Ethiopia’s Danakil Depression, an inferno of burning salt, sulphuric acid, lava and volcanic rock - just like hell on earth. Our ‘Women on a Mission’ team had set itself a bold and pioneering challenge - to cross the Danakil Desert on mountain bikes. No one had ever attempted such a feat before, and we soon realised why.
With its furnace-like temperatures, bone-drying aridity, and chemical composition, the Danakil is an alien-looking desert. Known as the hottest place on earth, with daytime temperatures of over 50°C and average year-round temperatures of 35°C, it is considered to be the most inhospitable environment in the world.
Located in the Afar Region of northeast Ethiopia near the border of Eritrea, the area is part of the East African Rift System, a place where the Earth’s internal forces are currently tearing apart three continental plates, creating new land. Since the region sits along fault lines, the valley is often disturbed by earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Undeniably, the conditions in the Danakil can only be described as brutal, but against all odds, people do live there. In fact, the Afar people call it their home, and they have settled in semi-permanent villages throughout the region.
After five hours on the road descending from Mek'ele, the capital city of the northern Tigray Region of Ethiopia, perched at an altitude of 2000 metres, our convoy of five jeeps, loaded with bikes and a week’s supply of food and water, arrived at Hamed Ela, located 150 metres below sea level. The group, comprising of our ten-woman biking team and its support crew (made up of two cooks, five drivers, three guides and two armed guards) was thrilled to finally arrive at our first campsite. The guards had been assigned to us by the local police chief in the village just a few kilometres away, because venturing into this abyss can be risky. In truth, the Ethiopian government requires armed militia to escort all tourists who travel through the Danakil. Skirmishes with Eritrean armed forces were common up until 2005 and even after the cease-fire, tourists were kidnapped and sometimes killed. In 2012, gunmen attacked a group of European tourists, murdering five, injuring two and kidnapping four. After more soldiers were stationed permanently in the area, things slowly improved.
In any case, as we pitched up in Hamed Ela that first evening, the initial shock to the system was the sweltering 38 °C temperature, a stark contrast to the breezy 23 °C we had experienced in Mek'ele earlier that morning. Night had fallen and it was 7:00 pm when we finally unloaded the equipment and settled into camp. After a quick dinner consisting of pasta, a cabbage salad and warm bottled water, we prepared to sleep on our wooden camp beds for our first night under the stars. The heat was oppressive and without exerting any effort, we found ourselves dripping with sweat as we lay immobile on our mattresses.
After a restless night, we woke up at 5:00 am excited to tackle our first day of biking. The plan was to cycle to Dallol, a cinder-cone-shaped volcano, twenty-three kilometres northeast of Hamed Ela. After some delays because of safety checks on the bikes, we finally left camp close to 8:00 am. The cycle across the salt plains was magnificent and the team arrived in high spirits at Dallol at 11:00 am. We immediately started hiking up to the luminescent hot springs and realised it was already a blistering 45°C.
Dallol was formed in 1926 by a phreatic eruption. This is when groundwater is heated by magma – essentially, a steam eruption without the lava injection. The resulting hydrothermal activity created a series of spectacular, bubbling sulphuric acid pools, that are extremely acidic and salty. Arata, our local Afar guide, showed us springs that had not been there just a week ago, explaining to us that Dallol is constantly changing and very unstable. For our safety, he urged us to follow his footsteps with precision, lest we fall through the porous rock into one of the acidic springs.
After exploring this alien-like environment, we decided to continue hiking to see the salt canyons nearby. Boasting some of the most impressive features of the Danakil, the canyons are reddish pillars of salt that rise up 60 metres high. It is truly a sight to behold and despite the oven-like atmosphere, we continued our exploration. By noon, the heat was completely debilitating and coming from every direction. The thermometer read 50°C. It was the kind of searing heat that the human body isn’t built to handle. The unrelenting sun shone upon the rust-coloured baked earth, and we chose that very moment to bike back to Hamed Ela.
That afternoon, we realised that we had made a grave mistake by underestimating the effects of the heat on our bodies. By 4:00 pm, as we visited the nearby salt lake where miners carve-out slabs to sell in the salt trade, 70 % of the team started experiencing mild to very severe symptoms of heatstroke. Suddenly, one of our teammates fainted. She fell like a ragdoll to the ground and had to be carried to one of the jeeps. Three others felt nauseous with pounding headaches, and by nightfall several women were vomiting violently and burning up with fever. Heatstroke is a medical emergency, a type of hyperthermia, that can result in unconsciousness, organ failure and even death. It is caused by the body overheating, usually as a result of prolonged exposure to heat or physical exertion in high temperatures. We quickly realised the situation was serious - we had no trained medic with us, very limited facilities and the closest hospital was a good five-hour-drive away.
