The Hottest Place on Earth : A Truly Warm Welcome to Danakil Depression
Visitors looking into and taking photographs at the edge of the smoke-filled crater at Erta Ale volcano in Danakil Depression, Ethiopia, the hottest place on Earth, photo by Ivan Kralj
The Hottest Place on Earth : A Truly Warm Welcome to Danakil Depression
One of the world's five permanent lava lakes hiding under the cloud of smoke, at Erta Ale volcano in Danakil Depression, Ethiopia, the hottest place on Earth, photo by Ivan Kralj
The Hottest Place on Earth : A Truly Warm Welcome to Danakil Depression
A man observing the camel caravans transporting the salt at the plains of Lake Assale, Danakil Depression, Ethiopia, the hottest place on Earth, photo by Ivan Kralj
I am not a winter person. So with the prospect of visiting the hottest inhabited place in the world, I didn’t even blink! The game’s on, let the sunshine in! And the sunshine spilled over Danakil Depression, the Ethiopian hotspot which, in the 1960-1966 period, had the average daily maximum temperature of 41 degrees recorded! When 19,1 degrees is considered as “cold”, and 34,4 degrees as “normal”, the mercury rise in the thermometer over 40 or even up to 50 in June, July and August, is just a typical occurrence in this part of Africa. This is the land of volcanos, geysers, hot springs and some of the most unearthly colors one can encounter on this planet. This is also the cradle of the human evolution, where they found the fossils of the earliest hominins (the famous Lucy dated at 3,2 million years old). Welcome to Danakil Depression – the hottest place on Earth!
Traveling in this area of Afar Region requires an armed escort, so even if you are quite an independent traveler, this is an expedition you shouldn’t try to execute on your own. Seriously! It can be very dangerous, as German solo traveler in December 2017 found out. He was shot dead at Erta Ale volcano.
Wherever you’ll travel in Ethiopia, various agents offering excursions to Danakil will be approaching you. Some might be a scam, most of them will just be middlemen. They will be adding their percentage, while often just using the services of Ethio Travel and Tours (ETT), one of the largest, most experienced and reliable agencies operating in Danakil Depression. Of course, I resisted the constant allure during my first month in Ethiopia and joined ETT’s tour to Danakil and Erta Ale volcano directly.
Did you know that, until recently, Afars were chopping off the testicles of the uninvited visitors they would bump into?
Where is the Danakil Desert located?
Danakil Desert is located in northeastern Ethiopia but stretches to southern Eritrea and northwestern Djibouti as well. It is situated in Afar Depression or Afar Triangle, a part of the Great Rift Valley. This is the place where, in 10 million years from now, tectonic changes will separate the Horn of Africa from the rest of the continent. Every year, Earth’s crust is rifting apart a couple of centimeters. The valley floor is sinking, and the geologists expect the Red Sea will flood the valley (again).
The lowest point of Africa is in Djibouti part of the depression (Lake Asal is 155 meters below sea level). Ethiopian depression’s lowest point at 125 meters below sea level is still fascinating!
Danakil tour – 3 days or 4 days?
Technically, the reduced visit to Danakil Depression could be done in one day as well. However, if you are not short on time, try to cover more points of interest, including hiking to the volcano, bathing in the saltwater lake, visiting salt mines and unusual geological formations of Dallol.
The hottest place on Earth covers a vast piece of land, the roads are sometimes rough, traveling is slow, and one needs three or four days for the full Danakil expedition. Usually, the four-day tour differs from the three-day tour in the sense that includes observing the camel caravans at sunset and sleeping the night in the desert open-air. But otherwise, 3-day visit of Danakil valley should cover all pinpointed locations. My tour with ETT was, however, the one of 4 days.
Even if the tour of Danakil Depression and Erta Ale could be organized from Addis Ababa, the country’s capital, or any other typical stopover in the Ethiopian Northern Circuit (such as Aksum, Gondar or Lalibela), Danakil tours typically start from Mekelle (or Mek’ele). It is the capital city of Tigray Region and the hub for visiting Afar.
Finding the hotel of your choice is rather easy there, and ETT office is opened all day long. Arriving a day earlier leaves you enough time to organize the details of your Danakil trip.
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Testicle of courage – journey for the brave
Our first-day goal was reaching Dodom, Erta Ale camp, where our ascent to one of the rare volcanos with a permanent lava lake would start.
Four of us (Shachak from Israel, Dominique and Alex from France, and me, homeless) were assigned a Toyota Land Cruiser with Eyob, the driver. Our convoy of ten-ish vehicles started the morning journey into the land of the Afar people.
