Bubbling lava lake colouring the night sky into a vivid red, sleeping at an active volcano, salt lakes, sulphurous mounds of yellow contorting into other-worldly shapes, and mirages of camels cross lakes of salt….all these and more are what you get during your Danakil Depression trip. Beautiful, remote, and very challenging, this is one of the most unique places on earth. If you are traveling in Ethiopia, chances are that you will visit the Danakil Depression. But as unique and stunning as this may be, it is not a cakewalk and hostile environment, limited tourism infrastructure, and uncertain safety regulations make Danakil Depression a challenge to explore. Thus it most important that you go there knowing what to expect. Plus, you need to choose a tour company very carefully because things can awry during travel anytime and you want a company that knows how to deal with unexpected problems in such a remote destination. In this post, I will share as much information to help you plan a sensible Danakil Depression tour, give you tips, and arm you with some reality checks.
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Where and what is Danakil Depression?
The Danakil Depression is a part of the Afar Triangle, a geological depression located in the remote northeastern part of Ethiopia on the border with Eritrea and Djibouti. It is thought to be one of the most inhospitable places in the world and is a strong contender for being the hottest as well. The average daily temperature of the region is more than 34° Celsius (with peaks going well over 50°). Danakil is also one of the lowest points on earth with some places going down at about 125 meters below sea level. The region sees minimal amounts of rain throughout the year and despite the harsh environment, life has existed there since the beginning of humanity. Danakil Depression sits on top of three tectonic plates, that are constantly shifting. As a result, the entire region is scattered with interesting rock formations, springs, and geysers. According to scientists, this large area (124 miles by 31 miles) was once a part of the Red Sea. Over a period of time, volcanic eruptions spewed enough lava to eventually seal off an inland sea which slowly 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 again fill with ocean water. However, it is not happening before a few millions of years in the future.
Why should you go for a Danakil tour?
To begin with, the Danakil Depression is so surreal that you won’t feel you are on earth anymore. In fact, very few places in the world can match the overwhelming wilderness of this place and the genuine, raw adventure it offers. Plus, it is not every day that you visit the hottest and most inhospitable place on earth. Then, it is truly an awe-inspiring destination. The actively volcanic Danakil Depression features a permanent lava lake and a vast field of yellow and orange sulphuric rocks. The Dallol sulphur springs are particularly very famous because of their stupefying shades of neon green and yellow that hiss forth from the depths of the rocky terrain. Ethiopia’s most active volcano, Erta Ale (which means “Smoking Mountain” in the local Afar language) is another attraction and its molten center is one of the only eight lava lakes in the world. The entire region is like a poisonous hostile beauty. It is not uncommon to see dead insects and birds around the perimeter of Danakil’s sulphur springs. Consumption of the water or inhaling too much of the carbon dioxide-rich air can be seriously hazardous. That is why these magnificently coloured springs are also known as the “killer lakes.” The colours are indeed jaw-dropping and range from deep ochre, pinks, violets, saffron, white, deep yellow, to vivid turquoise. The mixture of yellow, orange, red, blue, and green are produced by the rain and seawater from the nearby coasts that seep into the sulphuric lakes and get heated up by the magma. Dazzling colours emerge as salt from the sea reacts with the minerals in the magma. Once the heat evaporates the water, it leaves behind crusts of wonderfully shaped colourful deposits across the land, and these clash with the cooler turquoise lakes in the depression. Just as interesting are the nomadic Afar people who eke out a living by mining salts from the baking, cracked plains.
Where do you start your tour?
All Danakil Depression tours start from a town called Mekele. You can fly into Mekele by Ethiopian Airlines from Lalibela, Aksum, or Addis Ababa. The alternative option is a long bone-jarring bus journey from anywhere in Ethiopia.
When to go
The high season runs from November to March when temperatures (though still in the 90s F) are slightly more bearable. June to August is the low season and is considered unsuitable for travelers. Tours still operate, but the experience is often more arduous than pleasurable.
Is it a safe destination?
