with Dallol and Erta Ale volcano
UPDATE November 2020: war has broken out in Tigray, so it would now be impossible to go on any tours to the Danakil that use Mekele as the jumping-off point. Given the situation, the Afar region will probably also have to be avoided ... not that any travel would be possible at the moment anyway, what with the ongoing pandemic ...
One of the world’s most extreme and utterly remote landscapes, located in northern Ethiopia
and featuring salt pans, salt lakes, an otherworldly hydrothermal system with sulphurous fumaroles, volcanoes, lava flows and, at Erta Ale, one of the few permanent lava lakes on Earth. Moreover it is one of the lowest lying areas on the planet and reputedly its hottest place, with annual mean temperatures of around 35 degrees centigrade and daytime summer temperatures well above 50 degrees. Despite the inhospitableness of both the landscape and (at least until not so long ago) the local Afar people, the Danakil can these days be visited relatively safely on organized tours. But it takes some effort, especially when including Erta Ale, which requires several days and some rough hiking and camping.
More background info:
The Danakil Depression forms the main part of the Afar Triangle
at the northern end of the African Rift Valley
– which then continues north through the Red Sea and onwards to the Dead Sea
– in the north of Ethiopia
, with eastern parts lapping over into Djibouti and the northern end being on Eritrean territory. It is also one of the most volcanically active parts of the Great Rift.
Erta Ale volcano
features one of the very few permanent lava lakes on Earth (others include Nyiragongo in the DRC, Mt Erebus in Antarctica, and Ambrym, Vanuatu).
However, it’s not in a permanently stable condition and has shifted. At times it forms a pit crater, at others lava was breaching the rim, overflowing and creating lava flows down the slopes beyond the summit caldera. If the crater is venting too much steam and gas, the lava may not be visible, but under ideal conditions you can walk right to the crater rim and stare straight into the infernal spectacle of the ever-shifting lava and watch small explosions and splattering. No health-and-safety restrictions here. But getting there takes some time and considerable effort:
Driving to the foot of the volcano takes a good couple of hours at least from the rest camp near Dallol, or from the south. The ascent to the summit is usually done in the afternoon, or even at dusk, so torches are required. The lava lake is obviously at its visually most spectacular in the dark or just before nightfall or at sunrise. Hence many tour groups arrive in the evening and camp overnight on the caldera rim and then descend back after daybreak. That way the worst of the daytime heat is avoided too. At least one more night is required at the rest camp. While the climb to the summit isn’t steep, as Erta Ale is merely 2000 feet (615m) high and a very gently rising shield volcano, the terrain is naturally rough.
Camping at the volcano as well as at the rest camp is also pretty rough, usually you sleep on simple matting under the stars, given the high temperatures even at night, so you won’t need much bedding. There are no sanitary facilities, although at least one operator is said to provide their own Portaloo, and almost all supplies need to be carried in. Guides/scouts are mandatory, and at the Erta Ale summit, a military guard post has been set up (following the 2012 attack on a tourist group – see below
There are other volcanoes in the Danakil too, some also fairly active, and one much taller than Erta Ale, but as these lack the singular spectacle of a lava lake, they are seldom visited on the regular Danakil tours.
Dallol in the north of the Danakil Depression is the other main attraction here. This is in the lowest-lying part of the depression, between 300 and 500 feet (100 to 150m) below sea level (sources vary quite a bit on the exact figures). In fact, as the Danakil formed from three tectonic plates drifting apart there will one day come the time when the land bridge holding back the Red Sea will break and the Afar Depression will get flooded and become part of the sea … but that moment is still far away.
Most of the area is covered by salt flats, with the salt layers allegedly up to a kilometre thick. But there are also salt lakes, in addition to the large Lake Afrera in the south of the Danakil, there’s Lake Karum, a hyper-saline body of water some 12 miles (18 km) south of Dallol.
Dallol itself is basically the result of volcanic activity as well, namely of what is called a ‘phreatomagmatic eruption’ (basically an explosion when hot magma hits groundwater) forming a so-called ‘maar’. Dallol’s crater was formed by an eruption that occurred in the 1920s and it is still volatile. Occasionally there have been ash plumes and gas venting but most of the time activity is restricted to quiet sputtering of hot water from fumaroles and constant low-level degassing from the main vent. All this formed an otherworldly scenery with psychedelic colours of deep yellow sulphur mounds and green briny ponds amongst dark red salt crusts.
You would normally think that such a hostile environment would not be inhabitable, but in actual fact the local Afar people have long eked out a living by salt mining, living a nomadic lifestyle without permanent settlements but instead setting up temporary camps with simple huts made from twigs and straw, which could be dismantled and loaded onto a camel’s back for relocation with ease. Camel caravans would carry the mined salt up to the Tigrayan highlands where it would be sold. This is still going on, though these days transport is as often by truck as by camel.
