“We’ll pick you up at nine,” offered Wathagu, working in the Makele office of Ethiopian Tour and Travel, the company that I had bartered a trip to the Danakil Depression with.
“Cool,” I thanked him and both Hannah and Yohannes and I walked around town. The markets were on and some fresh veggies and pasta were bought for the day. As it was a Sunday, we decided to spend the afternoon cooking, chewing ghat and watching a movie.
Ghat gives me a lot of energy so while Hannah had to go off for a birthday party, Yohannes and I sat chewing the leaves while watching White Chicks. Although it sounds like a porno, it’s a Wayan brothers film and quite funny.
Hannah returned in time to catch the end of the movie. Having chewed ghat for almost two hours I was high. And high on energy so Ol’ Red made an appearance and we sat outside in the garden where I played my entire repertoire. The neighbours came out, gave us a plate of fava beans with a spicy dip and a jug of local beer. I’d quit drinking the previous August but I tasted a bit of the stuff. It was similar to the Maasai beer I had tried in Kenya – sour and hard to swallow. One of those acquired tastes.
The next morning, at nine on the dot, I was picked up by a driver for ETT. For the first time since leaving southern Africa, I’ve come across a country that is punctual. None of, This Is Africa (TIA) excuse for tardiness.
At the office I met the folks who would join me in the car, Sebastian and his partner Sema (I think. Apologies for mispronunciation) from Germany and Ellen from New York. Tekele was to be our driver for the next four days.
We pulled out in a convoy of two vehicles, the other carrying four girls from Addis. Riding up the mountains, we stopped in a small village for coffee and then by a lookout point and surveyed the arid land. Gorges, mountains, dust and desert plants greeted us. We had a long day of driving so we continued on.
Coming down the windy road to the flats of the depression, we hit the Afar region on empty roads. I noticed that once leaving a large city in Ethiopia, cars were sparse. I began to wonder about hitch-hiking north to Adigrat and Axum from Makele, but I could worry about that later.
Or do I would best, let The Universe take over.
I admired the flat roads that cut through the desert, waving at the locals who seemed to pass the day by collecting water and herding their goats and camels. Lunch was in a small dusty town called Abeba, where we waited while the rest of the convoy arrived.
Sebastian had disappeared and his partner said, “He went to play football.”
“In this heat?” I raised an eyebrow, an extremely difficult task in 39 degrees. A small child came and took me by the hand.
“Football,” he said repeatedly and began to lead me out and through the dusty alleys of the village. I figured I’d play for about a minute before retiring. I was barefoot which shocked the locals. Some offering me their shoes.
I grinned in refusal. “Don’t like shoes,” I’d tell them.
Finally, the kid stopped us in front of a shop where I saw Sebastian crowded by more kids.
“They want me to buy them a football,” he grinned.
The little… “You scammers,” I joked with the kids. “I thought we were playing football!” Although the kid held on to my hand and was persistently trying to get me to buy a football, I walked back to the restaurant.
Since he was only 18 months old he reluctantly gave up. In the restaurant the kids were performing some martial arts before a lunch of pasta and potatoes was served.
Our first glimpse of a camel caravan passed across the dry river bed and under the bridge when we packed up the cars and headed off in an enlarged convoy of six vehicles. Soldiers were picked up in the small town of Hameda.
“They will escort us to the salt lakes,” explained Oji, our guide, “because we are near the Eritrean border.”
The governments of Ethiopia and Eretria have been at each others necks for a few decades now. A bloody war had ensued and tension was always around. A few years ago, some tourists were kidnapped and killed by Eritrean soldiers.
So now all trips into the Danakil are military escorted.
Sunset was approaching and we climbed back into the cars after a two-hour break of coffee and finding shade. The thermostat in the car indicated the outside temperature to have peaked at 42.
The Danakil Depression is regarded as the hottest spot on Earth, sitting at 116 meters below sea level (for comparison, the Dead Sea is at 400 meters below sea level, making it the lowest place on Earth). We drove through the vast salt plains, a thin level of water creating a shimmering glass effect. We stopped in the middle of nothing surrounded by nothing – but salt.
“The water comes from the Red Sea,” Oji explained, “through underground rivers.”
While the group contained themselves to hover around the vehicles, I went off to explore the salts. I bent down to admire the crystallised minerals and tasted the water.
“Yup,” I scrunched my face. “That’s salt alright.”
The sun was beginning its decent behind the dust cloud that was rising up on the western horizon. Once it disappeared, we all clambered back into the cars and drove off to our camp in Hameda. Wooden beds with weaved mattresses were placed by the roadside.
It appeared that we were to sleep under the stars. I couldn’t help but grin.
A strong wind had picked up and was blowing everything everywhere. We each claimed a bed and then dinner was served. After the buffet feast of soup, potatoes and fresh salad, I brought Ol’ Red out and we headed off to the military bar across the road.
I was surprised to discover that the bar had a giant flat screen TV and that all the patrons were about to sit in and watch a sermon. We grabbed a quiet corner and I strummed about five songs before I gave up. Due to the strong wind and the volume of the TV, I was yelling more than singing.
We crossed back to our beds and I lay under the canopy of Orion’s Belt, the Hunter’s Arrow and Big Dipper, all smiling down on us, falling asleep to the wind’s rhythm.