Danakil Depression Ethiopia – All you need to know

The Danakil Depression in Northern Ethiopia is like no other place on earth: extremely inhospitable, but also extraordinarily beautiful. Formed by volcanic activity and the movements of three tectonic plates, its unique landscapes lie 100-130 m below sea level and see some of the world’s highest temperatures. The main source of water, the Awash River, dries up here without ever reaching the ocean, resulting in stunning salt lakes and a millennia old trade in salt, mined by the local Afar people and transported by camel caravans. One of the Danakil Depression’s most spectacular features are the volcanic craters of Dallol, where hot springs and geysers discharge brine, acidic liquids and minerals creating a surreal multi-colored landscape. Another impressive spectacle is Erta Ale, Ethiopia’s most active volcano and one of only a handful in the world with a permanent lava lake.

In short, the Danakil Depression is a place that simply has to be on your bucket list. Unfortunately, the only way to visit is with an organized tour. Strangely enough, the information they offer is often incomplete and confusing. Before going I didn’t really know what I was getting into, so I hope this blog post can help you plan your trip!

When to go?

Known as the hottest place on earth, what is the temperature really like? It is actually the year-round average temperature that is extremely high, in part because it doesn’t cool down as much at night as in other deserts. Nevertheless, the Danakil Depression does get too hot to visit from roughly May to October, when temperatures can reach 50°C. Roads can become inaccessible due to rainfall (on the Ethiopian plateau) in July and August. I recommend going between December and February for optimal conditions. I went late December and it was perfect, hot during the day but very doable in the early morning and evening and at night even pleasantly chilly, much cooler than I had expected. Bringing a lightweight sleeping bag and a light down jacket or windbreaker for the hike up Erta Ale is a good idea in this period

How long to go?

Most tours on offer depart from Mekele and range from 2 to 5 days, how long you should go depends on your priorities. If you want to see everything without rushing (and see the sights at the best time of day, i.e. at sunrise and sunset) you do need 4 days, 3 nights. I won’t lie, it is not a comfortable trip: the camps are very basic and dirty, no matter what tour operator you go with, there is no running water, NO TOILET, and often not even a bush to hide behind… My biggest tip: do it in 2 overnight trips! Spend a night in Mekele in between, it’s only a small detour (1,5 hours extra travel time in total, spread over 2 days). You’ll have to pay extra for a night at a hotel, but it’s worth it, believe me.

The sights are spread over two areas that are quite far apart and accessed from opposite sides. North from Mekele (via Berhale and Hamedela) are Dallol and Asale salt lake, whereas to the east East (via Abala) are Erta Ale and lake Afdera. If you don’t have 4 days, you can squeeze it all in 3, but you won’t see everything at the right time and you’ll probably be too exhausted to really enjoy it. If you only have 2 days you’ll have to choose between Erta Ale and Dallol. Although the volcano’s lava lake is something quite special, it takes a lot of time and effort (and some suffering) to get there, so I would recommend Dallol, which for me was the highlight of our trip… but read my description below and decide for yourself!

Travel times have already dropped drastically these last years with the construction of new roads. Another asphalt road connecting Erta Ale to Dallol is still being built, when this is finished in might be possible to do it all much quicker.

Danakil sample itinerary: 4-day tour with ETT

Day 1: Hamedela and Asale salt lake

Meet up with the group in Mekele (or in our case Agula, as we arrived directly from the Gheralta Mountains). As you drive down from the plateau towards the Afar region the landscape starts to get ever dryer, and the simple but pretty stone houses of Tigray are replaced by scruffy wooden huts. This part of Ethiopia is seriously poor, a big part of the population are pastoralists. There is so little water you wonder how people, and cattle, manage to live here.

