A complete guide to plan a backpacking trip to Danakil Depression, Ethiopia.
Hiking atop a Lava lake in the pitch dark of a moonlit night, camping under a sky that showed off a star studded galaxy at the middle of the night, walking along the banks of an ancient Sulphur lake that felt and smelt a lot like a rotten intestine of a ginormous dinosaur. I did all of these and more at the Danakil Depression.
Danakil Depression is a safe destination for tourists. My experience says you will be good if you follow the rules laid out for tourists. Tag along with the group from point A to B. Drink & eat cautiously. You’d be good.
Danakil Depression, Ethiopia: A True Hidden gem of Africa
Located at the Northeast Afar region of Ethiopia, Danakil is an expedition of a lifetime.
Afar region is a vast arid land along the Great Rift valley of Africa. Geologists from across the world love Afar for its reputation in producing the maximum number of hominid fossils that served as a missing link in shaping the history of human civilization.
A trip to Ethiopia is incomplete until you have met Lucy, the grandmother for us all. Lucy is the first female hominid who walked on two legs. Her fossil, dating back million years, is showcased at the national museum of Ethiopia in Addis Ababa. Lucy was dug out of the rugged terrain of Danakil.
Before Lucy, all the skeletons we have retrieved suggested four legged apes.
Technically, Lucy decided to stand up on two of her legs and our ancestors followed her. Lucy’s skeleton was fossilized somewhere at the Afar region and was excavated from Danakil dessert.
Numerous anthropologists’ accounts lured in many visitors to Danakil who agreed to let go the luxury stays and hot showers of a brick and mortar accommodation in the historic Ethiopian cities. Instead they ventured into the flat salt plans of the depression.
We were one among those. I am so glad we did this!
An Overview of the Danakil Depression Expedition
Danakil itinerary loosely looks like the following:
Semera (Previously Mekele airport, a big city)> Erta Ale hike> Dallol> back to Addis Ababa
Once you leave the last trace of a decent sized city you are under the realm of a prolific nature. Starlit sky, camping, open desert land, salt mines and sleeping volcanoes will greet you for an adventure that few seldom get to experience in one life.
It is not your usual rent a hotel room and bargain for a few day trips kinda holiday in Danakil Ethiopia. If the geopolitics of Ethiopia and its northern states allow, you can rent a car which agrees to turn on the air conditioning. In times of political turbulence, fuel sells in the price of gold.
In Mekele, a relatively developed city in the Tigray region, hotels had AC and fancy accommodation for the night before you would start for the Danakil expedition.
Yeah, an expedition, Danakil is no way a regular tourist day trip. A trip to Danakil brings associated risks like getting shot at the enemy country border, hostile tribal lands, acres of barren land layered with a thin blanket of salt, harsh sun, bunch of flies.
These days, the cars for Danakil starts from a different city. Tigray has regressed to the volatile politics of the region. Ruthless military has pushed dissenting locals out of the region.
History has not been exactly kind to Ethiopia, or for that matter to the whole of Africa. Ethiopia fell to the infamous Scramble of Africa policy during the aftermath of second world war. Ethiopia and Eritrea, two bordering nations had been at war since decades. When I visited, that was the year follow Ethiopia’s president Abi Ahmed winning Noble Peace prize for putting an end to the 20 years of warfare with Eritrea. Yet, a section of locals had mouthful of complaints against the ruler, who apparently had assumed the role of a dictator.
If you can make peace with the uneasy politics, and venture to camp at the Danakil depression with a guided tour, you shall wake up one night under a dome of sky studded with solitaires. Or are they stars? I remember gasping for breath at the sight of a miraculous revelation of the galaxies and outer world, unwarned by any social media account which had introduced me to the otherworldly geography of Danakil. The sky spotted me dumbfounded, smirked and rolled over as I stood still, being fully aware of my miniscule existence in front the endless universe.
Guided tour is the only way to proceed with a Danakil trip. Due to political unrest, an unattended camping plan may turn out fatal, let alone be given permission by the authority. If you search the internet you shall find grim stories on how lone tourists had been abducted, beheaded and shot at at Danakil. Must I write this to intimidate my readers? A part of me does not want to, because I truly believe Danakil deserves to be known to the world. Treat this as a disclaimer!
