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.
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’.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.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.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. 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. 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.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…
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.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. 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.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 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.
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 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.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. 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.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…