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To get to Erta Ale volcano you have to fly to Addis Ababa and then to Mek’ele in the North-East, then drive past salt lakes and depressions and desert terrain in which you can get stuck and finally through the roughest volcanic terrain you can imagine, rough black rocky earth, to base camp. Your 4×4 gets parked next to others amidst a clutch of huts. It is mid-afternoon and boiling hot. You rest in the shade of a hut and wait for the world to cool, to cool, and for dinner at six-thirty.
After an hour or so you start packing what you need for the three-hour hike up to the volcano, as well as for things in which to spend the night up there. A small train of camels gets rounded up to carry the group’s sleeping bags and any extras you don’t want to carry up with you. The camels leave an hour before the hikers start out, so you better make sure everything you need is on the camels, otherwise you’re going to have to lug it up yourself. Believe me, you don’t want to drag a superfluous iota up that mountain. There is also a camel service for those who cannot or do not want to walk up. This has to be pre-ordered at a cost of 700 birr (32 USD), but it’s too late for that now.
A table is lain and our meal gets served at 18H30. Last calls are made for items for the camel packs for they are now leaving. No-one calls out, so the three-camel train leaves. We settle down at a long table to eat our meal of injeera and other local foods. On the far side a group of severe young bearded Swedes keep to themselves and punctuate their Swedish unsmilingly with English when food platters abut their orbit. They look like burly lumberjacks. Around me are Catalans, Castilians and considerate New York Indians, as well as a British couple who have brought a drone to film the volcano.
We finish eating and ready ourselves for the trek to the crater. Night is rapidly falling. Someone brings a bag to be packed on the camels but it’s too late, they have left. It’s always like that. Boots on, water in the rucksack, headlamps on the forehead. We assemble and queue. The hike leader calls the start of the hike and we leave into the heat of the dark night.
A cracking pace is set. After twenty minutes someone already calls for a break, but it gets denied. “In ten minutes,” says the leader. Up we plod. We then mercifully get to stop. Water bottles flow. There’s another 2 ½ hours of this to the summit… and we’re already flagging. We spot guards with guns all along our trip. They’re there to protect us from attacks such as the deadly one on tourists in 2012. The young bearded Swedes are in the vanguard of the group, as fit as glaciers. They’re rushing as though they’re late for an ABBA concert. The rest of us start loathing ABBA, Volvo, IKEA and smörgåsbord… Haftu, our guide, bubbles encouragement so we soldier on and up… we have twelve kilometres to cover to the top.
At some stage I get worried about Carla, a Spanish woman with a deep smoker’s voice. She is thin and gaunt and chain-smoked during the day. She walks at the back just in front of the rear guide. I look back from time to time and my headlamp lights her up. She had at first sagged and was assisted by the guide. But she was now collapsing into the body of the guide, all sweaty, washed up and wan. She mumbles in pain, huffing imprecations. At this stage the rear guide panics about Carla and shouts to the leader in the local language. I distinctly hear the word ‘gamal! gamal!’ – camel – they should get her a camel post-haste. We’re ordered to stop. We collect our energies as Carla is attended to. We down water, lift our morale and start off again. Carla soldiers on. A fellow hiker now also flags and starts dragging herself up by the strap of my rucksack, how else, which proves a strain with each heavier step I take. Haftu helps drag her up by the other arm. I’m drenched in sweat, my back aches, my clothes chafe, my eyes water and my parched tongue is gummed up in my mouth.
Located in the Danakil Depression in the Afar Region of northeastern Ethiopia, Erta Ale is one of the driest, lowest and hottest places on earth. Temperatures during the year range from 77°F to 118°F. The area is beset by drought, bereft of trees, and has little in the way of roads. Known by the Afar as the “smoking mountain” and “the gateway to hell,” Erta Ale is a 2,011-foot-high constantly active basaltic shield volcano. It is one of only a handful of continuously active volcanos in the world, and a member of an even more exclusive group: volcanos with lava lakes. While there are only five known volcanos with lava lakes globally, Erta Ale often has two active lava lakes – making it a unique site. Erta Ale was discovered in 1906, making it the longest-known lava lake. For a lava lake to exist, the surface of the lake and the magma chamber below must form a constant convecting system, or the entire thing will cool and solidify. Beneath the ground surrounding Erta Ale is an enormous pool of active magma. The lake goes through cycles and will cool, form a black layer on top, and then suddenly convect back into liquid lava. Occasionally, due to pressure, “fountains” of lava will form, spewing lava in 6- to 13-foot-high plumes (source: Atlas Obscura).
“Not long now – look at those people on the ridge, they are already ‘looking volcano’,” encourages Haftu. We eventually come within sight of the volcano. It is 10:30 PM. We can see others on the ridge. Our step lightens and we get to the edge of the cliff from whence the volcano can be viewed in full glory. Carla also makes it up, a shaking, mumbling bundle of sweat and prayers. “Ay, dios mio…” The first thing she does when she regains her breath is to light up an enormous fag, draw deeply and blooowww. “Gracias, dios mio…” And then, I too, was ‘looking volcano’.
What a sight it is. The crater containing the lava lake, which is on a level with us about 500m away, had started bubbling earlier in the day, and the lava had just started overflowing the rim of the crater. The bright lava bubbles and flows from the crater in a molten rock waterfall and slowly forms long golden glowing fingers all the way down the slopes. We hear some popping sounds from time to time but mostly hear the continuous gushing of the ‘waterfall’, molten rock pouring out of the bowels of the earth, with occasional booms and the rumble of giant unmolten pieces of hardier rock tumbling forth. As the fingers of lava flow closer, waves of heat assail us. Then a breeze picks up and the smell of fresh ash is strong on our nostrils.
Everyone is mesmerised. They photograph and film and speak and remain silent. People who had seen volcanoes tell us that all you usually see is a cloud-covered cone in the distance with a plume of smoke coming out of it, but that this is special. The fingers of lava continue flowing and form filaments which interlace and coalesce into further tributaries. I surrender myself to this show of nature and watch the sweeping flow for a further two hours, completely entranced. I wish it would never end but it does, time is called by the guides. Dead tired, we repair to our beds of thin matrasses in a camp a hundred metres away on the ridge, where we sleep for only five hours or so. We are up before sunrise to look at the volcano in a different light.
What a different scene it is. The freshly lain lava is black and contrasts starkly with the grey rock around it. The embers of burning lava are not that bright now, and are mere grey flutters in the morning light, with smoke more prominent than flame. The crater still heaves inside, but the fury of the night has worn itself out and the molten rock flow has stopped, exhausted from its earlier bellicosity. It is altogether different yet spectacular in another sense.
I take in the landscape, the crater and the grandeur of the scene. It is yet another of the vast sweeps of nature that abounds in the continent of Africa, which draw me ever closer as I go through my journey through this planet. The sun rises, fading the embers even more. The tour leader calls us to assemble. We do. I take one last look at rumbling Erta Ale, then turn to descend through volcanic rock into the heat of the rising day, having added yet another pinnacle to the journey of my life.