I feel, traveling the world as a POC entails a completely different set of experiences compared to a white western human, in terms of treatment, treats, privileges, especially when you are in global south. As an Indian woman, I felt welcome and treated with respect in every part of Ethiopia. I was told, Indians visit Ethiopia as doctors (missionary doctors, often) and contribute to the society directly. The Old Christian traditions of Ethiopia draws many parallels to the Syrian Christianity of the Indian peninsula, which bypasses the European Christian practices effortlessly.
Dallol, the Volcano from the heart of the Ocean
Dallol is infamous for being the most hostile environment with temperature soaring up above 40 degree as the sun reaches for the higher sky. Hottest place in the Earth. Most inhospitable place in the Earth. That is how the internet describes Dallol.
I remember this Afar man clinging to his leather Mashk and bargaining hard with incoming tour groups. He needed the water. He wanted a little more share of Ethiopian birr.
The heat of Dallol can not be described by words and adjectives. Dallol created a record high temperature exceeding 49 °C (121 °F) and the world took aback. Partly inhabited by the Afar tribe, Dallol pushes away humans and livestock during the soaring summer months.
The Ancient Salt Caravans of Dallol
Dallol sits at an average of 116 m below sea level. The Afar people rely on the trade of salt mining. Once they week, they take their camels to Addis Ababa, and sell the salt (kosher) for as low as 20 USD. They come back all the way to Dallol, with gentle following of the camel caravan, only to start mining again.
History suggests, Dallol and the lowland of Danakil was one inundated with the water of the Red Sea. The Sea retreated but left the salt lakes, volcanoes and hot spring on trace.
Descending to Dallol brought all the goosebumps. You could feel the air heavier, the road scarier. The barren arid land was punctuated with camel skeletons. Heaps of salt on them challenged natural decay of a carcass.
Cradle of Africa
According to the geologists’ hypothesis, Afar region being in the eye of the Great Rift Valley of Africa makes it more vulnerable to tectonic movements.
Eventually the African continent will experience another break as three tectonic plates are at war at the Horn of Africa. The line along this which further spirals down to Kenya will push about a baby continent and the sea will make its way where today’s Danakil is.
Danakil is a depression. Much like the Rann of Kutch in India or Salar de Unari in Bolivia, it has a close proximity to the sea and a dried up course of river. Tonnes of salt mines is one of the few resources the land offers. Based on this, an entire community calls Danakil home. That is the Afar people. They are Muslim in faith in majority. They live in the sparse supply of water, food, and other resources. They own the land and the camels. A small leather bottle is their constant companion where they fill up water. That helps them run the show despite lethal heat.
Afar is a treasure trove for people interested in research. Many Europeans and Israelis universities conduct research and find traces of human lives from the Afar region, often known as the Cradle of Africa.
Dallol is painted in all neon yellow and green. At a first glance, you may mistake it for spring bloom. Only until the sun rises to highlight the fumes coming out of the sulpher lake. They are toxic. The guide will shout at you not to touch or go near the water. We tiptoes around the Martian geography to finish off with all limbs intact!
In Afar language, Dallol means disintegrated. Visiting the volcano, it did feel like walking through the entrails of a rotting ogre.
Just the evening before we had a Spanish traveler in the group plunge right into the small salt water well. It hurt her eyes. It splashed water on us. It made us recognize intravenously that the water was not our good old liquid life support. It was heavy, salty and felt different on skin.
However, you can float on those wells. You can also hike up the salt hills.
Lake Assale has only a one cm high water lake. An American couple visited this place after visiting the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. They said they preferred this more than the Latam counterpart!
While in the lowlands in Dallol, an armed guard continuously followed us. I wonder what it might have signaled to the hostile group. For sure, one armed man was not capable to save us all, had there been an alien attack! I guess he is the Afar representative based on the treaty signed by the govt group and the rebels of Ethiopia.
