The Danakil Desert is one of those places you should not miss if you decide to travel to Ethiopia.
Usually when I choose the destinations I travel to, I do not plan too much the route and love to discover new places on my own. However, there are always some points of interest that particularly appeal to me, and they become important for me to arrive.
When we and Nir (well maybe just Nir) built the route for our trip to Ethiopia, it was important for me to reach two main places - the Semian Mountains and the Danakil Desert.
Beside those two, everything else was a mystery to me and a bonus attraction to my trip.
In the following post I will tell you a bit about this weird looking place. I will describe the route me and my good friend Nir have done, and tell you some more about our personal experience in this unique place.
The Danakil desert is located in northeastern Ethiopia, close to the Eritrean border, in an area known as the Afar / Afar region.
The desert covers nearly 140,000 square kilometers and part of it is also found in neighboring countries such as Eritrea and Djibouti.
One of the most prominent features in the Danakil Desert is the low amount of sediments and the high temperatures it reaches. (I will not lie, Nir was sweating like hell there :))
In the hot season, temperatures can rise up to 50 degrees (so it is considered the warmest desert in the world), and all you can do in this situation is to sit in the shade and drink cold beer (which, surprisingly, they have plenty of there).
One of the most interesting things in this area is the unique geological structure of this place and its geologic processes.
I will not go into the depth of things, because the information is around the internet is great, but I will tell you that the Danakil desert contains more than 30 volcanoes, some of which are active, a vast area of salt lakes, some sulfur springs and pools, and rich with minerals geysers.
There are several main points in the desert that make it attractive and unique:
One of the main places you should visit is the active volcano Erta Ale.
Every few years there is a lava eruption from this volcano, the last of which occurred at the beginning of 2017.
The walk to the volcano begins in the early evening hours, due to the heat in the place. The climbing is not so difficult as the volcano rises to a modest height of only 613 meters.
The walk takes about three hours (a 10 km in length), and on the way there you can’t really see the view around you since you’re walking during the night (but the way back will be surprising)
While walking you will be able to spot the volcano by witnessing the lava that burns on the horizon and from the smell of smoke all around you.
On particularly good days you can get close to the volcano hole even from a distance of two or three meters (a spectacular sight!).
Sometimes there is so much smoke that it is hard to see the lava from close, and for some it can be a little disappointing.
It's usually a matter of luck, and I think it's still worth trying to get to the volcano if you're already visiting the Danakil Desert.
Dallol is the place you will see in most pictures when they tell you about the Danakil Desert.
The area contains many springs which combine different sulfur and other mineral compounds.
This geology phenomenome was created by a secondary eruption of a volcano, leaving behind it one of the most spectacular landscapes, and making this place particularly unique.
Of course, these springs should not be immersed due to their high acidity, and you should carefully move around the area to avoid some embarrassing accidents.
The geological explanation behind this phenomenon is particularly interesting.
The eruption of the volcano left a crater, where once was filled with groundwater. The combination between the water and the lava produced a high steam.
Rainwater that seeps into the ground ,(which is considered relatively low, 130 meters below sea level), are dissolving the minerals along the way, creating these strange colored springs, which are affected by sulfur, iron, potassium, sodium and other minerals.
The combination of these phenomena also creates the special soil that accompanies the area and the rocks that emerge from the springs.
One of the most special sights to see in the Danakil Desert is the convoys of hundreds of camels in the salt mining industry in the area.
Members of the Afar tribe, a muslim nomads, are the ones who dig the salt and live in this desert.
In fact, there is no local population living there, probably due to the difficult living conditions of this place, except for the Afar tribe, who are there in order to quarry the salt.
Every day, hundreds of camels that transfer the salt stones, are walking the path between the main points of the salt mining to the base stations from which the salt is being distributed.
The convoy leaders walk by foot, followed by dozens of poor camels and donkeys, which accompany them along the long road they must pass.
The Afar people seem to have the hardest job in the world.
Under these tough conditions, they transfer stones of salt, their main source of income, all in order to make a living.
The starting point to the Danakil desert is from a city called Mek'ele, located in northern Ethiopia.
You can’t reach the Danakil Desert independently, so you must contact one of the agencies in the area and close a tour package for it.
One of the main reasons for this, is the fact that the desert borders Eritrea, which doesn’t have the best relations with Ethiopia, and therefore all the way through the desert will be accompanied by armed police. (Do not worry, the tour is absolutely safe).
In addition, the only way to travel in the desert is by using a 4X4 vehicle that will be driven by a guide - since the roads are tough and problematic.
With a skilled yet crazy driver you are going to experience moments that will stay with you forever.
One of the best operators in Mek'ele is the lovely Nagasai, with whom we also took the tour, and there is also a benefit through Mzungu backpacking community, which provides a special discount for travelers.
A 4-day tour costs about 300$ with Nagasi and the price includes all the expenses of the car, fuel, a guide (Abraham - the most amazing guide out there!), armed police officers and 3 meals a day.
On the first day we arrived at Nagasi's office, left most of our belongings there, and took only a small backpack with some important gear.
A short drive took us to the first camp where we spent the first night at.
We met the rest of our car companions, spent some time with the local population in the area and of course - drank the local beer :)
Toward evening time, when the temperatures dropped and we did not want to die anymore from the extreme heat, we took a small tour with our guide to a nice salt lake and the hot springs next to it.
The water was too hot to enter, so we decided to do what Nir and I always choose to do - Slackline :)
When darkness fell, we returned to the camp and spent the night under the stars, surrounded by goats, sheep, dogs and donkeys. (This led to very strange dreams at night).
