The otherworldly Danakil Depression

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February 6th 2014
Published: February 16th 2014
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What? We were tired!What? We were tired!What? We were tired!

En route to Mekele from Lalibela. Thanks to Toni for the flattering photo!
10 November, 2012

Seven of us have thrown sleeping bags and day packs into the back of a minivan and are heading off to Mekele for the night. Tomorrow after breakfast, we'll be leaving for the Danakil Depression, the northern part of the Afar Triangle near the Eritrea border. The highlight of the four day trip will be to stand on the edge of a lava lake on the active ErtaAle volcano. To say we're excited is an understatement. To heap praise on Toni who wanted to go there and introduced the idea while most of us didn't know it existed/ was possible is necessary.

It takes us about six hours to reach Mekele and the company we're using, G.K. Adahu have thankfully organized rooms for our arrival. We gave them a budget per person and they've found us clean basic rooms. Perfect. Checking in, dumping our few belongings and heading back out in search of food and a drink, we end up downstairs at a restaurant next door, sitting outside in the cool air whilst watching the disco lights swirl in the dark interior. For me it is a relatively early night; I'm taking everyone's payment to the

Or at least, four of us
office and will sort out last minute details before we leave.


11 November

I'm picked up outside our hotel and driven to the office where I meet Carmen, owner of the company. She's welcoming and friendly and answers any questions I have (though by now most questions have been promptly answered via email). Passports are checked, cash is handed over (they don't take credit cards) and I sign our lives away at the bottom of the page. No, not really. But as we're going into an area close to the border of Eritrea and where tourists were abducted and killed less than nine months ago (something I didn't know until I was on my way there!), we were to be accompanied by armed guards that we would pick up en route.

With the paperwork complete, I was driven back to the hotel and joined the rest of the gang for breakfast across the road. I'm wary of ordering omelettes now, having seen them being cooked in inches of oil but this one was delicious and having arrived quickly, allowed me to finish not long after the others. We collected our belongings and checked out, sprawling ourselves across the sofas in the lobby. A young boy loitered around the doorway, asking if we wanted our shoes cleaned and Gavin obliged, handing him his muddy hiking boots. The boy got to work and in what seemed like no time at all, they came back spotless! I ended up handing over mine as well while we packed the two 4x4s that had since turned up. Jerry cans of water were strapped to the roof and other bits of equipment were in the back. We were soon joined by a third with three women in it and a fourth, for the crew. There were mattresses and cooking equipment, food and spare tyres; everything we would need for the four days. My shoes were handed to me looking better than they had for months, just as we were about to depart. The boy gave us a winning smile and waved us off.

We drove out of town for a distance and wound our way up a hill, stopping to take photos of the town and view beyond. It were here that we met the two French women and Italian woman from the other vehicle before continuing the drive. I was sitting up the front and watched as the few houses petered out and the dry, hilly landscape open up before us. An hour and a half later, we came across our first camel train! Stretching some 26 camels long, they had come from dropping off food and supplies to the people living in the Afar region and were returning with a less bulky but surely still heavy supply of salt, cut into blocks. The men and boys guiding the camels greeted us heartily and we took some photos before climbing back into the jeeps. It was already warm and with the dusty, unsealed roads, the windows were kept shut and the air conditioning was on.

There was a lot of activity along the roads. Donkeys carrying bundles of wood plodded along slowly, years of service meaning they knew their route without being guided. Boys herded cattle, waving as we went past. Mules ate the sparse grass with loads on their backs outside a small hut. We came across workmen with earth moving equipment, widening the road. Around a bend in the road were three camels who broke into a trot at the sound of our vehicle. Just in case they decided to run in front of us, we gave them a wide berth!

Lunch was in a small village with another tour group. We were instantly surrounded as soon as we pulled off the road, small grinning faces pressed into the windows. Smiling back, we followed our crew into a tented area which was HOT. The owners had strategically placed some portable fans around the room (which I would assume are turned off as soon as the tourists leave!) but it did little and we started to melt into puddles in our chairs. Soft drinks were gratefully accepted and we were served tibs and bread which we were all happy with. The French women chatted with us but the Italian woman kept to herself, only opening her mouth to complain. We rolled our eyes and ignored her.

Back on the road, even the small amount of green we'd previously seen had now disappeared. The landscape was unforgiving. Dry, rocky, void of colour except muted earth tones. And yet people still lived here. Rounded huts covered in material and rectangle rooms made from wood held together with mud dotted the landscape. Colour appeared in the form of clothing worn by the women who we passed on the outskirts of a small village, their faces presumably covered in anticipation of the dust our vehicles were about to send up.

