Prepared to be wowed if you visit the Dallol volcano, it’s a hot and alien landscape located northeast of the Erta Ale Range in Ethiopia, on the border with Eritrea, and inside a geological formation called the Afar (Danakil) Depression. Knowing it is the lowest place on earth at 130m (430ft) below sea level and declared the hottest place on earth, I was ready for the arid conditions ahead even though you could be easily convinced you were on a totally different planet.
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.
Dallol, an alien landscape
Dallol is one of the most colourful landforms on Earth due to the 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 a 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. 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.
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.
Lake Asale salt plains
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. The sunsets against the white expansive landscape is a true beauty. In the daytime, you can have a lot of fun with perspective shots against this beautiful backdrop.
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.
The fundamentals of Dallol
Best time to visit: Between October and February to avoid the crazy temperatures of the summer months.
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.
Accommodation: We camped on a mattress at a local settlement under the stars waking up the sound of the donkeys, goats and playing children and 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.