Love on top of the volcano, Erta Ale
It is at Erta Ale where I realized how much my then boyfriend and now husband loved me! We slept by a Lava Lake on a dormant volcano. Contrary to the morning inferno at Dallol, it turned out to a windy and cold summit at the deep of the night. We had decided to let go the hatched shelters thinking that’s where the camels slept. Well, in my defense the camels surely shat there. They might as well have slept.
“May be sleeping under the stars will bring alive the starlit canvas yet again!” I thought. But the fumes teased my plans. The winds sent me shivers. It was midnight when S took his shirt off and put it around me. That’s how we spent the 5 hours of night until the African Sun painted the Eastern sky red. Damn it man, it was cold. Deserts are cold at night. Do not spend the night at Erta Ale without a heavy jacket.
Hiking the volcano is about 4 km hike from the base. You are served dinner and asked to join the group which had around 30 people that night. People from Japan, Israel, the US. They were confident hikers. They had sticks and head gears and lamps and energy bars. Some water. We had nothing. The Ethiopian guides neither had any fancy hiking gear but then they are the sons of the land. They belonged there.
I am originally from the Ganges delta. I grew up knowing a nap is necessary after lunch! This was a new thing for me!
Anyway under the moonlit sky, we walked. I faltered, trailed the queue, nonetheless I reached the summit which to be fair was a moderate hike. You need to scramble a bit and go up and down aa few large stones. Difficult was the 20 meter descend down the Lava Lake. Lava rocks were brittle and standing at right 90 degree posture. We maneuvered through the rocks. I remember an elderly American gentleman helped me get down.
He was a US citizen, now residing at Seychelles. His daughter was a doctor in NYC. The son was an Attorney at law. He had retired and moved to Africa to live with his wife. His kids visit him when they have school break! At 70 years young, he was enjoying life and how!
Erta Ale is one of the handful of living lava lakes around the world. We walked to the crater and saw lava brewing inside. There were only a few hole through which we could have apeak into it.
It had erupted only a few years back. The whole crater was raging like an inferno, inviting rapid tourist footfall but nature decided to show you what and when. We could only get few glimpses. Like sour grapes, I try to reason my mind, “Good I inhaled less poisonous gases, I would live longer.” I satiate my curiosity looking at various Youtube videos.
We reached there at night. We went back to the summit to spend the night. The plan was to visit again during sunrise.
At sunrise, with ample light, we chanced to experience the myriad forms and shapes of a Lava lake. I had never seen anything like this before. I think by this time I had said this enough number of times. Ethiopia, especially Danakil had me mesmerized with plenty of new experiences and how!
The Sun crawled atop the skydome slow but steady. The fumes changed colour every moment. The crater resembled a hungry mouth of a sleeping ogre. We had no clue of its whims and plans.
The day can be harsh, hot and dusty. We started to walk back. The walking back was a painful process, especially with a raging sun on our head. Ethiopians are tall people and excellent runners. They walk faster than an average Indian urban girl I suppose. Our guide was at least half a km ahead of us. But he was kind and gentle and stopped and paced down to match my walking speed.
Later I learnt this journey in particular was not the safest one you may take. History had many men and women tourist abducted, lost, shot and killed with open slits. At one time I could spot a man at the bend of the road with an rifle sitting atop a motor vehicle. I was certain I am breathing my last. To my surprise, I found it is a truck at the turn of the hilly road which had a few guards sitting on top. Armed guards of course. Afar region is rich in minerals and let me spell it out for ya’ll, O-I-L!
No wonder the Ethiopian president was chosen for Noble peace prize!
We made it back to the camp, had some soupy tomato gravy with macaroni and started for Mekelle.
On the way back to civilization, or for that matter an urban set up, we made a few stops enroute the sparse villages. Coffee ceremony on dainty cups took place. The flies never stopped kissing the rims on the coffee mugs. In this arid region where water is more desired than gold, men learnt to survive on coffee, even suppress their thirst on coffee. Ethiopian Coffee is the OG of Coffee drinkers across the globe. It taught the Arabs and the Arabs traded it to the rest of the globe. For example, Baba Budan brought it to Chikmagalur in the south of India. Give it a few centuries and filter Kapi is an emotion for the Indian south!
