Surreal landscape in the Danakil Depression

Our Danakil Depression tour in Ethiopia: earth’s extremes

The Danakil Depression: a region so surreal that you’ll wonder if you are actually still on Planet Earth. Blindingly white salt flats, scorching hot sulphur fields, bubbling lakes and more than 30 active volcanoes, all of this at more than 100 meters below sea level and with scorching temperatures. It is also known as the Gateway to Hell, and so you should come prepared. Read my account of our trip to Danakil below, or if you are looking for advice for your own Danakil Depression tour, click here to jump directly to our Survival Guide: Everything you need to know about visiting the Danakil Depression.

Walls of corrugated iron, bright sunlight beaming in through the cracks and lighting up clouds of dust, a roof made of straw mats. All of it held together by a makeshift frame of wooden poles. Only one of the several ceiling fans slowly rotates its blades. It barely brings any relief to the air that seems thick with a syrupy heat that creeps in from the desert outside, and it is of no help in waving away the flies that languidly descend on our lunch. We sit on crude benches, strips of goat skin weaved between wooden legs, and we eagerly shovel in our food. Around us groups of men are eating, drinking and talking.

A goat bleats from behind a stretch of wire mesh. Three large refrigerators are positioned at one end of this space. It’s the only piece of modern technology here and it seems oddly out of place. Crown corks of local beer brands litter the floor, as well as those of Colca Cola bottles, of course. Few places are so remote that Coca Cola doesn’t distribute its caramel-coloured symbol of globalization there.

I step out into the sharp afternoon sunlight in search of a toilet. Walking through the dust and sand, I look around the small collection of shacks and huts that are positioned seemingly randomly around an open space. A dog spots me and scurries away with its tail between its legs. A row of rooms lines up in the sand. Each has a number painted above its entrance and with nothing more than a bed inside. What the hell is this? A brothel?

The toilet is another shack, surrounded by five or six vultures who look down on me from electricity poles. They follow my entrance into the toilet with a shift of their heads. While I hover above the hole in the ground one of the side panels catches my eye. It is a piece of tarpaulin that reads ‘UNHCR Refugee Agency’. I step out and the vultures still sit there, staring. This is one of the most uncanny towns I have ever been to.

I later learn that the name of this collection of crude constructions in the middle of the desert is Hamed Ele. It is a settlement for labourers who work in the nearby salt fields. This explains why it reminds me so much of a Wild West mining town from the movies, except that this one is not deserted but thriving in its own rudimentary way. Hamed Ele is so remote that you won’t even find it on Google Maps. Also, there are no roads leading there. Luckily our driver knows his way around this seemingly endless desert landscape, that has few orientation points other than the position of the scorching and unforgiving sun.

Vultures are all over Hamed Ele

A tour through Ethiopia’s Danakil Depression in the Horn of Africa is a collection of extremes. It has extreme temperatures (it is one of the hottest places on earth); extreme depths (125 meters below sea level); extreme landscapes (sulphuric hot springs, bubbling oily lakes, active volcanoes, endless badlands and salt fields); and extreme stretches of vast emptiness. Its attractions are some of the most remote locations on earth. They are hard to reach due to large distances from the inhabited world and a lack of paved roads.

It is a place that appears to be inhabitable, yet there are some people who live here. The Afar, a nomadic ethnic group, roam these desert plains with their cattle. Seeing how people live in this remote and unforgiving corner of Planet Earth is as fascinating to me as seeing the bizarre landscapes that the Danakil Depression is famous for.

Afar people in Ethiopia
An Afar home. The Afar are nomadic, so their homes are temporary; they pack up and move whenever food or water become scarce or unavailable.
Afar settlement in Ethiopia's Danakil Depression
Another Afar settlement

Our Danakil Depression tour

Our trip had started a few days earlier, when we drove from Lalibela to Mekele in the back of a Toyota 4WD. We shared the side benches with a couple of other travellers. Despite the distance of only 317 km, the drive took us a full day over partly unpaved roads. It was a market day, meaning that the roads were full of people bringing their livestock and harvests to the towns. Our driver had to drive slowly and carefully to avoid the stubborn donkeys and groups of goats, all the while honking his horn.

