Adventurous expedition through Danakil Desert (Danakil Depression) within the Afar region of Ethiopia is more like a transition into an astounding whole new WORLD.
Danakil Desert is full of spectacular highlights and electrifying details that begs for bold exploration. I start with the rare phenomenon that Danakil Desert provides to witness through one of the few persistent lava lakes in the world – Erta’ Ale – HYPNOTIZING, DEFYING AND MEMORABLE.
The itinerary in which I was on for this experience, required three nights and four days camping in the Danakil Desert – where many areas laying more than 100 meter below sea level, where temperature can soar to 50 c and earns a startling reputation of being the hottest place on earth.
Our journey started from Mekele – the gateway to Danakil Desert – via a village which is the administrative center of Zone 2 of the Afar Region called Abala. Continued to Dodom – a village found around the most desolated landscape and serves as an entry way for visiting Erta’ Ale.
For acquiring the real sense of this whole new world, you have to taste it and feel it. Maybe this is one of the reasons why nothing really prepared me for this captivating adventure than actually be there.
Heading to the Danakil Desert is a mesmerizing experience by itself. The road, the landscape, the desert flora, the villages (yes even in a Desert), the people and so many more to be blown away by. But it takes to be present enough to witness and to let it pass through you while leaving its priceless life lessons or memories imprinted on your heart.
Besides the anticipation seeing Erta’ Ale, it is the ROAD TRIP that kept me so fascinated in so many ways. As we kept driving and leaving behind the comfort of city life or even little villages with cold drinks – felt like heaven at one point -, the landscape slowly start changing as a welcoming sign of another different world.
Green plantations and mountains faded away, the road starts to flatten, less and less people at the side of the road. Scattered strange plants which grew between rocks started to reveal this harsh environment.
The road trip gone smoothly on asphalted road while enjoying the scenery on each side. Obviously, nothing beats ROAD TRIP AND GOOD PLAYLIST so luckily the driver had some engaging local tunes cranked – perfect match for a memorable ROAD TRIP IN ETHIOPIA.
It was about time to have lunch at one of the villages and this is when I truly realized that I actually entered into a desert. The moment stepping out of the air conditioned car, my skin greeted by the remorseless fire – waft and the sweltering desert sun, I felt the heat within a second all I wanted was some kind of shade.
The little house we had lunch built by unevenly assembled dried sticks and finished with corrugated iron door and straw roof top. Good enough to provide shade – which seems priceless at the moment – and probably from the sand wind in the evening but no way to escape the heat as the fire – waft invite itself through the gaps of sticks and the open door. Start sweating already.
Obviously I missed Addis Ababa’s heavenly cool breeze, but now I get to feel the desert with all my being, I knew it was about time to start embracing it rather than resisting in order to alleviate my wanderlust so I continued.
Heading to Dodom in the afternoon means the Road Trip getting tougher, bottle of water getting warmer – time to taste the desert.
All Windows closed to keep out the dust and of course the fire wind, time to rely up on AC inside the car. Could not help wondering what it would be like out there, so checking the odometer becomes an addictive little act out of curiosity. From 38 c hitting to 45 c seen it and felt it all.
Once off – road and as exactly our driver said it “this is where the battle begin so fasten up your seat belts”. I could not help having a new sense of admiration and respect for all the drivers in the Danakil Desert. Even though a good car that can handle this tough road is essential but an enthusiastic and experienced driver is a must too.
Being able to sit still for a moment and being able to have bottle of water without any effort suddenly becomes hard task that seemed too ordinary and obviously taken for granted – lesson learned while crossing the Danakil Desert on one of the worst road in the world. It is only 6.5 km, but takes 90 minutes driving on harden lava rock, sand and passing through intermittent desert flora.
It was not a road anymore. It seemed like the three cars before us was making their own way while leaving sand trail behind. It felt like we were on an enticing car rally watching all the action through the car window which is on the race itself. It was just electrifying.
As it is not enough to jolt your comfort zone and awaken your sense of wonder, the Road Trip do provide stunning scenes that I at-least could not help asking myself profound questions about life. Seeing hamlets, people walking outside even kids running around in the middle of nowhere stunned me.
Yes there are small villages in a Danakil Desert that people live in. I thought I was in a life time adventure but this is an everyday life adventure for the survivor and legendary Afar People.
What dreamily noticeable through the duskiness of sizzling day were Amoyate and Boreale – other bigger volcanoes – embossing the barren landscape.
Arriving at camp –the base of Erta’ Ale – with small stone huts where we rested and waited for the temperature to drop a little for averagely estimated three hour trekking way up to the slope to see Erta’ Ale.
Even though the road trip was bit challenging, it is at this camp that the eagerness to see the lava lake and to spend the night out in a Danakil Desert under the stars and moon builds up as it is now we are just few hours away from the most spectacular live natural scene of the world.
The camels loaded with our mattresses, camping gears and our dinner but the rest we had to carry it with us – two litters of water (believe me you need it), sleeping bag and of course hygiene products – but the rest we left it behind at the camp where the drivers stay overnight to get their good night sleep for another safe road trip on the next day. Two guides, local guide and armed military scouts escort the group all the way to the hill top and to spend the night with us.
