Women on a Mission is a non-profit organisation, headquartered in Singapore, which aims to raise awareness and funds for women survivors of war and to support and empower women who have been subjected to violence and abuse. Every year they challenge themselves to take part in extreme expeditions to raise money for Women for Women International; in previous years they have trekked to Everest Base Camp, crossed the Lut Desert in Iran and trekked with nomadic Nenets reindeer herders in Siberia. In November 2017, 12 women embarked on a two-week Mountain Biking Expedition across the Danakil Depression of Ethiopia, to raise funds for our work with women in countries affected by conflict.
Ethiopia’s Danakil Depression is an inferno of burning salt, sulphuric acid, lava and volcanic rock - just like hell on earth. Our ‘Women on a Mission’ team had set itself a bold and pioneering challenge - to cross the Danakil Desert on mountain bikes. No one had ever attempted such a feat before, and we soon realised why.
With its furnace-like temperatures, bone-drying aridity, and chemical composition, the Danakil is an alien-looking desert. Known as the hottest place on earth, with daytime temperatures of over 50°C and average year-round temperatures of 35°C, it is considered to be the most inhospitable environment in the world. Undeniably, the conditions in the Danakil can only be described as brutal, but against all odds, people do live there. In fact, the Afar people call it their home, and they have settled in semi-permanent villages throughout the region.
After five hours on the road descending from Mek’ele, the capital city of the northern Tigray Region of Ethiopia, perched at an altitude of 2000 metres, our convoy of five jeeps, loaded with bikes and a week’s supply of food and water, arrived at Hamed Ela, located 150 metres below sea level.
As we pitched our camp that first evening, the initial shock to the system was the sweltering 38 °C temperature, a stark contrast to the breezy 23 °C we had experienced in Mek’ele earlier that morning. Night had fallen and it was 7pm when we finally unloaded the equipment and settled into camp. After a quick dinner consisting of pasta, a cabbage salad and warm bottled water, we prepared to sleep on our wooden camp beds for our first night under the stars. The heat was oppressive and without exerting any effort, we found ourselves dripping with sweat as we laid immobile on our mattresses.
After a restless night, we woke up at 5am excited to tackle our first day of biking. The plan was to cycle to Dallol, a cinder-cone-shaped volcano, twenty-three kilometres northeast of Hamed Ela. The cycle across the salt plains was magnificent and the team arrived in high spirits at Dallol at 11am. We started hiking up to the luminescent hot springs and realised it was already a blistering 45°C. We realised that an earlier start would be necessary to avoid cycling during the heat of the day.
The next three days unfolded smoothly. We woke at 4:00 am, were on the road by 6:00 am and tried to cover our target distances by noon. The afternoons were spent resting under what shade we could find, counting the hours in the sweltering heat. Those times were true mental challenges for most of us. It was too hot to do anything and impossible to cool down. The air was stifling, our drinking water was tepid and the heat enveloped us completely, hanging like a heavy veil around us.
Indeed, this was one of our most gruelling expeditions to date. After much blood, toil, tears and sweat, our Women on a Mission team successfully completed the first ever crossing of the Danakil Depression of Ethiopia on bicycles. Two hundred kilometres in six days over vastly contrasting terrain, from sand, sulphuric acid and salt, to bush, lava and volcanic rock.
In our guide Mule’s words, “Women are capable of anything if they set their hearts and minds to it.” On the last evening, the whole Ethiopian crew shared in the celebration of our achievement and felt equally proud to have taken part in this extraordinary, pioneering crossing. It was truly a voyage to an otherworldly place, an unforgettable adventure to the most inhospitable place on earth - no wonder they call the Danakil the Gateway to Hell.
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