Set at the juncture of three tectonic plates, the Danakil is one of the world’s lowest-lying places, set mostly below sea level, and it officially ranks as the hottest inhabited place on earth, with an average daily maximum of 41°C. Much of the region comprises sun-cracked salt-flats that stretch like blinding-white crazy paving towards a shimmering flat horizon. However, the high level of tectonic activity means that more than 30 active volcanoes protrude from this stretch Great Rift Valley floor. These include the iconic Erta Ale, which has hosted a permanent lava flow since the late 19th century, and the Dallol Crater with its sulphurous pools enclosed by strange pastel-hued crystalline formations.
- The Danakil's top attraction is Erta Ale, a 613m-high shield volcano whose caldera of crumbling black rock contains world's oldest permanent lava lake. Bubbling at temperatures of more than 1,000˚C, this ellipsoid cauldron of black-and-red magma is a truly mesmerising phenomenon, as violent red fountains of molten rock spurt tens of metres in the sky, accompanied by nose-searing waves of ammoniac gas. Accessible only on foot or by camelback, Erta Ale is reached along a gradually sloping 10km path through shadeless terrain that can be treacherously hot in full daylight. It is conventional to ascend in the late afternoon to avoid the midday heat, then sleep at the top and return to the base early the next morning.
- Set in a flat-sided shallow explosion crater, the Dallol Springs comprise a field of multicoloured geysers that bubble over into a series of steaming sulphurous pools dotted with conical yellow-green vents and crystalline formations of red, orange and white. It is especially beautiful in the early morning and late afternoon, which is also when the temperature is most bearable.
- Once a bay in the Red Sea, the hyper-saline Lake As Ale lies at the heart of a 1,200km2 expanse of salt-encrusted flats that have been mined by the local Afar for millennia. Even today, visitors might come cross dozens of Afar miners chipping at the salt flat's crumbly off-white crust to extract neat 30cm x 40cm amole salt bars. The salt is then transported by camel to the highlands by caravaneers from Tigray.
- Set at 103m below sea level, the lovely emerald-hued Lake Afdera laps the shore of what is regarded to be the world’s lowest-lying island. Now accessible on an asphalt road that runs through the village of Afdera, the lake is an important source of salt, which is obtained from artificial evaporation pools along the western shore. You can swim or camp at a set of freshwater hot springs on the west shore close to Afdera village.
Explore the Danakil from either the Tigraian capital Mekele (760km north of Addis Ababa by road), or the Afar capital Semera (590km from Addis Ababa). Both are connected to Addis Ababa by daily flights (www.ethiopianairlines.com).
The Danakil is a genuine expedition destination. Although a good 350km road now runs from Semera to Mekele via Afdera, the tracks to Dallol and Do Dom (for Erta Ale) require a 4x4 and navigational skills. The region is best visited with an experienced operator using a minimum of two 4x4s, and experienced staff who know the local Afar. Helicopter access is from Mekele.
Most organised tours start in Addis Ababa. Operators also offer tours directly out of Semera and Mekele. The minimum time required for a full tour is two nights, spending one at Hamed Ela and one on the rim of Erta Ale. An extra night at Erta Ale is recommended if you want to see the crater by day, and another for Lake Afdera.
Most sites in the region can be accessed by 4x4 only. To get to Erta Ale, you must hike 10km along gently ascending slopes to the crater rim. There is no shade, and daytime temperatures tend to be searingly hot, so ascend at dusk and return early next morning.
A selection of hotels can be found in both Semera and Mekele. No formal accommodation exists once in the Danakil, though basic camping shelters are available at Hamed Ela, Do Dom and the Erta Ale crater rim. You can camp at the hot springs on the west shore of Lake Afdera.
All visitors must obtain a permit in advance from the Bureau of Culture and Tourism of Afar National Regional State office in Semera. This is best organised through a ground operator in Addis Ababa or Mekele. Wear a hat and apply sunblock when hiking or walking during daylight hours.
Afar Region Dancalia 1:950,000 Geological and Route Map by Luca Lupi, www.dancalia.it.
Bradt Guide to Ethiopia by Philip Briggs (7th edition 2015),
www.bradtguides.com - detailed background information and up-to-date hotel, restaurant and other listings.
Afar Bureau of Culture and Tourism - tel +251 (0)33 6660488 or fax +251 (0)33 6660209, postal address: PO Box 20, Semera.
- Mekele, the well-equipped capital of Tigrai Region, is the best springboard for visiting the Danakil from the northwest.
- Punctuating the ancient salt caravan route between the Danakil and Tigrai, mid-altitude Berahile is where tours coming from Mekele must pick up a mandatory guide and police escort.
- Set at 30m below sea level 45km east of Berahile, tiny Hamed Ela is a popular overnight base for visits to Dallol and Lake As Ale.
- The staggeringly beautiful multicoloured geysers at Dallol are the world’s lowest-lying volcanic vents, set at 50m below sea level in a shallow crater formed by an eruption in 1926.
- Lake As Ale (also known as Karum or Asale), is the lowest point in Ethiopia at 116 metres below sea level. It is enclosed by 1,200km² of salt flats mined by the Afar for millennia.
- Overlooking the southern shore of Lake Karum, Gada Ale is a prominent stratovolcano rising to 287m above sea level and enclosing a lake of boiling sulphur and mud.
- A circular tuff formation of black volcanic ash, Mount Catharina is set around a saline crater lake fed by thermal springs.
- The 429m Mount Allu, at the northern end of the Erta Ale range, most recently erupted in 2008.
- 120km from Hamed Ali, Kusrawad is where permission, mandatory guide and optional pack camels to climb Erta Ale is obtained from the local kebele administration.
- Do Dom (also known as Askomi Bahari) the village at the base of Erta Ale, is only 25km from Kusawad, but the track there, over punishing black volcanic rocks, takes two hours to drive.
- Dominating the Do Dom skyline, Alebagu is the highest peak in the northern Danakil, rising to 1031m above sea level.
- Reached via a moderately steep 10km footpath, the 613m high Erta Ale is an active volcano whose caldera holds the world’s oldest permanent lava lake, a spectacular view at night.
- Afdera (also known as Afrera) is where tours coming from Semera must pick up a local guide and mandatory police escort. Salt mining is the main economic activity at Lake Afdera, a 115km² expanse of hyper-saline emerald water fed by thermal springs that rise on its northeast and southeast shores.
- Semera, the custom-built capital of Afar Region, is the springboard for Danakil expeditions coming from the south.
- The 1,295m-high Mount Afdera is the taller of two active volcanoes rising from the shore of the eponymous lake.