I don’t know where I first learned about the Danakil Depression.
For so many places, I remember the Instagram posts, the blogs and the documentaries that have inspired me to visit, but the Danakil?
All I do know is that I can remember wanting to visit this unique corner of the globe since the inception of this blog, which it terrifies me to say, was almost nine years ago!
So when Chelsea and I decided to visit Sudan, it seemed like the perfect chance to also visit neighbouring Ethiopia and finally tick this bucket list destination off of my ever-growing travel to do list.
We, like most travellers, arrived into Ethiopia in Addis Ababa. We decided to fly from Sudan to Ethiopia with Ethiopian Airways even though it wasn’t the cheapest option, because we knew that overall, this decision would save us money.
Ethiopian Airways have a deal that if you arrive into the country with them, you will be eligible to book any domestic flights at a 50% off discounted rate!
We had quite a few places that we wanted to see in a short space of time and these cheap flights were absolutely the best way to make that happen. Back when we travelled in late 2019 I was able to book the flights online myself using a discount code, but I can’t for the life of me find that code anymore, so it might be that you need to contact the domestic flight office directly and have them book those flights for you.
After a day in Addis, we flew into Mekelle, which is the jumping off point for tours into the Danakil.
Important Note: Please be aware that travel to Mekelle is not only strongly unadvised, but also likely impossible. Furthermore, all travel to Ethiopia is currently strongly discouraged due to the current conflict between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Please use this blog for inspiration and future planning, but be aware that travelling at the time of publishing (January 2022) that I, the author, strongly recommend you reconsider your need to travel to Ethiopia.
We organised our Danakil tour through World Sun tours, although to be honest, all of the tour operators have equally poor reputations. Expect the tour to be disorganised as all hell – this is just the way it is in Ethiopia!
Our 3D2N tour cost around $350 USD as we organised it in advance, but I have heard reports of people getting cheaper rates by booking through street touts.
Disorganisation aside, we eventually got going and were on the road, en route to the Danakil!
The drive was decidedly uncomfortable. There were four of us squished into a 4×4 that was definitely on the small side. It was hot and uncomfy, but we were still excited for what lay ahead.
While it wasn’t comfy, the drive was undeniably scenic. We initially gained a lot of altitude, before rapidly descending back into the lowlands.
As we got closer to our first stop in the Danakil, we came across this convoy of camels! These cuties were transporting salt blocks from the salt flats of the depression (which I didn’t even know existed before this point) to cities around the country.
Next, we arrived at the salt flats. Now, I gotta be honest, when I decided to visit the Danakil, for me, the main appeal was Dallol (stay tuned) and there wasn’t much else that I really knew about or was excited to see. So, these salt flats came as a complete surprise to me!
There was a little saltwater swimming hole which Chelsea wasted no time in jumping into, but I had swum in extremely salty water before at the Dead Sea in Jordan and have vivid memories of being all sticky and uncomfortable after getting out (and having to then get on three long haul flights back to Australia all gross and grimey) and thus decided to give this swim a miss.
Instead, I decided to take le drone out for a spin – a decision I ended up being extremely happy with – how gorgeous are these salt flats!?
Only a few moments after I brought le drone down, we were hurried back into our vehicle and started racing across the salt.
Why the hurry?
We needed to catch the sunset, and boy, what a stunning sunset it was.
After we had sunk a few beers and the sun had disappeared, we made our way to camp to eat dinner and (attempt) to settle in for the night. Our camp was a bunch of wicker style mats on the side of the highway and at first, this unconventional campsite was a novelty, however, it got real old, real fast.
The wind constantly whipped against our faces and ears, making it impossible to sleep. I tossed and turned for hours before giving up and tip-toeing over to the 4x4s to see if any were unlocked. Luckily, one of them was, and I promptly parked myself in the front seat, reclined it back and finally got a couple of hours of sleep.
What seemed like minutes later, we were awoken before the sun (it was literally like a 4.30am wake up call) for breakfast and an early start. I reunited with Chelsea after dragging myself from the car – she hadn’t slept a wink – and neither had anyone else in our group!
We were grumpy and bleary, but luckily, what lay before us served as the best wake up call of all.
