This post is about a place in Ethiopia that we really wanted to visit but didn’t get a chance. It definitely stands as the #1 place we want to return to.
Danakil Depression is an area in the northeast of Ethiopia. It’s a huge area. It’s a desert. It’s one of the lowest points on earth (below sea level). It’s full of geothermal activity, including 25% of Africa’s active volcanos. And here’s the clincher: it has the world’s only open pool of lava. The pool is in the crater on top of a small volcano called Erta’Ale. It’s been bubbling with lava continuously since the 1960’s. You can climb up the mountain and go right up to the edge of the pool to look at the lava below. How cool is that??
(Credit: photos taken from Volcano Discovery)
When we arrived in Ethiopia we started learning about Danakil and planning a trip there. The idea was to include both Erta’Ale and the area near Dallol, where you can see colorful geisers (like in Yellowstone) and an endless chain of camels hawling bricks of salt removed from the nearby salt flats.
But then we discovered one complication after another, to the point that we decided to skip Danakil this time and save it for another trip.
The first complication is that Danakil doesn’t have any actual roads. Not even dirt roads. So travel in this area is impossibly slow. The distance from Erta’Ale to Dallol is only about 120 km, but it takes a full day to do it with a 4×4. The entire trip, from Addis to Danakil and back, takes about 10 days. When we learned this we were still prepared to go to Danakil. We figured one glimpse at the lava lake is more exciting than 10 day’s worth of doing the typical Ethiopia route (churches, churches, churches).
Next complication. The Danakil Depression is located in a province that is controlled by the Afar people. They more or less run it like an independent nation. To go to Danakil you need to get their permission, and for this you need to submit a copy of your passport and all kinds of other info. It takes about a week to get the permit. This complication pretty much ruled out Danakil for us. We didn’t have 7 days to wait for the permit + 10 days to do the trip — we had to get back to Addis in time for our flight to Cairo.
Final complication: it’s freakin expensive. We heard a range of prices from $1800 to $6000 for two of us to do the 10-day trip. Most of the companies insist on taking two 4×4’s because one is likely to get stuck along the way. They also include a guide, a cook, and two security guards. Why so much security? Because parts of the Danakil are along the border with Eritrea, and Eritrea has been in a long-standing dispute/war with Ethiopia. We heard the cheapest quote ($1800) from a French couple we met in Lalibela – they just came back from their Danakil trip. They said they found their tour guide through some internet forum. The guy kept the trip cheap by using just one 4×4, and surely enough the car got stuck at one point and the guide had to hike 5 hours in the desert to get help from the nearest village. Maybe it’s not the kind of trip where you want to go cheap, but damn these prices are out of control.
One thought came to mind – maybe it’s cheaper to just hire a helicopter?? Well, the French couple looked into it, and they said it costs $800 per hour!! I’m not sure if that includes just the flying hours or also the non-flying hours.
We discovered one potentially cheaper option, which is to start the trip in the neighboring country of Djibuti. The price per day is not any better, but your starting point is so much closer that you may be able to do it in 5 days instead of 10. Also, Djibuti has its own strangely beautiful landscape, including the place where they filmed Planet of the Apes.
I can’t explain how difficult it was to realize that we can’t visit Danakil and leave it behind. But I guess we can take comfort in knowing that the lava lake has been there for more than 40 years, so it’ll probably still be there in the future. And, knock on wood, maybe Ethiopia and Eritrea will settle their differences so we won’t need so much security.
Erta’Ale: we will be back!