Ethiopia – Historic route & Danakil depression by road.

The Afar Triangle (also referred to as the Afar Depression) is a geological depression caused by the Afar Triple Junction, which is part of the Great Rift Valley in East Africa. The three tectonic are namely the Nubian, Arabian and the Indian.  The northern part of the Afar Depression is also known as the Danakil Depression. The Afar Depression is the product of a tectonic triple-rifts junction (the Afar Triple Junction), where the spreading ridges forming the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden emerge on land and meet the East African Rift. The conjunction of these three plates of Earth’s crust is near Lake Abbe.

The Danakil Depression is the most unique experience you’ll ever have. It is difficult, hot and uncomfortable but it is worth a visit. Living back in the cities before your travels, you never think you would find yourselves literally “in the middle of nowhere”. Visiting places like this only shows us how many things we still don’t know and how many diverse “worlds” there are on our planet. So here is to the adventure! It is truly “Out of this World”.

Day 1: Nairobi – Moyale

Leave Nairobi as early as 5:30. We drive for 280km, past Karatina, Nanyuki to Isiolo for our own lunch or open personal lunchbox. We drive further 270km to the hot dry plains through Archer’s post, Merile, Laisamis, Loglogo to Marsabit. The cool weather welcomes to the oasis of Marsabit. We drive further to Moyale. The city is located largely on the territory of Ethiopia but also belongs partly to Kenya. The city is known for its traditional architecture. {If we get at the border within working hours, we can initiate immigration formalities or wait and start the following morning.} 

Day 2: Moyale – Arba Minch

Arba Minch – Situated in southern Ethiopia at the base of the western side of the Great Rift Valley, the city of Arba Minch is the largest city in the Gamo Gofa Zone. Surrounded by forested mountains and home to two of Ethiopia’s largest Rift Valley Lakes, Arba Minch is named after the abundant springs found in the area. This resort town rests on the edge of Lake Chamo where it has a stunning view of the aptly named ‘Bridge of God’, an isthmus that separates Lake Chamo from the neighbouring Lake Abaya. This stretch of land is home to zebras, gazelle, kudus and other wildlife. The Dorze village is also a popular attraction in Arba Minch – here tourists can visit the famous beehive huts built by the Dorze tribe.

A beautiful route through a mountainous desert landscape between Moyale and Arba Minch. The trip would cover about 400km approximately in six and a half hours. (6½hrs). Upon arrival, we may either visit,

(a) Crocodile Market on Lake Chamo  Much like the temporary day markets that are common in Ethiopia, the Crocodile Market is a daily event on Lake Chamo where crocs similarly get together to see and be seen. A trip to this market is also a good chance to spot hippos, fish and birds. Crocodile Market on Lake Chamo

Or (b) Crocodile Ranch The Crocodile Ranch was established in 1984 by the government of Ethiopia to sustainably maintain the wild croc populations. It lies on an area of 3 hectares of land. Feeding usually happens on Monday and Thursdays and is not to be missed.

Day 3: Arba Minch – Adama

Adama town occupies a powerful position within the country. Adama, previously known as Nazaret or Nazreth after Nazareth, the childhood hometown of Jesus. It is located directly west of Ethiopia’s Great Rift Valley, and approximately 90 kilometres southeast of Addis Ababa. It spreads across nearly 30km². The city enjoys close proximity to a number of different tourist destinations, such as Awash National Park, Lake Zewaye, Sof Omar Caves and Dill Fekar Regional Park. Adama’s landscape is brimming with educational, cultural, hospitality and medical facilities. The city is also defined by its significant economic development potential, with investments being made in manufacturing, banking, agriculture, tourism and especially wind energy production. Additionally, it serves as a critical transportation hub for the region, situated on the road that connects Ethiopia’s capital city of Addis Ababa to the river city of Dire Dawa. Residents of Adama are hospitable, friendly and proud of their diverse, multi-cultural community. Citizens value historical traditions, family life and cultural celebrations such as marriage.

After breakfast, we continue north to Adama, passing a throng of Rift Valley lakes that lie in an ancient caldera. Now the mass of acacia trees starts to give way to lush farmlands and vegetation. By late afternoon you reach Adama having covered a distance of 450km in eight hours. You can relax in refreshing beaches and mountains and sample the famous “tibs”, or “Kurt”, raw or roasted beef in the city’s famous restaurants specialized in serving roasted beef dishes.