We could see the landscape change. The rugged highlands of Lalibela slowly made place for the plains of the Tigray region. It was not long after lunch that we saw the first camels wandering on the side of the road. After a night’s sleep in Mekele we departed the next morning for our three-day tour into the Danakil Depression. As we drove into the desert we watched the car’s temperature indicator quickly rise from the lower 20s to a sizzling 41 degrees Celcius (106 Fahrenheit). First stop on our Danakil Depression tour: the active volcano known as Erta Ale.

Driving in the Danakil Depression, Ethiopia

Erta Ale Volcano

The translation of this volcano’s name from the local Afar language is ‘smoking mountain’. That is a pretty solid indication that this volcano has been active for a long time. As we advance in our convoy of 4WDs, we can see it emitting big white columns of smoke from afar. We leave clouds of dust behind us while racing over the desert plains. Now we have left the paved road. We have to drive a couple more hours to the volcano’s base camp in the desert.

The Lonely Planet describes the final stretch to the base of the volcano as ‘probably the worst road in the world’. In my opinion it does not even deserve the title of ‘road’. It is a back-breaking mass of solidified lava that is covered faster by foot than by vehicle – except that temperatures out here are so extreme that walking instead of driving is not a wise idea. For those of you who have driven around on Africa’s bumpy roads, you’re probably familiar with the jokes about ‘free African massages’. But this is not a massage – it’s more close to torture. It takes an excruciating hour or two to traverse this area and reach the base camp.

Glad to have arrived, I stretch my legs and take a stroll around the area. As there are no facilities here in the desert, our tour operator sets up a mobile camp. Local Afar men are already waiting with their camels. They start loading the beasts of burden with the thin mattresses that we will use to sleep on tonight. Erta Ale sits smoking ominously in the background.

Preparing for our hike to the caldera at Erta Ale base camp
Erta Ale volcano in Danakil Depression
Smoke coming from the caldera

Hiking Erta Ale volcano

After a basic but satisfying dinner cooked by the camp’s chef we get ready for our hike to the volcano’s crater rim. The distance between the base camp and the caldera is 15 km. Most people can cover it in three to four hours. We start walking after dark because during the day it is simply too hot to be out there. It is still warm at night, but not too hot to walk. The hike is pleasant. It is not steep and the black lava provides good grip for our shoes. We light the trail with our torches. We turn them off when we pause to rest, so we can admire the starry sky. After three hours the steady column of smoke rising from the crater comes closer. At last we reach the place where we will be sleeping tonight.

“Is someone actually monitoring this volcano?” I ask our guide. He seems surprised by my question. “What do you mean?” “Well, is someone like a scientist keeping an eye on its activity and predicting when it might erupt?” The guide flashes a bright smile. “Nope. No one knows when it will erupt. It erupted some time ago when I was sleeping up there with a tour group. I had to evacuate everyone down the mountain. It could happen again but no one knows when. Could be tonight.” Hakuna Matata, for what it’s worth.

Erta Ale is a special volcano – not just because it is continuously active, but also because it is one of seven places on earth with a lava lake. Looking down into Erta Ale’s crater, you’ll see the red hot lava flow and bubble up from the core of the earth. At least, that was possible until January of 2018. That’s when a minor eruption caused the lava lake to descend with more than 30 meters.

Sleeping on Erta Ale volcano

Smoke now constantly fills the caldera. Also on this night the smoke is blocking our view into the abyss below. We sit at the edge of the crater for a while, hoping for the smoke to subside and allow us a glimpse of the lava. However, we are unlucky. The smoke is sulphuric and hot and steals our breath. We make the 20-minute walk back to our sleeping camp. When we arrive, we lie down on the mattresses, still in our clothes, while a star full of skies forms our cover.

