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Djibouti, Ethiopia - 9 days
Djibouti and the Danakil Depression
Prices from £3,299
Djibouti and the Danakil Depression
Prices from £3,299
The horn of Africa is a fascinating mélange of cultures, from nomadic herders to Arabian traders and influences from across the Indian Ocean. It is also home to some of the continent’s most remote and breathtaking landscapes, a land where the taste of the wild is in the air, simply begging the intrepid traveller to explore. Starting in Djibouti we visit Lac Assal and the spectacular Lac Abbe, a vast salt lake with tall limestone chimneys belching gas into the air that looks for all the world like it should be on another planet. We then cross into Ethiopia, heading into the Afar desert and meeting the formidable Afar people, once feared throughout the region. We hike up the volcano of Erta Ale and marvel at its lava lake, visit the hot springs at Dallol - the hottest place on earth - and look out for camel caravans carting blocks of salt across the desert.
There are few places in the world that can compete with this region for real adventure.
Day 1 – Djibouti
Arrive in Djibouti and transfer to your hotel.
Day 2 – Lac Assal
We head to the crater lake of Lac Assal – one of Africa’s most impressive natural phenomena, its spectacular colours and unusual crystalline formations give it an almost alien appearance.
Day 3 – Lac Abbe
Drive to Lac Abbe, stopping en route to meet local people and arriving in the late afternoon to watch the sun set over one of Africa’s most enigmatic and breathtaking regions.
Day 4 – Lac Abbe – Semera
This morning we visit the extraordinary landscape of Lac Abbe, a desolate salt lake with hundreds of limestone chimneys belching sulphur into the atmosphere.
Day 5 – Lake Afrera
Drive to the turquoise Afrera Lake, surrounded by palm trees and home to local Afar people harvesting salt flakes using traditional methods.
Day 6 – Erta Ale
Drive to Mount Erta Ale through the Afar desert – Erta Ale is one of the highlights of this expedition, and is one of only five permanent lava lakes in the world. Hike to the rim to see one of the world’s most spectacular sights when the red lava in the crater lights up the sky.
Day 7 – Ahmedela
Drive to Ahmedela along unmarked sandy tracks, passing Afar settlements along the way.
Day 8 – Dallol – Mekelle
Drive to the hot springs at Dallol, composed of different minerals along with sulphurs and potash and create spectacular colours. You are likely to see the long ‘caravane de sel’ – camel trains loaded with salt.
Day 9 – Addis Ababa
Fly back to Addis Ababa.
Day 1 – Djibouti
Arrive in Djibouti and transfer to your hotel. Depending on when you arrive there may be time to explore the capital. Overnight Hotel Plein Ciel or similar.
Tucked away in the Horn of Africa, Djibouti is one of the smallest countries on the continent and receives very few visitors. A French colony until 1977, it was one of the last African nations to gain independence. Djibouti’s main asset is its port, providing an outlet for landlocked Ethiopia to send goods across the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, and Djibouti Town is the country’s liveliest hub, although in a country with a traditionally nomadic population, that’s not saying much. The capital is a fascinating mix of African, Asian, Arab and European influences and is divided into an African and European quarter – it is small enough to explore by walking around and although there are few traditional sights the main appeal is soaking up the atmosphere of this cosmopolitan little city, with French legionnaires mixing with nomadic Afar tribesmen, and women dressed in outrageously colourful robes. Djibouti Town has an allure that is hard to put your finger on.
Day 2 – Lac Assal
We head to the crater lake of Lac Assal – the lowest point in Africa (-150 m), as well as the most saline body of water in the world (up to 40%). One of Africa’s most impressive natural phenomena, its spectacular colours and unusual crystalline formations give it an almost alien appearance. We may see Afar herders or salt collectors on its shores. Return to Tadjoura for the night. Overnight beach bungalows. (BLD)
Surrounded by dormant volcanoes, Lac Assal is an impressive sight; the salt flats contrast with the black lava fields and there are numerous large crystal formations dotted around. The lake is fed by hot saline springs making it unique among salt lakes, as all others are fed by streams and rivers, and it has no outlet, which contributes to its extremely high level of salinity. As well as being the lowest point in Africa it is the third lowest depression in the world after the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee.
