Hottest Place On Earth
No one travels alone to the hottest place on earth. You need, for starters, a driver and a Jeep stocked with water and four days of non-perishable food. There are no places to lodge or dine in this desert, so you'll need space for beds and someone who knows how to cook. And finally, because a journey like this costs many thousands of dollars, you'll need some fellow travellers to split the bill and the sort of people who like to fry themselves on vacation.
My father is the easiest recruit. Dad, who naps the best roasting in the afternoon sun, is a lover of extreme heat. He's also an extreme traveller, drawn to the fringes of places, all the countries where no one vacations. From my father, I've inherited both tendencies: I'm known for getting bright pink sunburns, and also for stalking the edges of maps. The Danakil desert lies on the fringes of several countries, which claim a sliver of this sweltering, low-lying desert, names the cruellest place on earth. I don't have to mention this is to my father - not the endless salt flats, lakes the bright colour of mouthwash, or camels by the thousands. When Dad starts calling this desert 'the frying pan', I know he's in.
We enlist three more people and in Mekele, the starting place for our voyage, we merge with four others. We fill five Jeeps and have nothing in common but a love of travel, and a willingness to sweat for it. The Jeeps plunge down mountains for hours. The heat, of course, is brutal. I remind myself this is just a warm-up. The real heat won't strike until we reach the sizzling edge of the frying pan, an uninhabited region, roughly 130 meters below sea level, called Dailol, which holds the record for the highest average annual temperature of 34 C.
As we continue, sand gives way to salt, and soon we're in a landscape of white crystals glinting in the fresh morning light. The ground is miraculously flat. Our driver, who has been battling fine sand, cannot resist the urge to go for it. We surge ahead of the other cars in what looks like a Jeep race across some frozen lake. Suddenly, in the pure white expanse, a huge brown mound appears. We're ordered by our guides to find a full litre of bottled water and to bring it with us up the lumpy brown mountain.
At the summit, I find my travel mates standing in a kind of silent daydream. Astonished, they crouch down beside pale green toadstools - mineral formations whose glossy tabletops are smooth as marble. The hottest place on earth is an assault of colour: yellow and deep rust, pea green and purple. Some of the formations look like coral reefs, others like eggshells., air-blown from the hot breath of the earth below. Everyone wanders off alone, crunching over the earth, heads down, staring at the ground and shaking their heads.
I know the ground is hot - you can even hear the water boiling underground. Everywhere we step, things break and splinter. Just when I work up the nerve to step with force, the purple ground collapses beneath my foot. The sneaker I pull back out is covered in the bright yellow stuff. You start to think: we really shouldn't be here. This desert wasn't built to handle a human intrusion, and the human body certainly wasn't built to handle this desert.
Back in the Jeeps, blazing towards the white horizon, I look down at my sneakers. The fluorescent yellow stuff has faded into neutral dirt, like that was all just some fever dream up there, a place we made up.