December 2012: Quite simply, the Danakil Desert is one of the most amazing places I have ever been. it is a place where you can find endless sun-baked deserts covered in bizarre landscapes, brightly colored geothermal Yellowstone like pools of acid, and minerals, ancient camel caravans of Afar nomads mining and transporting salt and last but not least volcanos with lava lakes that you can sleep next to. There really is no place like the Danakil on Earth.

About the Danakil

The Danakil located in northeast Ethiopia is shared by the countries of Djibouti and Eritrea. It is a vast desert and is one of the lowest and hottest places on Earth. It is 330 feet below sea level, barely receives any rain and commonly has daytime temperatures of 120 F. Yest despite the hostile nature of the land, it is still home to a hardy culture of nomads, the Afar people. The Afar are known for being warrior like and until recently were not welcoming of foreigners into their lands. In the past unwanted foreigners were captured and castrated. The Afar mine salt from the crust of the desert and transport it via the backs of camels and camel caravans that travel hundreds of miles across the desert into the highlands. These ancient camel caravans can still be seen today

The easiest way to reach the Danakil is to fly into Mek’ele, capitol of Tigray State from Addis and hire a local operator and other travelers to share the cost of the vehicles. The Danakil is too hostile, expensive and remote to visit independently. Two 4 x 4 vehicles are required in the event one breaks down in the harsh volcanic desert tracts, which is a common occurrence. Note: at the time of my visit a new paved road was planned to be built by the Chinese, which will likely bring extreme changes to the Danakil. There was no cell phone reception, and the Danakil heat is deadly and is not the place to mess around. Additionally, permission is required from the Afar people to travel into their lands and Afar security guards with AK47’s are required for your own safety. Part of the reason for this is because it provides economic opportunities for the Afar people, who live in extremely impoverished conditions, but another reason is because there have been security issues and only a few months before my trip, several tourists camping at the Erta Ale volcano were murdered and kidnapped by rebels operating along the Eritrea border.

I booked a trip to the Danakil with a local operator in Mek’ele and spent 4 days in the Danakil Desert. It is an adventurous place to visit without hotels. You can expect to camp, be exposed to uncomfortable conditions-extreme heat, sand, flies and bad food and to go without bathing for a few days due to the lack of water.

One of our vehicles/and Afar security guards always sit on top of the vehicle

Vast emptiness’ of Danakil

Afar nomads are muslim and pray 5 times per day. This man paused to pray during our trip and set his AK 47 down on to the ground while he prayed

Day 1: My friend Evan and I and our guides and co-travelers in two different 4 x 4 Landcruiser vehicles drove from Mek’ele all day from the highlands to Hamedela, an Afar village at the edge of the Danakil desert.  The drive was incredibly scenic, and we passed through villages that have changed very little in hundreds of years. We also ate lunch at one of the most gruesome restaurants I have ever encountered in my travels, and I would later pay the price with travelers’ diarrhea. It was a roadside cafe serving Ethiopian food-injera with goat meat and the awaze sauce. The food was far from terrific, and I was only able to eat about half of the food on my plate but in my travels of such places, the quality of food is a low priority to me, and I view it only as necessary for sustenance. It was what happened when Evan and I decided to venture into the kitchen that disgusted me. A monkey in the front of the restaurant piqued my interest and I decided to follow it into the kitchen. The kitchen was actually an outdoor area surrounded by a thatched fence. As soon as I stepped outside, I was met with a whiff of foul-smelling air. On the ground before us was a severed goat head covered in flies and a pool of liquid excrement of some kind. An anorexic cat with an eyeball loosely dangling out of its head from a vein devouring the meat from the goat head.  It was obvious from looking around that this was the meat that we had just eaten and I knew that it was very likely that food sickness was imminent.

We finished the day by camping in the Afar village of Hamedela. The Afar are a distant people, have a tough demeaner and are not the easiest people to interact with but the kids of the village like all kids in the world are the same and were fun and playful. We had a good time playing with the kids and one kid presented a drawing from his school book to Evan. At night we slept in open beds outside of the huts. it was hot and dusty and the flies were relentless but the sunset was unbeatable.

Kids playing in Hamedela Village

Hamedela Village Sunset

Afar kids who was fascinated with Evan and wanted to present his school drawings

Afar kids goofy drawings in his schoolbook

Afar Muslim Imam in Hamedela Village

Day 2: In the morning we awoke to temperatures already in the 90’s.  From Hamedela Village we set off to explore the Danakil. We visited the site where Afar nomads mine salt and we observed a few camel caravans crossing the Danakil. The nomads were friendly and didn’t mind photos taken of them. Then we visited Dallol, and lake Assal, one of the lowest places on Earth. We visited some incredible places of varying scenery, rick outcroppings, and geothermal and acid pools. Then we finished the evening by camping near an Afar Village in the Danakil desert.

