The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Don’t Miss The Boat (even if you missed the camel train)

Author - Juliet Clarke


How refreshing it was to hear such a positive portrayal of Ethiopia, yet about a very hot and supposedly unfriendly environment.

Camel Train, broadcast on 30 June 2006 on BBC Radio 4, more than lived up to my expectations.

Matthew Parris managed to convey, very effectively for me, the atmosphere to be encountered on any trip to the Danakil. The minute he described his first sighting of the camels, returning to Mekele from the Depression, one’s interest was awakened and sustained throughout.

How right Matthew is to comment that the sounds in the Danakil become so important, nearly but not quite, usurping my own first sight of the Dallol as a treasured memory.

I made the trip with a group of friends. Most of us, although previous visitors to Ethiopia, were to discover such a different viewpoint, exploring the land of the legendary Afar in the Danakil Depression, one of the hottest places on earth. My earlier meeting with the Afars was limited to around the Awash National Park area where I had found them to be friendly, albeit in a rather reserved way.

On our journey down into the Depression it seemed to us all, I think, that we were taking part in living history. It was, in particular for me, an unforgettable experience. Walking beside the camels in a long line as they plodded, so rhythmically, so willingly on and on down into the heat of the Danakil. As yet, they were unladen, on their way to the salt cutting area. Surely they must have had some idea of the heavy burden they were about to undertake or perhaps camels, unlike elephants, do not have long memories.

A camel is a treasured possession for a Tigrayan. They do not descend down into the Depression with the same camel each time. A recuperation period is necessary after such a strenuous trip. On the way down they carry on their backs a relatively light load of fodder, all they will eat during the 7-day trek.

It is the Tigrayans who own the camels and trade with the salt bars at the market in Mekele. It is the Afars, used to the high temperatures of the Danakil, who toil in the early morning shaping the salt bars after the Tigrayans have cut and lifted the salt. Each worker has his own skill. Those who lift the salt do not shape it. Each camel is expected to carry several salt bars weighing many kilos to be sold in the market at Mekele 3 days trek away.

Early next morning before the heat of the day became too oppressive we journeyed out into the actual Dallol Depression. Only such a vista could compete with the age old spectacle we had just witnessed in the salt mining area.

Sulphur deposits, various salts and minerals, rocks affected by tectonic plate movement have all played their part in creating what is to me, an incredibly alien but beautiful landscape. I felt as if we had interrupted Mother Nature whilst at work. She has conjured up the most colourful landscape, a myriad collection of colours, patterns and textures on the earth’s crust. It was too hot to venture too far but we had enough time to explore the area.

We then had to make our return to Berahile, our overnight camp on the way back out of the depression. Here camel traders meet travelling in either direction. Countless numbers of camels stopped to rest on the dried up river bed, enjoying a final feed before continuing their journey. There was an air of expectancy, of what I am not sure, but wandering around the large encampment of traders was magical. The full moon and star laden sky, added to the whole wonderful atmosphere.

Still relatively little visited you cannot expect any home comforts on a visit to the Danakil. All the more reason to choose a reliable company to travel with back-up vehicles and your own reserves of water and fuel are essential.

I was lucky because our trip was circular via Awash and the salt lake at Afrera. It included a stopover at Ate Aele live volcano and ended up with a fleeting visit to the Gheralta churches. Both make a wonderful comparison with the Danakil.

You should be able to whet your appetite further with some stunning photographs of the Dallol by Paul Whitlock who was also on the trip with me. Look them up in the Danakil gallery on the website of Solomon Berhe, our tour guide.

Some further photographs taken by Jeremy Grange, the Radio 4 programme producer, can be found on the BBC Radio 4 website

Richard Pankhurst and Matthew Parris both agree that the salt trade could have been going on for thousands of years in much the same way. Despite this fact, how long will it continue?

I suggest that those with a sense of adventure, some stamina and an interest in Ethiopian culture should go now to the Danakil before you miss the boat! Go before road construction allows heavy Iveco trucks to replace the faithful camel, thousands of whom attempt this journey each year, not all returning safely.

First Published in News File Winter 2006

Opinions expressed in the articles are those of the authors and not necessarily the views of the Society.
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