** As published on Africa Geographic's blog **
“Be sure to choose your 4x4 carefully; you have no idea of what you’re getting yourself into.” That was the welcome we received from our guide as we arrived in Mekele, Ethiopia for our short 4-day – yet physically and mentally demanding – trip into what we will forever call “The Most Inhospitable Place on Earth.”
The Afar Depression is located in the Afar Region of northern Ethiopia. It is a geological depression that resulted from the presence of 3 tectonic plates, which – against the odds – appear around a lake, making it 1 of only 2 places on Earth that a mid-ocean ridge can be studied on land. The region is home to both one of the hottest (+50°C) and lowest (-130 m) places on the planet, some 1,000+ square km of salt deserts, extraterrestrial sulfur fields, active volcanoes, and Lucy, the famous 3.2 million year-old hominin. The northern portion of the Afar Depression is commonly referred to as the Danakil Depression and was our intended destination.
Via our well-chosen 4x4, we left the city to enter into what appeared to be nothing more than a flat, barren and hot ghost-town. We saw very few people along our full-day route and those we did, from the adults performing backbreaking labor to the kids playing with rocks, I have for each an immense amount of respect. We couldn't decide if the daytime temperature of 45°C was made better by the soul punishing winds that came in across miles of flatness, nothing to stop them as they continuously slapped us in the face. Options for sleeping quarters were limited: walls or no walls. Wisely, we slept in open-air, wall-free structures under a relatively cool 35°C night sky. With nothing but a distant horizon in every direction, it was if we were in a planetarium, the curvature of the earth visible at every angle, yet not a single star in the ominous sky above.
The next morning we departed before sunrise to visit the massive, salty bed of Lake Asale. The nomadic Afar people have traveled here via camel caravans for hundreds of years to harvest the same salt blocks that you can buy in the markets of Addis Ababa and most other major cities in the region. Lake Asale, a former bay of the Red Sea, lies a staggering 115 m below sea level and if not for the heat, you would think that you had been transported to a never-ending, snow-covered, yet rocky, perhaps even moon-like, exotic location. With salt stretching thousands of meters deep, Lake Asale is safe to explore for as far as you can walk, and barefoot is the norm!
Surprisingly close to Lake Asale, we entered into what can only be described as “Mars on Earth.” The 3-4 kilometer uphill hike to perhaps the most interesting portion of the Danakil Depression was in fact across what used to be exactly where we were heading! The sulfur springs and lakes have slowly moved over time and left behind in their tracks dry and rocky formations that not only could, but should, be the setting for any science fiction film.
Out of nowhere, you crest over a small hill and suddenly you realize that you’re standing on the edge of a massive lake where sulfur, salt, and other minerals color the crater of Dallol Volcano. At 45 m below sea level, Dallol is Earth's lowest (and weirdest) land volcano. It holds the current record for the hottest place on Earth with the annual average temperature of 35°C. Hot liquid sulfur spits out of neon colored geysers into small surrounding pools, each of which take on different colors based on crystallized underbellies and walls which form the pools' barriers. These barriers have their colors dictated by nearby chemicals and current air composition. Though the colors vary, the smell is constant; the strong smell of sulfur burns your nostrils, your throat, and your eyes, forcing many to constantly revisit higher land for fresh air and water.
As these same gases escape from the lava rocks in the dry areas outside of the pools, they form what can only be described as “egg shells.” These are paper-thin, spherical casings that crack at the slightest disturbance. As we were literally walking on egg shells, we couldn't help but laugh at the obvious irony of these being located in a sulfur lake!
Our last day started with taking a lesson from the Afar people themselves: resting every hour when the sun is out. Around 9 PM, we began our 15 km starlit ascent to the summit of Erta Ale, a stunning volcano which houses one of the few permanent lava lakes on Earth. With a dozen armed guards in the front and camels hauling gear in the back, we tripped our way over blackened lava rocks, each slowly contributing to the deterioration of our shoes. Dehydrated and absolutely exhausted, we reached the summit Erta Ale roughly 3 and 1/2 hours later. The heat from the lava lake was tremendous and is like no natural heat I'd ever felt before (and still haven't); every single degree overwhelms your body. In one of the most ironic situations – with sweat drenching my clothes, standing in 35°C weather, watching a 1,500°C lava pool spewing each and every way, my face burning as I watch – I've never been in such awe of what our planet has to offer.
And thus was the theme of our short trip. As with most things on the road, the most incredible destinations are usually the most hidden and are not for the faint of heart. Though the Danakil Depression in the Afar Region of Ethiopia may indeed be "The Most Inhospitable Place on Earth," it is certainly not one to miss.