Crossing the Danakil Depression
Our trip to the inhospitable Danakil desert go on through volcanic landscapes until we reach the top of one of the most famous attractions of the African continent: the Erta Ale Volcano.
- Lake Afrera – Erta Ale volcano
We wake up at dawn, cook a quick breakfast and take down the tents, ready to experience another exciting day in this wasteland. We leave behind the area of Lake Afrera with its characteristic hundreds of salt pans, and we stop at the Afdera Police Station to pay some permits and meet our escort. The Afar region has never been a safe area due to the conflicts between the local population and the Ethiopian Government and has always been defined as “not recommended” for tourists. Two years before our excursion, there was an attack on some foreigners exactly along the path that leads to the Erta Ale volcano and where a tourist and a local guide died. A young policeman will escort us with his Kalashnikov to Bere Ale and will be our “guardian angel” for the next few days.
Left the small village of Afdera, the landscape becomes arider and arider. Around us, only an endless expanse of desert land. We are alone. There is not a living soul on the horizon. The road is terrible, and, step by step, it turns into an increasingly bumpy track while the landscape becomes quite desolate but always suggestive. The climate is so dry and hot that the earth beneath us forms a series of truly picturesque cracks that look like sand tiles. As we get closer to the volcano area, the landscape begins to change. Now, we can see volcanic rocks and pieces of black solidified lava.
Tired from the long and uncomfortable crossing, we arrive at the small village at the base of the Erta Ale volcano around 3.30 pm, where we can finally rest. The village is located in the middle of a huge volcanic plain and consists of a dozen stone huts with thatched roofs. Nothing more. One of those typical places that we would define as “God forsaken”. In the surroundings, we notice a couple of women guarding a small herd of goats. The village men offer their service to lead the few tourists on the top of the volcano and want to get paid dearly. It is impossible to climb the volcano without being “escorted” by a local who knows every corner of this wonder of nature as there are no signs or indications. Our guide is a young Afar boy, who, after welcoming us, suggest starting the trek around 4.30 pm, instead of climbing at night as we planned.
It is still scorching, but we accept his suggestion because there is really nothing to do in the village. We load the sleeping bags and water supplies on a camel, obviously paying handsomely for this “service” too, and off we go. The path is really tiring, but climbing the volcano’s slopes overflowing with solidified lava with bizarre shapes and seeing the fiery red sun setting on the horizon is priceless. Truly a unique emotion. After 4 hours of tiring hiking, we reach the tiny base camp on the top of the volcano. In front of us the steaming caldera of the Erta Ale volcano!
In the Afar language, Erta Ale means “smoking mountain”, and its southern cavity is known as “the gate of Hell”. It ranks as one of the most fascinating natural attractions in the eastern part of Africa. Erta Ale, a shield volcano with a base diameter of about 30 km and 1 km squared caldera on its summit, is part of the only permanent lava lake in the world. It is now dark. We arrange our sleeping bags in a sheltered rocky area and have dinner with a sandwich. Flashlight and go! We are about 600 meters asl, and the sky above us is incredibly bright and starry. The path to reach the caldera is quite short but very dangerous. We walk on solidified lava lit only by our small torches, and now and then, we hear creaks as if the lava crust below us was collapsing. Whenever the light wind blows in our direction, the volcano’s fumes inebriate the air, burning our eyes and giving us a choking feeling. Finally, here we are.
Below us is the caldera of the Erta Ale volcano with its incredible “lake” of bubbling lava. This “mouth of fire”, surrounded by the dark of the night, really seems the entrance to hell. Part of the caldera appears to be solidified and has fiery red veins that create a spectacular contrast to the surrounding darkness. The other part, of a bright red and orange colour, constantly boils due to the gases that come out of the magma chamber, creating small waves that crash against the crater’s edge, causing the lava to splash upwards. It is truly a marvellous wonder of nature. We had never seen the caldera of an active volcano before. After about 1 hour, we return to our sleeping bags and fall asleep under the starry sky with the sound of the volcano that cradles us.
Erta Ale – Ahmed Ela
As the sun is rising, we reach the second caldera – the main one – to take the last few photos before returning to the cars. This caldera is larger than the one we saw first, but only solidified lava is found inside. The main crater, 200 m deep and 350 m wide, is sub-circular and has three levels. The southern one has a width of 65 m and a depth of about 100 m. We leave the volcano behind us, and with the spectacular caldera still in mind with its bubbling red lava, we take the path back to the base of Erta Ale.
After three hours under a blazing sun, we finally reach our vehicles. A bit of well-deserved rest, a sandwich with tuna, and we leave for the village of Ahmed Ela, undoubtedly the highlight of the trip and Danakil in general. Ahmed Ela is a small village of only huts with about 400 people, all workers, located on the edge of the immense salt plain. It is the base for exploring the salt plain with the dozens of camel caravans that every day head towards the Ethiopian highlands loaded with “white gold” and visit the incredible Dallol springs. We travel for hours and hours on a dusty and arid desert track, where you don’t meet anyone. It looks like a large beige sea where you can’t see the end.
It is 4 pm when we reach the village, just in time to see the last caravans of camels pass through the huts and then continue the long journey towards Bere Ale and the northern highlands. We store our backpacks into a hut and take some wooden cots and braided ropes to rest during the night. There are no comforts here at Ahmed Ela. No showers, toilets, mattresses, electricity, bar, internet, TV. None of that. Just patched huts and dust. Lots of dust. There is only a deep well to take water for drinking and cooking. We cook our rice dish with boiled vegetables, have a chat about the trip and lie down on our cots under an incredibly starry sky. Tomorrow we will live an intense and unforgettable day.
- Our journey into the Danakil depression – day 1;
- Our journey into the Danakil depression – day 4;
- Dallol, the hill of spirits;
- The salt plain.
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