National Geographic : 2005 Oct
Through the ages ocean floods in the desert have left behind salt, a commodity prized by the Afar for centuries. The author and photographer traveled a salt route between the mines near Lake Asele and the town of Berahile, where the caravans unload their haul. In the new Afar government center of Semera, a water tower rises (opposite) to gather another valuable resource. Ramadan. And now that we were at last with them, we wanted to keep going. We'd been warned that the three-day trip would be hot and exhausting, a thirsty plod from the salt flats beyond Hamed Ela through rocky desert and canyons to the larger town of Berahile where the caravans unloaded their salt, but we'd never expected it to come to such a sudden end. What were we to do? It was nearly three o'clock in the morning. Below us, in the silky glow of star light, the caravans we'd been with continued to make their way up the riverbank and disap peared around a bend into a sandstone canyon -pursuing the very route that Edris had declared too dangerous for us to follow. Yet danger and hardship were what we'd come to the Danakil Desert for-or at least wanted to observe. By traveling with the salt traders, we 40 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * OCTOBER 2005 hoped to gain insights into the Afar way of life. Already, following our week in Hamed Ela, a dust-and-fly-stricken hamlet, I'd formed some opinions. One was that people can and will live anywhere-even in the Danakil, a place of dry sands and even drier gravel beds, rocky lava flows, active volcanoes, burning salt flats, temperatures that often top 120°F, winds that choke you with dust, and suffocating days of no wind at all. Even worse, this place where rain falls sparingly at the best of times was now in the grip of a bad drought, and the half-mummified carcasses of camels and goats lay strewn across the sands. And the Ugugumo wanted to liberate this land. What was there to be freed, I wondered? Why would anyone fight over this hellacious place? And how had it come to have such a hold on these people?