The drive to Hamedela, the rather squalid settlement where the first camp is, only takes 3-4 hours, so it shouldn’t really be necessary to leave in the morning. I could have done without the terrible lunch on the way in Berhale. If you’re a good negotiator, or if you’re traveling in a group of 4 people and fill up your own car, you could try to ask to join the tour group a little later… Just before sunset, we drove out to Asale salt lake, on the way passing some camel caravans coming back from the salt flats we’d be visiting the following day. Sunset over the lake is truly spectacular and more than makes up for any frustrations of the trip.

Sleeping outside on rope beds at the Hamedela camp turned out more comfortable than expected, although it would have been nice if there would have been some protection against the wind. It is just a pity the place is so dirty and that no effort whatsoever has been made to provide rubbish bins or toilets (or at the very least some privacy). Sleeping under the stars in the desert can be wonderful, but like this it is definitely not. However, if you want to see Asale at sunset and Dallol in the early morning before the heat becomes too intense (and you do) it’s kind of unavoidable to sleep here.

Day 2: Dallol, salt mountains, springs and salt miners

Wake up with the sunrise to go and see the amazing Dallol hot springs. You can wander freely around the surreal landscape, as long as you stay within sight of your group. Our guide’s instructions sounded like a game: don’t walk on anything yellow, as it’s sulfuric acid!

Next stop are the spectacularly sculpted salt mountains nearby, followed by an oily, bubbly hot spring and a salt water spring.

We then headed to the part of the salt flats where Afar men hack out 5 kilo salt slabs and load it on their camels (and some donkeys). They work in the midday heat without any protection, but they don’t seem too bothered. They have adapted incredibly well to this scorching, dry environment, but their century-old way of life is now threatened by the new roads which allow for the salt to be transported by truck.

The ETT tour goes on to a guest house in Abala, with very basic, shared rooms. We decided to sleep at a hotel in Mekele instead, to get a real shower and a proper night’s sleep, and an opportunity to charge our camera’s batteries! For dinner, I can recommend Geza Gerlase or Black Rose.

Day 3: Erta Ale volcano

Meet up mid-morning in Abala to go to Erta Ale. From Abala, it is a 3 hour drive on a good, paved road, followed by another 2,5 hours off-road. It starts fun, driving on sand roads through savannah-like desert, where you can occasionally see ostriches and gazelles. The last part however is a terribly bumpy, rocky track. We were very happy to arrive at the Erta Ale base camp, a messy collection of huts, cars and camels which looks more like a dirty parking lot. From here it is a 3 hour hike up to the volcano’s caldera, done after dark to avoid the heat. We had dinner while mattresses, sleeping bags and water were loaded onto camels to bring up to the rest camp on the rim of the volcano.

The gently sloping path is not difficult, but the hike is tiring nonetheless because walking in the dark takes concentration and gets pretty boring. It gets exciting again as you clamber down into the caldera, walking over crackling, newly solidified lava to the edge of the lava lake (the latest eruption was in January 2017). Peering down you can see the bubbling lava, and some people go dangerously close to the edge to take pictures. Apparently, no one has ever fallen down yet, but it’s impressive anyway.

The idea of standing on top of an active volcano is literally awesome and the lava lake is an exceptional sight, but I’m not sure it is worth the uncomfortable drive, the long boring walk through the dark, and the night without (much) sleep. You should also take into consideration that the volcano regularly smokes over (Erta Ale literally means “smoking mountain”), and there is no way to know in advance whether visibility will be good. We had quite a lot of smoke when we were there, but fortunately we still got a peek at the lava.

Some tour guides provide gas masks, but they are not really necessary: although the fumes can be obnoxious, they usually quickly drift past (unlike at some other volcanoes, see my account of our descent into Kawa Ijen in Indonesia for example). It is a good idea to bring a scarf to cover your nose and mouth when needed.

Day 4: lake Afdera

After a few hours of uncomfortable sleep in the “camp” (lying on thin matrasses on the rocky floor, surrounded by dirt and rubbish, and pestered by wind) we were woken up at 4.30 am for another visit to the crater. There was still a lot of smoke, and I would actually have preferred to skip this second visit. We then started our walk back down, and as the sun came up the landscape slowly became visible and turned out to be quite beautiful. Until arriving at the base camp, where we could now clearly see the discarded plastic bottles and other rubbish.