The drive was quiet apart from the music. I stared out the window at nothingness. The others read or dozed or looked around. We were used to long drive days but also being able to move about on the truck so this was quite different. But we were okay. Soon enough our driver pulled up behind the other vehicles and we gratefully climbed out to stretch our legs. A nearby hill obviously needed to be climbed but I had trouble in the loose rocks. Getting down was going to be fun... The sun was low in the late afternoon sky and our shadows were long. Looking out across the land, I remembered that Lucy (the bones we had visited in Addis) had been found in 1974 out here, the hottest inhabited place in the world. It's also one of the lowest places and receives no rain for most of the year. Anyway. We climbed down and were told we didn't have much further to go to Hamadella where we'd spend our first night so nobody wanted to linger long on the side of the road.

A speck in the distance soon became a line of specks which in turn became the tail-end of another camel train, this one heading the same direction as us. Our driver told us they would spend the night in the same spot as us as he lay on the horn to announce our desire to overtake. The camels were all over the road, some walking side by side with their buddies and amusingly, took no notice of the noise of the horn or the vehicles right behind them. Even more amusing is that the car stereo was blaring 'I wanna know what love is' (the 1984 power ballad by the band Foreigner). So here we are in a region that is seldom visited, surrounded by camels and men trying to push them out of the way and we're singing along to that song. Or maybe it was just me singing. Brilliant.

From there it wasn't far until we saw the outskirts of Hamadella. A town of tin and/or wooden houses, a telecommunications tower and a few streets. Driving through and stopping on the far side of the town, there was a fairly serious, unfathomable game on a pitch about the size of two basketball courts. Men with a ball, kicking at it in the dirt, throwing it and frantically pushing each other out of the way. It wasn't like any game I'd previously witnessed and ended before we were able to grasp the concept. The crowd dispersed, as did we, heading back to see what was going on.

Bed frames had appeared and mattresses were piled high and our cook was already getting to work. We grabbed a bed and half carried, half dragged it to a distance away from our hosts, put a mattress on top and lay down. It was bliss. Even in the dusk light, stars were starting to appear and with little light pollution, it was going to be a spectacular night. We went for a walk through the streets and found a tent serving soft drinks, sitting there long enough for two each, playing Uno. Back at camp, dinner was served at a long table and we joked and carried on, doing what we do best. Again, the Italian woman was aloof, pushing her food around her plate and muttering about it to anyone who would listen. We tried to include her in the conversation but she wasn't interested so we left her to it. The camels were heard arriving on the outskirts of town where they were untied and their loads taken off, allowing them to rest before continuing on their journey.

I think we were all content to go to bed and lie there, watching the stars and chatting before falling asleep. We would see a falling star and always call it, forgetting to make a wish. We dragged two beds together and attempted card games but the bugs liked our lights too much so that didn't last long. It was hot (temperatures average 34 degrees Celsius both night and day) and I tossed and turned but must have eventually slept.


12 November

Waking to the sounds of goats, camels and an awareness of people moving about, our first task was to find a 'toilet'. The ground was flat for a good distance and I didn't fancy walking to the distant hills. Conferring with Denise and Maria, we set off in three different directions, constantly turning back to see how far we were from the town. Joyfully, I realized there was a slight dip in the terrain ahead but belatedly noticed several locals already there with the same intention as I. Unabashedly, they smiled a greeting which I returned and then continued walking, only doubling back once they had moved off...

After breakfast we helped clear and pack up our belongings and the equipment and were back in the vehicles for much more of the same as yesterday. Except tonight, we'd be hiking to and sleeping near a volcano! The camels we had passed yesterday were already on their way and we waved as we passed them (much more orderly this morning). Our next scheduled stop would be in a small village where we'd have lunch and pick up the armed guards that would escort us to the volcano this evening and around the sulphur lakes and such tomorrow, dropping them off before returning to Hamadella for the third night.

But, things don't always go to plan. One of the vehicles stopped with issues and we climbed out to stretch our legs. At this stage, hot was an understatement. And to top it off, the vehicle with the French and Italian women no longer had working air conditioning. They quite rightly looked miserable. But with a bit of shuffling around, we got them into the other vehicles, putting them in the front seat for a spell to cool down. For the three of us in the back, it was too hot to even touch arm against arm or leg against leg. We sweltered, we snapped at each other, Denise and I used our scarves to try and block the sun. Eventually Kevin got his turn in the front and the French woman joined us in the back and things were slightly more peaceful.

