Danakil Depression: Four incredible days

Camel caravan in the Danakil Depression

The Danakil Depression: An incredible four days in the hottest place on Earth

 

The last four days of traveling through the Danakil Depression were probably the greatest adventure I’ve ever had. I don’t even know where to begin.

 

The Danakil Depression is the “hottest place on Earth.” Summer temperatures routinely soar over 120 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s the second-lowest-lying place in the world, only behind the Dead Sea. It’s a highly geologically volatile region. In fact, more than half of the active volcanoes in Africa are on this strip of land between the Rift Valley and the ocean.

 

It’s also an extremely remote corner of the world. The Depression spreads across Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti. It’s home to the nomadic Afar people, who are known for lopping off the testicles of any man who dared to enter their territory. This tradition apparently ended just a short time ago. It was replaced by an elaborate bureaucracy requiring reams of paperwork and endless fees to travel through their lands, and that is completely un-navigable to anybody who doesn’t speak the language.

 

Camel caravan in the Danakil Depression
Camel caravan in the Danakil Depression

 

On top of that, if you’re in Ethiopia, you can’t visit the Danakil Depression without entering a hostile and still-disputed border region with Eritrea. As recently as 2011, kidnappings were commonplace. Five tourists were murdered in a botched kidnapping attempt in 2012. There are still routine border skirmishes and the entire area is heavily militarized on both sides.

 

And all that is before you even get to the main reasons to go to the Danakil Depression: The active volcano and permanent lava lake that you can camp on the crater of, and the mountain of sulfuric acid that you can walk around.

 

Needless to say, this is not a trip for the faint-hearted.

 

Visiting the Danakil Depression

 

The only way to visit the Danakil Depression is on a safari-type tour in land cruisers with a reputable agency based in Mekelle. I ended up on a four-day trip with Ethio Travel and Tours, who are known for their turnkey trips to the region.

 

Day One: Camel caravans, salt lakes and a desert dance party

 

We set out for the Danakil Depression as a group of three plus our driver. Heading out of Mekelle, we climbed to the top of the plateau and stopped for photos. We continued on for a bit and stopped in a tiny village for a coffee (3 birr) and to visit the big market. There was no sign of any other tourists.

 

We kept driving along the edge of the plateau for another couple hours, then started the descent into the desert. Around lunchtime, we reached Berhile — the gateway to the Danakil Depression. The temperature was 114 degrees.

 

We had lunch inside a little cafe. The village had a huge market that day because there was a festival starting the next day, so there was a lot of activity. The town houses a large Eritrean refugee camp, so even though it doesn’t look like much, the market drew people in from the camp and made it a pretty busy and crowded place.

 

Cranky camel at the Berhile market
Cranky camel at the Berhile market

 

After lunch we continued through the Danakil Depression. It actually barely looks like the classic images of a desert. There are big rocky cliffs all around. The one road was paved, but if you went off it, there was nothing. NOTHING. Like maybe for hundreds of kilometers. The Italians and the Chinese are mining for potash (a particular type of potassium compound that is very valuable) in the area, but all the mines shut down for the summer because of the heat.

 

We reached Hamed Ela — the village at the end of the road and site of a large military base. By “large,” I mean maybe a hundred soldiers. Plus there were a couple dozen villagers and lots of kids around. But the town is largely a tourist base camp for exploring the Danakil Depression.

 

We met up with another group who we’d be traveling with for the next day and had some time to unwind. A few of us ventured out to the “bathroom,” a.k.a. hole in the ground that was supposed to at least be enclosed — but the enclosure around it had collapsed and it was now completely in the open. Yup. Ethiopia.

 

We headed out to the salt lake to watch the sunset and were lucky enough to arrive just as a camel caravan was heading back.

 

The caravans come down from Mekelle — it takes them three days — to load up on salt. Then they make the return journey back to the mountains. The salt increases ten times in value between Hamed Ela and the mountains, and it’s more than two kilometers deep — so if you’re willing to make a living that way, you never have to worry about losing your job.

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We waded out into the salt lake. Swimming was not super appealing since the water wasn’t cold anyway and we knew it would be three days before we saw a shower to rinse off the salt.

 

Then the military convoy that we were required to travel with broke out the radio. We had a desert dance party with the soldiers, the guide, and our drivers. I’ll never forget dancing around in a circle while the sun sets over the mountains in the distance, hundreds of kilometers away from anything else.

 

Desert dance party
Desert dance party

 

We drove back to Hamed Ela in the dark, had dinner (the cook Maria whipped up some incredible food in the middle of the Danakil Depression) and went to sleep under the open sky.

