The Dallol volcano and Erta Ale are both found in the Danakil depression, one of the hottest places on earth, with temperatures often exceeding 45 degrees celsius. The Danakil depression sits 125 meters below sea level and is inhabited by a small population of Afar people who engage in salt mining. They have named the area ‘the gateway to hell’.
Dallol is a place full of salt mines and a landscape awash with different colors that make you feel like you are in a watercolor painting while hiking Erta Ale lets you stare into the depths of the earth so see ever-flowing magma. If you are up for roughing it a bit, this is a truly mind-blowing trip that will put you in parts of the planet you wouldn’t have imagined or thought existed.
In the heart of the Danakil depression lies Dallol. Dallol sits at 116m below sea level and is part of the East African Rift, where three continental plates are being torn apart. Dallol is a cinder cone volcano and was formed by a phreatic eruption (a steam and rock eruption with no lava) in 1926 and around Dallol you will see other craters that have been formed in the same process.
Dallol is a maze of mind-altering color which is created by the mixture of rain and seawater from the nearby coastline and that is then heated by magma. The salt from the seawater reacts with all the volcanic minerals in the magma and makes all the luminescent colors you can see. The salt and sulfur react together to create bright yellow chimneys in the hottest pools. The cooler pools are a bright and deep turquoise color thanks to the copper salts’ reactions.
Erta Ale literally means smoking mountain in Amharic and it is just that. It is a volcano that holds the longest existing lava lake which has been going since 1906. It is 613 meters or 2,011 ft high and holds one or sometimes even two active lava lakes at the top that spill over now and then, and down the south side of the volcano. Volcanos with consistent lava lakes are a very rare occurrence and there are only eight in the world.
Here I’ll try to give you a sense of what visiting both Erta Ale and Dallol will be like, it’s quite a tough trip but it is full of adventure.
You’ll begin your journey in a 4×4 driving across the desert of the Danakil depression, bouncing over cracks and rocks while sand streams past the windows in a hazy dust fuelled fog. You will be accompanied by you guided and two armed escorts casually wielding AK47’s and it’s needed. The Afar region has a sense of lawlessness and it’s mandatory to take the armed guides with you. In 2012 Afar rebels attacked a group of tourists leaving five people dead and four kidnapped that were released a few months later. Opportunistic attacks continue to happen and as a result, you have to take your armed escorts.
You’ll arrive at the base of Erta Ale just before sunset and begin your hike then. You won’t want to hike in the day due to the searing temperatures. The hike lasts around three hours and the pace is fast. Try to keep up with your guides if you can but if you cant, be sure to ask for a rest as they have serious stamina and will only keep going and get faster if they think you can handle it. Make sure you have a head torch with you as the path is rocky and gravelly and you can easily slip marching up in the dark.
Once you begin to approach the summit, you will start to see the red devilish glow of the lava fields and feel the heat rushing off it. It isn’t as hot as you may think but it’s a feeling you won’t soon forget. The camp on Erta Ale is about 20-30 minutes from the top and you’ll stop there briefly to drop off anything and organize yourself before the final push to the summit.
The last part of the hike is done at a slower pace as you carefully navigate the rocky terrain until you get to the edge of Erta Ale. At this point, you will be given gas masks, which is a little concerning in the moment, but the vapors from the volcano are toxic and you’ll have to wear them. Once at the top you can gaze into the world’s longest existing lava lake and feel the angry, glowing, feared energy coming off the lava as it oozes, streams, pops and bubbles while it erupts over the huge expansive lake. It’s mesmerizing, like watching a fire burn times a million.
You can spend as long as you need at the top watching, filing, taking pictures and soaking this once in a lifetime experience of staring into the center of the earth. It truly is mind-blowing.
The volcano does tend to smoke over eventually, so hopefully, you will have enough time there to take it all in before this happens. One it smokes over, it’s a good time to head back to camp, but you can hang out to watch the ever-changing lava lake for as long as you need.
Once back at camp, you’ll sleep in an Afar hut on a mattress and your mind will be full of dreams of the lava you’ve just seen. In the morning it’s a quick walk back down the volcano back to your 4×4.
The visit to Dallol is a walk in the park compared to the climb up Erta Ale. You’ll hop in your 4×4 with your military escorts and set off across the desert of the Danakil depression once again. It will be an early start to avoid the heat as usual and you can expect to be there around 8 am in the morning.