After some hours we awake before sunrise and return to the crater rim, but still the smoke has not subsided. The orange glow of the rising sun makes up for the disappointment a little. In daylight it is finally possible to make out our environment. Black lava stone stretches for miles, and the volcano continues to emit a steady stream of thick poisonous smoke. Unfortunately I also see signs of pollution. People have scattered plastic water bottles around our sleeping camp as well as tissues and food wrappings. It’s saddening to see how humans can spoil even the rawest landscapes on our planet. It would be a great idea if the tour operators who bring travellers up here fill one or two baskets each time they come up here, and bring them down by camel. Luckily our own guide has brought a large bag to collect our waste.

Sunrise at Erta Ale
Sunrise at Erta Ale
Sleeping on Erta Ale volcano in Danakil, Ethiopia
This is where you sleep on the volcano; during the night the empty spaces are filled with mattresses
Litter on Erta Ale volcano
So disappointing: terrible littering of plastic on Erta Ale volcano

The hike down to base camp takes at least as long as the hike up last night. The sun is unforgiving even at this early hour and the heat seems to increase every minute. When we arrive, our driver is waiting for us with a jerry can full of water. He provides us with a most welcome improvised shower. I’m happy to take a seat in our air-conditioned 4WD again, until I realize that what awaits us is the agonising drive back over the bumpy lava rocks… “Well,” I tell myself, “you wanted an adventure, so suck it up!” Off we go…

Hiking Erta Ale volcano in Ethiopia
Hiking back to base camp
Shower time!

Lake Afrera and the hot springs

A long drive through more empty swaths of desert (part of it over a paved road, thankfully) brings us to Lake Afrera. This is nature’s next freak show on this trip. Afrera is a hypersaline lake, meaning that its salt contents are higher than those of the ocean. Despite its high salt levels, the lake still contains a few species of fish. It lies at more than 100 meters below sea level, making it one of the deepest depressions on the planet. It is a peculiar sight to suddenly find a large, emerald-hued lake in the middle of this hot and dry desert, with waves rolling onto the beach as if it’s an ocean.

Lake Afrera
Lake Afrera

Curious to experience the buoyancy of the salty water I strip to my underwear and take a dip. The water is warm and pleasant. Warmer even is the water of the adjacent hot springs. A hydrothermal system provides water to these shallow freshwater pools. Not exactly a luxurious spa, but good enough to rinse off the salt and sweat.

Another couple of hours driving brings us to the town of Berhale, where we sleep in an actual guesthouse. With its mattresses on the floor, bucket shower and the odd cockroach it is not a 5-star affair. Nonetheless, it’s definitely an upgrade from sleeping out on the open on the rim of an active volcano. The food cooked by local ladies is amazing. We feast on injera, the Ethiopian staple food made from tef and resembling a pancake.We eat it paired with delicious lentil sauces and shiro, a bean paste.

Dallol and the salt plains

We enjoy breakfast in a roadside shack. It consists of freshly baked Ethiopian bread with honey and scrambled eggs, oranges and water melon. Really not bad at all for a desert meal. Another long drive awaits us. For miles and miles we see nothing but desert, interspersed with the occasional nomadic settlement or salt miner’s town built of rocks, wood and tarpaulin. We see the Afar leading their camels and donkeys through the desert. When we drive past their settlements their barefooted kids run along the car in excitement, asking for chocolate. It seems to me a rather impractical item in this heat which would cause it to melt within no-time.

We arrive at Dallol, referred to by our guide simply as ‘the colourful area’. This is one of the lowest and hottest places on earth with temperatures rising up to 50 degrees Celsius in summer. A 15-minute uphill hike reveals why the guide’s name for this special place is most accurate. A large area of bright orange, yellow and green forms an unearthly scenery. Surely this must be another planet. Underground volcanic activity and streams of magma have created hissing crystalline towers that emit boiling water, sulphur compounds, and pools filled with a poisonous looking green substance that I’m positive will cause some severe chemical burns to any soul unfortunate enough to trip and fall in.

