You come to Afar to experience the unusual and the extraordinary. Most of this region is desert, and about 1,200km2 of its surface is crusted in salt. In some parts, black trails of ancient lava flows wind through the sand, and in others – where the fissures in the earth’s surface run deep – hot acidic springs steam, fringed by colourful mineral salts and turned brilliant green by algae. Erte Ale, one of only five molten lava lakes in the world, seethes midway along its chain of ancient volcanoes.
Afar: arid, unexpected and extreme in every way. There’s a stark beauty here. Much of this region in north-east Ethiopia lies in the Danakil Depression, a desert basin that drops down to 125m below sea-level. It’s one of the earth’s hotspots, and the hot springs, temporary geysers and brittle black lava rock constantly remind you of the magma that flows below your feet.
Your expedition starts from Mekele in Tigray. You set off early in fully air-conditioned 4X4 land cruisers through the desert, carrying most of your food and all of your water.
On the journey you see nomadic Afar herding sheep, goats or camels. These must surely be one of the hardiest people on earth.
You arrive at Erte Ale in the late afternoon and set up camp. Your group starts the ascent to the rim of the Erta Ale crater in the dark to avoid the heat of the day. It’s only 500m high, but it takes 4 to 5 hours over crumbly lava rock to reach the summit. Peering down into the crater really is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The blackened surface of the lava lake continually tears open, and the hot orange lava seethes through. You sit for a few hours in the dark, mesmerised by the show below you.
From Erte Ale you return directly to Mekele or continue to Dalol. This is often described as the ‘hottest inhabited place on earth’ and is the destination for caravans of camels carrying the white blocks mined by the Afar people from the stretches of salted earth. You stop on the shores of Lake Karum (also known as Lake Assale) on route, the salt crunching beneath your feet as you stare across the salt flats where the salt miners are all that move.
The strange shapes of the Dalol Mountains are jagged columns of salt, mud and potash. The mineral salt sculptures and hot springs of the Dalol volcanic crater startle with their colours and shapes: shades of green and turquoise from the copper salts, a dazzling yellow from the sulphurs.
Tour to the Danakil Depression
This is a sample tour to give you an idea of cost and how you could experience the highlights of the Danakil Depression in 6 days. We can tailor it in any number of ways. You may wish to include time exploring the remote rock-hewn monasteries of Tigray, for example.
- 2 days in the Danakil Depression, visiting the otherworldly salt plains and the acidic hot springs
- An overnight trek to the summit of Erta Ale, an active volcano and one of only a handful of lava lakes in the world
- 2 nights camping in the desert
- 2 days exploring Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s historic capital
Starting from £1,175 per person on double occupancy basis (excluding all flights)
Single supplement: £125
- All accommodation on B&B basis
- All airport and road transfers
- Entry fees and a local tour guides at all the historic sites and national parks
- An expert guide to accompany you throughout your tour
A few suggestions for tailoring your tour
- 2 days (2 nights) visiting the remote monasteries in the Gheralta Mountains in Tigray and 1 day (1 night) in Axum
- 2 days (2 nights) exploring the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela
Afar is for the adventurous, and is an incredible destination for photographers and anyone with an interest in geography or geology. We advise travelling there in groups of 4 to 8.
If you want to visit Erte Ale only, then you can do this in two days, spending one night in the desert, most of it mesmerised by the lava lake. If you want to include the salt lakes and the acidic springs around Dalol as well, we recommend a maximum two-night-three-day visit. A day trip from Mekele to Dalol is possible too, it just requires an early start.
When to go to Afar
The only time we recommend visiting the Danakil Depression is in the winter, from November to March.
Our top tip for Afar
“Don’t be put off travelling to Afar by the media reports. Yes, it’s hot – there’s no getting away from that – and it feels remote, but we can give you a once-in-a-lifetime experience without compromising your safety or comfort.”
If you enjoy good travel writing and want a taste of the Danakil Depression before you travel there, read In Ethiopia by Bernd Bierbaum.