Life on Mars - The Danakil Depression, Ethiopia

There’s not an ounce of luxury in this pocket of Ethiopia, but this is a world that you never knew existed. Adventure doesn’t get much more raw.

The Danakil Depression in the Afar region of Ethiopia is the fourth lowest point in the world, harbouring a large salt flat and the colourful sulphur lakes of Dallol. One step and you’ve landed on the moon. The next and you’re the first person to arrive on Mars. Either that, or you’ve mistakenly stepped on to the set of a 1970s sci-fi set, for it’s all too surreal. There are colours that I thought only existed as varieties of Fanta.

A volcano 750 metres below the surface releases hot gases from the magma chambers that evaporate into different minerals that display their nature through these bright shades:

Sulphur – bright yellow

Iron – red

Neon – well, neon

Potassium - green

In the unimaginable days before air conditioning, an American company tried to harvest potassium from Dallol, but swiftly retreated. The area often has the highest average annual temperature in the world, so it’s not a place that you can comfortably hang out in. The relatively cool months (it was 39 degrees Celsius at 10am in the morning for us) of December and January allow for early morning visits, otherwise there’s the potential to melt.

A handful of active volcanoes in this area of Ethiopia hint to the tearing and stretching of the land, for this is part of the East African Rift Valley. It’s possible to visit the active shield volcano, Erta Ale. But you won’t just view the volcano from afar (pun intended), you’ll climb it, view it’s magnificent lava lake from an all too scary proximity and then proceed to sleep on its shallow slopes.

The volcano wasn’t just active, but it was more active the day that we were there than our guides had witnessed in their lifetimes. Slightly disconcerting, but we weren’t complaining as we watched the lava dance in front of our eyes for hours. Usually, tourists trek down into the caldera and peer over the crater’s edge at the lava lake, but we remained over 300 metres away whilst the white hot liquid oozed over to the spot where, just yesterday, tourists like us had been standing. Madness.

After the overwhelming and intense experience of witnessing a volcano in all of its fiery glory, Lake Assale’s vast expanse of white was a beautiful contrast. We spent sunset here, sipping on sweet Ethiopian wine and trying to perfect the art of photo taking on salt flats – you’ve all seen the perspective shots! However, the most spectacular outcome was created through the thin layer of water that lay on the surface of the salt, creating a perfect reflection.

On our final morning we returned to the salt to witness the men who mine it. I felt a bit uncomfortable at this point – watching men do the physically intensive job of chopping up salt in 40°C heat, whilst eager tourists attempt to turn this feat into a beautiful photo… it was just a bit too much.

For every block of salt, the miners receive 4 Ethiopian Birr (approximately $0.20). Traders come with their camel caravans to buy the salt. A camel can carry 26 blocks of salt; a mule, 12-16; and a donkey, 8-10. Most traders can expect to bring 10-15 camels every day. Both miners and traders receive (relatively) ample payment for their work, thankfully. Regardless, to me, it appeared to be one of the most hellish jobs imaginable.

Practical advice…

Some people may strike this off their travel list due to questionable safety, and a few years ago rightly so, but he UN recently lowered the safety scale to 2 (6 being the most dangerous), which is the same as Addis Ababa. The Ethiopian army now has a base in the area, and soldiers do continuous patrols to secure the safety of travellers and locals alike.

EDIT (because people were asking): You have to travel with a tour company. This will make life a lot easier for you becasue there are many points where you need to get permission to enter an area. The tour companies have formed relationships with the local officials and can arrange this seamlessly. It's also mandatory to travel with security guards (this is just a formality, don't worry!) and the tour operator will arrange this in advance. Also, there's safety in numbers... due to the intense heat, it's likely that yur vehicle will have some problems along the way, and this isn't a place that you want to be stuck in without help, trust me!

Don’t expect tourist infrastructure because there is none. Most of the time you’ll be sleeping under the stars, going to the ‘toilet’ behind a suitable mound of dirt or a bush and eating a super basic diet of rice and pasta.

Although this are has the hottest average annual temperature in the world, it can get surprisingly chilly at night. Take layers.

Also take: toilet paper; head/hand torch (half of the climb up Erta Ale will be in the dark); snacks; oral rehydration salts (just in case); other first aid items; wet wipes; a hat; and a good camera!

GoPro Footage of our Trip...


I'm Hannah - a communications consultant and avid traveller, based in Ethiopia. This is a travel blog about Africa, and beyond!

I hope that my travel exploits inspire you to get out there and see the world!

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