The Danakil country is one of the most remote, inhospitable parts of Africa. At 100m below sea-level, it is also one of the hottest, driest and most geologically active places on the planet. Clearly, only mad dogs or naive people raised on the adventures of Wilfred Thesiger there in the 1930’s would ever want to visit.
It takes us two days, with three vehicles bringing a week’s worth of supplies to reach the Danakil Depression, at 116m below sea-level, Africa’s lowest point. The terrain varies from bumpy solidified lava to sand and salt, with hardly a shrub in sight under the sizzling sun. We have chosen to visit in winter, so we only experience temperatures of 42 degrees. In summer, the mercury rises to 56 degrees.
Every few hours we cross rickety Afar settlements and long camel caravans bringing the salt extracted from the dried up lakes to Djibouti, on the coast. The Afar are amongst the hardiest, fiercest and most xenophobic of Africa’s nomadic tribes. In Thesiger’s day, they would commonly massacre visiting parties of foreigners and cut off their testicles to keep as war trophies.
Since several tourists were killed in the Danakil in 2012, camping on our own is no longer permitted. We have to take an armed escort and camp in designated Afar settlements ( I suppose the deal is that if the Afar receive some benefit from the few tourists who visit, they may no longer be so tempted to kill them for “trophies”).
With our four soldiers, two policemen and Afar militiaman, dazed by the relentless sun we progress slowly, almost hypnotically through the Danakil for four days.