More than just a volcano: The trip to Erta Alea and the Danakil Depression is a constant mind-blowing adventure and a once in a lifetime experience.
«You should go to the volcano Erta Alea – it’s on a list of top 10 things to see before you die», my friend told me. Erta Ale means «smoking mountain» in Amharic and is locally known as the gateway to hell. Since my friend sounded deeply fascinated by this place he had googled, and I happened to stay in Ethiopia for a whole month, I booked a tour without hesitation.
In order to be able to go to Erta Ale and the Danakil Depression, it is mandatory to book a tour with a guided group – you even need to be accompanied by military security guards. The Afar region in the north of Ethiopia near the Eritrean border is sometimes turbulent, the inhabitants known to be rather violent and hostile to outsiders coming into their territory.
Little did I know that this would not be the only thing that’s dangerous on this trip.
The tour organised by Ethio travel and tours (ETT) started from Mekele, a beautiful city in the North of Ethiopia. In our jeep, I met two French and a Chinese guy and a funny driver who barely spoke English but enjoyed racing with the other jeeps in our group and listening to old Ethiopian songs at full volume. We just loved this guy, for he made the long hours of travel much more exciting.
The first part of our trip took us to the Danakil Depression – this desert is the most hostile place in the world. It is also the hottest place on earth in terms of year-round temperatures and one of the lowest places on the planet, 100 meters below sea level. It is – no surprise – also one of the most remote places in Ethiopia since you can only reach it by jeep or by camel caravan.
All this is already impressive, but the most striking thing in this area are the Dallol sulphur springs. The Danakil Depression lies at the junction of three tectonic plates and with Asia and Africa moving apart of each other, the geological movement has caused rifting and volcanic activity.
The geothermal field glows in bright green, yellow and red. What looks like a chemical disaster is, in fact, all natural. The little lakes are hot saltwater sources, from the bubbles we could tell the water was boiling. There are sulphur and mineral formations all over the place, looking like small mountains, reminding me of stalagmites.
Our guides warned us several times to be very cautious not to step into these lakes – they are highly toxic. As I found out later, there are constantly some killer vapours of chlorine and sulphur spewing out. These toxic vapours are lethal.
We walked around and couldn’t believe our eyes. There was no sound except the popping bubbles of the boiling water. We felt like on a different planet.
A night in the desert and walking on salt (not sand!)
We passed the night at a temporary camp in Hamedela next to a potash production company. We slept on simple beds outside – we realised soon that this desert doesn’t cool down at night and it was difficult to sleep with the constant warm wind sweeping over us.
What makes it worth it: The view of the pitch black sky with a billion stars – and even some shooting stars – while you lie in your «bed», what was more a wooden net over some sticks kind of bed.
The next day, we went to the salt lake. What doesn’t sound very spectacular turned out to be an amazing experience. Even though the larger part of this area doesn’t look like a lake because it’s all dry, there is one part where the water reaches to the ankle. We were able to walk through this part of the salt lake – a very special feeling. But better bring your flip flops because the salt is sharp and your feet might start hurting after a few minutes.
The salt actually comes from the Red Sea – roughly 30,000 years ago, the Red Sea reached up to here, but with the tectonic movement, this area was lifted and the sea eventually disappeared, leaving behind nothing but huge amounts of salt. The thin layer of water on top of the salty ground reflects the mountains on the horizon like a mirror. We enjoyed the sunset, dipping the whole place in a golden light.
Why we needed security guards
The next day involved a lot of driving. Even though the distance was only 80 km, it took us about six hours to go to Dodom at the foot of Erta Ale. Nevertheless, the drive was an experience itself, passing through changing landscapes of solidified lava, rocks, sand and the occasional palm-lined oasis. We were to start climbing up the volcano at night in order to avoid the hot temperatures.
Our group consisted of ten jeeps now, with drivers, guides and armed military guys. The latter are obligatory by the government because of a sad story. In 2012, a group of German, Austrian and Hungarian tourists and scientists had been attacked on top of Erta Ale, most of them killed and two taken hostage. The Afar Revolutionary Democratic Unity Front claimed responsibility and released the two kidnapped tourists only two months later. Since then, security guards are a must.
From the salt lake to the magma lake
After dinner at the foot of Erta Ale, we started the hike up after sunset around 8 pm. The stars and the moon accompanied us on our way up. And after two hours, we could suddenly see a red glow on the horizon – the volcano’s magma!
We got even more excited and speeded up. In barely three hours, we had made it to the top. There was a small camp with a few huts and stones. We left our small luggage and went to discover the volcano.
In the rest of the world, you would need to keep a distance of at least a few kilometres to an active volcano. Not in Ethiopia.
Indeed, there were neither robots nor scientists to measure the toxic gases in the air, the tour takes place all the time, despite the activity of the volcano.
Walking on lava and next to magma
In the middle of a 1 km square caldera (a collapse of the magma chamber beneath the volcano, looking similar to a crater), you could see the magma lake, a glowing orange and red mass moving constantly, splashing up in the air from time to time.
Occasionally, the lake overflows on the side, something that apparently had happened two days ago, so we walked on super fresh volcanic stone. Since it was so young, it wasn’t very firm yet.
