Witness: Hungover in the hottest place on earth

October 1, 2010

DANAKIL, Ethiopia | Fri Oct 1, 2010 5:47am EDT

DANAKIL, Ethiopia (Reuters Life!) – I turn to my girlfriend, barely able to see her through the sweat that stings my eyes. “I know how this sounds,” I say. “But is my head still the same size?”

The evening before, we had arrived at a remote, nomad settlement, one hour from Ethiopia’s Danakil Depression — the hottest place on the planet with an average annual temperature of 94 degrees Fahrenheit (34.4 Celsius).

As we stand looking over a sea of rocks to salt plains that shimmer white in the distance, our guide tells us the heat here has risen as high as 67 degrees Celsius.

“For you tomorrow, only 47,” he assures us.

The Danakil is a tectonic triple-junction where the spreading ridges that form the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden emerge on land and meet Africa’s Great Rift Valley.

It is still being slowly but surely pulled apart at the rate of about 1 to 2 cm a year and some scientists say we are standing on the site of what, 10 million years from now, will be a new ocean that splits the African continent in two.

Our hosts for the night — local Afar tribesmen — bring us straw beds for which they charge a dollar each. We are to sleep out in the open, without cover of any kind; the breeze necessary to keep us cool, our only ceiling the sky above.

But when the wind comes, it is like being blown in the face by a hot hairdryer. Afar men linger nearby and seem much friendlier these days than when they were among the most feared tribesmen in the world, famed for lopping off the testicles of foreigners and wearing them as trophies on necessarily long necklaces.

Our village home for the night, Hamedela, is the place from where five foreign tourists were snatched in 2007 and taken over the Eritrean border for 12 days.

Still, with a military base now nearby, we sleep easily after our morning flight from Addis Ababa to the town of Mekele and an eight-hour drive from there.

A sound wakes me during the night and I roll over. A camel and a donkey — the former chasing the latter — gallop at full tilt through our camp. I turn to my friends. They are all asleep. I look up at the moon and shut my eyes.

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