Author: Victor Englebert
“‘Say your payers for you’re going to die,’ and with that he dropped the stick, pulled a revolver from his belt, and came around the jeep to put it to my head…”
In 1967, Ras (Prince) Mengesha, son-in-law of Ethiopia’s emperor Haile Selassie, wrote to National Geographic that a French-Italian geological expedition would soon arrive in Ethiopia to study continental drift in his country’s Danakil Depression—how Africa and Arabia are slipping apart there, giving birth to a new ocean. He begged them to send someone to cover the expedition.
National Geographic, at the time a non-profit organization, did not think twice about throwing money at something that might not work in the end. And they offered me the assignment. I had already lived some African adventures for them, and they knew few other people would be as keen as I to go spend a season in Hell.
Indeed, the Danakil Depression is a fantastic land of active volcanoes, boundless black lava fields, boiling sulfurous sources, merciless desert, rocks, and dried salt lakes. At more than 200 feet below the Red Sea level, it is the world’s hottest region, one which, in 1928, the explorer L.M. Nesbitt famously called the “Hellhole of Creation”-—as in the birth of a planet. Still, to the photographer that I am, it’s hauntingly beautiful.
I was to meet the geologists in Makalé, in the Tigré highlands. But they had not arrived. Their vehicles and heavy equipment were blocked in the Suez Canal by the Six-Day War, a pre-emptive war by Israel against Syria, Jordan, and Egypt, which Israel suspected were preparing to attack it.
Rather than wait at the hotel, an ancient castle managed by a remarkable Indian lady, I embarked on a salt caravan. Traveling with it down the escarpment to Karum salt lake, it would give me a first look at the Danakil Depression, which I could not wait to start photographing.
When, on my return to Makalé, I still found no geologists, I decided to go photograph the Danakil nomads. They were fierce warriors about whom I had read dreadful things. To guarantee the survival of a family in such an inhumane region, a Danakil man who wanted a wife had to kill and emasculate another man and offer this trophy to his future wife. I was uneasy about going and not looking for trouble but could not see how I could avoid it. Waiting for the geologists at the hotel was not an option. I ended up getting my pictures of the nomads, but not before nearly losing my life, one dark night, at the hands of a nasty young gang.
Finally, the geologists arrived and I spent a few equally eventful weeks photographing them working. This time we were under the protection of a few Ethiopian soldiers. Ras Mengesha, a wonderful man, shared our experience the whole time, roughing it up, sharing our laughs, and going as far as giving a geologist a haircut.
After the geologists’ departure back to Europe, I found myself alone again. My work was done. But National Geographic paid me generously, besides giving me the chance to live the life of my choice. That was well worth an additional effort.
And I felt sad to leave this stunning inferno.
The Red Sea coast and its Danakil shark fishermen intrigued me. They caught sharks for their fins, oriental delicacies that found their way to China via Aden, in South Yemen.
In Asmara, today the capital of Eritrea, but then part of Ethiopia, I rented a jeep with a driver, a young Eritrean named Abdallah. My plan was to travel down the Ethiopian escarpment to Massawa, then down the coast to Assab, and back up the escarpment to Addis Ababa, from where I would fly home to New York.
From the day I landed in Ethiopia I had been told incessantly to stay away from Eritrean shiftas, or bandits. They were not actually bandits but rebels who fought for their country’s independence (they would achieve it only in 1991).
British missionaries in Thio, a village where I spent a day at sea photographing Danakil fishing sharks, were the last to strongly recommend that I turn back. But since I was not part of the conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia, and knew of no white men involved in it, I did not see what reasons the rebels would have to treat me as an enemy.
Shortly after leaving Thio, our narrow dirt road petered out into the bush and we lost our way. But we went on, zigzagging around thorn trees and hoping to somehow reach the coast eventually. Oppressed by the inhuman heat we lapsed into a stupor.
When Abdallah suddenly put the brakes on, my first thought was that he had fallen asleep and hit a tree. But almost as soon after, I heard him whisper, “Shiftas.”
Running from tree to low thorn tree with rifles and machine guns aimed at the jeep, they looked insistently behind us as if fearing the arrival of more vehicles.
I stepped out smiling, ready for presentations. But I was brutally thrown down to the ground and ordered by signs to put my hands on my head. A madman who had pulled Abdallah from his seat savagely beat him with a stick on the face and head. “Donkey!” he insulted him in English so I might understand him. “Donkey!”
