To Live or Die in the Danakil
The six gunmen arrived at sunset, bought and paid for, and all we had to do was choose who would go with whom. Moussa was quite small as Afar tribesmen go and yet, everything about his manner suggested he was a predator. He squatted in the sand, chin to his knees, his opal eyes darting back and forth, missing nothing. Slowly producing a bone-handled blade, he began to sharpen it on a stone next to him, gently, methodically, running it back and forth, and as I watched his movements with interest, I remember wondering as I chose him whether he would protect me or kill me.
I had received the call only two weeks prior from our friend, a volcanologist for NASA at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. She was leading a group of planetary scientists to study a rare shield volcano in the northern Ethiopian desert and wanted me to write about the journey. My wife, Irene, never one to be left behind, signed on immediately. We were going to the Danakil Depression, home of the Afar people. I also naively assumed that with all the doctorates on board for this journey, NASA would be monitoring our every move by hovering satellite, ready to pluck us from the jaws of danger. I was wrong.
The Afar are Sunni Muslims and hereditary nomads who number about 1,500,000 spread throughout Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Djibouti. Their history can be traced back at least to the 13th century when they first appear in the writings of the noted Moroccan historian, Ibn Sa’id. They are sometimes referred to as the Danakil as they are closely associated with the great desert of the same name. They were introduced to the general public in “Arabian Sands,” an epic travel book by Wilfred Thesiger who crossed their land in 1935, calling them murderous thugs among other non-mentionable titles. By the mid-20th century, there were numerous reports of them castrating trespassers on their land. This frightening reputation aside, they were also known for their exceptionally kind treatment of animals, especially their camels that they consider to be family members. The African Ass, extinct throughout the rest of the continent, thrives in their desert due to their protection, and while they might dis-embowel a trespasser, they would never intentionally step on a plant or flower.
Their homeland, in the Danakil Depression, is arguably the hottest and most barren wilderness on earth where temperatures hover around 120 degrees, (48.8 Celsius) and they pay homage to local caliphs while recognizing no other government. Our destination, the Erta Ale volcano, vents its wrath in the center of that land of endless salt flats and brown blowing sand. It is sacred to the Afar in ways not easily understood by outsiders. The Afar stayed pretty much off the international grid until 1998 when Eritrea and Ethiopia fought a stalemated war on their land and since that time they have had almost complete autonomy as a buffer between the two uneasy nations due to their violent nature. They are single handedly credited with keeping Al Qaeda from crossing the Red Sea from Yemen into this part of Africa. All of that aside, the Danakil has experienced numerous kidnappings for ransom over the past few decades, the credits for which have been claimed by just as many splinter terrorist groups.
Only a handful of Afar have assimilated into city life while even fewer make their living by cutting salt blocks from the desert floor under a relentless sun that they sell to the camel caravans. Each block brings them a rough equivalent of one U.S. dollar. Only recently the clans that live near the Erta Ale volcano have begun to admit trekkers, realizing this natural inferno to be a cash cow tourist draw. Their reputation and social skills aside, as it is in many cultures with no written language, their word is their bond, even unto death, and it was their word that saved my life.
Only after we arrived did we learn that NASA had refused funding and logistical support, labeling the journey “too dangerous” and so we were on our own. At that point I considered backing out, but logic came in third after curiosity and adventure. The Afar offered us access to the volcano provided we each hire one of them to act as security. So what could go wrong?
This is a situation most explorers have to confront at one time or another, to trust a man with a gun who says he will protect you for a price. It is a roll of the dice and the bet is one’s life. Who knows why we do such things? It seems an inbred human flaw that our curiosity often results in our demise and yet many of us return to possible danger like moths to a flame. Such questions butt up against the meaning of life itself, a pursuit so far that seems to elude mortal man. I have no death wish, but I prefer to meet it doing what I love rather than lying in a hospital bed one day wondering why I never chased the dream. And so we went to Ethiopia.
From the capital of Addis Ababa we flew northeast to the city of Mekele, still reeling from Eritrean artillery with cratered streets and shop windows covered by hastily nailed plywood boards. tuk-tuks plied the streets carrying women wrapped in long shawls with hennaed eyes to shops riddled with bullet holes and shell hits whose shelves mostly sat empty of goods. Those we passed walking had the thousand yard stare of combat veterans. In a surreal encounter, I chanced upon a desert tortoise wandering down the main road, his shell heavily dented, probably due to a shrapnel hit. The tortoise seemed an appropriate metaphor for the city itself, slowly moving forward, damaged but recovering.
