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Africa Ethiopia

Camping at the Danakil Depression

After a week in Eritrea and Djibouti, Lucy and I headed to Ethiopia! We had figured since all our flights went through Addis Ababa, we might as well use that as a launch point to see a little of Ethiopia before we returned to our respective countries. We had about a half a day in the city before we returned to the airport for a domestic flight out to the Afar region.

Our first stop was the National Museum, which houses the famous skeleton Lucy! We made a lot of jokes about Lucy needing to go see her bones, but it was super cool to see such a significant piece of human history. Ethiopia’s history as the cradle of civilization makes it such an interesting visit.

From there, we took a walk through the city. First impressions: Addis Ababa felt very cosmopolitan in some areas, especially compared to the frozen-in-time experience of Eritrea and the chaotic Djibouti City. There were plenty of skyscrapers and beautiful parks. We saw advertisements indicating that Addis was hosting some sort of event for the African Union. But we also found ourselves walking through some fairly poor areas, and it’s the first city I’ve ever been where multiple locals stopped us to tell us to put our phones away and not hold anything valuable in our hands. That was a strange experience.

The next morning, we boarded our flight to Semera. This is where we were joining our Danakil Depression tour! We had seen part of the continental rift in Djibouti, but the majority of it lies within Ethiopia. It is at the divergence of three continental plates, which makes for some spectacular landscapes. We had booked a three day tour, which would take us to some extremely remote corners in the Afar region.

Nothing really prepared me for when we got off the airplane. We walked out of the Semera airport, which is tiny, and we had figured we would see signs from tour companies as they picked up their clients. Instead, we walked out to UN cars. As it turns out, there are some refugee camps in the Afar region and a number of programs providing international aid, like the UN and the World Food Programme, but it was a little jarring to find that when we were showing up as tourists. We did end up finding our tour company, though!

Our first day was a long one. We headed through volcanic landscapes and made our way toward Erta Ale, which is Ethiopia’s most active volcano. We got there as the sun was starting to set and began a hike up to go see the volcano, which was a little treacherous because so much of the lava flow was brand new.

Fun fact, new lava flow feels a bit like stepping on a macaron, with a delicate crunch that makes you worry it might crumble underneath you. Also, this is where the Ethiopian calendar came up during the trip – I asked when the most recent lava flow had occurred, and they told me a date in 2016. I said that was surprising, because it seemed a lot fresher than that, and the guides laughed and said that was three weeks ago. Once we got near the volcano, I could feel the warmth of the Earth beneath my feet, hot enough that it started to get uncomfortable after a while.

This was the first night I’d ever spent camping under the stars! Which, the stars were pretty spectacular. The camping was a little rough because it was incredibly windy where we were, so it wasn’t the best sleep I’ve ever gotten. Still, windy conditions are temporary, and standing next to an active volcano is something I will remember for the rest of my life, so absolutely worth it. We headed out for our next day of driving. The landscape changed from volcanic to an area that looked more like the savannah, where the guides said we might see an ostrich if we were lucky. We didn’t, but we did see the cool bird pictured above that a friend of mine later identified as an Arabian Bustard.

From there, the landscape changed again, and we ended up in one of the most hostile yet gorgeous landscapes I’ve ever seen. The highlight of any Danakil Depression tour is Dallol, which is a hydrothermal system that’s part of this particular continental rift. It smells strongly of sulphur, so most of us brought masks to cut the scent a bit. Everything I was wearing went in the wash so fast after this tour.

It didn’t seem possible that the Earth could produce such color. The closest thing I’ve ever seen is Yellowstone, and even then, they aren’t quite as vibrant as the ones in Dallol. One of the other strange things is being able to walk so close to the geothermal formations – it certainly couldn’t handle the level of tourism as Yellowstone gets, but it was pretty amazing to be able to see everything up close without boardwalks or anything being roped off.

After we had spent our time at Dallol, we headed out to a few other saltwater lakes, salt flats, and salt pillars. As the sun began to set, we started to see these huge trucks transporting workers across the salt flats. We had a chance to meet some of them and learn more about their work, which was breaking up sections of the salt flats to harvest the salt. It sounds like a very difficult job. They’re dropped off at sunset and they work through the night, then the trucks pick them up at dawn. Working during the day would be too hot.

After one more night in the desert, we drove back across the Afar region to the airport and headed back to Addis for a late afternoon flight! I have the utmost respect for anyone who is living out in this region of Ethiopia – between the hostile environment and the lack of access to goods and services, I think it would be a very difficult place to live. After a few days, I was happy to head back to the city for a hot shower, plentiful electrical outlets, and running water, but for the people out there, even getting access to food and safe water can be a huge challenge. I’m very grateful for my chance to visit such a remote and largely unexplored region, and I had an incredible experience.