The Danakil Depression in Ethiopia is an inferno of burning salt, sulphuric acid, lava and volcanic rock – as close to hell on earth as you’ll find. But that didn’t stop a team from Singapore-based Women on a Mission from setting itself a bold challenge: to ride across it on mountain bikes. No one had ever attempted such a feat, and, as Christine Amour-Levar recounts, the women soon realised why.
With its furnace-like temperatures, bone drying aridity and heavy chemical composition, the Danakil is an alien looking desert. Daytime temperatures soar to over 50 degrees Celsius, making it among the hottest and most inhospitable environments 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, it’s often disturbed by earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Despite the brutal conditions, and 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 2,000 metres, our convoy of five jeeps, loaded with bikes and a week’s supply of food and water, arrived at our campsite at Hamed Ela, located 150 metres below sea level.
Our group comprised a ten-woman biking team and a support crew – two cooks, five drivers, three guides and two armed guards, the latter assigned to us by the local police chief in the village 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; even after the ceasefire, tourists have been kidnapped and sometimes killed. In 2012, gunmen attacked a group of European tourists, murdering five, injuring two and kidnapping four. Since more soldiers have been stationed permanently in the area, things have slowly improved.
The initial shock to the system of this first campsite was the sweltering 38-degree temps, a stark contrast to the breezy 23 we’d experienced in Mek’ele earlier that morning. Night had fallen and it was 7pm when we finally unloaded the equipment and settled into camp. After a quick dinner of pasta and 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; even without exerting any effort, we found ourselves dripping with sweat on our mattresses.
After a restless night, we woke at 5am excited to tackle our first day of biking. The plan was to cycle to Dallol, a cinder-cone-shaped volcano, 23km northeast of Hamed Ela. After some delays because of safety checks on the bikes, we finally left camp close to 8am. The cycle across the salt plains was magnificent, and the team arrived in high spirits at Dallol at 11am. Despite the blistering 45 degree temps, we immediately started hiking up to the volcano’s luminescent hot springs.
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 hadn’t been there just a week ago, explaining to us that Dallol is constantly changing and extremely 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 continued hiking to see the salt canyons nearby. Among the most impressive features of the Danakil, these canyons are reddish pillars of salt that rise up to 60 metres high – truly a sight to behold.
By noon, the heat was completely debilitating (50 degrees!) and coming from every direction – 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 we’d made a grave mistake by underestimating the effects of the heat on our bodies. By 4pm, as we visited the nearby salt lake where miners carve out slabs to sell in the salt trade, 70 percent of the team started experiencing mild to very severe symptoms of heatstroke. Suddenly, one woman fainted, falling like a ragdoll to the ground; she 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 – so, the situation was serious. Yet we had no trained medic with us, very limited facilities and the closest hospital was a good five-hour drive away.
The team decided to wait it out. 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.
A rich culture
The next three days unfolded smoothly. We woke at 4am, were on the road by 6am 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 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 tepid and the heat enveloped us completely, hanging like a heavy veil.
During these moments of inactivity, we had few precious distractions. One of them was when our guide Mulugeta (or “Mule” for short) regaled 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 acknowledges 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 by many to be the second oldest Christian nation in the world after Armenia, and it 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’re very happy here the way we are, and we do not want to change,” declared the chief. The Afar people are proud of their origins and very protective of their land. They’re 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 600m 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. Only five of these are known in the world, and Erta Ale is unique as it often has two active lava lakes rather than one.
On day four of our trip, we made our way to the volcano by biking to the small settlement of Askoma, by navigating across jagged volcanic rocks. As we laboured uphill, 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!”
It was rides like this one that made the trip one of our most gruelling expeditions to date. Still, 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. Six days and 200km 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 didn’t 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.
The ultimate satisfaction, though, 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, and 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
Now in its fifth year of operation, Women on a Mission ( WOA M ) ra i s e s money in support of organisations that advance the position of women and girls around the world. Past expeditions have included Everest Base Camp, the Wadi Rum Desert in Jordan, the Tsum Valley in Nepal, the Yamal Peninsula of Siberia, and the Lut Desert of Iran.
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