Ethiopia /

Trading camels and salt in the Horn of Africa

Across Ethiopia, heat, hard work and journeys across the desert are part of everyday life. I travelled through the north-east of the country to get closer to it all. The Guardian featured a selection of these shots in its Saturday Travel section and online.

A Somali camel trader stands with his herd at the Babille livestock market in eastern Ethiopia. The market is one of Ethiopia’s biggest and attracts buyers as far as Djibouti and Somaliland. On market day hundreds of camels jostle with their owners in the morning sun, pondering the best way to start an uprising and escape their fate. The livestock trade in the northern Horn of Africa links Ethiopia with markets as far as the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf. It is said to be the largest movement of live animal trade in the world.

The Danakil Depression’s proximity to Eritrea, coupled with the volatile relationship between the two countries, means access to this wilderness is conditional on a military escort.

The Danakil Depression in northeast Ethiopia is one of the hottest, lowest and most inhospitable places on earth; a vast wilderness of rumbling volcanoes, salt flats and sulphur springs. Each day in the blistering sun, Afar miners hack for white gold (aka salt slabs) from the earth’s crust. Over 2000 camels are loaded with the minerals and then transported to Berahile, a small town some 75km away where the salt is sold or traded. After some all too brief respite, both camel and human grit their teeth and begin the 2-day march back across the desert basin… and start it all again.

As the sun sets on another scorcher in Danakil, a caravan of camels continues the long march towards Berahile. They are carrying slabs of salt mined at Lake Afrera, a lake that yields more than 1.3 million tons of salt annually in the vast wilderness that is northeast Ethiopia’s Danakil Depression.

An Afar salt miner makes the long journey back to Berahile from the salt lakes of Lake Afrera. For centuries the Afar people have mined the rich salt deposits left behind from Red Sea floods in the region 30,000 years ago.

A local boy in the tiny village of Hamad Ela in Dallol, the Afar Region of Ethiopia.

An Afar boy at the basecamp of Erta Ale, the most active volcano in Ethiopia. It is located in the Afar Depression, a dry desert terrain of sedimentary rock that spans the border with Eritrea. Soaring daytime temperatures mean the volcano can only be climbed between dusk and dawn. The boy is helping prepare food and equipment for the night-time hike to the summit.

Ethiopian soldiers congregate on the outskirts of a volcanic explosion crater at Dallol, northeast of the Erta Ale Range in Ethiopia. This is an otherworldly region of the Danakil Depression, a place where hot springs discharge brine and acidic liquid in a bubbling sulphur lake.

An Afar man passes time in a hut at the basecamp of Erta Ale, the most active volcano in Ethiopia. Soldiers man the camp’s perimeter as Afar men prepare for the night hike to the summit. While the majority of people at the camp are busy with camels, carry-ons and co-ordinates, this man casually observes the commotion from a safe distance. I think he’s retired and now lives off royalties from portraits; those pronounced cheekbones and brow are precious commodities.

An Afar man at the basecamp of Erta Ale, a large basaltic shield volcano in Ethiopia’s Danakil Depression. He’s helping prepare for the night-time hike. The hike is moderate: 10km up the 613m volcano. The summit is truncated by a complex caldera containing several pit craters, one of which is a continuously active lava lake. Perched on the crater rim before sunrise at 4:00 am, we were lucky enough to see the crater erupt, creating a beautiful red fountain of lava.

Hikers, guides, soldiers and camels alike, linger at Bolom until receiving our cue to leave: the sun’s departure at dusk. The trekkers carry their own supplies while the camels carry the mattresses and food. We climbed to the summit and camped right above the crater that night, looking up to the Milky Way while listening to the belching soundtrack of Erta Ale below.

The Guardian did a feature on these shots in its Travel section and online, click here to see it .