The team decide to wait it out, and throughout the night, the women who felt well took turns, every hour, to check on the sick, putting cold compresses on them, reminding them to take sips of water, soothing them with reassuring words. Thankfully by dawn the fevers had broken, and although still weak, the patients felt much better. It had been too close for comfort, and we swore we would adjust our schedule and depart earlier every morning so as not to bike at the peak of the day’s heat.
The next three days unfolded smoothly. We woke at 4:00 am, were on the road by 6:00 am and tried to cover our target distances by noon. The afternoons were spent resting, under what shade we could find, counting the hours in the sweltering heat. Those times were true mental challenges for most of us. It was too hot to do anything and impossible to cool down. The air was stifling, our drinking water was tepid and the heat enveloped us completely, hanging like a heavy veil around us.
During these moments of inactivity, we had few precious distractions. One of them was when our guide, Mulugeta (or Mule for short), would regale us with stories of how courtship is conducted in parts of Ethiopia. “A man throws a lemon at the feet of the woman he wishes to date hoping she will acknowledge him by picking it up,” he shared. Ethiopia is home to a truly diverse landscape and peoples, with a very rich and colourful history. The Afar people may be Muslim but the rest of the country is Christian (with the majority belonging to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church). In fact, Ethiopia is considered to be the second oldest Christian nation in the world after Armenia and remains the only country in Africa that has never been colonised.
On another occasion, the team visited the village of Waideddo where the local Afar chief and his family received us. We spoke to him about their customs and the future of the region. “We don’t need our children to go away and get an education. We are very happy here the way we are and do not want to change,” declared the Chief. The Afar people are proud of their origins and very protective of their land. They are not particularly fond of tourists, and often refuse to have their photo taken.
The highlight of the trip was definitely the visit to Erta Ale. Known by the Afar as the “smoking mountain”. Erta Ale is a 600-metre-high volcano that is one of only a handful of continuously active volcanos in the world, and a member of an even more exclusive group: volcanos with lava lakes. While there are only five known volcanos with lava lakes globally, Erta Ale often has two active lava lakes – making it an extremely unique site.
On day four of our trip, we made our way to the volcano by biking up to the small settlement of Askoma, navigating the jagged volcanic rocks leading up to the village. As we laboured uphill on our bikes, the occasional convoy of tourists (mostly French scientists and photographers) driving to visit the volcano would cheer us on by shouting encouragements: “Le Tour du Danakil! – Bravo ladies!”
Indeed, this was one of our most gruelling expeditions to date. After much blood, toil, tears and sweat, our Women on a Mission team successfully completed the first ever crossing of the Danakil Depression of Ethiopia on bicycles. Two hundred kilometres in six days over vastly contrasting terrain, from sand, sulphuric acid and salt, to bush, lava and volcanic rock. It was an arduous expedition, but we persevered, and every day we pushed on, finding resources we did not know we had.
Throughout the journey, we were rewarded by breath-taking landscapes and when we hiked up to Erta Ale, the most unbelievable spectacle of bubbling molten lava awaited us. Sitting a few feet from the rim of this magnificent active volcano, we felt completely transfixed and overwhelmed by nature’s raw power and might. However, the ultimate satisfaction for us was pushing ourselves far beyond our comfort zones for a cause that bonded us together: the plight of women survivors of war. We were driven by the desire to make a difference in the lives of women who are deprived of the most basic freedom: the right to live in peace and happiness with their loved ones, the right to education and self-accomplishment, the right to live with respect and decency, the right to dream.
In Mule’s words, “Women are capable of anything if they set their hearts and minds to it.” On the last evening, the whole Ethiopian crew shared in the celebration of our achievement and felt equally proud to have taken part in this extraordinary, pioneering crossing. It was truly a voyage to an otherworldly place, an unforgettable adventure to the most inhospitable place on earth - no wonder they call the Danakil the Gateway to Hell.
Women On A Mission (WOAM) is a non-profit organisation headquartered in Singapore, which organises challenging, self-funded, expeditions to remote and majestic locations around the world as a means to raise awareness and funds for women survivors of war and to support and empower women who have been subjected to violence and abuse. This expedition to Ethiopia was in support of Women for Women International UK, an independent humanitarian organisation, which provides women survivors of war, civil strife and other conflicts, with the tools and resources to move from crisis and poverty to stability and self-sufficiency.
Photo credit: WOAM