After a surprisingly good sleep under the stars I got out of bed just after 6am and rolled up the sleeping bag and foam mattress and got ready for day 3 of the trip.
A tasty breakfast was served just after 6:30am with scrambled eggs, pancakes and syrup, fried aubergine and tinned pineapple
We then headed out in the 4WD's again across the barren plains.
This morning's plan was to head north to Dallol, situated only 15 kilometres from the border of Eritrea.
Although the road was little more than some flattened tracks where other 4WD's had driven, I was surprised to see it marked on my GPS.
After a 30 minute drive and a 20 minute trek we arrived at the alien landscape of Dallol.
The Dallol crater was formed when basaltic magma penetrated Miocene salt deposits, lifting the salt up to the surface.
The bright and vibrant colours were overwhelming and it really felt we on an alien planet somewhere far away.
Dallol is one of the lowest known volcanic vents in the world at 150 feet (45m) below sea level.
The bright colours in the hot springs are due to ferrous chloride and iron hydroxide emissions collecting in green acidic ponds.
We were free to wonder around, but told to only step on the dry, brown areas.
Groundwater heated by molten rock carries dissolved salts to the surface. The moisture then dries away, leaving the multi-coloured deposits.
Small temporary geysers periodically form, producing cones of green, yellow and white salt on the inhospital landscape.
The Afar people refer to the area as “the Gateway to Hell”. Not hard to see why!
Millions of years into the future the Arabian, Nubian and Somalian tectonic plates will move apart so much that the Red Sea will eventually spill over, creating a new ocean and drowning this strange and surreal landscape forever.
And another great place for a selfie! Over my right shoulder is the remains of long abandoned mining operation, where Potash, Potassium Chlorite and salt used to be mined up until the 1950's.
The government requires all visitors to the Danakil to hire armed guards. In 2012, two Germans, two Hungarians and an Austrian were shot dead by gunmen while visiting the volcanic Afar region. Two Germans and two Ethiopians were also kidnapped but later released.
The Afar Revolutionary Democratic Unity Front claimed responsibilty for the attack. As the Afar people are distributed over parts of Ethiopia, Djibouti and Eritrea, the ARDUF does not recognize Eritrea and the consequent separation of the Afar people and seeks to unite Afars under an autonomous region of Ethiopia. It has also previously warned against foreigners entering the Afar region.
Unfortunately two days after our trip to the Danakil Depression there was another attack, with a German tourist shot and killed.
Admiring some extraordinary and peculiar salt deposits.
Dallol is also used to help investigate how life might evolve on other faraway planets. The hot springs are home to microorganisms called extremophiles which manage to somehow survive this very inhospitable environment.
These microbes are of special interest to astrobiologists as they could help to explain how extraterrestrial life could arise.
We then walked back to the 4WD's after a surreal and amazing walk through the strange and otherworldly landscape at Dallol.
To the west of Dallol were the salt canyons.
The pillars of salt, a result from erosion, rise up to 40 metres high.
Chilling in the shade of one of the pillars as the midday heat approaches.
We then headed south to Yellow Lake.
The lake is not as hot as the Dallol salt springs, reaching only 50-55°C and is also less acidic with a pH of around 2. The water was also bubbling from carbon dioxide which is released by the volcanic activities below.
A small pond nearby. The water is very high in Potassium, resulting in the yellow colour.
A dead bird on the edge of the lake. The carbon dioxide that bubbles out of the lake is heavier than air and sinks to the ground.
For humans this is no issue, but any animal or insect that stays within 30cm of the water will find itself being suffocated by the carbon dioxide and die.
Continuing our drive south across the arid plains.
Stopping at Asale Rocks to see where the crusty salt pan had collapsed to reveal the green acidic water below.
The water was crystal clear and completely devoid of any life.
The brilliant green water below the surface was quite a contrast to the bleak, arid world just above.
One of our guards in front of the Asale Rocks that briefly interrupt up the endless flat plains.
At our last stop, where the salt was taken to carry back to Mek'ele. As it was Friday and their day off we unfortunately we could not see them cut the salt up into slabs.
After our tour of the northern part of the Danakil, the plan for this afternoon was to drive 190 kilometres south-west to the town of Abala.
Grabbing a Coca-Cola (in Amharic) in Berhale as we stopped for lunch.
Enjoying some tasty goat and injera.
And just out the back where they were feeding the leftover injera to the next meal!
Continuing on our way to Abala.
Pausing to photograph the beautiful vista.
Quite a contrast from the hot, dry and flat Danakil Depression.
A boy with his baby goat and his herd of camels.
We then arrived at Abala just after 4pm.
At our guesthouse in Abala. Still sleeping on simple foam mats but it was great to have running water and a roof over our heads.
Avinath had a sim card he had picked up from Addis and wanted to get it activated and cut down for his iPhone so we headed out with the son of the guesthouse owner into town.
Girl in green. Abala is at an elevation of 775 metres so was a bit cooler than the Danakil.