9.5 km walk up to the crater rim of Erta’ Ale started around 6 p.m. Talking about the temperature getting cooler well all I can say is “just a little bit cooler” as it was still hot even without the blazing sun.
The very first part even with a keen and new energy can be a bit tough as it is walking on sand where you can put too much effort for a desire of holding on a grip – obviously sand means no traction. Then walking on rocks and through yellowish dried vegetation grew between rocks.
As the time goes by and when the daylight starts fading, it was about time to put on our flashlight as it is important to see where we are stepping on specially when walking on thin solidified lava rock beds.
There were resting moments for 5 to 10 minutes to take our breath and catch up with the rest of the group. It was perfect moment to be present enough and look at the vast sky up on us with sparkling desert stars and a bright moon (it was half quarter moon on that night but still beautiful). To lighten up your soul even better in the midst of Danakil Desert Darkness, it is the red glare that you would be able to see from the far – a sign of Erta’ Ale.
The last part becomes a bit challenging and asks for being bit cautious as it is walking up to a slope on a soft solidified lava bed rock that cracks open and leads to an air pocket which is mostly not more than 20 cm. Here it is the crack sound beneath your steps that breaks the utter silence of the desert.
Eventually…We Made it! At the camp where we will spend the night sleeping on the slope beside the volcano. While taking our breath from the three and a half hour climb, we able to see Erta’ Ale for the first time from the first crater rim. Jaw dropping and powerful enough to let you rise way above chattering mind and tired physique.
Nestled within the caldera are two pit craters so we had to descend down into the larger, more northerly one which once held a lava lake though currently inactive. It is about a five minute walk on undulating lava that cracked open beneath almost every step and let you drop a bit – proceed with that eerie feeling.
Getting closer to the outer rim of the second caldera is to automatically feeling the unbearable heat that comes out of the crater lava lake. In spite of the heat, could not help looking down through the intensified red glow which is the mesmerizing effect of the molten red lava on the fume that comes out of it.
Though the upper surface of the lava looks dark it is translucent enough to see what is going on underneath – the slow but heated movement of the bubbling lava.
If all these and the roaring sound of the persistent lava lake are not enough to jolt your imagination, then the yellow and red little explosions that splash out and illuminate the lava lake definitely can and even better can make your pulse move as the heart does.
Spending Saturday night in a Danakil Desert witnessing the naturally spectacular light show and the hypnotic beauty of Erta’ Ale – translucent, enigmatic and startling – was eccentric and cherished. Obviously having dinner, getting rest and good night sleep skipped our mind for that moment as we were all so captivated and could have spent the whole night watching the earth formation magic unfolding before us.
We went back to the camp to have dinner and to sleep out in the Danakil Desert. The thin mattresses laid down on the ground and almost a one inch high rocks built up around the mattresses to protect us from the sand wind (which was not the case that night).
After this overwhelming and exciting day, all you long for taking shower -another everyday but ordinarily holy experience usually taken for granted – here you are at the mercy of wet wipe to clean up yourself. Comfort in a desert is determined by your state of mind.
That night out in the desert was bit warmer so hardly used the sleeping bag until it became a bit chilly and windy way after mid night. Watching the stars and the moon and the whole new experience of sleeping on the slope next to Erta’ Ale in a Danakil Desert was out of this world for me. Another moment to learn to lose control and the illusion of keeping our self-secure. Letting it all go and be embraced by the vast universe in the darkness of Danakil Desert.
After a short night, we were awoken by our guide around 4:30 a.m. in the morning to go back and see Erta’ Ale once again while it is still dark, not to miss the sunrise over Erta’ Ale and of course to see the lava lake in a daylight.
The volcano was still active and slowly the sky start brighten up and the sunrise against the red glow. This magical transformation of darkness to light had its own effect on Erta’ Ale as well. Erta’ Ale look different in a daylight and still striking in its uniqueness.
It is at this very moment that I truly understand why it is called Erta’ Ale – the Afar word which literally means Smoking Mountain. The intensified red glow that we were hypnotized by last night faded away and turned into a smoke. Inside dark black lava with red strata running through revealed.
Sunday morning up on the rim of Erta’ Ale, standing still watching the sunrise is one of the unforgettable memories as the magnitude of the universe flashed before me for a split second.
While I was standing on the rim, which once was bubbling lava, granted another defining moment to contemplate UNCERTAINTY.
Scientist suggestion that another major eruption is looming but it is the universal fact that no one knows what the future holds that inspired me to be present enough, to take good look at Erta’ Ale for the last time and say Good Bye!
The camels loaded again and time to walk it back to the Dodom camp. In the daylight we were able to clearly see the slope we climbed up in the dark. Could not help wondering how in the world we walked on it. The daylight revealed the grayish solidified lava rock’s interesting pattern which created while the molten lava cascading out.
We needed to move quickly because we want to make it to the camp before it gets hot. I learn not to take walking back lightly as it took us almost as long to walk down as going up and this time without that dynamite keen and curiosity of seeing Erta’ Ale for the first time to serve as a driving force.
It does get hotter quickly in a desert. The heat definitely played its role in making the way back a bit demanding but we kept on walking.
To be continued…