The Danakil Depression, Part II: The Acid Lakes of the Dallol Volcano.

After seeing the lava lake of the Erta Ale volcano, I was a little worried the rest of the Danakil might be a little disappointing, and started craving getting back to the nice little city of Mekele.

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However, it didn’t take long for our morning visit to Dallol to start getting quite exciting. While the desolation remained the same, the colours became stranger by the minute.

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One of my fellow travellers had a GPS and it indicated we were 129 m below sea level (in case you wonder, the GPS is in Czech).

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As they had done the day before at the volcano, five soldiers went ahead of us to secure the area, while we waited at the base.

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As we made our way up the hill, the scenery became increasingly strange, with patterns of erosion I had never seen before. This is not caused by wind or water, but by various volcanic phenomena, such as strong acids bubbling up from the ground.

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Even though there are very few tourists in the Danakil, I was concerned we might be damaging the site by walking all around it. I was thinking of stalagmites which take hundreds of years to grow and asked my guide, who has been doing this for over 12 years, if he knew how old these structures were. “About three years”, he said! In another area we walked in, he said the place was a lake last time he had been, about two weeks ago. In such a geologically active area, the scenery changes very fast. I have no comment on the following pictures, other than it increasingly looked more and more like another planet.

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Of course, our guide said walking there was safe (everything is safe in Africa). However, when I heard bubbling and hissing noises and my feet starting breaking through the crust, I looked for higher rocks pretty fast! In the end, I was fine so of course, it was safe.

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Some water-like liquid was spewing from this structure.

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At that point, I would not have been surprised if I had run into Jabba the Hutt!

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My favourite picture of the Dallol. It looks like computer generated imagery! The green portions are highly acidic, with a pH value of less than 1. For comparison, gastric acid has a pH around 1.

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The colour and bubbling coming from this lake does not make it very inviting.

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I don’t know if birds have the ability to tell whether or not water is good for them by smelling or tasting it. One would guess they do. Unfortunately, Mother Nature played a very dirty trick on all these dead little birds. This is not bad water; this is perfectly good sulphuric acid, straight from the bowels of the volcanoes. The birds cannot even take off; they die at the spot where they had that fatal taste and soon get encased in mineral deposits.

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I imagined myself exploring these regions in ancient times. Endless expanses of dried mud and salt, crushing heat and mirages in the distance. Suddenly, your are convinced you heard water noises, and this hellish sight is what you come across. The situation is not technically life threatening, because the Afar will probably kill you before thirst will, but it explains why National Geographic called the Danakil “the most cruel place on Earth”. Of course, this is not the ancient times, so I just went back to my air conditioned Land Cruiser.

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In the salt flats we started seeing the caravans which carry the salt back to the city of Mekele. The camels seemed very disciplined in their marching order. That may be due to the fact their lower jaws are attached by a rope to the next camel’s tail!

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Empty camels, ready to be loaded up with salt blocks.

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The Afar use axes and long sticks to break the salt crust and lift up large slabs. Unfortunately, they were not doing it when we visited. Instead, they were cutting up the large slabs into market sized blocks.

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Using homemade tools, they remove the mud layer and then carve the slab into a nice square block, of two or three relatively standard sizes.

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A large block, once completed. It only takes a short time to make one, and they sell it for about 2 Birr ($0.10). Large camels will carry up to forty blocks, donkeys less than half. The trip to Mekele used to take 7 days, but now they only go half way, perhaps a little more, and sell them to people who do the final journey by truck. In the city market, the blocks will sell for 16 to 20 Birr, or about one dollar. Since the salt mining is a mobile activity, there will be camels for the foreseeable future. However, the Canadian mining company I mentioned in the previous post is building a road that will come very close to this area. The camel journey will get much shorter and it is likely far fewer camels, and handlers, will be required. One can only wonder what these people will do. Probably either return to their small nomadic villages, or kidnap tourists more frequently.

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One of our guides, Abraham, bought 2 blocks. I asked him why and he said “For dinner”. He was obviously pulling my leg, but I still don’t know why he bought them.

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And then Abraham, who understands a bit of Afar, got tasked by a local boy. The old “can you hold this for a second?” Ten minutes later, he was still holding.

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The camels look very docile when walking around, loaded or not. But they are not happy at all during the loading process! To prevent them from getting up prematurely, their front legs are tied, but that doesn’t prevent them from trying. This became quite rough.

