Descending from Mekele in the Ethiopian highlands into the Danakil Depression, one could feel like you were heading into the centre of the Earth. Parts are at minus one hundred metres and more below sea level, and it is a highly volcanic area surrounded by desert and dry salt plains.
It makes visiting in the middle of summer all the more interesting. In a convoy of five vehicles, a slow descent was made from lush hills into barren nothingness.
Into The Danakil Depression From Mekele
We travelled in convoy for safety, in case of any breakdowns. The thought of being stranded there was not a pretty one! With the heat slowly building, and the dryness touching at the throat, we drove for several hours, still descending, until we arrived at a nomad Afar tribal village.
A quick stop there to pick up a police escort for security, we continued further into the centre of the world, spotting camel caravans carrying salt from the plains.
Arriving at a makeshift camp for the night, a deep sense of being in the middle of nowhere was easy to feel. Dinner was served of freshly killed goat, killed in front of you, before being cooked up in their traditional way. With a full stomach, and lying on woven wooden beds, an attempt at sleep was made.
Some slept easy, while others tossed and turned, with only a warm breeze to cool things. Soon that slight breath of fresh air disappeared, and one was engulfed in heat and sweat, and a peaceful night was abandoned.
Waking to the never-ending heat and taking a swig of warm water to moisten the mouth, we gathered into the vehicles and headed into the vast salt plains. It was miles and miles of flat nothingness, a pure hell on earth. The temperature started rising towards forty-five degrees celcius, and it was only nine in the morning.
Entering the heat of the Danakil Depression.
After driving for a while we come across a break in the flat terrain, a rocky outcrop appears on the horizon, leading us into volcanic territory. The Danakil Depression is full of extinct and active volcanoes, with lava fields and sulphuric outbreaks in the harsh terrain. Getting out of the vehicles, an ascent was made.
A stench of sulphur instantly hit your senses, as the landscape turned into a mess of yellow, and sticky, acidic brown mud. One can’t touch the liquid there, as it will burn you, as it oozes out of the ground.. With the temperature heating up, the barren landscape around, and being at minus one hundred metres below sea level, you really feel like you are descending into the bowels of the Earth.
With an escort of three Ethiopian soldiers for security, and an Afar guide, we headed further into this hellish area. You needed the soldiers as it’s very close to the Eritrean border, and rebels could come across and attack tourists. Five tourists were killed the year before, and that thought doe’s not escape your mind.
Thirsty, hot, and fascinated with where you are, the vehicles come back into sight, and we got on-board again and continued. Reaching a place with lots of caves, we went out to walk some more, but you almost just wanted to find somewhere to lie down, the heat was so intense.
Driving some more you enter the centre of a salt field so vast, you are blinded by the white light. The air, the ground, the everything, is so dry and hot, it all becomes like a mirage in the desert stretching across the horizon.
Even the locals don’t want to deal with the heat anymore, so a slow ascent along rocky salty roads is made, until the landscape changes.
Ascending for several hours, still in the convoy of vehicles, the air becomes fresher and the breezes slightly cooler. Finally arriving at an Afar nomadic village higher up, a miracle comes out of the desolate region in the form of ice cold Coco Cola. After drinking warm water, this was a welcome relief. Reaching the highlands again, preparations got underway to descend once more, leaving the next day.
Climbing Erta Ale Volcano in the Danakil Depression
With the heat and memory of the first stage of the trip fresh in the mind, the five vehicles were again descending down into the desolate Danakil Depression. The first four hours of driving were relatively easy, with a combination of paved and dirt roads, allowing the drivers to have some fun racing each other.
With a stop in a local Afar town en-route for some food, and to talk with some locals, the journey continued and soon enough the some-what comfort of a normal road disappeared, and became nothing more than a volcanic lava field.
The new landscape became surreal, like entering another planet. Adding to this, a desert sand-storm rolled in, reducing visibility to maybe twenty meters. Images of the movie Alien came to mind, with it’s harsh rocks and dark winds. The vehicles started having trouble coping.