Lunch was again in a warm tent. How do people cope?! Would I acclimatise if I lived there?? I assume I would, like any other situation (living with 16 people and a truck for eight months is a pretty good example!) but geez. Our crew were encouraging us to drink more. They carry five litres of water for each person, each day and we were barely drinking three. It wasn't good enough. We took a short walk down to what would be a dry river bed with several wells in it. Camels congregated around a few, drinking muddy water and watching us from behind long eyelashes. They would move off if we got too close. At the furtherest hole, a woman was collecting cleaner water from a deeper hole, hauling up a bucket to tip water into her own.

Too hot to be out long and the 4x4s having been checked over and the armed guards ready to go, we set off again. Our next stop would be where we parked the vehicles, swapped flip flops for hiking boots and put packs on backs. We would be leaving at dusk to start the walk to Erta Ale which in the local Afar language, means 'smoking mountain'.

The walk started out relatively easy. It was flat, albeit uneven ground, but it was still light. Making sure to skirt around the dry scrub which would reach out to scratch you if you walked too close. Stooping to look at an interestingly shaped to rock. We carried water bottles and head torches within easy reach, speaking quietly in small groups. It might have been cooler than hours before but it was still warm. The sun was on its way down and soon below
Pick a bed, any bedPick a bed, any bedPick a bed, any bed

Thanks to Kevin O'Kines for the photo
the distant hills as the terrain started to climb and in no time at all, it was dark. For a while it was easier to keep the torches off; their light created shadows that made it difficult for others to navigate. But in time, as we stumbled over boulders and around crevices, we needed light. And not everyone had one, nor batteries in them. One of us handed over our light and paired up. We kept good time with our guide who was leading the way but some others were falling behind. And one was complaining. Did she not do her homework and see what the trip entailed? She was starting to get on my nerves.

But up ahead, the faint glow of our destination slowly but surely came closer and after walking for 3.5 hours, we finally found ourselves looking across to one of only four lava lakes in the world. And we wanted to go down there. Right. Now. But first, Mother Nature put on a performance for us, sending droplets of lava into the air. We could feel its heat on our faces, even from the two hundred or so metres away. What would it be

Thanks to Kevin O'Kines for the photo
like to stand on the edge?

When the show finished, we dropped our stuff, grabbed our cameras and then took a look at the climb down. It would prove relatively simple in tomorrow's light but right now, it was virtually invisible. Denise's fear of heights threatened to overwhelm her but she gritted her teeth and with words of encouragement ringing out around her and a person in front and behind to steady her, she made it down in one piece. The rest of us followed and found it easy, once we knew the rocks were more or less cut like steps. We tread carefully across the uneven surface and all of a sudden I was looking down into hell.

That was my first thought. Hell is always described as a fiery pit and that's what I was looking at. It's even known locally as 'the gateway to hell'. The lake itself is approximately 100 metres wide and the lava sits about 20 metres below where we stand (note that I'm really, really bad at measurements and I could be well off on every measurement in my blog. I do try and check other sources if possible!). Right now,
It's hot, we're dirty but we're happy It's hot, we're dirty but we're happy It's hot, we're dirty but we're happy

in Hamadella for the night
it's somewhat calm and only the sides are active. Lava laps against the rock walls like wavelets created by a boat. The hell theory seems pretty legit when I spy what could be an entrance point; a little, almost square boxy shape in the rock.

I am furiously clicking away on my camera, wanting to record everything and not miss a single thing, so it's with force that I have to stop myself and just look. Just watch. And listen. But then the next show begins and it's out with the camera again.

A piece of the crust in the middle of the crater is the first to move, sinking slowly, stretching at its seams. Other pieces break away and start to sink... they're swallowed up and BOOM! the lava begins bubbling and sloshing and spitting into the air. Our faces are warm and glow orange; my eyes are as wide as others around me. It's definitely goofy grin time.

It lasts for almost a minute before the crust moves in, forcing the lava back underneath and restoring calm. I've been moving around the perimeter and am now looking for a place to sit. When I find it, I realise the ground is covered in small needles of sort. Thicker than hair but only just. They'll stick in you like splinters if you touch them the wrong way.