Waiting outside the Ethio Telecom office. Avinath likes to collect sim cards of countries he visits. He also said he had some bitcoin he had recently sold and wanted to make sure it had cleared correctly. He had bought 1.5 bitcoin at $6k and sold at $11k.
Walking down the main street. He had managed to activate the sim card at the Ethio Telecom office but still needed it cut down to fit in his iPhone.
Though two-thirds of Ethiopians are Christian, the Afar Region is 95% Muslim.
Despite the natural beauty and spectacle in the Danakil, it was great to walk around a vibrant and busy town and be back in civilization.
And finally managing to find a shop to cut down Avinath's sim card.
Girl in blue.
We arrived back at the guesthouse just in time for the afternoon coffee ceremony. Roasting the beans on a charcoal burner.
The coffee ceremony is one of the most recognizable parts of Ethiopian culture.
Part of the ceremony is to pass around the pan so everyone can smell the freshly roasted beans. According to legend, in the 9th century an Ethiopian goat herder discovered the energising effects of coffee after his goats started jumping after eating the red berries from a coffee bush.
Pouring the freshly made coffee from the Jebena, a traditional clay pot used specifically for the coffee ceremony.
Chatting as night fell. It was a good mix of people from the Netherlands, Israel, India, Germany, USA and myself from New Zealand. Everyone was pretty well travelled so was great swapping stories and experiences from different countries visited.
The amazing spread that was put on for dinner.
It was a great and interesting change from the western food that was served the night prior.
And a bottle of Ethiopian St. George beer to finish a great and very enjoyable day 3.
After a lazy sleep in until 8am I treated myself to a bucket shower with luke warm water.
The guesthouse cat lazing under a tree.
Another amazing spread served for breakfast.
I resigned myself to adding a few kilograms after all this delicious food!
Saying hello to the neighbourhood kids.
Packing the 4WD's for the trip to Erta Ale.
Today's plan was to head east from Abala for 160 kilometres before departing the main road for a 2 hour, 160 kilometre drive to the base camp of Erta Ale Volcano.
Leaving Abala just after 10am.
The beautiful mountain scenery made for a great drive.
Kids selling Miswak sticks to clean your teeth with.
Stopping in Gegeya Shet.
The flag of Ethiopia along with the flags of the nine regions of Ethiopia.
Simple but filling pasta and vegetables for lunch.
The Chinese built road through the middle of the volcanic rock field.
After 160 kilometres from Abala we departed the main road and began the dusty and rocky drive to Erta Ale Volcano base camp.
After clearing the volcanic lava field we made our way across the flat sandy plain.
Some juvenile camels in front of the 1031 metre tall Amaytoli Terara volcano.
We then hit more volcanic rock. The road got progessively worse until we were only averaging 10kph.
We finally arrived at the base camp just after 5pm, taking two hours to cover the ~40 kilometres from the main road.
The hood of our Landcruiser up to help cool the engine after the bruising drive across the rocky lava field.
There were quite a few soldiers at the camp to provide security. Despite feeling quite safe, it was quite a shock to learn of the German tourist that was shot and killed here by gunmen just two days after we left.
The camels are used to transport equipment and water up to the second base camp at the top of the Erta Ale Volcano.
Some more camels with the smoking Erta Ale Volcano in the background.
An ever vigilant scarecrow sentry on guard.
Enjoying dinner just after night fell at 7pm.
At about 7:30pm we started the trek up to the top of Erta Ale Volcano. The moon was out and the skies were clear so most people just walked without torches or headlamps.
A convoy of camels carrying up our sleeping bags and water.
Taking a break at about half-way. The total distance from base camp to the top was 10.5 kilometres and ~400 metres in elevation so it wasn't too taxing.
The camels continuing the trek up with the red glow from the volcano caldera in the distance. We were also accompanied by a military escort on our trek to the top.
Large clouds of steam, carbon dioxide, sulfur and hydrogen chloride now visible as we near the top of Erta Ale Volcano.
We reached the summit base camp about 3 hours after starting the trek. Looking down from the base camp. One year previously the caldera had overflowed, sending fresh lava across the top of the volcano and you could clearly see where it had spilled over and solidified.
Climbing down and towards the volcano caldera. The relatively new solidified lava was quite brittle and broke quite easily under our feet.
We soon arrived at the edge of the caldera and gingerly peered over the edge at the fiery pool of red hot lava.
It was an indescribable experience and really made you feel in awe for the power and energy mere metres in front of us.
There are currently only six volcano lava lakes in the world and Erta Ale is notable for being the oldest having formed in 1906.
Erta Ale means "smoking mountain" in the local Afar language.
Solidified lava just behind us that was faintly illuminated by the red glow reflecting off clouds of volcano gases.
We then walked around the edge of the caldera.
After trekking back to the summit base camp just after midnight we settled in for some sleep again under the moon and stars. It was quite surreal being in a sleeping bag only 250 metres from a bubbling lava lake and definitely one of my most memorable travel experiences!