Dispatches from the Rift Valley: Hell on Earth

Posted by Kingsley Holgate on 12 January 2012

Our Rift Valley humanitarian journey continues. Behind us now are Djibouti and Lake Assal (lowest point in Africa) and Deset Island (lowest island in the world). With armed guards and a camel to carry the water we walked through the night to avoid the fierce heat of the Danakil Depression to stand on the rim of the erupting lava lake of Erta Ale, the most active volcano in Africa. None of the expedition team has witnessed anything like this in their lives before. Herewith the latest Getaway dispatches sent by satellite phone…

Welcome to the desert

We must cross the dangerous Danakil Desert. We check water, fuel and supplies. Our guide Ali Abdella has organised two men each with a Kalashnikov (AK 47). The Danakil’s climatic inhospitality is mirrored by the reputation of its nomadic Afar inhabitants, who as recently as the Italian occupation in 1937 had the somewhat discouraging custom of welcoming strangers by lopping of their testicles. Hope we keep ours!

Lost in the Danakil Desert

Flash floods in the distant highlands have made part of the Danakil track impassable and we are having to navigate by the seat of our pants – very difficult when Ross who is navigating has got dysentery and is being fed antibiotics and Rehidrate. With tyres down to 1 bar we grind through choking powder soft dust and then pump them hard again to bounce over ancient solidified lava flows. It is incredibly tough on man and machine. Get lost out here and that will be the last you hear from us.

The Zen of Travel is with us. We find the salt caravan route to Hamed Ela. Our next objective is to cross the actual Danakil Depression – officially the hottest place on earth, but it’s not that easy. This close to Eritrea security is tight and already half a dozen AK47- toting freeloaders are wanting to make a quick buck by securing our safety. We’ll keep you posted.

But somehow it works out! For a fee of 600 Birr the military give us an escort of three well-armed camouflage clad soldiers. In the three Rift Valley Expedition Landies we race across the Danakil Depression. Miss the track, break through the salt crust, and it’s tickets. Expedition member and epic adventurer Mike Nixon has left ahead of us on his mountain bike, a speck in the distant heat haze, as he peddles against a headwind on the hottest place on earth. To our knowledge it’s a world first, no other mountain biker has been crazy enough to crisscross the Danakil all the way from Djibouti. His early morning departures from camp and the visuals from a small camera attached to his cycling helmet add an exciting element to the adventure. We’re trying to get to another Rift Valley icon in this lunar landscape studded with active volcanoes. This time to the multi coloured sulpher springs of Dallol. The soldiers point across to Eritrea and warn us that we mustn’t delay.

Moonscape, a fascinating hell on earth

Leaving one of the soldiers with the Landies we cross a blistering hot solidified lava flow on foot to reach Dallol – it’s as if we’re on another planet as we step gingerly through a surreal bubbling, multi-hued field of sulpherous hot springs studded with steaming conical vents, caramel coloured mushroom shapes and rippled rock formations. These craters are the lowest known subaerial volcanic vents in the world. The area hisses and steams, the heat is unbearable – we undoubtedly stand at the hottest place on earth.

Sip-fills to the symbolic Rift Valley calabash

From the Dallol hot springs in the Danakil Depression, Ali the Afar expedition interpreter collects some hot, bright orange coloured water for the symbolic calabash that we are carrying down Africa’s Great Rift Valley. Later that afternoon, closer to Eritrea, warm oily green water from a salt encrusted pool of bubbling geezers is added to the Zulu calabash mix. Over twelve months, historic sip-fills of water will be added from every Rift Valley lake and waterway. The Ethiopian soldiers are getting edgy – too close to Eritrea and they want us off the salt flats before dark. ‘Make sense, especially as this place is also said to be haunted at night by a devil spirit called Abu Lalu.’ We’re at -116 metres. Ross is still struggling with dysentery. Hell in this heat.

Bloody luxury

On our way off the Danakil Depression, we pass hundreds of cameleers with their camels, making their way to the salt flats to cut tablets of trade salt. Eugene in the big Land Rover 130 radios in to tell us that he’s found a place to camp on the banks of a river fed from the mountains of the Rift Valley escarpment high above us. It’s our first bath in weeks. We wash the desert dust from our bodies and around a hardwood fire, under a canopy of Rift Valley stars, we drink a ‘Captain’s toast’ to the fact that we’d survived the Danakil Depression. Zulu expedition member Willie Gwebu knocks up a camel stew spiced with some hot Nando’s sauce. Ross keeps down a bowl of oats with goat milk – he’s getting better – bloody luxury.


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