Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Danakil Depression

I was lucky that on monday morning I found a tour company with a group leaving to the Danakil the following day on the standard 4 day/3 night trip. It had originally been scheduled for a departure that day but had been pushed back a day. There are not a lot of tours going out there right now and if I had not gotten on that one I might not've had time to go with the next one out. Organized tours in Ethiopia are quite expensive, including this one, but as it was going to be the highlight of my trip to Africa this time, I didn't have much of a choice.
The Danakil Depression is the lowest part of Africa and marks the most active section of the great rift which is slowly tearing Africa apart. The Danakil stretches to lower Eritrea and into Djibouti, with Djibouti actually having the lowest point on the continent but with a difference of about 10m, Ethiopia's lowest point will have to be good enough for me. It is an extremely harsh climate, considered to be the hottest average annual temperature in the world, with most of the volcanic activity of the continent and characterized by natural springs and salt lakes and formations. It is sparsely populated by the equally harsh and aggressive Afar people who somehow make a living out there with their herds. Their most famous economy being the use of “camel trains” harvesting salt and transporting it back to the markets of Mekelle or elsewhere.
I was especially lucky to be able to find a tour because it is the end of the natural tourist season which this year was cut short when 2 months ago a tour group was attacked, with some tourists killed and others kidnapped. The attack has been blamed on the Eritrean government who are believed to have supported a rebel group, with the intention of destroying the tourist economy of Ethiopia. Sounds a bit far-fetched perhaps but the 2 countries do hate each other and the Danakil area is in the somewhat disputed border region still. At one point we were just over 10km from the official UN-recognized border, but the Ethiopians claim we were still 30km away and no doubt the Eritreans have their own idea of where the line should be.
Anyway, from the sounds of it there were a dozen of us tourists funnelled into this tour through various sources and for some after weeks of advanced preparation. In total there were 4 Landcruisers, one for the staff and security and the other 3 with 4 tourists each. I was with 2 Dutch girls and a Polish guy in mine. We descended from the mountains (Mekelle is at about 2200m) onto the flat Depression the first day, stopping halfway along for lunch in the town where we picked up our mandatory 2 Afar police escort guards who were a couple of tiny old local men with AKs. (My strategy in the event of an attack would've been to stick with the 4 Israelis in the group instead of with the guards.) This has always been the case for trips to the area. It was roughly 6 hours of driving on gravel/dirt roads but it was pure luxury to have air-con and not be totally squished in my seat or get covered in dust. Along the way we passed many camel trains carrying salt back to Mekelle. The camel drivers must be completely nuts and I'm sure the lifestyle will die out quite soon as there is a road already being built further into the desert now. These guys tie camels nose to tail in long chains (we saw up to 30 in a chain) and spend 2 weeks walking in either direction between the salt and market, each camel capable of carrying up to 200kg of salt in 6kg blocks.

The first night we stayed in Hamed Ela, a sandy little village/tour group staging point at -75m. I think all little desert villages more or less look the same. The people, architecture and poverty all end up with more or less the same feel in the end as there really aren't many ways to live in such conditions. When we arrived just before sunset it was still in the high 30's. We had dinner and went to bed early as there really isn't anything to do in the middle of nowhere after dark. We all slept outside on rope beds with mattresses that we'd brought. The stars were great, as you can imagine.

Hamed Ela.

Sleeping outdoors.

The following day we left after a dawn breakfast for a “quick” 5+ hr drive the 80km to Erta Ale volcano. At certain times of the year or just through general bad luck the route is impossible or can take 2 days to make. We were much faster than normal. The road is a very dusty or sandy track through mostly emptiness, sometimes flat enough that all 4 vehicles could pretty much race at will, at other times requiring the 4WD mode to get through very soft sand. We passed a few hamlets of camel-herding families but for the most part it felt very empty. After a few hours we reached the edge of the lava flows and had to drive very slowly for a couple hours to the base camp of Erta Ale.

Through the desert....

And onto the lava road.

Erta Ale is nowhere near the most interesting looking of the volcanoes in the area and is actually pretty small at only 614m high. The attraction is the lava lake inside the crater. It is one of only 5 lava lakes in the world and claims to be the only permanent one as some others have come and gone and this one is the oldest and most consistent in the world, having been around for most of the last century. Not that people have been visiting it long. 10 years ago it was only accessible by helicopter.
In the afternoon when we arrived it was 40C so the usual plan is to rest and then make the ascent at sunset. Some of the group insisted upon going up earlier. I wish I'd joined them and probably would've if I hadn't been sick the night before and still feeling the effects of it at the time. As it was, the 3 hour ascent in the evening still nearly killed me (and it's a really easy, shallow-incline, walk). You could see the glow of the lava at the top as you made the ascent though so that was a cool part of the climb.

