Thursday, July 13, 2017

Of salt flats and camel caravans

Most people would have probably heard of the salt flats in Bolivia, Salar de Uyuni. There are tons of gorgeous photos of the place - vast expanses of white in the dry season, and perfectly mirrored shots of the sky in the wet season. But I don't think many have heard of the salt flats in northern Ethiopia, despite its no less impressive claim to fame.

The salt flats lie in Ethiopia's Danakil Depression, one of the lowest (a hundred and twenty-one metres below sea level, certainly the lowest point in Africa) and hottest places on Earth (though you wouldn't know it from my photos, because of the unseasonal torrential rain that had flooded the area in a single morning. And speaking of which, has any one else noticed that unseasonal weather is becoming more and more frequent? I've had four consecutive trips where we met weather patterns that had the locals mystified - unexpectedly grey weather in French Polynesia; extended droughts in one part of Ethiopia and unusually heavy rains in another; late spring in Yubeng; and sandstorms in Jiayuguan. We even heard that the hammerheads we'd encountered in Indonesia in 2015 had gone deeper this past season because the waters were getting too warm for their liking). Temperatures go up to a mind-blowing fifty degrees Celcius from June to August - the only months when the salt miners take a break from plying their time-tested trade, one that has seen generations and generations of miners come and go, for over two thousand five hundred years. In spite of its already long history, there's little doubt that this trade will continue for many more years, because the salt flat is one thousand two hundred square kilometres and - get this - eight hundred metres deep.

We had actually been on our way to a sulfur mine, which lay over an hour's drive beyond the salt flats. Behind us was the salt miners' camp, a derelict settlement of shabby huts and indiscriminate piles of rubbish, and far beyond even that was a village built on the edge of a dried-up river. Miners have to walk about two hundred and thirty kilometres with their camel caravans to reach this village in order to sell their salt. 

Later that night we would return to the miners' camp to rest - we slept in huts whose roofs and walls offered little protection from the rain, and conducted all manners of business in the open (there was no purpose-built toilet). Besides the obvious squeamishness of accidentally stepping in someone's leftovers, the thing that struck me the most was the sombre thought of the locals who fall ill, some perhaps fatally so, from the unhygienic living conditions - and I, lucky me, just for being born in the right place!, was safe from all these diseases simply because I had cheap and easy access to vaccines in my own country. The unfairness of the way the world works boggles my mind.

In any case we were now in a convoy of jeeps travelling over the salt flats. Because the rain had made the ground dangerously slick, our driver was going at a very cautious ten km per hour - at one point I wasn't sure if he was feigning sleep or had really nodded off. We continued this way for what felt like an hour before finally reaching a dry patch, where we stopped for a quick stretch and a marvel at the scenery. And the scenery, it must be said, was pretty cool - all around us were these distinct, three-dimensional hexagonal tiles on the ground, forming an ancient geometric tract that was once upon a time part of the Red Sea. 

Then, further down the salt flat, we met a large congregation of miners. They were hunched over in groups of three or four, their donkeys and camels lying by their sides. Given the number of people the area was oddly silent, save for the rhythmic chuf chuf chuf of hoes cutting through the salt. Even the animals had a strange sort of impassivity to them; I imagined that they were despondent from the heat and tedium as well.

The miners were each engaged in different activities. Some of them were hacking rough chunks of salt from the ground, and the others, whittling them down to equal-sized slabs. Yet others were busy lashing the slabs onto their camels, readying themselves for the long walk back to camp before nightfall.

It's not easy work, as you can imagine -

Your palms and soles, raw from the jagged crystals that make up your lifeblood.

Your eyes, perpetually narrowed against the glare of the surrounding whiteness.

Your skin, burning from the feverish, salty African sun.

Your back, hunched over for hours on end, as you chop chop chop away at the ground beneath your feet.

One miner looked up at us as we went by. He could speak Arabic because he'd worked in the Middle East before, he said, was there anyone here who could understand him? An Egyptian man in our group stepped forward. Someone else handed him a bottle of water, which he acknowledged, and then he asked in a quiet, matter-of-fact way through the Egyptian, "Do you have painkillers?"

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