Africa "Hellhole" Shows Explorer "Bloody Hot" Time

Bijal P. Trivedi
National Geographic Channel
February 27, 2004
The explorer featured in this story appears in
Going to Extremes: Hot, which airs on target="_new">National Geographic Presents in the U.S. Sunday,
February 29, at 10 p.m. ET/PT on the National Geographic

Going to extremes is a life-altering experience for Nick Middleton. Middleton spends half his time at Oxford University teaching geography and the other half venturing to remote, extreme locations—the hottest, coldest, wettest, and driest places on the planet.

In an interview with the National Geographic Channel, Middleton recalls his trip to Dallol, in northern Ethiopia's Danakil Depression—where the temperature tops 93° Fahrenheit (34° Celsius) every day of the year. And in the summer, not a single day dips below 104° Fahrenheit (40° Celsius).

Why seek out places with extreme, inhospitable climates?

Most British people have an obsession with weather. I once had a conversation with a guy in a bar in Mozambique and he asked about weather in England. I told him that we got rain, snow, and hail. He then said to me, "If I went to England I would die in one day." It got me thinking what it must be like to live in a place with really extreme weather.

Libya actually holds the record for highest spot temperature—134° Fahrenheit [57° Celsius]—but we couldn't get permission to go there. Dallol, in Ethiopia, intrigued me because it is one of the least accessible destinations on the planet. In many areas there are no sealed roads, and camel caravans are the only way to travel. It also holds the record for the highest average annual temperature—basically it is bloody hot all the time.

Dallol is at the northernmost extension of the [Great] Rift Valley. It is below sea level and acts like a cauldron, trapping all the heat.

Who lives in this region?

The only inhabitants of this area are the Afar. These nomadic tribespeople actively discourage visitors. Both accounts I had read from 1930s concerning the Afar disagreed on only [one] point; that was what became of the testicles after the visitor was castrated.

When I asked the Afar about this they denied they ever did such things—they said it was done in Somalia. I wasn't really convinced either way, but the Afar are definitely fierce. Every man carries a two-foot-long [60-centimeter-long] combination knife-sword and a Kalashnikov. I was unarmed, so this was quite intimidating. There could be ecological reasons for their suspicious and aggressive attitude toward foreigners. After all, resources are very scarce.

How did you prepare for the trip physically?

I went to an oasis called Siwa on the Egypt-Libyan border. There, I was buried in sand to sweat out all my city impurities. Then I endured a massage that felt more like I was being physically attacked.

Did they give you any valuable survival tips for desert living?

They told me not to sleep or camp near a water hole—which was counterintuitive—because there are snakes and all types of creepy crawlies lurking around that could kill you.

There are also these snails—and this is a serious suggestion if you are in a dire state—that live near dried up water holes. They look dead, or fossilized, but if you carefully break open the shell and suck them, they keep the saliva going and keep your mouth wet. But they taste really foul. I prefer just sucking on a rock—it does the same thing without the "flavor."

How have the Afar adapted to the desert? Where do they find water?

The Danakil Depression is really a hellhole of creation. It's this arid expanse with active volcanoes, lots of geothermal activity, and places where boiling hot water emerges from the rocks. But the Afar women have an extraordinary method for collecting water. They build these amazing four-foot [1.2-meter] beehive canopies out of stones over the fissures. These rocks cause the steam to condense and the water trickles into a clay channel and receptacle, where it collects and cools. The women then transfer the water into their goatskin bags.

What do the people eat?

Goat's milk and milk products. Goats can live on the sparsest vegetation and provide a little meat and cheese. Camel caravans also bring grain that is used to make bread. But there are no vegetables.

Do people suffer from a lack of nutrients? What about dehydration?

I think they must get a lot of essential minerals from salts. On the other hand, they do get problems from not drinking enough water. Burning bladder, which I got, is very disconcerting and painful. You feel as if you need to urinate, but you can't—and you feel like this all the time until you start to drink enough water again. The Afar also suffer from kidney stones, a consequence of not drinking enough water.

Why do people remain in the Danakil if it is so harsh?

People usually think that home is the best place to be. They are used to the conditions, and they have adapted. There are many Afar people in the desert. Theirs is certainly not a waning culture.

Describe Dallol. What does it look like today?

Dallol had been a village where a U.S. company tried to mine potash until abandoning the site in the 1960s. Now, it's a ghost town. There is a crumbling village and twisted tracks that mark the beginnings of a railway. There are shells of buildings—which were all made from blocks of salt—and bits and pieces of machinery lying around.

Dallol is also located in a region called Dallol—basically a huge salt pan with a crust on the surface. The salt pan is flat with a cover of brownish white salt, but occasionally you come across these eight- to ten-feet-tall [2.4- to 3-meter-tall] yellow-orange sulfurous salt towers. There used to be a small village of salt miners who would hack salt from the surface. These workers have been doing this for hundreds of years. It's only recently that salt stopped being a currency.

What did the Afar think of you?

I bumped into some Afar cowboys during one part of the trip. They had these huge Afro hairdos like the Jackson Five, and all had daggers and Kalashnikovs. After we had this long ritualistic greeting—how's your mother, your father … your cattle?—I confessed that I didn't have any cattle. They were completely confused. They couldn't understand how I could be a man and not own any cattle. The conversation got very tense, and they started fingering their guns.

Then I pointed to and complimented their hairdos and the whole conversation shifted to hair. They said that their hair was more effective than my hat in keeping off the heat. After I discovered that they spent more than two hours everyday to get their hair looking like that, my fears of castration subsided.

National Geographic Presents, which airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT in the United States, is available only on the National Geographic Channel.

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