The Danakil Depression is one of the remotest and hostile places on Earth with temperatures soaring above 50 degrees in the summer. For us it only reached 44 degrees. A tad colder but jackets definitely not required! It is also one of the lowest places in the world at 100m below sea level.
It is located in the north of Ethiopia in the Afar region near the border with Eritrea.
From the city of Mekele our group were split into jeeps with four persons in each one. Our first mission on the three day tour of the Depression was a night climb up the active Arta Ele volcano to see the bubbling lava pool inside the crater.
Our jeeps were visually numbered 1 to 7 and the leader was adamant that our convoy of jeeps remain in number order. However, Davit our driver (of course we shortened his name to Dave) of Jeep number 3 was having none of this nonsense! He was a racer and sped along the vast sand plains passing jeeps 1 and 2 to make it to the front. We won! This basically meant we then had to wait for all the other jeeps to catch up in the soaring temperature of 44 degrees.
The jeeps took us to the Arta Ele basecamp which was a bunch of huts in the middle of the bush. It was a shame as there were so many empty water bottles and rubbish scattered around.
At 7.50pm we set off in the dark. It was an interesting walk which involved following the camels that were carrying the ‘non-walkers’ and also our sleeping bags and mattresses for the alleged sleep that we were going to have at the crater edge.
Lights from the torches bobbing up and down in a long trail looked like fairy lights on a Christmas tree. Nearly four hours later (due to numerous stops for the slow hikers) we made it to the top.
A few times I did wonder if I’d make it to the top when our military escort, with his machine gun hung casually over his shoulders, had it pointed directly at my head as I walked behind him. A tad unnerving to say the least!
At midnight we are stumbling over the rocks and gingerly walking over the delicate thin layers of fresh lava rock which felt like it was going to collapse under your feet at any moment. Single file was vital. Our guide knew which areas of ground were safe and which would collapse under our weight.
The red glow from the lava pool could be seen through the smokey haze but it was obscuring our view of the bubbling lava pool. It could be heard. A loud rumble and the sound of crashing waves filled our ears as the hot lava bubbled and swooshed inside the crater. We hovered over the edge suffocating on the toxic sulphuric fumes for over an hour seeing only a wall of white smoke.
Had this been in a western country we would not be peering over the edge of an active volcano with lava that was bubbling angrily as if getting ready to erupt at moment. We would be on a viewing platform at least a few miles away. I would not be using my thin scarf over my nose and mouth in an attempt not to inhale the poisonous fumes. Gas masks would be compulsory. But as they say ‘TIA’…this is Africa.
At 1am we went to ‘bed’. This consisted of a thin mattress and sleeping bag on the ground with ‘bedrooms’ separating each jeep group via a line of rocks.
An unnecessary 4.30am wake up call was made for the people wishing to make a second attempt to see the lava pool. Strangely over half decided not to go. But I was ready. Looking like a bandit with my scarf covering my nose and mouth I headed back in the dark to the rim of the volcano.
Still the sulphuric smoke swirled around us. My retching returned as I fought for breath. My eyes clamped shut from the stinging fumes.
Yarikh, a fellow traveller, kept ducking down and shouting “it’s much easier to breathe with your head nearer the ground” as another waft of the sulphuric gases blew over us. Meanwhile I’m choking and gagging, stumbling blindly over the rocks in an attempt to get away from the crater edge. It felt like someone had thrown sand and acid into my face; burning my eyes making it impossible to open them.
Finally the smoke disbanded and we could see the elusive lava pool! It was a dramatic sight. Very surreal. To be face to face with a huge lake of molten lava was unreal. Boiling like a witches caldron. An unforgettable experience.
The next two days took us to even more unearthly sights in the Danakil Depression. Dallol, an alien landscape of fluorescent yellows, greens and browns. Sulphur springs and iron oxide creating this painter’s pallet. We were told that during the hottest period walking outside of the jeep is limited to twenty minutes due to the extremely toxic fumes that could damage your eyes and I assume your lungs too!
Lake Asale and the dry, cracked salt pan is where the Afar people hack out blocks of salt from the ground. Caravans of camels transport them to Mekele. Unfortunately it was a Friday when we visited which is their day of rest. Not a worker or camel in sight. We did however see rows of camels on the road back to Mekele carrying the mined salt. This process takes days to complete.
Finally, Lake Afdera (102m below sea level) is a salt lake and one of the key producers of salt in Ethiopia. It is also a nice location to chill whilst having a float in the lake but if you have any wounds get ready for the sting!
For me this peculiar part of the world is a must see in Ethiopia. It is seriously like walking on another planet. Just make sure you take sunscreen and a scarf!
Ethio Travel and Tours – I would certainly recommend this company for tours in the Danakil Depression; they were outstanding.