Dallol - Danakil Depression
Strolling around Dallol
Dallol Ethiopia

The ground under our feet actually feels hot. Not just because the air is hot and the sun is beating down on us, but also because of the magma that flows freely below the earth’s surface. In some areas we walk on freshly formed lava crust that crackles and crunches under our feet as we pass. It makes me hope sincerely that it won’t crack and make my foot sink inches deep into a red hot magma flow. The earth is alive. Everywhere around us we hear it bubbling and popping and sizzling and steam rises from holes and crevices.

This must be one of the most inhospitable places on earth. And yet, a few hundred meters from here sits a collection of abandoned shacks that in the past was occupied by Italian potassium miners. The ability of humans to make a living in the most remote places on earth continues to astound me.

Danakil Depression Ethiopia
Danakil Depression Ethiopia

Ethiopia’s New York City

“We call this place New York City,” says our guide after a short drive away from Dallol. With a little bit of imagination it is easy to understand how people came up with the nickname for this badlands area. Towering outcrops that arise from a flat and empty earthen floor vaguely remind of a city skyline. George Lucas, if you need a backdrop for a new Star Wars movie, it’s right here sir. We walk around a little bit to explore the area. The heat quickly forces us back to the shadows and then to our air-conditioned car.

Ethiopia's New York City in the Danakil Depression
“New York City”

We drive through endless stretches of cracked brown earth. Maybe this is what planet Mars looks like? Suddenly: a small lake. But of course, like anything else here during our Danakil Depression tour, it is anything but ordinary. The water is brownish, hot and oily to the touch and it is bubbling as if it’s boiling. In fact, it is not boiling. Bubbles of gas are released from underground. And it is not water but pure sulphuric acid that flows here from the area’s volcanoes in underground streams.

Danakil Depression strange lakes
The bubbly lake

Danakil salt flats

Our last stop is at the 1,200 km² of salt flats that surround Dallol. The only thing that breaks up the endless whiteness are small red mountains – also made entirely of salt. We stop at a hole in the ground where you can look into the huge salt lake that lies underneath these plains. Like a reverse iceberg the salt takes the shape of mountain walls that disappear into the depth of the lake. I imagine how the underground lake expands all the way to the horizon, and quietly hope that a similar hole won’t suddenly form underneath the wheels of our 4WD.

A little bit further is a salt mining area where Afar people chop greyish blocks of the mineral from the ground. During our visit no mining activities are taking place. I actually feel a bit relieved. I imagine how awkward it would have been for us to jump out of our 4WDs with our expensive cameras, just to watch people performing backbreaking and exhausting work for which they get paid very little.

Looking at their work area it is not difficult to imagine the hardships of this job. After hacking the chunks out of the ground, the salt is carried to piles. From people load it onto the backs of camels. These camel caravans used to walk all the way to Mekele, carrying loads of salt slabs weighing 4 KG each; a journey that could take weeks.

Today, the caravan walks ‘only’ 80 KM to the town of Berhale. Subsequently, trucks carry it to Mekele on asphalted roads. From Mekele the salt is distributed all across the Horn of Africa. It is humbling to witness the hardships that go into the production of a commodity that most of us take so much for granted.

Salt mining in Danakil Ethiopia
Salt mining – these blocks of salt are transported by camel to Mekele
Salt lake Danakil Depression
This salt lake is so shallow that you could walk to the other side

Like everywhere else in the world, old ways are slowly fading. Also here, in what is one of the most remote and inaccessible regions on the planet. In not too many years from today the camel caravans will be a thing of the past. That is because Chinese contractors are now constructing a paved road from Berhale to Hamed Ele, the eerie mining town where I started this story. To the Afar people who have called this extra-terrestrial landscape their home for millennia, this may be a more intrusive change than any volcanic eruption could cause. 

Danakil Depression tour guide

Everything you need to know about visiting Ethiopia’s most remote and harsh environments

Below I have listed some practical information that can help you prepare for your own tour in the Danakil Depression. If you need to know more, just drop a comment below this post and I’ll be in touch with you!

How can I visit the Danakil Depression?

