Explore Danakil Depression | Hot and Alien landscape in Ethiopia

by Vanessa Wanders Miles
Vanessa from Wanders Miles looking out over Lake Asale in the Danakil Depression, Ethiopia

Looking out over Lake Asale salt plains

Prepared to be wowed if you visit the Dallol volcano. Known as the hottest place on earth, I was ready to explore Danakil Depression and embrace the arid conditions ahead. On this adventure, you could easily be convinced that you were on a totally different planet.


Where is the Danakil Depression

This hot and alien landscape is located northeast of the Erta Ale Range in Ethiopia, on the border with Eritrea, and inside a geological formation called the Afar (Danakil) Depression. The region is the lowest place on earth at 130m (430ft) below sea level.

What is Dallol volcano

Dallol Volcano is a cinder cone maar filled with sulphur springs, potash and acid ponds and has been formed by the intrusion of basaltic magma into salt deposits and subsequent hydrothermal activity. Phreatic explosions occur when magma heats the ground or surface water – this took place in Danakil in 1926 forming Dallol volcano.

chlorine and sulphur gas steaming at the Dallol volcano in the Danakil Depression, Ethiopia

Chlorine and sulphur gas

Dallol’s alien landscape

Dallol is one of the most colourful landforms on Earth due to its unique geological conditions. After a drive through the white salt flats and a short walk up dark volcanic rock, you’re faced with this other-worldly luminescent pop of colour as you reach the top.

Feast your eyes on the steaming crater of greens and yellow, our guide Gashaw Trit warned us not to get too close, the ground can be unstable and hollow as the underground hot springs lay just below. These springs release chemical compounds like ferrous chloride and iron hydroxide that solidify when they come into contact with the atmosphere, painting the salt deposits and lakes in crazy shades of green, yellow and white.

As we moved around the area to the left, a big gust of pungent chlorine and sulphur gas came our way and sure does hit the back of your throat and your lungs – take a mask with you to make the experience easier! You just need to keep walking as it doesn’t all smell this bad.

Sulphuric smells at the Dallol volcano, Danakil Depression

Sulphuric smells at the Dallol volcano

Security guard at the Dallol volcano in the Danakil Depression

Security guard at the Dallol volcano

You can hear the sound of the crunching salt beneath your sturdy shoes as well as the noise of the hissing and pressured pools. It’s bizarre, you can’t see the water but if you inspect some of the small craters closer, you can see the running and steaming water inside.

You’d be forgiven to think I’d filtered the hell out of my photos but this really does represent this crazy landscape that is Dallol, it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before.

See the steaming sulphuric Dallol volcano as you explore Danakil DpressionBright green pools at Dallol volcano in Danakil Depression, EthiopiaGreen pools at Dallol volcano as you explore Danakil DepressionVanessa from Wanders Miles exploring Danakil Depression and the Dallol volcano


Salt Mountains of Dallol

Only 2 minute drive away are the Salt Mountains. They are massive, solid salt crystals up to 30m high. It’s cool to explore the enclosing caves, walkways and all manner of angular shapes. Many of the shapes are pretty sharp.

Hop back in your 4×4 across the salt flats, you can visit numerous other eruptions. The first we visited was 15 metres away from the lava and has a mix of 82% potassium and 18% sulphur and giving it an oily texture. The second was pure potassium and the third was pure sulphuric acid. The last is highly dangerous but all are unfit for human consumption, and birds apparently, they see the water and take a drink and the toxic acid kills them pretty quickly, unfortunately you’ll see evidence of this by the pools.

Entrance to Salt Mountains in the Danakil Depression in Ethiopia

Entrance to Salt Mountains

Salt Mountains near Dallol in the Danakil Depression

Salt Mountains near Dallol

Lake Asale salt plains in the Danakil Depression

We first visited the Lake Asale (not to be confused with Lake Assal in Djibouti) salt flats of Danakil, near Dallol, late afternoon to float around in the pool which is a crack in the plains. Explore Danakil Depression in different lights, you will be amazed at the sunsets against the white expansive landscape. In the daytime, you can have a lot of fun with perspective shots against this beautiful backdrop.

