Chasing Lucy in Ethiopia

In the alien landscape of the Danakil Depression, a wanderer traces his way back to humankind's first known ancestor.  
Chasing Lucy in Ethiopia
At Danakil, admire puddles of stunning yellow liquid from a safe distance, for they are really concentrated sulphuric acid. Photo by: Divya Behl

Cellophane flowers of yellow and green

Towering over your head.

Look for the girl with the sun in her eyes

And she’s gone.

Lucy in the sky with diamonds

Lucy in the sky with diamonds

When archaeologist Donald Johanson unearthed the fossils of our 3.2 million-year-old ancestor in the village of Hadar in the AFAR triangle of Northern Ethiopia, this Beatles number was blasting on the radio, egging him on to name the fossil Lucy.

But I would have been completely duped had I gone into Danakil Depression, a part of the AFAR region, expecting rows of flowers or a shiny diamond sky. In stark contrast, Danakil Depression is a region characterised by no frills and painful extremities—hot as coal, dry as a bone, and well below the sea level. Yet life finds a way in Lucy’s land, not just to exist, but to put on a spellbinding scientific spectacle.

My journey starts in the city of Mek’ele, 940 kilometres from capital Addis Ababa. I hop inside my 4×4, accompanied by a couple of fellow travellers and our guide Aklilu. We’ve barely exchanged a few pleasantries when I notice the signs of civilisation fading away. Thanks to Chinese construction, the road is silky but the brown-hued aridness of the land jumps out.

The scorching heat of the sun pierces through the windows of the vehicle, preventing me from catching a nap. The endless mirage of the road snaking ahead is the only sight to devour, so I resort to playing a game of ‘spot signs of life’ to entertain myself.

Three hours in my whimsy yields results, as I see a caravan of camels carrying large bricks of salt on their backs. Aklilu, noticing my excitement from the front seat, explains that the caravans travel by foot in dizzying temperatures of up to 50°C for more than 10 days to sell the salt in markets of Mek’ele.

Chasing Lucy in Ethiopia 3

Danakil’s unforgiving beauty makes the region thrilling for travellers (right), and difficult for locals (top left) and animals (bottom left). Photos by: Divya Behl(person & shoes), Marc Guitard/Moment/Getty Images (camels)

Soon after, we drive past a drove of donkeys transporting salt bricks, albeit in lesser quantity. Both caravans are led by solitary men making the long arduous journey on foot, along with their pack. For ETB50/Rs120 made on every brick of salt, his share is usually not more than three birrs. The share of the miner, I learn, is a measly one birr, while the lion’s share is pocketed by the animal owners. It takes me three hours to understand the plight of life in this alien land, one that tenacious locals have somehow managed to make a home of.

It is late evening by the time we arrive at the vast salt pans. The sun is threatening to fade away, and I find myself lucked out with favourable weather. Reminiscent of the salt deserts of Bolivia and the magnificent Rann of Kutch, the one in Danakil shines like glass. Yet there are very few tourists who venture here, partly due to its inaccessible location—a remote corner of the Ethiopian-Ertirean border—and partly due to the volatile landscape dotted with active volcanoes, chemical-filled lakes, and geysers.

Apologising for interrupting our enthusiastic shutters clicking away at surreal frames with a swift apology, Aklilu ushers us back into the car to drive a couple of kilometres away from the desert where the landscape abruptly morphs into an array of red rocks. As I step out of the car, the pungent smell of chemicals arising out of the lake sends my nose into frenzy. “Don’t touch your hands on your eyes or mouth after touching the liquid or the rocks—it’s not water, it’s concentrated sulphuric acid,” Aklilu claims, as I stand admiring the little puddles of yellow boiling liquid.