 

Day Two: Sulfuric acid geysers and an endless sea of salt

 

Well, it was a pretty miserable night. The temperature never dropped below about 95 and it was extremely humid. By the time the sun was coming up, I was drenched in sweat already and felt like I could barely breathe. I just stared at the land cruiser that I’d be sitting in soon enough with its air conditioning on full blast, ready to skip breakfast or coffee or whatever if it got me there sooner. No such luck. Which was probably a good thing, but still.

 

Our first stop that morning was Dallol, the mountain of sulfuric acid. To get there, we had to drive 35 kilometers through the salt lake. That meant creeping along extremely slowly because of the damage the salt can do to the cars — and this is not the kind of place you want to have a breakdown.

 

Dallol is the closest to the Eritrean border (just a couple kilometers) that we got, so again we had full military units accompanying each car. We stopped several times along the way to take photos in the endless sea of salt and to climb some rocks made from magnesium. We finally pulled up to the base of Dallol after about an hour and a half and got out of the land cruisers.

 

116 degrees, nothing but salt all around you, and if you look into the distance you hurt your eyes trying to see anything else out there. And we were in for a 20 minute hike up the mountain to get to the really good stuff.

 

The landscape around us completely changed over the course of the hike. It started as magnesium rocks — pretty tough footing. That flattened out into this almost marble-covered landscape with “salt mushrooms” everywhere. Then you go over this little ridge and all of a sudden, you’re surrounded by color, the smell of sulfur, and the sound of bubbling acid. This is Dallol.

 

Sulfuric acid geysers at Dallol
Sulfuric acid geysers at Dallol

 

You’ll just have to look at the pictures to see it, because it really was indescribable. The entire thing looked like somebody made mac and cheese and then poured icing all over it. And the landscape can completely change at any moment as the sulfuric acid geysers shift locations. None of it is stable and the minerals shed off all over your shoes or anything else you touch. We had to get an extensive safety briefing about what we could touch and what we couldn’t, because the acid can burn your skin instantly — or splash onto you from somewhere else — or suddenly appear under your feet. There was this creepy abandoned Italian potash mine in the background that was built in the 1940s and is slowly dissolving into the landscape. The whole thing is otherworldly.

 

After we walked around for about an hour, we were unbearably hot and sunburned. So we headed back to the land cruisers for the most glorious air conditioning I have ever experienced. We drove to another mineral pool with weird oily water. Then it was time to go back to Hamed Ela, pack up our stuff, stop for lunch in Berhile, and head back to the mountains for a more bearable evening.

 

As we were driving, we passed a bunch of shepherds with their goats, camels, etc. We stopped at an oasis where a woman and her kids had brought their entire herd of camels. This is still pretty remote — no big towns around here, just villages of a couple families.

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Our final destination was Abale, a village of about 15,000 people and the biggest settlement in the area. The setting was stunning, surrounded by large green cliffs.

 

We stayed at a small guesthouse — basically a family compound — where they did a coffee ceremony. We had left behind the original group we were paired with and now joined another one with guys from Serbia and Croatia and a woman from Montenegro. It was a great travel group.

 

Maria the chef went out and got us goat for dinner. She cooked an elaborate Ethiopian feast. We spent the evening sharing travel stories, looking at the Croatian guy’s photos (he’s a professional photographer), and drinking surprisingly passable Ethiopian beer.

 

Day Three: Camping on the edge of a lava lake

 

In the morning we had to wait for a few other groups from Mekelle to form a convoy to head to the volcano. (It’s considered the most dangerous part of the Danakil Depression due to the tougher terrain and likelihood of a vehicle breakdown, plus the fact that that’s where tourists were murdered in 2012, so they try to bring bigger groups.)

 

So we wandered around the village, chatting with locals and taking photos. It was the start of a big festival and we saw a bull get slaughtered in the street. All the little girls were dressed up in fancy colorful dresses. I think when I look back on Ethiopia, this may be one of the things I remember most strongly.

 

Girls dressed up for the festival
Girls dressed up for the festival

 

The other groups arrived from Mekelle, making us about 40 total in 10 cars. The six of us who’d spent the night in Abale stuck together — we also had the best two drivers who stayed ahead of the rest of the group.

 

We had to stop in an Afar village to get the permits and pick up scouts, guides, soldiers etc. for the rest of the trek. It was a much more chaotic town than the others we’d been to. We went to a coffee shop and people were a lot nastier to us, so I’m guessing they see more tourists in this neck of the woods.

 

We continued on a paved road for another few hours, getting further and further from civilization. Then we turned onto the sand.

 

I have no idea how these drivers had any idea where they were going, but suddenly we were flying at 100 km/hour through the completely unmarked sand with dust flying all around us and everyone was taking different routes and racing each other and it was total chaos. Somewhere in the middle of it all we stopped because there was an ostrich just hanging out (too far away for pictures, sadly). We were a good 15 minutes ahead of the rest of the group and there was no one else around. All I could think about was a) this is awesome, and b) what the hell happens if you get a flat tire around here?

