Alastair and I flew out of Sierra Leone one day and flew into Ethiopia the next. The purpose of our trip was to do a site visit to an exploration project in the Northern region of Ethiopia. Alastair and I were both offered positions with a company there, exploring for potash in an area called the Danakil Depression. It was proposed that we take the opportunity to visit the site in order to get a better feel for what was on offer. My position was more of an afterthought, as this company really wanted Alastair as their Exploration Manager. Before our arrival, we were made aware of the harsh conditions of the site, including extreme heat and absolute remoteness. Having only spent time in West Africa, I was excited to see the differences in its counterpart of East Africa. Also, though still in the queasy days of my first trimester, I was up for an adventure.
We flew to Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, and spent the night. Typically shortened to just Addis, the city was an impressive bustling hub. Addis is also quite high up, with an altitude around 8,000 feet above sea level, therefore the air was cool and dry, and there was a noticeable lack of mosquitoes :) Alastair and I did feel the altitude when we quickly became short of breath after climbing only a few flights of stairs.
Early the next morning, we took another flight North to the city of Makele and then drove 5-6 hours to the camp site. All the while, we were slowly coming down out of the mountains to the location of the project.
As we steadily descended into the Danakil Depression, the temperature steadily rose, until the air felt so hot it could have been blowing straight from a hair dryer. This area is actually known for being the hottest place on earth for average temperature year round. Along with being the hottest, it is also one of the lowest . We went from around 8000 feet above sea level to around 300 feet below sea level. Furthermore, it seemed brutally remote, as we passed little else other than rocks and sand. The heat was harsh and the landscape unforgiving as there was not so much as a tree or a bush for shade.
The only people that live in this seemingly uninhabitable desert is a nomadic group called the Afari people. Collections of them have temporarily settled close to the camp site as there is the potential for employment and community development from the company’s growth and activities.
We came upon the camp site, which seemed to be in the middle of nowhere with little to nothing around it. The extreme remoteness was such an alien feeling, I might as well have been on another planet as I looked out into the void. However, the camp was well constructed with some reinforced tents and other permanent cement structures. The heat there is so intense that even the tents are fitted with air conditioning units.
As hostile as this environment seemed to me, there are still people that called it home. We briefly visited the community living nearby.
Children were traveling on donkeys to collect water from a local borehole that was put in by the company.
The water was a bit salty but still potable.
We spent a few days on site learning about the project and the surrounding area before making the long journey back to Addis. We arrived in the city with a few hours to spare before our midnight flight back to London. One of the local geologists had offered to have us to his home so that his wife and her sister could demonstrate the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony.
The ritual of making and drinking coffee is an art in Ethiopia and highly involved. We felt very fortunate to have spent time with our new friends and to be treated to this part of their culture.
Throughout my visit, it became increasingly clear to us that living on site in the Danakil Depression was not really an option for me as I continued to get further along in my pregnancy, but Alastair was fascinated with the prospect of some new land to explore. He eventually accepted the offer and after doing a handover in Sierra Leone, has been on site in Ethiopia for the past several weeks.
I couldn’t help but draw comparisons while there, and the country and its people are so different from what I was used to in Sierra Leone, and although pregnancy prevents me for the time being, I hope I’ll have the opportunity to go back soon with Alastair. It was like no place I have ever seen or imagined.
Our African tour didn’t stop there though. After Ethiopia, our next stop was South Africa!