Unreal Views of the Trippy Colors in Ethiopia’s Danakil Desert

A few months back, German photographer Ulrike Crespo was climbing a small hill in the Afar Triangle of northern Ethiopia when the colors suddenly changed. The dusty browns and grays of the desert gave way to oranges, yellows, and greens so vivid they seemed unnatural. “It was almost like a hallucinogenic trip,” she says.

The surreal colors come from the sulphur, potash, and other minerals that saturate the Dallol hydrothermal field. It sits amid crusty salt plains in the Danakil Depression, a 3,800-square-mile bowl that dips more than 400 feet below sea level, thanks to three slowly separating tectonic plates. As those plates pull apart, hot springs bubble up into acidic pools that form ethereal crystals and pillars as the briny waters evaporate.

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Crespo documented this fantastical landscape last January for her beautiful new book Danakil. And the dreamy, mirage-like images she chose to fill its pages look as much like abstract art as they do photography. “It’s more about the color and emotion than a description of a place,” she says.

Crespo’s journey to the Danakil Depression began years earlier when she stumbled on a photo online. She had previously photographed in places like Patagonia, Ireland, and Iceland and was looking at warmer locales. Despite the intense heat—temperatures exceed 100°F most days—the colors “triggered a longing,” she says.

She opted to visit last year in January, when the temperature drops a few precious degrees. Donning protective long sleeves and a head scarf, she took a day-long expedition from Mekelle, an Ethiopian city about 70 miles southwest of Dallol. The photographer and her guides drove five hours over a rough, bumpy road and through a checkpoint in Berahile before reaching the salt flat and sulphur pools near Ethiopia’s border with Eritrea.

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The place was every bit as colorful as she expected, not to mention utterly remote. The only sound she could hear was the crackling of salt underfoot—and, of course, her Sony Alpha 6300 firing away.

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