Ethiopia continues to amaze us with its incredible diversity. Aside from awesome hiking in the Simien Mountains, rock-hewn churches and monasteries on lakes, waterfalls, castles and burial stelae, it’s also home to the Danakil Depression, one of the coolest and weirdest places we’ve ever visited. Or as Catherine would simply put it, Ethiopia is bonkers!
Situated in the north-east Afar Region, it’s on average the hottest inhabited place on earth with summer temperatures reaching 60 degrees! Thankfully it’s now spring and a slightly cooler time to visit (turns out 40 degrees at 5pm is cooler!)
We headed north from Mekele, winding our way through a rocky, brown landscape that felt more like a desert the further we drove. While some of the mountains we passed were neat and tidy, in parts it looked as if someone had picked up the mountains and thrown them so they smashed into pieces of all shapes and sizes.
Eventually the landscape flattened out and we soon passed a caravan hundreds of camels long heading to the salt flat, a seven day journey from Mekele.
Our first stop was the pristinely white salt flat itself known as Lake Asale, where we played with our reflections and watched the sunset. Our guide mentioned it was a km deep in places and some 400 km x 300 km!
We slept under the stars on wooden camping beds in Hamed Ela, a tiny dirty village, and were grateful for the wind as it kept the flies away!
Very early the next morning, we headed back to the salt flats to an area known as Dallol which is 116m below sea level. We walked on a host of weird and wonderful salt formations and though it was no later than 8am, I was dripping!
The highlight here are these awesome, and wonderfully weird, multi-coloured bubbling sulphurous geysers (the yellow is sulphur, the green is magnesium and the reddish brown is potash, potassium salt). It felt like we were in some sort of Sci Fi movie on another planet!
We headed back to the salt flat to see how they mine the salt, shape them into bars and load the camels. Each bar weighs around 6kg with a camel carrying up to 30 and the price increase ten-fold by the time it reaches Mekele.
It was a long drive out to the Erte Ale volcano the next day, with the final 75 minutes over charcoal rocks being incredibly bumpy. There were loads of camels about and we also saw ostriches and gazelle!
We could see smoke as we neared closer and were relieved to hear there was a group of geologists in town as we figured it must be fairly safe otherwise they wouldn’t be here! We watched the smoke and the red glow above it and after dinner, set off up the mountain for a much closer look.
It was a gentle three-hour walk to the summit, where we were sleeping under the stars, and no more than 20 minutes more to the crater rim. The last big eruption was only nine months ago so the lava hasn’t fully solidified and it crackled under our feet as we cautiously approached.
It was an incredible sight to see inside the crater. To one side, this intense flame leapt out of a fiery cave while you also had a sea of flowing lava, with waves of lava crashing against the crater wall. It was moving quickly. There were huge plumes of smoke and at times a strong smell of rotten eggs!
We were up at 4.30 to watch it erupt as night turned to day and around seven headed back down the mountain for breakfast. En route back to Mekele, we stopped to float in the salty Lake Afrera, a final highlight of an forgettable few days in this unique part of the world.
Can you visit independently?
It’s near-on impossible to visit without joining a tour given the region’s inaccessibility and bureaucracy (with money to be paid and negotiations made with various chiefs).
We booked our tour with ETT (www.ethiotravelandtours.com) and opted for the four-day tour (they also offer a three-day tour). While it meant a little waiting around at times, we did watch the sunset on the salt flat, which isn’t possible on the shorter tour.
Be sure to bargain hard! Although advertised as $600/person, you should be able to get for $400. While it is a fortune of money, it really is an unbelievably fascinating part of the world.