The Danakil Depression is a region of harsh beauty and ancient cultures — where volcanoes and crystals create a searing landscape like no other. Words and photographs by Dale R Morris
n armed soldier, attired in military fatigues and carrying an AK47, totters cautiously over a bed of yellow sulphur crystals, paying attention not to trip into one of the many bright-green acid pools in this otherworldly landscape. If he were to slip, he would either boil to death or slowly dissolve. Well, that’s what Hammed, my Afar tribal guide, tells me. “See that guy over there?” he says, pointing to the soldier standing atop a mushroom-shaped geyser. “He fell through a deceptively thin crust of minerals a few years back and lost all the skin on one of his legs. That’s why he walks with a limp.”
Here among the sulphur lakes, crystal shelves and hissing vents of Ethiopia’s Danakil Depression, you had better watch where you step. This weird and wonderful, multi-hued place is known locally as the Dallol — a thermally active saline mound, alive with gaudy, coral-like structures and strange, alienesque growths. Sulphurous steam infuses the air with the smell of rotten eggs, and chimneys of lumpy minerals spit furious jets of magma-heated brine into the air. It’s a volcano (of sorts), and even though it rises high above the bone-dry salt plain from which it has emerged, it’s still (at 50m below sea level) the ‘lowest’ active volcano on Earth.
It is well worth travelling to the Danakil Depression just to see this bizarre and luridly coloured phenomenon, but the Dallol is only one of many fascinating features on offer in the greater Afar Triangle area. This is a region made famous for its blistering heat, active volcanoes, earthquakes, lava lakes, camels and salt. Often described as one of the cruellest environments on Earth, it frequently experiences temperatures of well over 100°F (37°C).
It hardly ever rains here, earthquakes are common and the locals (an insular tribe of desert Muslims) were once famous for chopping off the testicles of anyone they deemed an enemy (just about everyone). “But we don’t do that any more,” Hammed tells me when I inquire. I thought it prudent to ask.
He also explains to me that the Danakil, once a no-go zone due to insurgent bandits from nearby Eritrea, is now a safe tourist destination, thanks to a beefed-up security presence and a rule stating that a military escort must accompany all visitors. That’s why there are so many soldiers around.
My expedition started off from a tiny village known as Hamed Ela — a primitive collection of huts fabricated from stone and sticks, and populated by goats, camels, donkeys and members of the Afar tribe. It sits on the edge of an enormous salt plain, which from a distance looks more like an Antarctic ice shelf than the blistering, desiccated desert that it is. But despite its apparent austerity, this dried-out remnant of what was once an extension of the Red Sea is lifeblood for the people who call this place home.
Every morning, before the sun rises, local men tether their camels into long caravans and saunter out onto the flats in their hundreds to collect salt. We follow them out and watch them at work for a while, heaving heavy slabs of greyish sodium from the earth, and then carving them into book-shaped blocks. It is back-breaking work, made all the more difficult by the sweltering heat, but it’s the only source of income they have, and besides, the Afar folk are very proud of their ancient profession. The age-old culture of gathering salt from the Danakil and transporting it to faraway markets by camel and donkey has remained largely unchanged for centuries, perhaps even millennia.
When the heat becomes too oppressive for us, Hammed, myself and our ‘merry’ band of soldiers bid the salt collectors farewell and drive off across the flats in a small convoy of air-conditioned 4WDs. We don’t get very far, though, before a creeping wall of water halts us, quickly engulfing the ground around us, and rising over the vehicle’s tyres.
“What is it?” I ask in alarm as the baking white desert is rapidly transformed into an aqua blue lagoon. I had recently read that in the future, an earthquake will cause the Red Sea to flood into the Danakil and submerge it completely. Was I witnessing this event right now? But I needn’t have worried.
“There is a saline lake some distance from here,” Hammed tells me while we drive slowly through the brine. “And sometimes, like now, the wind will blow it across the flats. The ground is too dense for any of this water to be absorbed, and so it continues to roam wherever Allah wills it to go.” This shifting lake never gets very deep, but as it passes, it leaves behind a fresh layer of crystals, which, overnight, grow into raised hexagonal slabs, thus giving these salt flats their strange honeycomb veneer. The sunset that evening is utterly beautiful. The sky turns red and pink and orange, and is mirrored in the glassy brine. Camel trains, silhouetted and reflected in symmetry, march elegantly back to the village of Hamed Ela and beyond.
