Four days in a 4WD travelling around what National Geographic dubs “The cruelest place on earth”. What an incredible experience!
The Danakil Depression, located in the Afar region in northern Ethiopia, close the border of Eritrea and Djibouti, has the record for averaging the hottest temperature on the planet, void of nearly all life, and a vast wasteland from horizon to horizon. So why would one come to a place like this? Simple, it boasts one of the worlds few and rare persistent lava lakes, with red hot magma bubbling close to the surface all year long. It’s also home to some of the most bizarre landscapes that looks more like Mars than Earth. Venturing into this abyss is not safe by any means, and requires a convoy of armed militia for protection.
The Danakil Depression is also famous in the scientific community for being the location where the infamous 3.2 million year old hominid fossil Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis) was found, and has since been dubbed “The Cradle of Hominids”. Visiting our distant ancestor Lucy in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, was definitely a treat!
We had only just finished our several day expedition to Erta Ale 2 days ago, so heading off in to the desolate once again was quite tough, mentally. Leaving Mek’ele behind we pushed on through a different set of canyons as we wound our way down to the Danakil Depression once more, stopping off at one of the last villages before hitting the open expanse. It’s also the last military outpost where we needed to hire some more protection for the four the day to come. Leaving any form of geographical contours behind, the baron lands hit us all over again and we sped on towards the dusty horizon, eventually reaching our destination – a little village made of a few small huts which are home to the nomadic salt miners. This is where we stayed for the night.
The village doesn’t have much to it. Bamboo huts, goats, and a single well that’s been drilled deep into the underground water and is the lifeblood of the village. The place is extraordinary in it’s own way, and something completely unique to anything I’ve ever experienced. Due to it being the hottest place on the planet, we slept outside under the stars. Though this was little to no help – we all just laid there sweating trying to get as much sleep as possible before dawn approached. Over all I think I managed to get a scarce 30 minutes of shuteye. Though this was even interrupted by a stray goat that was chewing on my wife’s woven bed, which woke her up in a fright. Hah!
Early morning sent us driving off towards the horizon once again. This time heading for Dallol, the pinnacle destination for the trip. First though, we had to cross the salt basin, which is one of the lowest places on the planet at 100m below sea level, can reach a temperature of nearly 60 degrees celsius (140F) and covers thousands upon thousands of square kilometres. In the middle of nowhere, we met some of the Afar salt miners that use the basin to mine endless kilograms of salt in 1kg bricks. They then walk it out on a caravan of camels, numbering in the hundreds (you can never complain about your day job again). A very eye opening experience indeed. This vast basin is also home to what the locals call the “Afar fire” – a scorching hot wind that relentlessly burns your skin with such intensity that it still has you seeking shelter even after the sun goes down. Trust me, you’ve never experienced something like this before – it’s relentless!
Local Afar people believe that the salt of the Danakil was once all gold. Thousands upon thousands of tones of pure gold. Legend has it that Afar people once lived like royalty, but it turned them lazy and greedy, making them forget about God. So God punished them by turning all the gold to salt until a time that people are no longer greedy in which the punishment can come to an end.
Arriving at Dallol, we abandoned the 4WD and trekked hundreds of meters up an island mountain to where the volcanic terrain broke out in a rainbow of colours. Here, pools of bubbling sulphuric acid (of a pH level below 1!!) and iron mix with the earth’s minerals, creating colourful pools of green, red, yellow, blue, orange. In the midsts of one of the most dull and desolate places on the planet, sits one of the most colourful. Hot springs, smoking volcanic vents, coloured pools, jagged sharp rocks and more. Amazing!
Photographing the Danakil Depression
Photographing the Danakil has it’s challenges. First of all, it’s very hard to find compositions with such limited scenery. This isn’t to say the scenery isn’t impressing, it’s just hard to photograph a desolate area with absolute no backdrop. Luckily there was some interesting foreground objects which could take the attention, such as acid pools, weird rock formations, and the odd nomadic salt miner. Of course, when shooting landscapes, I’m always going to recommend something towards the wide end, but for this particular trip, a standard zoom would be sufficient (24-70mm full frame / 18-50mm 1.5x cropped). If you do come across one of the salt miners, you’ll probably want a photo of him in the carving process, which is where a bit of zoom will come in handy. Cleaning equipment is also necessary, as things are going to get pretty dusty! When your camera is not in use, make sure it’s packed away out of the direct sun and sealed from the surrounding environment.
Travelling to the Danakil Depression?
If you’re interested in travelling to the Danakil Depression & Erta Ale, then be prepared for some hard times. It’s one of the toughest and roughest exhibitions that I’ve undertaken in my travels. But one of the best! For starters, you’re heading smack bang into the middle of the hottest place on earth, and second, it’s quite dangerous. Quite a few people have been kidnapped and killed in this location, so armed guards are an absolute necessity for protection. As of late 2013 when I went, this is not something you could of booked over the internet, so if you do find a site that offers it, just investigate thoroughly first. There are a few places in Addis Ababa where you can start organising your trip, but this will set you back several thousand. As with most things, the closer you are to the jump off point, the cheaper it will likely be. Mekele is generally a good bet to organise your trip. Though be prepared to sit around and wait for a while others to join, as it’s not financially viable to go by yourself or another as it costs approximately $3,500. You’ll need at least 5 or 6+ people to bring the cost down to $600-$700 per person. The reason why the cost is so high is due to the fact that you’ll be hiring a small private army to accompany you, and two 4WD’s at a minimum need to go (for safety). Sounds weird, but if your 4WD breaks down out there, you have next to zero chance of survival. Conditions are that harsh!
IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: There have been quite a few incidents of significant violence against tourists in this location, many ending quite tragically. It’s extremely important people do their own research into the current situation and safety risks which are relevant to the time of their potential travel/exploration. Safety considerations also need to be placed on season, as tour operators cease bookings during the floods. This is to be taken as a serious and life threatening occurrence. I can not stress enough how much consideration people need to place in upholding their own safety.
Another thing is, credit cards are not accepted here. So make sure you bring all the cash with you for the tour. Any banks you do use in Ethiopia, be VERY, VERY careful. Quite a few times, the ATM’s would take the amount out of a users account but not disperse the money, and it takes quite a bit of effort to get it back from the bank (or travel insurance). This happened to us a couple of times, as well as quite a few others we met that were travelling in Ethiopia.
Read Part 1 of this story: Erta Ale, The Gateway To Hell