People often describe things as “out of this world” meaning that whatever they're describing is absolutely amazing, or perhaps better than anything they’ve ever experienced. It is very rarely used literally to mean whatever they have seen is seemingly actually from another planet – The Dallol area of the Danakil Depression however, is one of those places that can properly be called “out of this world”.
We didn’t need to get up as early as we did, as the sunrise we were hoping to see leaping over the horizon managed to somehow sneak past us, and without warning the night sky gave way to the now familiar desert haze. All was not lost however, because it did mean we were first in line for breakfast, which was delicious, and warmly welcomed after another pleasant, if not a little sandy, evening’s sleep out in the desert. We were on the road to the salt flats again by 7am, and it was a case of Déjà vu as we passed the now familiar sight of camels carrying salt alongside their confident Afar drivers.
One thing which was distinctly different from the previous few days was the professionalism of the accompanying soldiers. Over the last few days we had got used to seeing our camo-clad companions relaxing in the shade of the land cruisers, or checking themselves out in their knock-off designer sunglasses, but today they were on it; organised, well-armed, and very professional, it became obvious, despite the lack of features from which to orientate yourself, that we were now only within a few kilometres of the disputed Eritrean border, a notoriously dangerous area, and one with a history, being the site of the shooting and kidnapping of another tour group who had previously visited this area – it certainly put a slight edge to proceedings.
We cruised along the flat white expanses not sure exactly how our drivers were navigating, until we saw a looming black hulk on the horizon. The black haze got bigger and bigger until we eventually came to the foot of small mountain of dark, sharp volcanic rocks rising gradually out of the surrounding salt flats. This was as far as the land cruisers could go, and by the time the drivers had turned the engines off, and we had exchanged our flip flops for sturdy walking boots, the soldiers had already set up a perimeter around the vehicles. We had arrived at the Dallol.
As we climbed the soldiers moved with us in formation, and guns were very much to hand instead of being casually slung over the shoulder as they had been the day before. One of the soldiers had what looked like a violin case on his back, it seemed doubtful that we would be getting a recital out here, but when asked what it was, his deadly serious answer of “this is part of atomic weaponry” seemed even more unlikely, and I quietly hoped he was simply a very committed Vivaldi fan who took musical inspiration from this unusual landscape. As we climbed the steep bank, we began to see strange mineral deposits on the rocks unlike any I’d ever seen. The landscape was strewn with wave like crusts, and giant flat discs which resembled mushrooms, all made out of the same acrid smelling, sharp minerals being deposited out of the geothermal pools bubbling up from way beneath the earth. As if to add to the sinister atmosphere, we spied a couple of dead birds at the side of one of these pools, who, in a desperate bid for moisture, had attempted to drink the chemically saturated water, and hadn’t lived to tell the tale. In the truest sense of the word this was an alien landscape: well below sea level, a landscape of green and yellow hues and weird shapes, with day time temperatures reaching 50°C, and geothermal activity rife throughout the area, my rudimentary understanding of geology was struggling to interpret what was going on. If NASA ever send a mission to Venus, this is where I suggest they test their equipment, as there was very little left to suggest we were actually still on the little ball of green and blue we call earth.
If this scene had seemed extra-terrestrial, what we saw as we crested the hill was pure science fiction - As far as I could see were luminous yellow sulphur deposits of all shapes and sizes. Through the steam bubbling up through the crystal encrusted, ant hill like chimneys, were pools of acidic green water so rich in colour that you got lost looking into their imperceptible depths. The whole area was thick with pungent clouds of sulphur dioxide, and you couldn’t help but feel the power of the inner workings of the planet rumbling beneath your feet, as convection currents and magma plumes thrust their way towards the perilously thin crust, boiling the trapped ground water and releasing noxious combinations of chemicals from countless years of imprisonment beneath the earth’s surface - a magically toxic place.
We spent an hour or so carefully wandering between the acidic pools and plumes trying to take it all in; I thought it was astonishing, but depending on your point of view or mental state at the time, these incredible vistas were either beautifully unusual, or seriously foreboding; if this was a science fiction film, this is definitely where the aliens would be hanging out. An old potash factory stood on the brow of a nearby hill rusting in the corrosive atmosphere, a relic from a failed occupation of the area, I thought back to the dead birds we had seen earlier, mother nature had conspired to ensure that nothing survived out here for long.
As we began to head back to the vehicles we witnessed the rarest of meteorological events which secured this place as the most geographically unusual I have ever experienced – in the middle of one of the hottest and driest places on the planet, it began to rain. This tiny quantity of precipitation would hardly warrant a comment back at home, but here it was quite the novelty, and the soldiers lowered their guns ever so slightly to relish in this strange turn of events. The brief drizzle evaporated instantly, and the hot, damp air mixed with the plumes of volcanic gases to produce an oppressive humidity which you practically had to chew in order to access the oxygen needed to continue. Back at the land cruisers the relief was palpable as we breathed the relatively fresh, dry air of the salt flats, and after putting his nuclear violin case carefully back in the truck, even Mr atomic weaponry managed a grin.
The brief rains had increased the humidity and the temperature had followed suit, so it was a relief to be able to utilise the open window approach to air conditioning as the land cruisers drove back across the salt flats, through Hamede Ela, and back to the shacks next to the dry riverbed once again. Here the group split in half, with the majority heading back to Mek’ele, whilst a few of us remained, and headed over the mountains to the little town of Abala, the gateway to the Erta Ale Volcano.
Abala is a much more established town than Hamede Ela (our base next to the salt flats), being as it is on the main salt trading route, and our accommodation was luxury in comparison, with our own clean floor to sleep on, and a roof. We had a couple of coffees in the shaded courtyard, and relaxed as inviting smells of baking and fresh vegetables filled the air. Dinner was a delicious combination of fresh vegetables, beans and of course the Ethiopian staple Injera, and it did just about enough to get rid of the substantial hunger I had built up over the day. The evening was surprisingly chilly, so I jumped into bed early, looking forward to a lengthy sleep before tomorrow’s volcanic escapades, happy to be one step closer to achieving one of my childhood dreams.