We would stop at several points to arrange all our permits. I was content that somebody else was doing the negotiating work with the sharpened-teeth semi-nomadic tribes.
Did you know that, until recently, Afars were chopping off the testicles of the uninvited visitors they would bump into? Freshly cut testicles have been trophies that would prove the bravery of young Afar men on their wedding day. Which bride would not like to have a husband who, literally, has balls?
Luckily, in the meantime, Afar people learned that testicle owners were willing to pay for the privilege of keeping their balls intact, and instead gain the right to visit their wasteland homeland. Even if one could wonder why anyone would have been so territorial about the most inhospitable place for human life, they defended it. And today they employ diplomacy. You want to visit the hottest place on Earth? Pay for the entrance!
The road to hell is paved with – solidified lava
ETT’s guide Gosh explained that the way to Dodom includes the worst road in the world. “We call it African massage”, he threw a joke, while preparing us for a bumpy ride.
Not many types of vehicles could access this roadless part of Ethiopia. When we detoured from the asphalt, our 4×4 was successfully finding its way through the landscape of solidified lava, rock and sand. Some parts were such that the cars would carefully follow each other in the checked pathway. Some plains were however flat enough that the drivers would start racing each other through the desert, lifting dusty clouds in the burning afternoon air.
Occasionally, some phantom passer-by would appear in the middle of nowhere, as if casual walking in one of the hottest places in the world is a relaxing stroll.
Also out of nowhere, some kids would start running across the desert for our cars. On this black, hot and sharp racing track, they were – barefoot! One of the travelers passed on a banana to the little boy. What a shocking meeting of realities this was!
Eyob explained to us that the government is bringing food and water to these people. They certainly didn’t look like they have chosen the most sustainable place to live. Well, there’s the Westerner talking out of me. Some people do not have a choice, do they?
Climbing Erta Ale – gateway to hell
After a dinner at the base camp, prepared by the tour’s cook, who would at every meal ceremoniously present himself as Shaka Shaka Zulu, we were ready to start climbing Erta Ale. It is too hot to climb the volcano during the day, so night hiking is much more pleasant.
Even the soldiers needed to shush them down, but they did not comply! On the Erta Ale excursion, they were just – marching to hell
I made a mistake already in the beginning. Not following the instructions, in the darkness, I joined Erta Ale trek of an entirely different group! When I’ve noticed that there were too many French people around me, whom I’ve never seen before, I figured out I should go back and find the others. And there they were, in the camp, listening to Gosh’s last instructions. “Do not go anywhere alone, do not overtake each other, we are climbing as a group!”, he was saying. Fully noted, I thought to myself.
This was not the first volcano I climbed. But I did Ijen Volcano hike in Indonesia on my own. Climbing in the dark, listening to the sounds of nature, not knowing where the next step is gonna lead me… It was all forming an adventure experience in which one respects and fully immerses in the environment.
That night in Afar, a group of undisciplined Chinese youngsters was climbing Erta Ale volcano with their portable sound system. They were destroying the quietness of nature with careless laughter, loud conversations and some Chinese pop songs spilling out of the speakers. Even the soldiers needed to shush them down, but they did not comply. They couldn’t conceive or understand the proximity of the Eritrean border, the specificities of climbing during the night, or the fact that someone died on this same path less than half a year ago. There was no respect; there was no fear. On the Erta Ale excursion, they were just – marching to hell.
Sleepwalking around Erta Ale living lava lake
Erta Ale is 613 meters high shield volcano. The ascent is not steep, but it did take us four hours to reach the peak of this active volcano. We would occasionally have to stop because the camels, bringing some water and sleeping mattresses to the summit, would refuse to walk.
Little did we know that we will hardly experience any sleep on the top anyway. In the days of our visit, Erta Ale was indeed living up to its name. In the Afar language, the name of the volcano means smoking mountain. And, boy, did it smoke that night!
Our first, midnight approach made us wide awake. We were cautiously walking over the solidified lava rock that would be cracking under our steps. Knowing that just meters away is one of the only five lava lakes in the world, in the volcano that tends to erupt from time to time, could not leave you indifferent. Well, unless you are those same Chinese youngsters. Ignoring all the instructions they’ve heard, their careless hunt for selfies on the edge of the crater, in what looked like the least stable point to stand on, was awakening a devil in me. Mother Earth might have ordered Chinese for dinner, I imagined.
