Ethiopia - Danakil Depression, Erta Ale volcano

Danakil Depression,  Erta Ale volcano

A plane took off and we had a beautiful view of Lake Tana and the origin of the Blue Nile. The river has its origin in the Tana lake.

There is no direct flight from Bahir Dar to Mekele. We had to fly to Addis Ababa and changed the plane. We  had only 40 minutes for transfer. Airport employees were able to reload luggage between planes in such a short time. Finally we reached the destination. We took a taxi (160 birr) to the center of Mekele. First we went to the ETT tourist agency. We bought 3 days trip to Erta Ale volcano and Danakil depression. It cost 300 USD per person. According to the rules we could not visit the sights on our own. Everything except beverages such as beer or cola, additionally paid 20-30 birr, was included in the price. In Ethiopia don't forget to bargain the price and other conditions of the excursion.

The excursion started very next day and we had to arrange accommodation for a night. Double room with bathroom cost 250 birr in 3 Pension.

The next day we set off on a 4WD trip. There were 4 people in the car, the driver and us. We moved in a convoy of several cars. Erta Ale parking was our destination. It was very challenging route for 4WD cars. The final distance was not so long, 12 km, but it took about 2 hours to reach the base camp. The car was moving  on desert sand, sharp volcanic rocks very slowly.

We had dinner and relaxed at the base camp. In the early evening we started to hike to Erta Ale. Flesh and good trekking boots are obligatory. I had sport shoes and they did not survive the trekking. We trekked 10 km (the height difference was 500 meters) At the beginning sand trail is flat but the second part was more difficult. It was steep trek to the top of the volcano. The surface is not stable. There were a lot of small shifting rocks. It is very easy to slip and fall down. Unfortunately I fell down on sharp volcanic rocks. My legs and arm were seriously injured but I managed to complete the trek. I took 2-3 hours to reach the top of Erta Ale. We had to go down to view point. It was a steep trail, c.a. 10- 15 minutes to go down. Finally we saw flowing lava. The volcano is active but calm. The sulfur smell was in the air. The view of hot red lava and sound of cracking rocks made the place awesome. I felt a great power of nature with sense of sight, hearing and smell. Active volcano and flowing lava has been one of the greatest and unforgettable experience in my life.

We spent several hours at the view point. At 4 a.m. we went to basic camp and spent 2 hours in sleeping bags, watching beautiful sky, full of stars.

We got off at 6 a.m. and went down to base camp. We had breakfast and went to hot springs to relax. The big lake of salty water was so huge  and so salty that I could easily sit on the water and read newspaper. Salty water decontaminated my wounds as well. It was not nice experience. The wounds piched badly. Small hot water springs were next to salty lake. The water was hot, 50 celsius degrees but I did not feel it because the temperature outside was high as well. The baths in salty lake and hot springs were very relaxing.

The last day of the excursion was almost as fantastic as trekking to the Erte Ale. We went to the salt desert. The landscape was flat to the horizon. High concentration of salt in the ground effectively terminated any life forms. We were in the middle of nothing. Salt, sulfur, potassium and other chemical compounds had created beautiful shapes and colorful forms. How fabulous it was, you can see in the movie:

The next stop was at the bank of salty lake. We were about 100 m below sea level.  Water, or rather a salty liquid, stretches to the horizon.

The last point of the excursion was a primitive salt mine. Afar, a tribe inhabiting the salt desert, work in salt mines. They have cultivated the way of work for hundreds of years. They extract and cut square-shape salt blocks with of primitive tools, similar to machetes. Each block is the same size. The blocks is loaded on camels. One camel carries 70 -100 kg of salt. Avoiding the greatest heat, the blocks are transported to the nearest towns, where are loaded on trucks and transport all over Ethiopia.

From an economic point of view, traditional salt mining is completely unprofitable. Fortunately, the Ethiopian lawmakers have given exclusion rights to Afar people to extract and transport the salt. The transport of salt blocks is allowed only by camels. Thanks to this law traditional mining is still alive. The Ethiopian government should help Afar people to make traditional salt mining and camel transport tourist attractions.

I highly recommend trekking to the Erta Ale volcano, hot springs and Danakil depression. The above attractions must be on the a must list.

We came back to Mekele and spent the night at the Hotel Milano. Triple room with breakfast cost 650 birr. The conditions were great. We planned to spend the first night at this hotel, but the receptionist refused to rent a room. According to the hotel rules opposite sex people, not married, must sleep separately. People of the same sex must sleep separately too. Some hotel workers are very strict about the rule, the other not.

The next day we were going to the airport, a transport organized by the ETT travel agency and was included in the price of the excursion.

The Mekele airport is managed terrible. We spent 2 hours queuing to check in and security checks. There was one big mess at airport.  One Jewish tourist joked: 'At Mekele airport everybody can smaggle bomb to the airplane.' Go to the airport at least 3 hours before departure.