Friday, April 13, 2012

Afar country

Afar country – including the Danakil Depression, or Danakil Desert, it goes by several names – has been described as a pretty lawless region. Banditry is rife. In the 1930s, when Wilfred Thesiger became the first Westerner to enter the Aussa Sultanate in the heart of the Afar area, the survival rate of Westerners (in those days Africa wasn’t yet flooded with Chinese) in Afar country was rather low. Thesiger had done his homework, and found that an 1875 Egyptian army expedition led by a Swiss mercenary had been exterminated, as had been two Italian expeditions in 1881 and 1884. A 1930 party saw several servants massacred, but the British expedition leader survive, and Greek traders had been killed there in 1932. Despite all this evidence, Thesiger sets out into the Danakil Region in 1933, officially to discover the course of the Awash River, which seemed to disappear in the desert somewhere near Eritrea, but in reality more for the thrill of the unknown, the longing for travel hardships, and perhaps to be able to say afterwards: I have done it. He does recognize that “all that mattered to these people was to kill, how they did so had little significance”; the Danakil, too, castrate their victims as proof of having killed a man, like their southern cousins the Adermen I wrote about earlier. And he has plenty of apprehensive moments during his trip, when passing through a narrow gorge ideal for an ambush, or when camping, surrounded by more than 200 Afar warriors. However, he has the advantage of being accompanied by several important Danakil headmen, and they seem to have been able to secure safe passage through this inhospitable area.
After a few false starts, forcing him to return to Addis Ababa, it took Thesiger two months to travel from Awash to Aussa, and another to travel beyond the salt lakes at the Djibouti border to the coast.
We drove to Assaita, which is where the Aussa sultanate was some 80 years ago, in a day.
Thesiger probably had the more impressive experience, but we did enjoy the trip, too. By now, there is a road from Awash all the way to the port city of Djibouti, likely the best maintained tarmac road in the entire country. This is the import and export lifeline for landlocked Ethiopia, import mostly, because many of the trucks driving north are empty; many have stacked their trailer onto the truck. The heavy traffic makes plenty of victims, in the form of dead goats, some dead gazelles, even a dead camel – and a dead vulture nearby, obviously didn’t get away fast enough. I imagine that victimhood will be extended to humans, too, seeing the many overturned trucks along the road, not surprising given the way the truckers drive. They see nothing wrong in overtaking a slower truck going uphill, even if they cannot see what is on the other side of the bend ahead.
Right, that is what we didn’t enjoy; what we did enjoy was the hauntingly black volcanic landscape, turning increasingly dry the further north we come. The vegetation, if there is any at all, is low acacia trees and shrubs, the ones with sharp needles capable of penetrating a car tire. The only viable business seems to be charcoal production, although occasionally, closer to the river, the land turns into wetland which allows for some agriculture, and for bamboo to be grown, used for mats. For the rest, large areas are entirely empty, no people, no animals – and then, suddenly, there are a few huts again, quite similar to the small round huts that I earlier described as “typically Somali”. Perhaps they are more typically Afar? No idea why these people are here. No idea what they are doing here. A few kilometers further, a camel train crosses the road, well over 200 camels, probably. But for most of the road, basalts dominate. Hard to believe that this is where – as the Ethiopians claim – “it all began”: this is where in 1974 the then-oldest hominid fossil, 3-4 million years old Lucy (after She who was in the Sky with Diamonds) was found. The fact that there are now quite a few older fossils does not diminish the Ethiopian enthusiasm for Lucy, even though, I have been told, there is absolutely nothing to be seen at the site (I didn’t go and check).
Near Gewane there is the Mount Ayelu volcano, right next to the road almost, beautifully showing ancient lava flows on its slopes. It all adds to an unforgiving, hot landscape where you don’t want to get stuck. It puts Thesiger’s achievement into some perspective.

(1, 2) typical landscape in Afar country - we'll see more of this in the next few days
(3) charcoal is big business, and probably only business for many
(4) although in the scarce wetter areas bamboo mats are also being produced

(5, 6) "in the middle of nowhere" redefined

(7, 8) and out of nowhere comes a herd of camels crossing the road, casually being guarded by a few AK47-toting Afars
(9) and the first of many volcanoes, this is Mount Ayelu

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