Erta Ale is something else entirely. I seriously doubt there’s a more primeval, raw permanent example of the Earth’s volcanic forces than this utterly awe-inspiring place, anywhere in the world. Erta Ale is one of only a couple of permanent lava lakes in the world, and probably the only accessible one at present (the other, at Virunga National Park in eastern Congo (formerly Zaire) is affected by civil war and out-of-bounds to tourists at present, while tourists can’t walk up to the edge of the two on Kilauea volcano in Hawaii for a look inside. although of course the point where the lava flows into the ocean is a famous tourist draw).
The fact that Erta Ale lies in an extremely remote and inhospitable place (statistically the hottest place on earth) makes visiting it an even more unforgettable experience. There are no handrails, no marked footpaths to be kept to, and no park rangers blowing whistles if anyone gets too close to the edge. You’re free to stand right on the lip of the crater and goggle at the ovoid lake of molten lava just 20 meters below, its congealing surface constantly cracking as the liquid rock beneath forces its way through, while sprays of molten rock burst out of a cave on the far side of the crater like a geyser.
Getting to Erta Ale is no walk in the park, but it’s become one of the, er, hottest adventure trips in the whole of Africa during the past few years, and a couple of local outfits are well geared up to take travellers on trips to the volcano (lasting four days and up). Erta Ale lies very close to (as in a couple of kilometers from) the border with Ethiopia’s bitter enemy Eritrea, and until a few years ago the trip was considered too risky for tourists. Luckily things have ‘simmered’ down a bit, and groups trekking out here have been increasing greatly in number over the last few years. However there’s still a risk in coming out here. Travellers and guidebooks alike are keen on emphasising the remoteness and inhospitable nature of the area, and a breakdown here would be deadly if you didn’t have a backup vehicle. Personally, after reading all the warnings, I was surprised to find it felt less intimidating than crossing the Sahara Desert in Algeria, Niger and Mali (many years ago), simply because it’s just a day’s drive from base camp out to the volcano and another day back, and – astonishingly – a smattering of Afar people (the local tribe) manage to eek out an existence in the middle of the desert, so you won’t feel utterly alone.
A much more worrying potential danger is the risk of attacks by rebels. I was well into the planning stage for this trip when I found out (surfing the internet one day) that just last year, in January 2012, a group was set upon, apparently by Eritrean rebels, while camping overnight on the volcano. Five of them were immediately killed, several were wounded while trying to escape, and several others were taken hostage (although thankfully released a few months later); and this wasn’t the first time tourists have been attacked. After that unwelcome news Erta Ale was off our itinerary for several months until curiosity (plus the comforting fact that the Ethiopian authorities have greatly stepped up security presence in the area since the latest attack) overcame the concerns, and we decided to go anyway. In hindsight, considering the number of groups still visiting (the volcano is safely visited by one or more groups more-or-less every night during the season) and the fact that no-one that visits this place is likely to ever forget the experience, for me it was worth taking the small risk.
Erta Ale is the main event, but far from the only attraction, in the Ethiopian part of the Danakil Depression (the lowest place in Africa and third lowest spot on the Earth’s surface), which straddles Ethiopia and Eritrea in Africa’s East Rift Valley. Trips there (and for safety reasons you HAVE to join an organised trip – there’s no way you’ll be allowed in by yourself) are run from both Addis Ababa and (shorter and potentially much cheaper) from Mekele, the nearest city to the Depression. We went with Ethio Travel and Tours (ETT Tours) which seem to have become the people to go with these days, considering their regular departures during the season and great price (US$500 per person for four days – incredibly low for Danakil, where most operators ask upwards of a thousand dollars per person).
The trip started with an easy day from Mekele to the tiny settlement of Hamed Ela, a small cluster of mud huts near a large phosphate processing plant on the floor of the Depression. It’s a loooong descent (along dirt roads) from Mekele (2,200 meters above sea level) to this, the main settlement in the Danakil, a hundred meters below sea level. The first night (like the other two) is spent sleeping out in the open, under the stars, on rustic wooden ‘beds’ which were surprisingly comfortable, and kept us out of the way of whatever creepy-crawlies manage to survive in this place.