Chasing Lucy in Ethiopia 1

Geothermal activities (bottom left) make Danakil (bottom right) a region of curious rock formations (top). Photos by: Stocktrek Images/Richard Roscoe/Stocktrek Images/Getty Images (rocks close-up), helovi/e+/Getty Images (hand), Yoko Aziz/agefotostock (molten rock)

Before curtains fall on the day, we are driven back to the salt pans where the golden light from the setting sun has transformed the white salt to a glowing yellow. As I put down the camp chair and sip on rose wine that my Italian co-passenger had stored for the occasion, it becomes clear as to why salt was being referred to as ‘white gold’ by the locals. It isn’t just a metaphorical reference to its value, but literally the visual you are graced with.

Our den for the night in the nearby village of HamadEla is barebones—a bamboo hut doubling as a kitchen and a charpoy sprawled out under a star-lit sky. But in this lonesome part of the world where life is a daily battle, I learn to appreciate the little luxuries. I drift off to sleep in the midst of tracking constellations in the sky, only to be woken by something playing at my feet—a donkey.

Aklilu wakes us up before the crack of dawn to embark on a 70 kilometre trip to Dallol, which, at 48 metres below sea level, is the lowest land volcano on Earth. I’ve come in fully prepared to be bamboozled by the other-worldly features I was told to expect, but the surreal artistry of nature has me oohing and aahing. A riot of colours welcome us, from bright neon yellow to turquoise green, while poisonous gases rise up in smokey spirals in the background.

When we gather around near a rock devoid of any volcanic activity, Aklilu reminds us to be careful not to dip our feet into the acidic waters boiling above 100°C. We dig into our packed sandwiches while he gives us a mini science lesson. “Below the surface, there is magma flowing from the volcano, which is full of minerals. When it reacts with the seawater that washes in from the Red Sea, it forms these colourful deposits”, he explains.

Danakil is also where three tectonic plates meet. I am told the plates are moving apart ever-so-slowly, bringing the land further below sea level. In a few thousand years, the Red Sea will perhaps have expanded its reach all the way to where I am, swallowing this ground whole. Learning this, my eyes swivel around scanning every nook and corner of Dallol, eager to absorb the rare opportunity to be at a place of immense scientific importance. I spy colours—stunning whites, psychedelic greens and browns from an old, old Earth. I spy acidic pools bubbling with chemical waters. I spy geysers spurting out boiling hot water and large cones of salt deposits. The combination, I muse, renders Danakil a better fit on Mars than on Earth.

I stand here, at the precipice of an invisible boundary between life and death, needing no further evidence that this is the cradle of humanity. Danakil Depression’s inhospitable environment has the face of death, but this is also the place that Lucy called home. I am standing at the source of human life itself.

Getting There and Around

There are direct flights from Delhi and Mumbai to the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. Frequent domestic
flights connect Addis Ababa to Mek’ele. Indian travellers can get visa on arrival (USD52/Rs3,300) at Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa. Carry two passport size photographs.

 

Chasing Lucy in Ethiopia 2

The vast salt flat (top) of Danakil gleams and glows like a supernatural plane, more glass than land; Hot swathes of dusty nothingness (bottom) punctuated by the occasional caravan of camels or tourist jeeps set the tone for a day in Danakil. Photos by: Vikas Plakkot (girl), Divya Behl (desert)

When To Go

The best time to visit Danakil Depression is from November to February, when temperatures drop to a bearable average of 25°C. The author travelled there with World Sun Tours Ethiopia (www.worldsunethiopiatours.com), based in Mek’ele. The 3-day trip cost USD320/Rs22,500, including transport in a 4×4, meals, overnight stays at camps, and guide fees.

 

Stay

In Mek’ele, stay at AtesYohannes Hotel situated near the Emperor Yohannes Museum. (atseyohanneshotel.com-ethiopia.com; doubles from USD56/Rs4,000)

 

Tip

It’s a great idea to carry small gifts for the locals. Tokens such as football, toys and stationery are welcome.

  • Vikas Plakkot isn't cool enough for a tattoo on his arm but the world map is etched in his cells. Always scouring the web for flight deals, he'll gladly trade a ticket to Antarctica for one to Sudan - such is his love for places with untold stories. He tweets @vikasplakkot and Instagrams on @beyondthewall.travel

Psst. Want a weekly dose of travel inspiration in your inbox?