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Africa's Danakil Desert
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Africa's Danakil Desert  @ National Geographic Magazine
By Virginia Morell
Photographs by Carsten Peter
Baking temperatures, wastelands of salt—it's hard to imagine a more brutal landscape than Africa's Danakil Desert. But for the Afar people this is a home to die for.

"I have news," Edris Hassan announced gravely. Seating himself on a boulder above Ethiopiaís Saba River in the northern Danakil Desert, he propped his Kalashnikov assault rifle beside him. Edris was tall for an Afar, one of the pastoralist peoples who roam this harsh land, and built like what he was: a warrior and militiaman. For our small party of travelers he was also guard and guide, his reputation and weapon smoothing our way through the Afar, considered among the fiercest people in the world.

In the town of Hamed Ela, while waiting to join the salt-trading caravan we were now traveling with, I'd learned from Edris that news, or dagu as the

Afar call it, is a weighty subject, something to be pondered and assessed. It is more than a bush telegraph or village gossip, more than the latest headlines. Instead, in a ceremony of handshakes and hand kisses, the Afar pass along recitations of all they have seen and heard, a poetic litany that can bealmost Homeric in its detail and precision. It is through dagu that they learn of any newcomers to their desert realm, of the conditions of water holes and grazing lands, of missing camels and caravans. They learn of weddings and funerals, of new alliances and betrayals, of the latest battles fought, and the conditions of the trail ahead. They learn about what has changed in a changeable land, and in the world at large, and from all this they pick a course of action. Those who pay the closest attention to the news, they say, may go on to survive, Inshallah—God willing.

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.

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?

The salt merchants I'd asked the day before looked baffled by my question. "It's the salt," they said, hoisting blocks the size of encyclopedias onto their camels. "It's our corn; it's our gold. Of course we would fight anyone who tried to take it."

He'd met the merchants at the salt mines that lie beyond Hamed Ela and border Lake Asele in the heart of the northern Danakil. More than 300 feet below sea level, the salt lake and plains are one of the lowest points in Africa (the absolute lowest, at 512 feet, lies farther southeast in the Danakil at Lake Assal in Djibouti). Here, teams of Muslim Afar and Christian Tigrayans from the Ethiopian Highlands gather daily ten months out of the year to mine the salt and ferry it by camel, mule, and donkey to markets in Ethiopia's mountains and beyond into Sudan. In the past the salt blocks (called amolé) were used through-out Ethiopia as money. Although hard cash has replaced the salt, the trade itself remains the main livelihood of the northern Afar, and they guard their treasure—as well as every grain of sand in their desert—like the Argonauts of old.

The Afar make sure that no one robs them of their salt by studiously overseeing the mines and caravans. Every merchant must stop at the salt-tax collector's hut in the dusty enclave of Hamed Ela on the edge of the salt flats and pay a fee for each camel, mule, and donkey in his caravan. At the mines, every job—from levering the salt from the earth to running the outdoor tea kitchens—is assigned and managed by an Afar. Theirs is a strict monopoly, and it has made them proud and dictatorial. They do not hesitate for a minute to let you know that once you set foot in their salt kingdom, you are subject to their commands.

We found that out in Berahile, which sits about midway up the escarpment that rises above the desert. The government offices of the northern Afar region—a semi-autonomous part of Ethiopia—are located in Berahile, the main market town for the Afar caravans, which is presided over by the turbaned and dignified Ali Hassan Bore. Before venturing to the mines, Carsten, Zelalem, and I paid Ali a visit, joining him and his retainers on the veranda of one of the squat government buildings. In his 50s, Ali had the bearing of a sultan. He wore a beige polo shirt and green plaid sarong with a wide leather belt; a short dagger was discreetly tucked into it. Over his shoulder he displayed a not-so-discreet, but holstered, Colt .45-caliber pistol. His front teeth were chipped to points, crocodile-style, a cosmetic embellishment that Afar men and women consider beautiful. Ali sat soldier-straight in his chair, while his assistants crowded close by, some squatting on their heels, others leaning against a wall. Like Ali, they were all heavily armed, and they listened carefully to our request to visit the salt mines; their eyes were narrowed and suspicious as they squinted against the sun.

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