Catch the 7:45 am flight from Addis Ababa 500 km north to Mekelle, the capital city of Tigray National State. Be met at the airport and driven through Mekelle to the tour office. Complete paperwork.
Set off in a 4WD vehicle by mid-morning. In the first hour descend over 1 km from Mekelle at 2,350 m down to 1,300 m. In another 45 minutes wind down another 500 m through scrub-covered mountains then hills and past the occasional frozen waves of hardened lava. The road is recently laid asphalt.
Rendezvous with the rest of your convoy over a vegetarian lunch.
Drive a couple of hours through an increasingly barren landscape. Leave the asphalt to go off-road across a desolately flat and featureless waste of sand and random clusters of balloon plants where nothing should be able to grow. The need to maintain some momentum in case we hit patches of soft, axle-deep, sand results in a thrilling blat across the sand with vehicles line abreast to avoid each other’s dust cloud.
Past the sand plain discover what the guides proudly call ‘the worst road in the world’ (video clip). It takes 2 hours to slowly grind 12 km across fields of recent, jagged-edged lava rock. This rock is too young to have been weathered so the edges are razor sharp. This can be a hazard for sandal wearers and tyre rubber. This rock is 'young' in the geological sense. It could be a century old here. Its hard to be certain.
The terrain is bleak with hues of grey, brown and infrequent splashes of miraculous green. Scanning the horizon, see the classic silhouettes of volcanic cones on the distant skyline. In another direction see the sculptured white horses of ancient lava waves make jagged outlines in the endless azure.
By late afternoon reach the base camp for the Mt Erta Ale (“ Errrta Alay”) climb. This is a series of traditional huts built of dry stone walls and thatched rooves. There is no sleeping here. Rest or walk about until a vegetarian dinner just before sunset.
Walk by torchlight about 3.5 hours up a steady incline. The path winds around boulders and cracked lava towards the fiery glow of Mt Erta Ale in whose crater hides the only permanently liquid lava lake in the world.
Sleep under the stars on a foam mattress with a blanket or sleeping bag supplied with your own bed sheet for the duration of the tour.
Get in position pre-dawn for the best photos of the lava lake simmering and splashing great globs of orange and red liquid rock as the light brightens with the sunrise.
Descend from the crater for 2.5 hours in bright morning sunshine for breakfast about 9:30 am. It is in the mid-30s C and the day is heating up.
Drive to Lake Afrera in the convoy of airconditioned 4WDs. This whole area is at, or below, sea level and is a centre of commercial salt production.
Refresh after last night’s climb by floating in the salty waters of Lake Afrera then rinse off in a 40 C hot spring of crystal clear water. The hot spring is cooler than the air.
A vegetarian lunch of pasta or rice with vegetables is washed down with cold soft drinks or beer.
After lunch drive 4 hours to the friendly small town of Abala for a smorgasbord meal of traditional dishes. Sleep on a mattress on the floor in a communal sleeping area. The squat toilet is kept reasonably clean.
After breakfast drive about 60 km northeast to Lake Assale (also known as Lake Karum). Stop for lunch at Berhale. See the local Afar tribespeople cutting slabs of rock salt and loading their camel caravans in a trade largely unchanged for millennia. It takes the caravans of up to 50 camels one week to reach Mekelle’s markets which are 200 km west in the mountains – and about 2,300 m higher.
Visit some fascinating geological formations, see a hole in the salt crust revealing the waters of the lake beneath, much like a fishing hole cut through ice.
Walk out hundreds of metres in ankle deep tepid salt water and enjoy the stunning sunset on Lake Assale.
After dinner sleep under the Milky Way on a traditional bed frame made of wood and latticed leather strapping holding you about 50 cm above the ground. Bring a roll of toilet paper and take a walk to find a private place for nature’s calls. This is an adventure that is not for everyone. There are no hotels here.
Surprisingly, mosquitoes and insects are generally absent. There is not enough of anything in this desert to sustain them. After 4 days in the Afar Desert you will hug the first tree trunk and kiss the first green leaf you see. Rain and fire-places might never feel the same again.
There are scorpions and snakes in this desert so wearers of open-toed footwear please beware.
This undiscovered desert of deserts is a place for lovers of deserts.
After breakfast drive about 50 km to Dallol geothermal field. The bubbling and steaming hot water brings a rich mineral mix up from deep down in the earth. This is deposited in multi-coloured mounds and ponds. It is like another planet with hues of yellow, green, blue, orange and red.
After lunch drive about 200 km back to Mekelle and the end of the tour. Catch the 7 pm flight back to Addis Ababa.
Please note that at peak season, to avoid too many vehicles in one convoy, the order of this itinerary can be rearranged but all the same places of interest are visited.
The Afar Desert in the Afar Depression is a geologically fascinating and dynamic area in north eastern Ethiopia. The Danakil Depression is the northern part of the Afar depression. The term ‘depression’ refers to this area lying at or below sea level. Many areas are more than 100 m below sea level. The lowest point in Africa and third lowest globally, is just across the border with Djibouti at – 155 m. Rainfall is about 2 cm per year.
This region is one of the places where the earth’s crust is stretched thinnest. It is home to a triple tectonic plate divergence with the Arabian, Nubian and Somalian plates moving away from each other.
The eastern ‘horn’ of Africa and a long slice of the continent’s Indian Ocean coastal region is separating at about 1 cm per year. The land that has dropped lower as the African continent splits is called the Rift Valley. The Afar is where a lot of the geological action can be seen in its plate shifting power.