After a very welcome breakfast we drove half an hour to salty lake Afdera, passing through a swathe of actual sand desert with the occasional palm tree. Lake Afdera looks like a sea, with waves and sandy, salt-crusted shores, and even a seagull. It is a great place for a refreshing swim, you can float around as the salty water “carries” you (although not as much as the Dead Sea). Afterwards, you can wash off the salt in the very warm hot springs. The town of Afdera is a sprawling, squalid mess, but with a bit of imagination you can see the idyllic oasis this place must once have been (and could be again with a little clean-up). After a very bad lunch in a restaurant in town it was time to head back to Mekele, a 4-hour drive.

ETT sometimes turns this itinerary right around, starting with Erta Ale and going to Hamedila and Asale salt lake on the 3rd day. A similar itinerary is done on a 3 day, 2 night trip, but you’ll have much less time to see the sights and it sounds exhausting…

Is it dangerous?

Being close to the border with Eritrea, which is in a long-simmering conflict with Ethiopia, the Danakil region has had some safety issues. There are occasionally also internal ethnic tensions with the local Afar people. The most notable incident was the killing and kidnapping of a group of tourists in 2012, and a more recent deadly shooting of a tourist in 2017. For this reason, a military escort is mandatory at Erta Ale, as are armed guides elsewhere. I felt very safe the whole time I was there, just don’t get separated from your group and all will be fine. The biggest risk here is heat exhaustion! It is also quite common for cars to get stuck, this is why you should always travel with at least two 4×4 vehicles.

Which tour operator?

For the above safety reasons, it is imperative to do this trip with an organized tour. You want to be sure to go with a professional, reliable outfit, so do your research and don’t just choose the cheapest option.

The tour operator we went with, Ethio Travel and Tours (ETT), has competent guides and drivers who are very familiar with this trip. Unfortunately, groups are very big, and often meet up with other ETT groups making them even bigger. The sites are quite vast so you can usually still find a quiet spot, but every move and meal is very slow because you always have to wait for someone. The food is terrible. The advantage however is that ETT can accommodate you if you have a slightly different schedule, we were picked up directly from Korkor Lodge in Tigray for example, and the second night we decided to spend the night in Mekele at the last minute. Although not ideal, I can recommend them as a convenient, reliable option. A 4-day tour costs $500 p.p.

If you’d rather go with a slightly smaller tour group, I have heard good things about Abeba Tours Ethiopia, for a similar price. Alternatively, Luigi Cantamessa from Korkor Lodge can organize more luxurious trips to Danakil on request.

What to bring?

  • Lightweight sleeping bag. Tour operators should provide sleeping bags, but they’re not great so bring your own, preferably with a hood to protect against wind. In the warmer months consider bringing a duvet cover instead, which you can use on top of the provided sleeping bag for softness.
  • Head torch. Bring extra batteries or an extra hand-held torch.
  • Sturdy flip-flops for Asale salt lake (and a swimsuit or presentable underwear for lake Afdera).
  • Walking shoes, no open toes and be aware that they will get very dirty.
  • Scarf to protect against sun, wind and fumes.
  • Some snacks or energy bars.
  • Hand disinfectant, wet wipes.
  • Eye mask and ear plugs. It is only thanks to these that I managed to get any sleep at all.
  • Rubbish bag. Unfortunately, the tour operators mostly don’t seem to take away their trash, as is unpleasantly visible from the areas around the camps. At the very least, take your own.

Please don’t let any of the above discourage you: this place is so exceptional that it is worth it all! A once in a lifetime experience!!

Are you planning on going to the Danakil Depression? If so, I hope this post has been useful. Leave a comment below to let me know what you think! 

 

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