It was time to visit Dallol.
Dallol is an undeniably unique geothermal environment. Based around a cinder cone shaped volcano, this area is known for the acidic fluids that are secreted from the volcanic hydrothermal landscape. These hyperacidic fluids are also hyper-saline and this unique environment creates a landscape like no other. The textures, colours and smells are utterly unique to Dallol, which is why I wanted to visit them so much!
The sight of the sulfuric yellows, burnt rusts and neon greens made the sleepless night completely worthwhile. I had wanted to visit this unique corner of the globe and it was finally happening!
It should go without saying, but make sure you pack proper hiking boots – there are a lot of liquids that you most definitely wouldn’t want to step in.
It is also worth me noting that when travel returns to normal within Ethiopia, if you do decide to visit the Danakil, an organised tour is absolutely, without a shadow of a doubt, the only way to do so.
Yes, the tour operators may be average at best, but the Danakil lies on the border with Eritrea, which is a notoriously volatile region, so as much as the humbug may get old fast, these guides have the knowledge around where is safe to visit, something that a foreigner just won’t have.
Furthermore, if your guide instructs you to follow them – do so! I know the temptation to frolic off and take photographs without anyone else in them (seriously, I understand the desire) but there have been several instances in which tourists have failed to do so and been kidnapped and/or killed in the process.
Now, that may sound terrifying, but as long as you use common sense when visiting the region and stick to your guide (like super glue) a trip to the Danakil can (usually) be done quite safely.
We spent a short hour exploring this other-worldly land formation, which passed by in what felt like an instant. I didn’t want to go! I wanted to stay and continue admiring the view! However, despite my protests, I very quickly understood why our visit was both an early and brief one – the heat became oppressive in an impressively short amount of time!
So, we said our goodbyes to Dallol and set off for our next stop – Erta Ale volcano.
Now, I am going to be straight with you. When you google Erta Ale or look into climbing it, the photos look absolutely out of this world.
However, the reality could not be further from the truth.
We hiked to the top, in the dark, and this was what we saw.
It certainly left a little to be desired! Keep in mind, we were already so sleep deprived by this point that when we exerted our bodies even further for such a lacklustre view it was extra disappointing.
We slept on the side of the volcano that night, and when we were shielded from the wind we both managed to get a surprisingly decent sleep! So much so that when we were woken up in the morning to see the volcano in daylight we both opted to give that a miss and instead catch a few more zzz’s.
We arrived back to Mekelle that evening. Our trip to the Danakil had been at times wonderful (Dallol and the salt flats were gorgeous) and at other times disappointing (Erta Ale, enough said).
We were also frustrated by the lack of care in regards to the preservation of these landscapes. Everywhere we went we saw mountains and mountains of empty plastic water bottles that had been discarded by the tour guides. Our tour was marketed online as being an eco tour, yet they were littering just as much as everyone else! Hiking Erta Ale wasn’t exactly a highlight, but it sticks out in my memory because of how many water bottles I saw whilst I hiked down in the morning – I am not exaggerating, it was thousands and thousands.
I am extremely grateful that I was able to travel to the Danakil when I did (especially given the current situation in Ethiopia) but I do feel that these tours could be done in a much more sustainable way.
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Parrot Guest House: This little guest house has appalling wifi but a decent restaurant on site and helpful staff. Unfortunately their Facebook page is currently blocked, hopefully they will be back in business soon!
World Sun Tours: I agonised over which tour group to choose, but in the end they are pretty much all the same. World Sun were fine, but I really wish they wouldn’t advertise themselves as an eco-friendly company when that couldn’t be further from the truth
Safety: Travel to all of Ethiopia is currently unadvisable, but this is especially true in the northern part of the country where Mekelle is located – wait to travel until it becomes safe to do so
Camera: Images captured with an Olympus OM-D E-M1 in conjunction with M.Zuiko 7-14mm f/2.8, M.Zuiko 12-40mm f/2.8 and M.Zuiko 40-150mm f/2.8 lenses as well as with a DJI Mavic Pro Drone (now discontinued)
Remember: Bring extra sunscreen and all the patience you can muster – it’ll be a long and bumpy ride!