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A strange lunar landscape studded with active volcanoes, malodorous sulphur-caked hot springs, solidified black lava flows and vast salt-encrusted basins.
Straddling the Eritrean border to the east of the Tigrayan highlands, the Danakil, or Dallol, is an area of true desert that extends across the most northerly and volcanically active portion of the Afar Depression. It ranks among the lowest-lying places anywhere in the planet, dropping to 116m below sea level, while temperatures on the shadeless plains frequently soar above 50°C, and are exacerbated by a fierce gale known as the Gara (Fire Wind). This climatic inhospitality is mirrored by the reputation of the region’s nomadic Afar inhabitants, who traditionally eked out an income as salt miners and traders, transporting their wares by camelback to the Tigrayan highlands. As recently as the 1930s, the Afar of the Danakil were known to greet male strangers by lopping off their testicles. Today, while scrotal intactness is no longer a cause for concern, the desert-hardened Afar are unmatched when it comes to making life difficult for travellers and guides who don’t bow to their frequent and inventive demands for fees and tips. This, in short, is a challenging travel destination.
The Danakil is one of the world's most outstanding geological features © Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Africa Image Library
For all that, the Danakil is an area of singular geological fascination: a strange and at times beguilingly beautiful desert landscape studded with austere volcanic calderas, explosive cauldrons of bubbling red lava, malodorous sulphur-caked hot springs, recently solidified black lava flows, and vast, blinding salt flats that stretch for up to a kilometre below the surface. Until ten years ago, the Danakil was also firmly off the beaten track, attracting a couple of hundred visitors annually, but it has started to take off in recent years, not least due to the publicity it was afforded by the 2009 BBC documentary The Hottest Place on Earth, and up to 100 travellers might now overnight on Erta Ale on any given night in the high season. This growing popularity, coupled by a vast improvement in roads servicing the region, has made the Danakil far more accessible than it was a few years back. At the same time, the net worth of the ever-mutating plethora of fees charged by the local Afar has increased exponentially, making it near impossible to visit without an experienced Ethiopian guide who knows the area well and has a good relationship with the local authorities, pathfinders and militia.