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Welcome to the Danakil Depression

Dalol, Ethiopia

Imagine, if you can, a place where planet earth as we know it morphs into a landscape that would not be out of place on Mars of Saturn. Where the temperatures soar over 40degrees on a daily basis, where only the boldest of travellers dare go. A place where one of the world's most hostile races of people exists, as that is all one can do here, just exist, in the middle of it all.

To give you an idea of Afari people's hostility until roughly forty years ago they would greet every male visitor to their region by cutting their testicles off. Before we go any further allow me to reassure you that the same fate did not befall Richard and myself. You may be questioning why anybody would actually want to visit the Afar region in the first place, especially given this, one of their proverbs:

'It is better to die than to live without killing' (Afar proverb)

Well, the answer is simple (at least for me anyway). Over the past eight months I have seen Africa in all its beauty, and feel very privileged to have done so. It's not that I have become bored of the Dark Continents many delights, rather I wanted to go somewhere completely different, a place that is well off the beaten track and an ultimate test of ones self in terms of travelling.

Given my criteria there were not many places to choose from, in fact only one place in the entire continent would satisfy all my needs, the Danakil Depression. Lying 116m BELOW sea-level it is undoubtedly the single most amazing place I have ever been, and in all honesty am ever likely to go, such is its complete uniqueness. It took an entire day of driving through the mountains and a dried up river to reach our destination, Hamed-Ela, the tiny little village that is home to the Afar people.

When I say village I mean a collection of wooden shacks, a more basic form of accommodation I have not seen in Africa, this was poverty like I had never seen before. Yet somehow these people existed, day-by-day they survived conditions that had me begging for mercy two days in. The heat doesn't just force you into the shade, it saps the life out of you, leaving you to live in a near zombie state from the moment you wake until you fall into a fitful sleep at night.

But we all accepted these conditions as happily as we could, knowing on the second day we would see a different side to Africa. The drive across the vast salt pan at 8am took us towards Eritrea, and already the temperature had edged over 35degrees, until eventually a hill of volcanic rocks grew in the distance. it was here we had to brave the sun, already scorching everything in sight, and set off on foot.

Never has a simple walk been so hard, I am not exaggerating this but the heat was almost unbearable, the air as dry as the desert as it dries your eyes and mouth almost instantly. The only conditions I can liken it to are those you experience in a hot sauna, so you can imagine how much worse it is walking for ninety minutes in such conditions. Once over the cusp of the hill my mind, eyes and ears were hit with a scene they could not comprehend at first.

Suddenly the earth was rumbling beneath us, sulphur gases were filling my nose with a disgusting stench, and my eyes were dazzled by a multitude of brilliant yellows, greens, reds and white. The volcanic rock had given way to endless stretches where the earth's crust had been pulled so thin it no longer existed. In its place were sulphur pools, brilliant white mini volcanoes spouting hot acid into the air, and giant circles of crystallised rock scattered as far as the eye could see.

It was as if we had stepped through a portal that lead out onto the face of a different planet, nowhere in the world have I ever witnessed anything like this before. The heat now came at you from two directions, overhead in the form of the angry sun, and below from the earth's surface that was boiling away, and but for my mind being totally over-awed by what it was witnessing I would not have been able to cope in such intense heat. The colours were dazzling, quite unlike any I had seen in nature before, and so brilliantly pure.

As the sun's heat rose yet further Mekele, our guide, warned us we had to return to the vehicle before it became too hot - quite what he meant by 'too hot' when I am saturated through with sweat I am not sure, but clearly he knew we might not survive much longer in the current heat. As you walk away from the sulphur pools the air you breath starts to burn your throat less, and finally gradually the heat from the ground eases.

Sat back in the car I was lost for words, I had just been to a place so weird and wonderful that my mind could not process everything at once. A feeling of excitement that only such an experience can bring about filled my body as I realised not only had I been to Africa's highest point, Mount Kilimanjaro, but now I had been to its lowest point. All that is left to do is reach Cairo and I will have also been from one end of the continent to the other.

I wanted a test, I wanted a unique experience, and I wanted to see something that would blow my mind. I got it all, the Danakil Depression was everything I had hoped for and more, as well as being the hardest three days of travel I have ever endured. The guidebook was not wrong when it said this is only for the most adventurous of travellers, but I came through it and will never forget the day I stood on a different planet at the bottom of Africa.

Finally, there is a reason why the Afar people live where they do, but to find out why anyone would live in the Danakil Depression you will have to wait for the next blog.

I'm Inspired
permalink written by  MarcusInAfrica on December 3, 2009 from Dalol, Ethiopia
from the travel blog: Cape to Cardiff
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That's not fair! We had to wait long enough for these installments?! You know how to keep your fans engaged Mr Leach!

I have to say, yet again, well done. Wonderfully written & jam packed with interesting experiences and amazing pictures. I am beginning to appreciate how good it is for the people back in the "real" world being able to see what you are up to (referring to my own adventures & blogging), mainly because I am sat behind a desk as it is cold, raining & gloomy outside.

Very much looking forward to the next entry chief - just make sure you take less of a break from it this time!



permalink written by  John Noble on December 3, 2009

This is a wonderful blog! I really enjoyed reading about the experience from your perspective :)

I've been living in Addis for almost 2 years now and the Danakil is one of the places I must go to before I leave. I'm planning a trip for the first week of June, but I'm hearing mixed views on whether this time is too hot to go.

When did you take your trip? And what tour company (if any) did you use?

Also, any advice you can give on whether you've heard that a trip in June would be unsafe would be much appreciated! I leave Ethiopia after June so it's my last chance to go :S

Thanks again for the great read and pictures!

permalink written by  Felicia on April 14, 2010

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