Where we had expected to enter a set of vague desert tracks into the Danakil area, a clearly signposted turn-off from the main Djibouti road points to a new tarmac road all the almost 200 km to Afrera. Progress is unstoppable, that’s clear. The road provides access to the Afrera Lake, a huge expanse of salt water in the middle of nowhere. Well, except that on the edge of the lake another salt works has developed. With the salt works, a village has developed, too, all corrugated iron and bamboo mats, and satellite dishes. We have reached the end of the world several times already, this trip, but here is definitely another one.
On the way, lunar landscape – if they have volcanoes on the moon. The road goes through never-ending packages of basalt, stack after stack after stack, occasionally interspersed by a dry wadi, or the occasional sandy patch. I have never seen anything like this, for hours on end. At one time we are driving near the centre of a volcano, long ago blown away: what is left are the lava streams, clearly having flowed in a radial pattern away from the core: textbook stuff. Another area is covered by a thin lava package, its surface looking more like torn-up asphalt, something like a huge bombed airfield, or so. Surely, nothing can survive here.
Wrong, of course. Even in this absolutely deserted landscape small hamlets exist, along the road, the standard round huts, sometimes with a base of rocks. In other places the traces of abandoned villages are evident from the round animal pens of basalt blocks that once contained goats or camels. Some of these villages also have traces of an old school, once built by the government, but not enough of an attraction for villagers to stay. Imagine the capital destruction, building a new school building every few years – many of these villages apparently move every 2 to 5 years, due to lack of rain, or exhaustion of the scarce water sources that, however unbelievable in sounds, still seem to be around here, somewhere.
To be fair, not everybody survives, and the countryside is dotted with graves. Here they don’t bury the dead, they cover them with rocks, and build a tomb-like structure on top.
There are also two more permanent settlements, aptly called “60” and “140”, after the number of kilometers from the main road. In fact “140”,is only 130 km from the main road, thanks to the new tarmac road taking a shorter route than the old gravel road. I have no idea what these people are doing here, apparently they are involved in the usual Afar activities, herding cattle, camels and goats, and perhaps a little trading, too, but how you keep some 5000 people – allegedly the population of “60” – busy here, it beats me.
Anyhow, we ended up in Afrera. And although the village is the pits, really, the camping side on the shores of the lake with the same name is absolutely divine, under a few palm trees, next to a hot spring. Finally, we have hot water again!