Hajar Ali on traversing the Afar region
Off the beaten path
In 2012, I completed a crossing of the Empty Quarter, the largest sand desert in the world that crosses Oman, the UAE, Saudi and Yemen, becoming the first woman to do so in the process. Aside from the history and political complications behind these expeditions, it was Wilfred Thesiger's Arabian Sands which provided much of the inspiration and impetus behind the journey. While he's most famous for the accounts of his multiple crossings in the Empty Quarter, it was his expedition in the Afar region that he considers to be his most dangerous journey.
The Afar region is sited mostly in Ethiopia, but it also crosses over into Eritrea and Djibouti. It is the northern part of the Afar region that is called the Danakil Depression. Though a large part of tourist activities are concentrated in the Danakil Depression and its environs, you will find the term 'Afar region' being used more frequently for reasons of technical specificity. Thesiger's expedition was made during the time of Haile Selassie, whose coronation Thesiger had attended on the latter's personal invitation. By traversing the Danakil, Thesiger had gone through an area that had wiped out two Italian expeditions and an Egyptian army before.
The Afar tribe that inhabits the area are known to be a warrior-like people, who still, to this day, sharpen their teeth in the event of an altercation. Don't be surprised if you see castrated phalluses hung in the homes of the Afar. A traditional coming-of-age rite, which fortunately has faded with the times, involves castrating a member of the opposite tribe and hanging their phalluses up as trophies.
Today, the Afar region can be a dangerous place to visit for different reasons. Parts of the region are a known haunt of bandits from Ethiopia and Eritrea. As recently as 2012, a group of Germans, Hungarians and an Austrian were killed while travelling in the Afar region. Others were wounded and kidnapped. Nonetheless, the dangerous conditions of the region continue to hold great appeal for intrepid travellers. It isn't surprising that one of the requirements for travelling through the area is the presence of an accompanying, armed Afar guide. The remote area also means that you're essentially cut off from the rest of the world, with nary a phone or satellite connection.
Those who dare to tread the path less travelled will be rewarded with some of the most spectacular landscapes in the world comprising colourful sulphur lakes and an active volcano accessible via an arduous trek in an area that is known to be the hottest place in the world.
In 2014, I finally made the trip to the Danakil, a trip that is possible only during the 'winter' months of November to March — pretty much the only time of the year that this area is considered habitable. Urbane Nomads offers the Danakil as part of a larger heli-tour of Ethiopia allowing travellers to see vast areas of the country in a short time.
A cautionary note to travellers — the Afars are a proud people and are firmly against having their photos taken. The tattoos and markings on some of the women are stunning and photo-worthy but it would be best to respect the locals' wishes and stow away that camera during your tea stops in the Afar encampments.
Other travel stories: