Two of the best natural attractions in Ethiopia and maybe the world are the Simien Mountains and the Danakil Depression (Dallol), one high and one very low. Both take a few days to see but are some of the best things you can do when you visit Ethiopia.
Time to Do: The Simien Mountains can be done on a day trip from Gondar but to appreciate the scenery a 3 day trip is definitely recommended. In the Danakil Depression you can see Dallol in 3 days from Mekele but I would highly recommend doing the full 5 days and seeing Erte Ale. To get between both is a flight through Addis Ababa or a 2 day bus ride.
Here is the low down on both.
One of the main tourist attractions and sights in Ethiopia and this UNESCO Heritage Site will not disappoint with sheer cliffs, super scenery and animals and plants found nowhere else in the world except in this park.
The park starts off very slowly with nice scenery, short grass, a few trees but nothing to blow you away. The park is on a plateau so although it doesn’t feel like it you will be above 2500mtrs all the time. An average level of fitness is required as there is no major hiking required unless you want to but the days do require over 7hrs of walking.
There are several campsites where each night your cook, mule porter will set up the tents before you arrive as although you will walk the scenic route there is a road that can be driven to all these campsites. The nearest is Sankabar then Geech then Chenek campsite. On your first day you will come across troop of Gelada baboons (indigenous) with their bleeding heart, long rocker hair and unbelievable climbing skills. You will notice some strange trees that are actually plants like the Giant Heath or Giant St. Johns Wort that are small garden plants in Europe but as big as trees in the Simien Mountiains.
The second day the scenery turns from nice to spectacular with huge cliffs the norm and hopefully a few walia ibex (indigenous), the large thick billed ravens (indigenous), bushbucks (type of deer) and klipspringers (type of deer). As you pass some of the villages you may get invited in for coffee in a local one room mud house where the lady of the house roast the coffee beans and serves you coffee in an old bean can. It is still very nice though. These are not cafe’s but they will do it on request from your guide for a small donation. It is very humbling to see how a 5 person family with chickens and goats etc all live together.
The third day the scenery goes from spectacular to whatever the next superlative is with even bigger cliffs and longer views with the rocker monkeys racing down seemingly vertical cliffs. You will be lucky to spot the Simien/Ethiopian wolf (indigenous) which actually looks more like a fox and around the same size. The lammergeyer (indigenous) is a huge vulture that stands over 1mtr (3ft) in height that you may see from a great distance from the ground below.
I was on the trek for 4days and I managed to spot all of these amazing animals (gelada baboon, walia ibex, raven and Simien wolf) that can be found nowhere else on the planet and all up close. Hopefully you will be as lucky.
Need to Know
If you want an organised tour and are not going to organise it yourself in Debark, then make sure to shop around in Gondar. Going in a group makes it cheaper for everyone. There are big differences in prices between tour agencies. When I did it there were 4 of us (2 other random people we met in the hotel the day before as most tourists in Gondar are doing the trek) and we met 2 others on a separate tour when in the park. They had paid nearly double the price that we paid for the exact same trip they organised in the town on the same day we did. Same route, same accommodation and same food.
It is possible to organise it all yourself in Debark by getting a bus from Gondar. A local guide is compulsory so make sure to organise this first in the Park Office so that you won’t get hassle from others. The guides operate in a queue system so you will be just given the next in the queue. If his English isn’t great you can change him. The guide will then get a cook and mule to carry the tents etc. Food should be bought in Gondar as there is much more of a selection. The guide and porter will also expect to be fed by you. The only way into the park is to hire a 4 x 4 or walk. Tourists are prohibited from using the trucks and there are no buses. It is approximately a 5day trek from Debark- Sankabar Camp to Geech Camp to Chenek Camp and back to Debark via Sankabar. Ras Dashen return takes about 9days.
Danakil Depression (Afar Depression, Erta Ale)
One of the best places I have ever been but also one of the toughest. From the salt flats of the Danakil to approaching Erta Ale with the brand new, razor sharp basalt rock to the climbing to the summit and peering inside a cauldron of boiling lava. It surely is nature at its very best. But also the Danakil Depression is the lowest point on the African continent at over 100mtrs below sea level and has officially the hottest average temperature in the world with an average temperature over a year of 34.9deg Celsius (94.8F, including night-time). Unless you want to pay much more on top of an already very expensive tour then you go without air conditioning. This though brings its own problems as the worst thing about the Afar Region is the wind, the Afar Fire it is called. The wind is roasting and so even when the sun goes down the wind still has you sweating!
If you go for 3days then you will go as far as Dallol but stay in Hamed Ale. Hamed Ale is 6hrs drive away from Mekele, 4hrs of which are off road. This is just a military outpost but it is where the ‘road’ stops. There are a few huts in a small village where the nomadic local salt miners live. Dallol, once you have passed the salt plain of Lake Asal, is utterly spectacular with bizarre colours and rock formations. There are bubbling hot springs, salt eggs, a lake venting smoke, tiny little pools of jagged sharp rocks beside little pools of mushroom shaped rocks. The minerals and colours are unique and change colour depending on light from the sun. I have seen springs in New Zealand and Bolivia and they are not a patch on this.
When in Hamed Ale and visiting Dallol you will see camel trains where locals go into the salt flats in the searing heat (can be up to almost 60deg (140F)) to mine salt and load them onto the camels. Once looking at this life you can never complain about your day job again. 2000years ago when the currency of the world was salt, the Afar people were one of the richest in the world, unfortunately for them times have moved on.