The second day we made the long, slow 80 kilometer trip across the featureless wastes of the Danakil Depression to the well-named El Dom (or Dodom), a tiny circle of thatched stone huts inhabited by military personal at the start of the six-kilometer trail to the crater of Erta Ale. The first four or five hours of the drive are quite pleasant, apart from the heat, with sightings of wild foxes, lots of camels, and even an ostrich. The drivers made lunch for us beside a tiny Afar settlement – a cluster of two or three mud huts – sending the inhabitants scurrying inside. They refused to come out while we were around, partly to escape the heat, but also undoubtedly because they were fed up with tourists snapping photos of them. The nomadic Afar have a fearsome reputation because of their supposed habit (in the past) of killing all male visitors and cutting off their manhood. They seem a gentle enough people now – we met a load of them on the fourth day, digging salt out of the great salt lake at nearby Dallol – and surprisingly tolerant of tourists, seeing as at best they see only limited financial benefits from the steady flow of foreign visitors passing through these days.
Erta Ale’s position is easily pinpointed by the large, cone-shaped volcano on the horizon. However Erta Ale isn’t this impressive-looking eminence, but one of the nondescript-looking series of low ridges just to the left of it. Strangely the volcano, at first ahead, later lies well to the left and at one point even disappears behind the convoy of land cruisers threading their way along the series of tyre tracks through the salty dirt and rough scrub of the Danakil Depression. The route to the volcano makes a long detour before finally veering left, passing a set of deep wells, and meeting the edge of the lava flow below the volcano, where the going slows to a tortuous, very bumpy crawl for the last couple of hours to El Dom.
The heat was at its most intense when we arrived at El Dom (the average daytime temperature here is 35 degrees C!) so we retreated to the shade of the stone huts, and waited until dusk.
As the sun set and temperatures cooled to a more reasonable level, we began the 6 kilometer (three-hour) walk towards the low, very unexceptional-looking ridge ahead. It’s a gentle climb all the way, and pretty easy, although it’s a bit slow stumbling over the rougher bits in the dark. After an hour or so, I thought I could make out a reddish glow up ahead; slowly it became clearer, and as we neared the summit, the sombre, deep glow emanating from the lava lake was like a magnet, drawing us onwards and upwards, looking like something straight out of Lord of the Rings.
At the summit there are a couple more small rough stone huts (intended for tourists, since everyone sleeps the night up here during a visit), but all eyes by now were on the unearthly, bright red glow emerging from the caldera in front, and our group of grown adults were reduced to a pack of giggling, excited kids as we anticipated the first sight of the lava lake, now just five minutes away. Erta Ale consists of a large caldera and two or three craters. After a short climb down the rocky side of the caldera (a path makes for a safe but exciting climb down the cliff) we crossed the solidified lava towards the eerie glow ahead, now bright enough for us to turn off our headlights, and reached the edge of the crater.
Upon seeing the surface of the lava lake constantly undulating and cracking just 20 meters below and large volumes of liquid rock gushing from a lava ‘cave’ on the far side, the whole group spontaneously erupted into cheers and shouts of awe-struck wonder at the sight. A stiff wind was blowing from behind, but when it occasionally slackened off, the fumes rising from the lava below were choking and the heat intense. This wild and dangerous place is possibly the most extraordinary thing I’ve ever seen, especially with the realisation that this lake of molten rock is a direct link to the earth’s center. Photos and even video give no idea of the enormous thrill and privilege of being there to watch it.
We spent a couple of hours staring, hypnotised, at the constantly changing patterns on the surface of the lake, and at the gushing torrents issuing from the lava ‘spring’ opposite. Around perhaps midnight, we walked back across the solidified lava, up the face of the caldera, and made camp on the rim, lay down sleeping mats, and bedded down under the stars.