The Danakil Depression is not exactly a safe place. The Afar region is politically tensed and the Afar people are not the friendliest. There have been incidents of the locals living near Dodom putting up roadblocks to stop tourist cars and demanding bribes from the drivers to let them through.
- The extreme heat of the place is not to be taken lightly. It leads to severe dehydration and heat strokes can happen. Know that there is no hospital or a doctor around for miles. In August 2019, a young Israeli tourist died in a few hours from severe heatstroke. Consider your health conditions before visiting Danakil. Avoid visiting or take extreme precautions if you suffer from chronic diseases like heart and lung conditions. The closest hospital is in Mekele and it can be an 8- hour drive.
- Safety continues to remain a concern in Danakil. It was actually a “No Go Zone” until 2009. Until 2005, deadly skirmishes with the Eritrean armed forces along the border were pretty common, and even after the cease-fire tourists were kidnapped from that region. In 2007 five Britons were kidnapped. Landmines have killed several drivers there in 2009. In 2011, five Austrian and German tourists were attacked at the foot of Erta Ale. The situation has changed considerably since 2012 when the Ethiopian Army set up a camp not only in Ahmed Ale but also in Erta Ale.
- Danakil is hotter and more acidic than any place on earth. Danakil’s springs have a whopping temperature of 212 F (100 C) and an average pH of 0.2. Compare it with the average pH of lemon juice (2.4) or battery acid (1.0) and you will understand why you should tread in Dallol with caution. Nothing should come in contact with bare skin at the sulphur pools and proper footwear and a guide are essential. Walking on geothermal areas is not a piece of cake. The salt crust is unstable, delicate, and fragile and you need to know exactly where you are going.
Danakil Tours and Costs
I booked my Danakil Depression tour with ETT. It was included in a package that had Tigray rock-cut churches as well. My booking was made in Aksum, where I personally met with the travel agent at the company office, got receipts of my payments, and vouchers that stated the tour in clear terms. Well…even though a few things did not go as per the itinerary sold to me, I had a very safe and comfortable tour with ETT. Ethiopia’s tourism world is dominated by two major travel companies – ETT and World Sun. Most agents sell tours from these two companies and unfortunately, there is no fixed price. Many travelers who have better bargaining skills get better deals for the same tour while others shell out more. The other companies that offer Danakil tours include Smiling Ethiopia, Magna Flow Tours, and Abeba Tours Ethiopia. There are few things to remember before choosing a Danakil tour.
- First of all, independent travel is forbidden in the Danakil Depression.
- Accompanying armed guards are mandatory.
- Do not expect luxury or much comfort.
- Expect changes in your itinerary, but go with the flow since these changes may be inevitable. Remember you are in a very remote harsh environment.
- In a place like Danakil, go for a more reputable company that may cost more than opting for a cheaper one. Trust me, you don’t want to be stuck here with a badly maintained vehicle with no spare tyre and an inexperienced guide. Opt for group tours and it is better to go as convoys in these tours as there may be doctors, nurses and/or first aid providers among the travelers. In a place like Danakil, the harsh environment has often caused heat strokes and other physical difficulties.
- Most importantly, a Danakil tour will not come cheap. Expect to pay anything from 550 USD per person to 800 per person.
- A 3D/2N itinerary is more than enough for Danakil. After some time, you will simply wish to return to civilization for a hot shower and a comfortable bed. A 2 days tour is too brief and you can visit the salt pans/camel caravan or Erte Ale volcano. There is no guarantee that you can see the camel caravans. A 3-day tour will help you explore the saltpans, Erta Ale volcano, and the LakeAfrera.A 4-day tour is an extended version of the 3-day tour with more stops in Abale.
I paid 550 USD for 2N/3D in Danakil and this included Tigray (Gheralta) churches tour as well. Except for the overnight stays in Mekele, all expenses were paid for in the Danakil trip. We only had to pay for our hotel stay and meals in Mekele. Plus, the beer we had on the trip was at our expense.
