Bubbling volcanoes light up the night sky, sulphurous mounds of yellow contort into otherworldly shapes, and mirages of camels cross lakes of salt. Lying 100m and more below sea level, the Danakil Depression is about the hottest and most inhospitable place on Earth. In fact it’s so surreal that it doesn’t feel like part of Earth at all.
The Danakil is effectively a southerly terrestrial extension of the rifting process that formed the Red Sea, set at the juncture of the African, Arabian and Somali tectonic plates, and its low-lying surface was once fully submerged by saline water. Relics of those distant days include lakes Asale and Afrera, both of which lie at the centre of an ancient salt-extraction industry (seismic studies indicate that the thickness of the salt at Lake Asaleis around 2km).
The small village of Hamed Ela is the usual springboard for visits to Dallol and Lake Asale, whether you are a tourist or a caravan trader. It is a hot, dirty place with no toilet facilities, bordered by a pair of deep wells where you can watch the industrious local Afar draw up a meagre catch of muddy water in a goatskin container.
The dry, cracked lakebed of Lake Asale alongside Dallol is where the Afar people hack blocks of salt out of the ground. The famous camel caravans load up here.The salt-mining activity moves seasonally. The site consists of literally hundreds of Afar cameleers chipping at the salty crust to extract neat 30x40cm rectangular tablets. Each bar weighs about 6.5kg; one camel carries up to 200kg, or about 30 bars.
Salt for Gold
Since earliest times and right up to the present day, salt, a precious commodity for people and their animals, has been used as a kind of currency in Ethiopia. According to Kosmos, a 6th-century Egyptian writing in Greek, the kings of Aksum sent expeditions west to barter salt, among other things, for hunks of gold. Mined in the Danakil Depression, the mineral was transported hundreds of kilometers west across the country to the Ethiopian court in Shoa. Later, the salt was cut into small, rectangular blocks, which came to be known as amole; their value grew with every kilometer that they travelled further from the mine.
To this day, Afar nomads and their camels continue to follow this ancient salt route. Cutting the bars by hand from the salt lakes in eastern Ethiopia, they spend weeks traveling by caravan to market, where the bars will be bartered. Though nowadays the people of the Danakil Depression mine salt in order to earn gold in the highland markets, once upon a time it was the other way around. Long ago, so long that nobody really remembers, the salt of the Danakil was all gold – endless thousands of tonnes of pure gold. People say that Danakil had more gold than anywhere else on earth and its people lived like royalty. Wealth made them greedy, lazy and forgetful of God. In order to punish them, God turned all the gold to salt. But one day, so the locals say, when the people are no longer greedy, God will turn it all back into gold again and then the people of Danakil will once more be able to swap gold for salt.
One of the Danakil’s must-see is Dallol a surreal multi-hued field of sulphurous hot springs studded with steaming conical vents, strange ripple-like rock formations, and sprinkled with a rather adhesive, coarse orange deposit that looks something like dyed icing sugar. Try to get here in the early morning, when the light is fantastic and the temperature not too unbearable.
Erta Ale Volcano
The Danakil’s most amazing site is Erta Ale Volcano (sometimes spelt Ertale or Irta’ale), which has been in a state of continuous eruption since 1967. Its small southerly crater is one of the only permanent lava lakes on the planet. Erta Ale ranks as one of the most alluring – and physically challenging – natural attractions anywhere in Ethiopia.
Erta Ale is a shield volcano and at its summit is a pit crater that contains the world’s only permanent lava lake, which measures about 60m across and is 100m long. On January 21, 2017 a fissure eruption, located seven kilometers below the summit, resulted large amounts of continuously flowing lava from the volcano. The activity at the summit has decreased as a result of the lava now being drained through lower fissures on the flanks.
Because this is a extremely recent eruption the route to the new lava flow is much more challenging than the normal established route. Most groups only visit the new flow location although our group visited the new location, then moved to the summit to observe the crater and then spent the few remaining hours of the night before trekking down the volcano to the vehicles.
Note: This is a largely lawless area and there have been killings and kidnappings in recent years, so do check the situation carefully and contact your embassy for up-to-date information before going. The climate is also serious concern: people with heart conditions shouldn’t visit and everyone should heed signs of heat exhaustion
I hope you found this interesting. Please feel free to leave any thoughts, questions or comments that you might have.
Briggs, Philip (2012-09-24). Ethiopia (Bradt Travel Guides). Bradt Travel Guides. Kindle Edition.
Planet, Lonely; Jean-Bernard Carillet; Tim Bewer; Stuart Butler (2013-05-01). Lonely Planet Ethiopia, Djibouti & Somaliland (Travel Guide). Lonely Planet Publications. Kindle Edition.
BBC documentary “The Hottest Place on Earth” 2009