Our guide and the Ethiopian army guys went first. With a walking cane – I’m not kidding! – they tapped on the ground to check whether it was hard enough to step on it. We had to be careful not to break through, our guide said.
Just a few seconds later, we heard a crack – a guy had fallen through the thin crust, half a meter down to the older layer of stone. Luckily, he was okay. But this would not be the only incident, many times people and even – or mostly – the soldiers would break through the crust. Some got scrapes and grazes, and one girl actually fainted, even though we weren’t sure if it was due to the sulphate or just because of fatigue or stress. That’s what I call a real adventure.
Feeling the heat of the volcano
We walked as close as five meters to the magma lake. The heat, the sound of the moving magma and the occasional splashes of magma just felt like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. A sudden fountain of magma would have been enough to kill us all – but somehow, I didn’t care, nor even think about this danger, being too excited. It was certainly not reasonable but the most amazing thing on my Ethiopian trip yet.
Our guide decided we could not go any closer, so we hiked a bit further, to a small hill. The climb wasn’t quite easy since the path was very thin and dark, but the view on top was just breathtaking. From here, we could see the inside of the lake. After a few pictures, I just sat there, watching this natural spectacle for almost an hour.
I was among the last persons to climb down – and only because our guide insisted we needed to go. I could have stayed there the whole night. We went back to the camp. Two camels had brought bottles of water and thin mattresses, so we could sleep a few hours.
Midnight birthday party
My French companions and I weren’t asleep yet as we heard an Israeli girl whispering to us. She had told us before that it would be her boyfriend’s birthday at midnight, and she had actually managed to organise some cakes, candles and Ethiopian wine to bring up to the volcano with ETT.
We went into one of the small huts where everything was prepared, and I will never forget how surprised and happy the Israeli guy was when she brought him there. We were only a few people, the others of our group were already sleeping, but we had an amazing little celebration and enjoyed the wine next to the volcano. That’s what you call a once in a lifetime experience, right?
Salt, camels and tough Ethiopians
After three hours of sleep, the guide woke us up so we could have one last hour to watch the volcano from another site. Then it was time to leave – unfortunately, just before sunrise. The guide wanted to make sure not to leave too late so it wouldn’t be too hot, but we would have loved to see the caldera and magma lake at daylight! The hike down was tiring because of the quickly rising temperatures, but after this incredible experience, I didn’t feel a thing.
After breakfast down at the camp, we would start our way back to Mekele. On the way, we could see camel caravans carrying slabs of salt. We stopped at a place where the miners were extracting the salt. With traditional hoes and axes, they carve the ‘white gold’ out of the ground. The average temperature here is 34 degrees celsius, there is no shade to hide in from the burning sun, no water to drink or to cool down. The extracted salt is cut into rectangular pieces and loaded onto the camels. It takes one day and a half across the desert basin to reach the closest village, Berahile, where the salt is then sold.
For us, it was impossible to imagine how it is to work under such circumstances. The locals say they don’t want to use modern technologies and machines because it would be likely that the government notices the commercialization – and would put its own hands on it. Many people who live here are dependent on the salt, they are afraid mining companies would take away their income.
After a quick stop at an actual deep salt lake where we could go for a swim, we drove back to Mekele. Even though it was very hot, sometimes tough and not very comfortable, I’m still fascinated by this adventure and can recommend it to everyone! A true once in a lifetime experience…
Price: On the website of ETT it says the four-day trip costs 600 dollars – but like almost everything in Africa, this price is negotiable and almost everybody in our group paid a different price, between 300 and 500 dollars.
Water: Water and food are included and the guides made sure there was always enough of everything. Nevertheless, don’t expect many Ethiopian dishes but simple pasta, since it’s easier to carry and prepare. Take enough cash though since the beverages at the coffee breaks are not included (nor are the beers, and even though it’s weird to be able to get a cold beer in a camp in the desert, it’s really nice).
Lights: For hiking up the volcano at night, it’s useful to have a torch or headlamp. I didn’t have any but I was lucky it was an almost full moon and I walked close to people who had lights. Nevertheless, it’s good to have your own since the path is very uneven and the volcanic rocks are sharp, so you don’t want to hurt yourself by slipping on them. At some difficult parts, I used my mobile phone as a torch.
Powerbank: As you can imagine there are no power plugs in the desert or on top of the volcano. You won’t have much network for your mobile phone anyway, but if you use it to take pictures or as a torch, as I did, you might appreciate a power bank to charge it. Or you might need to charge your camera because you will certainly take tonnes of pictures in this fascinating part of the world.
Sleeping bag: Yes, it sounds weird to bring a sleeping bag to the hottest place on Earth, but since the mattresses used here are very thin, you might be happy to have an extra layer underneath your back – especially on top of Erta Ale, where you put the thin mattress directly on the hard, sharp volcanic rocks.
Travelling on: If you booked the tour with ETT, you get picked up at the airport for free. Also, you can get a free jeep ride to Lalibela or Gondar from Mekele the day after the tour. Just ask at the office in Mekele. And if your flight to Addis Abeba was operated by Ethiopian airlines, you get a 50% discount on all domestic flights, for example from Addis to Mekele and back.