Day 4: Adama– Debre Birhan

Debra-Berhan, is a city in central Ethiopia. Located in the Semien Shewa Zone of the Amhara Region, about 120 kilometres northeast of Addis Ababa on Ethiopian highway 2, the town has an elevation of 2,840 meters, which makes it the highest town of this size in Africa. It was an early capital of Ethiopia and afterwards, with Ankober and Angolalla, was one of the capitals of the kingdom of Shewa. Debre Berhan is one of the coolest cities found in the subtropical zone of Ethiopia. The city has a typical subtropical highland climate. The average annual temperature of the city during the day and night hour is 20.7 °C and 8.2 °C respectively with precipitation 964mm.

Day 5: Debre Birhan – Weldiya                 

Weldiya is the capital of the Semien Wollo Zone, in northern Ethiopia. Located north of Dessie and southeast of Lalibela in the Amhara Region, this town has an elevation of 2112 meters above sea level. A notable landmark is a church Weldiya Gabriel. It is connected by all-weather roads to Addis Ababa and Mekelle by highway 2 and to Debre Tabor by highway 22.

Day 6: Weldiya – Lalibela

Lalibela – Situated in northern Ethiopia, the town of Lalibela is named after King Lalibela of the Zagwe Dynasty. The town is considered Ethiopia’s cultural capital and one of Ethiopia’s holiest cities, it serves as a centre of pilgrimage. The undeniable highlight of this ancient capital is dubbed the “Eighth Wonder of the World” and includes eleven rock-hewn churches dating back to the 13th century. It is also referred to as “Bethlehem”. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is carved out of solid rock and includes subterranean monoliths, a network of interconnected tunnels, and chambers featuring magnificent frescoes. Lalibela also plays host to some of the most famous church festivals in Ethiopia.

The driving distance to Lalibela is 170km. It will be one of the shortest drives of 4hrs. Lalibela is famous for monolithic rock-cut churches. The whole of Lalibela offers an exceptional testimony to the medieval and post-medieval civilization of Ethiopia. Lalibela is one of Ethiopia’s holiest cities, second only to Aksum, and a centre of pilgrimage. Unlike Aksum, the population of Lalibela is almost completely Ethiopian Orthodox Christian. Ethiopia was one of the earliest nations to adopt Christianity in the first half of the fourth century, and its historical roots date to the time of the Apostles. Among visit-able sites include:- the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, visiting the Northwestern Cluster of churches – Bet Medhane Alem, Bet Maryam, Bet Meskel, Bet Danaghel, Bet Mikael & Bet Golgotha (entry not permitted for women).  After lunch, continue with the Southeastern Cluster of churches – Bet Gabriel-Rufael, Bet Merkorios, Bet Amanual, and Bet Abba Libanos, the most famous of all the churches – Bet Giyorgis, constructed in honor of the patron saint of Ethiopia – Saint George.

Day 7: Lalibela – Gondar

 Gondar – Situated southwest of the Simien Mountains, north of Lake Tana, Gondar once served as the royal capital of the ancient Ethiopian Empire. From kings and churches to emperors and castles: another not-to-be-missed stop on Ethiopia’s Historic Route is what has been called the ‘Camelot’ of Africa: Gondar. It is the home of many Emperors and Princess who lead the country from the 12th century to the last decade of the 20th century. To mention just a few, Emperor Suseneos, Emperor Fasiledes, Empress Mentwab, Iyasu I, Tewodros II, Empress Taitu. It is the home of the highest mountain in Ethiopia, Ras Dashen, and the Simien Mountains National Park. It is easy to imagine the intrigue and pageantry that took place back in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when Gondar, then the Ethiopian capital, was home to a number of emperors and warlords, courtiers and kings. One only has to stroll through the banqueting halls and gaze down from the balconies of the many castles and palaces here to drift back into a long-ago world of battles and court conspiracies.

The 370km long drive will take you through beautiful landscapes, have a chance to view the Lake Tana – largest lake in Ethiopia, rural villages, offering wonderful insight into the Amhara culture. You will have stunning views of the Guna Mountains as you travel through this dramatic landscape.  Explore the sites of Gondar, including a visit to the Royal Enclosure, with six castles and several other buildings.  Additionally, visit Fasilidas’s Pool, still used for Timket celebrations today, and the Debre Birhan Selassie church, with the most famous ceiling in Ethiopia.

