It takes a couple days of driving through the desert to get to Dallol. The heat seeps into your blood, keeping you in a daze like you are constantly just waking up. It is a dreamy desert where the waves of rising heat blur the landscapes as if they were painted with watercolors.
For a while everything is drab sandy tones with the occasional dragon tree, but as land flattens, long camel caravans led by Afar tribesmen become visible on the horizon. The herders have the physiques of marathon runners, and tuck ancient curved daggers into their waists as their ancestors did thousands of years ago.
The camels are all loaded with slabs of salt, their heads held high as they trek towards the market towns. They are coming from the sea of salt in the Danakil Depression, left there 30,000 years ago when the Red Sea was cut-off by a volcanic eruption. The water evaporated, leaving salt deposits in some places that is two kilometers deep, and stretches to the horizon around little islands of compacted dust. We arrive there after some rare rains, so there is a layer of water sitting on top of the salt like a great mirror reflecting the sky.
It is 43 degrees Celsius (109 Fahrenheit) during the day, and just before dusk, winds start picking up sand and salt from the islands, called fire winds because they burn your face. We sleep under the stars on wooden bedframes strung with cargo nets. Above the scorpions and camel spiders that emerge with the moon.
The next day we drive over the flooded salt flats all morning in a caravan of six cars. There are no landmarks; the earth is a blank canvas here. Then we see an island in the distance. It is called the black mountain, formed by a collapsed volcanic crater in the middle of the salt desert.
One car is full of armed guards, who fan out and climb up the slopes of the islands to take look-out positions ahead of us. The region is still unstable and there have been attacks on travelers in the past. When our guide comes over to tell me I need shoes, I know we are in for an adventure. There is such an array of ridiculously dangerous activities that are considered safe in Ethiopia, that when safety gear is required, even just shoes, you know things are about to get rough.
The island is not steep or tall, but the heat makes everything hard. Arriving at the island’s plateau drenched in sweat, it feels like we have found nature’s toxic waste dump. The landscape is oozing neon celeste, rust, canary and emerald. Our guide requests everyone to stay behind him because of the odd acid pool or release of deadly gases. However, he wanders off, and immediately everyone is off on their own like a bunch of drunken scientists on Mars, poking things and taking selfies with sulfuric acid.
You get that instinct that you are definitely somewhere you should not be, but it is just so interesting, there is nothing you can do but explore. You can feel the air burning your throat, but there is just so much to see and think about. It is a place that even attracts astrobiologists studying how bacteria can live in such harsh environment — places found on other worlds.
While exploring Dallol, you are actually standing over an underground volcano. The heat from its magma causes groundwater to rise, carrying elements like sulfur and iron from deep in the earth to the surface. They mix with salt from the dried seas, and the desert sun then bakes them into colorful crystals.
So if you have time to drive through a dreamy desert in search of candy colored hot springs, Dallol might be the best place in the universe to do so. While you will have to be an adventurous traveler to deal with the heat and remoteness, you do not have to be an astrobiologist to understand how amazing these landscapes are.
Author’s Note: The Danakil Depression is legendary as a dangerous and remote baked piece of earth in the Afar Triangle. It rolls across the disputed borders of Northern Ethiopia and Eritrea, flanked by the Ethiopian plateau to the west, and marking the point where the Great Rift Valley plunges into the Red Sea in the east. It is created by the Afar Triple Junction, formed by the boundaries of the Nubian, Somalian and Arabian plates tearing apart. As these plates diverge, they stretch the Earth’s crust above, which becomes thin, and sinks (like cheese on separating pieces of pizza).
The Danakil Depression is one of the hottest and lowest places on earth. Some parts of it are over 100 meters below sea-level, and the thin crust of the Earth here allows magma and other minerals to bubble to the surface from the bowels of the earth. Two of the most famous attractions in the Danakil Depression are: the candy colored hot springs of Dallol and The Dancing Lava Fountains of the Erta Ale volcano.
While traveling to the Danakil Depression felt safe, if something happens out there, help is a long way away. Also keep in mind that travelers were abducted here in 2007, there was an attempted kidnapping in 2008, and in 2012 five travelers were murdered. If you are still up for the adventure, I traveled with Ethio Travel and Tours as they offered the best budget way to get to the Danakil Depression, and were even willing to negotiate with me. I quite enjoyed my trip.
For further tales of these psychedelic lands, I enjoyed National Geographic’s The Cruelest Place on Earth, BBC’s video series The Hottest Place on Earth and Colleen Kinder’s Travelogue: Journey to the Hottest Place on Earth.