Normally we see Kate Humble among the bluebells and badgers presenting Spring Watch. Here, she talks about filming The Hottest Place on Earth in Ethiopia
‘The Hottest Place on Earth’ – I take it you were filming in winter?
Kate Humble: Yes. In summer it would have been impossible. Even in winter we had days well above 40°C. Remember that we didn’t end up in a comfy hotel at the end of each day – we were sleeping on the ground. Anyone reading this might think: “What wimps! I’ve been in 50°C!” I have myself – in the Sahara – but not doing that amount of physical exercise. It was hard work.
How big was the crew?
Kate Humble: There were about 30 crew, plus 40-50 Ethiopians. Along with the usual crew, we also had safety people. This was the area where British diplomats were kidnapped in 2007 and we were very closeto the Eritrean border, a famous hotspot. The Afar people wander around with AK-47s like people walk down Oxford Street with handbags!
I first heard of the area when reading Thesiger’s books.
Kate Humble: A lot of the Afar know about his writing and are slightly disparaging – they believe he bought into this myth that they are fierce warriors and only become men if they chop another man’s balls off and wear them around their neck, that kind of thing. But he also discovered them to be incredible, hospitable people, with a tradition of looking after strangers – and, largely, that was our experience, too. Of course, they are tough and not going to stand for any nonsense on their land, of which they are fiercely proud.
What was the purpose of the series?
Kate Humble: This is an extraordinary part of the world and we wanted to find out why, geologically, it is like that. The area is part of the Rift Valley system and it’s incredibly active. For example, in 2005 this huge fissure opened up – it has never been mapped, so we sent a team out there to map it.
We also climbed Erta Ale, a volcano that has an open, bubbling lake of lava. It’s like the gateway to the centre of the earth. We camped up there for three days looking for micro-organisms that could survive in such extreme conditions.
The other side was looking at the area’s anthropology. You ask yourself: why would anyone live here? There is so little vegetation, unbelievable fierce heat, terrible winds. But it’s their home. It may not be particularly comfortable or luxurious but, my god, they’re going to stay there.
What surprised you most?
Kate Humble: Despite being so hostile, it’s very, very beautiful. There are incredible mountains and rock formations, but other areas are just flat, grey sand. I was surprised by how much I loved the landscape given that, for me, there are few places more beautiful than Britain in spring.
I also found the experience more emotional than I expected. I spent a lot of time with the women in a particular village, to the point where they would call me sister and hold my hand. We were finding the similarities between us as well as the differences.
One of the things I found most upsetting was that I would be trying to talk to the women about basic stuff, like marriage and sex, but the men would gather round and the women would stop talking.I had hoped to be able to give a faithful portrayal of the way women lived there, but the men wouldn’t let me do it.
Is there a sense of humour among the women?
Kate Humble: Absolutely – and they have a real sense of sisterhood as well. When a woman is giving birth, the men are thrown out and the women gather together to look after the new mother. We went to a wedding – in a way it was terribly sad as the bride was clearly young and absolutely terrified. She didn’t really want to talk but I chatted to her friends. It was just like when I got married – lots of giggly girls, changing earrings and trying on headscarves. There is frivolity and intimacy there, but it’s kept very hidden.
Have you got children?
Kate Humble: No.
How did you explain that?
Kate Humble: The women were very surprised. One said: “But how is anyone ever going to know you existed?” It really took me aback but it said a great deal about how they view their role – that feeling that their life is so transient and only the next generation will remember them ever being there.
So was this project the hardest thing you’ve worked on?
Kate Humble: In a way, but not for the obvious reasons. I really enjoy the heat. In some clips I look worse than Toyah Willcox pre-facelift, shrivelled up like a prune, but that didn’t matter because we all looked like shit. The thing I found hardest was that it was so intense: no days off, no escape. I love sleeping outside under the stars but it’s very different when you’ve got 29 people snoring within a foot of you!
The Danakil Depression sits on the join of the African, Arabian and Somali tectonic plates, and in places it’s more than 100m below sea level. Hot, arid and volcanically hyperactive, it’s about as close to Venus’ landscape as you can get