Taste of Courage in Danakil Depression Ethiopia


27 -29th April 2014: Ethiopian Danakil Depression
“Courage is found in unlikely places.” – J.R.R. Tolkien

Ethiopian Danakil Depression – the most challenging place that I have visited so far.

This place challenged the tough me to the core. Not a usual kind of place for your vacation gateway … indeed, this is the place where you go for self-discovery… nope! I am not being sarcastic.  This place is where you will see the TRUE you at your most physically difficult and challenging situation … at least for me. I survived 3 days 2 night stay in this ‘hot sauna heaven’ with an understanding that … anything that doesn’t kill me will make me stronger.

Warning: This is going to be a very long post. Reason being … this post is a ‘keeper’ in my personal digital journal

Entering Danakil Depression from Semera, capital of Afar state
27 – 29th April, 2014: Entering Danakil Depression from Semera, capital of Afar state

Danakil Depression is located at the Northeastern part of Ethiopia. Listed as the hottest and the lowest place on earth (nearly 120m below sea level). This place is used to be part of the sea bed of the Red Sea . And because of its geographical complexity, this place is rich with salt and mineral deposits. If you are into science and nature phenomenal, Ethiopian Danakil Depression is just the place for you. Salt canyons, salt lakes, hot springs, acid lakes, colorful sulfur acid mixed landscape, active volcanoes with bubbly basaltic lava and many more geological fascinating sights that could blow your mind.

Harsh and unforgiving brutal landscape indeed. When I was there, it felt like I was not on our earth …  the gruesome heat was unbearable and my mind went totally disoriented, I was confused on my whereabouts … was I in planet Mars or was I at the gate of hell.

Children playing soccer under the heat. Estimated temperature was around 34 degree
Semera, Ethiopia: Children playing soccer under the heat. Estimated temperature at this time was around 34-38 degree

We were there at the end of its summer season, talking about being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Just imagine … the average temperature during daytime is around 35 degree and during summer it soars as high as 40s and low 50s. In summary … I was looking for trouble when I signed up for this daredevil trip. The downside of being a follower … oh well.

The curious cat got a ‘lesson learned’ experience here .. after all, they said ‘a cat has nine lives’ … alhamdullilah.

We were heading towards the extremely salty Lake Alfera.
We were heading towards the extremely salty Lake Alfera
Lake Alfera, 120m below sea level. The temperature at this time was at 49 degree
Salt Lake Alfera, 120m below sea level. The temperature at this time was at 49 degree

We entered Danakil Depression from Semera, the capital city of Afar state and exited through Mekelle.

Danakil is the homeland of the Afar people … famously known for being proud and independent warrior like character. They are predominately Muslim. These people are the unbelievable great survivor as they could survive the harsh and extreme living environment that surrounded them. There are lots of documented stories about these nomadic, courageous and unpredictable heroes of Afar that you can read over the web.

A typical look of an Afar man with his sword
A typical look of an Afar man with his sword

The killing part about this place is its extreme heat combined with its high humidity air. I had experience dry and hot season before in Saudi Arabia … but with low humidity. Here in Danakil Depression, the heat made breathing difficult … I choked from the dust, the heated wind (it felt like being blown by a hair dryer at full heat … on your face)  and my own heavy sweat.

Gobbling on warm drinking water did not help at all. Too much of plain water made my stomach nauseatic. Isotonic drinks or water added with a packed oral rehydration salts would be a great help during a humid extreme hot day … at least for a start until your body get fully adjusted to its surrounding environment. Science vs logic rant … hmmmm

