Locals call it the “gateway to hell.”
This barren, inhospitable landscape is one of the world’s lowest, most geologically active areas. Earthquakes, volcanoes, lava lakes, and bubbling sulfur springs are the norm, rather than the exception. The sulfur mixes with iron oxides, copper salts, and other minerals, leaving behind an array of otherworldly colors. The acid lakes are as deadly as they are beautiful.
Dallol — located in the Afar region of northern Ethiopia near the Eritrean border — is also the hottest inhabited place on Earth. The average annual temperature is almost 95 degrees Fahrenheit, and the average daily high temperature soars to 106º F. Mother Nature offers little relief. Rainfall is rare, and the “Afar wind” can leave one’s skin feeling as if it’s on fire. Stepping out of an air-conditioned vehicle is truly like stepping into a furnace.
Dallol is part of the larger 124 by 31-mile Danakil Depression, a desert 410 feet below sea level. The extreme, never-ending underground activity is due to the depression lying at the junction of three tectonic plates, which are violently tearing apart the land from the rest of Africa. Millions of years from now, scientists believe the Red Sea will engulf the Danakil, concealing this region forever.
For those willing to take a multi-hour 4 x 4 journey across the unforgiving terrain, the Erta Ale volcano awaits.
The daytime heat is far too intense for the three-plus hours hike to the top of the volcano, meaning visitors depart after dark, arriving at the summit shortly before midnight.
Erta Ale contains just one of five lava lakes on the planet. In addition to battling the intense heat, onlookers must avoid the poisonous sulfuric fumes rising menacingly from the crater in the continuously active volcano. Even though there’s always the fear the volcano could erupt at any moment, it’s nearly impossible to walk away from the spectacle.
It’s hard to imagine anyone living in Danakil’s diabolical climate. However, the nomadic Afar people have been crisscrossing this desert for centuries, seeking to eke out a living through the salt trade.
It normally takes the caravans at least a week to arrive at the salt flats. Miners first pry the salt free, then cut it into large slabs, before shaving it into uniform blocks set for market. The blocks are finally loaded onto camels for the arduous return trek.
For such backbreaking work, a miner, on a good day, could expect to earn a little over seven dollars, which is considered a decent income as some Ethiopian laborers survive on about one dollar a day. Despite the brutal conditions, the miners embrace the work with pride, the salt trade a hallmark of their Afar culture and identity.
The Danakil Depression would be a highlight for the most adventurous of travelers, but keep in mind that it’s a remote, hard-to-reach region; lodging facilities are nonexistent, so sleeping is done under the stars, and toilets entail squatting behind rocks or sand dunes; plus, there are some dicey security issues.
The border with Eritrea is always politically volatile. Back in 2012, terrorists kidnapped four tourists and killed five others. Now, solo traveling is outlawed. All groups must be accompanied by armed guards, bearing AK-47s.
Still, it’s not often one gets to stare into the mouth of an active volcano in the hottest place in the world.