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Have Miles Will Travel

Miles to Burn? Explore Ethiopia’s Otherworldly Landscapes

Miles to Burn? Explore Ethiopia’s Otherworldly Landscapes
Jennifer Billock

Have frequent flier miles burning a hole in your pocket and need new ideas for where to go? Check out our weekly Have Miles Will Travel column to discover strange, wonderful and unique destinations around the world. 

While coronavirus fears curtail travel to certain areas of the world, for this weeks’ edition of Have Miles Will Travel, we’re turning our attention to Ethiopia, a beautiful and otherwordly African country with zero reported cases of the virus, and one of the most unique landscapes on planet earth.

The Dallol Volcano in Ethiopia was once described as “a land of death” by British explorer Wilfred Thesiger. It’s hot, the groundwater is nearly boiling, there are toxic vapors floating around in the air, and everything is covered in salt. So of course, everyone wants to visit. Sure, it’s no adorable animal spa, but who doesn’t like the sound of a perhaps-deadly challenge?

A Scientific Landscape

Dallol is so hardcore, in fact, that scientists and geologists use it as a living research lab, one that might replicate the extremities of life on Mars. It’s a relatively new endeavor as well—the volcano formed in 1926, because the groundwater was so hot that it shot steam up through the surface. Now it’s surrounded by a bubbling, steamy, hydrothermal landscape, which is further surrounded by dry salt plains that provide local people with their livelihood. The salt is mined by hand and then carried across land by camel caravans.

“The first time I saw it, and I walked through, I thought, This is what I think Mars would look like,” Kennda Lynch, an astrobiologist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Texas, told Atlas Obscura. “It gives us everything. It’s hydrothermal. It’s wet, it’s acidic, it’s salty, and it has iron and it has sulfur in it. It’s all these things together that would make sense for this type of habitable environment on Mars.”

And it makes for a fantastically Instagrammable photo for people traveling there to sightsee.

Going Afar to Space

To get to Mars on Earth, you’ll need to find your way to the Afar region (yes, that’s the region’s actual name) in northern Ethiopia. It’ll be difficult. Dallol is incredibly remote. But before you do anything else, you’ll need to get a visa to visit the country. You can get one on arrival at Addis Ababa Bole International Airport with two passport photos and $52, and that’ll give you 30 days to stay in Ethiopia.

From the airport in Addis Ababa, you have two options. One, you can take a 12-hour bus ride to Mek’ele, the city nearest the volcano, or you can hop another flight from Bole International Airport to Alula Aba Nega Airport in Mek’ele. Your journey will get considerably harder from Mek’ele, so you might want to take the easier option.

Rent a car and drive three hours to Hamed’Ela, the gateway of the Damakil Depression (where Dallol is), and the place scientists use as a base camp for their research trips. From there, no roads lead to Dallol. That means you need to get an off-road vehicle, or somehow manage to get added to a caravan of camels heading into Damakil. And you’ll need a guide—the Afar people don’t like travelers to go alone.

And when you get there, be careful. Don’t step in anything liquid. The blue and green pools surrounding you are not water. They’re acid. And they’ll dissolve your shoe.

Skip the Summer High Temps

First things first, go sparingly. Tourism has an unfortunate opportunity to destroy the area and make it impossible to visit, let alone for scientists to study anything of value there. That being said, go in the winter if you don’t want to have heatstroke. Summer temps can reach up to 122 degrees. Winter hovers at a toasty 93. It’s routinely called the hottest place on earth, and you should take that seriously.

View Comments (3)

3 Comments

  1. Dr.Ells

    March 3, 2020 at 6:30 pm

    Sad that this ill-informed “author” further worsened the situation by encouraging travelers to avoid virus-affected countries. Intelligent, rational people KNOW that H1N1 in 2009 was MUCH worse, and yet, no authors sensationalized to this extent. For shame, FlyerTalk, for posting such a ridiculous article from this “author” again.

  2. psusaver

    March 4, 2020 at 6:41 am

    This is a good article in general on Ethiopia. The speculation on COVID-19 is probably not needed.

    Another point, just for semantics. “one of the most unique landscapes” is grammatically troublesome. Unique means one of a kind. So, one can’t have “most unique” “very unique” etc. Reason I am getting riled up on this is due to Martin Sheen’s role of Pres. Bartlett in the TV series West Wing.

    See https://youtu.be/Fvb1e4-YgRE?t=162

  3. Danwriter

    March 4, 2020 at 7:19 am

    Most of the FT articles are clickbait.

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