Crossing the hot desert with our 4WDs heading to Mt Erta’ Ale Basecamp
The challenging and piping hot route to Mt Erta’ Ale. I was in car no. 2 ( three 4WDs team) and I  shoot this using my 70-200mm f/4 from a very bumpy ride
Our tough and reliable transportation
Our tough and reliable 4WDs
A parking spot at nowhere while waiting for jeep no.3. Noticed the landscape? it is just totally bald and empty
A parking spot at nowhere while waiting for car no.3. Noticed the landscape? it is  totally bald and empty
Don’t be blinded by our smile. The heat was unbearable here … I was wearing my sandal but the ground was so hot, I can’t even put my feet down on the ground. Wow … looking back at this picture, make me miss my moment with both Tameru (orange shirt) and Barakat (red shirt)
Jeep no. 3 and the bald landscape
Car no. 3 and the bald landscape
Erta Ale based camp. This where we hide for the sun and the heat until the temperature dropped before we start our 3 hours trek to Erta Ale volcano
Mt Erta’ Ale Basecamp … and that is my shadow 😉

We were heading to Mt Erta’ Ale, known by the Afar people as the “smoking mountain” and the “gateway to hell”.  A continuously active basaltic lava with two lava lakes. Sitting at 600m from below sea level … this place is not for a faint heart. We planned to stay overnight near the crater, shoot milky-way, enjoy sunrise at the crater overseeing the active bubbly lava as our background, head down right after dawn and reached Basecamp before the sun start to release its intense heat.

Our local guard/ ranger with his AK-47
Our local guard/ ranger with his AK-47 guarding us at Erta’ Ale lava crater
Erta Ale Volcano: Ethiopia:
Erta’ Ale lava crater at dawn

It takes 3 ‘normal trekking’ hours to reach Mt Erta’ Ale from Basecamp. And with the extreme heat, we could only start hiking when the sun is down. Everything went wrong that night though … we took 6 hours to reach the crater, we were lost in the middle of nowhere … in the dark desert and we were out of drinking water too. 

hate all sort of trekking or hiking activities … so much that I avoid any Nepal trip … and I never trek at night too. I thought that this one would be as easy as hiking up Mt Bromo in Indonesia …well, I was totally wrong and I was not prepared for this. There were a lot more things happened that night but I am still not comfortable talking about it … lol … life is already interesting as it is and a few breakdowns here and there will never break my spirit.

I am sharing my lesson learned moment here with all of you, so next time when you plan to visit here … you will be well equipped:

  • Avoid summer season, the heat is intense beyond normal
  • Be mentally prepared that you will be trekking (15km) up at night with the heat (35-40 degree) and camel riding is not advisable due to the rugged volcanic terrain landscape
  • Wear proper trekking shoes with socks on and no sandal at all (including trekking sandal) as the landscape here is nearly 100% badlands terrain of volcanic rocks.
  • Carry 2 liters of water as the heat is really extreme
  • Bring along extra packed Oral Rehydration Salt as you will be losing a lot of mineral while sweating and drinking 2 liters of mineral water in 3-6 hours could not help to replenish back our mineral lost.
  • If you have chronic gastric, especially GERD …  bring your medication along. As the heat and extreme tiredness will trigger your GERD.
  • Bring extra energy bars to boast your energy especially on your way down from the crater to Basecamp as you will be racing against time to avoid the escalating heat.
  • Bring your mirrorless camera instead of your heavy DSLR (unless if somebody else is willing to carry your DSLR) and I think super wide lens (16-35mm or 12-24mm) should be good enough ( maybe fish-eye lens would be good too). Don’t bring your whole lens collection as you are racing against time here.

We reached Mt Erta’ Ale at 12:45 am (started at 7pm) … nearly half dead. My mind was so disoriented and it went totally blank … and my focus naturally switched from photo mode to survivor mode. No milky-way or gorgeous sunrise shoot for me as everything that I shoot there were merely just some record shoots, nothing to shout about.

But wow … looking at the fiery red light coming out from the crater for the first time was a very memorable moment for me … out of this world experience, it felt like I was in the movie set of the Lord of the Rings trilogy … lol.

Yeah … witnessing and listening to the bubbling sound of basaltic magma straight from its crater is way cooler than watching it on TV. Smelling the hot stingy sulfur straight from its burning pot is way interesting than hearing the story from some strangers on youtube … lol.

