LOST WORLD. Part 4: Ancient Salt Harvesting. Science Fiction Reality.

In conclusion to our adventure to the Lost World of Ethiopian volcanoes, we explore an industry that has remained unchanged for thousands of years. 

By featured guest Tom Arnold, astrophysicist, geologist, and author

During the 1920’s an American salt mining company attempted to mine salt at Dallol. They discovered that the harsh temperatures and conditions are not suited for those unaccustomed to the environment that pervades the Danakil Desert of the Afar. Their equipment and camp rust in the demonic heat—an abandoned testament to those who are unprepared for such extreme conditions.

During the next two days, after tending to a brief illness among our team caused by heat and food, we explored the salt flats of the Danakil Depression and Lake Assal.

The salt flats display the same terrace structures as that of Dallol, and stretch to the horizon in white emptiness. One can look closely at the surface and see the crystal formations of salt come into clear view.

Deadly Hot Springs

We continued on and hot springs were again spotted, but appeared much different from those atop Dallol. These larger bubbling pools were filled with red to pink colored water created by the potash just below the surface. Many of the delicate salt structures were absent. Yet their connection to active volcanism was still apparent.

We walked the area and noted many bodies of dead birds. The pool of water invited the creatures to stop for a drink in this arid land. They had no way of knowing that the water was deadly, and their lack of understanding cost them their lives.

Like Dallol the mixture of water, salt and potash make for some interesting hot springs.

A Salt Dome

Salt and potash in all forms can be found within the Danakil Depression. Seen here is a much larger  structure—a salt dome pushes its way up through other deep beds of salt. It has eroded over time, leaving behind only the outer slopes of the primal bulge.

Up close, the mixture of salt and potash come into view and created intricate lattice formations that looked to me like modern art.

On the third day our expedition, we traveled into the heart of Lake Assal to witness the harvest of salt. Our first surprise of the day came traversing a flooded salt plain. This water is not the result of rain, but is from the shallow water table that exists just below the salt surface.

An Ancient Industry

Ahead we found ourselves stepping back in time to witness the harvesting of salt…in the same manner it had been done for over two thousand years.

 Salt blocks are cut from the surface, then divided and shaped into four pieces.

The salt is loaded onto camels for the long trek to market by caravan.

These miners receive the equivalent of five cents for each salt block. When finally sold in the markets of Ethiopia, the price soars to around five dollars per block. When you consider that the miners must rent the camels to haul the salt, their profit is less than two cents per block.

Working in such extreme heat, with little water to drink, is in itself an amazing feat. But when you consider the poor wages the toil provides, it is hard to understand why they do the work. We asked them that question. Their reply was simple. This is the work their families had done for centuries.

Their bodies have acclimated to the severe conditions in the Danakil Depression, and for this reason, they are not affected by the heat and lack of water.  For us—who drank a liter of water per hour and felt exhausted after only a short walk—the miners’s resilience was something of a marvel. This was a perfect example of a species being able to adapt to a specific environment. Evolution was alive and well!

The Ethiopian Highlands

The time had come for our expedition to leave the Danakil and make the long climb from far below sea level to thousands of feet above it into the Ethiopian highlands. It was a drive over rough unpaved roads that took an entire day. Here the sights we encountered were straight out of the pages of a structural geology text book. Folding and faulting of every type, and disconformities were seen at every turn.

Starting with salt and igneous rocks in the Danakil, rising through metamorphic rocks and finally reaching sedimentary sandstone on top, this was a geological wonder in itself. This is the Ethiopian Escarpment, a giant fault structure called a graben. With one side formed by the high Ethiopian Escarpment, the base being the Danakil Depression and the Somalian Escarpment forming the high opposite wall, this was the textbook example of a horst and graben. These are common in volcanic complexes. (See the map from part one for a broad look at the entire area.)

The Old and The New

At the top of the escarpment, we captured a reminder of a modern world—a paved road.

The mixture of old world and new came into sharp focus with the passing of another camel caravan.

After many hours of driving, the top of the Ethiopian Escarpment came into view, the terrain stood in deep contrast to that of the Danakil…now so far below us.

We looked back at the edge of the escarpment. The small village perched on the edge of the cliff that descended into the Danakil desert far below.

As we proceeded, the landscape now appeared completely different from anything we had seen. This was farm land, complete with cultivated fields and a few trees.

Another couple of hours of driving lapsed and then our destination came into view—the city of Mekele.

After a very long hot shower and a good meal, I received a restful sleep in a real bed. The next day provided some time to explore the city of Mekele. The local market became our primary interest in order that we might obtain an understanding of the culture and life in the area.

As with any market place in a third world country, this central location offers a glimpse into the daily life of the people. The market in Mekele was no different. It provided everything from their food to the clothes they wear.

Exotic spices and grains of many kinds were found in abundance.

Salt—that was mined in Lake Assal—is sold here and sells for 100 times more than earned by the miners.

An African market is a busy place and the heart beat of the country. From what we observed, the culture appears to be alive and well here.

With our time in Ethiopia growing short, we made our way to the airport for the short flight to Addis Ababa. There we boarded our flights later that day for the return to our respective countries.

The expedition was a trip to be cherished for a lifetime. The wonders we saw, the experiences we gathered, and the adventure we shared were enough to fill a person for many years.

It was truly the trip of a lifetime.


In a later blog, we will trace the relationship Ethiopia has to the mystery of the disappearance of the famous Ark of the Covenant.

This Concludes Our Lost World Adventure 

Tom Arnold, my featured guest and hunter of Lost Worlds, graduated from the University of Texas Pan American with degrees in Astrophysics and Geology, and has directed several planetariums around the country including those in: San Antonio, Texas; Hutchinson, Kansas; Columbia, South Carolina; and Dallas, Texas. (More on Tom:

As an author, Tom has written numerous science fiction short stories and a novel in that genre entitled Invasion. His new novel, Demon Gold, is a historical fiction dealing with the treasure plundered by the Japanese before and during WWII. (It’s a great read!) Find here:

Photo credits:

All photos were taken and graciously shared by the author Tom Arnold.


blog post #79 by Science Fiction Author Clara Bush
The Science Fiction Reality blog is a little science, a little fiction, a little about writing, a little real, and a lot of weird. (Name change after the new year.)
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