Mars on Earth and the descent into Hell

Dallol sulphur lakes

Dallol sulfur lakes



The heat is melting your face, your eyes are stinging and your lungs are suffocating with the fumes, but none of that is important as you are mesmerized by the molten lava almost underneath your feet. The best description of this place is “Mars on earth”. In ten years of exploring this world nothing has moved me quite like the Danakil Depression, Ethiopia.

The Danakil Depression is on average the hottest place in the world, mostly under sea level and full of mind altering surprise after surprise. It contains the longest continually erupting lava lake, sulphur lakes as far as the eye can see, potassium and hydrochloric acid lakes, its very own version of the Dead Sea and a good dose of danger in terms of accidental death and potential ambush and attack.

In 2012 several tourists were attacked, wounded, murdered and kidnapped by Eritrean rebels in the Afar triangle; this was how I initially discovered this worldly beauty. Don’t let this put you off however, a good dose of armed guards and convoy driving has been implemented since to keep the tourists safe. And where is the excitement without a little bit of uncertain danger?



There are no safety barriers, no rules, it’s up to you to have some common sense and not get too close or jump into anything that looks like water (or lava!). The volcano you climb is Erta Ale, it’s a two hour assent to the crater that begins at night. You hear the lava lake before you see it, the sound of an angry ocean of crashing waves and then you get your first glimpse into the middle of the earth, so angry, so powerful and so close to where you stand.

Looking for the first time or the millionth time into the lava lake never stops ceasing to amaze you, pick wisely where you stand as changes in the wind will alter where the molten lava splatters over the edge and segments near the crater edge are rather unstable and could fall into the lava below at any time.  We threw an empty wine bottle into the crater and watched as the lava,  surprisingly slowly, enveloped it and melted it, the energy within the group was wild, with “ooo’s” and “ah’s” coming from every mouth.

Hours at the crater edge requires you to rest your legs a little, but the surrounding landscape is such virgin lava it resembles fine cobwebs all over the ground. You think it’s soft to sit on, until you rip your cotton trousers and realise you have thousands of minute lava splinters in your behind.



At the sulphur lakes you are free to explore walking over the endless multi-coloured carpet of yellows, reds, greens and blues. Tiny little mounds spurting out hydrochloric acid and strange egg shaped formations so delicate you could expect a strong breeze to destroy them. Salt formations like the tops of large dinner tables creating an unusual tiled mosaic carpet or salt formations the size of skyscrapers sticking out of the flat scenery. Lakes that looks so appealing for a swim, considering the stifling heat, only to be told that they are hydrochloric acid lakes or potassium lakes and would burn you to touch. Small birds had made this deadly decision and their carcasses now lie rotting around the edge of the pool.

The Danakil is only accessible at certain times of year, November to April are the peak seasons at the other time of year the area is flooded and it is impossible to see both the lava lake and the sulphur lakes, plus you will be hard pushed to find a tour company to take you as temperatures are soaring near 60 degrees. November is the best time to go as temperatures are at their lowest, in the mid 40’s and the rivers are dry.



This adventurous trip is not for the luxury traveller; there are no showers, toilets or any kind of running water and it is guaranteed you will get spotted squatting for the toilet by one of the many camel caravans. Shaking the hand of small children will test your immune system to the limits, I contracted Giardia, an intestinal parasite, thanks to a small boy we aptly named poo hand boy. I’m not mentioning these things to dissuade you, rather give an idea that this trip will test your endurance of heat and uncleanliness, but the visual rewards of what you see will smash all hardships into oblivion. You sleep under the stars on woven beds, where the sky above is lit so brightly with hundreds of shooting stars. You will notice the constellations clearly moving overhead through the night, it’s the perfect place to realise how small you really are in this vast universe.



You will also visit Barahile village, which is the stop over for thousands of camels loaded with salt. Salt that is marched out of the Danakil for sale. These camel caravans of 100 camels tied to each other walking in single file loaded with salt are the continuous view on the horizon on this desolate landscape.

I recommend World Sun Ethiopia Tours, Negasi Teklay is by far the best guide I’ve ever had on any tour. There was even fresh salad served on the last day of the trip having had to combat 5 days of extreme heat, I am still at a loss of how this was possible. Any time anyone in the group asked for something, such as wanting to try camel milk, he would go out of his way to make it happen. He was fun, well organised and has been a guide in this area for many years with surplus knowledge and the ability to speak many languages fluently.

Words and pictures can only hint at the awe-inspiring experience ready waiting for you, so pack your bags and get ready for the adventure.

Essential Information:

Negasi Teklay



Skype: +251(0) 9 1051 0910

5 day trip all inclusive = $650