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9-22 Feb 2019: Desert, salt and volcanoes - Danakil desert (Ethiopia)
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Desert, Salt and Volcanoes

- 14 days expedition to Erta Ale volcano and Dallol hydrothermal field (Danakil desert, Ethiopia) -

14 days itinerary

Day 1: Arrival in Addis-Abeba

Yekatit 12 Square (Sidist Kilo) monument in Addis Ababa (Jay Ramji - February 2016)
Yekatit 12 Square (Sidist Kilo) monument in Addis Ababa (Jay Ramji - February 2016)
Ethiopian lady carrying a bustle of twigs up on Entoto Hill near Addis Ababa (Jay Ramji - February 2016)
Ethiopian lady carrying a bustle of twigs up on Entoto Hill near Addis Ababa (Jay Ramji - February 2016)
Mozaic at the entrance of the National Museum of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa (Ingrid Smet - November 2015)
Mozaic at the entrance of the National Museum of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa (Ingrid Smet - November 2015)
Upon your arrival at Addis Ababa international airport you will be picked and transfered to a nice hotel in the city. Depending on the time of your arrival, you can use the afernoon freely to recover from your flights or acclimatise and explore Ethopia´s capital. In the evening the group will come together for a welcome dinner and meet their tour guide.
NOTE: Please take into account the possibility of flight delays and try not to arrive too late as the jeep expedition into the Danakil that will leave the next morning can not be postponed or wait for delayed travelers.
Acc.: Nice hotel in Addis-Abeba (D)

Day 2: From Addis Ababa to Awash

Tawny eagle at a crater lake in Bishoftu (Ingrid Smet - November 2015)
Tawny eagle at a crater lake in Bishoftu (Ingrid Smet - November 2015)
Driving through lowland vegetation and farming fields on the road to Awash (Ingrid Smet - November 2015)
Driving through lowland vegetation and farming fields on the road to Awash (Ingrid Smet - November 2015)
Local houses with the volcanic ridge of Mt Fentale in the background (Ingrid Smet - November 2015)
Local houses with the volcanic ridge of Mt Fentale in the background (Ingrid Smet - November 2015)
We leave Addis Ababa (2355 m) after breakfast and start our multiple day jeep drive down into the Danakil depression. A first break is the viewpoint at Bishoftu lake (ca 1920 m), one of 7 volcanic crater lakes 40 km SE of Addis Ababa. After lunch in Adama (ca 1710 m) we have about 1 or 2 more short breaks to take in the changing landscape and discover its volcanic features (a collapse caldera, Mt Fentale volcano near Lake Basaka) before we arrive in the market town of Awash (ca. 1000 m), which is already within the East African Rift Valley.
Acc.: comfortable hotel or guesthouse in Awash (B, L, D)

Day 3: Awash National Park and drive to Logiya

East African orex grazing in the savannah of Awash NP (Ingrid Smet - November 2015)
East African orex grazing in the savannah of Awash NP (Ingrid Smet - November 2015)
Awash waterfalls in the National Park (Ingrid Smet - November 2015)
Awash waterfalls in the National Park (Ingrid Smet - November 2015)
Red steppe to half-desert landscape on the road to Logiya (Ingrid Smet - November 2015)
Red steppe to half-desert landscape on the road to Logiya (Ingrid Smet - November 2015)
After an early breakfast we spend a few hours exploring the wildlife in Awash National Park (ca. 1000 m): East African orex, gazelle and vultures are likely spotted between the acacia trees and we might even surprise a few Nile crocodiles sunbathing at the foot of the Awash waterfalls! As we continue our jeep drive into the Danakil depression, the landscape changes from savannah to steppe and half-desert, interrupted only by oases from the Awash river which we cross a few times. Today´s drive ends in Logiya (ca. 400 m), a small town that grew into a bustling overnight stop for anyone traveling on the main highway to the north.
Acc.: basic hotel or camping in Logiya (B, L, D)