Day 3 – Lac Abbe
Drive to Lac Abbe, stopping en route to meet local people and arriving in the late afternoon to watch the sun set over one of Africa’s most enigmatic and breathtaking regions. Overnight Lac Abbe Camp. (BLD)
Day 4 – Lac Abbe – Semera
This morning we visit the extraordinary landscape of Lac Abbe, a desolate salt lake with hundreds of limestone chimneys belching sulphur into the atmosphere. This landscape is so other-worldly that the classic science fiction film ‘Planet of the Apes’ was filmed here. From here we cross into Ethiopia and head to Semera, where we stay for the night. Overnight Semera Hotel or similar. (BLD)
There can be few places in the world like Lac Abbe and it holds the distinction of being one of the most desolate places on our planet. Situated on the border between Ethiopia and Djibouti, this vast salt lake is surrounded by hundreds of limestone chimneys, some up to 50 metres high which spew sulphurous gas into the air, and its shores are inhabited by the nomadic Afar people who use the lake to gather salt. The lake is also renowned for its birdlife, with flamingoes, pelicans and ibis among other species to be found here. It is difficult to put into words such awe-inspiring scenery – this is jaw dropping on a grand scale.
Day 5 – Lake Afrera
Drive to the turquoise Afrera Lake, surrounded by palm trees. The Afrera salt lake is home to local Afar people harvesting salt flakes using traditional methods, and in the lake is the world’s lowest lying island in the world, Frachetti island (-102 m). Overnight camping. (BLD)
Day 6 – Erta Ale
Drive to Mount Erta Ale through the Afar desert – Erta Ala is one of the highlights of this expedition, and is one of only five permanent lava lakes in the world. We hike 3 hours to the rim, while our equipment and water is carried by camels – we wait for sunset to see one of the world’s most spectacular sights when the red lava in the crater lights up the sky. Overnight camping. (BLD)
Erta Ale hike
The gently climbing hike itself follows interesting lava formations (lava and pahoehoe lava fields, lava tubes, hornitos, sand deposits, rare vegetation) until we stand on the rim of the caldera. An easy descend brings us to the floor of the caldera and after 10 minutes, we stand on the active pit crater containing the boiling lava lake.
Day 7 – Ahmedela
Drive to Ahmedela along unmarked sandy tracks, passing Afar settlements along the way. Ahmedela is the base for exploring the salt mines and seeing the salt workers and camel caravans. Overnight camping. (BLD)
Day 8 – Dallol – Mekelle
Drive to the hot springs at Dallol, composed of different minerals along with sulphurs and potash and create spectacular colours. Dallol is renowned as being the hottest inhabited place on earth; between 1960 and 1966 an average annual temperature of 34°C (94°F) was recorded. You are likely to see the long ‘caravane de sel’ – camel trains loaded with salt. Later we drive to Mekelle for the night. Axum Hotel or similar. (BLD)
The Danakil Depression
The formidable Danakil Depression is known as one of the most inhospitable places on earth, with searing temperatures and little flora or fauna. It is the lowest place on the planet, created when the earth’s crust collapsed and water flooded in, only to evaporate in the fierce sun leaving enormous salt flats and salt lakes. These are important for the local Afar people, who collect this important commodity to sell at markets. Geologically, it is one of the most active places on the planet, and volcanic cones and lava spewing from the ground in places. To travel here feels like you are travelling to the ends of the earth, a remote, hostile, volcanic desert with spectacular landscapes where few western travellers have been before, and our journey of exploration allows us to do more than just scratch the surface, taking us to areas that define the very essence of ‘off the beaten track’. It has also been home to a number of important fossil discoveries, giving clues to the earliest ancestors of humans. The Danakil today is populated by the nomadic Afar people, a group once renowned for their hostility towards outsiders. In times gone by, Afar men could only be considered adults once they had killed another man, and are reputed to have worn their dead enemies’ testicles around their necks. They are thankfully no longer as fierce as they once were, and to meet them is to meet one of the most isolated ethnic groups on our planet.