From Mekele, an eight hour drive by Land Rover took us past countless artillery craters, burned out armored vehicles, and towering sand dunes that dwarfed us like rogue waves, deep into the Danakil. There is nothing like vast desert to make one realize personal insignificance. Our two small vehicles raised such a cloud of dust as to announce our presence long before our arrival. In the late afternoon, we pulled into the Afar outpost of Dodom, a rambling shanty town of homemade huts populated by sarong wearing young men with Kalashnikov rifles slung lazily across their shoulders. A handful of women, wrapped in long shawls, watched us with hennaed eyes, warily from the shadows. All we needed to do a scene from Arabian nights was a film crew. Money changed hands, loyalty oaths were sworn, and we were escorted to stone huts to await our night ascent of the volcano. It was supposed to be a three hour trek to the summit. It was too hot to sleep or eat and I could not force down hot water without retching, so my personal stage was set early for disaster to come. Our intrepid group lay in a row inside the hut, panting like lizards and willing the temperature to fall, knowing it would not.
Irene had one good eye and the trail, such as it is, being razor sharp basaltic andesite lava, made us decide that she would ride a camel while the rest of us would go on foot. Our escorts arrived at sunset, and that is when I chose Moussa.
Feral as he was, he oozed an undefinable quality that shown through his eyes and moved my gut to pick him. His black hair was a mass of curly ringlets that stuck out like a weed bursting through concrete in search of sunlight and his skin carried the hue of dark chocolate. He had that African look of a protein starved diet but his arms and legs were taught as bowstrings. His conglomerate costume of rags approached nakedness and where he got the purple colored crocs for his feet is anybodys’ guess. And yet, something told me if I was going to be in a gunfight, I’d want Moussa next to me.
Irene mounted her camel and was led off by her gunman as the rest of us fell into a single file to negotiate the uneven terrain under a moonless night. Our headlamps, bouncing off volcanic boulders, cast dancing shadows all about like a macabre puppet show, accentuating the eerie ambiance of the evening. It was viciously hot and the earth trembled as we walked up the volcano’s flank, a mere 600 feet in altitude gain over six miles to reach the churning cauldron of the lake at the summit. The deep indigo sky slowly revealed pinpricks of light as the Milky Way began to arch over us like a hazy silver rainbow.
The Afar, in their ragtag attire, cast off from previous trekkers, walked noiselessly over boot-lacerating ground in their plastic sandals and rubber flip flops. Their bodies carry no fat. They are burnt and dried by the sun until they resemble walking mummies, drained of all moisture; some faces etched by tribal scarring. Their rifles were extensions of their arms, rarely set down and never out of their reach. Every noise and each peripheral movement brought a reaction that only those who live in a war zone can give. Some had grenades hung from their belts that if exploded near the hardened magma would intensify the shrapnel a hundred fold. All of them had a dagger tucked in their belt. Up close, most are a mass of scars and more than a few have a milky eye from blowing sand. They are warriors from another era; first and foremost, warriors for whom tempered steel is how differences are settled, and they are always at war with someone or something.
The Afar moved like wraiths and within minutes our group was spread over a vast area of the slope, hidden from each other by massive boulders. Irene was out of my sight and I was questioning the importance of our being there. In the velvety blankness, Moussa would disappear for minutes at a time and then my headlamp would pick him up, squatting on top of a boulder, eyeing me like a cat ready to pounce.
My breath came harder with each step which I chalked up to advancing age and three plus decades of remote exploration, but after two more hours I could go no further and collapsed, sucking air in great gasps. I assumed it was a heart attack and remember looking up at the stars as the earth rumbled beneath me thinking it was such a beautiful place to die. I don’t remember how long I laid there and I may have passed out until I focused on the barrel of an automatic rifle aimed between my eyes. Moussa was straddling me, poking me with his Kalashnikov. From my haze, I vaguely recall saying a prayer for Irene and waiting for Moussa to pull the trigger. At that moment, he laid down on the ground next to me, rifle under his head, wrapped himself in his robe, and within a minute he was snoring louder than the mountain. The absurdity of the situation hit me and I burst out laughing.
I was dying on the side of a convulsing volcano in a remote desert, next to a sleeping nomadic gunman, while my wife rode off into the night on a camel. You can’t make stuff like that up! It would be one of my greatest stories and no one would ever know it happened! It would die with me! I laughed until I was gasping for air and that awakened Moussa. Standing over us was the camel he had brought down from the summit; Irene’s camel, and only then did it hit me that she was safe at the top and that Moussa had come looking for me when I did not show up. My murderous gunman had come to my rescue.
