An Extraordinary Visit to the Danakil Depression in Ethiopia


Written by Edumadzie Brew Appafram

The Danakil Depression is, by my experience, one of the most inhospitable environments you can actually visit. With scorching heat in excess of 42 degrees Centigrade, and the only access is the exception of the newly constructed Ethiopia-Djibouti main road. Hotel or any other modern day conveniences are severely lacking. In contrast, it is exactly these qualities, or lack off, which make the Danakil Depression, in my view, one of the most fascinating places I’ve visit in Ethiopia and possible on the planet. 

Located in the north of the Afar Triangle, the Danakil Depression is very low in altitude (about 100 meters below sea level). Geological tectonic plates that are slowly pushing the earth below apart form the Afar Triangle. Danakil Depression is extremely hot and dry, with rainfalls being very rare, and also known for being the hottest place on earth in terms of year round average temperatures. It is these fascinations, which despite an exhaustingly uncomfortable day long drive through the desert, make this worth the effort.

Upon reaching the Danakil, you are immensely surrounded by the vastness of this wasteland. Aside for the odd tribal village and isolated tree, you get the sense that little grow or survive here. The exceptions of this are the few tribal people I encountered. They do extremely well to survive in this place.

The primary means of interaction between the Afar region and the rest of Ethiopia (and the world) is the endless salt caravans, consisting mainly of camels and donkeys, loaded with heavy bricks of salt - the main natural resource in this area.

There are four notably areas of spellbinding attractions in the Danakil Depression which I will focus on, the Sulphur Spring – commonly knows as "Mars on Earth"; Salt Mountain; Salt Mine and of course, the mighty Erta Ale  - "Smoking Mountain" volcano.

After a night's sleep under the stars, the journey to the Sulphur Spring and Salt Mine. This spectacular location of Sulphur brimming with colors unlike anything i'd ever seen before, mineral nozzles spewing hot water, crisp red earth and a feeling of another planet are all offered by the second of the two top locations in the Danakil Depression. The formations and colors are endless which has been dubbed “Mars on Earth”.

From the Sulphur Spring, the visit to the Salt Mountain was another 45mins drive. The vast mountain of salt puncturing the skieslines was both immense and impressive. Extreme care had to be taken to scale up to the mountain to obtain a great view of the plane.

The spectacular sight of the many long caravans going to the salt mines was a sight to behold, especially against the backdrop of the rising sun. The drive arrived at Ragad (Asebo), to witness the harsh environment and the place where salts are mined.  I observed the breaking of the salt from the ground, then being cut into rectangular pieces and finally loaded on camels. The journey to Hamede Ela was easier to bear as I reflected on the fascinating sights and terrain, which I had, captures on my camera. 

The drive to Dodom, at the base of Erta Ale Smoking Mountain”, started quiet early. This may have been one of the worst roads in the world. The 80 km distance may take up to 6 hours, passing through changing landscape of solidified lava, rock, sand and the occasional palm lined oasis. I observed several small hamlets scattered around in this desert land, before reaching Dodom. From Dodom to Erta Ale, the trek to the campsite took approximately 3 hours. This was a bit strenuous, but since it was done at night, it wasn't too demanding for any hikers. At the top of the camp sight, I could see the glow of Erta Ale in the distance.

The view of top of the crate was very special indeed. The level of excitement of being very close to this wonderful natural wonders and, seeing a huge crater, full of red hot, bubbling, exploding lava was one of the most powerful experiences I've had so far.

Needless to say, it was a difficult night to sleep whilst being close to the rim of the volcano, as the night spent watching the dramatic action of the boiling lava. Erta Ale ranks one of the most alluring and physically challenging natural attractions anywhere in Ethiopia. It is a shield volcano with a base diameter of 30 km and 1km square caldera at its summit. It is also notable for being the longest-existing lava lake, present since the early years of the twentieth century. Erta Ale contains the world’s only permanent lava lake and spending an unforgettable night on the top of the mountain will forever be a highlight of ones life.

There is much more to see in the Danakil Depression. From tranquil, shallow salt lakes to red, Martian-like hills and rock fields, this region is home to some of the most unique topography on our planet. Hard to reach and inhospitable as it is, I wouldn't visit Ethiopia without stopping there to appreciate and photograph a true hell on earth, but a most beautiful and majestic one.

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Edumadzie Brew Appafram is a Ghanaian currently living and exploring the beauty and amazing sights in Africa. Equipped with the belief that travelling broadens the mind, Edumadzie has a strong passion for travelling and experiencing other cultures.




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