Day 4: From Logiya into the Danakil, camping at Afdera salt lake

Red volcanic rocks and a small crater lake at the southern tip of the 2005 fissure eruption (Ingrid Smet - November 2015)
Red volcanic rocks and a small crater lake at the southern tip of the 2005 fissure eruption (Ingrid Smet - November 2015)
Heading north into the Danakil depression through a volcanic desert landscape (Ingrid Smet - November 2015)
Heading north into the Danakil depression through a volcanic desert landscape (Ingrid Smet - November 2015)
One of the brine pools at the Afdera salt works around sun set (Ingrid Smet - November 2015)
One of the brine pools at the Afdera salt works around sun set (Ingrid Smet - November 2015)
After an early breakfast we continue our journey on the main road into Eritrea. Possible en-route stops are the crater lake and volcanic deposits at the southern end of the 2005 Dabbahu fissure eruption, and the ruins of a 1936 Italian basecamp. In Serdo (ca. 400 m) we finally leave the Awash - Asseb highway and turn onto the recently asphalted road heading north to Afdera salt lake. The drive first takes us up through a rugged moonscape characterised by volcanic rifts and faults, obsidian flows, young black lava and gravel desert, before we start our final descend down into the flat, salt-covered Danakil depression at the hypersaline lake Afdera (ca. -100 m). We reach the lake by late afternoon so that we can explore its shoreline and salt works before sunset. As our camp is set up next to the lake, we can enjoy bathing in hydrothermal springs and swimming in the salt lake underneath a starlit night sky!
Acc.: camping next to Lake Afdera (B, L, D)

Day 5: From Afdera salt lake to Erta Ale base camp

Dawn at the camp site along the shore of Lake Afdera (Ingrid Smet - November 2015)
Dawn at the camp site along the shore of Lake Afdera (Ingrid Smet - November 2015)
Salt workers during the morning shift (Ingrid Smet - November 2015)
Salt workers during the morning shift (Ingrid Smet - November 2015)
Being overtaken by small camel caravans on the last part of the off-road drive to base camp (Ingrid Smet - November 2015)
Being overtaken by small camel caravans on the last part of the off-road drive to base camp (Ingrid Smet - November 2015)
An early start is rewarded by a beautiful sun rise above Afdera lake in which the salt workers take their morning bath - also the last opportunitiy for our group for a number of days to come. After breakfast you have the option to walk from the salt works to the small mining town whilst the camp is being broken up. From now on we have a dedicated Afar guide and policemen to accompany us to Erta Ale and onward to Dallol. From Afdera we continue our journey through the flat salt and lava desert to Dodom, the main village before Erta Ale´s base camp. Our cook prepares lunch and we have time to explore the Afar village whilst our main guide negotiates with the village chief on the price for a specialised Erta Ale guide, extra policemen and a small camel caravan to take our gear up and down the volcano. Once an agreement is reached we can do set out on the final drive to Erta Ale basecamp - although not a large distance to be covered it will takes us several hours as from now it is off-road through a dessert of dusty sand patches between rocky lava flows.
Whereas the other groups at the base camp usually rush off to the volcano as soon as possible, we will relax a bit and take time for a good dinner, to repack the luggage needed for the 3 days on Erta Ale and have a short night´s sleep.
Acc.: camping at Erta Ale base camp (B, L, D)

Day 6: Early morning ascend - daytime exploring of Erta Ale´s caldera

Aerial photograph of Erta Ale's summit caldera with the North Crater (left), the South Crater (right) and the summit camp on the caldera rim (bottom left) (Stefan Tommasini - January 2018)
Aerial photograph of Erta Ale's summit caldera with the North Crater (left), the South Crater (right) and the summit camp on the caldera rim (bottom left) (Stefan Tommasini - January 2018)
Nighttime observation of the violently boiling and splashing lava lake at the bottom of the South Crater (Stefan Tommasini - January 2018)
Nighttime observation of the violently boiling and splashing lava lake at the bottom of the South Crater (Stefan Tommasini - January 2018)
Panorama of what is left of the North Crater after its dramatic collapse one year earlier (Stefan Tommasini - January 2018)
Panorama of what is left of the North Crater after its dramatic collapse one year earlier (Stefan Tommasini - January 2018)
Before sunrise we set off on the ca. 3 h ascend of Erta Ela. It is a relatively easy hike - about 10 km across the old lava flows that cover the flanks of the shield volcano, with a total elevation difference of ca. 500 m. The closer we get, the brighter becomes the lava lake´s red glow! As part of our camel caravan already went ahead of us, breakfast will be ready by the time we arrive on the caldera rim. After setting up camp in the different Afar huts, the group reassembles for a guided walk down into the caldera which will take you along Erta Ale´s main volcanic features and viewpoints. Lunch upon our return, the rest of this day and night everyone is free to plan his/her relaxing, sleeping and summit caldera exploring.
Acc.: camping on the caldera rim of Erta Ale (B, L, D)

