Danakil Depression - A view from our expert author

Danakil Depression by Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Africa Image Library,

A strange lunar landscape studded with active volcanoes, malodorous sulphur-caked hot springs, solidified black lava flows and vast salt-encrusted basins.

The Danakil (or Dallol) Depression, which straddles the Eritrean border to the east of the Tigraian Highlands, is renowned as the hottest place on earth, with an average temperature of 34–35˚C. Much of this vast and practically unpopulated region lies below sea level, dipping to a frazzled nadir of -116m at Dallol, near Lake Asale, the lowest spot of terra firma on the African continent. One of the driest and most tectonically active areas on the planet, the Danakil is an area of singular geological fascination: a strange lunar landscape studded with active volcanoes, malodorous sulphur-caked hot springs, solidified black lava flows and vast salt-encrusted basins.

The Danakil is effectively a southerly terrestrial extension of the rifting process that formed the Red Sea, set at the juncture of the African, Arabian and Somali tectonic plates, and its low-lying surface was once fully submerged by saline water. Relics of those distant days include lakes Asale and Afrera, both of which lie at the centre of an ancient salt-extraction industry (seismic studies indicate that the thickness of the salt at Lake Asale is around 2km) linking the somewhat restricted economy of the Danakil to the more naturally bountiful Tigraian Highlands around Mekele.

It is some measure of the Danakil’s geological activity that more than 30 active or dormant volcanoes – roughly one-quarter of the African total as listed by the Smithsonian Institute Global Volcanism Program – are shared between its Ethiopian and Eritrean components. Following a series of fault lines running in a north-to-northwesterly direction, these volcanoes are all geological infants, having formed over the past million years, and a great many took their present shape within the last 10,000 years.

The most substantial range is the so-called Danakil Alps, also known as the Danakil Block or Danakil Horst, whose highest peak, the 2,219m Mount Nabro, lies within Eritrea some 8km northeast of Mallahle (1,875m) on the Ethiopian border. In June 2011, Mount Nabro erupted violently killing 31 people and causing major disruptions to air traffic. Other notable volcanoes include the spectacular peaks of Borale (812m) and Afrera (1,295m), both of which rise in magnificent isolation from the sunken (-103m) shoreline of Lake Afrera, and the more westerly Alayita, a vast massif that rises to 1,501m and last erupted in 1901 and 1915.

The most regularly visited volcanic range in the Danakil is Erta Ale (sometimes spelt Ertale or Irta’ale), which consists of seven active peaks extending over an area of 2,350km² between Kebit Ale (287m, on the west shore of Lake Asale) to Haile Gubbi (521m, about 20km north of Lake Afrera). Of the three peaks that top the 600m mark, most remarkable is Erta Ale itself, which is noted as being one of the most active volcanoes in Africa, having hosted a permanent lava lake for longer than 120 years, and which has been in a state of continuous eruption since at least 1967, when scientific observation commenced.

The Danakil’s climatic inhospitality is mirrored by the reputation of its nomadic Afar inhabitants, who as recently as the Italian occupation had the somewhat discouraging custom of welcoming strangers by lopping off their testicles. While scrotal intactness is no longer a cause for concern, the Danakil remains a challenging travel destination: daytime temperatures frequently soar above 50˚C, there’s no shade worth talking about as alleviation, the heat is often exacerbated by the fierce gale known as the Gara (Fire Wind), and creature comforts are limited to what you bring in yourself. The best time to visit is the relatively cool season between November and Afar Well, Danakil Depression, Ethiopia by Ariadne Van Zandbergen Africa Image Library www.africaimagelibrary.comMarch.

(Photo: The Afar Well in the Danakil Depression sits 116m below sea level.)

Following the airing of the 2009 BBC documentary The Hottest Place on Earth, the Danakil has become – pardon the pun – Ethiopia’s hottest tourist attraction, though interest is likely to wane slightly following the killing of five tourists in the region in 2012. Along with its growing popularity, prices to visit the region have increased exponentially in recent years, making it now near impossible to visit independently. At a bare minimum you’ll require a private vehicle and a knowledgeable guide as well as a back-up vehicle and driver – if only to carry the required local guides and scouts you’ll need to pick up along the way! In short, you’re looking at around US$2,200 for a five-day trip.

Visitors should also be self-sufficient in food and water (bank on a minimum of five litres of drinking water each per day, and carry enough excess in jerrycans to last a few days extra) and will need to take camping and cooking gear, since no accommodation or firewood are available. The desert nights can be refreshingly chilly, so bring a light jumper or a sweatshirt.

For further information about the geology of Danakil, as well as some tantalising pictures of its volcanoes and other landscapes, check out the website

Danakil travel warning

In January 2012, a group of foreign tourists was attacked by gunmen approximately 30km from the Ethiopian–Eritrean border, near the site of the Erta Ale Volcano. The attack resulted in the death of five tourists, with two others injured and four people including two tourists and a local driver and police escort kidnapped. This region is a high-risk area and has been the subject of Foreign Office warnings for a number of years. In 2007, a group including British Embassy staff from Addis Ababa was taken hostage in the region and released a week later, and in 2004 a French tourist disappeared without a trace. Before arranging any visit to the Danakil or Afar region, we urge you to contact your embassy for up-to-date information or make enquires with the tourist office in Addis Ababa.

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