Following in the footsteps of the late explorer and travel writer Sir Wilfred Thesiger, Rough Guides writer Anthon Jackson takes to the back of a camel across the Danakil Depression, in pursuit of Lake Abhe Bad on the Ethiopia-Djibouti border.
Just after dawn on our fourth day in the dusty frontier town of Asaita, Go’obo, my translator from Addis Ababa, popped his head into my mosquito-net tent, shaking me awake. The heat of the Danakil already had my forehead covered in sweat. “The camels are gone!”
That’s right, I remembered, with just a touch of alarm: we own camels now. I scrambled out of the tent and rushed after Go’obo to find the beasts we’d acquired just the day before after lengthy negotiations in Asaita’s rag-tag camel market. We rounded a corner onto a dirt road and there they were, hobbling with half-tied legs, hovering awkwardly over the tiny shops that were just opening up – causing a bit of a scene. We’d have to learn to tie their legs properly for our trek into the Danakil.
The mastermind behind our eastern Ethiopian expedition was David Lewis, an old friend from the road. He’d recently written his thesis on the ever-inspiring Wilfred Thesiger, a fellow Oxford alumnus. At the end of his life, the legendary explorer maintained that the most dangerous journeys of his life were those in the Danakil. In his Danakil Diary, he conveys his many encounters with the Afar, a fearless and resolutely fatalistic people long feared throughout the Horn of Africa. A well-known Afar adage goes, “it is better to die than to live without killing.”
David’s plan was to purchase a pair of camels, stock up on supplies in Asaita’s famed Tuesday Market, then head off the grid, hiring some local guns along the way. The goal: to trace Thesiger’s route to Lake Abhe Bad, the terminus of the Awash River, spending some time among Thesiger’s beloved Afar, for whom one of the most desolate and inhospitable places on earth remains home sweet home.
Three days from Asaita we reached the Boha River. Its banks were buzzing with life as goats, cows and camels waited to cross the crocodile-infested waters. Long-haired, sharp-toothed Afar herdsmen huddled in acacia shade drinking tea and breaking ga’ambo (maize bread), most eyes fixated on us, the ferengi (white people). A few of the toughest men swam across with camels in tow, buoyed by jerry cans. The rest of us packed into an old rusted boat, weighed down with burlap sacks, stacks of reed mats and sweating boys falling over the passengers as they pulled us across by a rope connecting the other side.
Once across, we sat beneath a cluster of acacias with a promising Afar trio. We hoped they might be the ones to escort us through the lawless wilds ahead. Muhammad and Tur were both young and fit, “essential flesh and bone” as Thesiger had described the Afar, and much friendlier than the other candidates we’d met along the way. The third was much older, promising to contribute wisdom and an insider’s knowledge of our route.
After shaking hands on the new fellowship, we never saw the old man again. Muhammad and Tur, however, proved essential to the expedition. Each was as confident with camels as anyone in these parts, and carried next to nothing.
In the spirit of traveling light, Tur only carried a single bullet for his old gun. Upon discovering this a few days further into the trek, Go’obo asked how he’d handle one of the rumored Issa (Somali) raiding parties (soon to become more than rumor). Easy, he said: just line them all up in a row.
A few days further along we saw the glimmering strip on the southern horizon that was Lake Abhe Bad. Sticking to Thesiger’s route rather than beelining to the lake, we circled the volcanic mass of the Dema’ali Terara mountain, passing through a blackened wasteland where jagged rocks drew blood from our camels’ feet. Talk of Issa raids to the south, hippos on the banks of the Awash river, hyenas on the slopes of Dema Ali and a fierce “demon government” that ruled the area kept things interesting.
The morning of our final march to Lake Abhe Bad, David’s watch thermometer passed 40°C by 8am. A few hours later it was well into the 50s, and our water was running dangerously low.
Finally Abhe Bad came into view again, this time to the east. The Djibouti shoreline was a faint watermark on the horizon. We paused to take in the view Thesiger once traveled so far to see. Then, like a mirage in the distance, a small patch of date palms came into view over a rocky ridge. The faint sound of rushing water became too loud to deny.
Soon the camels were lapping up from the Awash and our crew was stripping down to bathe in a flurry of streams that cascaded into pools beneath the shade of date palms.
Perhaps a bit delusional after our long trek in the soaring heat, it seemed as though we’d found lost Eden, the end of the world, a momentary quenching of that yearning for exploration and adventure which Thesiger had so relished throughout his life.
A cluster of aris and stone huts a few hundred metres north of the palms was the village of Harissa, our home for the next week among the Afar of the Danakil.
Asaita is the jumping off point for exploring the southern Danakil’s salt lakes. Permits must be secured in Semera in order to travel beyond Asaita.
Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. All images by Anthon Jackson.