Hot sizzling salt beneath your feet. Sulfuric acid fumes burn your lungs with every breath you take. And if you don’t watch your step, you could fall on molten hot lava. What is this place? It can’t be hell, right? Because you haven’t died… yet.
In the northeastern part of Ethiopia, at about 125 m (410 ft) below sea level, lies the Danakil Depression. A desert so hot and toxic almost nothing lives there. This inhospitable area is about 200 km (124 mi) by 50 km (31 mi) and was once part of the Red Sea. But why would anyone want to go to a place that feels like a sauna all the time? Some people travel there to study how anything could live in such extreme conditions. Others have to go to work at the salt mines. But most tourists go for the beautiful landscapes. This eye-catching mixture of colors is the result of the salt reacting with minerals in the magma. Don’t get too distracted by the scenery though. One misstep could be painful, or even lethal. How hot are its lakes? Why do you need to take armed guards with you? And why shouldn’t you stay near this volcano for too long? This will be no glamping. Prepare for two days OF no showers or electricity. If you want to get back safely from this expedition, don’t take it lightly and follow my lead.
Step 1. Beat the Heat
Temperatures in excess 50 ºC (122 ºF) have been recorded in the Danakil Depression. Don’t venture there between June to August. The heat would be unbearable. Most of the tours leave from the Ethiopian town of Wukro or its capital, Addis Ababa. You can choose between a two, three or four days tour. Do your research and book a tour with good reviews. Remember your life will be in someone else’s hands. You are traveling to one of the hottest places on Earth so don’t forget your sunhat, sunscreen and bottles of water.
Step 2. Bring Guards
You’ll embark on a long road trip with a few other vehicles. Prepare for bumpy rides of six hours or more every day. And armed guards will have to join you for your own safety. The ongoing struggle between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray autonomous region could lead to confrontations you need to avoid. The guards’ presence is essential to keep you and everybody else on the tour safe from any potential attacks. In 2012, there was a fatal attack on a group of European tourists in the Danakil Depression. Five people were killed, and another four were kidnapped.
Step 3. Beware of the Killer Lakes
Some of these bodies of water not only have temperatures reaching100 ºC (212 ºF), they are also very acidic. Insects and birds sometimes drink the toxic water or inhale the carbon dioxide-rich air surrounding these springs and die as a result. Watch these lakes and geysers from a safe distance, you could slip and fall into them if you get too close. Gaet’ale Pond has a temperature of around 50 °C (122 °F). If you fall into it, scream for help quickly, then keep your eyes and mouth shut. You won’t sink to the bottom since the high salt levels will push you up toward the surface. Try to reach shore as fast as you can, unless you want to be preserved in salt for future scientists to study.
Step 4. Don’t Camp on the Volcano
After another hot night you’ll visit Erta Ale, an active volcano. You can get close enough to see its lava lake, but there are no barriers or railings. Your safety depends entirely on you. You may be exposed to hydrogen sulfide gas and chlorine vapor that can burn your airways and choke your lungs. So don’t stay there for too long and wear a mask or cloth over your mouth to prevent excessive gas and smoke inhalation. You survived this hostile desert thanks to an experienced local guide, proper equipment and being cautious.
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- Hyperdiverse archaea near life limits at the polyextreme geothermal Dallol area. Belilla, J., Moreira, D., Jardillier, L. and more. (2019). Nature Ecology & Evolution.
- What To Expect When Visiting The Danakil Depression Of Ethiopia. Kuhl Editor (2020). Kuhl.
- Everything You Should Know About The Danakil Depression, The Hottest Place On Earth. Spray, A. (2021). The Travel.
- Curiosities of the Danakil Depression. Rocchio, L. (2014). Earth Observatory NASA.