The Afar used to have a fierce reputation themselves – e.g. of greeting male outsiders turning up on their turf by chopping their balls off. But those days are over. More recent dangers rather originated from the volatile political situation so close to the border with Eritrea, which had long been contested and was even the cause of a bloody war in the late 1990s. During those times venturing into the Danakil posed considerable risks. But now that a phase of peace and reconciliation between Ethiopi
a and Eritrea has begun since 2018, security concerns have markedly eased off – and tourism in the area has been steadily increasing in recent years.
What there is to see:
When I planned my trip to Ethiopia
I was advised by a friend who had recently been to the country that Erta Ale’s lava lake would “not be visible” at the time, due to excessive gas and steam venting, so the best I could expect to see would be a red glow in the gas cloud. As I had seen that phenomenon before elsewhere (namely at Kilauea
in 2015), and also a non-permanent lava lake (at Pu’u’o crater also on Hawaii, during a helicopter overflight
) albeit in daylight, I decided against a multi-day trip into the Danakil – sparing myself all the effort and deprivations that reaching Erta Ale entails (see above
– and under access
). But as I had originally been quite keen indeed to see Erta Ale this was a tough decision. Yet I had to ask myself: why spend all that money and make the great effort if you can’t see what you’d come for. Maybe, just maybe, the venting would have been over by the time I got to Ethiopia, I never found out, but anyway, I had changed my plans and made do with just a day trip to Dallol alone. I can thus not comment further on Erta Ale, but a quick search online will return plenty of photos from various stages of the volcano’s variable looks. I was also able to add two photos provided by a another traveller who had been to Erta Ale a few years earlier.
My trip to Dallol
was from Mekele
, starting very early at around 3 a.m.; after a good few hours of driving along winding mountain roads and switchbacks our jeep eventually descended into the Danakil Depression, where temperatures were noticeably warmer than up on the highland plateau. We stopped before daybreak at the rest camp (Hamed Ela) where a simple breakfast was offered. Then we picked up our mandatory armed scout/guard and drove off onto the salty plain.
The sun was coming up as we approached Dallol’s geothermal field, but it was still the “golden hour” of best morning light when we hiked to the centre of the system to explore the weird and wonderful sulphur world that Dallol is rightly famous for. It’s a case of photos speaking volumes more than any writing could, so I refer you to the image gallery below
for some impressions. What the photos
do not convey is the fact that we were far from alone at Dallol. In fact there were about twenty other jeeps at the foot of Dallol, so up to a hundred people walking about. It’s just because I generally avoid having people in my photos that it looks like we had the place all to ourselves. But this was not the case.
Nor is Dallol all untouched nature. Not too far in the distance from the main vent, there were some rusting industrial ruins to be seen, presumably from earlier sulphur or potash mining operations that have long since ceased. Further south on the salt pan we also saw a long bridge-like structure with conveyor belts that must have been part of some industrial mining effort – possibly potash, as this is one of the very few places of Earth where potash (potassium salt) can be found at the surface in abundance.
After returning to our jeep, following about two hours at the salt-and-sulphur wonderland, we drove to the western side of Dallol to what our guide referred to as “salt rocks”. These were a landscape of maroon-reddish and grey natural sculptures – one aptly nicknamed “Camel Rock”.
Further south the salt pan
featured the characteristic polygon shapes that I had already encountered at Uyuni
a few years before. In the distance mirages were shimmering, and eventually we reached the edge of the briny Lake Karum
. Just a little to the north of this we also stopped at what our guide had referred to as the “little salt lake” – which turned out to be just a small pond in the salt maybe the size of large jacuzzi or ca. three bathtubs. Our scout put a foot in to make ripples which caused pretty light effects in the greenish waters.
Following this we stopped at an area where local Afar men were busy mining salt: they break the big salt polygons from the crust and then cut them into 30 x 40 cm tablets. Quite a few of these had already been stacked in a pile, but we watched as two men hacked the larger plates out in tandem, which looked quite precarious (for their feet). There were no camels here, but on our drive back to the rest camp our driver/guide pointed out as many as three camel carcasses in various states of decomposition. At the salt rocks we had already encountered a skull of what we presumed must have been a camel. So it seems that even the hardy ships of the desert are at risk in this extreme environment …
A bit later we passed through the rest camp again; driving through it, it became even clearer in daylight what a scruffy, dusty and rubbish-strewn place this is. Yet there’s a tall aerial mast so there was never a drop in mobile phone reception – even in this most forlorn corner of remotest Ethiopia
There was one final stop
halfway back up to the highland plateau, in a town that I believe must have been Berahile
, where a simple pasta lunch was offered. The posters of Dallol and Erta Ale on the wall certainly promised a lot – in the case of Erta Ale quite probably more than what would actually be seen on a normal day, but it looked impressive. Then we drove off back to Mekele
, where we arrived back at our hotel in the early afternoon, just under 12 hours after having been picked up.
