Hot and harsh, but travelers love it
It’s been called one of the most alien places on earth — a “gateway to hell” and, in the words of British explorer Wilfred Thesiger, a veritable “land of death.”
The sulfurous hot springs, acid pools, steaming fissures and salt mountains of the Danakil Depression resemble scenes from a science fiction movie. But the area is very real — and it’s one of Ethiopia’s top attractions.
One of the hottest places on earth (by average daily temperature) as well as one of the lowest (over 400 feet below sea level), the Danakil Depression entices three main types of people to the area: salt miners, scientists and travelers.
As they have done for centuries, miners travel hours — often by camel caravans — to extract salt slabs from the flat pans around Lake Afar. Salt is the region’s “white gold” and was a form of currency in Ethiopia until the 20th century.
A camel caravan, with salt mined by hand, travels across a salt plain in the Danakil Depression.
Scientists are attracted to the conditions. In the 1960s, the area was used to study plate tectonics, but more recently astrobiological exploration is the larger scientific draw.
In the spring of 2016, researchers from the University of Bologna, Italy’s International Research School of Planetary Sciences and Ethiopia’s Mekelle University studied whether microbes can withstand Danakil’s scorchingly inhospitable environment (it turned out they can). Scientists wonder whether if extremophiles, as they are known, can survive there, they can survive on Mars too.
Erta Ale’s interior lava lake is one of only eight in the world.
Travelers are lured to the Danakil Depression for an altogether different reason. It’s a sweltering, foul-smelling, punitive place, which is exactly why people cross continents to see it. Despite its intensity, those who make the trek give it stellar reviews.
The sulfur springs of Dallol are a particular draw, with its stupefying shades of neon green and yellow that hiss forth from the rocky terrain. Ethiopia’s most active volcano, Erta Ale (which means “Smoking Mountain” in the local Afar language) is another, with its cartoon-like molten center, one of only eight lava lakes in the world.
How the Danakil Depression formed
Danakil is part of the Afar Triangle, a geological depression in the remote northeastern part of Ethiopia, where three tectonic plates are slowing diverging. The area is large — 124 miles by 31 miles — and was once part of the Red Sea. Over time, volcanic eruptions spewed enough lava to eventually seal off an inland sea which evaporated in the arid climate.
The Earth Observatory at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center predicts that because the land is slowly sinking, it will one day fill with ocean water again. This could be millions of years in the future though.
What it’s like to visit
It’s blistering hot. Daily temperatures are around 94 F (34.4 C), but can reach as high as 122 F (50 C), and rainfall is scarce.
Day trips departing from the town of Wikro typically start around 4 a.m. From there, a four-wheel drive convoy embarks on a three-hour journey down a windy mountainous road across the Ethiopian portion of the Great Rift Valley.
Helicopter rides are also available for a speedier route.
“From up above, you can cover a lot of ground smoothly and for a second, it feels as if you’re truly on another planet,” said Henok Tsegaye, a guide who leads luxury Ethiopian tours for Jacada Travel.
The water of Lake Karum is visible through a hole in the Danakil Depression salt flats.
“The Danakil Depression really is one of the most incredible natural wonders in the world. It is one of the most alien places on earth, and with Ethiopia growing in popularity as a destination, we are seeing more and more travelers,” said Tsegaye.
It’s common to see dead insects and birds around the perimeter of Danakil’s sulfur springs, which Tsegaye said is likely caused by drinking the water or inhaling too much of the carbon dioxide-rich air. It’s also the reason the springs have been dubbed “killer lakes.”
From fall foliage trips to cherry blossom season, nature’s changing colors have long been a catalyst for travels around the globe. But here it’s the variety of natural hues, set among a vast sea of nothingness, that truly amazes.
In the hottest, most acidic pools, sulfur and salt create a more neon yellow shade, while cooler copper-laced pools are more turquoise in color.
Eric Lafforgue/Art in All of Us
“The mixture of yellow, orange, red, blue and green are due to the rain and sea water from the nearby coasts that seep through into the sulfuric lakes and get heated up by the magma,” said Tsegaye. “As the salt from the sea reacts with the minerals in the magma, these dazzling colors begin to emerge.”
As the heat evaporates the water, colorful crust-like deposits develop across the land, which mix mystically with the cooler turquoise lakes in the depression.
Is it safe to see the Danakil Depression?
Compared with the hydrothermal zones in Yellowstone National Park, Danakil is hotter and more acidic. Danakil’s springs are around 212 F (100 C) and have an average pH of 0.2. Compared with the average pH of lemon juice (2.4) or battery acid (1.0), it’s easy to see why dipping a finger in the bubbling pool isn’t advised.
Proper footwear and a guide are essential.
“When walking on geothermal areas, you must be careful. The salt crust is unstable, delicate and fragile,” said Tsegaye. “You need to know where to go and exactly where to step.”
Henok Tsegaye (center).
Courtesy of Jacada Travel
“Previously, there was tension nearby the border of Eritrea, so they wield machine guns for your protection only,” said Tsegaye.
When to go
The Danakil Depression’s high season runs from November to March, when temperatures — though still in the 90s F — are slightly more bearable.
Salt, copper and cobalt create the ever-changing colors of the Dallol landscape.
Low season is from June to August, which Tsegaye described as “unsuitable.” Tours still operate, but the experience is often more arduous than pleasurable, he said.
“It is truly one of the most alien places on earth. It is one of the most remote, unlivable, hottest, lowest points on the planet,” said Tsegaye. “Sounds a bit scary, but that’s what makes it so fascinating as well.”