The name comes from the indigenous Afar people whose culture and desert lifestyle has enabled them to survive for millennia in the hottest desert in the world with the highest average year-round temperature of about 35 C. Their traditional economy is based on the salt trade – a resource the Afar have a history of fiercely and successfully defending from all comers. They cut slabs of salt from the salt lakes and trek 200 km in camel caravans of up to 50 camels west to the mountain city of Mekelle. We visit the Afar cutting salt and loading their camels at Lake Assale which is 120 m below sea level.
The earliest hominid fossils ever found have been in this region. The oldest is considered 4.4 million years old and known as Ardi or Ardipithecus ramidus.
The Afar people have been traditionally organised into Sultanates. The oldest known written record of the Afar dates from the 13th century writings of Arab historian, poet and geographer Ibn Sa’id who was based in southern Spain. He travelled extensively throughout the Muslim world and to the Indian Ocean coast.
In the colonial era, many explorers and European travellers visited Ethiopia even though it was never colonised. In the 19th and early 20th century several expeditions tried to solve the mystery of why the east flowing Awash river doesn’t have an outlet on the Red Sea coast. All disappeared in the desert succumbing to thirst or its local defenders.
In 1933, Englishman Sir Wifred Thesiger (1910 – 2003), led the expedition that solved the mystery. Come and find out for yourself!
Sir Wilfred was born in Addis Ababa in 1910 and learned Amharic. He was a legendary explorer of deserts and wrote beautifully about them in books like Arabian Sands (pub 1959).
He served as a British officer behind enemy lines with the Ethiopian resistance, remembered by Ethiopians as the heroes of the Arbegnoch, during the Italian occupation (1935 – 41). Sir Wilfred was the first European to cross the Empty Quarter of Arabia in 1947.
Part of his legend is that he was known for disguising himself as an Arab to pass through areas dangerous for Europeans. He wrote with feeling and respect about the various tribal groups he spent time with.
After the people of the Afar, the desert is known for its extraordinary range of stunning geological features.
Drive a steep descent from Mekelle in the mountains at 2,350 m above sea level to 130 m below sea level at Lake Assale. Key locations visited are:
The crater of this small but active volcano (613 m) holds the planet’s only permanently lake of liquid lava. This is one of only 6 places on earth where liquid lava can be seen boiling and splashing up in all the colours of heat – white, yellow, orange and glowing red. Its quite a sight looking down into the crater as the rising sun imitates the colours of the cauldron.
Float in this salt-lake and refresh in a 40 cm deep crystal spring only slightly cooler than the ambient temperature of 45 C.
This is a centre of the Afar salt trade. See the salt cut into slabs and loaded on to camels. Later, enjoy the sunset shimmering across the tepid, ankle deep waters of Lake Assale (known also as Lake Karum). Visit the unusual rock and salt formations in this area.
At 130 m below sea level, this beautiful yet stark hill that rises from the desert floor is a myriad of colours ranging from green, blue and yellow to orange and red. Hot water from deep down spurts, splashes and bubbles as it deposits rich mineral encrustations that can mound up to several metres. It is like an open field of stalagmites with delicately crystalline steam outlets that decorate the sides like blossoms on a huge yellow cactus. Dallol is considered the hottest inhabited place on earth. Stunning yet desolate, Dallol is one of the most remote places on our planet.
Book your Ethiopian Tour
This tour runs any time and can be booked by individuals.
- Includes 2 flights on Ethiopian Airlines Domestic.
1. Addis Ababa (Airport Code: ADD) to Mekelle (MQX)
2. Mekelle (MQX) to Addis Ababa (ADD).
Per person, single supplements do not apply on this tour as accommodation is not in hotel rooms. There are no hotels in the desert.
This price includes:
If you arrive in Ethiopia on Ethiopian Airlines International your domestic air tickets can be discounted by up to 40 - 50%.
This discount can be passed on to clients who provide a passport scan and inbound Ethiopian Airlines International ticket details.
Please complete the form below.
Sam will communicate with you directly to book and help answer any questions about your Ethiopian Adventure Tour.
There are 2 nights sleeping under the stars in the warm desert night and one night in a communal sleeping house on a foam mattress, opened sleeping bag and your own allocated bed sheet for the tour. Mosquitoes are not a problem in the desert as they cannot survive here. This a great safari adventure but there is little or no tourist infrastructure in the desert. That's part of it's magic. The Ethiopian tour crew are friendly and attentive. A chef travels with the group preparing the vegetarian meals early in the morning to be cooked later in the day. The food is rice or pasta with vegetables. Simple but hearty.
Lack of Creature Comforts
Please be advised that this tour is not known for its creature comforts. There are no hotels in this remote area and the climate does not require tents as nights are warm and dry.
As much water as you can drink is included.
Toilet facilities are limited to a clean squat toilet at the accommodation for the second night. At other times it is a case of finding a private spot in the desert with your toilet roll in hand.
Thanks to Wikipedia for the factual details regarding the Afar Desert. We donate to Wikipedia.Book your Ethiopian Tour
Sam will guide you through the magical heartland of Africa – travelling through Ethiopia you will enjoy the hospitality of incredible people and be enriched by the amazing history. Come with us and explore these unique dynamic environments on your Ethiopian travels.
This is an Ethiopian tour adventure to the cradle of human kind and an experience you will hold dear for many years to come.