The Danakil Depression – one of the hottest, driest & lowest places on earth

You know when people say “I know where I’d rather be”. Well, I’ve just come from the Danakil Depression and it is every bit as amazing as you’d expect.

Yes, few things are as remote, inhospitable, basic and absolutely magnificent as Ethiopia’s Danakil Depression and Afar region…and I mean nothing. During four days I witnessed a live volcano spitting scolding lava like an angry dragon, camel caravans snaking through the salt flats, geothermal colour explosions and super basic camping under the stars.

Even after months of research, my expectations were smashed to pieces and elevated more than I thought possible. I travel for experiences vastly different from my daily life and that’s exactly what I found in the Danakil Depression.

We booked with a company called Ethio Travel and Tours (ETT) who we were pretty happy with. There are other companies you can book the Danakil package with but ETT appear to be the bigger players.

Why did I pay ETT and not just make my own travel plans? Well, there are a number of permissions to obtain in advance, plus you’ll need to be accompanied by an armed guard since the unfortunate incident with foreigners in 2012. A four day tour will cost approximately USD$600 but if you’re smart there is some wriggle room.

If time is tight you can opt for a two day package but honestly, the experience is too awesome to scrimp on, plus you should remember why you’re visiting Ethiopia. However, if you’re pushed for time and need to save a day, you could drop the guesthouse and squeeze everything else into a full three day package but you’ll have to negotiate this.

What’s included in a four day Danakil Package?

For US$600 and an action-packed four days, one of the best experiences on earth and nothing to have to organise yourself, you get the following:
– Transport in Toyota 4WD vehicle with driver throughout (not always English speaking)
– English speaking guide — although there is very little actual guiding, they are primarily the main point of contact for questions and organisation
– All entrances and licences
– Accommodation – one guesthouse and two nights basic camping under the stars
– All meals included including vegetarian options (mainly pasta)
– Bottled water
– Camping equipment (mattress and sleeping bag)
– Scout and armed police service in Afar region
– Government taxes

Temperature in the Danakil Depression

Being one of the lowest, driest and hottest places on earth you should expect to break a sweat in the Danakil. It cooled off during the night but only a little and just enough to sleep. I spent most of the time in a singlet and shorts but it is good to have a long sleeve short to keep the sun off. The Danakil is pretty basic (you’ll learn to pooh in front of an audience) but it is amazing how little you actually need. Check out this temperature guide.

Below is a packing list of essential items that I was thankful to have:
– Head torch (spare batteries if you have them)
– Small day pack
– Shoes and flip flops
– Savalon cream (for cuts and heat rash)
– Sun cream (factor 30 minimum)
– Toilet paper (treat yourself and go 3 ply)
– Sun glasses
– Hat
– Wet wipes
– Long sleeve shirt
– Sleeping bag
– Spare camera batteries

Danakil Depression and Afar region itinerary

Without further ado, this is the daily plan for the Danakil Depression itinerary. This tour operates on a continuous loop so depending on when you join dictates what order you’ll visit the following sites.

Day 1 Mekele – Dodom
The tour is supposed to start with a Mekele hotel pickup at 08:30 however, I suspect that ETT forgot us as when I called to ask where the transfer was, ten minutes later it arrived without the police convoy which we had to race to catch. Today consisted of driving to Dodom at the base of Erta Ale along what can only be described as an exhilarating blast through the desert at top speed, followed by one of the world’s worst roads. Just so you know I’m not being dramatic, the 80km distance took us roughly three hours before delivering us to the small settlement of Dodom. Along the way we passed varying landscapes of solidified lava, rock, sand, palm lined oasis and occasional hamlets scattered throughout the desert. This was our first introduction to some seriously dry heat!

Dodom has sprung up purely based on tourism. Stone walled huts with straw roofs nestle themselves throughout the village and camels ready themselves as they are loaded up with camping equipment and water for transport to the base of the lava lake. It was here we lounged around until dinner before hiking through the dark for Erta Ale to witness a live volcano. You’ll need a decent (and I mean decent) torch and shoes as the rough scoria will cause damage if you slip.

Erta Ale ranks as one of the most natural attractions anywhere in Ethiopia. It is a shield volcano with a base diameter of 30km and a 1km square caldera at its summit. Erta Ale contains the world’s only permanent lava lake which we saw raging long before arriving to the foot of it.

As we skirted the fresh lava flow which had erupted no less than a week prior, the guide instructed us to follow single file to the rim of the lava lake in case out feet sank through the ground into liquid lava (um…what?!).