The Danakil Depression cannot be visited independently – this is forbidden because of its remoteness, lack of facilities but also the fact that it is situated in a geographical area that is known for its political instability. If you want to see the Danakil Depression, you have to sign up for an organised tour. You can do this with one of the many tour operators that offer trips to the Danakil Depression. Most tour operators will transport you with 4WDs like Toyota Landcruisers that fits 4 passengers. The group size will depend on the season; our group had about 30 travellers.

All 4WDs will stick together so you will be driving through the desert in a convoy. The rule is that there must be a minimum of two vehicles in the group in case one of them breaks down (we actually had one car with a flat tyre during the trip). So even if you’d be willing to cash out for a private tour you’d still be driving in a convoy.

The downside of having to sign up for a group tour is of course that it makes you less independent; you have to follow the itinerary of the operator. The upside is that you can share cost of transportation. In addition, everything is organised for you by experienced people who know their way around this area that has few roads and no facilities. The tour operator will bring all your food and water and will set up mobile camps in the desert where you can sleep. They also arrange the mandatory armed escort.

Tours depart every morning from Mekele, the closest large city. You can fly to Mekele from Addis Ababa. If you are in Lalibela or Aksum you can also take ground transport; either public buses or minibuses leaving in the early morning or private transportation by (shared) Landcruiser. Your Danakil tour operator will be able to arrange this for you.

I recommend the latter option, as public transport is often full, takes super long, and is an unsafe way to travel due to a high frequency of road accidents involving (mini)-buses. You may not even arrive before dark. Our trip by Landcruiser took the whole day. It started at 08:00 and we arrived in Mekele around 17:00. But it was considerably safer and probably more comfortable, despite the fact that we shared the side benches of a Landcruiser with 6 other people.

A great place to stay in Mekele before and after your Danakil Depression tour is Asimba Guesthouse. I recommend the King Room that has an excellent hot shower that you will just love to pieces after 3 days out in the desert.

What is the cost of a Danakil Depression tour?

The cost of a tour can vary. It depends on the number of people in your group and the operator you decide to go with. Most prices I have seen quoted for our trip in December ranged from $ 350 to $ 490 per person for three days. This price includes everything: transportation to Mekele and beyond, accommodation, food, water, permits, a guide, a driver, a cook, camping equipment and the armed escort.

The only added cost you need to count on is a tip for your guide and driver at the end of the tour. Also bring some small change to buy a coffee or a beer. It’s typically cheaper to book a tour when you’re on the ground in Ethiopia rather than doing it in advance and online. You can do this either in Lalibela or Aksum, or directly in Mekele. It is best to do this at least two days ahead but one day ahead should still be possible in most cases. Booking in Addis is more expensive. You may be able to negotiate the price with the tour operator.

What is the best tour operator for a Danakil Depression tour?

There are many different tour operators that offer this trip. We booked our trip with Highland Eco Trekking Tours, who are based in Lalibela. Their service was very friendly and they have good reviews from other travelers. However, we ended up joining a Ethio Travel and Tours group. This sometimes happens when the number of people who joined your own operator is not big enough to form its own independent group. In that case they just add you to an existing larger group. ETT is the largest and most well-known operator so they are very experienced. However, they also tend to have bigger groups and not necessarily the best traveller feedback. If you have selected a specific provider based on travelers’ reviews, then double check if you will actually be going with that specific operator rather than being merged with an ETT group.

When is the best time for a Danakil Depression tour?

Most tour operators avoid visiting in summer simply because it will get too hot. Best months to visit are September to January, when temperatures are at their coolest. We still had more than 40 degrees Celcius in December, though!

How many days should I spend in the Danakil Depression?

There are various Danakil Depression tour packages available ranging from 2 to 4 days with most operators. I recommend to go for a 3-day, 2-night tour which allows you sufficient time to see both Erta Ale volcano and the sulphur fields at Dallol. If you take a two-day tour, you will have to skip one of those. Consider the current state of Erta Ale though (see below) – if you want to go there purely for the lava lake you may wish to skip it and then a two-day tour will suffice. A four- day tour does not add much in terms of sights but it will allow you to take things a little bit slower – in reality this means more coffee stops which in my opinion is not worth the cost of the extra day.