At 6:00 am: Out of this world kind of experience … walking inside a live and fragile volcano crater to get close to the lava crack. I was totally driven by my curiosity and not so much by my courage
Seeing the bubbling lava straight from the crater is way cooler than watching it on TV … lol. The sulfur glaring smell and the sudden stingy heat on my eyes and face made this trip worth all the pain that I had been through to get here
Most of my shoots up here are either blurred or pointless as my brain was totally frozen
Most of my shoots up here are either blurred or pointless as my brain was totally frozen … he he he maybe a repeat next time huh?

This is the craziest thing that I have ever done … so far (other than staring 30cm eye to eye with wild hyena … lol). All this introvert, impulsive,  blurriness, ‘lost in transition’ and my easy ‘tidak apa’ (careless) attitude that I have could lead me either towards a new life experience or a life disaster tragedy for me … 😉 . I learned my lesson well … I am just glad that I survived well too.

I have the habit of keeping everything bottled up inside me and I refused to complain or put the blame on others for whatever misfortune that I had experienced. I do open up a little bit for a few selective souls … but nowadays … I prefer to just lay low … as the only person that you can really trust is maybe just yourself <— lol, a bit sidetrack here 😉

Dalol Ghost Town
Dallol Ghost Town: 1 night stay at  ‘hotel’ felt like forever … lol.

Our journey continues as we drove out from Mt Erta’ Ale Basecamp heading to Dallol, the famous ghost town in Danakil Depression. We spent one night at the ‘million stars’, minimalist and zen Dallol hotel lol.  It was windy that night 😉 … the hot wind (around 40 degrees) kept on blowing dust straight to my face. I woke up every hour either to gobble in more water or to splash more water onto my face and head … it sure felt like a long lonely night for me.

Lake Asele: The salt lake or  salt canyon is 100 meter below sea level. Salt mining activity here is controlled by the Afar people.
Lake Asele: This salt lake or salt canyon  is 100 meter below sea level. Ancient salt mining method is still being used today by the Afar to retrieve the salt here.
The salt miner has to work for 10 months in a year. The temperature here is easily around 35-53 degree.
An Afar salt miner at work: They have to work for 10 months in a year under the intense sun. The temperature here is easily around 35-53 degree. Just unbelievable …
This is how the salt flats/blocks looked like. Each camel can carry around 30 salt tiles and walk up to 25km a day. The salt tile is transported to Berahile (75km away from Dallol)
Colorful sulfur hot spring:  A fascinating alien like land of colors … bubbling sulfur acids pools with a strong stinky smell. Out of this world view ….
I have a lot more photos of Dallol Sulfur land and I will upload it all to my Zenfolio photo profile
Printing my mark on my sneaker. I have lot more photos of the colorful land of sulfur acids in my  Zenfolio photo profile … if you are curious to see more lah
High acid content lake … don’t be fooled by the tranquil look of the water
Checking out from our 'hotel'  in Dallol
Check-out time from our ‘hotel’ in Dallol
A group photo of us ... the Danakil Depression survivors. A truly depressing experience ... lol
A group photo of us … the Danakil Depression survivors. A truly depressing experience … lol

It was a great relieved when we were finally driving out of Danakil Depression. And, when we reached our hotel in Mekelle … I had the best shower in my whole entire life (3 days 2 night without proper shower he he he) … my bed felt like the best bed in the world and the hotel air-condition felt like the luxurious thing that life could offer me … lol.

Daniel and me
Daniel and me jumping in the middle of the road heading to Lake Alfera at 42 degree

This is a picture of me and my local guide aka host aka friend Daniel Million. I was with him and his team during both of my visits to Ethiopia. A very experienced guide and a well verse ornithologist with an angel heart. I highly recommend him as your guide if you decide to visit Ethiopia. You can contact him via his email or Facebook account at danielhummingbird@gmail.com or you can check out his website Traverse Ethiopia Tours.

Uhh … I am signing off now. Sharing another quote here as a reminder to myself … 🙂

 “Why tiptoe through life, to arrive safely at death? If you’re gonna be afraid to live, what’s the point?”




p/s Wish me luck … 😉


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Be yourself - everyone else is already taken! - Oscar Wilde

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