We had actually never heard of the Danakil Depression before we started reading the Lonely Planet, the Bradt Guide and the Thorn Tree Forum on Ethiopia. Either there was very little information (one single page in the Lonely Planet) or a focus on how expensive and difficult it was to travel there. The latter category was simply tempting us and off we went to the hottest place on earth. And believe us, it term is not some kind of marketing slogan!
Even during the “cold season” between November and February, we had to look for shelter in our stuffy hut for most part of the day. The heat was simply too intense and there is no shade to hide from the scorching sun. Temperatures averaged around 42 degrees Celsius (110 Fahrenheit) early afternoon and around 20 degrees Celsius during the night.
In the hotter months, the temperatures can be totally unbearable: a Swiss photographer told us of an unbelievable 67 degrees Celsius (160 degrees Fahrenheit) in Dallol end of March. Also the rainy season is not much fun, it makes the Danakil Depression inaccessible. Christos, the owner of Pangeans Safari, remembers a flooded desert due to torrential waters rushing down from the highlands around Mekele. This turned the sand into an uncontrollable mass of mud making the jeep sliding all over the place.
Besides the hostile climate, until recently safety was another issue. Actually, the Danakil was pretty much of a “No Go Zone” until 2009. Skirmishes with Eritrean armed forces along the border were common up to the year 2005 and even after the cease-fire tourists were kidnapped. In 2007 it was five Britons. Even more dangerous were the landmines that killed several drivers in 2009. That very year about 500 travelers dared this trip, quite a few of them scientists exploring the seismic activities around Erta Ale. After more soldiers were stationed permanently things improved and the number of visitors is steadily rising. Nowadays the area is considered “very hot” among the travelling community. Especially passionate photographers have put the Danakil onto their radar.
Yes, it is quite expensive to travel to and in the Danakil Depression. There is no other way than to use the services of tour operators, who must provide not only one, but also a back up jeep, a scout, an armed Afar police man, a cook, all necessary paperwork and every drop of water every single person in the group needs in those 5-6 days. Plus of course the many presents to the local Afar chiefs, who issue the necessary permits for each area and who also organize the scouts and rangers!
This entourage does not come cheaply. Our group of four dished out the considerable sum of 950 Euros each for a 6 day tour with Pangeans Safari. For just the two of us it would have been a dear 1.250 Euros. Nevertheless, it was worth every single Birr.
Why go there?
Certainly not because of its climate, but there are a number of highlights that each alone justifies this trip! Let’s now share some of the most memorable experiences in the Danakil Depression:
- Looking down at the lava lake of Erta Ale, one of the most active volcanoes on this planet. The heat was intense, but standing on an overhang looking down into the huge boiling, bubbling and spitting lava lake 20 meters below makes you forget this easily. We would even go so far as to claim it requires good nerves.
- Dallol, a landscape of multi-colored hot springs and bizarre formations reminding of a coral reef. We managed to talk the soldiers into taking us back at the end of afternoon and were stunned as to how this place had changed since the early morning. It simply seems to be alive.
- Watching endless caravans soundlessly leaving the village of Hamed Ale at the crack of dawn and trotting back late afternoon loaded with salt.
- Discovering the salt mine near Lake Asal and the very harsh working conditions of the Afars and Tigrians, working there under a sun so strong that we had to leave at 09:30 am and hide in our hut.
- Socializing with some Afar families in Hamed Ale. Liza, from Pangeans Safari, is the only woman in the business, and was able to get us invited to some Afar homes, an absolute highlight of this trip. Heidi twice had the opportunity to meet several Afar women, and Gilles was also once allowed in a hut for a genuinely traditional “coffee ceremony”, something normally utterly unthinkable!
- Lake Asal’s vast salt plain with its surrounding rock formation. Some weary travelers are said to have mistaken it for a fortress. It is truly unique, even for those among us who have marveled at the incomparable Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, the biggest salt lake in the world
Do a five day or six day trip?
Agencies tend to offer a 3 (only Dallol) or a 5 day tour, including Erta Ale. We added a 6th day which allowed us extra time in Hamed Ale. This way we could truly enjoy Dallol, in our opinion one of the most unique sights on this planet, early in the morning and late in the afternoon. Not only the light is different, but also the scenery. The lay-out of the pool amongst the multi-colored formations of minerals had changed within a day.
Apart from Dallol, there is Lake Asal, the salt mines and various geologically very active places that are a must-see. If this does not sound a lot to do, consider the extreme temperatures. Only a few hours of the day, from dawn to about 10 o’clock and before sunset can be reasonably used for these visits. On top of that, this inclement climate is extremely tiring. Not matter how fit you are, there is only so much your body is able to endure under these harsh conditions.
The other highlight was the village itself: hanging out at the well in the evening, being invited for coffee to Halima’s grandmother and watching the men sharpening their simple tools for another day of hard work in the salt mines is unparalleled.
Things we would do differently?
Point out the impact on the environment to the tour operators and the locals. Plastic litter is left behind for the Afar to take care of, but how and where in the middle of a desert?
There is also no toilet in Hamed Ale, period. Neither for the villager nor for the ever increasing number of tourists. It should not go unmentioned that the area is as flat as a pancake.
It was one of the most intense and amazing experiences we ever had, lasting over a period of six days and five nights. There was never a second when we were not aware of the extreme environment we were in.
The very well organized tour, the tireless efforts by Liza & Christos from Pangeans Safari to make us feel comfortable and their deep insight knowledge in various Ethiopian cultures and our European way of life contributed to this unforgettable trip.