I woke an hour or two before dawn to find that in this place where it apparently only rains twice a year (according to our guide) it was raining! It was only light, but persistent, and after an hour or so it was soaking through my sleeping bag. By this time though, everyone was getting up, and after quickly breaking camp and storing our stuff in one of the stone huts, we headed back down into the caldera as first light began brightening the sky, for another goggle at the lava lake. Seeing the surroundings slowly emerge from the blackness as morning approaches, Erta Ale is probably at its most beautiful, and we spent another hour or so staring silently at the spectacle until reluctantly leaving for a short tour of the caldera, hiking to the edge of another awesome, much larger (but dormant) crater nearby.
It took just as long (3 hours) to head back down to El Dom as it had climbing up – the irresistible draw of the lava lake and the weird red glow cast by it into the sky were no longer propelling us onwards, and the hike became monotonous, despite some interesting formations, including lots of small lava tubes. With the sight that everyone had come to see behind us, the remainder of the day was a long and tiring return to the relative civilization of the camp at Hamed Ela, although the weather was cool – a very rare event in the Danakil – and when nearly back we took a brief detour to a small sand dune, for 20 minutes of fun and games running up and down its pristine slopes.
Aside from Erta Ale, the Ethiopian side of the Danakil Depression has one other great drawcard – Dallol. The lowest point on this side of the border at 116 meters below sea level, Dallol is famed for its extraordinary hot springs, and for the surreal, blinding-white expanse of the nearby Asale Salt Lake, covered in a thin, mirror-like film of water after the recent rains, and an extraordinary chain of mineral springs, where minerals dissolved in the water have crystalized to form amazing and beautiful designs on the banks of each pool.
None of these places have the sheer primeval impact of Erta Ale itself, yet almost anywhere else, they’d be wonders of the first magnitude. The hot springs especially, which have stained the area in countless shades of yellow, orange, green, ochre and white, although a little like the famed Waiotapu Hot Springs at Rotorua in New Zealand, make a much bigger impact than them in this desolate, extremely remote setting, and are unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
The whole area was secured by rifle-totting scouts during our visit: Dallol is the closest point of the trip to the Eritrean border. Driving out there from Hamed Ela (a breeze after the expedition to Erta Ale – Dallol is just thirty minutes from Hamed Ela by unsurfaced but fast and smooth track) we passed yet another surreal sight – the longest by far of many camel caravans we’d seen on the trip. This one stretched well over a kilometer – on their way to the nearby salt mines near the shores of Lake Asale.
For our final stop in the Danakil Depression, we watched the Afar men digging paving stone-sized slabs of raw salt out of the ground and loading them up on camels. Their journey to and from the nearest town (Mekele) to sell the salt takes a whole week each way, and even on this unusually cool and cloudy day the work is obviously backbreaking, soul-destroying stuff. Their tough way of life is a thought-provoking reality to bring back to the ‘real world.’
For once there’s no way around this – you HAVE to join an organised tour to enter the Danakil Depression – without one, you won’t get the necessary permits to enter and anyway it’s too dangerous to explore the area without experienced drivers and guides and an armed guard. This is one EXPENSIVE trip, and when we emailed around various companies, we were given prices from US$2,000 and up EACH for a five-day trip for two. Prices go down a lot if you can get a group together. In the end we went with Ethio Tours and Travel, the only company at the moment which seems to attract enough travelers to run regular tours (every 4 or 5 days during the season), which means a flat price of US$500 for the four-day trip (and four days ex-Mekele is just enough to see everything – some longer tours run by other companies end in Addis Ababa, and include Lake Afrera, a long day’s drive south of Erta Ale). Cheaper trips all start in Mekele, one of the pleasantest cities in Ethiopia. ETT Tours office is next to the Atse Yohannis Hotel (a cheap and really comfortable – for Ethiopia – place to stay) at the northern end of town. Ask for Abeba. The company has received a lot of bad press in the past, but it seems as if they’ve sorted out their problems – we found the land rangers were in good nick, the drivers knew what they were doing and were safety-conscious, there was plenty of drinking water in each car, and the food was plentiful and good. They’re also efficient at dealing with the Afar, arranging the armed scouts etc, and making sure the sites are well guarded before we got out and started clambering around.
Finally, as it’s the hottest place in the world, the Danakil Depression is usually only visited during the (relatively) cooler months between October or November and February-March, yet even at this time it’s usually damn hot!