Ethiopia, Tour to the "Gateway to Hell"


Why go to an area that, for years, is labeled as unsafe? Why would you go to an area that has the highest annual average temperature on earth, is scorched by the sun has temperatures that vary throughout the year from 35 to 50 degrees.? There is perhaps no place on earth where living conditions are as difficult as in the Danakil Depression, Ethiopia.

Why still go? The Danakil Depression is home to one of the most spectacular volcanic landscapes in the world as well as an active lava lake, one of the only four permanent lava lakes on Earth. It lies in the east African rift zone, at the point where three, moving tectonic plates meet, where they have created the Danakil. It is, besides Iceland, the only place where a rift zone can be seen on land.

To the north

The Danakil Depression can be reached from Addis Ababa in about 5 days. For a few days, we need followed the road to Djibouti to get there. However, this was an interesting route because, we drove parallel to the rift through beautiful landscapes,  several volcanoes and a crater lake, Bishoftu in Debre Zeyt. Here, we even followed  the only highway in Ethiopia. Further to the southeast, near Adama, the highway  stopped and turned into a pretty good two-lane road heading north.

In Awash, near the old train station, we arrived at our accommodation. A nice little hotel where the rooms are located in a garden. Mosquito nets were provided and that was also necessary. After all, we are in malaria area, and there were plenty of mosquitoes at night.

A visit to the Awash national park should not be missed. In a few hours we saw  different species; gazelle, baboons, swines and even lion tracks.  A gnawed skull of a gazelle told us that he had been attacked by a lion recently. We lunched  in a lodge with fantastic views over the Awash River gorge. Here, the river plunges down through a series of beautiful waterfalls.

Now, we also entered the Afar region. The Afar are a minority group in Ethiopia, are predominantly nomadic but are a proud people. They are the rulers of the Danakil desert and neighbouring areas. We also visited a village where we witnessed first-hand Afar daily life. Their homes are a kind of igloos made of branches with a small low entrance on the short side. After this, we drove to our lodge to spend the night. It was located far from civilization so this resulted in a very beautiful starry night.


The next day we drove to Assailta. In Milen, which we passed in the afternoon, it was very busy. Somali paople everywhere, selling their stuff on the black market. Big truckswere waiting along the road. It turned out to be the center of from Somalia because here the road from Somalia intersected the main road to Addis Abeba. In the evening, we reached Assailta where we paid a short visit to lake Afambo.

Like everywhere, we had to be negotiate with the local police for access to the lake and guidance. That always was a time consuming and sometimes frustrating activity; prices are increasing every year. Moreover, much of this money disappears into the pockets of the police officer in service..

We slept in a real African hotel with rooms located around a courtyard and a shared shower and toilet. The rooms were very basic (concrete floor, etc.) and no mosquito net was provided so we had to use our own. Some of us chose to sleep on the roof with a nice view over the Awash.

The Danakil Depression

After breakfast, the Danakil expedition started for real. From the main road we left north into the Danakil depression. The basaltic landscape was very spectacular and remote. At one point we stopped here because we saw a field littered with obsidian (volcanic glass). We drank coffee in a local "roadhouse". A building, constructed from wood and branches served as a cafe and restaurant.

Shortly after noon we arrived in Afdera, a salt mine town on the banks of the homonymous salt lake. Here we met our cheerful guide Kiros, who would accompany us in the Danakil and also would lead the many difficult negotiations with local Afar Chief Kalisa, the other Afar and the military. Also a cooking team was joining us and the last supplies were acquired. After lunch we went to the campsite where the tents were quickly put up. After this it was time for relaxation: swimming in the salt lake and then relax in a hot spring, located next to the camping ground, with temperatures of around 38 degrees.


The last few days it was also became significantly warmer because we were getting to lower altitude. It was now 37 degrees (compared to 25 in Addis Ababa).

The Erta Ale

The next morning, the real adventure begins. Just outside Afdera we left the paved road into a hostile  wasteland. A local guide, a police officer and a militia were assigned to us as our security detail. Unfortunately the guide’s knowledge of the desert stranded us already after a short drive into a sandstorm, we were lost already! After some time we drove on and happily for us, we found our way again,  just outside the village Kusra wad. This Afar village consisted of a series of wooden huts  and a collapsed hospital which was built by an NGO who forgot to educate the staff as well. Again, negotiations were necessary with the  aforementioned Chief Kalisa on our security detail onto the Erta Ale: should it be: one or two police, one or two additional soldiers, an extra guide? Obviously the chief wanted as much guards as possible because that would mean money for him.

After lunch, the tour continued to Durubu, where the climb to the Erta Ale begins. The first part was a dirt road which we took by our 4WD but after about 1.5 hours we reached base camp. Here,  we had time to transfer our luggage and took what we need for the next few days. That luggage, the food and lots of water was then loaded onto the camels. Meanwhile, more cars arrived. So this evening it would become quite busy on the summit. There was also a camel along as 'sweeper'. Youssof, the owner of the camel took good care of the animal. He was a very kind man , always helping anybody with the climb. Also, all those two days, he practiced his 4 words of English vocabulary by constantly repeating these words “Erta Ale, Ok, Finish, Good, Finish, Finish!”, this, being the running gag during the Danakil journey.

Just before sunset we started our 3 hour ascent to the summit. Technically, it was an easy climb. The path was good and it ascended only gradually to the summit which lies about 500m higher than basecamp. However, the heat and, as it turned out, lack of water made this hike quite exhausting!  Shortly after eight in the evening, we reached camp. The camp was a collection of a few huts built from basalt blocks and branches and a lot of walled open spaces. Since we wer the first to arrive, we were lucke to be able to occupy the sheltered  huts.

Gateway to Hell

Meanwhile, our eyes were already drown towards the south pit of the Erta Ale complex. A orange-yellow glow rose from the crater, sometimes accompanied by lava fountains.  Some of them splashed ofer the crater rim. This caused the military to prevent people from going to the crater. Later it was opened again. I decided t to watch the spectacle from the camp. There was also plenty to see from this distance.


After a short night’s rest, we finally went to the active crater during the (very) early morning twilight. Kiros, our guide, only had a short rest this night. He took us to the crater, first descending the steep caldera rim, then a 5-10 minutes’ walk to the crater. The last part, since the lake had been overflown only 10 days earlier (ont jan. 15 till jan. 27), we had to cross the fresh lava of that event. It felt like walking over ice. You could hear the rock cracking because, below a thin shelf of solid rock, holes exists where the once fluid lave flows were gone. The basalt was quite hot so we all got warm feet. We even sometimes fell through. Luckily for us, the holes only were like 10-20 cm deep. The basalt however was quite hot but on our left, the lake emerged in sight in its full glory!

It was an inferno, breathing and blowing. The heat surrounded  us. We approach the crater rim up to about 3.5 metres. To come closer to the rim was not possible because of the many cracks and the scorching heat. The lava lake was restless, everywhere, small fountains were visible and the lava looked like it was boiling  and bubbling. Sometimes our eyes got irritated from the sulphur gases that released from the lake. The lava lake stood around  3.5 – 5 metres under the rim so it’s level was quite high. At the opposite rim, an active area, which regularly sprayed fountains upto 10 m high which was visible. It was sometimes spilling lave over the rim. Lucky for us, we were not in that side. All this happened  under a roaring sound slightly reminiscent of the sound you would hear on sea but much heavier and sometimes slightly banging.

The sun was slowly rising behind the crater rim. The sun’s image being completely distorted by the hot turbulent air, heat, radiating from the 1300 degrees hot lava. No wonder the Afar call this place "Gateway to Hell.". This amazing and super-marvellous sight, kept us all in deep silence, out of respect being so close to the primal force of the earth! Anf because of the fountains which could also spill over the rim on our side, the heat and the gasses, the place, we stood, was certainly not without danger.


Just before breakfast, we returned to the camp. Completely dazed by this experience. Fortunately, the rest of the day and the following night, the place was ours since the other groups already left before sunrise and no other groups would arrive. So we had plenty of time to explore the area.


During the morning we explored the caldera. The Erta Ale consists of a large caldera containing two craters. The active south crater and the large north crater that very occasionally has Strombolian eruptions but remained quiet during our stay. The area around it was black from basalt lava which had flowed from both craters during the  last centuries. The area looked like Morder from The Lord of the Rings, only missing the orcs.

Off coarse I was asked to give some geological information to the group, to tell them what we actually were looking at and why the Erta Ale is as it is. Following the caldera rim, we walked towards the north crater while enjoying an increasingly strong rotten egg smell (H2S gas). There were also (yellow) sulfur deposits and crevices along the caldera rim where gas and water vapor escaped. The scenery was stunning (only exposed to anyone who visits the crater for more than one night!). Following an ancient lava flow we walked into the caldera. Everywhere, there were pillow lava 's and also "Pelee’s hair could be found here. These are thin glass threads created by dripping molten lava.


We approached the south crater again, now along the other side, walking over the rim of the second crater, which was also was completely flooded with fresh lava. It was not possible to walk on that crater since that lave was still very hot.  Sometimes, it even flowed over the edge of the crater. After a while, we rounded the south crater from the opposite side to end on the exact location where we stood in the morning. For some of us this was the first time visiting the crater. After that we walked back to the camp for lunch and a well-deserved siesta.

In the evening we walked to a high point near the camp where there was a beautiful view over the caldera. Here we could see very clearly where the lava from two weeks ago had been flown from the crater. Clear black basalts denoted the recent lava. After this we went back to the south pit itself where we, again, enjoyed the view until it was almost dark.

At the same time the army commander  (Maja the bumble bee, we named him  because of his black and yellow striped T-shirt) began to press us to go down already that evening. This was obviously not what was agreed! Well, this is Ethiopia so expect the unexpected. Obviously we were not going to leave and besides, he'll probably was not able to force us not but it was exciting for a short time. Luckily our guide managed to convince him to back off,  a portable phone charger as a bribe did the rest.

That night we enjoyed the spectacular view for a long time after our delicious meal, a cake was specially baked to celebrate the birthday of one of us. Around 22h, everybody was asleep, probably dreaming of all excitement we experienced this day!.

Back to base camp

The next morning, just after sunrise, we were set to go down again. It was time to leave this amazing place. In about three hours we walked back to base camp where a delicious breakfast was waiting for us. After transferring all our luggage , the four 4X4 SUV’s again drove the bumpy road from the volcano towards Kusra wad. There, out guide had to get into negotiations with chief Kalisa again to get us another desert guide, someone who would not get us lost within the hour!  Otherwise we viz. A 7-8 hour-long detour would be our fate. It took some effort but very quickly, we were on our way again, with a new desert guide.

After three hours of bumping , we looked for a place to lunch. We found one under some palm trees in a small oases. Since we were completely shaken, lunch tasted very good. After lunch, another 1.5 hours drive was needed until we arrived at Ahmed Ela. Fortunately, this last piece went quite fast.  We arrived at Ahmed Ela at the end of the afternoon. It seemed like we had reached the end of the world. The road suddenly stopped just beyond a few dozen huts we stopped at a cluster of huts, which was called a hotel. Close to it, there was a military camp and that also happened the only place in the Danakil where we could get some beer!

In the huts, there was room for six persons, so we rented to huts and split the group in two. The beds were made of wood and leather. It was certainly a bit more comfortable than on the volcano. Moreover, a chemical toilet was arranged as well as a little cabin with a bucket of water for washing.

Most alien landscape on Earth

The next morning we got up early. Our first stop was a very special volcano, the Dallol crater. This crater was formed in 1926 by an explosive eruption of magma which came into contact with groundwater (a phreatic eruption). Since then, the crater is a geo-thermal area where highly acidic water (formed by sulphur gasses,  salt and water) percolates to the surface, forming probably, the most bizarre  and colourful formations on earth. The Dallol volcano was like an island in a vast salt lake.

After a short climb we arrived at the crater. We first entered an area which contain  mushroom-shaped gypsum and salt formations formed by wind and water erosion. Also, there were inactive weathered yellow or red ocher sulphur deposits. Meanwhile, a rotten-egg smell began to tickle our noses. This shows nearby thermal activity. We walked across the rim, then looking over a large area with bright yellow, green and red ocher (sulphur) deposits. To our left we saw  a vast bright yellow plain with some active geysers. But first, we walked to the right over the crater floor where several brightly coloured areas with sulphur and salt formations up to several meters high.


We passed one after the other hot spring where highly acidic water was pushed out, forming bluish-green to bright-yellow-green pools. Each geyser area seemed to look even more bizarre than the previous one with sulphuric and salt formation “sculped”in the strngst shapes. The green colour was undoubtedly caused by dissolved copper salt. Everywhere you could hear the bubbling, see stalagmites where water splashed out. It is simply too weird to describe! This was definitely the most bizarre landscape that I've seen so far!

After walked around for several hours, we went down and drove a short distance alongside the base of the volcano to the salt canyon. Here, salt and gypsum formations are formed by erosion with reddish iron-rich layers in between them, we took a hike here and visited a little salt cave.

And the fun was not over! Just outside the crater we visited another strange site.  Here, there were springs of hot water within a Martian landscape of red mushroom-shaped salt deposits. This water was not acidic but apparently rich of potassium. The funny thing was that the pools were different in colour, from ocher red to greenish. So the Dallol area hosted many strange and bizarre places which were almost unearthly!


In the late afternoon,  we visited the Assalta Salt Lake for a beautiful sunset but also for the official farewell to our enthusiastic guide Kiros, our cookingstaff, Kokki and Mulat, who have provided us with the best food! Also we need to say goodbye to the four drivers who safely guided us through the Danakil desert. Because four members of our group would leave us the next day, it was also time to bring a toast to the success of our Danakil expedition. The salt lake at sunset gave a very beautiful sight, a beautiful way to say goodbye to the Danakil!

Salt mining

However, our trip into the Danakil wasn’t over yet. The next morning, we followed the long camel caravan, hundreds of camels, to the salt flat. In this hot hostile place where you will tired of the heat (avg. 35-50 degrees during the day by the year) and dry out within minutes, people actually work here, incredible! In the middle of the salt flat, workers, cut loose and shape the salt, so it can be transported by camel to Berhale for sale. Here, both Tygre and Afar people are working together. The Tygre cut the salt plates loose from the bottom and lift them up so that Afar workers can shape them into 5 kg blocks. These are hoisted on the camels and carried to Ahmed Ela (and further).


This hard work pays them only 5 birr per block salt (which is 4 cents!). However, if they sell the blocks themselves Berhale or Mek’ele, it provides them a tenfold of money. Camels are therefore invaluable for the people here. The work here is done the same way for many centuries. Even an attempt to modernize the process. failed because of the fear of job-loss. It is unique to see this ancient tradition. A few of us tried lifting a salt plate themselves but that was not easy! You can only admire the local people. Now, you see the salt you put on your foot a bit differently.!

"Danakil Finish!"

After lunch we drove off towards Berhale, leaving the Danakil depression. Here, a caravan of camels with salt would arrive in the afternoon. Berhale is beautifully situated between the mountains that form the transition between the Danakil depression and the highlands. For us this was also the farewell of the Danakil and the Afar population. We also said goodbye to one of our group members who would go directly from here to Mek’ele to fly back home via Lalibela.

A new tour begins

Actually, this day, a new journey began, a beautiful tour of the highlands and the ancient culture and history of Ethiopia. In the evening we arrived in Wukro. After a week of very basic accommodations, we stayed in a real hotel where we finally could take a decent shower. Although  the hotel, certainly was good for Ethiopian standards, yet something happened which made our stay there everything but relaxed. Immediately upon check-in. A number of pieces of luggage disappeared. Most of them were soon recovered, however, Anna’s bag (very important) containing here hiking boots had disappeared. And the manager (who had moved the bags) suddenly suffered from a severe form of memory loss.

Of course, Anne wouldn’t just accept this since she naturally needed those boots for the upcoming trek. The whole hotel was scoured but nothing was found. This made us suspicious that the bag may have been stolen. The manager, though by no means capable to run a hotel, seemed sincere and honest. Possibly a thief among the staff? She would go to the police the next morning is nothing was found so the search continued. However, after an hour, the bag was suddenly “found” behind a curtain of a room we repeatedly had searched before.  Well, it seemed that this whole incident was solved in a typical Ethiopian way and everyone was relieved. This evening, we also said goodbye to three of our group members who would leave early the next morning for the long journey back to Addis Ababa (and home).


The next day we did a trip through the beautiful Geralta area. Hawzien would be the destination of this day. We visited two early medieval rock churches. The first we visited was the San Ciriaco. This largely free-standing church was our first introduction to the Christian history of this area and it’s rock-hawn architecture. After that we drove to the Abraha Atsbeha church. To our surprise a wedding celebration was on the way when we arrived. In from of the church, people were singing and dancing, accompanied by two large drums. The music, in typical Tygre rhythmic style, sounded profane but was religious nonetheless and was intended to bless the couple.


After lunch we drove to Hawzien where we had the rest of the day off to relax!  In the evening, plans were made for the following day. We decided to visit two churches, the first of which, reachable by a fairly steep climb.

So, the next morning, we drove first to the Debre Tsion. The climb was quite difficult but the reward at the top was overwhelming! A very beautiful view of the area from the church impressed us!  We had a lot of time because the priest needed to get here also to open the church. The interior of the church contains beautiful frescoes and an a mysterious tunnel to a small space with fine relief work. Finally, the priest showed us the holy Cross, every church has a holy cross and some have another treasure. This church possessed 500 years old fan which was shown to us as well.

After a long siesta, we visited the Giorgis Maikado church in the late afternoon. It has a beautiful white stucco facade. Moreover, here, an ancient Coptic Bible is kept, which  was shown on request to us by the priest. After this we climbed to a nearby viewpoint for a beautiful sunset in a beautiful area!

Meanwhile it came to our attention that the road to Lalibela was under construction. We therefore decided to head for Mek’ele, after the day program to buy some time for the next day. The next morning we first made a very nice walk along three churches and through a beautiful landscape. Especially the second church, Mikhael Milhaizengi, was worth it. This church was built on a small hill. At the entrance we found some 15 local monks and priests enjoying their home-brewed "Trappist" beer and we were invited to have a beer as well before going into the church itself. This is another beautiful church with carved relief on the ceiling. Most churches, by the way, followed a cross shaped floorplan  (Greek cross). The "choir" is usually closed to ordinary people.


The tour ended near the Medhane Alem Adi Kesho church. A short descent brought us back to a driveable road, where our mini bus was waiting and we drove further south. We decided to stay in Mek'ele. Here were decent hotels and Mek'ele is a vibrant city and not unpleasant to stay. Because we had an extensive lunch that afternoon, this evening, a delicious juice at a juice bar, sufficed for the night. A 'juice' in Ethiopia is actually a smoothie made of mostly mango, papaya, banana and / or pineapple. You can eat it with a spoon. So, a healthy and nutritious meal! Juice bars are typically Ethiopian and they can be found  anywhere! "

The "mecca" of the Ethiopian Christianity

The next morning we drove to Lalibela, though truly breathtaking landscapes. It was about 400 km of which is about 150 km of unpaved roads. Just past Weldya, we left the main road, to a windy gravel road. We passed through beautiful landscapes and gradually climbed to 2600 meters. At the end of the afternoon, we reached Lalibela.

The next morning we got up  quite early to attend a Ethiopian orthodox service in the Bet Maryan church. As usual in Ethiopia, you can enter the church only after taking off your shoes . In the church, which was dimly lit, a student priest recited the prayers, sometimes interrupted by the elder priest, the high priest of this church. About 45 minutes went by reciting, occasionally supplemented by a chorus, chanted by all parishes. It was an impressive experience. Religion is by the way, very important for the Ethiopians. Atheism is practically non-existent here. The churches in the highlands are said to have been built by angels.


After the service we went back to the lodge for breakfast and I decided to take some time off to recover from all the impressions and a small cold. Because of this I missed the morning tour through four churches (from which I already had seen the Bet Maryan). During lunch, I joined the group again to visit another 4 churches. These are located in the so-called. "West" group and are interconnected eith each other through a network of tunnels. However, the first church, Bet Gabriel Rufael was closed due to renovation. The other churches were opened for visit. First we visited the Bet Merkorios. This charming little church was ornately carved. We then had to undergo a test of pure spirit by making a “hell to heaven” trip through  a 30m long pitch-dark tunnel. The use of a lantern was 'forbidden' so we had to find ourselves groping our way. If successful, the journey was rewarded with a few of  the next shrine, Bet Abba Libanos church. Through, again, a series of tunnels and underpasses we finally reached the Beth Emmanuel Church, the largest of this cluster.

After that we walked down the hill, heading for, no doubt, the most famous church and symbol of Lalibela, the Bet Saint Giorge. This is a fully free-standing church in the shape of a Greek cross, built  in the 14th century. It was carved to-down. The church is more than 15 meters high and stands in an equally deep pit where you could only enter through a tunnel. After that, we took some time to recover at a local café.


The Tesfa trekking

After a refreshing sleep, we left to the south. Near Gashena we prepared for a trekking, lasting almost four days.  The trails here are set out by the local communities. They also built are community guesthouses where hikers can spend the night. About  60% of the earned money goes to those  communities. Everything was organized very well. All overnight cabins have beds and a provisionally toilet. Showering was hardly possible due to the lack of water. The locals also cooked the  (delicious) food these days. the luggage is traveling with us on the backs of the donkeys we rented. You could even rent a horse or mule if walking was too heavy. It is a nice way to get to know the countryside of Ethiopia. The overnight accommodation and lunch places were located on the edge of the plateau, with spectacular views!

We started the trip on the first day with a delicious and typical Ethiopian lunch; Injera (a type of light sourdough pancake) accompanied by all kinds of dishes with potato, spinach and lentils. A spicy sauce named Chiro was also part of it. The first day we walked about 12 km, three hours, the landscape was a mix of grassland and farmland and villages where residents waved and smiled at us kindly. Obviously we attracted the curiosity of the children who ran off to meet and greet us when we passed by. That evening we arrived in the Muquet Maryan camp. This is perhaps the best camp in terms of spectacular views. We had a spectacular panoramic view of the valley below us, which was scarred by erosion but beautifully carved. We arrived an hour before sunset so the light from the setting sun shone beautifully into the valley.


The next day, we hiked for five hours, about  20 km. We hiked across farmland and through villages. Our lunch location was, again, along the beautiful southern edge of the plateau. Moreover, after lunch, we were visited by tenths of Galade baboons, which is typical for this area, and has a characteristic red-colored chest. Afterwards we walked across the plains to the northern edge. In the afternoon, we crossed the main road, which cuts the plateau in two. Occasionally we saw shepherds with his cows or goats. In the late afternoon, we arrived at our second camp, again with a nice view! Compared to yesterday, the view was more friendly; fields and villages were visible deep below us.

Also, on the third day, we hiked about 20km  Bfore lunch,we passed through scrubland and villages, however, shortly before lunch we reached the edge of the plateau. After lunch (again on a beautiful location) , we followed the northern edge of the plain. We walked along the edge and during the rest of the hike, the view was fantastic! We also passed some areas with basalt columns. Our last overnight stop was also along the edge and we were welcomed by dozens of baboons. We were welcomed by Lady Desda, a friendly local woman with an open mind and beautiful eyes. They cooked  the evening meal which, unlike the lunch,  usually consisted of a (delicious) soup and a fully homemade pasta or rice. The tomato sauce is freshly prepared as well!

Back to Addis Ababa

The next morning, a needed  to hike a short distance to reach the main road again. Here the bus picked us up. After taking leave of the two guides, we continued to Dessie. After four days of trekking, it was nice to be in a real hotel again. Dessie itself is a medium-sized city chaotic and busy and nobody felt the urge to actually go into the city. The next morning, a long day driving awaited us. During this stage, we reached the highest point of the whole trip, the 3241 meter high Tarma Ber pass. Here was a parking lot where you had a beautiful view over the surrounding area.
  After this, the road’s altitude decreased slowly towards Addis Ababa, where we arrived just after sunset. We stayed in the same hotel as the first night. These were very spacious this time. Each room had its own kitchen, living room and bedroom with bathroom, so a real suite!

The last day ended up being a day that did not do much anymore. I had to recover since I had a bad meal the day before. Fortunately, this was the last day and I was finally able to visit a dinner show with traditional music and dance. A fun evening with Ethiopian music and dance from all parts of the country. Of course, we immediately recognized the Tygre rhythm when it was played! After the show, a went back to the hotel and on  to the airport. Our flight was scheduled to leave at 02h30. At the entrance all the luggage had to be checked by scanner. Unfortunately, for unknown reasons, the Obsidian I found in the Danakil, was taken from me. Fortunately, I could save one piece of it. Also the security opfficer did not notice the samples of young lava I brought back from the Erta Ale.


The flight was uneventful and in Istanbul we were quickly guided to our connecting flight. At about 12 noon, I was back at my home’s front door. This ended one of probably the most impressive trips I made!