returned back to the camp for lunch and more ‘free time’ which was more than a little disappointing given the opportunities that were available but needed a 4WD to get to. It may be possible – and I didn’t even think to ask at the time – to pay a bit extra and head back out, although you’ll have to pay for a military and police escort as well as the driver’s time. However, I suspect that you won’t be the only one willing to pay for the opportunity.

Today is also the last day that you are in the Danakil region and among the Afar people so if you are interested in cultural or portrait work this will be your last time to interact with these proud people.

In the fifth and final part I’ll look at the time spent in the Tigray highlands and discuss the expedition’s strengths and weaknesses.

 

Some more images…

Descending from Erta Ale. [Click to enlarge!]

Descending from Erta Ale. [Click to enlarge!]

An Afar military guard watches the only road in to the area. [Click to enlarge!]

An Afar military guard watches the only road in to the area. [Click to enlarge!]

Life survives in even the harshest environment. [Click to enlarge!]

Life survives in even the harshest environment. [Click to enlarge!]

Dunes of volcanic ash [Click to enlarge!]

Dunes of volcanic ash [Click to enlarge!]

Years of use has produced a polished salt track across the land. [Click to enlarge!]

Years of use has produced a polished salt track across the land. [Click to enlarge!]

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2 Comments

  1. ermias November 4, 2015 at 12:39 #

    It is a fascinating writing that tells something optimistic about Ethiopia especially Dallol. I don’t even think an Ethiopian writing something positive about these areas. I know this place in my geology classes and read about it from you.

    thank you very much.

    In addition this year January/February I will conduct a geological study for partial fulfillment of MSc degree in Structural Geology and Tectonics from Addis Ababa University School of Earth Sciences and if you think you have something important please sent it to my email address especially from geology point of view.

    • Dave December 19, 2015 at 12:09 #

      Hi and thanks for the comment.

      Yes, it probably shows but I loved the landscape there and Dallol is such a unique area. But even when we where there in 2014 the area was so badly damaged by potash mining it is hard to see how Dallol can survive. That’s the problem with Ethiopia – it is a poor country and there are plenty of foreign countries willing to take its natural resources. I just hope that whoever is allowing the foreign investment can see the long-term picture.

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