National Geographic

Trail Notes: The Elixir

Deka Valley, Djibouti, 11°32'12'' N, 42°21'24'' E

We camp in a brewery.

It does not look like any brewery I have ever seen before: a small oasis of doum palms, crawling with Afar men—lanky young boys, doddering grandfathers—who wander about, hacking at the trees with knives. An oasis of mad butchers.

The source of the brew--doum palms. Photograph by Paul Salopek

The source of the brew–doum palms. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Many of the young trees are decapitated, hacked down to nubs, to stumps. Beneath the open gashes hang cups made of old plastic water bottles. These catch the palms’ nectar, which oozes out slowly, melancholically, in a frothy drool. This viscous sap will be fermented for one week with the fruit of the palm itself. The end product looks like lemonade. It tastes sweet, fizzy. Each tree will surrender perhaps five gallons.

The cut that quenches thirst--slicing doum palms to make palm wine. Photograph by Paul Salopek

The cut that quenches thirst–slicing doum palms to make palm wine. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Hidden in this howling wilderness: a brewery of palm wine.

“It is very nutritious, even for children,” explains my camel guide Houssain Mohamed Houssain, who buys a large bottle or six for us. “You can put it in their sorghum cereal. It’s full of vitamins. That way, they don’t get malaria. The mosquitos bite them, but they don’t get the disease!”

Cameleer Ibrahim Hagaita brings survival rations of palm wine along for the trail. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Cameleer Ibrahim Hagaita brings survival rations of palm wine along for the trail. Photograph by Paul Salopek

An elixir Humphrey Bogart would approve of.


There are 27 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. chefbrucewest
    April 6, 2013

    Drink up my friend. What great experiences.

  2. momo
    April 6, 2013

    wondering how it actual tastes.. i think this exotic beverage should be manufactured largely throughout the globe.

    • Paul Salopek
      April 9, 2013

      Lemony, but hoppy and fairly dense, too, like a heavy beer. Not unpleasant at all. Palm wine is brewed wherever palms grow—from Indonesia to the Caribbean. My favorite African home-brew, however, is pombe, from Rwanda and eastern Congo—made from fermented bananas.

  3. Jean Smith
    April 7, 2013

    I can’t access your videos or sound. What am I missing?

    • Paul Salopek
      April 9, 2013

      Jean—it must be the settings on your computer. Or you may need to download the appropriate software.

  4. Bear
    April 7, 2013

    If this works agaist malaria, lets get it to everyone in the world. I want it.

  5. Issa bouraleh
    April 7, 2013

    Enjoy the wine my friend, the sun and the blue sky .The warm red sea and plenty of seafood is waiting for you . Enjoy you are where human being started.

  6. Gary Boivin
    April 7, 2013

    The original use of alcoholic beverages was medicinal. If this indeed works, so much the better for all.

  7. Hiker Bob
    April 8, 2013

    This one is looking forward to reading each dispatch with greater anticipation, due to the grandness of the adventure you are on, for the educative element of reading this, history and information on a huge diorama, the wonderful photography, and not least of all, the incredibly colorful and expressive command of the language you employ.

  8. Donna Tait
    April 9, 2013

    I am glad to hear of the palm elixir’s benefit against the dreaded disease of malaria,however, I fear for the tree’s that are being cut down to nub’s. I vote in favor of the fermented banana beverage, and am certain that a bit of alcohol will go a long way toward’s easing the pain of these poor downtrodden people’s. Great writing and work.

  9. Maria Sanchez
    April 10, 2013

    I dont agree on the trees being cut down, but about the wine ill say enjoy it you deserve it after that long journey.

  10. Elaina Ramirez
    April 10, 2013

    Its good how the Palm elixir’s trees can benefit the malaria disease .

  11. Lajos Nemeth
    April 10, 2013

    Enjoy Djibouti, I been around and was gorgeous! If you could ask local people if they are familiar with somali wild ass, that would be something very useful for the conservation community!
    Cheers, Lajos

  12. Bob Hendrix
    April 12, 2013

    It was great meeting you in Djibouti, such a great place and I love your perspective. Next time I am there i gotta try the palm wine. I suspect you have moved on to Sudan by now? Anyway, will be following you from Guam (maybe you can explore micronesia after your 7 year journey : )


  13. Roberta Tabolacci
    April 13, 2013

    Paul, another really interesting article, I love the way you write and what you are doing, but most of all how you can share your feelings and thoughts about sensations and situations – feel privileged for being able to meet you and spend some time talking with you… and reading Bob’s comment made me think how lucky we are and how great traveling is, all in all I think this is what traveling is about: discovering new places and traditions, meeting people, sharing and becoming somehow richer by this sharing and discovering, and building up new memories of our time there and with those people…those memories will stay with us forever and will always be able to put a smile on our face – as for me reading Bob’s comment: thank you life, thank you guys ☺

    • Paul Salopek
      April 15, 2013

      Roberta, if we must be prisoners of our minds, then it helps to furnish them with a few good windows—vistas. Travel is just one way to do this. Thank you for your great generosity and enthusiasm.

  14. lucid gypsy
    April 14, 2013

    Haha beware the palm wine, it bites back sometimes!

  15. Enoch Castleberry
    April 16, 2013

    I drank palm wine in some places in Indonesia. One was muslim, one was christian. How did the locals views drinking the wine in the context of it being prohibited by Islam? Was it ignored n not discussed or more viewed as something deeply traditional, predating Islam…or something else perhaps. Keep up keepin on man! Cheers from the Saudi desert.

    • Paul Salopek
      April 18, 2013

      Enoch: access to alcohol is officially restricted in Djibouti. But the Afar, like many pastoral nomads, are not doctrinaire about anything except movement and open space. Wine flows freely in the back country.

  16. Anne Lynch
    April 29, 2013

    Mescal roast at Guadalupe Mountain this week, blessed with prayer by Mescalero. Which Constellations can you see at night there?

    • Paul Salopek
      May 3, 2013

      Every single one, Anne, usually around the dark silhouettes of the camels’ long necks. Enjoy the mountain ceremony.

  17. George Turner
    May 7, 2013

    My compliments on this grandiose plan to walk the trail of our ancestiors for the next seven years. I enjoy every bit of what you are writing, Excellent reading !

  18. Felicia
    May 8, 2013

    My Javanese friend, Ankermi Sukirmen and I used to drink this in the village of Moni, on Flores Island, Indonesia. It is delicious!

  19. Bev Hummitzsch
    May 8, 2013

    What an adventure. Love being an armchair traveller with you. Have a few questions.
    1. What do you eat during a typical day.
    2. Do you have access to water on occasion or will it be palm wine for this portion of your trip.
    3. How many people are travelling with you – as I notice there are various names attached to the photos posted.
    Be well. Namaste Bev

    • Paul Salopek
      May 14, 2013

      1. I eat everything that comes out of the camel bags or that is put in front of me on the dirt floor of a hut. I have the stomach of a goat. 2. Palm wine was a luxury that vanished fast. We drank brackish well water during most of the Rift walk. 3. I had three Ehthiopian and, later, three Djiboutian walking guides. If you thumb back through the stories, you will meet them, Bev.

  20. patricia johnson
    July 9, 2013

    Looking forward to following your journey and sharing it with others.

  21. Hassan
    March 29, 2014

    The elixir!!! finally something i can relate to culturally. Palm wine is also used as a preservative for making bread- the liquid has a very high concentration of yeast. Undiluted palm wine – fresh from the sap, is also much stronger than the fermented one

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