All in all
, this was definitely one of the key highlights of my trip to Ethiopia
, even if it was only a day trip and did not include Erta Ale. But the otherworldly colours of Dallol as well as the endless salt pan and the whole remote atmosphere still made a lasting impression. Well worth it.
very remote indeed, deep inside the Afar Triangle in the north-east of Ethiopia
, with Dallol just ten miles (16 km) south of the border with Eritrea and a good 75 miles (120 km) north-east from Mekele
. Erta Ale is some 50 miles (80 km) south-east of Dallol and very far indeed from any permanent human settlement.
Google Maps locators:
Access and costs: quite restricted, by escorted/guided tour only, prices vary a lot.
independent travel into the Afar Triangle is all but impossible and would be treacherous and full of complications, not least with regard to the various fees and rules imposed by the local Afar people. So you have to rely on organized tours by reputable operators who have experience and tried-and-tested relationships with the relevant people in the Afar region. Budget tours from Mekele
start from around 150 USD, multi-day tours with international bespoke tour operators can cost a lot more. You have to find a good balance, so shop around.
The good news is, however, that the Danakil is these days far more accessible and also far safer than only a few years ago. Regular tourism only developed over the past 15-20 years, but used to be dicey, due to the proximity to the border with Eritrea – remember that it wasn’t so long ago that Ethiopia
and Eritrea were embroiled in a bitter and bloody war. In January 2012 some Afar militia organization attacked a tourist group at Erta Ale, killing five and taking two tourists hostage (they were released after two months). Since then a permanent military guard post has been set up at Erta Ale, but as recently as in 2017 a German tourist was shot dead descending Erta Ale (possibly due to a tragic misunderstanding – as this tourist was not accompanied by an official guide and a soldier or guard may have mistaken him for an intruder). As the tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea have eased since 2018, and tourism in the Danakil has become more established and regular, security issues are no longer at the level they used to be. Still, all visitors are required to hire an armed local scout in addition to the guide.
That said, though, it is still an extreme destination. There are next to no facilities; only one operator is said to bring a portable toilet along, and a sturdy Unimog back-up vehicle, but otherwise there’s nothing, only very, very crude camping huts and beds at the rest camp near Dallol and at the Erta Ale volcano. All water and food has to be carried in. Most operators see to this, but it isn’t a bad idea to bring extra water yourself. You’ll need a lot of it, five litres a day minimum.
This is due in part to the extreme climate. Even in winter temperatures usually do not drop below 25 degrees centigrade at night and rise to around 35 during the day. In summer midday temperatures regularly go well into the 50s!
Sensible clothing and good shoes/boots are obviously also essential, especially if you intend to climb Erta Ale, which requires a long hike up to and into the caldera, and even though it is not particularly steep, it’s a rough terrain. At Dallol you’re mainly walking on salt and sulphur deposits so you may want to give your shoes a good rinse afterwards.
while a visit to just Dallol is possible as a day return trip from Mekele
, tours including Erta Ale as well require at least two overnight stays in the Danakil, one of them on the caldera rim of the volcano, so three days minimum, though some tours also include Lake Afrera to the south and run over five days.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
since most tours into the Danakil Depression are run from Mekele, a visit to that city’s Tigrayan Martyrs Monument & Museum
is obviously a must-see add-on.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
see under Ethiopia
- Danakil 01 - arrival before dawn
- Danakil 02 - breakfast at the rest camp
- Danakil 03 - entering the sulphur world of Dallol
- Danakil 04 - Dallol getting more volcanic
- Danakil 05 - the main vent at Dallol
- Danakil 06 - sulphur mound at Dallol
- Danakil 07 - surreal sulphur shapes
- Danakil 08 - negotiating the ridges between sulphurous ponds
- Danakil 09 - better not to step into this
- Danakil 10 - surreal scenery
- Danakil 11 - crazy colours
- Danakil 12 - sulphur flower
- Danakil 13 - otherworldly
- Danakil 14 - armed guard
- Danakil 15 - former sulphur mining works in the background at Dallol
- Danakil 16 - fumaroles spewing hot water and steam
- Danakil 17 - bubbling
- Danakil 18 - pretty reflection
- Danakil 19 - salt teeth
- Danakil 20 - salt sculptures
- Danakil 21 - camel rock
- Danakil 22 - skull and salt rock
- Danakil 23 - lone jeep on the salt pan
- Danakil 24 - mirage on the salt pan
- Danakil 25 - edge of the large salt lake
- Danakil 26 - little green salt lake
- Danakil 27 - Afar salt mining
- Danakil 28 - potash mining bridge
- Danakil 29 - rest camp at midday
- Danakil 30 - driving back up towards the highland plateau
- Danakil 31 - enthusiastic advertising at a lunch stop
- Danakil 32 - Erta Ale lava lake - photo courtesy of Howard Sawyer
- Danakil 33 - camping at Erta Ale - photo courtesy of Howard Sawyer