The smell of boiling acid wafted up from the bubbling technicolor sea below, burning my eyes and lungs and making me cough. “Come to this side,” a voice shouted toward our small group, “the wind is becoming too strong.” I picked my way across the crumbling rusted surface to higher ground and stopped to catch my breath in the stinking hot air. “As long as you can still smell the sulphur, you’re okay,” our cheery German friend, a chemistry teacher, explained. “It’s when you stop smelling it that you have to worry.”
He spoke these words as we walked carefully across the dry patches between the green acid pools of Dallol, a volcanic explosion crater in the Danakil Depression. The Danakil lies 130 meters (430 feet) below sea level in the northeast of Addis Ababa, near the Eritrean border. When my friend suggested it as a possible destination for our upcoming trip, the first thing I did was navigate to Google. The images I saw were like nothing I had ever imagined. Ethiopia wasn’t at the top of my travel bucket list, but like so many times in life, the unknown often surprises you.
The previous day, we’d driven from Mekele toward the small village of Hamed Ela, pausing briefly before navigating into the winter white nothing of the salt pans. The tires of the vehicles in our caravan crunched against the salt. The warm and briny air read like a summer’s day at the beach, but my mind looked out across the crisp white and deciphered, “snow.” That sensory disparity wrote the surrealism of the next two days. Here and there, patches of water dotted the porous surface, skimming over the salt here, creating ankle-deep pools there. As the sun set pink and orange across the shallow lake, the blinding brightness of the landscape darkened to blue, and the glowing sky painted pastel waves across the puddles.
In the high places, where the salt rose a few inches above the surface of the water, we toasted the day and joined our Ethiopian tour guides in a dance. I left and sat behind the vehicles on a dry spot to watch the sun disappear over the thin line of the horizon, the black of the night pushing down on it until only a faint line of blue remained. We drove back to camp, ate a warm and simple meal, explored the small dark village with headlamps in search of some semblance of a latrine, attracted the curiosity of a wandering military officer, and fell asleep on woven rope cots under the overwhelming thunder of a million bright stars.
In the morning, the salt pans without their sunset magic took still looked like snow- but snow after the clean white of freshly laid powder falls prey to dust and traffic and sun and breaks into slushy, mudded chunks. We drove through the grey haze toward a red and brown mountain rising out of the centre of the lake. After a brief series of warnings from the guides- stay together, don’t step in the acid- we climbed the loose red and purple rock at the base of the volcano and made our way to the top.
There, small brine geysers bubbled through cones of salt, green pools of acid separated by salt ridges shouted out in glaring neon from the iron stained rocks, iron and sulphur bubbled up from the earth and mixed to create garish splashes of yellow, blue-green, orange, white, and seafoam. There was no shade. Dallol holds the record for the highest mean temperature on earth 34C (94F), and the days hover closer to 40C (104F). Someone told us that Dallol means “the colourful place,” in the local Afar language, but really, it means “disintegrated.” Both rang true. Our local guide, who didn’t speak much English, perched on the ridge and stared out over the colourful sea in awe. Through a translator we asked how often he’d been there. “Many times.” The bizarre sight still astounded him. The stench and the heat were unbearable, the pools and colors beautiful and jarring at the same time. I could have stayed for hours, but as soon as we turned to leave, relief washed over me.
I’ve learned that there are no places on earth without something to teach us. Even the harsh deserts have their surprises. Light and shadow play with the barren landscape to create beauty from nothing, resilient people find ways to build a life for themselves, and plants and animals carve out surprises niches for themselves in the ecosystem. My takeaway from Dallol, perhaps, is that I haven’t really seen anything yet.