Danakil Desert, Ethiopia - 1973
Return to my
I was 26 years old in 1973 when I went to
Ethiopia, specifically to hike through the Danakil desert. I had seen aerial
pictures of the Danakil depression a few
months earlier, and I felt immediately attracted toward this place. In books by
Henry de Montfried I had also read that the Danakil
people (the Afars) were feared across North-East
Africa as fierce fighters. I was young, and this made this place even more
attractive to me.
In 1973, King Haile Selassie was still ruling Ethiopia
and Erythrea was part of Ethiopia. I flew to Asmara (now the capital of Erythrea)
and took a bus to Mekele, the capital of the province of Tigray, which was the natural point of
entry into the Danakil desert. After a week in
Mekele, I had secured permission from the Ras (Prince) of Mekele to travel
in the Danakil desert and I had also met a Danakil chief (fitwara),
who offered his nephew to guide me.
With my guide we first hiked down from the Ethiopan plateau to the village of Berahle on the fringe of the
desert, where we recruited two other locals for the expedition. I also bought a
camel, a donkey, and two goats. For the next month, I was the proud owner of
these animals. We ate the two goats along the way and at the end of the trip I
sold back the camel and the donkey.
Overall, I spent a month hiking through the
Danakil desert, first to Berahle, then to the Ertale volcano, and finally to the salt lake depression (lake
and the Dalol
area further north. My initial plan was to reach the Red
Sea. Unfortunately, despite the permit I had obtained in Mekele, an army post in Dalol
forbade me to go further (probably due to the civil war in Erytrea)
and a small military plane took me back to Mekele
(where I was questioned by the secret police for 2 days). Later, I lost all the
photos I had taken around Dalol.
The Danakil desert
is one of the warmest places on Earth, and I did this hike during the warmest
months of July and August. When I reached Berahle, I
initially thought I could not survive the heat. I eventually got used to it,
but I lost quite a few pounds.
I spent the entire summer of 1973 in Northern Ethiopia.
After returning from the Danakil desert, I
went hiking in the Tigrayan highlands
and later to the Semien mountains.
market between the highlands of Tigray and the
Danakil desert. This is a meeting place between Tigrayans
and Danakils where I saw the first salt blocks
brought back by caravans from the Danakil
Women at the village well
A caravan heading toward lake Asele.
Danakil men might be fierce, but
women are extraordinarily beautiful.
Food and drink
Bread is made by forming a dough ball with a very
hot rock inside and cooking the ball near hot ashes.
Milk and cerals
Local alcohol obtained from palm trees.
In the summer torrential
rain in the highlands cause flashfloods in the desert.
The water eventually reaches the foot of the Ertale volcano to create a muddy terrain through which it
is very unpleasant to hike.
Between Ertale and lake
we passed by a few small oasis.
Lake Asele lies below sea level and
is mostly dry. It is reminiscent of Death Valley in California. The salt is mined and carried
away by camel caravans to the high plateau of Tigray.
Housing on lake Asele