Saturday, April 21, 2012
I cannot really call it a road, the stretch we are driving from Dodom to Hamed Ela, our next destination. First we bounce back across the lava surface again, then we follow, well, the occasional track, or just the gut feeling of our road runner: as part of our obligatory team of support, we have a local Afar who knows how to get from A to B, and who knows when to take an alternative route because an earlier one becomes impassable - I don’t really know why the tracks change so frequently, allegedly every few weeks (or would this be another justification for employing a road runner?). Our driver clearly enjoys the opportunity of off-the-road driving, and seems to think he is competing in the Paris-Dakar rally; for us passengers it is slightly less convenient, and not really comfortable (and I cannot stop thinking that it is not really necessary either), but hé, did we want adventure travel or not? Small trees are flattened in the process, occasionally a whole village is covered in the cloud of dust we produce. We get stuck in the sand a few times, but not too badly, and each time we manage to get out again. I am more concerned that our road runner, who has now been joined by a second road runner, is lost himself in this endless stretch of nothingness, sand, sand dunes, and some greens. But then we get to the inevitable village again, or to a salty spring where hundreds of camels are drinking. And we hit something of a real road again. Miraculously, we have indeed found our next destination, Hamed Ela. Quite an achievement, given the size of Hamed Ela!!
Despite the hard life, and what is more, despite the fact that every tourist who visits Danakil spends at least one, and more often two nights camping in Hamed Ela, the Afar people here are as nice as their brethren from Assaita, welcoming, friendly. They may have a ferocious history, yet, they smile, and they are genuinely welcoming. So it is possible, in Ethiopia. Our mandatory Afar guide treated us to a cold Coke, something he didn’t really had to do – I mention it because it hasn’t happened often in the past eight weeks that somebody did something for us without ulterior motive.
(1, 2) dunes may well block the tracks to Hamed Ele, at anyone time
(3) but whatever happens, there is always a village, somewhere
(4, 5) camels drink from a salty pool, in the middle of the desert
The people of Hamad Ela earn their living from salt. The village and its 4000 inhabitants or so live at the edge of a huge salt lake, Lake Asale, which for most of its expanse is dry – it is hard to believe that this area is covered in water during the rainy season. Miners cut the surface, extract huge plates of salt, and then cut and shave them to a standard size that can be transported on camels and donkeys to the market at Berhale, two days trekking away (traveling by night only, during the day it is simply too hot to move). Each late afternoon, enormous camel caravans move from the lake, via Hamed Ela, a spectacular sight. And a few days later the caravans return, empty. But the miners stay, day in day out, spending the whole day under the burning hot sun, on a burning hot white salt plane. And it is not that salt is a rare and expensive commodity, here.
(6, 7) Lake Asale, the salt lake where it still has water
(8) and the rest of the lake, dried up
(9, 10) workers chopping blocks of salt of standard size, which can be loaded on the camels for transport
(11) some of those camels taking it easy, ahead of a long trail
(12, 13, 14, 15) and some pictures of the camel caravans - note that it doesn't work to get a hundred camels on one picture, but the groups depicted here are but very small parts of a huge caravan