If you take the longer 5 day tour then you will visit Dallol but the extra two days are visiting the spectacular Erta Ale near the Eritrean border. Once you leave Hamed Ale you are now truly ‘off-road’ as it is nothing but desert. The desert changes from sand to rocks back to sand. Almost nothing lives here but then out of nowhere you see a hut and a few people living 2hrs drive from the nearest neighbour. How they survive for food and especially water is a wonder. The journey to the foot of the volcano takes about 6hrs. For 4hours you probably average 20km/hr and when you are very close to the volcano you encounter the rock from its recent eruptions and you average about 5km/hr. When you reach the little huts at the base you will see how sharp this new rock is but yet I also saw some Afar kids, from the huts we passed, running on the rocks after the jeep in their bare feet!!
You have something to eat at the foot of Erta Ale and wait for it to cool down and get dark. It gets dark alright but the cooling is debatable. The 2.5hr trek up to the 615mtr summit is a steady uphill made tougher by the heat. Erta Ale is only one of 4 permanent lava lakes in the world and it is the oldest although there are other temporary ones. Once at the summit there is a big crater which you must descend to reach the smaller active crater. As you step across lava that probably was red hot a year or two ago (it last erupted in 2011) and cooled in layers like hard chocolate you can see the glow of the crater ahead of you. When you peer over and see the lava for the first time you are speechless. You definitely will be if you are downwind as the fumes are choking and toxic. The lava is only 15mtrs (50ft) below you and it constantly bubbling, exploding, getting black and hard as it cools and then being sucked back in to get melted again. I could have stood there for a day looking in I was so mesmerised but in the end 3hrs of looking into a hole had to do me. I felt like someone from the local county (city) council! Usually you sleep on the summit out in the open air with boiling lava in your dreams.
Need to know
Make no mistake about it this is a very expensive trip. Partly down to the fact that 2 x 4 wheel drives must be brought. It may sound over the top but it is for safety. That is how harsh the environment is! You have a very low survival chance if you go to Erta Ale and your jeep breaks down in 40deg heat. As it happened, the axel broke on our jeep, so lucky we had a second one!
You must start the tour in Mekele and for the 5 day tour the deal we had costs €2500 ($3300) for the tour so that cost was split between as many as you could fit up to a max of 5. Obviously very expensive if only 2 of you but with some befriending of people and some luck (an Austrian in Mekele asked us about it as we were leaving the hotel to start the tour and came with us) it worked out at €500 each which is more reasonable. Credit cards are not usually accepted so either bring cash with you or prepare to spend a lot of time at a cash machine. We went with “Danakil Tour & Travel Agency” based in Mekele. Phone +251 (0)914702648.
I have done a decent amount of travelling but so far it is the best place I have visited between Dallol, the salt flats of Lake Asal and Erte Ale volcano it is well worth €1000 never mind €500.
Practicalities – About Ethiopia
€1 = 24Birr, $1 = 18.5Birr
Language = Amharic. English is widely spoken in tourist areas.
Flights – Can fly with Lufthansa, Turkish Airlines, Ethiopian Air, Emirates from outside the African continent
Internal flights are common and frequent with Ethiopian Airlines (http://www.ethiopianairlines.com) and are a reasonable price. Addis Ababa is the hub but journeys only cost approximately 2000Birr one way at a weeks notice. For example at one weeks notice it is possible to get Axum return for 3600Birr. This is a great way to get around if stuck for time. Ethiopian Airlines has an office in all the major cities.
Accomodation – 380Birr per night for a reasonable double room (Addis Ababa)
Population – 84.7million
Visas – You can recieve a visa on arrival for $20 and 2 x passport photos when you arrive if you are from the following countries: Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Korea Republic, Kuwait, Luxembourg, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Russian Federation, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, United States. If you are not then you need to apply in advance. Please check before going as the situation changes on http://www.ethiopianembassy.org/ConsularServices/ConsularService.php?Page=VisaRequirement.htm#1
Map of Ethiopia
|Addis Ababa - National Museum|
National Museum of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, Oromia, Ethiopia
|Addis Ababa - St. Georges Cathedral|
Abune Petros Memorial, Addis Ababa, Oromia, Ethiopia
|Addis Ababa - National Palace|
Ghion Hotel (Addis Ababa), Addis Ababa, Oromia, Ethiopia
|Addis Ababa - Merkato (Open Market)|
Tekle Haimanot, Addis Ababa, Oromia, Ethiopia
|Addis Ababa - Terra Bus Station|
Tekle Haimanot, Addis Ababa, Oromia, Ethiopia
Bahir Dar, Amhara, Ethiopia
Gondar, Amhara, Ethiopia
Debark, Amhara, Ethiopia
|Simien Mnts - Sanbakar Camp|
Sankabar, Amhara, Ethiopia
|Simien Mnts - Geech Camp|
Geech, North Gondar, Amhara, Ethiopia
|Simien Mnts - Chenek Camp|
Chenek, North Gondar, Amhara, Ethiopia
Mekele, Tigray, Ethiopia
|Hamad Ale - Dallol|
Dallol, Afar Zone 2, Afar, Ethiopia
|Erta Ale Volcano|
Erta Ale, Afar Zone 2, Afar, Ethiopia
Axum, Tigray, Ethiopia
Lalibela, Amhara, Ethiopia
My Route in Ethiopia