One of the fastest growing tourist destinations is the out of the world destination of the Danakil Depression. Now I’ve never tried LSD, but the sites and colors of Danakil are what I’d image Yellowstone might look if someone was on LSD. National Geographic has called it the “cruelest place on earth” but I found it utterly fascinating. The following post contains the details of my Danakil Depression Tour, and advice if you want to make a trip.
Wasting Time, Nice Views, and Getting Used to the Heat
A rep from ETT picks you up at the hotel and takes you to their offices. It’s a busy place – different people heading out on tours of varying lengths from 2 to 4 days. Each jeep contains a driver, 4 tourists, their gear, water, mattresses, and other supplies. You meet your driver and start to head northeast. Each jeep is numbered, and the jeeps must stay in this order (we were in the lead car for the first 2 days). There’s a stop for coffee and then some photo stops with beautiful scenery before a lunch break for yummy pasta. Ice cold sodas and beer can be purchased at the lunch spot. There’s a little time to walk around the village but it was unbearably hot.
Visiting the Salt Lake at Sunset
You arrive to the campground at Hamedela by mid-afternoon and you pick out a bed frame made from logs and twine. You get back in the jeeps and drive a couple miles to the salt lake of Lake Karum. There is so much to see and photograph – the stunning salt lake, the glowing sunset reflecting in the lake, or the long camel trains carrying out their loads of mined salt. This lake is like Uyuni in Bolivia – the lake is incredibly shallow and it’s only possible to wade in ankle deep water for as far as you can see. After the sunset, you gather with the group to toast the next few days with a drink that’s a combo of Ethiopian wine and Ouzo.
Visiting the Military Bar
After the drinks are gone, it’s time to go back to camp for dinner. The first dinner was yummy soup, followed by a chicken dinner. After dinner, the guides may invite you to go to the bar. The bar is the hangout place for the Ethiopian military that guards this contested area near to Eritrea. There’s a generator so the personnel watch their news and soap operas until the power goes out. You can get warm beers for about $1.
Sleeping out in the Open
Camping this night is out in the open on a thin mattress on a frame. It’s like sleeping in a hammock. This camp is very basic – there are no bathrooms. There are no trees or bushes either so if you have the urge to go, you just need to walk far enough into the desert or try to crouch behind a rock, so you don’t expose yourself. This would be a fantastic place to camp and watch the stars if it wasn’t for the bright lights of the potash processing plant.
After a hearty breakfast it’s time to get into the jeeps for the drive to Dallol. This area is home to the 6th lowest spot on earth, at -125 meters. The craziest site in Dallol is the colorful mineral deposits at the top of a huge lava mound. You need to take plenty of water because it’s a short hike up the hill with no shade in sight. At the top is the most amazing sight – yellows and greens and very unusual mineral deposits. I could have spent all day here, but soon it is time to see the other sites to see in this area.
There are several spots where you can climb on large hills made completely of salt and you can also visit some very unusual pools. One large pool looks like a boiling pond of yellow water. The guide grabbed a handful of the liquid and motioned for me to stick out my hands. He put the warm oily substance in my hand. I wiped the oil all over my skin to spread it out but overheard a couple girls complaining that they couldn’t touch their cameras to take pictures with this mineral substance all over their hands.
Today you get to visit the salt mines at the edge of the big salt lake you visited yesterday. This in an eye-opening visit. Poles are used to pry big chunks of salt from the earth and then men carve the salt pieces into uniform blocks. An incredible amount of work, in sweltering heat, is required. Sadly, each block is worth only pennies. Arduous work for the animals and the humans.
A Walk to a Waterfall in an Unfriendly City
After a long drive, you arrive in Abala, the biggest town east of Mekele by mid-afternoon. You are instructed to choose a “bed”. That is a mattress on the floor only a few inches from the next mattress. Each room had 6 to 10 mattresses. After time to set up your things, you can join the group for a walk thru town to a small waterfall. The waterfall looked great for a refresh but there was lots of trash and cow manure around. The water was green with algae. We walked back through town, but it wasn’t very friendly – a few people throwing sticks and stones and a crazy guy that threatened to choke several of the tourists in our group.
