How did the Danakil Depression Form?

The Danakil Depression formed from the continental drift of the African and Asian tectonic plates. As the plates drifted apart at a rate of 1-2 cm per year, they leave behind a geological depression, known as the Danakil Depression (or Afar Depression). 

The Danakil Depression sits at the triple junction between three tectonic plates. 

The Afar Depression spans Djibouti, Eritrea, and the Afar region of Ethiopia. The Northern part of this depression is the Danakil Depression, which sits more than 100m below sea level and contains some of the world’s most extraterrestrial landscapes. 

Beyond its fascinating geology, the Danakil holds the keys to some of biology’s most profound questions. In 1974, researchers found the remains of ‘Lucy’ in the Danakil Depression, an early ancestor of modern humans dating back 3.2 million years (now on display at the National Museum in Addis Ababa). The acidic springs of the Dallol Crater have attracted scientists in the search for extremophile microbes as they seek to understand the origins of life on Earth, as well as the possibilities for early-stage life on Mars

Where is the Danakil Depression?

Where is the Danakil Depression?

The Danakil Depression is in the Afar region of northern Ethiopia. The depression extends into Djibouti and Eritrea, but the salt lakes, volcanoes, and geological structures are found primarily in Ethiopia. 

Danakil Depression Geology

The Danakil Depression is home to some of the most fascinating geological structures on the planet. The Danakil is a new ocean basin, meaning millions of years in the future, the Danakil will be submerged in water as the continents are pulled far enough apart such that the Red Sea spills over into the rift, forming a new ocean that splits the African continent in two. 

For now, the depression is a showcase of incredible geology that looks more Martian than terrestrial. For tourists, the main attractions are the active volcano Erta Ale, the kaleidoscopic landscape of the Dallol Crater, the contrasting salt lakes Karum and Afdera, and the sprawling salt pans whereupon local Afar people toil under the sun to export salt back to Mekele on the backs of hundreds of camels that form the famous camel caravans that wind through the desert.

The salt lakes of the Danakil represent the resting place of the Awash River, which flows upwards from the Northern Highlands into the Danakil, where it evaporates under the heat to form salt pans. The two saline lakes, Lake Afrera and Lake Karum, remain liquid as they are fed by surrounding hot springs. 

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Places to Visit

Erta Ale

Erta Ale (meaning ‘Smoking Mountain’ in the Afar language) is Ethiopia’s most active volcano and contains one of just six active lava lakes on Earth. Sitting in the Danakil Depression under 40°C (104°F) heat, it’s as unforgiving as it is visually staggering. 

Danakil Depression

Liquid lava pierces the charcoal crust of Erta Ale.

Dallol

Characterized by bright, multi-coloured springs, fissures, and geysers, and with average annual temperatures of 35°C (95°F), Dallol is one of the most visually compelling and geologically fascinating destinations on Earth. 

Salt Lakes

Lake Karum (aka Lake Asale) and Lake Afrera (aka Lake Afdera) are the two hypersaline lakes in the Danakil Depression. Both are visited on most tours of the Danakil, with Lake Karum being one of the most visually striking lakes anywhere on Earth.   

Is the Danakil Depression the hottest place on Earth?

The Danakil Depression is the hottest place on Earth, as measured by average annual temperatures. 

It’s also one of the lowest land destinations on Earth, at over 100m below sea level. Average temperatures sit between 35°C and 40°C annually, and the region sees no more than 100-200mm of rainfall each year, all of which evaporates immediately under the extreme heat. 

Danakil Depression

Sprawling salt flats in the Danakil Depression.

Why is the Danakil Depression so hot?

The Danakil Depression is so hot because of its low elevation, the fact that it is part of the wider Danakil desert region, and that it experiences little seasonal cooling due to its equatorial position. 

The Danakil is also close to the Red Sea, a warm sea that does not provide cooling during winters. 

Danakil Depression

Visiting the salt flats on day 2 of the Danakil expedition.

When to Visit the Danakil Depression

The best time to visit the Danakil Depression is from September to May. These months see more modest daytime temperatures of 35-40°C (95-104°F), and there are group tours departing regularly from Mekele which brings the cost of the excursion right down. 

The extreme climate of the Danakil makes it unsuitable for year-round travel. The months June-August see the cruellest of the heat, with temperatures soaring well above 40°C (104°F). While it is still possible to visit the Danakil during these months, these will typically be private tours as opposed to the usual group tours departing from Mekele, so the excursion will be more expensive than usual. The extreme heat during these months can make the experience more arduous than enjoyable for some travellers. 

Check out our when to go to Ethiopia page to learn more about the best time to visit different regions of the country. 