Day 7: Exploring Erta Ale´s fissure eruption site

Red hot lava flowing over and consuming the thin black crust on a lava lake (Stefan Tommasini - January 2018)
Red hot lava flowing over and consuming the thin black crust on a lava lake (Stefan Tommasini - January 2018)
Aerial view of part of a large lava lake that formed at the new fissure eruption site on Erta Ale's southern flank (Stefan Tommasini - January 2018)
Aerial view of part of a large lava lake that formed at the new fissure eruption site on Erta Ale's southern flank (Stefan Tommasini - January 2018)
Liquid red hot lava and pieces of cooled black crust plunging down into a cavity on one side of the lava lake (Stefan Tommasini - January 2018)
Liquid red hot lava and pieces of cooled black crust plunging down into a cavity on one side of the lava lake (Stefan Tommasini - January 2018)
After your first night camping on the rim of Erta Ale's summit caldera you will undertake a hike to the volcano's flank where a fissure eruption started on 20 January 2017. At that time, a fracture opened up here and drained the magma from the summit area to erupt here, creating vast new lava flows, fields, spattering hornito's and a lava lake. Although some lava returned to the south crater in the summit caldera, this eruption site also continued to remain active since then and will be explored today.
Acc.: as before (camping on Erta Ale´s caldera rim) (B, L, D)

Day 8: Third full day on Erta Ale for observation and photography

A thick plume of water vapour and volcanic gasses rises up from the South Crater in Erta Ale's summit caldera (Stefan Tommasini - january 2018)
A thick plume of water vapour and volcanic gasses rises up from the South Crater in Erta Ale's summit caldera (Stefan Tommasini - january 2018)
Close-up of golden glistening Pele´s hair and shiny silver fresh lava spatters (Ingrid Smet - November 2015)
Close-up of golden glistening Pele´s hair and shiny silver fresh lava spatters (Ingrid Smet - November 2015)
Nighttime observation and photography of the lava lake in the South Crater (Stefan Tommasini - january 2018)
Nighttime observation and photography of the lava lake in the South Crater (Stefan Tommasini - january 2018)
This is the last full day/night during which you can explore the volcanic activity and shield volcano at different light conditions - watching dawn and sunrise over the summit caldera, photographing pahoehoe lava fields and lava tubes with hornitos and fumaroles at the summit and on the fissure eruption site, nighttime lava lake observation at the South Crater in the summit caldera, ...
Acc.: as before (camping on Erta Ale´s caldera rim) (B, L, D)

