We are in one of the cruelest and hottest inhabited places on Earth, not far from the Eritrean border: the Danakil depression in Ethiopia. One hundred meters below sea level, the dry moonscape is so surreal that it doesn’t seem to be a part of the Earth at all. It’s a place of genuine, raw adventure. Few corners of the globe can match this overwhelming wilderness of volcanoes, aridness, and temperatures frequently saying hello to 60ºC. Not a place for everybody.
The Danakil depression is home to the fierce Afar people who live in East African countries like Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia, and Eritrea. They are a proud tribe, embracing a man’s strength and bravery. Vengeance killing is common and war the primary context for much of their culture, though it’s diminishing more and more. A few decades ago, a young man was not considered an adult until he had killed one man, usually a member of an opposite tribe. Regardless of which country they live in, the Afar crisscross the deserts with their livestock, living and surviving in the hottest and cruelest places on Earth.
The Danakil depression — specifically the area surrounding Lake Afdera — is the place from which close to 100% of the salt production in Ethiopia comes. The lake yields more than 1.3 million tons of salt annually, and around 750 officially registered salt miners work in this area. Teams of Muslim Afar and Christian Tigrayans from the Ethiopian Highlands gather daily, and ten months out of the year, they mine the salt and transport it by camel and donkey to a small town called Berahile. In the past, the salt blocks — called amolé — were used all over Ethiopia as money. Although cash has replaced the salt, the trade itself remains the main livelihood of the Ethiopian Afar, and they guard and manage the “white gold” as their greatest treasure.
The salt flats in the Danakil depression, along the borderline between Ethiopia and Eritrea, are located 100 meters below sea level. This huge salt crust, often up to 1,000 meters thick, goes deep in the earth’s crust. It’s here the salt miners break plates of salt out of the ground. First, using an axe, the crust of salt is chopped into large slabs. Then workers fit a set of sticks in the grooves made by the axe. Finally, working with the sticks, the workers lift the big slab of salt, which is cut into tiles of standard sizes called ganfur (about 4kg) or ghelao (about 8kg), according to their weight. The tiles of salt are stacked, tied and prepared for transport.
The city Mekele, around 100 km away from the Danakil depression, is the hub of Ethiopia’s “white gold” trade and known as the old salt caravan city. Until recently, the tiles of salt were transported on camels all the way to Mekele, but this has changed over the past years. “We live in a world of transition”, says Adem, who manages one of the many salt storage places in Mekele. “Nowadays, the salt caravans walk only to Berahile, which is about 60 km away from Mekele. Then big trucks transport the salt from there to the storage places in Mekele. Each truck can transport up to 350 camel salt loads, which saves a lot of time, money and workers. From our storage places, the salt is transported and sold to all parts of Ethiopia. It is mainly used as table salt and an add-on for animal feed.”
The salt miners in the Danakil depression work under very tough conditions, in which temperatures hardly drop below 50-60º, even early in the morning. “I have been working as a salt miner for more than 10 years,” says Abebe, one of the workers I meet along my way. “Every day I have to walk almost two hours to the salt flat. But I enjoy my work, though it’s unbelievably hot and I can take off burned flaps of my skin every day. When I am on my way home, it burns like fire but, for me, it’s a great feeling that I can nourish my six children and wife thanks to my work as a salt miner.” Abebe earns 1 Birr for each salt tile he cuts, around five cents, and on a good day he can make up to 200 tiles. His working hours are early in the morning, before the sun gets too hot and makes his work impossible.
Around 2,000 camels and 1,000 donkeys come to the salt flat every day to transport the salt tiles to Berahile, about 75 km away. Only male camels are used for the transport, which takes up to three days. “A strict organization is behind the camel and donkey loading,” explains caravan guide Haile Selassie. “I have been working here in the Danakil depression for more than 10 years and have my own 18 camels. Each camel can carry 30 salt tiles and walk up to 25 km a day. When we leave the salt flats with the animals, we have to walk around 20 km through a stone desert. After that, we have to pass a 40 km-long canyon where, luckily, we can always find water. From this point on, both men and animals are safe, as the riverbed never dries out.”
Another caravan guide crosses my way. Hadschi has been working in this profession for more than 40 years. “My dad started this business when he was young and we used to own around 500 camels and 1,000 donkeys. When my dad got too old, we sold most of the animals and I stayed with 100 camels and 150 donkeys to keep up the business. In the whole Danakil depression, there must be around 20,000 camels working for the salt business. Every day, the camels have to rest 4-5 hours and then walk until late at night. We only have tea and bread for the three-day walk, but we feel happy with this job. The salt business is part of our identity and culture. And most of us have grown up with our animals and we feel proud of them.”
For each load that one camel carries, 30 salt tiles at 4 kg, the men get around 7€. A man like Haile Selassie, who has 18 camels, can earn around 120€ with his camel transport. From this money, he still has to pay wages for two assistants who walk all the way with him, food for the animals, and customs for the camels when leaving and entering the desert. “It takes me one week to Berahile and back,” Haile tells me. “And at the end, after paying all the costs and wages, I earn 45 € in this one week. It’s not a lot, but for me enough. I still don’t have a family. I am lucky that the camels are mine and I don’t have to pay for them. Many men just rent the animals and a big part of their income goes to that.”
Every day, early before sunrise, a new day starts for the people involved in the salt business in the Danakil depression. It’s a day that brings heat, pain, and money hunting, but also laughter and pride. It’s a question of time how long the salt caravans will continue transporting the salt from the salt flats to Berahile. “At the latest when there is peace with Eritrea, there will be trucks coming from all sides to transport the salt tiles to the next cities,” says Haile with a worried face. ”One day our camels will be useless here in the Danakil depression…but first roads have to be constructed. So I hope I can fulfill my beloved job until my legs cannot carry me anymore.”
It’s time to leave a place where time has stopped. A journey into another world and time. A journey to people who acquire their resources and small treasures from a hostile and cruel nature. People who have developed their identity and culture out of this struggle. People who can be proud of this. The salt workers of the Danakil depression.