The Danakil Depression

"Avoid All Travel"

“Avoid All Travel”

The Danakil Depression is a place we have been talking about since we knew we would be coming this way. The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office don’t think its a good place and have coloured it red on their travel advice map (the top-right corner on the map), but we have found that a lot of things on the ground are not quite what they seem from back home. It is very close to the border with Eritrea and controlled by the Afar people who live there. Some years ago there were incidents of tourists being killed by armed groups in the area. In fact it really is a dangerous place – but what will kill you is geology and climate, and if you prepare and go with the right people then its as safe as anywhere that reaches 50C and bubbles with lava and acid. But we were still in Lalibela, 286km by road from Mekele which is where you need to be to start a trip into Danakil.

By road we mean what turned out to be 280km of variously graded track and 6km of surfaced road. As we left Lalibela just after noon as the thunderclouds gathered, Katana thought we might make it to the first turnoff for Mekele by 5pm. I thought we had no chance of making it to Mekele in a day – through the mountains, in thunderstorms, on muddy and rocky tracks which often double as a river bed? At gradients which meant constantly switching between 1st and 2nd gear on hairpins and crawling over boulder-strewn gulleys?

At 5.30pm we turned onto the side road to Mekele. Katana was fed up with herself for being 30 minutes later than predicted (even after skipping lunch). I was amazed.

Between these 2 moments we had covered 200km over the ground and crossed the northern Ethiopian mountains in a spectacular series of climbs and descents between 1500m and 3500m, passing through villages of waving and shouting children and endless donkeys, goats and cattle. There were universities on hilltops near small towns (including some of those 6km of tarmac), but mostly there were cliffs dropping away from the plateau-topped mountains and tiny fields of crops cut into every available slope, driven through by expanding ravines of soil-laden streams and rivers. Global aid agency project signs were at nearly every turn.

We crossed those on empty stomachs!
We crossed those on empty stomachs!

We stopped to calm down, reflect and brew up some instant noodles before the final push to Mekele. For once, we were not surrounded by staring small faces, perhaps because it was already starting to get dark. I glanced at the map, and whilst it was not so huge a distance I figured if it was anything like the bit we’d just done we’d still be driving come dawn. Katana reckoned 80-85km. Even so, as I switched to 4WD to crawl through a long stretch of mud and water I figured it was going to be a long night.

Whilst it was still just about light we finally reached an area so remote there seemed to be no people for miles. Right there, as we approached the next climb, Katana looked up at the hairpin above and said, “There’s a bunch of kids up there”. She wasn’t wrong. Rounding the muddy hairpin in the rain, with dark falling in the absolute, desolate middle of nowhere, we were blocked from moving by a group of 20 ten-year-old girls, dancing in traditional dress, banging a drum and demanding money. They surrounded the front of the car and banged on the windows. I had half expected an ambush, but this was ridiculous.

We thought we saw Hyenas right outside a couple of villages but put it down to imagination. Approaching one village as it began to rain we had to brake as a rope was strung across the road and a bus load of passengers were standing around their bus at the makeshift checkpoint, but the rope was lowered and we were waved through. We forged on down the narrow tunnel of our headlight beams, crunching through holes, rolling back and forth in the corners and squinting to see obstacles.

As we drove into the outskirts of Mekele at about 8pm, shining torches and gawping at packs of Hyenas heading towards town, I was happy to admit that there’s a reason I do the driving and leave Katana to the Navigation. We had covered 81km since our noodle-stop.


The first hotel we found seemed to be where the agencies and army stay when in town, and the price was a bit steep, but for 1 night we took the hit in the interest of getting some sleep and spending no more time traipsing round town. Besides, the Tourist Information office was in the building and we needed to talk to them first thing about the necessary guides, permits and protection for going in our own car to the Depression.

Bad news. First thing in the morning we went straight from breakfast to the office – to be told it was pretty much impossible to do it on our own.