Arriving at Dallol is like landing on a new planet, it’s like nothing you’ve never seen before. It is similar to some zones of Yellow Stone National Park, just a lot hotter and more acidic. You will feel the heat radiating inside you and it comes at you from everywhere. The sun above cooking your brain while the ground radiates you from below with heat steaming out from cracks, vents, and bubbling sulfur pools. The smell is something else too and if you have ever smelt sulfur, you’ll know it coats you all over and is inescapable.
You’ll spend about an hour walking over the delicate ground as the salt crushes under your weight. Be sure not to get close to the water as it’s 100 degrees celsius and very acidic and there is no hospital nearby. The place itself is a dizzying array of yellows and blues, with craters, salt mines and slat cones surrounded by a harsh desert full of craggy rocks. If anywhere felt like the moon, it would be here. It’s hard to put into words how removed you feel from the planet you’re used to.
Dallol is near to where Lucy, the oldest hominid in the world was found. It’s an interesting thing to contemplate while you’re there and somehow makes sense.
What To Expect
I have already said that this trip isn’t for the faint-hearted and here is what to expect, just so you know what you’re getting into and there are no surprises.
While you’re on tour in the Danakil depression you’re going to have to rough it. After all, you’re in a desert and this means there are no bathrooms, no showers, no freshwater, and no electricity. The ‘bush’ will be your toilet, which will be more of a ditch or a shrub and you will have to be ok with not cleaning yourself while you’re there. It pays to take some wet wipes with you. Your drinking water should be provided by your tour guides but always check before you begin your journey.
The pace is fast when you are ascending Erta Ale and trying to keep up with guides is not worth it, they’ll just go faster. It;’s three hours up and three hours down, and in the dark. Ask for breaks or to slow down the pace if you need to.
The heat can get very uncomfortable, please be aware of this and make sure you hydrate and wear a hat and sun cream. Luckily most of the walking happens in the early mornings or at night, so you will avoid the hottest times.
As we know, military escorts are mandatory when visiting the Danakil Depression and for good reason. Don’t less this put you off, however. Your escorts will change from time to time and they may not all look or dress the same. Trust in your tour guide and it’ll be fine.
There Danakil is a very poor and lawless area and your escorts take their jobs seriously. Do not go ahead or leave the group, this will put you and the tour at risk and your escorts will not be happy about it. They are there for a reason and be sure to follow their advice. They are a bit casual about where the barrel of their gun points, just be aware of it as you go.
There are long days of driving across dusty and pothole-filled roads. There is a new road being built be it will take some time to be finished. To get to Erta Ale takes around 3-4 hours and then it’s a day to Dallol from there but you do stop for lunch and see some cool scenery on the way.
You are in the middle of nowhere and transportation is rare. Your guides will often pick up people in need of a lift and this is normal and nothing to worry about. It can be a chance to learn a little about the locals but chances are they won’t understand you. Don’t expect any manners from them, they’ll be themselves as if you weren’t there, it’s nothing offensive, it’s just the way it is. You’ll also see random people emerging from the desert as you drive through, this is also normal and the Afar people wander to create a living.
You will be given gas masks when you get to Erta Ale. This is to protect you from the toxic fumes of the lava. Make sure you use them when you’re told to.
Your tour of the Danakil depression usually lasts 2 nights and three days and are based out of Wukro. This is a standard itinerary for the trip. Smiling Ethiopia is a good tour operator to go with, they have good reviews and do the Danakil tour very well. They will provide you with your equipment, vehicles, food, water, an English speaking guide, drivers, cooks and of course your military escorts. It is recommended to bring your own sleeping bag with you.
On day one you’ll drive for most of the day, stopping for lunch on your way and arrive at Erta Ale in the late afternoon. Here you’ll find the base camp and get ready for your hike at sunset. That evening you’ll see the crate and camp nearby.
Day two you’ll hike back down before sunrise for breakfast at base camp and take a day to drive to Dallol, stopping for lunch and the sunset at Lake Asale.
Day three you’ll visit Dallol early in the morning before returning to Wukro.
In order to go to the Danakil Depression, you first have to get to Mekele and the best way to travel is by internal flight with Ethiopian Airlines. Be sure to book once in Ethiopia for a discount and mention it if you flew into Addis with Ethiopian Airlines as you’ll get even more of a discount. You can get to Mekele by bus but it will take a while.
When To Go
The best time to be in Ethiopia is during the dry season and the same thing goes for the Danakil depression. In the months of October to February, the heat is a little more tolerable.