Danakil Desert, Djibouti

Danakil Desert, Djibouti

Kate Eshelby visits the surreal landscapes of the Danikil Depression, Djiboutie where rocky wilderness is punctured only by steaming fissures and limestone chimneys.

This article appears in Volume 27: The Books

in Djibouti, a former French colony full of surreal and
savage landscapes cupped by Eritrea,
and Somaliland, to
follow in the footsteps of the explorer
Wilfred Thesiger, who
spent time hunting in the sauna-hot
of this frontier land. He later wrote about its desolate
beauty in his book, The Danakil Diary.

This treeless land of volcanoes and steaming fissures is where
three of the earth’s tectonic plates diverge, ripping the rocky
wilderness into deep canyons and throwing up towering limestone
chimneys like mystical fortress kingdoms. Among its vast basalt
plains live the nomadic Afar people. Their golden- coloured domed
homes blend into the stony valleys.

For centuries the Afar have mined the salt left behind in a
string of crater lakes after the Red Sea flooded. I join a salt
caravan at Lac Assal, one of the earth’s lowest and hottest places,
and follow the nomads up into the Ethiopian highlands where they
trade this “white gold”. The lake flashes bright aquamarine against
an expanse of shimmering white as salt shapes sprout out of the
water like giant crystal toadstools.

The award-winning Djiboutian author Abdourahman Waberi has
written several poetic books about his country, evocatively
describing a “tortured geology” with “desert furrows of fire” under
“rays of a yellow chameleon sky”. I, too, pen furiously in my
notebooks, inspired by this apocalyptic, Mad Max-like land.

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