The show repeats itself every five to ten minutes with varying degrees of intensity. I'm mesmerised. We all are. I would've sat there for the entire night, just watching. Then, in what seems like no time at all, our guide is rounding us up to take us back to our bags where we'll sleep. We follow, grudgingly.

A camel has arrived, carrying our mattresses and we help ourselves to one each and find a spot to bed down. Unsure if this is an abandoned village or purpose built for the tourists (most likely), there are small huts which some choose to sleep in but most of us are outdoors so as able to see the stars and, if we sit up, the rim of the crater. Dinner is served, followed by sweet, slightly warm oranges and for the seven of us, a bottle from South Africa's Fairview vineyards called The Goatfather. Toni, known as 'The Godfather' (because he has three goddaughters, of course) had left in Angola and returned to us in Ethiopia which marked his 100th visit to a country. Not that he was counting, we'd made him. And he hadn't even counted his native Germany which in my eyes makes it 101. Being the stylish people we are, we drank from the bottle and shared it with our guide who had carried it in his backpack for us. Even the small amount of wine made us giddy (and we definitely didn't have altitude to blame) but we eventually drifted off to our beds where our sleeping bags came in handy. It was much more pleasant this evening and with the sound of the guards talking quietly nearby, I fell asleep.

13 November

I tend to not sleep if there's the slightest bit of light so at ridiculous o'clock, I was awake. The guards and crew were moving about but no one else. I sat up and turned around to see the view and have a few quiet minutes to myself. But it wasn't long before everyone was roused. Our guide wanted to take us down for a last look before starting the return walk at sunrise. It was going to get very hot, very quick and they were hoping we'd miss most of it. After a quick breakfast we made it down much easier than the previous night and across what we could now see was lava flow from a previous eruption. The most recent eruptions were 2005, 2007 and 2008, killing cattle and forcing people to flee. It is much more brittle than we realised and a few people ended up with cut ankles or shins, having stepped on a thin layer and fallen through.

It had obviously been much more impressive against a night sky but we were still happy to have another chance to stand on the edge. We also watched the sun come up behind the hills but were hurried away only minutes later and with good reason. Back up the cliff side and retrieving our bags, we set off at a much better pace, down the rocks behind the guards. It may have been easier but it was warmer and a couple people were now short on water, having been in charge of carrying our own. We shared what water we had amongst ourselves and pressed on. Thankfully, we were back at the vehicles in much better time and sat in them, grateful for the air conditioning.

From there we drove through salt flats, the 'road' being tyre tracks from previous vehicles and little more. Camel and mule trains walked slowly and methodically along their own path playing Follow the Leader. Apart from them, there was nothing but flatness for miles in three directions and distant hazy mountains that never came any closer in another. Heat shimmered on the horizon. Eventually a hill appeared almost from nowhere in the distance and once we were close enough, we saw people milling around their 4x4s, departing as we slowed and then parked. Our guide and guards got out and started walking but the hill while I still wasn't sure what we were here to see until I smelt the sulphur.

We had walked to the top of a volcanic crater called Dallol ('coined by the Afar people meaning dissolution or disintegration'😉 which sits at over 150 feet below sea, making what we were about to see the lowest known volcanic vents in the world. There were some beautiful and bizarre mineral formations that looked more like they belonged under the sea than in the middle of a desert and a little beyond the formations was the main event. Having been in a place so void of colour meant what greeted us was just spectacular. A riot of yellow and orange and green and white. It was surreal. Highly acidic and toxic hot springs spread out before us, some bubbling not only from the temperature but from gases released from beneath the ground. It smelt...just wonderful. Which is why I had my scarf wrapped around my head and I was breathing through that.

It really didn't seem right that what nature had taken the time to create, we could come along and step on it and destroy it in seconds. I loved the delicate little salt blooms and know others were also lost as to where to put their feet. It is such a remote area and no, not a lot of people visit the area but even just our small group created damage without wanting to. Our guide did make an effort to keep us to certain areas and after a little chat, seemed genuinely confused why the government wasn't making an effort to protect the area. It is definitely a place UNESCO should be looking into, especially if it is so rare.

A short distance away, peaks appeared as if from nowhere. We were now closer to the Eritrea border than at any other time; only 15km. The two countries are not happy neighbours and our guards were much more alert as we parked at some rock formations, heading off in front of the group to scope out the area before waving us on. I assume the place would be a geologist's dream, the layers of rock and sediment clearly visible in the towering hills. Towering might be an exaggeration but given how flat the rest of the area was, they were out of place. We took photos, scampered over the rocks like kids, encouraged Maria to climb up on one and balance on one foot like the Karate Kid and then made our way back to the 4x4s.

