November 10, 2019
After breakfast and a search for a place to poop in private we retraced our route back from Erta Ale to Abala where we would have lunch, say farewell to a few of our group and connect with another group who would be joining us. Four people departed our group and 9 people joined us for a total of 15 people on a maximum 8 people tour. This really sucks and we were not impressed. Lunch was the tried and true pasta with tomato sauce and salad, the same as last nights dinner and yesterdays lunch. Salad was a part of every meal and no one ate the salad. You would need to see the conditions to understand why.
After lunch we made our way towards Hamed Ela where we would stop overnight before making our way to Dallol. Most of the road to Hamed Ela was excellent and paved through beautiful mountainous landscapes but before stopping in Hamed Ela we made our way to the endless salt flats and salt mountain crags of Assale Salt Lake (aka Lake Karum). It was like driving in the high Arctic. What looked looked like ice as far as the eye could see was smooth and shimmering salt.
En-route we stopped at a small natural pool in the salt flats and parked in the shade of a small salt mound. It was at least 45 degrees Celsius in the shade. It was incredibly hot and dry. What really blew our minds was we were essentially on a thick slab of salt with a lake existing below. The pool was small but it was deep. We didn’t go for a dip but a few of the group did and while they were bobbing in the dense salt water pond we were served up the coldest beer I have ever tasted in my life. What a great surprise.
The pond was essentially a saturated salt solution and there wasn’t much fresh water around to rinse off. It turns out it was probably a good idea not to go for a dip. Later in the evening we slept outside, uncovered and practically naked because it was so hot outside and as an added bonus we had a donkey hanging around nearby. We would have made an excellent salt-lick for the poor beast!
Continuing further south over a vast expanse of relatively smooth salt flat roads we stopped near the shore of Lake Karum where we had a few more cold beers, listened to some good music, danced and watched in awe as the sun set and scattered colours over the vast salt fields eventually giving way to an incredible black and white full moon illuminating a lunar/arctic landscape.
We arrived at Hamed Ela after dark. Ramshackle huts, a microwave/cell tower standing in the middle of a lava field and our beds for the night scattered about. This time our beds were bamboo woven and on legs with new mattresses just for us, the old fart complainers but hey, the squeaky wheel gets the grease! We placed our beds with our truck behind us, a donkey beside us and a lava field bathroom in front of of us.
Amazingly, there was a bar nearby which I went to and drank warm beer with all of the youngsters from our group who had congregated there while Joyce fought off the doting donkey while trying to read a novel on our iPad Mini.
Picture this. You need to go to the bathroom, it’s pitch black, the ground is covered in black, cragged lava and you, and many others have to find a place to poop. Your headlamp illuminates the white against the black. Toilet paper? Poop? You really don’t know. Are you out of site from the others when you pull your pants down? Can I actually go now through all of this? Enter constipation.
Throughout all of our travels, this night and last night had to be both the worst conditions for bathroom breaks and at the same time one of the best and an experience we won’t forget. We’ll call this the best of the worst bathroom experiences. Many years ago Joyce and I trekked through the mountains of northern Thailand and stayed in tribal villages with no services. We hiked for several days but before we headed out we ate a couple of anti-diarrhea pills so we were essentially clogged up the whole time so “where to go?” wasn’t an issue. When we canoed down the Lower Zambezi River and camped on sand and reed islands it was dig and cover, the most liberating feeling you can ever have! The situation at this camp was definitely not liberating.
We departed Hamed Ela at around 4:00 am with the intent to be the first people to arrive at Dallol and see the sunrise illuminate the kaleidoscope of mineral colours bubbling from this sulphuric landscape. No one one woke us up and we had enough time for 1/2 cup of coffee before heading out. We think maybe we are in the bad books now?
Dollol is a cinder cone volcano in the north of the Depression and is known as one of the lowest craters or subaerial vents in the world. It is more than 45 metres below sea level and is a unique terrestrial hydrothermal system. Acidic fluids are discharged through small vents that create colours and patterns and a landscape that is out of this world.
It was a fairly long drive over rough terrain and at times over endless and in this area not so smooth salt lake flats. We were not the only travellers doing this, there were probably another 25-30 vehicles doing what we were doing but fortunately spread out through this very expansive landscape. As we were preparing to depart Dallol the convoys started arriving en masse. A large contingent of Chinese tourists arrived, some wearing only sandals, others slipping on paper shoe protectors to use for the hike. I’m sorry, I only report what I see and I do not make judgments but, it was quite funny to see.
We were lucky to be alone in the cone so to speak and beat the crowds. This was a good thing. There are roads being built, and it won’t be long before the BIG tourist invasion really begins.
Interestingly from several articles I’ve read, Dallol is considered to be one of the most remote places on earth. I’m not sure if I would agree, I guess it depends on your definition of “remote”. In my books, Mount Everest is remote.
Our final stop after leaving Dallol was a visit the salt mines in the Lake Karum area near to where we visited yesterday. The area covers approximately 200 square kms and the huge salt crust can be up to 3 km thick. The area is part lake and part salt pan and is the result of the evaporation of an ancient sea. The Afar people have survived in this unforgiving region for at least 2,000 years mining and selling the salt which at one time was used as currency in Ethiopia. Since the middle ages, the salt has been mined, cut into slabs and loaded onto camel caravans for transport to Berahile where it is unloaded, sold to traders and loaded onto trucks. There are 750 officially registered miners and they work in 50+ degree C temperatures and make not much more than about $150.00 CAD per month.
One final stop for coffee and we headed back to Mekele to be dropped off at the airport for our flight back to Addis Ababa.
Our driver, Abraham, was excellent. He estimated we covered approximately 900 kms over the past 2 1/2 days.