Sleeping in the Dorms
The best meal of the trip was served this night – a mixture of Indian and Ethiopian foods. Two girls from the store across the street brought a crate of cool beers to sell. It’s a great chance to hang out with the guides and other tourists in the group. After socializing, it’s time to go to bed in your dorm room. Hopefully you don’t have lots of snorers.
Another Coffee Break
In the morning, you must wait for the people on the 2-day Volcano tour coming from Mekele to catch up with the convoy. There’s plenty of time to take a shower, eat breakfast, and get coffee somewhere in the town.
Driving to the Volcano Base Camp
Leaving Abala, you are on a paved road for much of the distance. This is the main semi-truck route from the Djibouti ports to Ethiopia. Keep your eyes open to see Afar people in their colorful clothing and jewelry, and wildlife including pairs of Ostriches. Eventually you go off road to a vast sand desert. The sand is very soft here and it’s easy to get stuck. Luckily, the convoy group stays together and there are other jeeps to help the sand bogged vehicles. Eventually you get to a small village of nomads who service the base camp for Erte Ale volcano. The village children will run out to ask for pens and candy. From here it’s a bumpy, uncomfortable, 1.5 hours to drive 8 miles over solid lava flow. At the base camp, there’s time to prepare for the long hike, drink lots of water, and eat one big meal that needs to hold you over until a late breakfast tomorrow. We wait for it to get dark because it’s too hot the hike in the sunshine.
Climbing the Volcano
With little notice, the guide says, “We’re going right now!” The tourists turn in their dinner plate and grab their hiking and sleeping things, and 2 big bottles of water to start the 6-mile hike each way. There is an option to take a camel up the hill for a cost of 700 ETB (about $28). The hike starts in loose sand, eventually you get to flattish lava, and the last section is a moderately steep ascent on lava rock. The lava rock is not real difficult to climb as there are not loose rocks. The difficultly comes with the heat and the constant ascent on a trail in the dark that is not well marked. For this reason, the group must stay together with the guide. As you climb the hill, the glowing red light gets closer and closer. Finally, you reach the camp at the rim. This is a secondary rim that is far enough away from the lava lake to stay safe from the fumes and potential, but rare, lava overflow.
Looking at the Lava Lake
Once all the hikers make it to the top, it is time to hike over to the crater of Erte Ale Volcano. We are told to walk in single file since the dried lava flow is very young – it most recently overflowed in January of 2017. We are also instructed to take a scarf in case the fumes start blowing our way. The guides will try to take us on the safest route to avoid fume and breaking through the new lava floor. The lava is full of air holes, so you will often feel the lava cracking underneath. Then you see it… glowing flowing lava less than 100 feet below the crater rim on which you’re standing. I’ve never seen anything like it. On the other side of the hole, the lava is not liquified, but there is a glowing orange furnace. We watch in awe as the lava flows in one direction and occasionally splashes its glowing molten rock.
Sleeping at the Rim
You return to the campground at the secondary rim around midnight. The campground is separated into “rooms” with walls constructed with lava stones that are stacked approximately 10 inches high. These short stone walls are the only protection from the nightly winds experienced at the top. My friends and I grabbed a room with 4 mattresses. Once again, there are no toilets, so if you need to go you need to find your own rock away from the group. There are a few spare sleeping bags provided by the tour company, but I used my silk sleep sheet and my daypack as a pillow. It is a cold and short night of sleep before the guides wake you up at 5am.
The Descent from the Volcano
For the descent you have a choice – if you are a faster hiker, you may have the chance to go back to the crater to see the lava lake at dawn’s first light. If you are a slower hiker, you need to start down the hill before it gets too hot to do so. I was in the slower group, so I started down the hill in the dark. It takes under 3 hours to get back to the base camp, where the drivers are waiting with a splash of water and a bottle of sickly sweet mango drink to restore your energy from the hot hike. After a bit of rest, it’s time for breakfast and then the long drive back across the lava flow and dusty desert.