Day 9: Descend from Erta Ale to basecamp, drive to Hamed Ela

View from Erta Ale camp onto observers gathered around the active lava lake for sunrise (Ingrid Smet - November 2015)
View from Erta Ale camp onto observers gathered around the active lava lake for sunrise (Ingrid Smet - November 2015)
The Afar village of Hamed Ela where we set up camp for 2 nights, sleeping on wooden beds underneath the stars (Jay Ramji - February 2016)
The Afar village of Hamed Ela where we set up camp for 2 nights, sleeping on wooden beds underneath the stars (Jay Ramji - February 2016)
Camel caravans laden with the precious salt pass through Hamed Ela in the late afternoon (Tom Pfeiffer - February 2009)
Camel caravans laden with the precious salt pass through Hamed Ela in the late afternoon (Tom Pfeiffer - February 2009)
After a last short night camping on Erta Ale´s caldera rim (ca. 565 m) we start our descend in the cooler hours of the early morning, before sunrise. As part of our camel caravan already left during the night, our breakfast awaits us at basecamp (ca. 140 m). After re-arranging our luggage back onto the jeeps we travel to the area of Dallol and Lake Assale taking a route along a quickly changing scenery from lava dessert via steppe to mountainous highlands. First we retrace our off road steps to the foot of the volcano where we take a road and head west, climbing out of the Danakil onto the western highlands (ca. 2000 m). There we shortly take the main road north before turning east and heading back down into the Danakil. Depending on road and weather conditions we arrive at the Afar village of Hamed Ela (ca. -85 m) in the course of the afternoon and set up camp for the next two nights. The rest of the afternoon / evening can be used to rest, have a semi-shower, explore Hamed Ela, observe the camel caravans passing through,...
Acc.: camping in the Afar village of Hamed Ela (B, L, D)

Day 10: Full day to explore Dallol

Colourful green - orange - yellow pools, geysirs and mineral deposits at Dallol´s hydrothermal area (Stefan Tommasini - January 2018)
Colourful green - orange - yellow pools, geysirs and mineral deposits at Dallol´s hydrothermal area (Stefan Tommasini - January 2018)
The thick layers of salt uplifted in the Dallol dome are visible within the cliffs of the western canyon (Stefan Tommasini - January 2018)
The thick layers of salt uplifted in the Dallol dome are visible within the cliffs of the western canyon (Stefan Tommasini - January 2018)
Yellow-brown salt deposits and small geysirs reflect in one of the many acid pools at the hydrothermal site of Dallol (Stefan Tommasini - January 2018)
Yellow-brown salt deposits and small geysirs reflect in one of the many acid pools at the hydrothermal site of Dallol (Stefan Tommasini - January 2018)
Early morning start for a first visit to the fascinating hydrothermal area of Dallol which will be organised around sunrise. The Dallol salt dome seems to appear out of nowhere in the middle of the endless and flat desert. Hundreds of small geysirs, fumaroles and hot springs are dotted along and on top of this hill and created an alien landscape of coulourful pools and weird mineral deposits. The western edge of the dome hides an impressive canyon that cuts through the thick layers of salt. Another highlight is the ghost town, almost entirely built in salt, where miners lived in the 1930s to extract potash from the area. We return to Hamed Ela for lunch and use the hottest hours of the early afternoon to rest, explore the village, watch the passing camel caravans, ... A second short expedition to Dallol will leave in the late afternoon to catch the area´s magical atmosphere around sunset.
Acc.: as before (camping in Hamed Ela) (B, L, D)

Day 11: Lake Assale, salt mining and camel loading - transfer to Mekele

The edge of lake Assale is a wide stretch of brine and glistening salt crystals (Ingrid Smet - November 2015)
The edge of lake Assale is a wide stretch of brine and glistening salt crystals (Ingrid Smet - November 2015)
One of many small acid pools amidst the red-brownish layers of salt deposits (Jay Ramji - February 2016)
One of many small acid pools amidst the red-brownish layers of salt deposits (Jay Ramji - February 2016)
Aerial view of one of the larger acid ponds and salt deposits near Assale salt lake ad Dallol (Stefan Tommasini - January 2018)
Aerial view of one of the larger acid ponds and salt deposits near Assale salt lake ad Dallol (Stefan Tommasini - January 2018)
We start our final day in the Danakil early and drive towards the endless, glistening white plane of Assale salt lake. On the way there we make several stops to explore another moonscape of irregular layers of salt dotted with a number of colourful acid lakes, watch the camel caravans cross the salt dessert and observe the ancient tradition of cutting salt blocks and arrangeing on the camels for transport. We return to Hamed Ela for lunch and pack up our camp there. After a good bye lunch in our Ahmed Ela tentative camp and once the midday heat has passed, it is time for us to leave the desert. We drive westward through the tectonically affected eastern escarpment of the great Rift valley and up into the highlands to Mekele, the capital city of the Tigray region. After one week of camping in the harsh Danakil, the return to a comfortable hotel room with a proper bed, fresh sheets, electricity, hot and cold water and a toilet seems surreal to say the least!
Acc.: comfortable hotel in Mekele (B, L, D)

