Discovering Dallol, a marvel in the arid salt plain of the Danakil depression
Many years have now gone by since we visited Ethiopia, a wonderful country rich in history, a lovely population, and incredible places. Among these, we crossed the Danakil depression, a dry and desert region known as “the devil’s land” for being one of the most inhospitable places in the world. Several of its areas extend more than 100 meters below sea level and have an average temperature during the year that make Danakil the hottest area on Earth. In this wild area, dominated by still active volcanoes, salt lakes, lunar landscapes, endless plains of salt, bizarre rock formations and inhabited by the mythical Afar people, there is one place that left us particularly speechless. We are talking about Dallol, known as “the hill of spirits”, a place out of time and truly unique in the world.
Our trip to Dallol starts from Ahmed Ela, a small village on the edge of the great salt plain, an infinite expanse of salt that extends from the north end of the Danakil depression to Eritrea’s border. Ahmed Ela consists of a few huts built with wood. It is mainly inhabited by Afar workers that go every day to the centre of the plain to extract the salt and supply the dozens of caravans of dromedaries mules that get here every day.
We drive across the neverending salt plain with our 4wd vehicle, stopping now and then to enjoy this surreal landscape and take some photos. We are in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by an expanse of salt in brown and white colours that stretches as far as the eye can see. Thinking that a hundred people live and work under the scorching sun in this remote place, far from any form of civilization, is incredible. The Afar people, in fact, are the only population in the world able to live in this extreme region and withstanding the extremely high temperatures that grip the Danakil all year round. It is 7.30 am, and the thermometer of our vehicle marks 30 degrees celsius.
Got back in the car, we drive for another 20 minutes until the edge of the track ending in front of Dallol hill. Here we are! After having seen this incredible place dozens and dozens of times on the web, we can now enjoy it with our eyes. Dallol hill is about 50 meters high, and it takes about 25 minutes to reach the central part where the sulfur springs are. Left the vehicle, we walk along the path surrounded by a landscape of unique beauty through geological formations that are really curious and bizarre. Some of them resemble mushrooms, others flowers, salt cones, small pointed formations and little chimneys. It really seems to be landed on the moon. Our Afar guide explains that this area was formed by the interaction between a large amount of salt left by the Red Sea when it withdrew from this land and the explosion of a magma chamber located just below us at more than 2 kilometres.
Suddenly, we arrive at the end of the path. In front of us is the sulfur springs of Dallol. For a few minutes, we are dazed, enchanted by the view in front of our eyes. Dallol is truly one of those places that we will always remember, a unique place in the world that you absolutely must see at least once in your life. Here, the earth is bubbling, and there are small geysers, acidic hot springs, salt cones and salt formations with unique shapes, vapours, smoke trails, small chimneys and thermal pools with incredible colours.
What is most striking about Dallol, besides the amazing geological formations, are the colours. White, green, yellow, red, brown, a mix of colours due to the high concentration of sulfur, iron oxides and other various minerals. We can walk in the middle of the springs, its pools and smoking chimneys, for about 1 hour, and then, because of the really high temperature and the exhalations we are breathing, we have to leave this marvellous place. We’d like to stay here longer. Dallol is one of the few places you’d never be bored of. The struggle and the strong heat disappear in front of this charming landscape that really seems straight out of a science fiction movie.
Back to the vehicle with the incredible colours of Dallol still in our eyes, we head to the nearby “red mountain”, an area made up entirely of magnesium salts which is 116 meters below sea level and from which incredible spikes and small mountains of red, grey and white salt rise from the plain. We take a short walk among the wonderful salt formations before the heat starts to be almost unbearable, then we return to the vehicle to head to Ahmed Ela and have a rest.
We give the last sight to this wonderful place still far from the tourist routes, hoping that it could remain uncontaminated, despite our guide not of this opinion. So as all places in the world where economic interests can be seen, even the salt plain and Dallol are destined to be reached soon by the large mining industry with its modern machinery and gradually lose the charm that still makes them magical places from time.