A Chance to Swim
By noon, you arrive at Lake Afdera. There’s a chance to swim but we didn’t have our swimsuits handy and the water was bathwater warm – not the most refreshing dip on such a sweltering day. We opted to go to the lunch restaurant instead and get an ice-cold beer. After lunch, we say goodbye to all our new friends, as each jeep makes it way back to Mekele on its own time. We had a second flat tire and had to stop in Abala for tire repair, so we didn’t get back to Mekele until after dark.
Logistics and FAQ of visiting Danakil
Danakil Depression Tours
It is not possible to visit Danakil independently…you must take a tour. There are a handful of tour companies that do the trip in a 3 or 4-day tour. Everyone seems to pay a different price, whether booked from home or booked in Ethiopia, and whether booked directly or through a booking agent. It seems the best price is about $300 for the 3-day and $400 for the 4-day tour, but this might require some negotiation.
Danakil Tour – Should you do the 3-day or 4-day tour?
The best sites of Danakil are visited on both the 3 and 4-day tour. The 4-day tour is run at a slower pace, with time for slower driving, coffee breaks, and socializing. The main thing cut on the 3-day tour is the night in the dorms, a nice meal, and a chance to use real toilets and have a shower for a night. If you are short on time or money, the 3-day tour is an appropriate choice.
Danakil Depression Safety
Danakil is extremely close to the border of Eritrea and there have been some kidnappings and killings. For this reason, each group is required to take armed guards to the major sites. When I visited in November 2017, the last incident had been in early 2012. Unfortunately, only a couple weeks after my visit, a German tourist was shot and killed by a bandit. Security has tightened since then, with a requirement for more armed guards, but all groups are continuing tours to this area.
Another aspect of safety that should be mentioned is prevention of lava cuts. The last lava flow was in early 2017. While the guides say to walk in single file to not fall through the lava, people still venture out on their own and fall into small lava tubes (air holes in the lava). Lava is incredibly sharp, and I met several people with very bad cuts on their legs due to falling in the cooled lava. One of my friends also got a bad cut but he proudly proclaimed, “I fell in a volcano” every time someone asked about his injury.
Ethio Travel and Tours Review (ETT Danakil Review)
ETT is the most famous company for doing a Danakil Depression Tour. We really liked our driver and the group guide. As for food, while we got at least one meal of pasta with red sauce every day, there were some excellent meals – especially our first night in the desert and the night in the dorms. And breakfasts were hearty with ample protein (eggs) and fruit. It’s true that our group was big – almost 40 tourists. This had advantages and disadvantages. The advantages are that there were many cool people – so with 40 you’re bound to get along with some of the people. It also felt safer. There’s a patch of desert with soft sand and a couple of the cars got stuck, but the other cars help them get out. If you travel with a smaller group, there’s a greater chance of getting stranded. The main disadvantage was the tendency for some of the group to run ahead to get photos, especially with the camel trains. Most of my photos of camels have other tourists in them. Bottom line: If I ever return to Danakil, I would consider taking ETT again.
Mekele – Gateway to Danakil Depression Tours
Mekele is a city with close to 600,000 residents. The main reason to visit Mekele is to do the Danakil tour. It’s also a place to start tours to the Tigray Churches region and other sites in the far north of Ethiopia. Mekele has a huge market – a suitable place to get tailored Ethiopian dresses and coffee paraphernalia.
I stayed in one of the mid-range hotels of Mekele…the Atse Yohannes. An excellent location near the center of town, it contains the Ethiopia air office. The hotel has wi-fi and included buffet breakfast. Book the Atse Yohannes Hotel at booking.com.
If you stay at Atse Yohannes , make sure you get dinner at the very reasonably priced Bellevue Restaurant right around the corner. Cheap beers and amazing chicken and vegetarian meals.
Moving on from Mekele
If you visit Danakil, make sure you get a chance to visit some of the other sites of Ethiopia.