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Trip Report 2 Expeditions To The The Danakil Depression - My Experiences

Hi & yes, I was there twice: 6 days in January 2011 & 5 days in November 2015. Both expeditions rank amongst the most challenging and most expensive ones I have ever undertaken. But nothing, nothing will ever take away these memories: each day brought a new highlight, each minute something unseen, unique and spectacular!
So if you are looking for information on this unique place, I made a little summary of my experience, and what have changed between the 2 trips (and a lot changed!). Do not hesitate to contact me if you have any question, or to check my website, where I put more ample details and a selection of pictures:
Cheers, Gilles

A Travel Guide To The Hottest Place On Earth… But No Longer At The End Of The World!
Still “Terra Incognita” in 2010 when I decided to go there (I had actually never heard about it and could actually only find very little information about the area, both in Travel Guides like the Bradt Guide or the Lonely Planet & Online), the Danakil Depression has turned increasingly popular in the last years, and is now easier to reach than ever… and hence changing at high speed! So let me start with a very practical advice: if you ever want to go there, go NOW!
The 2 expeditions I made there (6 days in January 2011 & 5 days in November 2015) both rank amongst the most challenging and most expensive ones I have ever undertaken. But nothing, nothing will ever take away these memories: each day brought a new highlight, each minute something unseen, unique and spectacular! Nonetheless, the last trip also left a somewhat disturbing aftertaste of those places that are changing at such a high speed that they will no longer be the same in a few years…

What Is Changing So Fast?
The road infrastructure in Ethiopia has tremendously improved over the last 5 years and to my surprise, even the Danakil Depression is no exception to this development: a brand new and excellent tarred road now reaches the small Afar settlement of Ahmed Ale (the only road not built by the Chinese, but in fact by the Ethiopian Army), and another one skirts the south of the Danakil, and runs no farther than 30 kilometers from Erta Ale.
As a consequence, the whole area is now much easier and hence much cheaper to reach. The small settlements I had experienced back in January 2011 have seen new huts pop-up like mushrooms to cater for the increasing number of tourists and are hardly recognizable. Also the number of visitors has gone through the roof, as now a Mekele based agency is starting every day with several Jeeps to the Danakil, for a low-cost but completely “standardized” 4 day tour.
How Ahmed Ale will look like in 5 years, I cannot imagine…
Will the Camel Caravans still exist in 5 years? This is impossible to forecast…
Moreover, some areas near Dallol seem to have been exploited for minerals (at least I was said), and the water that was on part of this unique site has disappeared. Without those reflections of sulfure formations in the deep blue water, Dallol turned out to be a huge disappointment in November 2015…
Last but not least, Erta Ale has changed as well, but for the better: the crater has a completely new shape, enabling me to stand much nearer from the lava lake than I did 5 years ago. This was a much more breathtaking, mind-boggling experience in November 2015 than it was in January 2011, one of those moments that will stay engraved in my memories forever!

How To Get There?
No, going to the Danakil Depression is no walk on the beach… It is a challenging experience, and a very pricey one at that! Be ready for one of the toughest expeditions you have ever undertaken!
• Hostile Climate
The Danakil Depression is the hottest place on earth with a year-round average temperature of 34.4°C (94°F). No, this is no Marketing catchword! Even during the “cold season” between November and February (the only time when the Danakil is somehow reachable), temperatures averaged around 42°C (108°F) early afternoon and around 25°C (77°F) during the night. So for most of the day I had to stay in my stuffy hut: the heat was simply too intense with no shade, repeat no shade, to hide from the scorching sun. Again, this was the coldest season! In the hotter months, 67°C (153°F) are not uncommon.
• Safety Issue
Besides the hostile climate, safety remains a concern. The Danakil was pretty much of a “No Go Zone” until 2009. Skirmishes with Eritrean armed forces along the border were common up to the year 2005 and even after the cease-fire tourists were kidnapped. In 2007 it was five Britons. Even more dangerous were the landmines that killed several drivers in 2009. In 2011, five Austrian & German tourists were shot in an attack at the foot of Erta Ale…
Nevertheless, in 2012, the Ethiopian Army set up a camp not only in Ahmed Ale but also in Erta Ale, and no major incident have been reported ever since.
• Costs
Yes, it is extremely expensive to travel to and in the Danakil Depression. There is no other way than using the services of a reliable agency (choose carefully), who must provide not only one, but also a back-up jeep, a scout, an armed Afar police man, a cook, all necessary paperwork, food and every drop of water every single person in the group needs in those 4 to 6 days. Plus of course the many presents for the local Afar chiefs, who issue the proper permits for each area and also organize more scouts and rangers!
This entourage does not come cheaply. Our group of four dished out the considerable sum of 950 Euros each for a 6-day tour with Pangeans Safari in January 2011, and even 1.150 Euros for a group of 3 in November 2015. It was worth every single Birr, though!
• Choosing The Right Agency
Basically, you have two approaches of the Danakil Depression, depending on your priorities and your budget…
I went twice with Pangeans Safari and highly trust Christos & Liza, the owners (more reasons why on my website, I am note here to advertise anyone)
If you are on a tight budget and accept to be in a larger group (they were 7 jeeps and approx. 25 people in November 2015 when I was there, in the low(er) season), then Ethiopian Travel & Tours offers 4 day tours for 600 USD. Note that I haven’t tried their service…
• What would I do differently?
Start early the climb to the top of Erta Ale - ideally at around 15:00. Yes, this will create a major argument with Afar guides! True, at that time it will be hot, and there is no shade to hide from the scorching sun! But reaching the crater at the “Blue Hours” (when the sun is setting) is your only opportunity to take really good pictures: at night, the contrast between darkness and lava is far too high, and having clear & focused pictures is close to impossible…
Skip Lake Afdera - There is no reason going there…
When in Ahmed Ale, immediately inquire when the Salt Caravans are coming back from the Salt Mines. It is a unique show, but one you can easily miss (I did on the second trip)…
Insist with Christos & Liza from Pangeans Safari that they come along on the tour to the Danakil. It was the case in January 2011 but not in November 2015, and that made a difference!

6 Reasons To Visit The Danakil Depression!
Check my website:

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