Sunday, January 25, 2015

Dallol & the Danakil Depression

After visiting Erta Ale, the next highlight of the Danakil Depression is equally surreal, and no less easy to visit - the salt mines and sulphur springs of Dallol.

This time, our base is the "village" of Hamed Ila that consists of more of the rickety "tree-branch" huts that is common in the Afar region. Like the night in Erta Ale, sleeping options were just "safari beds" - outdoor collapsible camping beds, which was laid out outside the hut. It would be much cooler to sleep in the open.

The Afar homestead, and the only accommodation option (though we slept outside)

Again, military escorts were brought in, and the visit to the sulphur springs was first. This time, we were driven barely an hour and then it was "only" a 30-40 minutes walk to the site. But it was a walk through a broken land of sharp rocks, bizarre-shaped formations, and soul-sapping heat. I had brought a 1-litre bottle of water along and it was barely enough.

The yellow-brown-stained landscape is an eye-opening sight. I had thought the Bolivian Altiplano desert to be unearthly but the scene here is downright alien. Bubbling pools of  yellow-white sulphuric acid smear the reddish-brown hardened ground, with pockets of greenish mineral ponds and ghastly weird protrusions scattered throughout. Admiration of the scene though, was somewhat marred by the suffocating sulphuric air (even with a face mask) and the constant heat. So remember to bring a good face mask and plenty of water! I was on the verge of a heat-stroke on return to our vehicle!

Military escort vehicle leading us through broken and used land - this used to be covered with salt!!

Short hike to the sulphur springs

Alien landscape

Alien landscape
Sulphur deposits and acid pool

The visit to the open-plain salt mine is relatively "straitforward", as compared to the other sites. The depression was created as a result of tectonic plate movements, and as a result, seawater flooded the depression many years ago. When the seawater dried up, a layer of salt encrusted the entire ground. When we reached the "mining site", it was in the middle of nowhere, and there was nothing but some waiting camels and a group of Afar men hacking, cracking and prying salt blocks from the ground using primitive tools. There was absolutely no sign of any permanent structure or machine, and when enough salt is harvested, the salt merchant would then transport the salt out using their camel caravans. I could never imagine how they could work under such conditions with barely a shelter in sight!

Breaking the salt ground and prying out the salt

Blocks of salt would be cut into standard size and loaded onto the camels

As mentioned in the previous post, most trips to the Danakil Depression start from Mekele in northern Ethiopia, and include both Dallol and Erta Ale. Trips can be arranged in Addis Ababa and while overland trip is possible, you will need 2 more days to-and-fro from Addis. Flights to Mekele will make sense if your international flight to Ethiopia is on Ethiopian Airlines as you would get very competition prices for their domestic legs. So check out the prices before you decide.

The sights in the Danakil Depression are indeed extraordinary, and for those who are willing to face the hardship, they would be rewarded with a very memorable trip, though probably in more ways than one!

Salt merchants transporting salt in their camel caravans
-120m below sea level and 45 degrees Celsius

Monday, January 12, 2015

Erta Ale & The Danakil Depression

I have visited only a couple of volcanoes up-close (mainly in Indonesia), and none of it with any visible lava activity. So I was pretty excited when I finally came face-to-face with a lava lake in the crater of a volcano!

There are not many volcanoes out there with an active lava lake, and Erta Ale in northern Ethiopia is one of them. However, reaching it is an endeavour not to be taken lightly. Erta Ale lies in a region known as the Danakil Depression - a geographical depression and one of the lowest places/land in the world (-125m). It is also one of the hottest places in the world with temperatures reportedly soaring above 50 degrees Celsius, and with almost no rain year-round. Needless to say, this harsh and inhospitable land poses a logistic challenge to anyone who wants to go there.

Afar nomads in the harsh environment
Drought-stricken land

In order to visit the volcano, permits, military escorts and local politics add to the complexity. The Afar region, as it is also known, with its proximity to Eritnea and Djibouti, is pretty lawless and so a permit and four military personnel are required for a visit. Two local policemen were also deemed necessary for company, and of course, a special local Afar guide. And then it's hours of bumpy and dusty jeep ride in 40-ish degree or more temperatures (we went in Oct). While our jeeps have air-conditioning, oftentimes our driver had to switch it off intermittently for fear of engine overheat and/or to conserve power to maneuver over harsh terrain etc.

Finally, our jeep could only bring us to a El Dom, a village "base-camp" of sorts, close to Erta Ale itself. Led by the Afar guide and the militia, a 3-4 hour hike in darkness over jagged rugged volcanic terrain would then bring us up to near the crater to see the lava lake. The hike should only be attempted after the sun set, as otherwise, the heat would probably suck our bodies dry!

But brave through all of the above, and you would be rewarded with one of the most surreal and mesmerizing nature displays on earth....!

Heading towards the glowing crater mouth
Lava Burst
Photographing the lava lake!

Flowing Inferno
Pardon the poor timelapse video, which was done using an old GoPro2

The hardship is not over yet! A short nap in some ramshackle huts close to the crater allowed us some rest and before sunrise, we had to head back to El Dom. This time though, the brightening sky made the going easier. Otherwise, we certainly wouldn't want to be caught in the heat when the sun rose too high!

One of our soldier guide resting on the volcanic terrain

If it's not evident already, visiting Erta Ale is certainly quite costly. Most trips start from the city of Mekele, and typically would include another highlight of the Danakil Depression - the sulphur springs and salt mines of Dallol which I would cover in the next blog post. So, watch out for it!