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When booking this excursion, I asked if I could ride with the camel caravan instead of driving back. I was thinking an long day’s walk, some overnight walking and an early morning arrival, but when I learned it took a week, I quickly changed my mind. I was also told that I would be totally on my own logistically. The Afar carry water in goat skin pouches like this one; I don’t think my stomach would be ready for this! Even though they have access to plastic water bottle, they prefer this system because it keeps the water cool for a longer time under the desert sun.

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Donkeys are not the first choice in the desert, but when you run out of camels, they are better than nothing.

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We returned to Mekele that day, very slowly, sharing the road with the rest of the traffic. Despite the significant discomfort, the Danakil will be one of my most memorable travel experiences for sure.

#Ethiopia

22 thoughts on “The Danakil Depression, Part II: The Acid Lakes of the Dallol Volcano.

  1. Almost real-time James. I’m still one country behind, but getting very close to being up-to date.

    PS: it wasn’t very scary, but it was incredibly spectacular!

  2. Amazing. Thanks for the chance to live vicariously Colin! Don’t know what I’m going to do if you ever stop travelling… or meet some of the folks I’m impressing with your tales of adventure!

  3. My friend, it looks like we can never see each other in public again, as when people ask me what I do for a living, I regularly make up stories based on your life!

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  5. What do you think it would be like living in a tent on Dallol Mtn. for nearly six months?

    Someone did, he is still living, and the last of the original drillers and explorers of the Hell Hole of the World over 55 years ago.

    His pictures taken then by Argus camera and Kodrachome film show what it was like then. Now everyone is getting the chance to see what he lived through so long ago and the digital developments that have come along since show it so vividly.

    The War of many years between Ethiopia / Eritrea, put the development of the findings of that time, in 1958-9, on the back burner, and now Allana Corp. is developing what was then found into the largest and richest potash deposit in the world. We need the minerals to help grow the food to feed the growing population of the world.

    Robert, has some secrets about the place that are still to be discovered. He is too old to go back and at 81, now, is beginning to fade but the experience and what he saw is locked into his memory banks.

    Thanks for listening,
    Robert Fulton – Dallol and the Danakil 1958

    • Thank you for sharing this Ma’am,

      I looked at your website quickly (I’m in transit in an airport at the moment), but I didn’t find anything about the Danakil (except in the biography). If ever you got around to posting some of these old pictures or the stories of those early explorations, that would be fascinating. I wonder if the nomads were hanging around his camp back then. Today, a nomadic “village” has popped-up right next to the Canadian operation. I don’t know how, but clearly some of the people derive income of some sort from it. Perhaps they recycle their waste, perhaps some get employed in unskilled labour? Most of the workers I saw were Ethiopians from the cities, or Westerners, so I am not sure about that. But the contrast this has brought is amusing: the Afar herdsmen still don’t have any form of toilet (not even a pit), but they have cell phones!

      Best regards,

      Colin

      • Colin: We have had a lot of problems developing our website with Go Daddy systems but things are looking better after 3 attempts and several years of frustration. One of our books, The Land of the Danakil – The Hell Hole of the World, is still being worked on.

        Age, physical problems, and many other diversions seem to get in the way but we are still working on it. We have found a very knowledgeable person who has visited Dallol and has his own website (wonderful) from Munich, Germany. His name is Dr. Richard Roscoe and http://www.photovolcanics.com

        It is interesting to note the difference in Dallol and some of the areas and photos people have taken recently. My photos, now 55 years old, show the area as it was then only I didn’t have a digital high end camera to record it or the film quality we have today but I was there, one of the first, and endured the heat.

        Would love to communicate with you and really appreciate your site and what it brings to the reader and viewer. Thanks!

        Robert & Mary Fulton
        ircmr@msn.com

        • Happy New Year to both of you!

          I don’t know anything about web site design, but I can say mine was built using WordPress and I found it very easy. Of course, it is in the blog format, but nevertheless.

          I took a look at Dr Roscoe’s site (it ends with an “a” volcanicA). He certainly is much more into volcanos than I am. Very informative on top of the beautiful pictures.

          The Dallol is such a dynamic geological place, I am not surprised the photos from 55 years ago look very different from now. Even in Dr Roscoe’s 2011 pictures, I recognized features with completely different colours than when I photographed them in 2012.

          Feel free to contact me by email and perhaps we can arrange for a way to communicate (Skype, phone, etc).

          Colin

          colin@colinsnotes.com

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