by Andrea Semplici
Danakil-ethiopiaDanakil is in Ethiopia, East Africa, the land of Afar people who the Italian colonialists called Dancali.

The Danakil is only a small part of the afar region. It is its northern most point. Fifty thousand square kilometers ten thousand of which below sea level.

This salt desert, a blinding white plain, is in reality a small tub surrounded by the range of the Danakil alps and the ridges of the Ethiopian highlands, that at the western end reach up-to over two thousand meters.

The rain that falls on the Ethiopian highlands in the summer forms small river which mender the plain, sink under the layer of salt and feed surface lakes which migrate with the wind. The absolute desert is ‘living land’.

If one is diversity, another one is frailty. This is the most fragile place on earth; the magma, the fire of the earth, is right under your feet. It is right there, at a distance of five kilometers under your shoe soles.

Here you can sense and see the heartbeat of the earth.  Here in less than a week volcanoes are born and crevasses dozens of kilometers long break open. Here is the junction of three tectonic faults, here the rift valley joins Africa and cuts the continent in half like a sharp razor.

If you happen to visit this place in thirty thousand years time you will see the Danakil alps crumble and the red sea reconquer the land to which it belonged in geological times.
If you come here in thirty million years time, you might see the detachment of the whole of east Africa, the origin of a new, enormous island in the indean ocean. Here you can have the tangible and visible proof of continiental drift.

The Danakil demands humility and eyes filled with wonder. for this reason together with daniella and anna, many years after failed attempts in the nineteen nineties, I believe that the time to try once again had come. We were naïve back then. Deliberately naïve, I think.

We didn’t have maps, not even GPS, we didn’t know where we were going nor how many kilometers  we would have to travel. All we knew was that every day and every night hundreds of caravans open their way to the salt plain desend a canyon carved by a river in thousand years (we later learnd that it was the Saba river).

For centuries people of the Ethiopian highlands and the escarpment had been going to the Danakil to collect salt from the bottom of a sea which had disappeared. They new how to reach this desert. They reached the boarder of this plain at the end of a slow and endless descent. All we had to do was to follow them. Even if we had failed with the off-road vehicle, we would succeed on foot.

The canyon became our path to the Danakil. One night we joined the salt caravans, we tried to keep pace with them, we lost them and founded them again. The coming and going of the camel drivers is incessant. A continuous, tireless, strenuous, endless coming and going.
We walked for eleven hours.

Our feet soaking wet from the water of the saba river. Weary legs. Peace of mind. The uncertainity as to our destination. But at the same time, the pace of the men of the caravans, their silence, the sticks strapped over their shoulders, the load of the animals, the stops to bake bread for the journey. Slowly our decent gives way to the discovery of the details, the attention and the rituals of theose who decend to the Danakil.

Ahmed Ela, “Ahmed’s well” is the village of the miners. It is a stons throw away from the salt plain. It is an invisible village. You notice its existence only when you are close. It has no colors. It has grown under grey gravel.

Its huts are made of crooked branches, stones mark the house hold boundaries, wells are protected with woven mats made of palm leaves. Very few masonry houses; the mosque, the oven, the ramshackle café, the shop, the school, the clinic which I have always seen shut. It is a seasonal village.

For six months a year, from October to March, it is the home of the labourers, the salt miners. During the months of the Great Heat only twenty families live here permanently. No more than twenty.

Ahmed ela changes quiclkely; the mining companies have arrived in search of potassium; an antenna for cell phones has been put up, even a runway for private airplanes has been excavated on its boarders.

Eskinder Hailu - Manager, Highway Tours

Eskinder Hailu
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