Day 9 – Addis Ababa
Fly back to Addis Ababa. The rest of the day is spent exploring the city before you transfer to the airport for your flight home. (BLD)
Please note that if you are not arriving internationally with Ethiopian Airlines there is a supplement for this tour. This is because the domestic flights are significantly less expensive for travellers who use Ethiopian Airlines for their outbound international flights. As most of our travellers fly with Ethiopian, the tour price is based on this. Please enquire for further details.
Airport transfers – We include arrival and departure transfers regardless of whether you book flights yourself, or we book them for you. If you’re booking them yourself, then please let us know the details so that we can arrange the transfers.
Please note though that if you arrive earlier than Day 1 of the tour, and leave after the final day, we may need to make an additional charge for an airport transfer.
Accommodation – Accommodation as listed in the dossier. The nature of the destinations that we operate may sometimes mean that we need to change hotels, but we’ll always endeavour to keep the same standards. Please be aware that as we operate in many countries where tourism is in its infancy, hotel standards may not be the same as you’re used to elsewhere.
Guides – In most cases you will be accompanied by one guide from start to finish. However there may be occasions when this is not practical, for example if your trip covers a number of different countries. In these cases it often makes more sense to include different guides for each place, to take advantage of their specific knowledge of the destination.
Meals – As listed within the itinerary / dossier (B-Breakfast, L-Lunch, D-Dinner). These will vary from trip to trip – in some areas it makes sense to include all meals while in others there is a good choice of restaurants and we feel people might like to ‘do their own thing’ now and again. Please note that when meals are included, sometimes these will be in hotels, as often these are the most appropriate option, and will sometimes be set menus. Local restaurants are often lacking in variety, as well as the capacity to cater for groups. Drinks are not included and are at your own expense.
Entrance fees – Entrance fees are listed for those sites that we mention within the itinerary. If there are any other sites that you’d like to see, these would be at your own expense.
What’s not included:
Visas – We don’t arrange visas for our travellers, but if an invitation letter is necessary then we will arrange this for you. If you need any advice with visas then just give us a call, or alternatively a visa agency such as Travcour (www.travcour.com) can assist.
Airport taxes – If there are any departure taxes to pay that are not included within the cost of your ticket, you’ll need to pay these yourself.
International flights – Many of our travellers arrive from different destinations and so we don’t include international flights in the cost of our tours. If however you would like us to book flights for you, then just give us a call and we’ll be happy to discuss your options.
Travel Insurance – If you need any assistance with this, then let us know – although we can’t arrange it ourselves we can point you in the direction of a reputable provider that can assist.
Most travellers will require a visa to enter Ethiopia. This can either be obtained in your home country, or for many nationalities at Addis Ababa airport upon arrival, but not at land borders. A visa for Djibouti can be obtained upon arrival at the airport; costs at the time of writing are €90, and you should bring two passport photos – not always requested but we recommend that you don’t risk being refused entry.
Visa regulations can change however and so we recommend that you contact your nearest embassy for the most up to date information.
Health and vaccinations
We are not medically qualified and so we recommend that you speak to your doctor or nearest health professional for advice concerning recommended vaccinations. For more advice on vaccinations you can also visit www.fitfortravel.nhs.uk.
Yellow Fever vaccination certificates are not required for Ethiopia unless you are coming from a Yellow Fever endemic zone.