Our last stop was more hot springs, though a sad and sorry sight. With no fresh water for miles and miles, some birds must have drank the poisonous water out of sheer desperation, only to die on the water's edge. There was a large pool but amongst the rocks were smaller pools dotted here and there, each one a unique shape. Many bubbled, gurgled or spat water, steam rising even in the desert heat.

The drive back to Hamadella wasn't as much fun. We stopped to drop the guards off and pick up our mattresses (the camel had walked back there while we carried on with our morning activities) and then had lunch in the shade of the vehicles, lying on the mattresses. The wind was blowing when we arrived back in the town so it wasn't going to be very pleasant sleeping outside. Instead, we set our beds up next to each other in a small room, somewhat sheltered but gaps in the wood still allowed wind and sand in. Armed with our Uno cards (definitely the game of the moment), we made for our 'local' and drank more sugary drinks until dinner time.

After dinner while we were eating fruit for dessert, I lost my patience with the Italian woman. Having done nothing but complain the entire trip, criticizing our cook and guide and walking around with a sour look on her face, I wondered about her journey. Had she been robbed and was bitter? Had there been bad news and she was unable to be positive about things? I didn't know. And although I didn't think much of her, I -and the rest of us - kept quiet and let her be. But having had such a fantastic experience and really liking our crew meant that what she said and did at dinner was a step too far. I quietly but forcefully told her what I thought of her attitude towards the locals, that she was obviously on the wrong kind of trip and whatever else I said. I then apologized to our cook and told him that the food had been very good and filling and that we were grateful. It was not gourmet by any stretch of the imagination and maybe it was because of the type of travelling that we'd been doing but we were in a situation where food was sustenance. Did I like tuna pasta sauce? No, I dislike tuna and I don't usually eat it. Did I eat it then? Yes, because I was hungry and I needed fuel. There wasn't a supermarket nearby with fruit and vegetables and choice cuts of meat. We were in a ridiculously hot environment and having to bring all the food and water we needed meant carrying items that travelled well.

I left the table somewhat shaking. I'm not good at confrontation and didn't even really remember what I'd said. Kevin followed me, mouth open, having not heard me speak like that before. It was he who told me what I'd said and that everyone had agreed with me. I was done for the night. It was bedtime.


14 November

Driving back towards Mekele, we seven were to meet a minibus who will take us onto Gondar to meet the rest of our gang. Along the way, we stopped at Debre Damo, a flat-topped mountain with a 6th-century monastery on top. Much to us females' annoyance, only men are allowed up there. And considering the only way to get up there was up a 50ft sheer cliff via rope, we were going to be sneaking our way in. The guys tried to look apologetic (yeah, right) and ambled off towards the wall with the driver. We three lounged outside, watching them climb the rope but then eventually got back into the van and lounged out of reach of the majority of the flies.

They were gone for over an hour and I missed watching them come down the way they'd gone up. I was surprised to hear that there were cattle up there and even more surprised to hear they went up the same way as the me! And possibly rolled my eyes when they said that all the animals up there are male as well. I'm not proud, just honest!

The rest of the drive was uneventful and most of us dozed, waking only as we arrived into Gondar. It was great to catch up with everyone else and hear what they'd been up to. Cameras and laptops were pulled out and photos were uploaded for everyone to ooh and aah over. Jareb and Alexis had spent three days hiking in the Simien Mountains, somewhere I was hoping to get to in the next day or so.

But there was nothing in my eyes that would come close to standing on the edge of Erta Ale. And I definitely, definitely want to do it again. One day.


After a few days in Gondar we then went onto Axum and I did make it out to the incredible Simien Mountains. But as I can't find my memory card with these photos (being in Australia with all my camera equipment in the UK is frustrating!) I'm going to skip it for now and move onto Sudan.

Additional photos below
Photos: 58, Displayed: 42


Our armed guardsOur armed guards
Our armed guards

They would go ahead of us and take a look before we followed
Do you know what I'm doing?Do you know what I'm doing?
Do you know what I'm doing?

No? Either do I...
Sulphur lakes, DallolSulphur lakes, Dallol
Sulphur lakes, Dallol

the yellow colouring is sulphur while the orange is iron oxide

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