Ethiopia – Danakil Salt Way

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From Erta Ale – one of the three ongoing lava Volcanoes in the World – to the geysers of the psychedelic Dallol “Jiin Hill”, those who choose to travel through “Pure Danakil” will have to face a journey into the Genesis. A 10,000 square kilometers wide depression in continuous metamorphosis, which sinks as deep as over 100 meters under sea level. On the thick salt surface partially covering the ground of this ancient Ocean, every dry season the Caravan economy wakes up. Manual extraction and “white gold” transportation guarantee a job to hundreds of people. Activities which hold together the Afar clans, Muslim nomadic shepherds who live in the Danakil region althrough the year, and Tigrinian seasonal workers, moving here every winter from the Christian Highlands. From Ahmed Ela, the last village in the desert, caravans set out before sunrise in search of the right place of salt surface to work on. Hundreds of camels and donkeys, convoyed by an army of fokolo (extractors) and edele (cutters), proceed in an almost endless line towards an unknown destination. The salt, cut into slabs and loaded on the animals’ back, is then transported along the Saba river canyon to Berhale village, where it will be loaded on trucks for further distribution. Some caravans go even beyond, to reach villages far ahead where they can get a higher exchange rate for their salt slabs. Up to the end of the XIX century the amolè was a form of currency – in 1885 a salt slab was worth 50 franc cents – which Haile Selassie accumulated in “white gold” deposits. Which consequences will the new asphalt road connecting the Highlands to Ahmed Ela have on the caravan economy? Will camels be replaced by tracks? The industrialization of salt extraction – as already is the case on the Lake Afrera shores in southern Danakil – might get rid of the Afar clan traditions. So far, however, caravans keep travelling along the “Danakil Salt Way”. At their usual pace, untouched by modernity.

 

Caravan in the Salt PlainSalt caravan proceeding along the Salt Plain to Saba river canyonFokolo (extractors) cracking the salt surfaceEdele (cutter) making ganfur (salt slabs) under midday sunCaravaners preparing for their journey to the HighlandsCaravaner ready to start his journey to the HighlandsCaravaner getting ready for his journey to the HighlandsEdele (cutters) having rest in Ahmed Ela village. In the foreground godma, rudimental hatchets used to cut salt slabsNew antenna in Ahmed Ela, last village in the desertEach caravaner is assigned a fokolo (extractor) and an edele (cutter) by the night lottery to work as a team during the whole extraction dayAlong the Danakil Salt Way cheaper donkeys are replacing camelsFokolo (extractor) having a coffee breakCaravan proceeding along the Saba river canyonSaba river canyonCaravan taking rest in the Saba river canyonAfar caravaner offering his borgutta, the traditional bread of caravan peopleCaravan proceeding along the Saba river canyonCaravan got to its journey’s end in Borhale, ganfur main market. From here tracks distribute salt throughout EthiopiaCaravaner in Borhale waiting to sell his ganfurA worker in a salt pool at lake AfreraSalt pool at lake AfreraThe road to lake AfreraOn the shores of lake AfreraPraying on the shores of lake AfreraAfar shepherds in Asaiyta, Afar ancient capital cityDallolDallol, Jiin HillThe Black LakeDallolFull moon rising at Erta Ale

Dalla bocca dell’Erta Ale -uno degli unici 3 vulcani di lava perenne al mondo- fino ai geyser della psichedelica “collina degli spiriti” di Dallol, chi si avventura attraverso la “Dancalia pura” è destinato a un viaggio nella Genesi. Una depressione in costante metamorfosi, che sprofonda fino a oltre cento metri sotto il livello del mare e si estende per 10mila chilometri quadrati. Sulla spessa crosta di sale che ricopre parte del fondo di questo antico Oceano, durante la stagione secca rifiorisce l’economia delle carovane. L’estrazione manuale e il trasporto de “l’oro bianco” garantiscono lavoro a centinaia di persone. Attività che legano da secoli i clan afar, pastori nomadi mussulmani che vivono nella regione tutto l’anno, coi lavoratori stagionali tigrini, che arrivano invece ogni inverno dall’altopiano a maggioranza cristiana. Da Ahmed Ela, ultimo villaggio nel deserto, le carovane si mettono in marcia prima dell’aurora, alla ricerca della giusta crosta da lavorare. Centinaia di cammelli e muli, scortati da un esercito di fokolo (cavatori) ed edele (intagliatori), si dispongono in una sterminata fila indiana che avanza compatta nel nulla. Scolpito in barre e caricato sul dorso degli animali, il sale risalirà poi il canyon del fiume Saba fino al villaggio di Berhale, dove lo attendono i camion della grande distribuzione. Alcune carovane si spingeranno ancora più lontano, fino a raggiungere villaggi dove è più alto il tasso di cambio tra birr e amolè, moneta corrente in Etiopia almeno fino alla fine del secolo XIX (nel 1885 una barra di sale valeva mezzo franco, Haile Selassie ne avesse depositi pieni). Ora che è possibile raggiungere Ahmed Ela anche con una nuova strada asfaltata, i cammelli sono destinati a lasciare il passo ai camion? Le compagnie interessate ad avviare qui l’estrazione industriale – come già avviene sulle sponde del lago Afrera, nella Dancalia meridionale – avranno la meglio sulle tradizioni dei clan afar? Per il momento le carovane continuano a marciare lungo la “via del sale”. Col passo di sempre, indifferente agli scatti con cui avanza la modernità.

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