He helped me to my feet, holding me upright, both hands on my shoulders, and held my gaze in his own for several seconds, asking without words if I was okay to continue. I felt no pain but my breath was drawing hard and there was no place to go but up. I looked ahead and saw the red glow of the summit, like a dancing aurora, no more than 100 yards away. I waved off the camel as it would have taken more effort to mount than to walk the final route. If it killed me it would be an appropriate death.
Together, arm in arm, we walked drunkenly towards the crest, and for a second I imagined us as Hillary and Tenzing summiting Everest together, not that our journey was even a fraction so epic, and in hindsight I realize the absurdity of such a comparison, but that was my state of mind at the time.
We stood at the volcano’s edge for only a few seconds, gazing into the churning stew of liquid earth belching up from far below. Gas bubbles exploded like fireworks showering burning, liquid confetti in all directions. Under better circumstances, it would have been the light show of a lifetime. Irene found me in the dark and I staggered into her arms as Moussa directed both of us into a grass hut and I drifted off to sleep wondering why anyone would have built a grass hut at the edge of a live volcano.
It seemed only minutes later that Moussa was prodding me again with his rifle and I heard our party yelling to pack up fast. Dawn was just beginning to break when a gunshot ended the night. I was still in a blank haze and not thinking rationally at all when Moussa waved us down the trail and Irene led me off on foot. Within a hundred yards two more shots rang out. This time we heard the zing as the bullets passed over head and we dove for cover.
When you are being shot at you do not think. It might take a second for the whine of the bullet to register for what it is, but once it does, life becomes extremely intense and you merge with the ground, becoming a part of it. In this instance, the ground was flesh lacerating magma. Moussa was yelling and frantically waving us downward while aiming his rifle uphill when Irene stood up and fell over. At first I thought she had been hit, but her foot had lodged in a rock crevice and it twisted her ankle so severely she could not stand. In an instant, Moussa was there with the camel and together we pushed her on top with no saddle, smacked it hard on the butt, and sent her careening down the trail away from the gunfire.
I descended fast as I could with Moussa at my side, my breathe coming in short gasps. Every few seconds he would whirl backwards, his rifle leveled to fire, but there was no more shooting, and after a while he seemed to relax. I had no way of asking him what had happened and doubt that he would have told me if he could. Perhaps the Afar were simply letting off steam, or having fun at our expense, or just maybe, one or two hotheads decided that killing us was preferable to guiding us as the money would be the same.
The next few hours are a hazy memory that seems like a dream recalled. I mechanically put one foot in front of the other and it took no effort to keep my mind blank. There was no sense of movement over the vast desolation, it was just too immense. My breaths still came with difficulty, like when someone has punched you in the stomach, but I was alive and in no pain so I just could not allow myself to consider any more than that. Each step was one closer to Irene.
Hours and many miles later, I collapsed again in a hut back at Dodom. My electrolytes were depleted and my body was involuntarily cramping into a fetal position. Irene, sure that I was dying, forced dry Gatorade down my throat that revived me enough to stand and helped me to the Rover. In my haze, I was looking for Moussa to thank him and to offer him more money when the other Afar started yelling and I heard magazines being slammed into rifle breaches. I was pushed into the Rover and we took off with tires spinning, sending a rooster tail of sand into the air. No one shot at us as we drove away.
I never found out who had fired the shots at the summit or why, and I never saw Moussa again. My malevolent gunmen proved to be a guardian angel who has haunted my dreams ever since. Many times I have awakened at night, gasping for air while staring into a rifle barrel. If ever a debt was left unpaid, it is mine to this man, and all I can do now is pay it forward in the future. Returning home we found that Irene had a fractured fibula and spent a month in a walking boot. I had multiple blood clots in both legs and lungs that accounted for my faux heart attack. Three different doctors told me I should have died on the volcano. It took me one year to recover. The scientists got their data, and I got a great story.
A few months later, nine trekkers were awakened from a sound sleep inside the same grass huts on the summit of Erta Ale. According to the BBC, they were manhandled outside where five of them; German, Hungarian, and Austrian, were lined up and executed with AK47 Kalashnikov automatic rifles. The other four disappeared into the desert night.
Responsibility was claimed by The Afar Revolutionary Democratic Front Militia, the same tribal faction that Moussa was from.