No sleeping in the clouds
One essential part of the equipment was missing from the checklist offered by ETT. Besides torchlight for the nighttime hike, sunscreen and sunglasses for the daytime hike, a gas mask would have been a beneficial thing to apply in this smoky volcano period. It might not be as toxic as Ijen, but when clouds of fumes would be coughed out from Erta Ale’s sore throat, one would need to cover the eyes, nose and mouth and try not to be a passive smoker.
Sleep tight! Yeah, right.
After a few hours nap under the smokescreen, we approached the longest existing lava lake again. Boiling from 1906, will it really debar us from seeing what’s cooking in its pot?
In few glimpses, the wind blew away a part of the smoke cloud, and hot red liquid appeared, accompanied by viewers’ sighs.
Some sat down and watched the Sun rising on the other side, but ignoring the boiling sun under your feet would’ve just been – a blasphemy.
If you want to see how Erta Ale looks without the smoke coat, check the aerial footage made by Joel Santos. It includes the drone view of the rest of the Danakil Depression too!
Mountain of trash
Earth is magnificent.
People are stupid.
Rushing down the volcano in the morning revealed piles of plastic bottles and garbage that the most reckless visitors threw away.
If there are no trees, and the area might look post-apocalyptic indeed, I still wonder: is that enough for us to excuse ourselves from knowing this harsh piece of land is still – nature? Is throwing something on the slopes of a volcano, maybe even during the night, so invisible?
Giuseppe Maria Giulietti was an Italian geographer who led several explorations in Ethiopia. In 1881, Afar tribes killed him and 32 seamen southwest of the Lake Afrera. In explorer’s memory, it was also named Lake Giulietti.
This hypersaline lake covers the area of 100 square kilometers and has almost 300 million tons of salt! This makes it a perfect place to take a bath after Erta Ale climb!
It might not have been the Dead Sea, but floating in the radically salty water more than 100 meters below sea level, with a view of Afrera Deset (Franchetti Island), the lowest-lying island in the world, was a worthy experience nevertheless.
After a swim in Lake Afrera, we took a dip in the hot springs located just at the lake’s coast. The fresh water in them is not salty, but it is even warmer than the lake itself! Not everyone from our group could have enjoyed relaxing in such a natural hot tub.
Danakil, land of salt and fire
We spent the night in Abala, a small town on the border with Tigray. Then we jumped into our Land Cruiser again and headed for the northern salt lake – Lake Assale (also known as Lake Karum). The waters of the Red Sea formed it, and now, 115 meters below its level, the lake was technically a thick salt crust! The water was shallow, and it gathered in honeycomb-shaped ponds.
The salt pan spread as far as your eyes could see! It was a magnificent place to wait for the sunset, while its rays reflected in the wet surface.
The repetitive pattern of the small ponds only got broken by small dots appearing on the horizon. Hundreds and hundreds of camels carry salt over this area. Every camel can carry 30 salt tiles of 4 kilograms each. Some donkeys are employed in the caravan too, but cannot take as much salt. One after the other, the animals followed the line towards Berhale, where they would arrive after three days of walking.
Salt mining in Danakil is hard work! Temperatures were rising high, and the sun was burning the skin of the miners. They were employing extreme physical efforts in breaking the ground surface and cutting out rectangular blocks of salt. I helped one of them myself. While hammering his working tool into the crust was manageable, I couldn’t imagine doing this the whole morning.
Salt men are from Mars
Often described as a ghost town, Dallol is the place of the abandoned mine. If you believe that Americans have faked the landing on the Moon, watch these pictures carefully! Dallol could be the place where the “historic landing on Mars” might get filmed!
In contrast to predominantly white salt plains, the alien landscape where yellow, green, orange and red are coloring the unusual geological formations, does not look like Earth at all. Lonely Planet described Dallol landscape as something that “looks more like a coral reef than anything you’ve ever seen above the waterline”.
The sulfur springs, miniature geysers spitting out the water and crystallization of salts at the surface model the forms one cannot easily imagine in nature. Yet, these playful patterns and sculptures of potassium salt are 100 percent – natural!
The landscape transforms all the time, as the area of geothermal activity moves around. The exhibition of this natural phenomenon is indeed not a permanent one. Every time you visit, the land art of the hottest place on Earth will look quite differently!
The siren call of Danakil Desert
On the last day of our Danakil Depression tour, we have also visited the salt mountains. It is an impressive canyon where erosion has formed salt pillars, up to 40 meter high!
We stopped at several points where small holes in the ground revealed basins and lakes filled with the liquid of different composition, consistency and acidity.
