Sun- cracked salt-flats stretch like blinding-white crazy paving towards a shimmering flat horizon. Salt-bearing camel caravans traipse mirage-like across grassless plains of rock and sand swept by a merciless gale known as the Gara, or fire wind. Volatile volcanoes rise into the cloudless desert sky, their calderas cradling bubbling cauldrons of molten lava, or brooding hyper-saline crater lakes. Explosive geysers feed sulphurous pools enclosed by strange pastel-hued crystalline formation. A true desert that stretches across northeast Ethiopia for tens of thousands square kilometers, the Danakil is also one of the lowest-lying and hottest places anywhere in the planet, dropping to 116m below sea level, while temperatures frequently soar above 50oc.
These are sights typical of the Danakil: one of the most harsh and brutal landscapes anywhere on earth, but also a place of rare geological fascination and immeasurable beauty to those few adventurous souls fortunate enough to spend time there. It lies in the northern part of Afar, a region named after its pastoralist inhabitants, who traditionally eked out an income as herders and seasonal salt miners. Their salt was transported by camel to the highlands by Tigrean caravaneers. Camel Caravans still operate in the region, as they have for millennia, but for most visitors the biggest highlight of the Danakil is Erta Ale, a climbable volcano that encloses the world’s oldest permanent lava lakes.
Afar region is widely regarded to be the cradle of humankind. The most famous skeleton unearthed there is ‘Lucy’. Whose discovery in 1974 pushed backed the timeframe of human evolution by more than a million years. the world’s oldest undisputed human remains, dating back 5.5 million years, were unearthed here in 1997.
Until the modern era, the Danakil served as the unofficial mint of Ethiopia since it was the origin of the hefty salt bars (amoles) that served as currency in the highlands for many centuries.
The kilometer-thick salt deposits that covers much of the Danakil are a relic of the days-up until 30,000 years ago-when much of the region was submerged by the Red sea.