We stumbled along in the darkness, the path a lighter gray amid the deep charcoal of the dried lava fields surrounding us. Up ahead was our goal, the dull, angry, red glow our own personal Mount Doom just over the ridge. We were in the Danakil Depression, in Ethiopia, which has been called one of the hottest places on Earth.
In one hand I held a flashlight; in the other, the hand of my 7-year-old son, Ray, the youngest member of our intrepid troop that had set out to visit one of Africa’s most active volcanoes. Behind us stretched a faint row of flashlights and headlamps from the other members of the team. The camels carried our bags. The local guards carried old bolt-action rifles across their shoulders. The dried lava around us still radiated the punishing heat of the day.
We were in what has been called one of the hottest places on Earth, so this final trek up to the Erta Ale volcano had to be made after the blazing sun had set.
After a three-hour hike, we crested the ridge. Before us was the glowing caldera, filled with dancing fountains of lava.
Ethiopia is increasingly making its mark on the global tourist map. Once just the province of dedicated Peace Corps workers and intrepid backpackers, newly built roads and new hotels are opening it up to the broader tourist market.
But even for the most veteran traveler to Ethiopia — who has already visited the
baboon-infested northern highlands, the nearly inaccessible mountain monasteries of the Tigray Region or the rock-cut churches of Lalibela — the Danakil is in a category of its own.
This punishingly hot lowland, set between the mountains of the Tigray Region and the Eritrean Red Sea Coast, is home to immense salt flats that once were a major source of wealth for the medieval Abyssinian Empire, as well as colorful sulfur pools and the Erta Ale — or “smoking mountain” — the most accessible of the region’s volcanoes.
And we decided to take the kids along. There was my son, as well as a 9-year-old and 11-year-old who, well protected by sunblock and broad hats, had a great time. Despite the region’s forbidding reputation, a well-organized tour in four-wheel-drive vehicles made for an unforgettable trip of four days that included the main sights of the region, including the salt flats, the sulfur pools and the volcano.
One of the first Europeans to make his way through the Danakil in the 1930s was the young British adventurer Wilfred Thesiger, who left behind the “Danakil Diaries” about his trips through a land that had meant the death of so many explorers before him, thanks to the exceptionally fierce and nomadic Afar people.
He wrote about how, for the Afar, you weren’t truly a man until you had killed someone. “A man can marry before he has killed, but no other woman will sleep with him,” he wrote, adding: “They invariably castrate their victims, even if still alive.”
Yet despite these dangers, he spent weeks exploring the area, hunting wild game and charting the course of the Awash River. “They were a cheerful, happy people despite the incessant killing,” he noted.
Thankfully, the rigors of the journey are much less now. Even a few years ago, the lack of roads through the Danakil meant long, spine-rattling trips over dirt tracks in a four-wheel-drive vehicle. Now, new roads have been cut through the mountains from the neighboring Tigray Region, so a journey of days is now a matter of hours.
We set off from Mek’ele, the capital of the region and a bustling, comparatively new town located a short flight from Addis Ababa. Our convoy consisted of two Toyota Land Cruisers for our seven-member group (me, my wife and son, and the other two children who had a parent each) and the guide, as well as a third vehicle carrying food, equipment and the cook.
The twisting road into the mountains above Mek’ele is a beautiful drive with sharp-faced peaks, wild vegetation and cool temperatures, but soon we were descending into the lowlands of the Afar Region and the heat set in.
The first stop was the town of Berhale, little more than a collection of makeshift huts made of flapping canvas and corrugated iron near the highway. Truckers, explorers and others must stop here and pick up the permits to head into the rest of the region. A string of restaurants popped up and our guide led us into one, where our group gathered around a communal platter of the grilled Ethiopian meat-and-chiles dish known as tibs, accompanied by shiro, a chickpea sauce that is a national staple. We washed it down with cold beers in the sweltering noon heat.
In the distance, there was a collection of tents from a refugee camp of Eritreans that had fled across the not-very-distant border. It was a grim, hot, stony landscape. Clambering back into the air-conditioned cars was a real relief.
By late afternoon, we were slammed by the first of many unforgettable sights of the Danakil — the camel caravans of the salt trade, a timeless image that probably hasn’t changed in centuries.