At one of them, the graveyard of bird skeletons was forming. Thinking that they’ve found the source of fresh water, the poor thirsty animals would fly in and – die.
At the larger yellowish lake, an older Italian tourist from our group ignored the warning of the guide, and fell into the swallowing lake mud, up to his knees. Getting him out requested quite some effort from the local scouts. I guess Mother Earth did not feel like eating Chinese that day.
Danakil Depression, the hottest place on Earth – conclusion
Ethiopia is not the hottest country in the world, and its mountainous landscape will undoubtedly defy one’s expectation of Africa. But in the land of extremes, Danakil Depression in East Africa did become a home of most determined people, prepared to claim the hottest place on Earth as their homeland.
If you are keen on regular checking what is the temperature today, 4-day visit to Afar might not be the best idea. There is no much difference in a few degrees, so in short: the only weather one can expect during a Danakil visit is – hot weather.
Sleeping in the desert, in Hamede Ela camp, was testing the limits of my discomfort level. Our guide Gosh was doing his best to make us laugh, by promising the sleep in the hotel that had not four nor five stars, but – a million stars! And undoubtedly, spending the night in the open-air desert was an exceptional experience. But it was hot enough to burn the polar’s bear butt. One can easily take off the clothes, but how do you go out of your skin?
If you can handle all of this and love challenges, Danakil Depression and Erta Ale tour could become your favorite travel experience. For everyone who loves adventures at unusual places, the hottest place on Earth might soon become the hottest destination one can find!
You love volcanoes? Definitely read my article on the most toxic place on Earth – Kawah Ijen volcano on the Indonesian island of Java! This one also has a crater lake. It is not made of lava, but it doesn’t make it any less dangerous!
Do you have more burning questions about the hottest place on Earth?
What is Dankil tour price?
- The market of Danakil tour operators is quite competitive. Danakil tour price is therefore very flexible and negotiable, and depends on the time of the year, as well as the number of intermediaries involved. Typically, one can expect to pay anything between 300 and 600 US dollars for a 4-day tour. One of the most reliable companies, and also the one that goes to Danakil Depression every day, is Ethio Tour and Travels.
When to visit Danakil?
- Even if the temperatures here are high all year round, the best time to visit Danakil Depression could be in cooler months, between November and March. Concerning the weather, your Danakil trip might be the most pleasant in this period.
When did Erta Ale last erupt?
- In the past 150 years, Erta Ale has erupted many times. Three of the early eruption dates (1873, 1903, 1904) are not certain, but the eruptions in 1906, 1940, 1960 and 1967 are well documented. Since 1967 Erta Ale has been erupting continuously. In 2005, the eruption killed 250 heads of livestock and forced thousands of people to flee. The outbreak in 2007 forced evacuation again and presumably killed up to 5 people.
Is Danakil Depression safe?
A history of kidnappings and killings, especially in the area of Erta Ale volcano, did affect the perception of safety in Danakil Depression. The area is at the border with Eritrea, the country that Ethiopia fought a border war with, from 1998 till 2000. Some 80.000 people died then, and the states continued to destabilize each other, affecting the image of Danakil tourism.
- In 2007, a separatist group, Afar Revolutionary Democratic Unity Front, kidnapped five Europeans and thirteen Ethiopians. Most of them were released a week later via Asmara, the Eritrean capital, but some Ethiopians were held in captivity for almost two months.
- In 2008, the kidnapping attempt on a group of 28 French tourists was prevented.
- In January 2012, ARDUF carried a deadly attack at Erta Ale volcano. They killed five tourists (two German, two Hungarian and one Austrian), wounded two more, and abducted four others, including a policeman. After almost two months in captivity, they were released. Since this Erta Ale attack, the security measures have been raised, and Ethiopian government has appointed the soldiers to monitor the area on the lookout for ambushers and bandits. Armed guards now accompany all tourist groups. This does not mean that Erta Ale hazards are now non-existent.
- In December 2017 another German tourist got killed. He was supposedly traveling alone and only with a personal guide at the moment when he got fatally shot during an ambush. One of the versions of the story says that the fatal event happened during the robbery attempt, in which the tourist refused to give money and valuables to the attacker. In response to the latest event, security measures for Danakil and Afar regions have again been increased. Traveling in large groups with professional armed security is still the safest way to visit this dangerous, but extraordinary part of the world.
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Disclosure: My participation at Danakil Depression tour with ETT was partially sponsored, but all opinions are my own. Also, this post contains affiliate links, which means if you click on them and make a purchase, Pipeaway might make a small commission, at no additional cost to you. Thank you for supporting our work!