Camels, wild and domesticated roam around. A few birds fly around the bush. In the deep south of Ethiopia, you can spot more wild life like elephants and zebras. Ethiopia used to boast of Assyrian lions. But the lion population has ceased to exist in the country. Number of baboons with red face and a large gang greeted us along the road. Their population increased as we approached the highland dotted with greenery.
It took us only five to six hours to get back to a cityscape. Addis Ababa, one of the impressive twenty first century African capitals, was just a flight way. It is not that far I wondered! Yet, life as I had seen and known felt so distant compared to what I had experienced in Danakil and the glimpses of Afar region. Scarcity at the backdrop of stunning nature. Scarcity that did not dominates Afar people’s soul who did not give up on their homeland. It was mans persistence against brutal ruthless nature, ages of human skills and adaption to survive and thrive. May be down the line, generations apart, a new continent will be carved out of the rift valley. may be the dormant volcanoes will be inundated with sea waters. the caravans will find another way to continue business.
Caravans carrying salt against the backdrop of a profound red sun. Another girl from Bengal will marvel at the sight! “Aha ki dekhilam, jonmo jonmantoreo bhulibo na!” “Lo and behold, I would not forget about this in this lifetime and beyond!”
Is it safe to visit Danakil
I can not promise you about safety of a destination. I am not well aware of the geo politics of the country and it is when you are reading my article.
However, I can tell you this.
I visited Danakil, not being fully aware of its politics. I came back home unscathed.
I felt my guide was careful and attentive, even kind. I felt the thrill of coming close to a disputed border, like that of Kargil in India or Bum La Pass in Arunachal. However, not for once I felt uneasy or scared.
I can only talk about my experience. If you are planning a visit to Ethiopia, I suggest keep Danakil in your itinerary. Many tourists visit Ethiopia for the sole purpose of visiting Danakil. No-one would wanna kill the golden goose. You can always change the plan last minute if situation goes beyond your control. Multiple trips run to Danakil throughout the day. You will not miss much if you do not plan from beforehand!
Things to pack for a trip to Danakil and Erta Ale
Natural fabric, light clothes, plenty of sunblocks.
You are going into a territory of merciless sun. you will come out with scorched skin. Take as many thing as you need to protect your skin.
A hat. A scarf. Sun glass. Wipes.
You have to do your business in the nature. Bring tissue and a bottle to carry water (I am Indian. I need water!)
For the hike to the top of Erta Ale, asleeping bag will help you sleep in peace at the top of the mountain. If not, at least carry a jacket.
Hiking sticks, torch and camping equipments are good to carry things.
I did not know back then but now I know better. The fumes of the volcano crater can be damaging to health. Carry a mask. It will save you from the stench too.
If you want to take a dip at the salt pan, take flipflops and swim suits.
Cash is the king in Ethiopia. However, you will sleep under the stars, I hope I have made it clear by now. Carry cash but dont carry so much that you will regret loosing it.
ATM is a luxury you shall not find in distant parts of Ethiopia. So is network. Make peace with it.
Why is Danakil so special
I have not seen a place quite like Danakil anywhere in the world. Neither Ladakh, not the glacial lakes of Himalayas, nor the rolling plains of Masai mara and African Savannah come close to it. How can a place with such extreme geography can make such a lasting impact on a tourist’s mind? Is it the perception of danger? Do I feel I would have never signed up for it had I known the associated risks of hiking a volcano at the middle of the night or responding ato nature’s call in absolute lack of privacy?
Danakil was a disruptor in the otherwise usual travel experiences of scoring visas, saving points, gathering miles for the next upgrade or reserving the Michelin star restaurants of New York City. Words will fall short to describe Danakil that stands out in a world full of luxuries. I have found myself describing the nights at the Danakil dessert more number of times than I would describe the luxury suit experience at Koh Yao Nai. Does not mean I prefer the latter any less!
In a world full of over tourism and unsustainable travel practices, Danakil trip keeps alive the spirit of true exploration!
Things to know before planning a trip to Danakil.
