The Denakil Depression is one of the lowest points on the earth not covered by water. One of the most forbidding and inhospitable landscapes in the world, it is starkly dramatic yet with a beauty and appeal all of its own.
This sun-scorched bowl was created in the long-distant past by the massive movements in the earth’s surface which formed Africa’s Great Rift Valley. Just 50 kilometers away are 1,348-metre-high Ramlo forms an impenetrable barrier between the Red Sea and the land mass, its northern flanks guarding the Massawa-Assab road.
Day and night the heat in the Denakil Depression in fierce some, sapping all energy and seeming to suck the body dry. It seems as if nothing could survive here and yet it was not always so, for this was the crucible where humankind, Homo sapiens, was forged. Relatively recent excavations have unearthed vital clues, including the oldest fossil bones yet discovered of human ancestors.
Around three million years ago, when the climate of Denakil was more hospitable, lived the precursors of the human race. Named Australopithecus Afarensis, their remnants survive today in hundreds of bone fragments. An Italian team of mineral prospectors discovered early hominid remains in the Denakil in the early 1990s.
Today few creatures live in the Depression itself, which is commonly referred to by local people as ‘dead land’. But the lowlands and highlands of Denkalia form the Nomads Land of the Afar, a proud and hospitable people, despite their fiercesome reputation. Salt traders and nomadic herdsmen have learned to live and thrive in this unyielding environment.
Few trails penetrate this wilderness and only one leads the 700 kilometers from Massawa to Assab, cutting inland from the coast to wind through the gaunt mountain barrier, cut by numerous valleys carved out by seasonal rivers, that isolates the Danakil Depression.
The conceived picture of Denkalia is that of vast, flat, sandy area, the desert of European imagination. In reality, it is magnificent for its range of contrasts. Never is the scenery of this desert monotonous; rocky mounds and headlands of lava rock give way to a vast, sandy plain, with clumps of feathery golden grasses and low acacias.
Turing inland, there are vast reefs of gypsum, blinding white in the sun, and like a ghostly ocean in the moonlight. These jut out into swirls of brown sand or black, boulder-strewn lava flows as the road begins its descent into the Danakil Depression.
The land falls away in gentle undulations, punctuated by small volcanic hills, to the lowest point, some 110 meters below sea level. At this altitude the earth’s outer crust seems to have peeled away and the land is dotted with shifting salt sands.
The Eritrean Gateway to the Danakil Depression is at a bleak little village called Badda set some 50 meters below sea level. Badda to the Afar, entirely at home in this harshest of lands, means ‘dead sea’. When traveling great distances the nomads carry a chunk to lick, or make a cake of grain, camel milk or salt – which is essential for the survival of people and animals apart from its valley as a commodity for trading.
The main attraction of Badda is the beautiful Lake Badda, formed in the crater of an extinct volcano, Abuhibet. The lake a turquoise jewel 50 meters below, is about 400 meters in diameter and, according to an Old Italian survey, is 100 metres deep. The opposite wall of the crater is solid lava. All this water around Badda has allowed some game to survive and at night Asiatic jackals come close to the village, calling their ghostly, wailing voices as they hunt or scavenge around the huts. Besides, Camels, donkeys and Ostriches still thrive and roam around this region.
The railway into this desolate region, built in 1912 to shuttle potash mined in Dallol to the coast, fell into disuse when the Italian empire collapsed. Even some of the old water cisterns along the roadside remain: these were constructed in 1930s, at 5km intervals, to facilitate road travels. In the derelict rail yard, scattered with girders and old trolleys, one can only admire the enterprise and optimism of those who dreamt up and constructed such a scheme.
You may feel that you are on the surface of the moon or on a frozen sea. Rock formations loom above you, looking like huge waves suddenly stopped and frozen. The sun burns without mercy; a hot strong wind always blows and air boils and whizzes.
Many may consider a desire to travel to the Danakil area a voluntary trip to the ‘hell’, but if you love nature, the many faces of the desert and the warmth of unfamiliar peoples, then this is the route for you. The sense of exploration is real and the journey is likely to be the most memorable and challenging of your life. Since Dankalia is also territory of the legendary Afar people, described as one of the fiercest tribes on the earth- but are no longer to be feared, a journey into this region gives a fascinating glimpse into their lives.