On the seventh of November we got up early to do our final few preparations before our departure. De-dusting Delilah, checking tyre pressures and refuelling. Throughout the morning the other drivers arrived: first Hennock the veteran in his Nissan pathfinder, two more land cruisers and lastly Teddy, the group Rasta, in his swanky new Land cruiser. Everyone stood around outside the hotel weighing up the line of 4x4s outside the hotel, all the drivers were impressed with Delilah. A group of spaniards also on our tour were slightly put out when they discovered they wouldn’t be riding in Delilah. Abeba handed us our honorary ‘number 4’ tour tag before we all left the hotel in convoy. The inside of Delilah was buzzing with excitement as we climbed out of Mek’ele and began our descent into the Danakil. At two o’clock we stopped for lunch in Berhale to pick up the first contingent of armed guards. We continued on, passing camel trains laden with hay as we emerged from the Ethiopian escarpment at around 100 metres below sea level. The air blowing through the windows was akin to shoving once’s head in an oven. As the sun was setting we arrived in Hamd Ela, the official ‘start’ to the Danakil depression.
In the light of dusk we wandered around this strange village of open air stick houses scattered with donkeys and goats. Since the breakaway of Djibouti and Eritrea separated Ethiopia from the sea the people of the Afar have been without employment for their camel trains. To preserve their livelihood the government has outlawed the use of machinery in the harvest and transportation of salt from the pans. Nevertheless the people of the region still rely heavily on subsidies and support from the government to survive out here. Although the government is trying to educate and slowly re-locate future generations of the Afar into the cities. Hamed Ela is the centre of salt mining in the region with scores of men descending on the salt flats to eek out a meagre living at ten cents per slab of salt. In a dried out river bed behind the village the camel train Owners arrive to negotiate with the miners. The village also houses one of the army bases protecting the potash and potassium mining industry of the area. Later in the evening we stumbled through the dark past the shadow of an armed guard to enjoy a warm beer within the bar of the base.
The next morning we set off into the vast sand pit that stood between us and the black volcanoes dotted along the horizon. All the vehicles began kicking up huge plumes of dust dodging through dunes capped with green shrubs. Occasionally the desert would open up to fields of sand where we’d try driving up-wind to avoid disappearing into the vast dust clouds of the other cars. Four hours later we mounted a dried out river bank to find ourselves in the middle of a sand storm. Lacking air conditioning, what followed was a juggling act of heat and dust. Winding up the windows to sit in searing heat or exposing ourselves to the harsh windblown sand. At Dodom, relieved and caked in dust we stopped for lunch seeking shelter from the sandstorm inside a wooden hut. Hennok teased us that we were lucky as forty degrees celsius was cool weather for the Danakil. A short way down the road we picked up our second contingent of armed guards at the local army base.
Thereafter an hours drive brought us to the edge of the vast lava fields surrounding Erta Ale. Our itinerary described the seventeen kilometre road over the lava as the worst road in the world. Two hours over viscous rock outcrops and violent drops fell right in line with their description although its status as a road was debatable. We arrived at four o’clock and immediately sought shelter in a basic hut until the sun relented its gaze. Sunset queued the start of a three hour trek over the lava field to the summit of Erta Ale. Flanked by armed guards we made our way up the volcano over the martian landscape dowsed in moonlight. Eventually we reached the rim of the crater where we were met by more armed guards. From here we could see the red glow of lava in the pit of the crater. Climbing down onto its crusty surface we eagerly made our way to the cauldron of lava known locally as ‘the gateway to hell’. The lava bubbled and rolled like a restless beast, occasionally exploding as huge plumes rose to the surface. Mesmerised by the lava we stood awe-struck by the sight before us ignoring the heat emanating through the ground. Feeling the sleep in our eyes we climbed back up to the safety of the crater edge for a few hours rest.
