Highway to Hell: The Danikil Depression Ethiopia

Matt, Mohammed in Hell
Matt and Mohammed…note the landscape!

I was flipping through our Lonely Planet guidebook on Ethiopia and read about an interesting location in the NE of the country: The Danakil Depression. Perhaps what caught my eye was the statement: this is probably what Hell looks like! We both thought this sounded like an adventure and were lucky enough to join in with 3 other wonderful folks from France for 4 days in the underworld.

The Highway to Hell is a remarkable engineering feat. Perhaps a better statement would be that the trucks that drive on the Highway to Hell are remarkable machines. Seriously…sand, lava, rocks, salt, camel poo, you name it the trucks and our very skilled drivers safely navigated us to something akin to Mordor.

This was our self contained room…you can see the bathroom behind the building…note the lack of privacy!

Our first stop was in a small village (Hamadella) where we spent the night. Whoever designed Hades must have been a man because there was no plumbing of any kind in the village. When I asked where to go to the bathroom I was directed to the no (wo)man’s land around us. Now…I don’t have an issue with an outdoors squat but I do like a little bit of privacy and the fist size stones didn’t help me in my search for this. After a few long walks in the scorching heat I gave up and let the world enjoy a full white moon whenever nature called!

The next day we set off to our first destination in the pit of despair and drove even further into the sun scorched desert to the base of Erta Ale: an active volcano. Our trucks slowly maneuvered over what had to be quicksand and I enjoyed the feeling of sand eeking into every crevice of my body as the dust infiltrated the entire truck. Fortunately we stopped at a bore hole at lunch time and I used the warm water to rinse off. Just when I thought the 4 wheel driving couldn’t get more ‘western’ our driver made a seemingly random turn and started driving right over the lava field!

Lots of dust in hell
Dusty tan

To keep us all from melting we spent the heat of the afternoon in the shade of some huts at the base of the volcano. At some point during my rest it occurred to me that December 21, 2012 was perhaps not the best day to tempt fate and go in search of fire and brimstone!

Fortunately, when we set off for our 9 km climb up the volcano we were escorted by a number of well armed individuals. After I got over the shock of always having someone nearby with a gun it occurred to me that of course the people in Hell would be well armed…what did I think I signed up for? (oh…and the disputed border of Eritrea was only KM’s away from us)

You need guns in hell
Our protective detail!

We arrived at the lip of the cauldron and neither of us anticipated what we found. We could smell the sulphur and see the red glow of the dancing lava in the centre of the pit. If only I had remembered to bring “the ring.” After a few OMG’s we started the climb down into the cauldron to get even closer to the fiery belly of the tortured earth. It was at this point that I learned the “new” lava I was standing on was from the last time the volcano blew it’s top…in October, 2012!

Seriously…who signs up to hike to the edge of an active volcano that has the potential to spew steaming hot MAGMA over km’s and km’s on the day the world is supposed to end?

The sound of the bubbling and gurgling as the 1,000 degree Celsius molten lava turned the rock into liquid below us was somewhat unsettling…and yet very “cool” at the same time. Every now and then a new crack in the lava lake would open up and spurts of magma would shoot up to land on the black cooled lava. We have both been VERY fortunate to see many interesting things on this planet…but watching the earth literally devour itself may have topped the list. Here is a video of the lava lake…

Bubbling lava in hell
Huh! Get a load of that!

The salt lake was our next stop…rumoured to be the hottest place on the planet with an average temperature of 34.4 degrees Celcius but it was a balmy 38 degrees the day we were there (actually…if you think about it, that is a bit cooler than I had always pictured Hell).

During the “dry” season the local people cut the salt from the dried up lake, load up thousands and thousands of camels and then gleefully walk aprox 200 km to sell the salt. They then return to do it all over again! I didn’t find out what they did to get this job, but I do know this is not something I hope to find myself doing in the afterlife – fortunately it was only the men, even all the camels are male so I am off the hook…Matt on the other hand…

Looks like a hellish weight
Each camel carries this much salt..looks heavy!

Our last picture stop in our trip to Hell was to Dalol lake. The sulphur smell here made my milk related flatulance problems seem like nothing. Literally, sulphuric acid was bubbling and oozing out of the ground. The pictures really do speak for themselves. Each colour you see is a different nasty chemical including, sulphur, salt, potash, and magnesium. There was even a lake bubbling with natural gas and a whole lot of dead birds lying around it – it made a tar sands tailings pond look environmentally friendly!

no laundry in hell
Don’t worry..we did laundry as soon as we could!
Hell is colourful
Sulphuric acid was bubbling out of this…
colourful hell
The green stuff just looks nasty!

We escaped our adventure to perdition with nothing more than a few flea bites and a nasty bacterial gut infection (which, given where we were is pretty incredible). I can’t say either of us believe in the myth of Hell, but after visiting this glimpse of what it could be like we are both trying to do whatever is in our power to ensure we don’t end up spending eternity here! Know any good charities that need volunteers?

security is needed in hell
One of our protective detail…Matt only looks a little nervous!


Post Author
Heather is 0.5 of the brains and energy behind this site. She loves to travel and has experienced wanderlust for most of her adult life. When not gallivanting around the globe she can be found in a canoe or on her bike.


  1. posted by
    Keely and Brayden
    Jan 25, 2013 Reply

    That video is amazing!

  2. posted by
    David Brooks
    Jan 25, 2013 Reply

    Wow! Can’t say much else…

  3. posted by
    Where the hell are Heather and Matt?….part deux | 2012adventure
    Mar 16, 2013 Reply

    […] plane to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia and spent from mid December, and the first week of January in Ethiopia with a brief flight over to Djibouti for […]

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