Itineraries differ per operator, but this was ours:

Day 1 – Drive from Mekele to Erta Ale; climb the volcano at night and sleep there.
Day 2 – Hike back from the volcano, then drive to lake Afrera for a swim, sleep in a village guesthouse
Day 3 – Drive to Dallol, see the various sights including the salt mining fields, then drive back to Mekele. Arrival at around 17:00.

How difficult is it to climb Erta Ale volcano?

It is not difficult to climb the volcano. The trail is not steep. The two things that may make it hard for you are the fact that you’re walking in the dark, and the heat. It takes 3 to 4 hours to climb to the crater. The trail is mostly molten lava rock so it’s uneven but there is a good grip. I found hiking down to actually be tougher than going up, because of the heat from the sun.

What is the current state of Erta Ale volcano? Is the lava lake visible?

I was so excited about seeing Erta Ale’s lava lake. So I was really bummed when I found out that the state of the lava lake is not as it used to be. In January of 2018 there has been a small eruption. That has caused the level of the lava to drop about 30 meters down into the caldera. Add to that the fact that the volcano is constantly smoking, and what you get is a crater filled with smoke. We did not see any lava at all, not even a red glow (which is sometimes still seen, and if you are lucky you may catch a small glimpse of the lava when the smoke subsides – a traveller we met later who had done this trip one day after ours had actually seen a small spot of lava).

So currently there are no guarantees that you will even see any lava at all. If this is very important for you, I advise you to check locally what the current state of the lava lake is before you book your trip. Of course this is a natural phenomenon so it can change at any time and there are no guarantees. It was still cool to sleep on top of a volcano and to see the smoke and lava rocks, though.

I captured this video after sunrise. It shows how much smoke is coming from the caldera.

Can I be sure to see the salt miners and the camel caravans?

Camel in Ethiopia

This is also not guaranteed. The salt miners are not actively mining every day or every part of the day. That means you may see them at work or you may not (as in our case). The camel caravans are also unpredictable; it depends on the mining activities whether you will see these or not. For sure you will see many camels during your Danakil Depression tour, as they are a part of the daily life and activities of the Afar. However, seeing an actual salt caravan cannot be guaranteed.

Do I need to be fit for a trip to the Danakil Depression?

None of the attractions during the tour are exceptionally difficult to reach. The most physically demanding parts are the hikes up and down Erta Ale volcano and the short hike to Dallol, but more because of the heat than because of the difficulty of the trail. People with heart problems are advised not to visit Danakil Depression; even though the transport between the sites is done in an air-conditioned vehicle, you will still be walking around in the heat a lot. Persons with serious back problems should probably also steer away from Danakil. The lack of roads leads to drives that must be excruciating for people with back pain (and for those with bruised ribs, like myself… ouch).

What should I wear during my Danakil Depression tour?

So by now you know that it gets hot in the Danakil Depression, but I mean really, really hot. So bring light clothes, sunglasses and a hat or light scarf that you can wear to protect your head. I advise to wear closed shoes, preferably good hiking shoes or boots, because it is easy to injure your feet on sharp rocks or in the sulphur fields if you wear open shoes. I felt tempted to wear shorts and a sleeveless top, but opted for light long trousers and a t-shirt that covered my shoulders out of respect for the local Afar people whose style of dress covers up most body parts. It’s probably better to cover up anyway to prevent sunburn.

What facilities are available in the Danakil Depression?

There are few to none. Expect minimum levels of comfort. Tour operators set up mobile camps for you to sleep in, although most 3-day tours include at least one night in a village guesthouse. Basically, there are no toilets. There is also nowhere to buy food or drinks except in the small villages that you’ll pass and where you will have breakfast and lunch, and there is no electricity, showers or running water. Be prepared to walk for a while before you can relieve yourself unless you don’t mind being watched.You are in a desert, so there is not much to hide behind when you’ve got to do a number one or two out in the open.

