When Earth Rumbles
Standing on the crunchy crust of mineral deposits in Ethiopia’s Danakil Depression,
an improvised towel-turned-scarf wrapped around my face to avoid slaps of sulfur fumes and intensely hot desert air, I look around in befuddled amazement, asking myself how and when did this combination or Martian and lunar landscapes descend upon earth. The answer has been around for over a century, strongly rooted in German meteorologist Alfred Wegener’s 1912 theory of the Continental Drift.
Let’s take a few steps back in time. Over 300 million years ago, the seven distinct continents of today were glued together into one supercontinent known as Pangaea, home to Tyrannosaurus rex and other forms of life that roamed our planet then. About 200 million years ago, circulation currents and a host of other complex forces in the earth’s mantle caused tectonic plates that made up Pangaea to gradually shift, resulting in its breakup into multiple continents. To this day, the continents continue to drift, albeit at a minuscule pace, so slow that one can barely tell the difference year over year, let alone imagine the colossal forces of nature – churning oceans, intense climate fluctuations and massive lava flows – that sound the clarion call when earth rumbles.
Danakil Depression is one of the few places on the planet that open the door (if only by a crack) into the inner workings of these complicated events to let a little light of understanding into an otherwise dark room.
Located in the Afar Triangle by the Horn of Africa, this region spanning parts of Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Eritrea is a byproduct of the tectonic plates that shifted as Africa moved away from Asia. Home to the Afar people, famous for their martial prowess and not paying heed to notional geographic borders, this place is known to be one of the hottest and lowest places on earth. Some parts are as low as 500 feet below sea level, so hot and uninhabitable that governmental agencies have not released any census data for over a decade.
Dallol is often described as a ghost town, with its hot acidic springs that simmer away in anger and undulating ridges of green, yellow and red mineral deposits.
Some miles from Dallol sits the active lava lake of Erta Ale, violently bubbling away into eternity, ensconced by lava rock all around. In this inhospitable climate and terrain, the Afar don’t have many means of sustenance. They raise goats, sheep, and camels. Some also mine salt from plains that extend as far as the eye can see, formed over several centuries as seawater evaporated, leaving behind a thick crust of white gold that invites and at the same time challenges the enterprising worker to a duel.
Workers toil under the unforgiving sun through the year, prying out blocks of salt with wooden poles, thereby winning the duel, cutting and shaping the slabs into blocks with axes, stacking and loading onto camels and mules. Caravans ply a timeless route, transporting blocks of this salt mined from Danakil to nearby towns. Our land rover passes several such salt caravans and we roll our windows down to wave at the herders. They wave back. Some also smile.
When the heat becomes oppressive, we roll the windows back up, enclosed once again in a comfortable air-conditioned cocoon.
You might be wondering why one should bother traveling to this stiflingly hot region in the first place, in the middle of literally nowhere, where perhaps the gates of nature were meant to remain tightly shut. The answer is simple – to meet nature itself.
Tour groups in Danakil are accompanied by armed guards as a precaution. Reports from several years ago speak of violent separatist factions among the Afar wanting their own independent state. Those are things of the past though and we felt safe. While Danakil is not firmly entrenched on the conventional tourist trail yet, it has been one of my most pivotal travel experiences to date. In the bizarre stillness of the moment, I can’t help but realize that the spot I'm standing on today will be unrecognizable in a million years, perhaps as an ocean floor, when earth rumbles again.