It was late April and the Ethiopian highlands had been rolling beneath my wheels for several days. Inching towards Djibouti, I consulted detailed road-engineers’ maps of the country to plan my route, and found an enticing-looking dirt track through the Afar region of the infamous Danakil Depression.
I’d developed something of a romantic fascination with this remote bruise in the planet’s surface, a few hundred kilometres inland from the Horn of Africa. For it was here that it is widely thought that, hundreds of thousands of years ago, before farming, before writing, before metallurgy, the ancestors of you, me, Ghenghis Khan, Michael Jackson — and every other human who ever lived — descended from the trees, stood upright and first struck flint against stone.
The thought was mind-boggling — that if could trace my family tree back past my father, past my grandfather who I never knew, past his father who riveted leather covers to the seats of train carriages, past his father after whom a small lane in a Derbyshire village is named, and on and on through the generations, eventually — astoundingly — one of the infants in that epic chain of births would likely have arrived screaming into the world right here, in a vast scrubland plain in East Africa. I was coming to visit my family’s historical home.