Edris turned now to share the latest dagu with us—photographer Carsten Peter and me—speaking in Amharic, Ethiopia's lingua franca, through our interpreter, Zelalem Abera.
"I met a friend here," Edris said, tilting his head toward a small cluster of thatched huts that make up the Afar village of Asso Bollo. "He has news of trouble ahead. The Ugugumo are in the canyon. They're stopping all the caravans, asking for money, causing trouble. It's not safe for us to continue. If you go ahead, you're no longer my responsibility."
The Ugugumo: We'd heard rumors about these rebels (the Afar Revolutionary Democratic Unity Front) from the first day we set foot in the desert. They were, we'd been told, wild and unpredictable and as hard and unforgiving as the sands of the desert. But they were also heroes, men of courage, since they were fighting to regain Afar territory that was lost in the early 1990s, when Eritrea defeated Ethiopia and became a separate nation. Edris sat back and uncorked his canteen, then upended it and symbolically emptied his water into the sand: He wasn't about to tangle with the Ugugumo. For him this was the end of the trail.
Carsten, Zelalem, and I looked at one another, stunned. We'd waited over a week in Hamed Ela to join these Afar salt caravans, which had ceased their long-distance journeys during the Muslim holy month of 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 starlight, the caravans we'd been with continued to make their way up the riverbank and disappeared 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 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.