It is a condition of joining our tours that you have suitable travel insurance in place, and we cannot accept travellers without insurance. All policies differ in terms of what they will cover, but as a minimum you need medical and health cover which will cover you for the whole time that you are away. Most policies will also include cancellation cover, which will cover you if an unforeseen circumstance obliges you to cancel your trip. We recommend that you obtain your insurance as soon as you book your trip.
Please note that government travel warnings often affect the validity of your travel insurance, and you should check this with your insurance company.
Arrival and departure taxes
There are no arrival or departure taxes applicable for either Ethiopia or Djibouti.
The local currency in Ethiopia is the birr, and in Djibouti the franc. It is best to bring US dollars for exchange purposes. You should bring clean and unmarked notes that have been issued after 2009, otherwise it can be difficult to exchange them.
It’s easy to change money in Ethiopia, either at banks or the hotels and your guide can assist with this. There are also an increasing number of ATMs in larger towns. However these are not always reliable and so it is best to think of them as a back up rather than a main means of obtaining money. Also do bear in mind that you are travelling through remote parts of both countries ñ we recommend changing money in Djibouti Town, and then again when you cross into Ethiopia, and your guide will be able to help you with this.
Credit cards are accepted in larger hotels and better restaurants (usually in Addis) but are not commonly accepted elsewhere.
When to go
The best time to visit Djibouti and this part of Ethiopia is during our winter months – it is fiercely hot in Djibouti and the Danakil Depression at other times of year.
Culture – language and religion
Ethiopia is home to an astonishing number of different ethnic groups, all of which hold their own belief systems and speak their own languages. However, the official religion is Christianity, and especially in the north of the country Christian traditions are prevalent. In the east Islam dominates, especially around the town of Harar, while the southern tribal groups follow indigenous belief systems. The official language of the country is Amharic but you will find that many people, especially in the tourist industry, will speak English.
In Djibouti most people are Muslim, and Somali is the predominant language. Other languages include Afar, French and Arabic.
Eating and drinking
Ethiopia has a fairly unique cuisine that is much more exciting than other countries in East Africa. Injera, a sort of pancake made from the teff grain, is a mainstay at every meal, and this will be accompanied by various spicy stews of meat and vegetables. A particular favourite is shiro, main from chickpeas. Ethiopia also has ‘fasting days’ when meat dishes are generally not available. You’ll find many western dishes on offer in the larger hotels, and spaghetti is ubiquitous – a long lasting legacy of the Italians’ short involvement in the country. Alcoholic drinks are readily available – an Ethiopian speciality is tej, a honey wine served in small vials.
With its position on the Red Sea coast Djibouti has absorbed a many different culinary influences, from Middle Eastern to Indian, and meat and rice dishes tend to be fairly common.
When camping your cook will provide meals of both European and local styles; pasta and stews can be expected.
You should advise us when you book if you have any special dietary requirements. We will try to accommodate you as much as possible, but we cannot always guarantee this.
Luggage and packing
The first rule of packing is not to bring too much. There will be plenty of occasions where you’ll need to carry your luggage yourself and so you should be able to do this without help. Most people are surprised at how little they actually need to bring, and it’s normally possible to get laundry done along the way. It doesn’t matter whether you bring a suitcase, rucksack or holdall, but please donít bring more than 20kg of luggage as this may be difficult to accommodate in the vehicles we use. You’ll also need a day pack.
There are no special dress rules for either country, but you should dress respectfully when entering mosques, and monasteries – legs and upper arms should be covered. Do also bear in mind that Addis Ababa is the third highest capital city in the world and it can get chilly in the evenings.
You’ll need to bring a sleeping bag for the nights spent camping.
You’ll be walking around a number of sites and villages, as well as walking up Erta Ale, so do consider this when selecting shoes or boots.
You don’t need to be especially fit to join our trips in Ethiopia and Djibouti, but there will be stairs to climb, hills to walk and sites to explore, so you’ll enjoy it more if you have a reasonable level of fitness. The walk up Erta Ale takes around 4-5 hours and your luggage will be transported by camels or mules.
