Pictures: Washington Post
Pictures: Washington Post
ANCIENT SCENE: A herder leads camels carrying freshly mined tablets of salt from the Afar Region. The salt was once used as currency by the Abyssinian Empire. Today, each tablet is worth about a dollar.
ANCIENT SCENE: A herder leads camels carrying freshly mined tablets of salt from the Afar Region. The salt was once used as currency by the Abyssinian Empire. Today, each tablet is worth about a dollar.
We stumbled along in the darkness, the path a lighter grey amid the deep charcoal of the dried lava fields around us. Ahead was our goal, the dull, angry, red glow our own personal Mount Doom just over the ridge.

We were in the Danakil Depression, in Ethiopia, which has been called one of the hottest places on Earth.

In one hand I held a torch; in the other, the hand of my 7-year-old son, Ray, the youngest member of our troop that had set out to visit one of Africa’s most active volcanoes.

The camels carried our bags. Guards carried old bolt action rifles across their shoulders. The dried lava around us still radiated the punishing heat of the day, so this trek up to the Erta Ale volcano had to be made after the sun had set.

After a three-hour hike, we crested the ridge. Before us was the glowing caldera, filled with dancing fountains of lava.

Ethiopia is increasingly making its mark on the global tourist map.

Once the province of dedicated American Peace Corps workers and backpackers, it now bristles with new roads and hotels for the broader tourist market.

But even for veteran travellers to Ethiopia, who have already been to the nearly inaccessible mountain monasteries of the Tigray Region or the rock-cut churches of Lalibela, the Danakil is unique.

This hot lowland, set between the mountains of the Tigray Region and the Eritrean Red Sea coast, is home to immense salt flats - once were a major source of wealth for the medieval Abyssinian Empire - as well as colourful sulphur pools and Erta Ale, the “smoking mountain”.

Three kids – my son, a nine-year-old and an 11-year-old – had a great time. Despite the region’s forbidding reputation, a well-organised tour in four-wheel-drive vehicles made for an unforgettable four-day trip that included the main sights of the region.

One of the first Europeans to visit the Danakil in the 1930s was young British adventurer Wilfred Thesiger, who left behind his Danakil Diaries about his trips through a land that had meant the deaths of so many explorers before him, thanks to the fierce and nomadic Afar people.

He wrote that for the Afar, you weren’t truly a man until you had killed someone. “A man can marry before he has killed, but no other woman will sleep with him. They invariably castrate their victims, even if still alive.”

Yet despite the dangers, he spent weeks exploring the area. “They were a cheerful, happy people despite the incessant killing,” he wrote.

Today, travel is easier, and what had been a journey of days now takesa few hours.

We set off from Mek’ele, the capital of the region and a bustling town a short flight from Addis Ababa. Our convoy consisted of two Land Cruisers for our seven-member group and the guide, as well as a third vehicle carrying food, equipment and the cook.

The twisting road into the mountains above Mek’ele is a beautiful drive with sharp-faced peaks, wild vegetation and cool temperatures, but the heat set in when we descended into the lowlands of the Afar Region.

At Berhale, little more than a collection of makeshift huts near the highway, where truckers, explorers and others must stop to pick up permits, our guide led us into a restaurant, where we gathered around a communal platter of the grilled Ethiopian meat-and-chili dish known as tibs, accompanied by shiro, a chickpea sauce. We washed it down with cold beers.

Clambering back into the air- conditioned cars was a real relief.

By late afternoon, we saw the camel caravan, an image that probably hasn’t changed in centuries.

Moving at a steady pace, hundreds of camels marched the brown, flat landscape in single file. Each camel carried tablets of salt, the "white gold" that has been carved out of the ground for the past two millennia.

It is the principal resource of the Danakil and was once used as currency by the Abyssinian Empire. At one time, the caravans would head all the way into Mek’ele, a trip of weeks, but now they generally go to Berhale in a two-day, 75km trek.

There are about 700 registered salt miners from the Muslim Afar people and the Christian Tigrayans. As we snapped photos, they greeted us in Arabic, asking for cigarettes and water.

About 30 000 years ago, the Red Sea covered this low-lying region before receding and leaving behind the thick salt deposits.

At dusk, we arrived at the flats, which look like a skating rink stretching on to the horizon. A thin layer of water on the surface turns it into a mirror and reflects the images of the distant mountains.

We spent the night in a nearby village in the open air, with a steady wind that kept us cool despite the muggy heat. The next morning, it was on to Dallol, which has the unenviable reputation of being one of the hottest inhabited places on Earth, with an average temperature of 37°C.Cresting a low rise the following day, our eyes were assaulted by colours that should not exist in nature. Bright yellow, red and orange mineral deposits surrounded sulphur pools as steam poured from vents in the ground.

It was just 8am, but the heat was intense. In the distance were some ruined buildings from the 1920s, when the Italians set up a camp to mine potash until they were driven out by the British in World War II. My mind boggled at how they were able to survive these temperatures and the rotten-egg smell of sulphur hanging in the air.

The garishly coloured rocks brought to mind the landscape of an alien planet, but none of us could stay too long to admire the scene as the heat kept climbing.

For lunch, we stopped at a mountain spring in the highlands, where water gushed over the cliff into a small pool. It helped us cool down and wash off the smell of the mineral springs.

Nearer the mountains, it once again was a different Ethiopia on view, with green fields of barley and the local teff grain as well as herds of cattle with immense, curving horns walking beneath the acacia trees beside the road.

That night, we dined on grilled lamb and slept out under the stars. The trip the next day to the volcano was a study in the declining quality of roads. Finally, it was even too much for our Land Cruisers and we reached a collection of round, stone huts with thatched roofs that became a kind of base camp for trips by foot up the volcano.

Here, camel drivers, soldiers and local militia members often hang out until expeditions like ours come for the final three-hour, 9km trek to the caldera.

We hired three camels for the trip, one for our gear and the other two for anyone who grew tired during the hike. We also had a few militia members with us. While the Danakil today is nothing like it was in the time of Thesiger, it does have a bit of a lawless reputation, making armed accompaniment an official requirement.

In 2007, another group that included British Embassy staff was also taken hostage. Since then, there has been a security post at the volcano.

It was a rare cloudy day, so we were able to start the trek in the late afternoon instead of at dusk. We walked across a stark, beautiful landscape of dark grey lava.

The three-hour trek on a slight incline is not challenging for someone in shape, and even my 7-year-old made it, with the occasional stint riding high on a camel.

The final hour was in darkness, lit by torches and the distant glow of the volcano.

At the summit, our guide led us down into the plain around the crater and we scrambled over lava flows just a day or two old. Once you could camp right next to the crater but lately Erta Ale has become quite active. We made it within about 70m of the bubbling cauldron before the heat pushed us back.

Later that evening, the lava overflowed the crater at several points. It was hard not to wonder if there was now fresh magma where we had just been standing.

We started the climb down in the predawn greyness. A sweaty, three-hour trek later, we were back at the Land Cruisers.