The Danakil Depression is not only one of the hottest and lowest lying places on our planet, but one of the most extraordinary. This true desert is punctuated by some truly wondrous sights, in particular Erta Ale, a climbable volcano enclosing the world’s oldest lava lake.
Much of the region comprises sun-cracked salt-flats that stretch like blinding-white crazy paving towards a shimmering flat horizon. However, the high level of tectonic activity means that more than 30 active volcanoes protrude from this stretch Great Rift Valley floor. These include the iconic Erta Ale, which has hosted a permanent lava flow since the late 19th century, and the Dallol Crater with its sulphurous pools enclosed by strange pastel-hued crystalline formations.
- The Danakil’s top attraction is Erta Ale, a 613m-high shield volcano whose caldera of crumbling black rock contains world’s oldest permanent lava lake. Bubbling at temperatures of more than 1,000˚C, this ellipsoid cauldron of black-and-red magma is a truly mesmerising phenomenon, as violent red fountains of molten rock spurt tens of metres in the sky, accompanied by nose-searing waves of ammoniac gas. Accessible only on foot or by camelback, Erta Ale is reached along a gradually sloping 10km path through shadeless terrain that can be treacherously hot in full daylight. It is conventional to ascend in the late afternoon to avoid the midday heat, then sleep at the top and return to the base early the next morning.
- Set in a flat-sided shallow explosion crater, the Dallol Springs comprise a field of multicoloured geysers that bubble over into a series of steaming sulphurous pools dotted with conical yellow-green vents and crystalline formations of red, orange and white. It is especially beautiful in the early morning and late afternoon, which is also when the temperature is most bearable.
- Once a bay in the Red Sea, the hyper-saline Lake As Ale lies at the heart of a 1,200km2 expanse of salt-encrusted flats that have been mined by the local Afar for millennia. Even today, visitors might come cross dozens of Afar miners chipping at the salt flat’s crumbly off-white crust to extract neat 30cm x 40cm amole salt bars. The salt is then transported by camel to the highlands by caravaneers from Tigray.
- Set at 103m below sea level, the lovely emerald-hued Lake Afdera laps the shore of what is regarded to be the world’s lowest-lying island. Now accessible on an asphalt road that runs through the village of Afdera, the lake is an important source of salt, which is obtained from artificial evaporation pools along the western shore. You can swim or camp at a set of freshwater hot springs on the west shore close to Afdera village.
Explore the Danakil from either the Tigraian capital Mekele (760km north of Addis Ababa by road), or the Afar capital Semera (590km from Addis Ababa). Both are connected to Addis Ababa by daily flights.
The Danakil is a genuine expedition destination. Although a good 350km road now runs from Semera to Mekele via Afdera, the tracks to Dallol and Do Dom (for Erta Ale) require a 4×4 and navigational skills. The region is best visited with an experienced operator using a minimum of two 4x4s, and experienced staff who know the local Afar. Helicopter access is from Mekele.
Most organised tours start in Addis Ababa. Operators also offer tours directly out of Semera and Mekele. The minimum time required for a full tour is two nights, spending one at Hamed Ela and one on the rim of Erta Ale. An extra night at Erta Ale is recommended if you want to see the crater by day, and another for Lake Afdera.