Vicarious Tourism: The Danakil Depression

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit one of the most unique areas of the world, right here in Ethiopia. The Danakil Depression is a geologically active area in the Rift Valley, one of the lowest, hottest, and driest places on Earth. It’s almost like being on an alien planet. Lake Assal has barren white salt flats stretching for miles, with salt so thick it looks like snow.

My favorite part of the trip was Dallol (pictured above), a geothermic area full of weird rock-and-salt structures and bursting with color from complex chemical reactions and the extremophile bacteria that call this place home. No big geysers like in Yellowstone, but there’s plenty to see – and no railings. “Try not to step in anything wet,” said our guide, “it might be sulfuric acid.” Ah, the things they never let you do in America.

The other big attraction of the area is the Erta Ale volcano, one of a very few opportunities to get up close and personal with a pool of lava. Or it was – an eruption last month changed things a little so the old caldera is now too smoky to visit. There’s another one an extra hike away that you can only see from a distance since it’s full to the rim, though it obligingly overflowed for us, making a river of fire down the slope. Amazing. The hike out there was rough; as a “new path” we did a lot of trailblazing ourselves on unstable volcanic crust. One of our group fell through to his waist and had to get hauled out, and we all had cuts and scrapes from catching our own falls on the sharp rocks. And did I mention this was all happening in the dark? A good headlamp is a literal lifesaver.

I think it’s safe to say that our group had a pretty atypical Danakil experience. In one of the driest places on the planet it rained for most of the first two days we were there, including a downpour at 2:30am that forced us to spend a sodden night in the Land Cruisers since roofing in that part of the world was not exactly designed with waterproofing in mind. On the bright side, thanks to the clouds and the rain, the hottest place on Earth was downright temperate. I had thrown a fleece into my backpack at the last minute, and I was grateful for it. Even with unusually reasonable temperatures this was a physically demanding trip with very little in the way of amenities, but so, so worth it!