On the following morning, we head back out to the Dallol, but this time, instead of climbing to the top where the sulphur lakes and geysers can be seen, we detour into a low-lying canyon made of layered salt and iron. It’s a serene place, somewhat reminiscent of California’s Death Valley, thanks to an abundance of wind-sculpted spires and balancing rocks. There are striated cliffs that remind me of layer cakes, blood-red riverbeds and salt formations that have been moulded into all manner of strange shapes over the aeons by the weather.
Much to my surprise, there are hundreds of thousands of swallows nesting here. The air is buzzing with them, but as to what they find to eat in this parched and lifeless place, I can’t begin to fathom. Not once did I see a plant, insect or anything else resembling life.
After spending some time in this enchanting landscape, we commence the long drive towards Erta Ale, an active volcano, and home to one of the world’s largest permanent lava lakes. But it’s no piece of cake to get there. We must travel, off-road, across vast, open salt flats and then into a sandy desert of choking dust and tyre-sucking dunes before finally crawling our way over a jagged, broken landscape of solidified lava.
It takes a whole day to traverse just 80km, but it is a fascinating journey, made all the more poignant by the glimpses we are afforded into the lives of the Afar people who, incredibly, inhabit this apparently godforsaken land. There is no flowing water here, no rain, no trees and no shade. Nothing grows. It’s as hot as hell. Their houses are often little more than a pile of lava rocks with a zinc roof (or no roof at all). Yet somehow, these sturdy folk not only endure but also positively thrive. “This is their land. Their home,” Hammed tells me, as we drive past a small community living among the dunes. “And it was given to them by Allah, so they are grateful.”
Once the sun has dipped below a horizon of old lava flows, we hire a trio of camels from a village at the base of the volcano, load them up with our bedding and provisions, and start to ascend Erta Ale in the cool of night.
It takes three hours to get to the crater at the top, and despite the darkness, the walk is still a visual treat thanks to the magnificent stars above, and the presence of a faint and eerie radiance that illuminates the sky. “That is where the lava lake is situated,” Hammed tells me, pointing up to where the glow is strongest. “We shall go there tomorrow.”
That night, we dine on Ethiopian pancakes around a campfire to a chorus of camels’ flatulence and then bed down in round huts made from blackened lumps of rock.
It’s too dark to see where we are, but on the next day, I discover that my abode is perched on the edge of a steep crater wall. Directly below me is an alien landscape of solidified lava flows, swirling sulphuric mists, and the shattered remains of previously occupied dwellings. “The edge of the caldera is very unstable,” Hammed says, when he sees me peering over the brink. “And sometimes these huts fall in.”
The rest of the day is spent exploring the floor of the caldera. We feel the warmth radiating from within, and I marvel at the many strange shapes this once flowing substrate has adopted. Parts of it look like folded wet leather; other areas seem metallic in nature. There are bubbles and tunnels and tubes and ridges, and all the while, a choking fog whirls about.
That evening, again under cover of darkness, we trek over yet more concrete-hard magma rivers to where an orange glow is visible. We climb and we stumble and eventually crest a lip to witness one of the most amazing sights on the planet: a massive lake of molten red lava. It hisses and seethes and swirls and pulses, and at its centre, a conical mound spews liquid jets of yellow and red, tens of metres into the air.
I’m awestruck. None of us have ever seen such a glorious thing. We stay for as long as we can, transfixed by this epic scene, but wraith-like clouds of smoke, glowing as if on fire, billow towards us on the thermal winds, stinging our eyes and raking at our throats. And eventually, headaches and tears force us to abandon this awe-inspiring portal into the bowels of the Earth, and we head back down to our camp.
The Danakil Depression, with its volatile geology, searing heat and primitive facilities, is an unusual holiday. But the rewards are out of this world.
• Getting there Many airlines fly to Addis Ababa, as well as the national carrier, Ethiopian Airlines. It is not advisable (or even possible) to visit the Danakil Depression except on an organised tour. There are numerous operators in Ethiopia that specialise in these trips, arranging all the necessary permits and paperwork, and providing the obligatory military chaperones and local guides, transport and camping equipment where necessary. The writer travelled with ORYX Worldwide Photographic Expeditions.
• Where to stay Most tours depart from the northern town of Mekele. Accommodation, such as village stays and campsites, is usually part of the package.
• When to go It’s always hot in the Danakil. But the ‘coolest’ time of year would be from November to February.
• Health Visit your local travel clinic well in advance of your trip to ensure your vaccinations are up-to-date. When you’re there, drink plenty of water and wear sun cream. Listen to your local guides about where is safe to walk at volcanic features or you might end up falling into a pool of boiling acid or, worse, lava.
• Further reading Ethiopia: Travellers’ Handbook by Trevor Jenner.