We tentatively inched higher to the rim of the lava lake and it was here we stood transfixed for the next hour. Lava eruptions flared and waves of liquid fire weaved on top of one and another. You know when you have those ‘pinch yourself’ travel moments; well this was one of those. After all, this is something I never expected to see in my lifetime but here I was only 3 meters away and staring into an angry, yet intensely beautiful hole in the earths crust.

The end of the night was spent on mattresses under a blanket of stars, only ten minutes walk from the volcano itself! There aren’t any showers or toilets so don’t expect the Hilton, but falling asleep watching shooting stars is something I would happily opt for given the choice.

Day 2 Dodom – Abaala Village
Waking at 04:30 to a clear night sky and a blanket of stars, we set off by torch light down the volcano for three hours over rough volcanic scoria and uneven surfaces back to Dodom for breakfast. As the sun comes up, it gives you an idea what it must be like to spend the day outside in the height of summer.

After packing up we set off at 10:30am to make our way to the guesthouse in Abaala, stopping off en route in Eript, a village with a total population of 500 people. Just outside of the Eript is a lake where due to the extreme levels of salt, it takes on the same attributes as the Dead Sea whereby any attempt at swimming, results in more of a floating effect. Now anyone who has spent time in the salty waters of the Dead Sea, will know that you need to wash off the salt afterwards or spend the rest of the day scratching. So what if I told you there was not only a fresh water pool right beside the lake, but a heated fresh water lake? Well, I call this divine intervention! We swam in our underwear but you may want to consider keeping your swim trunks handy. So having washed and chilled to perfection, we continued on to the town of Abaala where we spent the night in a guest house with the chance to drink cold beer in the warm evening air and have children asking for our shoes, money and sweets.

Day 3 Abaala – Hamede Ela
The third day included driving to Hamedela via Berhale. This signified the beginning of one of the most inhospitable regions of the world but absolutely spectacular and full of eye-catching colours. The desert has several points lying lower than 100 meters below sea level so it should come as no surprise that there weren’t any obvious signs of life. We stopped for lunch in the small town of Berhale where the camel caravans set off for a day to cut salt blocks from the parched earth.

The idea of camel caravans roaming through the desert takes me back to a time when nomadic travellers traded and bartered their way along the ancient Silk Road. I knew it was to be the highlight of my trip even before arriving into Ethiopia. I watched fascinated as the setting sun bounced and reflected against the sharpness of the salt and tried to make out where the salt ended and the horizon begun.

Long trains of camels inched their way across the flat and barren land, weighted down by surprisingly even blocks of salt, driven from the ground under the blistering sun. They moved in unison, led only by one man heading home with his salty bounty. It was truly a beautiful sight and a personal highlight for my trip.

We ended the night in what looks like a refugee camp named Hamedela, sleeping on straw beds beside the main road and going to the bathroom any place away from the eyes of armed security guards. This is right beside an army base so if you’re feeling thirsty for obnoxiously warm beer as we were, you had can head over and drink beers for less than US$1.

Day 4 Ragad – Dallol – Mekele
You might think the final day was simply to wrap up the tour and head back towards Mekele but you’d be wrong. In the morning we drove out to Ragad (Asebo), the place where the salts are mined directly from the ground. Often talked about as one of the toughest jobs in the world given that the men use rudimentary tools to cut blocks from the earth, in what truly is one of the most inhospitable places on planet earth. There is nowhere to escape the sun, no trees to hide under and whilst our visit did feel like going to a zoo, it was interesting to see the process of the blocks being cut and loaded onto the camels.

Next up is Dallol at 116 meters below sea level. No matter how low you have your thermostat set this summer; chances are your neighbourhood’s heat conditions pale in comparison to temperatures in Dallol. With average temperatures consistently wavering around 94 ˚F, it is probable that Dallol is the hottest inhabited place on planet earth. Sulphur and solidified black lava engulf some springs; electric blue pools mask poisonous waters below. Openings in the Earth’s crust, called fumaroles, spew steam and gasses into the air. Scientists predict that in a hundred million years the Earth will rip open and the nearby Red Sea will swallow the painted desert completely. Walking around this area feels like landing on a foreign planet; the colours are wild like an electric LSD trip and one of the most truly unique places I’ve ever visited.

En route back to Mekele, we stopped off for a quick visit to Lake Assal, where the poisonous water often proves far too tempting for birds who come to drink from it during summer months and whose bodies literally line the shores.

As I said before, the Danakil is an altogether different experience and far exceeded what I had first hoped it would be. Perhaps Ethiopia’s history of civil war and famine has protected it from the massive tourism onslaught which other African countries have received. You will not find the area overly developed or that heavy tourism has eroded the unique charm of the Danakil Depression.

Finally here is a video I made of my time in Ethiopia; hopefully you’ll enjoy yourself as much as I did.

Happy travelling folks!

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