Day 12: Drive from Mekele to Lalibela

The landscape in the northern highlands of the Tigray region (Ingrid Smet - November 2015)
The landscape in the northern highlands of the Tigray region (Ingrid Smet - November 2015)
Traditional (and very effective) way to separate the wheat from the chaff (Ingrid Smet - November 2015)
Traditional (and very effective) way to separate the wheat from the chaff (Ingrid Smet - November 2015)
A group of pelgrims praying outside an 8-9 th century orthodox, monolithic church near Wukro (Ingrid Smet - November 2015)
A group of pelgrims praying outside an 8-9 th century orthodox, monolithic church near Wukro (Ingrid Smet - November 2015)
Whereas Islam is the main religion practiced by the Afar people inhabiting the Danakil depression, most people living in the Tigray and Amhara regions have a long tradition of Ethiopian orthodox Christianity which gave rise to the 12th-13th century AD construction of numerous rock hewn churches in this area. The jeep drive from Mekele to Lalibela will take us through local towns such as Alamata, Woldiya and Gashena and across deep gorges and a Tertiary volcanic landscape that offers impressive views over the Afro Alpine Plateau before arriving in the town of Lalibela set amidst the Lasta Mountains.
Acc.: comfortable hotel in Lalibela (B L, D)

Day 13: Lalibela rock hewn churches

looking down onto the church of Saint George / Bet Girogis
looking down onto the church of Saint George / Bet Girogis
Ethiopian orthodox priest at the entrance of a ca 900 year old rock hewn church
Ethiopian orthodox priest at the entrance of a ca 900 year old rock hewn church
Doorway windows and church bell outside the rock hewn ´Tomb of Adam´
Doorway windows and church bell outside the rock hewn ´Tomb of Adam´
This day will be spend at 2500m above sea level exploring the Lalibela rock hewn churches which were intricately carved into volcanic red tuff stone during the reign of the area´s most famous ruler, Saint-King Gebre Meskel Lalibela, from the late 12th to early 13th century. Some of the major churches that we will visit include Bet Medhane Alem, Bet Mariam, Bet Amanuel, Bet Giorgis ,Bet Meskel, Bet Denagel, Bethlehem, Bet Merkorios, Aba Libanos and Bet Golgotha. The group spends the last evening of this expedition enjoying a farewell dinner at a local restaurant serving Ethiopian delicacies.
Acc.: As before (comfortable hotel in Lalibela) (B, L, D)

Day 14: Flight from Lalibela to Addis Ababa - end of tour

Digesting the Danakil volcano adventure over a pint and longmissed western lunch at the ´´Beer Garden Inn´´ in Addis Ababa (Ingrid Smet - November 2015)
Digesting the Danakil volcano adventure over a pint and longmissed western lunch at the ´´Beer Garden Inn´´ in Addis Ababa (Ingrid Smet - November 2015)
Both locals and travelers visit the Tomoca coffee house for a quick drink or to stock up on precious beans (Ingrid Smet - November 2015)
Both locals and travelers visit the Tomoca coffee house for a quick drink or to stock up on precious beans (Ingrid Smet - November 2015)
The National Museum of Ethiopia holds the 3 million year old humanoid skeleton known as Lucy (Jay Ramji - February 2016)
The National Museum of Ethiopia holds the 3 million year old humanoid skeleton known as Lucy (Jay Ramji - February 2016)
If you don't opt for an individual extension, the tour ends in the morning with a domestic flight back to Addis Ababa. For those leaving on an international flight in the evening we will provide a (shared) day-room at the hotel and suitable airport transfer in Addis Ababa. Free time can be used to explore the capital of Ethiopia (visit Lucy, the oldest humanoid found in the Danakil, go to one of the local coffee places, ...)
Acc.: none (optional hotel nights in Addis Ababa on request) (B)
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