Moving along at a steady pace, hundreds of camels marched across the brown, flat landscape in single file, with a herder walking along every dozen animals or so. Each camel carried tablets of salt that have been carved out of the ground for the last two millennia.
This “white gold” is the principal resource of the Danakil. Once, it was used as currency by the Abyssinian Empire. There also is archaeological evidence that the ancient empire of Axum, a contemporary of the Roman Empire, traded in these salt slabs.
The slabs are painstakingly chipped out of the ground, cut into uniformly sized tablets and loaded on to the camels every day. Each tablet is worth about a dollar.
At one time, the caravans would head all the way into Mek’ele, a trip of weeks, but now they generally just go to Berhale, our midday road stop, in a two-day, 46-mile trek. There, the salt is offloaded onto trucks and taken by the new road to the rest of the country.
There are about 700 registered salt miners from the Muslim Afar people and the Christian Tigrayans. As we snapped photos, they called out to us in Arabic, exchanged greetings and asked for cigarettes and water.
Some 30,000 years ago, the Red Sea covered this low-lying region before eventually receding and leaving behind the thick salt deposits. Just before dusk, we arrived at the flats, which look like a skating rink that stretches on to the horizon. A thin layer of water on the surface turns it into a mirror and reflects the images of the distant mountains.
The salt is white and looks like snow, making the lines of camels walking across it seem especially surreal — a bit like a Nativity scene in a Midwest town after a snowfall, but really hot.
We took off our shoes to keep them from being damaged by the salt before venturing out across the slick, ridged surface.
The squad of Ethiopian soldiers that accompanied us to the flats — we were, after all, just a few dozen kilometers from the Eritrean border, which was still in a state of tension with Ethiopia — was as enchanted by the scene as we were, posing for selfies in front of the endless, white plain as the sun set. The children danced across the salt, jumping in the air and marveling at the little bubbles coming up through the slick surface.
We spent the night in the nearby village under the open air, with a steady wind that kept us cool despite the muggy heat. The next morning, it was on to Dallol, which has the unenviable reputation of being one of the hottest inhabited places on Earth, with an average temperature of 100 degrees. It is one of the lowest points on the continent, more than 300 feet below sea level.
The ground became a grim, cracked brown with streaks of color until we reached a low rise that held bubbling sulfur springs. Cresting the hill, our eyes were assaulted by colors that should not exist in nature.
Bright yellow, red and orange mineral deposits surrounded bubbling pools as steam poured from vents in the ground. It was just 8 a.m., but the heat was intense: a hot, humid, cloying sensation that had us sweating profusely in a matter of minutes. Faces soon turned red and clothes became suffocating. I felt for the soldiers, in their heavy green camouflage uniforms, but they seemed to be fine as they merrily took more selfies and helped my son clamber over the rough ground.
In the distance were some ruined buildings from the 1920s, when the Italians set up a camp to mine potash until they were driven out by the British some two decades later in World War II. My mind boggled on how they were able to survive these temperatures and the rotten-egg smell of sulfur hanging heavy in the air for so long.
The garishly colored rocks brought to mind the landscape of an alien planet, but none of us could stay too long to admire the scene as the heat kept climbing. We soon headed back down to the Land Cruisers.
There was more to see in this desolate, weird landscape. Pools of oily mineral water bubbled up in the flat plains; towers of salt-encrusted mini-mountains rose up into fantastic shapes. For lunch, we headed back toward the highlands and stopped at a mountain spring with water gushing over the cliff into a small pool, which helped us to cool down and wash off the greasy scent of the mineral springs.
We drove south along the edge of the highlands to Erta Ale. Close to the mountains, it once again was a different Ethiopia on view, with green fields of barley and the local teff grain as well as herds of cattle with immense, curving, prehistoric-looking horns walking beneath the acacia trees on the side of the road.
That night, we slept out under the stars again and dined on grilled lamb. There was an uncomfortable moment when a scorpion scurried out from the corner and I searched for a Kleenex to gently scoop it up out of harm’s way as I would a bug at home.
“Just kill it,” shouted one of my fellow parents, and it occurred to me that with at least three children around, it might be time to put aside my Buddhist sensibilities. I stomped on it with my Birkenstock-clad foot.
