The Lords of Dancalia Valley

The Lords of Dancalia Valley

There are many destinations appealing voyagers in Africa, even if they are considered too dangerous and inconvenient to get to. The volcano Erta Ale is among them, with its lava lake and the spectacular saltpans of Dallol, along with the legendary hostility of the Afar, the lords of Dancalia valley.

Forget everything you already know and prepare yourself to discover a desert made of lava, stone, salt and rock. We are about to enter an area that seems to belong on the moon, inhabited by thin people – the Afar – , who scamper and smuggle between Ethiopia and Eritrea, taking aim with their Kalasnikovs, the symbolic gift received as a proof of their passage into adulthood, at around 13 years of age. Dancalia, largely belonging to Ethiopia, is divided by a line like a slash of a scalpel, made by European minds intentionally blind to the separation of clans and villages, ignoring freedom, ripping apart families and tribes, and destroying the invisible but valuable bonds between the people.

These malnurished people listen in silence to soldiers of Addis Abeba, who shout them orders with thundering voices and sharp words; to not cross the boundaries and to not smuggle weapons, ammunition and oilcans on their full-packed camels milling around. When the sun goes down, people who are not tied in the salt business take small paths that the Ethiopian army trucks can’t drive.

The Afar people tend to sharpen their teeth to relish the raw flesh of freshly killed prey. Their favorite and legendary motto is “better die than not to kill”. They know perfectly that it’s hard to resist the hell of Dancalia, where the burning sun hits the eyes and melts time, and where there are always soldiers lying in ambush somewhere. Abdo Yahia – a Yemenite moved to Ethiopia at the age of two – and I decided to take the prudent road, and instead of militaries, to take two Afar scouts with us to go up to Erta Ale.

We enter Dancalia from South, following the mythical path of Italian explorers. After three days of traveling, we get to the base camp of Erta Ale. A five-hour nightly climb awaits us. No one ventures the volcano’s side during the day; the temperature of 45° at 10am discourages whoever. The sultriness doesn’t give a respite, not even in the dark. The night finds us leaving at 3am, silent and in an organized line, hearing some gigantic frightened animals far away tremble the terrain. Camels in front of us carry the water while armed Afar people protect us from the threat of the Eritrean raids.

When we get to a huge caldera the sun peeps out and the hollow sound of the mountain scares us. Not far from here, among the coagulated lava sparkling at sunrise, we finally see the incandescent eye of Dancalia. We wait until the afternoon, when the guides finally take us pass hot gas eruptions, molten lava and sharp edges, all the way to the shore of the lake. Liquid stone of 1250 degrees and a drop of sixty meters, a roaring column of lava rises from the belly of the earth.

The temperature is unbelievably high, but the lava lake with its roars, squirts and fumaroles attracts us as the light attracts moths. We stay there until the late night, unable to take our attention away from the “monster” and its hypnotic, dominating eye.

“You should go away now, you are running out of water and you have been too exposed to him” says my scout pointing at the gigantic red mass under us. “It’s too hot,” he urges on, “too hot, and tomorrow we have to go back. Erta Ale does not spare anyone, you know. Last year it ate my cousin, lava surrounded him and started rising… Now we have to go”. Reluctantly, dazed by the exhalations and the heat, I leave that huge energy, but immediately I know I want to return here.

Vittore Buzzi