Good news – there was a trip leaving in about 20 minutes, and we might be able to join that. After 10 minutes of discussion and bargaining, we were checking out of the hotel ready for a 4 day trip into the Danakil Depression in Troopy, as part of an Ethio Travel and Tours trip. Its expensive – we got the trip for $400 each (down from $600) for using Troopy – but when you see the numbers of people and equipment involved in this, and the wear-and-tear on both, it becomes clear this isn’t in any way a scam. Anyone wanting to do this in their own vehicle should weigh up the cost of this wear against the extra comfort and sheer enjoyment of driving yourself. Troopy is about the best equipped vehicle in these parts – air-con is essential, decent tyres are a must and WILL be damaged, and you best be good at driving in soft sand/mud/across lava flows. You will suffer attrition in some way.

Anyway – we were off, chasing our guide-car down a series of descents on a new mostly-completed road. We met up with the rest of the convoy having coffee in a village en-route. A collection of nationalities from Asia and Europe made up the group of 12 or so heading for the volcano and its lava lake, some having done 2 days visiting the salt lake and sulphurous springs of Dallol already. That was our destination for the second 2 days.

After another stretch of descents on good road and long straights across the black, rocky desert, we turned off the road and headed off across sandy (powdered muddy) desert studded with bushes and scrub – instructed to closely watch the route taken by our lead driver. This was fun driving, if only we could see where our lead car had gone in the clouds of super-fine dust and avoid the stunted bushes and banks of sand. We made it to an Afar village for lunch – herded into a stick and plastic hut – which was a very welcome sight. We had no problems as they cater everything vegetarian!

After lunch, we headed off across the desert again, only this time the flat plain of crusted mud had a nasty surprise or 2. This is the rainy season after all, and whilst it doesn’t rain down in the Danakil Depression, the mountains disgorge their water into wide, flat wadis and across the plains. The dry crust was paper thin here and the mud underneath suddenly dragged at the wheels and we ground to a halt. Nervous moments, but a quick switch to 4L, engage the diff locks and we powered out of the soggy bit onto firmer ground. Next time I wasn’t going to be caught out so easily and we kept going in across the dry dusty bits and damp stretches alike with a little extra power until reaching the edge of the lava field. At this point our lead driver left us there to go back and find out what had happened to the other cars – all Toyota Landcruisers – which had got stuck. We chatted to a young Afar man and some children who appeared out of the lava field until the others arrived.

Before the lava fields...
Before the lava fields…

Then began the most painful and slow bit of driving I have ever encountered. Basically, to get to the camp site at the foot of the volcano we had to drive across the naked razor-sharp lava field for what seemed like forever but was probably nearer 2 hours. Trying to avoid grounding out or slicing the car open on huge boulders, thudding into holes or inching up huge steps, Katana was nauseous and ready to get out and walk by the time we got through. It would have been quicker to walk, except that the heat would have been fatal in minutes with no shade and just the black rocks to hide behind. To make matters worse, one of the drivers spotted oil dripping onto the inside of one of Troopy’s rear tyres. It seems that powering out of that wet wadi had put too much pressure on an oil seal and it had given in. Not too serious, the experts concurred, we could continue for now and get it fixed when we got back to Mekele. Still, it was a worry.

The plan was to climb the gently sloping volcano after dark and spend the remaining night sleeping in the open at the top, before heading down again at first light. We were all tired, a little nervous and excited at the thought. So we rested, drank water and had a good dinner of salad and pasta before setting out – each with our 2 bottles of water for the trip up – led by our guide, a local Afar guide and escorted by a couple of soldiers. The rest of the army contingent who had come with us had been deployed to scout out the area around us. A camel went ahead, loaded with blankets and more bottled water.

The climb was more of a gentle sloping walk for most of the way, starting through sand and then entering more tricky old lava flows. Through the evening we climbed for about 3 hours, conversation dwindling a little, until we reached a final steeper climb and arrived at the top ridge. A few minutes walk in front of us, we could now see the red glow and occasional bright sparks of the lava simmering in its crater, and smell the sulphurous smoke even though we were upwind.

First sight of the action.
First sight of the action.

