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Visiting the Danakil Depression Salt Workers

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Africa, Danakil Depression, Danakil Depression Salt Workers, Ethiopia, panorama

First time we saw them it looked like a mirage. Like one of those you can experience when the heat affects you in the desert. Our “jeep caravan” stopped as they approached and slowly passed by us in a graceful march… No change in pace, no reaction. These are the Danakil Depression Salt Workers. They harvest and sell salt for living.

Africa, Danakil Depression, Danakil Depression Salt Workers, Ethiopia
Camel salt caravan crossing the Lake

Next morning we crossed the salt lake on our jeeps to visit the place where it all starts. It is a big lake located in the lowest and hottest place in Ethiopia – the Danakil Depression, 125m under the sea level. It is winter but the temperature is around +40C (in Summer it can reach +52C). In such conditions the Danakil Depression men work on a daily basis. Only recently the government prohibited salt extraction in Summer due to the death of a salt worker.

Africa, Danakil Depression, Danakil Depression Salt Workers, Ethiopia
Camels rest on village where workers sell salt
Africa, Danakil Depression, Danakil Depression Salt Workers, Ethiopia
View of the road that crosses the dry salt lake
Danakil Depression Salt Workers
Camel salt caravan on the way to market

As far as one can see it is just a white field of salt in the scorching heat, no single spot of shade. Camels rest here and there, and around 10-15 people do their work. The process is tough not to say more, thus the men doing it are strong, although small and slim. The majority of the Danakil Depression Salt Workers are Afar people but some of them are from Tigray.

Using an axe a salt worker cuts the ground to break the salt into large pieces. Then, with the help of two long and durable poles he lifts a plate out of the ground. After this process, the carving starts. The salt worker cuts and shapes the big plate of salt into square pieces of 30x30cm with a special carving tool. Such a piece would later sell for 6 birr (~0.25€). When a sufficient amount of perfectly shaped and smooth pieces is prepared, they are tied to the back of a camel. Each camel can carry up to 200kg. As soon as all camels are packed, the walk starts. Each salt worker leads a caravan consisting of a minimum of six camels. He walks in front of the caravan, and the camels follow him. First they cross the salt lake walking through extremely salty but shallow water, then the path continues through the desert. They walk day and night until they reach their destination.

Africa, Danakil Depression, Danakil Depression Salt Workers, Ethiopia
General view of the salt fields
Africa, Danakil Depression, Danakil Depression Salt Workers, Ethiopia
A salt worker lifts the large pieces of salt from the ground
Africa, Danakil Depression, Danakil Depression Salt Workers, Ethiopia
A salt worker cuts the ground to breaks the salt into large pieces
Africa, Danakil Depression, Danakil Depression Salt Workers, Ethiopia
A salt worker prepare the bags to pack the salt
Africa, Danakil Depression, Danakil Depression Salt Workers, Ethiopia
A salt worker carves the block of salt
Africa, Danakil Depression, Danakil Depression Salt Workers, Ethiopia
Two camels loaded with salt. Each camel can carry up to 200kg

That night we were camping close to the lake and thinking how our life is easy in the developed countries. Another caravan passed, guided only by the full moon. They passed us and slowly disappeared into the darkness of the night. It was a surreal experience…

Africa, Danakil Depression, Danakil Depression Salt Workers, Ethiopia, sunset
Caravan walking at sunset

This area is close to the Erta Ale Volcano that we also visited. You can see a report here.

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