The Danakil Depression, Part I: The Lava Lake of the Erta Ale Volcano

Much is being said about the Danakil Depression:

– National Geographic called it: “the most cruel place on Earth”.

– Lonely Planet said: “…a quarter of the continent’s active volcanoes, appalling ‘roads’ and ferocious tribes, visiting this region is no walk in the park.”

– The Canadian Government added: “Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada advises against all travel to the Danakil Desert.”

Well, who needs more convincing? There are plenty of things to see and do in Ethiopia, but visiting the Danakil was the single reason I went there.

Truth be told, it does require a lot of organization, but nothing that can’t be solved by throwing some money at the problem, since a few tour companies organize visits to the area. In theory, you could organize a visit yourself, but you probably would end up spending more than by going in a small group with a tour company. First, you would have to rent a 4×4 with a driver, but going with only one vehicle would be profoundly stupid, so you need to rent two. Furthermore, you will need a guide, an Afar scout, an Afar policeman, an Ethiopian federal policeman and for parts of it, three Ethiopian soldiers. None of this is optional, and the Army won’t let you in otherwise. The only person you could chose to do without is a cook, but I don’t think the guys with the guns would be too impressed when it’s lunchtime and you give them a smile.

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Our motorcade had 4 vehicles; three for the tourists and guides and one for the security and cook (they were quite tight in there, we were not).

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My truck had a sign indicating we were not armed. I’m not too sure how I felt about that. I think I would have preferred a sign with a much bigger gun, or two, and a green circle around it, but the rental did not come with additional decals. In the real world, NGOs and other groups are keen to distinguish themselves from “unknowns” by making it clear they are unarmed. I can see how that could confer a certain level of protection, by de-escalating any aggressive situation, but this type of dynamics is not something I am particularly used to.

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The Danakil tours are all roughly the same. Four or five days of a very hard road trip, with rudimentary living conditions, all to spend a few hours watching absolutely stunning things. It could not have been more worth it for me. On many of the roads, we were moving barely 10 km/h, but on this segment, we were flying at 70 km/h, off road, easily. The reality is that this part of Ethiopia is populated by the nomadic Afar people, and their villages are not connected by any roads. We drove on mud flats and sand for most of the way. You only see roads when the terrain becomes completely impassable without them, and the so called “roads” are barely better. So strangely, the best drive is when there is no road at all!

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On the first and third day, we stopped for the night at the village of Hamadella. Our accommodation was rather rustic, although the traditional Afar beds we rented turned out to be quite comfortable, when combined with the little foam mattresses we had brought. There were little wood shacks which could have been useful in the ridiculously improbable event it would have rained, but we all slept outside. It was fine and the only thing that surprised me was when our guide said there were no toilets. I thought it must have been a misunderstanding. I have seen remote Third World villages in several countries, and even the poorest of the poor know how to dig a hole and put a few palm leaves around it for modesty. But it was no mistake. In the morning I saw men and women grab a bottle of water (a roll of toilet paper for tourists) and walk out of the village a few hundred meters; and that was the toilet. Given that this is a flat desert, you need distance for modesty, as there is no cover of any kind. Perhaps the nomadic lifestyle is what hinders – or renders less relevant – the need or desire for basic sanitation.

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On both nights, a very strong wind started to blow early in the evening. Sleeping with that wind took a little getting used to, but the nice bonus was that it drove off the hordes of flies which pestered us all day. Keeping the flies off the food was not possible. The only way to minimize food-fly contact was to eat fast!

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On thing I did not expect to see in a traditional Afar village in the middle of the Danakil, was a massive cell phone tower. As it turns out, the village was located right next to a camp belonging to a Canadian potash mining project. Their proximity couldn’t have been a coincidence, and I can’t imagine the mining company setting up next to the village to benefit from goods and services, as there were little to none to be purchased. More likely, the village sprung up next to the camp, possibly for occasional employment of unskilled labor, or simply to get some indirect benefits from the camp, if only recycling their construction materials and garbage. As we were walking in the village one evening, one of my fellow tourist and her husband saw a man eating with small children in a very simple hut. They asked if they could take a picture. The family posed graciously and the villager then asked the tourists to move closer together, before taking a picture of them with his cell phone!

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The village was certainly a minimal affair, but it did have a shop. The shop had a generator which they turned on from sundown until 10 pm. This powered a refrigerator which produced one of the few luxuries the place could offer, cold water. It also powered a TV around which tens of people gathered every night, and a big maze of power bars, on which I must have seen at least 15 cell phones being charged at once. I thought it was such a missed opportunity for the shop not to sell overpriced beer to the tourists. All over Ethiopia beer sells for around 50 to 75 cents, maybe a dollar in a nicer hotel or restaurant. In the middle of the Danakil, I would have gladly paid $2-3 for a cold beer, and even though I would have been upset at the rip-off, I would have not gladly paid a lot more. I mentioned this to our guide, Abraham, and he gave me some good reasons the shop owner might want to miss on that opportunity:

1) This is an Afar village, part of Ethiopia’s Muslim minority.