Early the next morning we rose with the sun to descend into the crater again. The dawn light revealed the extent of the volcano and the flowing trails of solidified lava dominating its surface. Keen to avoid the full punishment of the sun our guides hurried us back down the volcano. We arrived back at the cars around ten o’clock and the mercury had already begun sharply rising confirming the wisdom in Negasi’s decision. Re-united with Delilah we climbed back into her dusty cabin thoroughly satisfied with our exploits on the volcano. So far Delilah had held her own against the other Japanese vehicles. Hennok had even gone as far to dub her the Lion of the Danakil. But our arrival back in Dodom to an uncharacteristic bounce and rattling noise revealed a broken shock. The ‘world’s worst road’ had taken its toll. After removing the shock with the help of the other drivers we drove on. Back in the dunes the wind had settled and the sandstorm had cleared. One particularly thick dune caught Teddy in thick sand so we came to the rescue with our kinetic tow road pulling him to safety before continuing on via a safer route.
Our broken shock slowed us down, since the gentle bounce greatly increased our chances of rolling, so the other drivers steadily left us behind. This freed us from the perpetual dust cloud of our convoy leaving us with sweeping views of the dunes, surprising green shrubland and the volcanoes in the distance. We came across herds of camels chewing their cud unfazed by the rattling Delilah. Some way off our port bow we noticed some Ostriches casually making their way through the dunes. Surreal sights for such an inhospitable landscape. Further on we caught up with the other drivers who had pulled over to wait for us. Two hours later we found ourselves driving up the dusty track to Hamd Ela with the glazed salt lake off to our right. In the village we escaped the dusty confines of Delilah to ride atop Teddy’s land cruiser to go explore Lake Assale. Dipping our feet in the salty water and playing tricks with our cameras in the placid expanse of the lake. As darkness was falling we made our way back to camp where, since arriving back in the desert, we had a pleasant return to sleeping under the stars in wooden thatched beds.
The following day we took a ride in Hennok’s Nissan to visit the hydrothermal field of the Dallol volcano; to wander around the multi-colour sulphur fields; canyons of the salt mountains and stare into the deep mineral oil pools. Sadly the Alana Potash mining company of Canada had drained the sulphur pools so they were lacking slightly from their usual splendour. Behind the sulphur pools were the curious ruins of an Italian mining settlement left over from their failed attempt to conquer and colonise Ethiopia. Negasi set about gathering everyone for our last stop in the Danakil. His lack of Spannish and the lack of English of our Spannish compatriots made for a comical scene as Negasi chased them around the Sulphur fields yelling: “Spannish! Spannish! Come back!” Returning to Lake Assal we witnessed scores of miners vigorously carving out slabs of salt from the lake amongst a sea of camels and donkeys. Feeling very satisfied with the trip but longing for a warm shower and a cold beer we left the miners to make our way back to Mek’ele. Climbing out of the Danakil was a huge relief from the heat as we gained altitude, greenery improved and the temperature dropped to a more bearable 25 celsius. The drive was relatively uneventful apart from our spring which without the shock had came lose from its housing requiring a quick roadside fix. The other drivers all piled in to help us once again and before long we were back on the road. There was a great sense of jubilation as we pulled back into the car park of the hotel in Mek’ele.
The next day, us and all the other drivers briefly reconvened back in the hotel parking lot as they were heading back into the Danakil and we were heading south. It was sad to part ways with them as they had all been great company and we’d felt very much part of their driving team. Hennok helped me with a quick search of the Mek’ele garages for a replacement shock absorber but unfortunately there were was nothing suitable in stock. As a result, our plan was to stick to tarmac and head for Addis bypassing the gravel road to Lalibella to avoid damaging Delilah further. It was a real pity to miss out on the Lalibella churches but we felt a pressing need to get Delilah fixed before we hit the notorious Moyale-Marsabit road. Moreover I had an appointment with Isaac Nserenko to volunteer at the Nserester orphanage in Kampala, Uganda, starting on the 22nd November. This left us with eleven days to cover 2,773 kilometres over some diabolic roads and fix our shock in Addis beforehand.
With little time to lose we departed Mek’ele on ‘Route 1’ hoping to get as close to Addis before nightfall. Winding through mountain passes we were treated to more splendid views of Ethiopia. Finding ourselves a campsite on the shores of lake Hayk, halfway between Addis and Mek’ele, we collapsed into a somewhat more crowded tent with the addition of Pete. An early start and another six hours on the road brought us into Addis. The road into Ethiopia’s capital was a steep climb through mountains and forest shrouded in low cloud, mist and rain bringing us onto a large plateau. A wet and cold contrast to where we were no less than forty eight hours ago.