First stop: Lake Afdera
I was joined at the Brilliant Ethiopia office by a fellow traveler (Chris), our guide called Fish, a cook and a driver. The luggage was strapped to the roof of our 4×4 and then we got on the road. The impression many people have of Ethiopia has come from images portrayed by Bob Geldof et al. in the 1980’s, but nothing could be further from the truth! It is a vibrant country and has one of the most varied and spectacular terrains I have ever seen in one country.
Addis Ababa is at an altitude of 2,355m, located at the foot of Mount Entoto, and spectacular mountain views can be seen here and throughout the Great Rift Valley (which runs southwest through the country). Here in the north it is a lot drier, and while we started out driving through the mountains the land eventually flattened out to give way to a rocky volcanic landscape.
We were driving to Afdera, a hypersaline lake in the Danakil Depression. Hypersaline lakes have a much higher salinity than the sea which means they are great for swimming in and, in this case, for salt extraction. It was a welcome relief to arrive and have a dip, and then settle into our accommodation … or lack thereof!
There is a small makeshift town by the lake, housing the miners and their families. The houses are made from corrugated metal with polythene roofs and there are no hotels. Our bed for the night was literally that – a bed frame and mattress – and we slept under the stars by the lake. Before bed was dinner, our cook set up a plastic table and chairs complete with table cloth, cutlery and napkins and produced a wonderful meal. Chris and I, having only known each other a few hours, had a surreal candlelit dinner for two and then retired to our beds.
That first night was an experience I will never forget. It was boiling hot and there was a thunderstorm out over the lake, which never quite made it to the shore probably on account of the strong wind that came at periodic intervals throughout the night. For all its strangeness I felt perfectly safe and it was an amazing feeling to lay there looking up at a sky full of stars.
The next morning after another dip and some breakfast, we had a wander around the shore learning about salt extraction and even had a brief stint at salt mining! Our guide had a thermometer, and informed us that (at @7am) it was over 35 degrees!
Our encounter with the salt miners was quite amusing … we’d wandered around for ages looking for them and when we finally found them we got out our cameras to take photos, only to find that they had their phones out and were taking pictures of us! They found it quite entertaining as we tried to hack out a square of salt with a heavy pickaxe, and then showed us how it should be done.
Heat exhaustion is a constant reality in this environment and there are no medical facilities for many miles. It was at least 40 degrees and really exhausting just walking around for an hour or two (let alone spending all day doing back-breaking work). We made our way to the town where we were doused in cold water and sat under the shade to cool down. Seeing the miners was a stark reminder of how fortunate I am, not to have to work in the debilitating heat day after day, and live without running water and sanitation – things that many of us take for granted.
Saying that the Ethiopian people are very friendly and hospitable, and while we were waiting to set off I spied a pool table and had fun playing against the locals (Ethiopian rules) and somehow won the game!
It was soon time to go, we were due to meet our fellow travelers on the road for lunch and then drive to the volcano!