Day 8: Gondar – Aksum

Aksum /Axum is the most famous and well known by the mysterious obelisks. It is also the alleged resting place of the biblical Ark of the Covenant and the purported home of the legendary Queen of Sheba. The Kingdom of Aksum or Axum, also known as the Aksumite Empire was an important trading nation in north-eastern Africa, ruled from approximately 100–940 AD. The Empire of Aksum at its height extended across most of present-day Eritrea, northern Ethiopia, and Yemen, southern Saudi Arabia and northern Sudan. The capital city of the empire was Aksum, now in northern Ethiopia. The Kingdom used the name “Ethiopia” as early as the 4th century. The Aksum Empire was named as one of the four great powers of the world along with Persia, Rome, and China. Aksum’s prosperity seems to have peaked in the late 3rd and early 4th centuries AD. Monumental royal tombs were constructed, each marked by huge monolithic stelae carved to represent a multi-storied building. Around the same time, Aksum began to produce its own coinage, with gold used for international trade, and copper and silver for local circulation. In about AD 340, the Aksumite kingdom formally adopted Christianity under King Ezana (320–360 AD), becoming only the second nation in the world (after Armenia) to do this.

Early morning, depart north for Axum, enjoying spectacular views of the Simien Mountains. After stopping for lunch in Adi Arkay, proceed driving through the dramatic Tekeze Valley, offering some of the best landscapes in the country. Proceed to Axum, home of the ancient Axumite Empire, the Queen of Sheba, and the Ark of the Covenant. Visit the Queen of Sheba’s Bath (which supplies water to Axum year-round), King Bazen’s tomb, and the Queen of Sheba’s Palace. The distance of 350km in 7hrs.

Day 9: Aksum – Mekele

Mekele formerly the capital of Enderta awraja in Tigray is today the capital city of Tigray National Regional State. It is located around 780km north of Addis Ababa, with an elevation of 2,254 metres above sea level. Mekelle is the economic, cultural, and political hub of northern Ethiopia. Mekele is the principal centre of Ethiopia’s inland salt trade. Newer industries include the production of incense and resin. The Danakil Depression can be said to ‘begin’ here.

After breakfast, drive to visit the ruins of Yeha, dating from the 8th to 5th centuries BC, and thought to be the capital of Ethiopian civilization before Axum. Afterwards, visit the Debre Damo monastery, where the men must climb up a 15m rope to enter (sorry! No women allowed). Proceed through the state of Tigray, stopping en-route at Wukro to visit the rock-hewn church of Chirkos.   

Day 10: Mekele – Hamede Ela

Depart Mekele and drive to Hamede Ela campsite via Berhale. Once we reach Berhale, you will notice the landscape change. Most people associate this point as the start of the ‘depression’. Berhale is also a stopping off point for the camel caravans carrying salt from Lake Karum to the highlands of Ethiopian in the northwest. We will have lunch at Berhale before continuing on our journey to Hamede Ela.That night we will camp out in the open at Hamede Ela. Before sunset we will travel a short distance to Lake Karum to watch the sunset from the salt flats on the lake. After sunset, travel the short distance by car back to Hamede Ela. Dinner and overnight at the campsite. Meals Included on this Day Lunch & Dinner Private Vehicle Mekele – Behale – Hamede Ela 4h – 5h Stretch out and scan the scenery from the comfort of a private vehicle.

Day 11: Hamede Ela – Dallol – Berhale – Abala

Dallol is a cinder cone volcano in the Danakil Depression, northeast of the Erta Ale Range in Ethiopia. It has been formed by the intrusion of basaltic magma into Miocene salt deposits and subsequent hydrothermal activity. Phreatic eruptions took place here in 1926, forming Dallol Volcano; numerous other eruption craters dot the salt flats nearby. These craters are the lowest known sub-aerial volcanic vents in the world, at 45 m or more below sea level. Numerous hot springs are discharging brine and acidic liquid here. Small, widespread, temporary geysers produce cones of salt. The Dallol deposits include significant bodies of potash found directly at the surface.

Berhale is a village at the edge of the Danakil Depression, kind of half-way climbing up the Rift Valley Escarpment. One passes here on the way to or from Hamad Ele and the Dallol sulphur springs. The village is also a stop-over for the camel caravans that bring salt from Lake Asale to the markets of Mekele, high on the plateau outside the Danakil Depression.

Rise early and travel over the low waters of Lake Assal. Although the distance is not far to get to Dallol, the cars have to drive (3 –4hrs) very slowly on the salt lake so as to not damage the cars. Once we arrive at the base of a small mountain, we’ll hike up to see the sulphur springs of Dallol. The colours and rock formations that you will see here are hard to believe. From Dallol, we will drive back across the salt lake stopping off to see how the local Afari people mine and harvest the salt. This is probably one of the toughest jobs in the world. After lunch in Berhale, continue driving for about 2 hours until we reach the town of Abala. Dinner and overnight stay in shared rooms in a local man’s house.