The lava rock was replaced with soft sand in the desert, and the sand -storm became more strong, and at times visibility was dropped too three meters.
The vehicles soon lost sight off each other, and drove around blind for about thirty minutes. With the storm subsiding a little, the drivers were able to find each other, and regrouped at a central point.
Now the next phase of the journey began as we entered an Afar military outpost. Stopping there too pick up a local guide and several soldiers for security, again due too the murder of the tourists the year before, we moved on. The road soon became almost un-drivable as it disappeared and became solid lava rocks.
Speed was reduced to ten kilometres an hour, as a painstakingly slow journey to reach base-camp was done, reaching it after what seemed like forever.
Before entering the base-camp, soldiers jumped out of the vehicles and went ahead to check for any signs of trouble. Everything being ok, and with the sun vanishing over the horizon, the trek to Erta Ale Volcano was to begin.
The soldiers scouted on in pitch darkness, seemingly floating through the night like ghosts. You couldn’t see anything, just the feel of solid rock under your feet, as the slow climb upwards continued.
After three hours of exhausting trekking, now racing along with the soldiers in the dark off night, the first glimpse of the summit of the volcano was seen, a bright glow erupting over the horizon ahead.
The security detail marched on to the rocky escarpment at the top by themselves now, where we would sleep for the night. After checking all things were ok, we climbed and joined them.
Now the subtle sounds of raw nature could be heard. A slow descent, and a walk for one hundred meters across crusted, dried lava, took you to the edge overlooking the crater, where a bubbling cauldron of molten rock, lava, and fire, shone into your face and you became mesmerised.
The movements were slow and subtle, small eruptions scattering new lava across the inside of the crater, creeping along and joining with the other molten rock, melding together, then breaking free full of fire.
You become fixated at this slow display, the heat hitting your face, the glow of the power of the earth sending your senses into a riot. One hour had already passed and it felt like an eternity, lost in time.
Another thirty minutes go by, and with the long day and walk, your eyes become tired looking at the constant bright display, and it’s time to sleep for a few hours. You sleep only one hundred meters away from the active volcano, and it’s hard to sleep with the spectacular image right next to you.
Soon enough, after only two hours sleep, it was time to head back down the volcano in the early hours of dawn, before the daytime heat of the Danakil Depression kicked in. Walking down in the subtle light, you can now see what you we’re walking on during the night, a massive vast lava field of black rock.
With the sun rising, images of alien movies enter the mind once more, as you race down the volcano, with the harsh landscape bouncing under your feet. Reaching base-camp once more, it was time to leave back through the rough terrain, and up to the relative coolness of the Ethiopian Highlands.
The thought off having slept on top of an active volcano, and the image of the craters glow forever burned in your mind, we headed out.
How to visit the Danakil Depression From Mekele
To visit the Danakil Depression is not an easy task, nor should be taken lightly. It is also not cheap from a budget travellers point of view, and one has to weigh the pros and cons with the budgetary concerns. As a backpacker I try to travel on the cheap as much as possible, and advice on this website is geared towards the budget traveller.
However there are just sometimes in life when you just have to choose the activities you are willing to pay the extra to do. For me this was one of those times when the pros outweighed the cons, and I knew it would be a travel experience that I would regret not doing.
It was low season when I went, and I managed to get a deal for 3 nights and 4 days at 420 US dollars, everything included. I was already in Mekele, the city where the tours leave from, and this may have helped in the lower price, instead of booking directly from the capital Addis Ababa. The guidebooks suggest that it would cost around 500-600 dollars, and this is probably the case in the high season.
I can honestly say that after over eighteen years of travel experience, this was one of the best things I have done. The first part of the trip to the sulphuric lakes and salt plains was great, but the highlight by far is the volcano. I highly recommend visiting.
This is the guide I recommend to take to Ethiopia:
Take a look at my Ethiopia travel guide
and if you need more reasons why you should go backpacking in Ethiopia.