The lakes you will see are not the usual lakes of the world. You will not be soothed in the water if at all you are allowed in the water.
Carry your potable water, carry reusable bottles and small filters to ensure whatever you are drinking your body will manage to process it.
There are flies everywhere. On your face, on the food. I found it irritating, detasteful and dirty. But that is just how rural Ethiopia is. (Some parts of Rural Maharashtra too). I learnt to live with it.
Danakil is brutal hot in the mid afternoon. Try to find a shelter by it is 9 am.
Sunblocks will save your life.
Last I heard the tour companies often refuse to turn on Air Conditioning in the car. Please get a full disclaimer.
With an organized tour, you shall have a guide, an armed Afar tribesman, security permits and other necessities sorted.
I found the teenage boys of Danakil to be pretty aggressive and demanding money at stops.
In addition, permits and obligatory security arrangements are complicated, involving police, army personnel and Afar tribesmen, all armed.
For three days trip t Danakil, you are likely not to find a place to shower.
Nature calls are to be answered in the open.
There is zero electricity.
All transactions in the area are done by cash.
People at Danakil belong to Afar tribe. Most of them practice Islam. Their primary source of income is the salt pans, except for a couple of winter months when tourist cars ply in visitors. They are kind and speak broken Urdu and Hindi apart from Afar language. Many of them visit the Saudi or Arab countries for labour and they could identify me as a bengali woman (I wore a saree).
How to plan a trip to Danakil
The best time to visit Danakil is the winter in Ethiopia, which is short lived. Think of November to late February when temperature hovers around 10 to 25 degrees (80 F). Historically the region receives less than an inch of rainfall in a year.
From Addis Ababa, you need to take a train/bus or a flight to Semera. Ethiopian flies to Semera, the capital of Afar region. Do not forget to claim 50% off of your domestic flight ost.
Bus (Selam bus) travel from Addis to Semera for a 9 hours journey. Reaching Semera is the safest way to reach Danakil Depression in present date.
From Semera, the tour company shall take you onwards Dallol (or could be Erta Ale, depending on the day’s plan). This plan can change, AFAIK, depending on incoming tourists and an understanding between the tour operators.
Day 1: Reach Dallol. Camp. Sunset at Lake Assale
Day 2: Early morning at the Dallol Volcano. The colourful sulpher lakes and salt mines. Drive to Erta Ale. Hike up the Erta ALe volcano at night.
Day 3: Sunrise by the volcano crater. Head back to urban civilication by evening.
If you are starting from Erta Ale, you will likely stop at the desolate village of Hamed Ela. Another village around the rim of Erta ALe can be Dodom. Honestly, the names of these villages do not make any difference. The nomadic salt miners stay here, making makeshift huts with woods, stones. For decoration, they would place a few blackened lava rock. At a distance nameless ancient volcanos stand in silence. There is plastic and dirt everywhere. No bathroom in vicinity. Menstruating women traveling in these roads will face many dificulties in cleaning themselves.
Roads connectiong Semera to Dallol is in good condition. Partly I reckon it is one of the important links to border and oilfields.
Beyond that, dirt roads and salt mines are best navigated by a guide.
I hear wealthy visitors choose to visit the region by helicopter these days.
In 2020, I had seen no helicopter. Only dirt roads and bumpy tracks for me!
Alternatively, you may stop at a place called Afdera. The small makeshift place has come to life only to cater to tourists, I believe. Then I discover a mosque, a bank, a health shelter. I take back my words.
Lake Afdera has a salt miners digging at the Earth with busy hands as volcanic hills stand at a distance. Close to it, a few “open door hotels” stand patiently for tourists to take a bath if needed. A washroom. SOme water.
From Erta Ale, you will head to Lake Assale. Sunset camps were set up at Lake Assale. Little sips on Sheba beer. We danced a little under the stars. Dined under the stars. A plate of Pasta al dente. A side of tomato sauce. SOme vegetables. I did not like the food but I was grateful for it, I recall.
The morning after is when you would visit the Dallol volcano, even before the sun rises!
Dallol draws a definitive end to your Danakil trip. It is time to bid adieu to your guides and tip them well and head back home!