Day 12: Abala – Erta Ale

Erta Ale is a continuously active basaltic shield volcano in the Afar Region of north-eastern Ethiopia. It is situated in the Afar Depression, a badland desert area. Erta Ale is the most active volcano in Ethiopia. Erta Ale denotes “Smoking Mountain” in the local Afar dialect and its southernmost pit is known locally as “the gateway to Hell”. In 2009, it was mapped by a team from the BBC using three-dimensional laser techniques,[ in order for the mapping team to maintain a distance and avoid the lakes’ searingly hot temperatures.Erta Ale is 613 metres high, with one or sometimes two active lava lakes at the summit which occasionally overflow on the south side of the volcano. It is notable for holding the longest-existing lava lake, present since the early years of the twentieth century (1906). Volcanoes with lava lakes are very rare: there are only eight in the world.

After breakfast, drive for around 2 – 3 hours on a paved road, after which we will start our off-roading! The first section will take us across the desert sands for around 1 hour after which we will stop for lunch in a small desert outpost town. After lunch comes to the slowest part of the drive. We will navigate our way through a lava field covering around 12km in 1 and a half to 2 hours. Slow going!  The cars will take us as far as a military outpost after which we will hike 3 hours to the top of the crater. Half of the hike will be done in daylight and a half in darkness so bring a good torch. Once we reach the top of the crater, you will get around 1 hour to relax and take in the amazing sight of the lava lake. This is truly an ‘out of this world’ experience and somewhat hard to fathom. After taking in the lava lake, walk the short distance back to the camp for dinner and sleep.

Day 13: Erta Ale – Mekele

At 4:00 am, wake up and walk the short distance down to the Crater Lake. Relax by the lava lake until sunrise. You will notice that the flow of the lake has changed since the night before so that is why we take in two visits to see the lava lake. After sunrise, hike for 2 – 3 hours back down to the military camp for breakfast.

Day 14: Mekele – Kombolcha

Kombolcha is a city in north-central Ethiopia, with an elevation between 1842 and 1915 meters above sea level. It was an Italian occupation having postal and telephone service, a clinic, a spaccio (“tobacco shop”), barrack village of the A.A.S.S. as well as other improvements intended for Italians.

Drive 400km to Kombolcha in 7hrs. En route admire the mountain chains at Ambalage and also visit Hayq Estefanos monastery (open only for men) and the Palace of Ras Mikael Sihul in Desse

Day 15: Kombolcha – Addis Ababa

Addis Ababa is the capital and largest city of Ethiopia. In Amharic means “new flower”, also known as Finfinne in Oromo meaning “natural spring”. The city lies at the foot of Mount Entoto and forms part of the watershed for the Awash. It is “the political capital of Africa” for its historical, diplomatic and political significance for the continent. It is where the African Union is headquartered and where its predecessor the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) was based. It also hosts the headquarters of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), as well as various other continental and international organizations.

Drive 380km to Addis Ababa in 7hrs. En route admire the mouth of Rift Valley system at Tarmaber and the lush- land of the Shoan Plateau. In the evening be taken to a traditional restaurant where you can see live traditional dancing show and transfer to airport for departure.

Day 16: Addis Ababa – Shashamane

Shashamane is a town in Aanaa in West Arsi Zone. The town lies about 250 km from the capital of Addis Ababa. Emperor Haile Selassie I donated land to African-Americans who were victims of racism and injustice after being exiled and forced into slavery in America. Shashemane is their Promised Land. Meanwhile, the Rastafarian community from Jamaica came to show respect and solidarity with the Emperor.

In the morning we leave Addis Ababa after a short city tour. Drive along the King’s Highway to the town of Shashamane, approximately 250km south of Addis Ababa. On the way, we make a stop at Lake Langano, one of the few swimmable lakes in Ethiopia. In the afternoon we arrive in Shashamane. We have various options on offer:- We visit different Rastafari mansions like The Nyabinghi Tabernacle, the Bobo Shanti, and the Twelve tribes of Israel. Then we will visit a local musician at his house who will share his music and philosophy with us.

Day 17: Shashamane – Moyale

Leave Shashamane early morning for an eight-hour drive to Moyale. Today we cover 520km of spectacular scenery. Overnight at the border town.

Day 18: Moyale – Nairobi

After breakfast, head to the immigration offices for formalities. Once cleared, hit the road via Marsabit and Isiolo. Since this is the homebound trip, you can choose to drive all the way to Nairobi covering 800km in 11hrs.