Driving across the salt beds-Eva posing in front of our vehicle

Ethiopian military patrolling the Danakil

One of the guards looking onwards

We visited an acid pool that has a solid crust when not disturbed. When we through a rock at the surface, it would break the crust and create waves of black liquid.

Acid pool 

Evan sitting on a calcified crust that hardened over a geothermal pool. 

Me in front of the geothermal pools

The strangest experience of the day had nothing to do with where we were but all to do with who we were with. While we were visiting an area of geothermal activity with lots of hatstrings and bubbling hot water and acid, I noticed the Afar guards smirking in shock. When I turned around to see what they were looking at I saw that one of the German guys in our group was standing out on the shallow sharp crust up to his ankles in acid water and he was completely naked and painted purple. If I thought this was a crazy sight, i can only imagine what the extremely conservative Muslim Afar thought of this spectacle. Ther German was doing some kind of photo shoot for his university art class while another traveler photographed him standing in the nude. This didn’t last long, however. The acid began to burn his ankles and he needed to first aid for his feet. Our guide also scolded him since it was likely the Afar guards were offended by this and offending anyone with a gun is always a bad idea. 

Naked German man painted in purple standing in an acid pool

Geothermal pools

Afar Guard

Me posing with one of the AK47’s of the Afar Guards

Strange landscapes 

Strange landscapes

Me in the Danakil

More Strange Landscapes

The first glance of the nomads with their camel caravan-ships of the desert- what looked like a desert mirage in the desert was what amazed me the most. Then we waited for them to get closer and watched them as they toiled over the hostile desert landscape to reach the area where salt is mined. 

Camel Caravan 

Camel Caravan 

Camel Caravan 

Camel Caravan 

Afar Nomads of Camel Caravan 

We drove to another place where nomads were already in the process of cutting salt blocks from the desert to load onto the camels. They continued with their work oblivious to us. 

Afar Man Mining Salt

Afar Man Mining Salt

Day 3: On day 3 we had a long drive across the desert on some pretty rough desert tracts across Afar lands. We passed Afar nomad villages. The people live in small huts made of sticks covered withs mats of mud of grass weaved together. On one occasion when we had to wait for goats to cross the road in an Afar village, my friend took a photo of an Afar woman and an old man when seeing this started to chase after us with a long stick trying to beat us.  Photography of Afar women is strictly forbidden since Afar are very conservative Sunni Muslims. I tried to apologize to the man, but my apology was lost in translation.

Afar Camp

Afar Camp

Afar Camp

Afar Girl

Afar Camp

We reached the trailhead for the Erta Ale volcano late in the day and we hiked in the dark. We hiked with our flashlights, and I kept my eyes peeled for any signs of a rebel ambush. Our security guards hiked along our side.  The hike was about an hour up and we foolishly brought more alcohol than water with us. We came across a black snake in the dark, which I hoped to photograph but one of the Afar guards quickly stomped it to death before I could take my camera out. I would have preferred to let it live but the Afar man was just trying to be helpful, and, in their culture, snakes equate to death.

When we reached the top of Erta Ale volcano, there was a small area that had been cleared for camping and this was where the tragic ambush had occurred months prior killing some tourists. From the campsite, the lava lake was another 20 minutes’ walk. It was unbelievable how close we were to a lake of lava. Right below us on a small rock ledge was a lake about 50 yards across full of slushing, gurgling and roaring red lava. It was absolutely incredible. We decided we would sleep next to the lava lake because one it would be easier to escape an ambush since there are more places to run and secondly because we were mesmerized by the lava lake and couldn’t get enough of it.

Erta Ale Lava lake

Erta Ale Lava lake

Me at Erta Ale Lava lake

We stayed up late staring into the fiery depths of the lava lake careful not to get too close to the ledge and fall over into it. We shared a bottle of tequila Evan brought from the Emirates duty free shop. When the bottle was finished, we tossed it into the lake of fire to see it burn. When the bottle hit the lava, it broke on the hard surface and was slowly engulfed by a fireball. We did end up falling asleep in the open next to the lava lake and made sure to sleep upwind of the lava lake for safety reasons since the lake spewed toxic gases but in the middle of the night the wind shifted direction. I awoke choking on the air and I quickly relocated my sleeping pad and dragged my friend who was passed out and refusing to wake up.  I found us a safe place but didn’t really sleep much because all I could do was stare at the lava lake all night. Then the next morning we were so dehydrated from drinking alcohol and hiking, and we had very little drinking water, which made our hike down the volcano miserable. 

Me Posing with Our Afar Guards

Day 4: We spent our last day driving back to Mekele. The drive was long and grueling because I was starting to experience food sickness, but I made the best out of the adventure and took photo along the way of more tribal people we encountered. Once in Mekele, we found a hotel with air conditioning that never felt better. 

Village Girl on the way back to Mekele 

9 + 14 =

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