2) The shop owner is one of the few residents who is not Afar; he is a Christian Ethiopian.

3) The Afar are not used to alcohol at all.

4) The Afar have a reputation for being violent.

5) The Afar all have guns.

Point taken. Better to keep the tourists thirsty and the Afar sober.

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We didn’t have to travel far before we encountered the “real” nomads. Villages with almost no link to the modern world. One of the few things we could tell they cared about was plastic bottles. I was reminded of the old movie “The Gods must be crazy”. Kids would often come running towards our vehicle and our driver would tell us to throw them empty bottles of water, which we produced in large quantities. It felt so strange to throw what I considered to be garbage at them, but they seemed happy. I asked our driver why they wanted empty water bottles. He answered my dumb question with a smile: “to carry water”.

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Finally, we were ready to set off on the trek up to the lava lake of Erta Ale. This is one of only four active lava lakes in the World. If you have been to one, there is a 99.99% probability you have been to Kilauea. Located in Hawaii, it sees 2.6 million visitors a year, or over 7,000 a day. The other three combined certainly don’t see 7,000 visitors a year! Erta Ale is located in Ethiopia’s harsh and dangerous Danakil Depression and Mount Nyiragongo is in a remote, hard to access and now very dangerous region of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The final one is Mount Erebus. It is located in a malaria safe region, with no risks of terrorism or banditry. But, it’s a 4,000 m climb, on an icy mountain in the middle of Ross Island, Antarctica. On an typical year, it probably sees zero visitors. We had an early dinner in a very basic Ethiopian Army outpost and departed shortly before sunset, with a camel to carry our mattresses, daypacks and to serve as an emergency camel in case someone got hurt and needed to be carried back. I had never before heard the expression “emergency camel”! The night hike is necessary because of the brutal daytime temperatures, especially walking on fields of black volcanic stone.

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Once at the summit camp, the soldier in charge of the group communicated back to the base. While the soldiers were not exactly world class, they had good basic procedures and behaved quite professionally. It was exhilarating to begin to see the orange glow of the lava lake.

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We went on a short, downhill hike for 5 minutes, and got to the crater. It was overwhelming. The temperature is insane, like putting your head in front of the oven at maximum temperature and opening the door. You also have to be aware of shifting winds. If you find yourself downwind, it is much hotter, and the main problem is that sulphurous gases make it hard to breath. The lake is very active and the patterns, level of activity and depth of the lava change every few minutes. Every few months or years, the very location of the lake can change by several hundred meters. Some years, there are two lakes!

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After 10 or 15 minutes, some heavy bubbling started near the centre. One of the soldiers started yelling “camera! camera!” I moved in closer. My pictures are all overexposed, but since it’s a good story, I will post them anyways.

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After a few seconds, it got way too intense. I kept taking pictures, one eye in the viewfinder, one eye looking at the surroundings, and I started taking a few steps back, resulting in this messy shot. I later learned that apart from a couple of Germans and myself, at that point everybody else was running for their lives! (except for the soldier who was still yelling “camera!”)

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A few meters from the edge it felt a lot cooler, but by now the lava was shooting up higher than the rim. I decided to move back a few more meters.

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And from there I got this shot of lava landing exactly where I was about 10 seconds earlier! It was absolutely awesome! In most of the Western World, there would be a 10 km exclusion zone around it. In California, you would have to be 21 years old and sign a waiver just to look at this picture. That hour or some spent on the crater at night would justify 20 days of desert hardship to get there.

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I moved to the other side and climbed on a small bump to get a better view.

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Shortly after, the lake calmed down and I went back to the edge to try and get a complete view. A slightly wider angle lens would have helped, but to get the perfect shot one would need a stepladder, which I rarely carry in my suitcase.

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With a little practice, I learned how to capture the “action shots” properly, but I can’t exaggerate how the photos don’t do justice to the phenomena.

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Eventually, the volcano got quiet and we called it a night. As impressive as it was, standing on the edge was very tiresome, because of the heat and fumes.

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So I retreated to my private chalet. There seemed to be a problem with the hot water, and the cold water, and the wireless, TV, air conditionning, electricity, roof, door and toilet, but everything else was fine. I must say I missed the Afar beds and didn’t get much sleep.

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We went back before dawn, with great anticipation. Even when you know what you are going to see, that orange glow is very captivating.

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The lake was quite active.

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And looked completely different in the pre-dawn light.

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We got a mini eruption again, but this time I was on the opposite side of the crater, with the wind in my back, so it was both safe and bearable.

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It’s amazing how the surface of the lake solidifies and liquefies in a matter of less than a minute.