Facilities or Comfort Level of a Danakil tour
Expect no luxury during your entire Danakil tour. There is a high possibility of you spending three to four days without a proper shower, using squat toilets, sleeping on mattresses on the floor, and going without electricity. Forget about wifi. In general, the guides and drivers in Ethiopia are still not at par with most of their counterparts around the world. They speak either little or no English but it is important to remember that tourism is still in the nascent stage in Ethiopia.
- Sleeping Arrangements – The first night of the tour you will probably be sleeping near Erta Ale volcano on mattresses or sleeping bags provided by the tour company. I brought my own sleeping bag since I am a bit squeamish about sharing such personal items. The second night will be spent at an extremely basic guesthouse. You will sleep in a dormitory-style bedroom with mattresses placed on the floor. At Erta Ale, you will be sleeping with too many people around you under the open skies. Carry noise-canceling headphones if their chatter bothers you.
- Other Facilities – Danakil tour facilities are extremely basic. Toilets are available only at the guesthouses. Other times, you have to simply use nature. The shared toilets in the guesthouse are not clean and there are no hot showers.
- Food – Again, there is nothing to recommend. Food is as basic as it gets with some scrambled eggs for breakfast if you are lucky. Only vegetarian food is served on these tours. Carry your own snacks, juices, and water.
- Long driving hours – This goes without saying. On the first day, you will be sitting in the car for up to 8 hours as the distances are long and the road conditions are poor. Since you will be sharing a 4*4 with other travelers, expect very less legroom for yourself and you might be extremely uncomfortable, especially if you are tall.
- An abundance of garbage – Danakil is quite trashed. This is especially true around Erta Ale where you will be shocked by the amount of garbage the travelers leave behind. These range from empty plastic bottles, toilet papers, to soiled sanitary napkins. To be more responsible, make sure to pack your garbage and bring it back to town with you.
What to pack for a Danakil Depression tour?
- A headtorch since you will climb Erte Ala in the dark)
- A light jacket
- A light sleeping bag
- Swimsuit and Towel
- Towel/Wet wipes
- Rubbish bag
- Pair of light hiking shoes
- Light cotton scarf to cover your face
- Hand sanitizer
- Small change to tip the guards
An idea of a 4-day Danakil itinerary
- Pick-up from hotel in Mekele
- Lunch break near Berhale
- Picking-up our military permission
- Lake Assale, salt flats, and camel caravan for sunset
- Camp, dinner, and outside sleeping
- Early Breakfast
- Sulphur Springs at Dallol
- Drive to salt pans
- Experience salt mining
- Guesthouse in Abala
Day 3 Danakil Depression Tour
- Leave guesthouse
- Arrive in basecamp in Dodom
- Leave basecamp for Erta Ale hike
- Arrive at the volcano
- Sleep at the volcano
Day 4 Danakil Depression Tour
- Very early Wake-up call
- Breakfast at Dodom base camp
- Lake Afrera for a break and swim in the salt lake
- Back in Mekele
A 3-Day tour has a slight change. On a 3-day tour, the travelers go straight to Dodom and sleep at Erta Ale on the first night. The second night is in Abale and Dallol sulphur springs are on the third day.
Follow the rest of the Ethiopia series here
- 20 PHOTOS THAT WILL WANT TO MAKE YOU VISIT ETHIOPIA
- ETHIOPIA TRIP TIPS
- MY ADDIS ABABA MEMORIES
- PHOTO ESSAY OF ADDIS MERCATO
- ADDIS ABABA TO JINKA: AN ETHIOPIAN ROAD TRIP
- OMO VALLEY, THE HUMAN ZOO OF ETHIOPIA
- THE LOWER OMO VALLEY IN ETHIOPIA
- REAL LIFE PHOTOS OF OMO VALLEY TRIBES
- OMO VALLEY TRAVEL GUIDE AND TIPS
- MY LAZY, RELAXING AKSUM DAYS
- TIGRAY ROCK-CUT CHURCHES: A CLIMB OF FAITH
- DANAKIL DEPRESSION IN 15 PHOTOS
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE