The Danakil Depression: The Most Hellish Place on Earth

The Danakil Depression in Ethiopia is one of the lowest, hottest places on Earth. Geographically, it is part of the African Rift which extends from the African rift lakes of Malawi and Tanganyika, up through the Red Sea and into the Dead Sea of Jordan and Israel.

Politically, it is part of the Afar region, which has suffered from separatist violence in the past.

Ecologically, it is an extreme desert located below sea level, with temperatures which reach 50°C (122°F) on a regular basis.

To top it all off, it is also home to a volcano with one of the largest, open pits of exposed magma in the world.

Despite all of this, however, people live in the Danakil Depression and manage to eek out of living in one of the most inhospitable places on the planet Earth.

This is what I saw.

Driving in the Danakil Depression

1 The main entry point for the Danakil Depression is the city of Mek’ele, which lies at 6,000 feet (2,000 m) above sea level. Driving down into the depression is easy enough. There is a newly paved road which goes to Djibouti. Once you get off the road, however, the experience changes dramatically.

Driving in the Danikil Depression

2 Once you get off the paved road, driving in the Danakil Depression is hard on vehicles. Not only are you going off road, but the temperatures are extreme. Visibility almost nill due to the blowing sand, and we slowly watched the thermometer in the car slowly climb to 50°C (122°F).

Stop in the Danakil Depression

3 Believe it or not, people live in the Danakil. The Afar people who live there eek out a living on the few plants which can survive in this region, raising camels, and now servicing the few tourists who come into the region. We had lunch in this Afar village before continuing on to the Erta Ale volcano.

Camel in the Danakil Depression

4 Camels are the lifeblood of the region. They are one of the few animals which can survive in this environment. It is not surprising that you will see them roaming around the floor of the depression.

Lava in the Erta Ale volcano

5 The Erta Ale volcano is one of the highlights of the area. It is one of only six open lava lakes in the world, and it is also the oldest in the world, having first manifested in 1906. Getting to Erta Ale is a nine-mile hike which has to be done at night to avoid the heat of the day.

Photographing Erta Ale

6 Photographing a lava lake in the middle of the night is very difficult. The lava is extremely bright and everything else is pitch black. You can’t get too close to the edge for safety reasons, and because the heat is too extreme. You also have clouds of ammonia which can blow your way, which makes it extremely difficult to breathe.

Mining salt in the Danakil Depression

7 One of the few industries in the Danakil Depression is salt mining. There exists an enormous salt plain which is left over from when the entire region was filled by an ancient sea. Men chip away at the salt in the middle of the day, under a blazing sun.

Salt mining

8 Salt mining in the Danakil Depression is done entirely by hand. There is no automation whatsoever. All of the mining is done with metal tools and wooden sticks.

Donkey Caravan with salt

9 After the salt is cut into squares approximately the size of a floor square tile, they are bound and placed on pack animals. It is a 2-day trip to the salt processing facility where the salt is sold for approximately $0.50 per square.

Camel caravan

10 The traditional salt caravans in the Danakil Depression are camels. After being loaded with salt, they have to cross a large lake which is only a few centimeters deep.

Village of Dallol

11 The village of Dallol is considered the hottest place on Earth where there is a full-time human population. It caters to a small tourism industry and a nearby military base.

Road in the Dallol Salt Pan

12 Dallol shares its name with the Dallol Volcano. Unlike Erta Ale, Dallol is a hydrothermal field rather than an open lava lake. To get there, you have to cross the hot, flat salt pan which defines the region.

Hydrothermal field of Dallol

13 The colors in the hydrothermal field are a psychedelic mix of oranges, yellows, and greens. The colors come from the minerals in the water which comes out of the hot springs.

Cars parked at the Dallol volcano

14 Despite its harsh conditions, extreme geology, and remote location, there are still those who will trek to the Danakil Depression to explore a place which is like nowhere else on Earth.

14 thoughts on “The Danakil Depression: The Most Hellish Place on Earth”

  1. Wow! It sure looks hot. 50 degrees C in a car is indeed very hot. Is there any country in Africa that does not have a marvel of nature to offer?

  2. On 2016 Feb. I did a trip in Danakil Depression with Origins Ethiopia Tours& Travel company .I have never been to a place as gorgeous as this. Ever changing landscapes ,lava, sand , rocks and salt. This most uninhabitable place on Earth and also most beautiful place .It must be nature’s favorite, why else would it be so mesmerizing. The colorful sulphur springs are beautiful as the sky stretching white salt lake. You will also see how people survive in bare minimum and still are happy. Definitely worth visiting tis place, and it would be a lifetime journey.

  3. This is a real sign of resilience by the people of Ethiopia may God bless them and assist them in all their lives

  4. I have listened that Ethiopia is one of the oldest nations in the world and has its own Ethiopian calendar with 13 months in a year.
    Amazing photographs. These photographs are the mirror of new Ethiopia.

  5. Beautiful pictures, I would like to visit these places. Thanks for sharing such lovely pictures.

  6. Great set of photos and will love to see that spectacular part of Ethiopia (Afar region & Dallol) one day.

  7. I have been leading photography tours to Ethiopia since 2007 and found your post troubling. Ethiopia is an incredibly poor country with a tourism industry very much in its infancy. That the Ethiopian Tourism Organization gave you a free junket when they could have offered it to a large tour operator that has the ability to attract paying clients is suspect. That they didn’t contract out with a top of the line tour Ethiopian operator such as SORA Tours is also a big concern. The Danakil recieves many travelers and I can’t imagine anyone just leaving the trip to chance. Before you get to a destination some research needs to be done and there are world class images of the volcano online with all sorts of reports You can blame the guides but you need to take some responsibility as well. I have sent many photographers up there and my guide has a sat phone in case of emergency. It isn’t an easy trip under the best of circumstances. Truly an incredible geographic location.

  8. Stunning photos Gary – they are truly out of this world. You´ve revealed a side of Ethiopia that not many people get to see or experience.
    Thanks for sharing!

  9. Fascinating! The salt flats and lava lakes look out of this world, extraordinary! Your photos are spectacular!

  10. Hi Gary,

    What an inspiring post, it makes me want to explore that part of Africa!

    The part about the salt lake reminded me of a time long ago when I cycled across the Chott el-Jérid salt lake in Tunisia. My friend’s chain broke in the middle of a sandstorm, but, luckily, a friendly guy accepted to drive us to the next town. But 10 minutes later, he ran out of fuel… anyway, in the end we got out of there safely.

    Just shared your post on Facebook, and looking forward to seeing many more like this!

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