In the Horn of Africa, like many of the destinations we offer, environmental thinking is not at the forefront of everyday life and you will see a lot of litter in places. However, we ask that you don’t contribute to this and to please take all litter back to the hotel where it can be disposed of properly, including cigarette butts.
Especially in the larger cities, you may come across beggars. There’s no hard and fast answer on this and everyone has a different view – some feel that giving simply encourages begging while others see it as helping someone in need. Some guidebooks will tell you that you should only give if you see a local person also giving, to determine whether the beggar is genuine. The issue is particularly difficult when it comes to children, but we’d ask that you don’t give to children as in poor communities this can often act as a discouragement to going to school. If you feel that youíd like to contribute then speak with your guide who will be able to make appropriate suggestions.
Most people like to take photos, and it’s sometimes easy to forget that the photogenic person in front of you may not want their picture taken. Always ask if it’s okay, and respect their wishes if they say no. You’ll often find that in remote villages or among more traditional communities the older generation, and women in particular, are not comfortable with having their picture taken.
On the subject of photography, it’s often forbidden to take photos of ‘sensitive’ areas such as military buildings or border posts, and doing so can land you in trouble with the authorities. If youíre not sure, ask your guide.
If you’re happy with the services of your guide and driver then we would recommend leaving a tip for them at the end of your trip. The amount is entirely up to you, but a reasonable amount for a group to tip would be between £80-120 to both the driver and guide – however it is not obligatory and if you do not wish to tip then this is up to you.
When travelling to some of the destinations we offer you need to bear in mind that things won’t always work here as we’re used to them working at home. Travelling in underdeveloped and untouristed destinations requires both patience and a sense of humour. There may be problems with infrastructure, attitudes may be different, and maintenance may not be as high a standard as we would always like, but this is very much part and parcel of travelling in such a place.
In addition, roads throughout the parts of Africa that we visit are often poorly maintained (if at all!) and distances between key sites of interest can be long. Travelling in Africa can be tiring, hot and dusty at times, and inevitably it can be frustrating. While there are some issues that we are able to solve, others are intrinsic to the countries that we travel through, and you should be aware that many of the countries that we operate in cannot be compared to others on the continent that have better infrastructure – for example the popular tourist destinations of east and southern Africa. Although travelling in these countries can at times be an ‘unpolished’ experience, this is all part of the adventure. We aim to resolve any issues as quickly as possible, and putting up with a pothole (or ten) is undeniably worth it for the amazing sights and cultural experiences you will encounter along the way.
We keep a very close eye on the travel advice issued by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office so that we can keep you up to date with any warnings. At the time of writing the FCO does not advise against travel to the parts of Djibouti or Ethiopia that we visit on this tour.
This relates to advice from the British government – other nationalities need to check the stance of their own governments.
Ethiopia – The Bradt Guide
The Danakil Diary
The State of Africa
Please note that the information contained above is highly susceptible to change, and while we endeavour to keep up to date we recommend that you use this as a guide only. Should you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact us.
Updated 31 January 2019
Very interesting tour. We really enjoyed visiting the lakes, although Elizabeth was as you know a little apprehensive about the simple accommodation there. In the end it turned out to be much better than we’d envisaged, so thanks for persuading us otherwise we’d have missed out on one of the best parts of the region! The highlight for us was Erta Ale, and it met our expectations – amazing sight! The journey was not without its challenges, but that’s to be expected somewhere like this and the driver and guide were cheerful and helpful throughout. I’m pleased I finally managed to get here. This way of life won’t exist forever and it was a privilege to see it.
Roger and Elizabeth Harwood
|10 November 2019||£3,299||£335||Full||
|08 November 2020||£3,299||£335||Guaranteed||
|07 November 2021||£3,399||£335||Available||