Ethiopia (Summer 1973): Danakil desert and more


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This was my first trip to Ethiopia. Prior to leaving, I knew little about this country and my goal was simple: hike across the Danakil desert from the highlands of Tigray to the coast of the Red Sea. I had seen aerial pictures of the Danakil (a.k.a. Afar) depression in a magazine a few months earlier, and I had felt immediately compelled to travel to this place. In books authored by Henry de Montfried and Joseph Kessel (Fortune Carree) I had also read that the Danakil people (also called the Afars), the inhabitants of this desert, were feared across North-East Africa as fierce fighters. I was young (26), and these books made this place even more attractive to me. My one-month trip across the Danakil desert turned out to be an incomplete success; indeed, instead of ending on the coast of the Red Sea, it ended sooner in Dallol (read Danakil page below) on Lake Asele. Still, the trip has been extraordinary and unique in many ways, one being that nobody with a right mind, except a Danakil, would try to traverse this desert on foot in the summer. After more than four decades, it remains the most memorable trip that I have ever done.


But the rest of the trip, although totally unplanned before leaving, was also quite interesting. After returning from the Danakil desert I traveled by bus to Massawa, a port on the Red Sea, where I stayed a few days in a Danakil community with two Danakils who had been my companions in the desert. Later on, I went hiking in the highlands of Tigray mainly to visit rock-hewn churches believed to have been built between the 4th and 15th centuries. The first time I heard about these churches was in Mekele (the capital of the province of Tigray), while waiting to obtain a permit to travel to the Danakil desert. In fact, these churches had only been brought to the attention of a large public in 1970 by the book ″Churches in Rock, Early Christian Art in Ethiopia″ authored by Georg Gerster. Since this first trip I have returned several times to Tigray (in 2012, 2013, and 2015); this region has been one of my favorite destinations. At the end of my trip I went hiking in the Semien mountains (also spelled Simien), which had been established as a National Park in 1969 and are now a very touristic trekking destination. In total I stayed almost 3 months in Ethiopia.


In 1973, Emperor Haile Selassie was still ruling Ethiopia. He was removed from the throne in 1974 and murdered in 1975. Eritrea, still part of Ethiopia in 1973, became an independent country in 1993. Asmara (my point of both entry and departure in Ethiopia in 1973) is now its capital and Massawa its main port.


Map. Trekks are shown in dotted lines and bus travel in red plain line.


To see photos of this trip click on the links below:

Danakil desert


Highlands of Tigray

Semien mountains










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