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 Issue

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

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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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