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A lame picture of “me-in-front-of”. Having not slept much, I didn’t realize I was looking in the flip screen instead of the lens!

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Both in the evening and morning, I took a few close-up shots which produced some pretty cool images.

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I don’t know if it’s the heat or the fumes, but I started seeing things in the lava. Please let me know if I’m crazy!

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The lava whale.

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The lava sea snake.

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And the great lava tiger.

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A year before, there had been a major overflow of the lava lake. My guide was there with a group and they had to make a little run back to the summit camp (which is about 20 meters higher than the lake’s rim). I was surprised some kind of moss grew in this harshest of climates.

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My guide informed me it was not moss at all, but rather strings of molten rock created when low viscosity lava is thrown in the air. Like the way one can make cotton candy with molten sugar.

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The sun rose and we knew if we didn’t start soon on the 10 km hike back, we would be baking on the way back. This was my last view of the lake, with the sun and my two daring German colleagues in the background. They were on a massive road trip through the Horn of Africa on motorcycles they had flown cargo from Germany! Go to crazy places and you meet some crazy people. Not unlike the people I met on my visit to Tristan da Cunha, the World’s most remote inhabited settlement.

By the time we completed the hike, had breakfast and drove back to the Afar village, it was time to waste the rest of the afternoon away and get ready for the Dallol the next day.

#Ethiopia

20 thoughts on “The Danakil Depression, Part I: The Lava Lake of the Erta Ale Volcano

  1. It’s a great trip with fantastic and harsh landscapes. But I must say, the spun sugar thing is fantastically cool . Keep on trucking my friend and teaching us stuff in the process.

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  5. This is amazing! I actually live in Ethiopia and I’ve been wanting to go here for a while now after reading about the depression in National Geographic. Did you organize this through a tour company?

    • It’s an uncomfortable and expensive tour, but totally worth it in my opinion. I used K.G. AHADU Tours and Travel Agency in Makele and I was generally happy with the tour. You could go to the Danakil independently, but it is mandatory to bring a guide, an Afar “policeman”, an Ethiopian federal policeman, a few soldiers, drivers, etc. So it makes sense to go with a group. I just flew to Makele and asked a few companies when they had a group going, and then I joined them. Price per person will be affected by the group size. Good luck!

  6. Hi Peter,

    This was over a year ago, so I am not quite sure, but US$650 rings a bell. For the four days everything included (minus tips), which is an enormous amount of money in one of the cheapest countries in the World. The number of participants will affect the price. If you go from a developed country, bring the money with you. Operators usually don’t accept credit cards and Ethiopian ATMs only let you withdraw small amounts at a time.

    Colin

      • Absolutely worth every cent. It’s just that the amount is enormous in Ethiopia. I had a private room in Makele, with washroom, hot water, air conditioning, TV, etc, and I was paying $9 a night. A coffee at the local cafe cost the equivalent of 7 cents!

        Good luck if you decide to go,

        Colin

  7. If you don`t mind one other question: did you go from Addis to Makele by plane? And if, where could you buy the tickets? Inside Ethiopia? Because I recognised that they cost much more on the homepage of ethiopian airlines than in an operators shop.

    • I went by plane. Assuming it has not changed, Ethiopian Airways has a very strange pricing policy. International tickets are a little cheaper if you buy them online, but domestic tickets are something like half price if you buy them in Ethiopia, at their offices. They have offices downtown Addis and also in Makele. Easy to find and clerks speak English.

      • Thank you very much. This information helps me a lot. I want to travel to Ethiopia in March and I am on the way planing everything.

        With best regards

        Peter

  8. Hi Colin,
    I was with your group with my two Czech clients.
    I didn’t forget the soldiers stared yelling ” Camera! Camera! Camera!.
    But how did you take such kind of beautiful pic at that moment? we were running for our lives … Amazing!

    Million

    • Hello Million,

      I bet a lot of the most interesting pictures in history were taken by people doing stupid things like I did! Thanks for the compliments, I guess I’m not too afraid of volcanoes. Maybe I should be… I do remember at some point looking around and realizing I was the only one still there!

      By the way, I kept in touch with your two Czech clients; I am supposed to see them in Prague next month!

      Cheers, Colin

  9. What remarkable pictures! I came across your page whilst searching for images of Danakil. I am going out to Ethiopia next week but my tour does not include here, shame as it looks the most extraordinary landscape I’ve ever seen!

    • Thank you! I hope you have a great time in Ethiopia. Perhaps you can hit the Danakil next time; an amazing place, but not a very comfortable nor an entirely safe journey. Was worth it for me though!

  10. Amazing photos! I was there in 2011, went with 13Suns Tours and was very happy with their service.

    • Glad you like the photos and enjoyed the Danakil. Never heard of 13 Suns Tours, I guess they are Addis based. I just went to Meqele and waited for a group to join.

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