“Stop this,” I shouted. “This man is an Eritrean like you.”
“Of course he is. Which is why I won’t kill him. But you, you f***ing Israeli spy, say your payers for you’re going to die,” and with that he dropped the stick, pulled a revolver from his belt, and came around the jeep to put it to my head.
I wanted to speak, but for a few seconds, unable to make sense of what was happening, I could not get the words out. I had closed my eyes and waited for the bullet that would end my wonderful life. And then the words came out at last.
“Wait, I’m Belgian. Let me show you my passport.”
“I know Belgium,” he screamed, “Any idiot can get a Belgian passport.”
Meanwhile, the other men had gone through my luggage and found no weapons other than a big knife, which they confiscated. The madman relaxed and lowered his revolver. “Show me your passport,” he now said. He found two Algerian visa entries in it.
“They saved your life,” he declared. “As an Israeli you would not have been allowed into Algeria, an Arab country. But get back inside your vehicle, and don’t get out or you’ll be shot.”
By three o’clock the heat in the stranded jeep was almost unbearable, and poor Abdallah, his face swollen and bloody, moaned heartbreakingly.
“Do you realize,” he asked, “that this is Sunday, and I could be dancing in Asmara?” I agreed it was stupid of me to have brought this situation upon us. I apologized, but he protested.
“You, presumptuous Christian, don’t you understand that you had nothing to do with this? That this was the will of Allah?” We spent a difficult night together.
What no one had explained to me, and what I would learn much later, was that Israel supported the Ethiopians while Egypt stood behind Eritrea. And as I was spending eight months of the year in jungles, deserts, and high mountains, thousands of miles from the nearest newspaper kiosk, I had not read the news.
At dawn, the guerrillas hoisted a flag on a rifle, presented arms, and went to sit in the ragged shade of a thorn tree 100 meters away, leaving us in the jeep in dreadful suspense. And the sun rose and with it the infernal heat. By ten, we had started roasting chickens. I called out to the guerrillas for permission to get out, but they did not respond. Struggling against Abdallah, who would not let me open the jeep’s door, I got out in the sun and, hands up, started walking slowly toward our tormentors, calling them out as I did. At last, the leader got up and came to meet me. He handed me my knife.
“You may go,” he said. “But tell the Belgians that we are not shiftas. Haile Selassie is the shifta. He robbed our country.”
He showed us the way to the coast and, an hour later, at a fishing village, an armed guerrilla stopped us again and led us to a large tent. Inside, four men sat behind a long table. Abdallah told them their colleagues had let us through, and they waved us on.
Our next destination was Ed, a big fishing village. As our jeep arrived in plain view of the village, though still quite far away, some 25 soldiers of the Ethiopian army came rushing out of their barracks to throw themselves on their bellies and aim their weapons at us.
“Jump!” Abdallah cried as he hit the brakes. But I was already out in the sun, hands up. “Don’t move!” a voice shouted. And a soldier came running towards us to check us for weapons and to take us to an English-speaking captain. He was stunned to see us, but greeted us warmly.
“You jumped in the nick of time,” he declared gravely. “A second later and we would have made a sieve out of your jeep. We haven’t seen a vehicle in more than three years. No wonder you couldn’t find a road. Nature reclaimed it. But what will you do next? From here to Assab is much longer than from where you came. And the mountains you will have to cross will swarm with shiftas. Your only alternative is to wait for a dhow, an Arab sailboat. But you will have to abandon the jeep.”
In spite of his terror of being forcibly enrolled into the Eritrean guerrilla, Abdallah seemed even more frightened to face his Italian boss in Asmara without the Jeep. He said he had to bring it back, and so he would continue. Naturally, his fate was not in his hands but in those of Allah. Being responsible for this mess, I could not decently let him go on alone, and so I put my own fate into Allah’s hands and stuck with him.
The way to Assab was heart-stopping. Every now and then Abdallah’s feverish imagination saw shiftas hiding behind rocks and in anguish suddenly hit the brakes. However, Allah was compassionate and raised no more real troubles.
Curiously, perhaps through our Ethiopian captain, the story of our adventures preceded us in Addis Ababa, where lunch invitations awaited me at the Belgian and American embassies with people who wanted to hear my story. National Geographic published the story I wrote on my adventure in its January 1970 issue.
Victor Englebert is a photojournalist exploring world cultures. He has appeared in magazines including National Geographic and Smithsonian Magazine. Learn more about his work on his blog and website.