On Erta Ale you sleep on a thin mattress in the open air. If your tour company offers you a sleeping bag, accept it. We didn’t because it felt so warm, but during the night the recurring breeze made us feel quite chilly. Admittedly we regretted not having a blanket or sleeping bag to shield us from the wind. In the guesthouse during the second night we slept on mattresses on the floor in a dorm type room. There was a sink with water bottles, a squat toilet with a bucket, and a bucket shower.

Sleeping - Danakil Depression tour
The dorm room in the second night’s guesthouse
Lunch during Danakil tour
One of the breakfasts we had – not bad at all for a meal in the middle of the desert!

What should be my packing list for a Danakil Depression tour?

These are what I think are the essentials:

  • Light clothes as mentioned above plus a long-sleeve or light sweater to wear at night when you sleep out in the open. It’s still warm at night but the breeze can chill you when you are lying still. So a sweater would be comfortable. In addition to a long-sleeve I actually brought just one shirt, my favourite one made of merino wool. Merino wool is a great fabric for hot climates because it’s extremely light weight, breathable, it dries super quickly and it neutralizes smells. This allows you to wear it easily for three days without stinking the place up.
  • Torch or flashlight; you will need it to climb Erta Ale at night
  • Sun lotion
  • Sunglasses
  • Power bank if you want to charge your phone, there is no electricity during the tour
  • Swim suit if you wish to swim in Lake Afrera. Note that you will have to wear it underneath your clothes from the morning as there is no proper spot to get changed at the lake. I actually didn’t bring a swim suit, I just stripped down to my underwear which worked as well.
  • Tissues / toilet paper. The bush will be your toilet these days – or actually not even the bush because there are barely any bushes in the Danakil Depression. Toilet paper is BYO.
  • Wet wipes – for the lack of showers these are great to at least try to clean yourself up a bit in the mornings and evenings.
  • Small rubbish bag – to dispose of said toilet paper, wet wipes and other small trash. Please don’t be one of those persons who dump tissues and plastic bottles in the desert.
  • Some cash including a tip for the driver and guide.
  • If you prefer to sleep in your own sleeping bag rather than the one provided by the tour operator – bring a light one.
  • A small travel towel if you think you’ll use the bucket shower in the guesthouse.

How dangerous is a visit to the Danakil Depression?

It’s not uncommon to see armed types walking around

Currently a visit to the Danakil Depression is probably safer than it’s been in years. As the area touches the border with Eritrea, a country which Ethiopia has been at war with for twelve years, it used to be a very unstable region. It was often listed among the most dangerous tourist destinations in the world. It was the home of armed bandits, militias and rebels and separatist groups. In fact, as recently as 2017 unidentified man fatally shot a German tourist in an ambush, and in 2012 five European tourists were killed and others wounded and kidnapped in an attack by a rebel group, presumably from Eritrea.

Because of this threat it is mandatory to bring armed guards along on your tour – but this is now changing. Ethiopia and Eritrea have signed a peace agreement and the area is now so stable that protection from the army is no longer a vital necessity. You will probably still find that your tour operator hires one or two armed guards. This could be either to continue to provide the local community with paid work or as a precaution since you will still be sleeping out in the open in one of the most remote areas of the world, so security is not an unnecessary luxury.

I never felt unsafe during this trip and there was no sign of tension or violence anywhere. Be sure to check your government’s current travel advice. Read recent reports on travel forums or ask locals about the current circumstances before you decide to travel as the situation may of course change.

The biggest danger nowadays is probably the hostile environment. A heat stroke is a realistic possibility and you must know to recognize the symptoms and take all precautions to prevent one. In case of a medical emergency you will not have the possibility to receive the necessary medical care. The closest hospital is at least a day away by car. A volcanic eruption or earthquake is always an unpredictable possibility in this volatile geographic zone. All in all, there are certainly risks involved in visiting one of the hottest and most hostile environments on our planet – but this makes a visit all the more rewarding.

Disclaimer: Highland Eco Trekking Tours Ethiopia sponsored our Danakil Depression tour with a discount. The story we wrote about our is based on our honest evaluation of the experience and reflects our own personal and unbiased opinion.


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