In addition, I found myself in the middle of the night shouting at the barking dogs - Poofy be quiet!! because I thought these were my dogs barking :)
On the second day, we walked around a bit in the small village of the camp area, and then we toured the salt springs area and saw from the distance the salt miners who work very hard in this heat.
Later on, we went to one of the villages and met some of the annoying children of the local community and waited for the rest of our group to arrive.
The Asian guy who was with us did some magic tricks to the children to keep them busy, but after awhile they were mostly interested in Nir's camera or just trying to get out attention in creative ways.
After lunch we began to move towards our next great destination - the volcano Arte Ella.
A short drive took us to our exit point.
Since walking to the volcano begins in the evening, we passed the time by getting to know our new members of the group with some card games.
After a few hours we packed our things and started walking towards the volcano, to one of the most beautiful moments of my life.
After a few hours of walking in total darkness, just with our head torches, we reached the volcano.
About half an hour walk took us to a viewpoint from which we could take pictures and not choke too much from the smoke.
While me and Nir thought this moment was the peak of this day, a surprise awaited us :)
It turns out that two weeks before we arrived an eruption occurred, which made the approach to the lava hole problematic since the lava did not completely harden.
While all the other members of our group returned back to the camp, me, Nir and our guide decided that we should try to get closer to the lava hole anyway.
We three started walking slowly and carefully towards the lava hole, on that unstable lava ground, hearing the ground cracks under our feet.
We stood about 2 meters away from the hole, watching the lava explosions flying all over the place - a spectacular sight!
When I started to feel the soles of my shoes getting too hot, and after looking through a narrow crack in the ground below and realizing that I could see the lava running between my legs, we decided to start going back to the camp.
After we returned we saw that everyone had already went to sleep.
Me and Nir found in a small viewpoint, sat there, watching the volcano from distance still storming around, opened some good Scotch and cheered for this wonderful moment.
At about 4am we woke up, packed our gear, ate something small, and immediately started walking back before the sun will boil us to death. :)
The return time is critical as temperatures rise quickly and it is best to get to a shelter as early as possible.
By the time we got back we had finally seen the beautiful road we walked the evening before and enjoyed the views we missed on the way there.
After a brief rest in the camp area, we started our journey to the salt deserts and salt miners.
This part of the trip was one of the best moments of my life.
Our guides made us feel so free, allowing us to climb on the roof of the car, and simply enjoy the wind in this endless expanses around us, viewing the landscape changed every few meters into a completely different world.
Towards sunset we reached the salt deserts where we took pictures, drank wine and beer with all the staff who had spent the last three days with us, and watched the sunset.
In the evening we arrived back at the camp where a delicious dinner was waiting for us and we celebrated our last evening together.
Later on we went to the local pub of the small village where we slept, met the locals, heard the local music, and of course - drank some more of their tasty Ethiopian beer.
We started our last day early in the morning and drove directly to the Dallol depression to see the exclusive mineral springs.
It felt like walking on the soil of another volcanic star IO is one the moons of the planet Jupiter, and also my favorite moon. It has more than 400 active volcanoes which gives it a weird looking surface.(perhaps like the moon IO?).
After visiting the Dallol depression we started driving to the place where the salt miners are herding the camels and mining the salt fields.
As we drove, we already could see the unfortunate camel convoys that needs to carry unreasonable amounts of salt stones on their humps. It is one wonderful sight to see though, even though you feel sorry for the poor camels.
At one point we stopped the car and went to get to know the simple people who were mining the salt, and in between trying to pet some camels or donkeys on the nose.
I think you could definitely stay there for hours without getting bored, also trying to break some of the salt stones yourself (that's not easy at all!).
On the way back, we said farewell from the desert veis in some unusual and exciting 4x4 drive, in which we dug our wheels a bit in the sand along the way (not something that a tough group of Ethiopians can not cope with).
Before we left our guides took us to another interesting spot with beautiful cliffs on all sides, and we made a stop at a cool, pleasant spring (and apparently full of bilharzia) that hides quietly among the cliffs.
At the spring we ate our lunch, and started driving back to Mek'ele.
Basically you can leave the large bag in the company’s office, and carry with you just a small bag (30-40 liters).
A liner is a thick fabric you can sleep in, and in my opinion is one of the best things to carry with you on trips (in Third World countries in particular), and it served me well in this situation as well.
In a sleeping bag you will risk dying from the heat in a place like the Danakil, and a liner is just the perfect combination of pleasant cover above you that is not too warm and a good protection from mattresses full of bed bugs :)
The walk to the volcano is during the night, so a head lamp is required.
A headlight is in any case something that you should carry with you while camping, especially when you need to navigate to the toilet at night :)
Although it is not some crazy trek, walking the volcano can be tricky because it takes place on basalt rocks in darkness.
Most of us fell down a few times and I twisted my ankles quite a bit. Bring high walking boots with you (especially for those who have recurrent sprained ankles like me).
Camera Required! Preferably a good one as well, and it is best to make space on your memory card. The sights in the desert are amazing and I'm sure you'll want to capture your moments there in a variety of angles.
It's always good to have something tasty to eat. Most of the time the bag is not on your back anyway, so you do not have to worry about carrying high weight.
Bring delicious things with you just in case you’ll get bored of eating Injera with Shiro sauce everyday.
The famous picture where I stand on my hands, representing my blog and Facebook pages (follow me!), was also taken by Nir, at the Danakil desert.
This place is an extraordinary experience and I was privileged to experience there one of the highlights of my life.
For those who want to hear more about this special place, you can watch a documentary film about the warmest desert in the world, the special phenomena in it and the people living in its area.
The amazing images throughout this post were taken by Nir (Nirush), my perfect partner on this trip to Ethiopia.
It is worth following him and his adventures around the world - Antigravity Adventures