One of the reasons I chose to do this tour with Dragoman is because it included the Danakil Depression. While many tour companies do the “historic circuit” through Ethiopia, not many include both the Simien Mountains and the Danakil Depression. Dragoman did both, so that contributed to my choosing them for my Ethiopia visit.
Located in the Afar region about 15 miles from the border with Eritrea, the Danakil Depression lies at the junction where three tectonic plates come together within the area known as the Horn of Africa. Dropping down to 410 ft below sea level, it is not only one of the lowest spots on the planet, it is also known to be one of the hottest, vying against Death Valley for the title. While I believe Death Valley holds the record for highest spike, Danakil holds the current record for the highest average temperature of any inhabited place on Earth. Temperatures known to reach 125 degrees have earned this place titles such as “The Gateway to Hell,” and National Geographic’s designation as “The cruelest place on Earth.”
We would leave “Amelia,” the Dragoman truck behind in Mekele for our two day journey into the Danakil. Ethio Tours and Travel would be taking us on the journey in five Toyota 4X4 Land Cruisers, each vehicle holding three passengers and a driver. There was also an additional vehicle for our cook team, as we would be staying overnight, so this team would prepare our meals. We would be sleeping out “under the stars” on wooden cots with springs made from strands of twine, and cushioned with a thin foam pad.
We were well prepped for the journey with warnings to bring lightweight clothing and only a sleeping bag liner to put on the cots. The vehicles were loaded with food and plenty of water, along with jerry cans for washing. Prior to leaving we got a briefing from Louise on how important it was to stick together, not wander away from camp, and to drink, drink, drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration from the scorching heat. Our touring would start at 5:00am to avoid the hellish heat for which Dallol (volcanic cinder cone crater, the center of the Danakil, location of sulfur pits and hot springs) was infamous.
“However…” (seems there’s often a “however” on this trip) the morning we left Mekele was overcast and uncharacteristically cool. In fact, I left on the trip wearing a long-sleeved tee shirt over a short-sleeved tee shirt for extra warmth. I never took it off for the entire trip, and in fact, even the puffy jacket came out after dark. Our time in the “hottest place on earth” would turn out to be downright cool!
After setting up camp we headed off toward Lake Asale, salt flats that were once a part of the Red Sea. The salt is up to one kilometer (3,280 ft) thick beneath this shallow lake. The plan was to return to this lake the following morning to watch the sun rise, unfortunately the cloud cover did not clear throughout the night. I know, because I was awake for half of it. There is a fierce gale wind that blows across the Danakil known as “Gara,” or “fire wind.” It feels both hot and cold at the same time, and is relentless in it’s velocity. I was awake half the night worrying that I would roll over and my only inflatable pillow would fly away, ending up in Eritrea.
Even though there was no sunrise, we still kept to the same schedule of waking up at 5:00am, typically to avoid the heat. But we kept to the schedule in spite of being “unseasonably cool” during our visit.
Our first stop would be Dallol, which is a volcanic cinder cone believed to have formed in 1926 when emergent magma came in contact with the standing salt water lake. What resulted was geysers, conical vents, crystalline formations, sulfurous pools, and potash deposits. Including the 20 minute hike to and from the hydro-thermal area, we would spend about two hours just wandering in and around this bizarre multi-colored psychedelic mind-bending “trip” of a hike.
But that wasn’t all, as just next door was an area they called “Black Mountain” which looked like canyons, pinnacles and spires all made from salt. And finally, a bubbling oil lake rimmed in apricot colored crystal formations. All the while, the Grateful Dead song kept running through my head, “What a long, strange trip it’s been!” If only “Lucy in the Sky” had been more cooperative.
I loved journeying into this most fascinating of places, I definitely felt the “depression” of Danakil. I never could quite put a finger on it. I just didn’t feel myself. I was lethargic, a bit nauseous, and felt a bit withdrawn. Part of this might have been from the gaseous fumes and the smell of rotten eggs wafting through the air. Part was from the gale force winds that never relented the entire time, where all gear had to be anchored down or lost forever.
I also attributed part of it to being depressed over the oppressive cloud cover. While our guides tried to assure us how lucky we were, as our time would have otherwise been severely limited by the usual heat, I couldn’t help but obsess over how much better my photos would have been in the golden sunlight of early morning. We went with plans to watch both the sunset and sunrise over the salt lake, neither of which happened as we all stared across the horizon hoping for a break in the clouds. I came all this way, and will not pass this way again, so it was tough not to feel down about the weather.
But there was more. While I would not trade this fascinating experience for anything, it just felt like a depressing place. In the next post, I will write more about why I felt the “depression” of the Danakil, a place National Geographic deemed to be “The cruelest place on Earth.”