The explorer Thesiger talked about the scorpions during his Danakil travels. He described putting on his pants with one inside after a dip in a lake and getting “severely stung.” He reserved his main ire, however, for the hairy tarantulas — four inches across — that bedeviled his campsites.
“They scuttle around the camp as soon as the sun sets,” he wrote in his diary. “Last night we killed twelve in the camp. In my dreams they assume the most nightmarish proportions.”
Luckily for us, the tarantulas seemed to have gone the way of the big game that Thesiger so delighted in hunting during his travels.
The trip the next day to the volcano was a study in the declining quality of roads. We went from a broad, paved highway to a wide, gravel track before driving over the tortuous, bumpy lava fields at just a few miles per hour.
Finally, it was even too much for our intrepid Land Cruisers and we reached a collection of round, stone huts with thatched roofs that became a kind of base camp for trips by foot up the volcano.
Here, camel drivers, soldiers and local militia members often hang out until expeditions like ours come for the final three-hour, six-mile trek to the caldera.
With our cars left behind, it suddenly felt like we were in the true Thesiger territory from his 1930s diaries, in which he talked endlessly about the state of his camels and donkeys, and negotiations with their owners.
We hired three camels for the trip, one for our gear and the other two for anyone who grew tired during the hike. We also had a few militia members to accompany us.
While the Danakil today is nothing like it was in the time of Thesiger, when strangers were often killed on the spot and rival tribes were engaged in incessant raids against each other, it does have a bit of a lawless reputation, making armed accompaniment now an official requirement.
In 2012, a group of tourists was attacked at the volcano by armed tribesmen. Five died and two were kidnapped. In 2007, another group that included British Embassy staffers was also briefly taken hostage. Since then, there has been a security post installed at the volcano, and embassies have gradually lifted travel restrictions.
It was a rare cloudy day, so we were able to start the trek in the late afternoon instead of dusk, which is the traditional tactic to escape the sun. We walked across a stark, beautiful landscape of dark-gray lava flows that contrasted sharply with tufts of straw-colored grass. The lava had the cracked and folded appearance of asphalt at an abandoned city basketball court.
The three-hour trek on a slight incline isn’t challenging for someone in shape, and even my 7-year-old and the 9-year-old were able to make it, with the occasional stint riding high on a camel. The final hour, however, was in pitch black lit by our flashlights and the distant glow of the volcano.
At the summit, our guide led us down into the plain around the crater and we scrambled over lava flows that were just a day or two old. Once, you could camp right next to the crater. In the past year, though, Erta Ale has become quite active. We only made it within about 70 yards of the bubbling cauldron before the heat kept us back.
We watched in awe as the lava leapt and fell back into the glowing bowl and made a strange hissing noise. Exhausted and footsore, we made our painstaking way back across the lava plain and up the cliff to watch the light show.
Later that evening, the lava overflowed the crater at several points. It was hard not to wonder if there was now fresh magma where we had just been standing.
We awoke before dawn after a restless night. The bone-dry Danakil only gets seven inches of rain a year, but it all seemed to have fallen that night, resulting in a frantic scurry for the huts.
Thesiger often wrote about starting his treks at 5 a.m., before the sun grew too hot, and so we too started the climb down in the predawn grayness. A last glimpse of the volcano showed it to be as active as ever, with red patches of lava, cooling in the plain, visible to us even as the sky brightened.
A sweaty, three-hour trek later, we were back to the Land Cruisers. An astonishing four hours after that, we were in Mek’ele and at the airport, ready to rejoin the world after four days of peering into the crust of the Earth.
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Debre Amo Hotel
On the main road from airport into town, across from United Fuel
A modest guesthouse between the town and the airport, with a lovely breakfast served in the garden. Double rooms from $54.
Lake Tana Ferry Boat Authority & Launch,
011-251-911-764-933 or 011-251-918-016-466
The best time to visit is during the winter months from November to February, when temperatures are a bit cooler. The price of the trip is $400 per person ($300 for children under 12) for four days and three nights. The price does not include round-trip airfare between Addis Ababa and Mek’ele (about $350 for nonresidents) and includes food, water transportation and guides during the trip. Camel rentals cost extra. Open-air camping serves as accommodation.
One of the most comprehensive travel guides for Ethiopia comes from Bradt, which has a decent website as well.
Other good online resources include: