The last thing I did before I left Ethiopia after Peace Corps was flout the rules and go to the red zone. Methane pools, sulfuric acid, live volcanoes, ancient traditional salt mining and all along the Eritrean border – yeah, I can see why Peace Corps said it was a no-go.
But, six of us had officially finished our service and just had to knock this region off our bucket lists. So off we went to Afar, Ethiopia to see some of the most inhospitable land on earth.
We started from Mekele, Tigray’s regional capital and traveled into Afar – known for it’s nomadic salt miners and for being the hottest average place on earth. Travelling in December, the temperature had just started to drop for the winter (to 39 degrees Celsius). Our first few days we ate lunch in an Afari village and visited the salt flats where large camel caravans took the salt into Tigray for sale. The journey on foot takes eight days.
We also went to where the blocks of rock salt are actually mined. We drove through salt flats for miles, seeing no other life. Afari men have been mining salt for hundreds, if not thousands of years. The salt flats are estimated to be almost 8 miles deep in some parts. Modern companies have tried and failed to mine the salt with machines, but they just rust up. Each salt block weighs around 4-5 kilos (about 10 lbs) and the flats sit at around 121 meters below sea level. The area used to be a part of the Red Sea. Around the area are liquid methane pools, salt mountains and sulfur pools. The chemicals in the earth react with water to create different colours (iron is red, sulfur is yellow, copper is orange and green etc.). Walking around the pools, you can hear the earth rumbling below – this is unstable earth.
That night we stayed with a family in Tigray, then the next morning drove a long way across the desert to get to the base of the Erta Ale volcano. We zoomed across the sand, but driving 12 km across lava rock took 2 hours. That was a bumpy ride to say the least (2 flat tires later). Throughout the trip we had to hire military for protection, considering some of the previous tourist deaths in the region. The volcano itself is actually a military base, where we slept that night at the top near the crater. We had no problems, though I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve inhaled enough sulfur to shave a few years off my life.
All in all this was one of the most unique places I have ever been. There are only four active lava lakes in the world, but this is probably the closest you can get to one (we walked right up to the edge of the crater). If this blog has at all put Ethiopia on your travel radar, definitely put a trip to the Danakil Depression on your list.