 

We arrived at the military base for lunch and hung out in the shade for awhile. We were aiming to get to Dodom — the town at the base of the volcano — later in the day so we would be able to hike up at night.

 

The military base was literally the end of civilization. It was another two or three kilometers over the sand from there (by now we could see the volcano in front of Erta Ale so at least it felt like we were going in the right direction). Then, we turned off the sand onto 12 kilometers of solid lava. No road. Just lava. They call it the “worst road in Africa,” and they might not be wrong.

 

It took three hours to drive 12 kilometers. Other cars were stopping to let their passengers out to throw up. It was like being on a very slow-moving, but very terrifying, roller coaster. There were times when the rock would just drop out from under a wheel. Or times when the entire car had to drive over a meter-high dropoff and could easily flip. We did the whole thing blaring techno music. It was pretty awesome.

 

Finally we got to Dodom. We waited for the sun to set, and we were off. Everyone had headlamps, but otherwise there was nothing. You’re six hours from electricity. Six hours from running water. Probably 10+ hours from the nearest hospital, so anything happens out here and you’re f****d. No wonder travel insurance won’t cover you and all the Western governments have travel warnings advising against all travel there.

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Early on, we had kind of a terrifying moment where a man in our group disappeared. It turned out he just had a tummy ache and wanted to ride a camel up the mountain.

 

About halfway up the volcano, we could start to see the red smoke coming from the crater. The ground got harder to walk on — it was never steep, but it started to get less stable. And finally, after three hours of hiking, we reached the top.

 

That’s when we learned that the lava lake had overflowed three days earlier. So none of the lava near the crater was fully solid. We were going to have to walk over highly unstable three-day-old lava in order to get to the crater.

 

There is nothing in the world like staring into an active lava lake while your shoes melt underneath you and waves of lava come crashing against the sides of the crater three meters away from you, sending sparks flying at you. Nature is really something.

 

This is what a lava lake looks like
This is what a lava lake looks like

 

Most of us fell through the lava at least once while we were standing there. It turns out semi-hardened lava can cut up your legs quite a bit. Luckily we never had to run from an overflow (this apparently was a risk). Or quickly change where we were standing to avoid being poisoned by sulfur.

 

After about 45 minutes at the crater, we went back to the campsite. It was still well within view, but far enough away that a wave of lava wouldn’t melt us. We ate dinner and my little group of six passed around a bottle of Montenegran moonshine. There was a second crater to the left of us. We got a prime camping spot where we could see both.

 

We spent the night looking out at the two craters belching out fire all around us under the starriest sky that you could ever imagine. It was perfect.

 

Day Four: Back to civilization

 

We woke up before dawn to get back down to the crater. It was a much better time for photos. The crater was more active and the contrast between the sky and the lava wasn’t as extreme. We hung out for another 45 minutes and saw the lava eat an entire chunk of rock. We decided to check out the second crater — which didn’t have a lava lake but was spurting out little bits of lava — for a few minutes before walking back down.

 

It was a long and extremely hot walk back. It becomes much less fun when you know the good part is over. Plus the sun was up and it was getting hot. It’s not even like there are great views on the way down. A couple people in our party were feeling really sick and combine that with heatstroke, it’s not good.

 

We made it back to Dodom around 10, had a quick breakfast, hopped back in the air conditioned car, and drove the 12 km back to the dirt road back to the main road. We spotted an antelope this time — super cute.

 

The last stop on our tour was Lake Asale. It was just a few more kilometers down the road, but the thermometer went up another couple degrees. There is a salt-water lake and a freshwater lake there, but the water in both was too hot to swim in. But it’s ringed by four different volcanoes — a really beautiful spot to stop for lunch.

 

And then it was back to Mekelle! I dreamed of a hot shower the entire drive back.

 

Ready to get started?

 

There is no way to independently visit the Danakil Depression. You’ll need to go on a tour.

 

I loved my trip with Ethio Travel and Tours. The other popular budget company is Worldsun Ethiopia Tours — they may have smaller groups in high season.

 

The going rate is $600 for a four-day tour or $400 for a three-day. I was there in August (low season) and was able to negotiate down to $400 for the four-day tour.

 

Trips leave from Mekelle, a 12-hour bus ride or 1-hour flight from Addis. It’s easy to go to Tigray for the rock-hewn churches before or after your Danakil Depression trip.

 

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The Danakil Depression in Ethiopia is home to lava lakes, sulfuric acid geysers and 2-km-deep salt pans. It's a once-in-a-lifetime place to visit.

 

Read more about travel in Ethiopia here

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