We spent what may have been an hour, maybe two, staring into the slowly churning pool of lava just feet in front of us. Parts of the small lake were constantly boiling and flinging showers of molten rock into the air above us…occasionally coming a little too close and necessitating some swift footwork to relocate our gawping spot somewhere safer. Other parts just oozed zigzag lines of red and yellow, as the darkening surface skin slid across towards edges which would consume it in bubbling fire. One spot just sat glowing until an ocassional great bubble of runny rock and gas phlurped to the surface.


Even the dark ground around us was strange and surprising – connecting the gravelly carpet of black beads was a network of fibres like millions of interleaved spiders webs. This delicate ‘cotton lava’ seems to be formed as runny molten rock is thrown into the air and cools in fine strands which drift down to settle on the surroundings.

Mini-Plate Tectonics in the Lava Lake
Mini-Plate Tectonics in the Lava Lake

The night’s sleep was less awesome, lying on a thin mattress on the sloping rock of the volcano after chasing off some spiders and the odd mouse. It was still too hot for comfort. The long walk down at dawn was a quiet one, until we joined the rest of the drivers back at camp for breakfast and then the return trip. At this point I did wonder at the wisdom of driving myself for this trip – combining the hiking with driving is a bit rough!

But once free of the lava field, we again had some great fun driving making fresh tracks across the mud-cake and sand plain. Some of the other vehicles had to be dug and pulled out again, and the following trip seems to have been cancelled to allow the ground to dry out a bit as a result. Back on the tarmac, Troopy’s leak got worse on the long climbs and we decided we needed to head back to Mekele for repairs straight away. In a change of plan, the whole expedition switched to this option – a night in a hotel in Mekele rather than in a village house – and we all headed back to base.

A quick trip to a garage in the morning confirmed we needed a new oil seal, which was no problem. However, it also identified that the rear-differential oil was contaminated with water. Now – remember that river crossing back on the way to Tim and Kim’s near Gonder and the little issue I mentioned? Well it seems that the water had got in through the Air-Locker breather valve when we went paddling, and now we needed to change the oil. We checked the front too and found the same thing. So we are now rather nervous about the next wet bit and I’ve added replacing the breather valves to my snag list. Anyone got good suggestions here? (Other than checking the gear oil more often!).

Anyway – we headed back to the Danakil Depression in convoy. Today’s destination was Dallol, at about 120m below sea level. We were going to see the salt lake, and the next day the colourful springs and formations created by hot mineral-laden waters and gases bubbling to the surface. It was a 440km round trip, on and off road as the new road building has created a series of rough and bumpy diversions.

Driving out across the salt lake to the waters edge was a nice feeling, but walking on the salt barefoot and soothing our hot feet in the 48% salt water was lovely. As the sun set we took in the atmosphere of this hostile, yet beautiful place.

Salty Vegetarian Shoes
Salty Vegetarian Shoes

We spent the night in the Afar village bordering the salt lake, and we had the luxury of baking in Troopy with the windows open, rather than baking on a rough bed out in the open. It was bearable while the wind blew, but once that died out we were all left to wait our 5am wake-up.

The next day’s tour, before the heat became dangerously unbearable, first took us across the strange curled-tile landscape of the long-dry salt lake towards what is known as ‘The Colourful Area’. I’ll let the photographs speak for themselves – see the Week 13 gallery. The strange salt-mushrooms were also created in the same environment as the bright yellow and red structures, but as the active area moves on the basic salt environment asserts itself and the colours fade. Sulphurous gases and hot springs make small lakes and rivers of sulphuric acid.

The Colourful Area
The Colourful Area

After that, we visited the salt mountain and crawled through its caves – this is a dangerous place for wildlife too as the little liquid to be found is usually poisonous. I think the worst smelling place we’ve been (since the Iskenderun ferry toilet), was the oily methane springs back out on the lake floor.


Then there was just the 220km horizontal, and 2.5km vertical, return drive across those gravel roads and hills to Mekele. We made it, but as I parked outside the Ethio Tours office I was done. Totally exhausted and couldn’t move. It wasn’t til 24 hours later, having collapsed in the clinic waiting room, that I was diagnosed with Giardia and Typhoid and put on a saline drip for an hour – it takes more than The Danakil Depression to bring down a Vegan it seems. But we had survived and headed South towards Addis Ababa after another night’s rest in the hotel.

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