The Danakil Depression sits at the triple junction between three tectonic plates. As the continents slowly drift apart at a rate of 1-2cm per year, they leave behind a geological depression, known as the Afar Depression, spanning Djibouti, Eritrea, and the Afar region of Ethiopia. The Northern part of this depression is the Danakil Depression, which sits more than 100m below sea level and contains some of the world’s most extraterrestrial landscapes.
Beyond its fascinating geology, the Danakil holds the keys to some of biology’s most profound questions. In 1974, researchers found the remains of ‘Lucy’ in the Danakil Depression, an early ancestor of modern humans dating back 3.2 million years (now on display at the National Museum in Addis Ababa). The acidic springs of the Dallol Crater have attracted scientists in the search for extremophilic microbes as they seek to understand the origins of life on Earth, as well as the possibilities for early-stage life on Mars.
What's in the Danakil Depression?
The Danakil Depression is home to some of the most fascinating geological structures on the planet. The Danakil is a new ocean basin, meaning millions of years in the future, the Danakil will be submerged in water as the continents are pulled far enough apart such that the Red Sea spills over into the rift, forming a new ocean that splits the African continent in two.
For now, the depression is a showcase of incredible geology that looks more Martian than terrestrial. For tourists, the main attractions are the active volcano Erta Ale, the kaleidoscopic landscape of the Dallol Crater, the contrasting salt lakes Karum and Afdera, and the sprawling salt pans whereupon local Afar people toil under the sun to export salt back to Mekele on the backs of hundreds of camels that form the famous camel caravans that wind through the desert.
The salt lakes of the Danakil represent the resting place of the Awash River, which flows upwards from the Northern Highlands into the Danakil, where it evaporates under the heat to form salt pans. The two saline lakes, Lake Afrera and Lake Karum, remain liquid as they are fed by surrounding hot springs.
Discover the Danakil with these trips
When to Visit
Taken by average annual temperatures, the Danakil Depression ranks as the hottest place on the planet. It’s also one of the lowest land destinations on Earth, at over 100m below sea level. Average temperatures sit between 35°C and 40°C annually, and the region sees no more than 100-200mm of rainfall each year, all of which evaporates immediately under the extreme heat.
The extreme climate of the Danakil makes it unsuitable for year-round travel. The months June-August see the cruelest of the heat, with temperatures soaring well above 40°C (104°F). While it is still possible to visit the Danakil during these months, these will typically be private tours as opposed to the usual group tours departing from Mekele, so the excursion will be more expensive than usual. The extreme heat during these months can make the experience more arduous than enjoyable for some travellers.
The months September-May see more modest daytime temperatures of 35-40°C (95-104°F), and we have regularly groups departing from Mekele which brings the cost of the excursion right down.
Get Prepared with Brilliant
Traversing such a remote and inhospitable region comes with a number of challenges. The key to travelling safely and getting the most out of your visit is knowing what to expect so you can plan appropriately. Our experts will talk you through all aspects of travelling in the Danakil Depression, recommend the kit to bring, and take care of all the travel logistics.
Despite a seemingly inhospitable environment, the Danakil is the home for nearly two million Afar people across Ethiopia, Djibouti and Eritrea. The salt pans provide the principal export of the Danakil, but the Afar people are traditionally pastoralists relying on goats, camels and cattle for subsistence living.
The Afar people have long had a fearsome reputation, and with tourist numbers to the Danakil ever-increasing, they remain the gatekeepers of the region charging hefty fees for entrance. Experienced local guides are essential for travel in the Danakil.
Safety and Security
The Afar region and the Ethiopian-Eritrean border has been fraught with tensions over the years, with tribal violence between Afar people not uncommon. Relationships have drastically improved of late and all excursions to the Danakil come accompanied with armed scouts. There is now a permanent military outpost on the rim of Erta Ale to provide additional protection to tourists. Whilst tourists have been victims of violence in the region in the past, the contemporary threat is low, although it is a more risky than other areas of Ethiopia.
The volcanic activity at the Danakil Depression means robust footwear is essential as much of the region is covered in razor-sharp lava.
At Erta Ale
The smoke from Erta Ale is thick and unforgiving, and all visitors peering over the crater edge do so wrapped protectively in a make-shift masks to prevent excessive smoke inhalation. Those who are asthmatic, or particularly sensitive to smoke, should bring inhalers and be vigilant of spending too much time at the crater.
The hike up Erta Ale should not be underestimated. Whilst the ascent follows a modest gradient, the length of the hike (3-4 hours) coupled with the intense climate can make for a somewhat challenging trek.
Dallol is an extremely dynamic region with new springs and salt mounds created on a daily basis from the perpetual hydrothermal activity below the volcano. A byproduct of the beauty created by this process is an unstable flooring that must be expertly navigated by local guides who visit the region every week. The salt deposits in some areas may only be a few inches thick and below this sits hot, supersaturated acidic springs. Robust footwear is essential, and you must follow the guidance of the local guides.
The extreme heat of the Danakil coupled with its remoteness has led to a significant plastic pollution problem across the region. An eye-soar and an environmental malady, it’s an ever-worsening problem. Respect the region and keep all plastic bottles in the vehicles to be disposed with back in the town of Mekele.
Places to Stay
Accommodation in the Danakil is as basic as it gets. Once you leave Mekele, you’re heading for one of the most remote and inhospitable environments on the planet, where 5* (or even 2*) hotels are a fantasy. It’s rough and ready, and that’s all part of the fun. Depending on your interests and wider travel plans, you’ll be spending 1-3 nights in the Danakil, with a 2 night stay being the most common.
The remoteness of the Danakil Depression meant it remained largely unvisited by tourists until very recently. The construction of an improved access network combined with a number of high-profile documentaries about the region saw visitor numbers increase to the thousands annually, and today the Danakil is one of Ethiopia’s most popular tourist destinations.
The main access point to the Danakil is via the Tigrayan town of Mekele. Whilst it’s possible to access the Danakil via the Afar town of Semera, the majority of trips will start and end in Mekele as this town links up nicely with typical Northern circuits. Thanks to Ethiopia’s reliable and well-connected domestic flight network, it’s easy to connect to Mekele via air from either Addis or any of the Northern towns of Gondar, Lalibela, Axum, or Bahir Dar.
If direct flights aren’t available, or if you’re coming from the South, you can connect to Mekele via domestic flight through Addis. If you find yourself in the Tigray region exploring the rock-churches, or community trekking, Mekele is just a short drive from the lodges in that area.
At Mekele, you’ll meet your group and pile into the Toyota Landcruisers that will carry you into the Danakil Depression. It’s a 3-4 hour drive from Mekele to the Danakil that begins on asphalt and ends on lava. After your excursion, you’ll return to Mekele where you can either connect with an evening flight to continue your journey, or rest up and stay overnight at Mekele before continuing your travels the following day.
How Can We Help You?
We've hiked up Erta Ale, swam in Lake Afrera, and carefully wandered around the acidic springs at Dallol. We have a network of trusted partners, and all of our specialists visit Ethiopia every year. We'll talk through what it's like travelling in the Danakil Depression, design your perfect itinerary, and make all of your travel arrangements for you.