The crater is roughly 1km in diameter. There is a camp with some huts at the top on the rim of the crater where we spent the night. Due to the recent attack there is now military present in the area, including at the base camp and lots at the rim. I didn't realize it until I got there but the tourists were actually attacked while they were sleeping up at the top. Everywhere we went and including during the hike up they were accompanying us. There must've been about a dozen of them total on the top. I don't know that I felt that much safer with them around though. Yes, it is comforting to know the Ethiopian government didn't want to just shut down the area to tourism instead, but now there are guys up there with guns that have no care in the world about which way they are pointing them including often directly at us while they were walking or lounging around.
The lava lake itself is maybe 50m in diameter somewhere in the middle of the crater so we had to descend into the crater (maybe 10m) and walk across to the lake. It's really weird. The surface of the crater inside is cooled lava and totally uneven. As it cools it forms a lot of hollow tubes just beneath the surface so as you walk it crunches underfoot and sometimes you fall through a couple inches. As you get closer to the lava lake and presumably the newer stuff, it is even more crunchy but more solid and is like walking on snow.
Seeing a lava lake was very high on my bucket list and it did not disappoint. It is definitely one of the most amazing things I've ever seen. As you approach the rim of the lake you start to breath the fumes as the wind blows them at you. It can't possibly be healthy as it totally burns the eyes and throat, even breathing through scarves. People were approaching within a couple feet of the edge, though the usual distance was 10-15 feet. The ground is all cracked and as the lake is unstable and active it could all fall in at any time I guess. The lake itself goes through cycles of low and high activity and it's level even raises and lowers by several meters. As I said before it was maybe 50m across, and about 10m below us and at times you'd get some very hot wind but generally it wasn't too bad. Most of the surface is covered by a thin dark crust as the lava cools but convection bringing new lava, combined with the insulating affects of this crust means that the surface is constantly changing. There was always at least one place where the lava was actively bubbling and spitting itself (I never saw it get close to the rim but the others that had gone earlier said they did see some go higher) but periodically one or 2 more places would also become active.

Gotta love Ethiopia's lack of safety barriers ;)

The lava lake is constantly changing.

I don't know how to accurately describe it but it's completely mesmerizing watching the cracks come and go through the surface and the periodic new eruptions. I could've pulled up a chair and watched all night and day long. It's like watching a waterfall but 100 times more so. We didn't spend nearly enough time there actually. The guide was later heavily criticized for it by his boss and it probably didn't help that all the military guys didn't want to stand around suffering in the fumes watching us either and were pushing for us to quit and go to bed. We did descend to the lake for sunrise and it was more active in the morning, but once again we couldn't stay long because we had to descend to the vehicles and drive back to Hamed Ela again where we spent our 3rd night.

Cooled lava inside the crater.

The descent.

For me that was really the purpose of the trip completed and I had no idea what was next. The next morning we drove about ½ hr to Dallol, once again with 4 armed military guards. It was this point that we were closest to Eritrea. Dallol is a sulfur spring. We climbed up a hill whose crater was the sulfur spring. This time suffering through “rotten-egg” fumes we actually walked through and on all the sulfur formations and around the pools of acid. I've seen hot springs cool colours before but these was never anything so naturally pure yellow. It was a psychedelic combination of yellows, whites, greens, reds and browns. The formations and colours made it really feel and look like coral and it felt so wrong walking around on top of them and destroying them. There are lots of bubbling pools and it's very active so I'm told that they actually reform quickly and there wasn't any real obvious sign of destruction from previous groups. We ran around taking tons of photos and they all look totally fake, like someone photoshopped the weirdest colours into them.

Dallol sulfur springs. These colours really are naturally that bright.

We also stopped at large salt formations of both red and white salt, went through a small salt “cave” and then went to see another area nearby that they call an oil lake. It's some kind of mineral oil lake though the guide couldn't clarify. We could touch that one and it's yellow and definitely felt oily but not excessively so. Kind of like a small pool of bubbling vegetable oil. There were other smaller actively bubbling pools nearby and all were ambient temperature.

The hills are red salt, the ground is white salt.

Our driver and vehicle.

A salt canyon.

Salt formations.

A mineral oil pool.

On our way back we stopped at the salt flats at Lake Assal. This area is the lowest point at about 120m below sea level. Like any lowest point there is a salt lake and this one was pure white. I'm not sure if there is an actual lake or not. They say there is but we didn't see the shore as it was too dangerous to drive all the way and apparently it changes a lot. But we did see a lot of small salt water springs that formed pools. There must be a lake formed by drainage from the wet season also but the Danakil is really active with so many different types of springs.

Salt pools near lake Assal.

This area is where the camel trains get their salt and normally we'd've seen the salt cutting activity but it was a friday so the Muslim Afar people were not working. This actually became a huge sore point for some of the members of the group and ended up starting a huge mutiny when we got back to Hamed Ela to pick up the last of our things and start the drive back to Mekelle. Some had it in their heads that such things had been guaranteed and that they therefore had to stay an extra day to see it the following morning. It was highly debateable whether or not the camels would even be there the following morning but the guide handled the whole thing very poorly, lost control of the group and the battle. Some of their complaints were valid and I initially supported them (surprise, surprise right?) to see if something interesting would ultimately be sorted out. As it all got more ridiculous I bailed out at the last second and took the last of the jeeps heading back to Mekelle. I didn't care enough about probably not seeing salt cutting the following morning to spend another night out there with little food and water and drive back in a squishy Landcruiser with the 5 guys that forced the stay. I must be getting old and wimpy.....
There are a few other things I can do I suppose with my last couple days before leaving but I've decided to take it easy instead. I like Mekelle a lot though. It really is a nice town with very little hassle. I even went to the market and took pictures and wandered around with no tout hassle at all. There are still plenty of beggars but they are legit ones and everyone else just leaves you alone. It's grown really fast in the last couple decades but somehow feels really small and quiet. It has nice streets and very little traffic, which I love. I've decided to compromise on the splurge back to Addis and I am taking the luxury bus line for a day and a half tomorrow instead of a flight. We'll see if it makes the whole ordeal any more comfortable.


At 1:54 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amazing photos Ammon. I really really wish i could have been on that tour:(
Is great that you have one more thing ticked off your bucket list :) altought its funny that the list keeps growing. there is SOOO much to see in this beautiful world.
See you soon. Be safe
Mom xox

At 4:34 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wanna seee the bubbling Lava!! Sooo jealous.
Great pics and blog Amo!
Bre Butt


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