We don’t find Omer until the four of us converge in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. He’s leaning against the stone ledge outside our hotel, smoking, when my dad strikes up conversation. This pony-tailed Israeli man, with a dusty backpack and a unicorn tattoo, looks nothing like my grey-blonde, khaki-clad dad. And yet, when they get to talking travel, I feel like I’m watching long-lost brothers reunite. Sumatra, Annapurna, the Andes: the same extreme places have lured both men.
Their travel records are remarkably even (Omer, just like dad, almost drowned white water rafting on the Blue Nile), until Antarctica comes up. My dad only gazed in its direction from the tip of Argentina. Omer, however, touched the South Pole.
There’s a smile on my face when I ask Omer about the Danakil – why doesn’t he come with us? “I hate heat,” Omer shakes his head with conviction. We tease him that my dad will easily even their score by going to the hottest place on earth. Omer looks conflicted. Omer smokes a cigarette. Omer buys a ticket to Mekele at the airport the next morning.
If the Danakil desert is the basement floor of Ethiopia, Mekele is the top rung of the basement stairs. It’s where you pause to gear up – and group up – for this desert voyage. In Mekele, the five of us merge with a carpenter from Dublin, an ironworker from New Jersey and two Israeli girls, fresh out of the army. We fill five jeeps and have nothing in common but a love of travel, and a willingness to sweat for it.
The jeeps plunge down tan mountains for hours, mountains that feel primordial, perhaps because I know Lucy, the 3.2-million-year-old hominid, was unearthed near here, perhaps because civilization completely drops off. Every couple miles, we break for a flock of donkeys and camels strapped with thick tablets of salt, and the lone shepherd trailing behind his herd, wearing a Kalashnikov.
The Danakil, unlike highland Ethiopia, whose ancient churches and popular cuisine are drawing more tourists than ever, still wears a KEEP OUT sign. The heat, of course, is brutal. So, guidebook writers warn, are the Afar tribesmen. Legendary for their ferocity, the Afar no longer castrate outside visitors as they were rumored to in the early 20th century, but the Ethiopian government requires all travelers to hire armed guards. I’ll understand this measure better when news of a massacre in the Danakil makes headline news: five people are killed and four more kidnapped in the Danakil, just one month after we leave. And despite the Ethiopian government’s swift move to send more security forces into the Danakil, the region remains dangerous.
For now, I’m too focused on heat to weigh other dangers. The numbers on our Jeep’s temperature monitor continue to rise, even as the sun goes down. I remind myself, as we dip below sea level, that this is just a warm-up. The real heat won’t strike until we reach the sizzling edge of the frying pan, an uninhabited region, roughly 130 meters (426 feet) below sea level, called Dallol.
Dallol holds the record for average annual temperature: 94 degrees. It’s only advisable to visit Dallol in the early morning, before the sun has reached a critical height. So we camp in the nearby village of Hamed Ela, where camel caravans also spend the night. In the morning, the moon is hanging low on the pinky horizon when our guides get us in motion, into Jeeps, and off towards the Eritrean border.
Sand gives way to salt, and soon we’re in a landscape of white crystals glinting in the fresh morning light. The ground is miraculously flat. Our driver, who has been battling fine sand, cannot resist the urge to gun it. We surge ahead of the other cars in what looks like a Jeep race across some frozen Minnesota lake.
The wintry illusion is broken with a glance at my sweating dad. No one in our Jeep is shivering. I see sunburned calves, emptied water bottles, bites dotting our ankles. The overnight in Hamed Ela gave half of us fleas.
Suddenly, in the pure white expanse, a huge brown mound appears, rising like a cliff from the sea. It’s the only vertical mass in sight, and apparently, our destination. The jeeps brake and park. Nobody tells us this is a collapsed volcano; our guides are coaches in a race against heat, not docents. We’re ordered to find a full liter of bottled water, and to bring it with us up the lumpy brown mountain. Halfway up, I turn around and squint down at the Jeeps, now toy cars, their tire tracks a long S-curve in the vanishing horizon of salt and sand. At the summit, I find my travel mates standing in silent reverie.
Mind you, it takes a lot to hush these guys. Ultra-extreme travelers, they’ve never met people quite like themselves. Our trip feels at times like a Fringe Travel convention, with everyone spouting stories of remote places and “if you go” tips. Already, I’ve learned that the worst predator of the Amazon is the mosquito, that chimpanzees in bad moods will rip your face off, and that the very best way to do Sri Lanka is by elephant.
Dumbstruck now, my comrades crouch down beside pale green toadstools – mineral formations whose glossy tabletops are smooth as marble. It feels oddly like we’ve just walked in on something – a meeting? a moment? Whatever these green outgrowths are, they stop us cold, right at the doorway of Dallol. I see Omer creep ahead, still silent, towards a far more arresting vista.
The hottest place on earth is an assault of color: slime yellow and deep rust, pea green and Barney purple. Some of the formations look like coral reefs, others like egg shells, air-blown from the hot breath of the earth below. It’s a psychedelic plain of sulfur deposits, iron oxide crust, acid lakes, and tiny geysers that gurgle up steaming water. Everyone wanders off alone, crunching over the brittle earth, heads down, heads shaking.
I know the ground is hot – you can even hear the soft throbbing of water boiling underground – and yet I can’t help treating it like ice. A Buffalo native, I grew up skating on rinks and shimmying across slick parking lots. The ground here feels way too familiar to shake the fear that my feet will fall right through. Sure enough, just when I work up the nerve to step with force, the purple ground collapses beneath my foot. The sneaker I pull back out is rimmed in bright yellow goo.
Everywhere we step, things break and splinter. It sounds like a china shop, full of looters. This desert lends travelers so many chances to grasp its remoteness. You feel it in the sudden lime-green oasis of grazing camels, where no one else watches on; you feel it on the rim of the roiling volcano nearby, where nothing holds you back from the luminous caldera; and you feel it here, in this fragile masterpiece of sulfur and salt, where a day’s worth of tour buses would crush nature’s strange design. You start to think: we really shouldn’t be here. This desert wasn’t built to handle a human intrusion, and the human body certainly wasn’t built to handle this desert.
I feel hot, but not to a degree that alarms me. Only when I lift a hand to my chest and feel, beneath the soaked fabric of my t-shirt, collarbones like hot radiator pipes, do I understand what my body’s dealing with. Heat in Dallol doesn’t just beat down from the sun. It hisses up through conical vents, bubbles up in sulfur pools, and radiates from the thin ground with force. I get the feeling that this medley of heat is off the human register – mine at least. I’m not even thirsty. How is that possible? While I wonder, my dad hands me his liter of water and stands there until I finish it. We should go soon.
I see the armed guides – perched on the cliffs above us, their guns set into stark relief against the brightening sky – abandon their posts. The guides are corralling us. Time to go. As we clomp back down the mountain, there’s lots of talk of the moon.
“Patrick!” a guy who’s been to Kabul calls out to a guy who’s been everywhere else. “You don’t have to go to the moon now!”
When I think of the moon, I don’t see trippy colors, or bubbling geysers, or a trail of shattered crystals where past explorers walked. And I’ve never heard that the moon reeks of rotten eggs either. There’s nothing at all lunar about the hottest place on earth. What my travel mates are trying to say is that they’ve never been anywhere like this. For once, no one has comparisons. We’re all, regardless of our travel records, equally awed.
Back in the Jeeps, blazing towards the white horizon, I look down at my sneakers. The fluorescent goo has died and faded into a neutral grime, like that was all just some fever dream up there, a place we made right up.