Danakil Depression

People

Despite a seemingly inhospitable environment, the Danakil is the home for nearly two million Afar people across Ethiopia, Djibouti and Eritrea. The salt pans provide the principal export of the Danakil, but the Afar people are traditionally pastoralists relying on goats, camels and cattle for subsistence living.

The Afar people have long had a fearsome reputation, and with tourist numbers to the Danakil ever-increasing, they remain the gatekeepers of the region charging hefty fees for entrance. Experienced local guides are essential for travel in the Danakil. 

Danakil Depression

Loading salt blocks onto the camels in the Danakil Depression.

Is the Danakil Depression Safe?

Safety in the Danakil Depression has been a concern in the past, but nowadays the Danakil Depression is a safe region to visit.

The Afar region and the Ethiopian-Eritrean border has been fraught with tensions over the years, with tribal violence between Afar people not uncommon. Relationships have drastically improved of late and all excursions to the Danakil come accompanied by armed scouts. There is now a permanent military outpost on the rim of Erta Ale to provide additional protection to tourists. Whilst tourists have been victims of violence in the region in the past, the contemporary threat is low, although it is a more risky than other areas of Ethiopia. 

The volcanic activity at the Danakil Depression means robust footwear is essential as much of the region is covered in razor-sharp lava.

Danakil Depression

Silhouette of the police escorts at Erta Ale.

At Erta Ale

The smoke from Erta Ale is thick and unforgiving, and all visitors peering over the crater edge do so wrapped protectively in a make-shift masks to prevent excessive smoke inhalation. Those who are asthmatic, or particularly sensitive to smoke, should bring inhalers and be vigilant of spending too much time at the crater. 

The hike up Erta Ale should not be underestimated. Whilst the ascent follows a modest gradient, the length of the hike (3-4 hours) coupled with the intense climate can make for a somewhat challenging trek.

At Dallol

Dallol is an extremely dynamic region with new springs and salt mounds created on a daily basis from the perpetual hydrothermal activity below the volcano. A by-product of the beauty created by this process is an unstable flooring that must be expertly navigated by local guides who visit the region every week. The salt deposits in some areas may only be a few inches thick and below these sits hot, supersaturated acidic springs. Robust footwear is essential, and you must follow the guidance of the local guides. 

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Brilliant says

The extreme heat of the Danakil coupled with its remoteness has led to a significant plastic pollution problem across the region. An eye-soar and an environmental malady, it’s an ever-worsening problem. Respect the region and keep all plastic bottles in the vehicles to be disposed with back in the town of Mekele. 

Places to Stay

Accommodation in the Danakil is as basic as it gets. Once you leave Mekele, you’re heading for one of the most remote and inhospitable environments on the planet, where 5* (or even 2*) hotels are a fantasy. It’s rough and ready, and that’s all part of the fun. Depending on your interests and wider travel plans, you’ll be spending 1-3 nights in the Danakil, with a 2 night stay being the most common. 

Danakil Depression

Getting there

The remoteness of the Danakil Depression meant it remained largely unvisited by tourists until very recently. The construction of an improved access network combined with a number of high-profile documentaries about the region saw visitor numbers increase to the thousands annually, and today the Danakil is one of Ethiopia’s most popular tourist destinations. 

The main access point to the Danakil is via the Tigrayan town of Mekele. Whilst it’s possible to access the Danakil via the Afar town of Semera, the majority of trips will start and end in Mekele as this town links up nicely with typical Northern circuits. Thanks to Ethiopia’s reliable and well-connected domestic flight network, it’s easy to connect to Mekele via air from either Addis or any of the Northern towns of Gondar, Lalibela, Axum, or Bahir Dar.

If direct flights aren’t available, or if you’re coming from the South, you can connect to Mekele via domestic flight through Addis. If you find yourself in the Tigray region exploring the rock-churches, or community trekking, Mekele is just a short drive from the lodges in that area.

At Mekele, you’ll meet your group and pile into the Toyota Landcruisers that will carry you into the Danakil Depression. It’s a 3-4 hour drive from Mekele to the Danakil that begins on asphalt and ends on lava. After your excursion, you’ll return to Mekele where you can either connect with an evening flight to continue your journey, or rest up and stay overnight at Mekele before continuing your travels the following day. 

If you're coming up from the Bale Mountains or the Omo Valley in the south of Ethiopia, you will need to connect to Mekele via a domestic flight through Addis Ababa

Top Trips to the Danakil

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Danakil Depression Tours

Danakil Depression Tours

The Danakil Depression is one of the wildest destinations in Africa. A searing hot, brutal desert landscape dotted with stunning geological formations, lakes, acid springs, …

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