Having fun on the salt flats of Lake Asale

Fun on the salt flats

The salt plains can flood with water but each time the waters evaporate, thick layers of salt remain making this a huge source of ‘white gold’. The salt miners cut 5-7kg rectangular pieces and load more than 150kg onto each camel to be transported by camel caravan to Mekelle. This salt is for animals but the salt for humans is created in a different way. The generator pumps salt water onto a long bridge, it takes about 2 weeks to dry, it is mixed with iodine and used by the local people. Unfortunately, camels do not like the water and it was too wet on our visit so we were not able to seeing the salt miners at work.

Salt blocks from the miners in Lake Asale, Ethiopia

Salt blocks from the miners in Lake Asale

Orange and blue sunset on the salt plains of Lake Asale in the Danakil Depression

Sunset on the salt plains of Lake Asale


Best time to visit Dallol

The best time to explore Danakil Depression is between October and February to avoid the crazy temperatures of the summer months.

Accommodation in Dallol

We camped on a mattress at a local settlement under the stars waking up the sound of the donkeys, goats and playing children. It’s as basic as it gets but I couldn’t be happier. If you have more cash to burn, I believe there are eco-lodges in the area to lay your head.

Book a reputable tour company

The Afar government requires each tour to have 2 jeeps in your convoy to ensure you have help if your jeep gets stuck (even if it’s just you and 2 drivers), armed guards, and local Afar guides. Our trip was organised by Trekkup Dubai who had scouted out the best people on the ground to use.

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Amanda Keeley-Thurman 8th January 2019 - 12:00 am

That sounds like a cool experience. That landscape is unreal and it is nice that a tour group sets it all up for you.

Vanessa 12th January 2019 - 7:15 pm

It really needs to be set up on a tour as law of the Ethiopian government. Trekkup work with the best local tour companies to make it a seamless experience.

Mitch 9th February 2019 - 7:21 pm

Wow! I’d never heard of this place before. Reminds me of Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia. Lowest and hottest place on earth? Add that to my bucket list!

Janine 16th February 2019 - 11:59 am

What beautiful photos to showcase the gorgeous landscape of Ethiopia!

Vanessa 21st February 2019 - 10:46 am

Thank you – happy you enjoyed seeing this crazy part of the world!

Danik 11th November 2019 - 2:42 pm

I would love to check out this landscape, I never heard about this place before but would love to check it out once I get to this region. Is it best to go with a tour group or can this be done by yourself?

Vanessa 11th November 2019 - 2:53 pm

Tours are really the only way to go….It is mandatory by the Afar Government for each group visiting this area to have 2 jeeps in the convoy and each tour must be escorted by armed guards. One of my favourite trips!

Kevin Wagar 2nd December 2019 - 6:54 am

Incredible! Ethiopia has been on my dream list of destinations for years. Everything about it seems magical, and your photos just add wood to the fire.

Vanessa 16th December 2019 - 12:03 am

Glad you enjoyed the article. I really enjoyed this trip, the landscape is harsh and surreal. I want to see more of the country.

Megan Jerrard 18th December 2019 - 4:32 am

What an otherwordly place – I have a really big feeling that Ethiopia is going to start trending soon on the mass tourism radar, I’m starting to hear more and more about the country as people realize what incredible nature and experiences there are here. I’ll add Dallol volcano to my bucketlist! Thanks for the tip on taking a mask, lol I’ve done volcanos and hot springs in Costa Rica so can probably imagine the sulphur smell – it’s worthwhile for the views but definitely not pretty lol!!!

Loved this post (and your photos), thanks!

Vanessa 20th December 2019 - 7:26 pm

It was like another planet and yes, I’ve seen Ethiopia grow in popularity too. It was good to see it before it gets too crowded. Mask is a must for sure. Thank you for the compliments on the blog Megan!


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