An active volcano, a salt lake, and off-road driving in the magical Ethiopian wilderness
25.12.2013 - 27.12.2013 40 °C
The highlight of our trip was destined to be the four-day 4x4 off-road adventure to the Danakil Depression, the otherworldly geological landscape in the embattled border region between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Located in the northeastern corner of Ethiopia, the Danakil is comprised of local Afar tribes, primitive villages, rocky sulfuric landscapes, and an active volcano – Erta Ale. It is the hottest inhabited place on earth (year-round temps range from 80° F to 125° F [27 °C to 52 °C] with nearly no rain) and the lowest place on the African continent (at 155m below sea level).
In addition to the harsh conditions, the Danakil can occasionally be fatal. Our guidebook described the active Erta Ale volcano we planned to visit as “expected to erupt imminently.” Plus, just before we departed, we learned of a recent deadly attack on a group of 9 Western tourists who were kidnapped by armed Eritrean rebels on the volcano. Some of the captives were killed while the rest were released a few months later after a ransom exchange. This kidnapping was one of a few similar incidents at the Erta Ale volcano over the past several years. Of course, we weren’t about to postpone our plans due to a small possibility of kidnapping and volcanic eruption. Besides, recently the security in the region had been stepped up, so all groups now had to travel with mandatory armed soldiers.
Arriving from our 9-hour drive from Lalibela to the northern town of Mekele (the launchpad for the Danakil Depression trip), we immediately crashed in a basic room at the decaying Atse Yohannes Hotel, badly in need of a lick of paint. The hotel served as the departure point for the trip the following morning. Our room did not have running water but fortunately, despite the protests of the Ethiopian maids, Marina and I took turns running down the hall wrapped in our towels to sneak into an unoccupied room on our floor that had the luxury of ice-cold running water.
After an early breakfast, we packed two small backpacks for the 4-day, 3 night journey, bringing only the necessities with us. Heading downstairs to pay our booking fee in cash, we were stopped in our path by a disheveled, sickly-looking English girl who rambled about avoiding this tour agency at all costs (it transpired that a dozen of people who all returned to Mekele last night fell ill with a nasty bout of food poisoning and dysentery after eating some uncooked cabbages served on the Danakil trip).
Needless to say, most of their group was now confined to their rooms and within a 5-second sprint to the toilet. We couldn’t help feel for them. It wasn’t the sort of hotel you want to get stuck in with that sort of illness (shame, the hotel had no running water!) Putting thoughts of kidnappings, volcanic eruptions, and diarrhea aside, we proceeded downstairs to submit our booking fee with a wad of clean US dollars and handed them over to the agency.
Out in the back were five modern Toyota 4x4s, all of which were loaded to the rafters with equipment, food and water for 4 days. Four of these cars contained travelers, while the fifth car was for the heavily-armed guards who were to travel with us for the duration of the trip. We set off in a convoy leaving the dusty Mekele behind, sharing our car with a couple in their late 20’s (a guy from India living in Oslo and his Cypriot girlfriend from Nicosia) as well as our expert off-road local driver, Dani. It wasn’t long before we were driving through the most surreal landscape that started off incredible and got increasingly better during the drive.
The 20 tourists on our expedition represented 17 countries. Without exception, all the backpackers were the most well-traveled we have ever encountered. One guy from France had recently cycled solo from Lyon, France overland to Delhi, India cycling through the former Soviet 'Stan' republics (Tajikistan, Kazakhstan etc.).
One American girl in her mid-20s was in the middle of 2.5 years in the Peace Corps in a remote village in the West African country of Benin. She told us stories of her life in a village that was an entire day’s bus journey away from the nearest westerner and with no access to the internet. One guy from South Korea had quit his high tech job and was travelling the length of Africa overland on a very tight budget. He (lightheartedly) complained that he had trouble crossing from Kenya to Ethiopia when a border conflict broke out and he couldn’t cross the border for about 5 days due to the bombs. By the time we set up camp on the first night and swam in the buoyant salt lake at Lake Afrera, we felt like we met some really interesting people and we were in for an adventure of a lifetime.
Breakfast on the following day was followed by paddling in the nearby natural hot springs next to Lake Afrera. Then it was back in our vehicles and our convoy set off for the volcano. The drive took most of the day but captured some of the most dramatic and varied landscape I’ve ever seen. The view from our 4x4 window changed routinely. Never had staring out of a car window constantly for 7 hours been so interesting. The landscape went from salt flats to rocky terrain to flat then to desolate and finally to sulfuric. That’s not even mentioning traversing a pure sand desert. The trip was almost entirely off-road. I have no idea how the drivers remembered the route as there was nothing in the way of landmarks. I’m not sure we even saw any other vehicles other than our convoy on some days. Occasionally we would speed past local Afar tribesmen and camels, who looked at us with about as much bemusement as we showed in return.
We arrived at the base of Erta Ale volcano in the late afternoon on Day 2. The last hour of the journey was spent navigating what must be the world’s bumpiest drive in the most inhospitable landscape of dried lava. We sat up camp and waited for the sun to set and, more importantly, the temperature to drop. Armed with a small backpack, head torch, 2 litre water bottle, and flanked by our armed guards, we set off at a fast walking pace on the 6-mile hike up to the summit of the volcano in complete darkness apart from a new moon and the warm orange glow of the volcano in the far distance.
There was no set path, and we encountered the first other visitors just before we arrived at the summit. We climbed right up to the very edge of the crater and stood there in awe for must have been ages. Massive globules of lava boiled up below a black film on the surface of the lava lake. It was the closest we’ve ever gotten to an active, spewing volcano. There were no safety measures at all. There was just the bubbling, belching, hot crater and us - a handful of tourists in the middle of the night. In the end, we walked 10 minutes down the hill and slept in the open air on thin mattresses. The heavy wind blowing at the summit, made the stifling heat of the crater cool enough to sleep.
About four hours later, around 4am we were woken up. Sometimes in life you don’t mind getting up ridiculously early and this was exactly one of those times. We climbed back to the edge of the crater and sat there watching the sun rise across the crater. Unbelievable (Jeff).The sun started to burn my skin by the time we had descended 2.5 hours down the volcano and arrived at our camp for breakfast.
There was time to eat and pack up before our convoy of vehicles hit the (non-existent) road again. It took over an hour of bumping up and down in the Toyota, often at 45 degree angles and crashing our heads on the ceiling as we left the moonscape terrain that had been created by dried lava from the volcano and hit the expansive sand desert. A few hours later in the midst of desert, we stopped under the only two palm trees we had come across and sat in the what could be called “shade” to eat lunch. It was as random a location for lunch as you’ll ever find.
As the drive on day three came to a conclusion, we traversed the path taken by the camel caravan, which consisted of about 250 camels walking in a single file. The camels were used to transport lumps of salt mined at the salt Lake Afrera to Mekele to sell at the markets. The camel caravans made for an awesome sight. It had been a long drive to our camp in Hamadella for the final night. Facilities at the camp were primitive to put it mildly. There was one toilet that was out of bounds for health reasons. It made “the worst toilet in Scotland” in the movie Trainspotting appear positively sanitary.
We quickly chose two of the beds in our camp which consisted of 20 beds next to each other in the open air, and we dumped our sleeping bag on them. We had been informed on our arrival that there was a nearby bar. Yours truly made a swift exit from the sleeping area and with the help of the head torch promptly went looking for the bar. To the edge of some rickety chairs that were sheltered from the sun was a large fridge. Perfect! The barman told me to help myself (obviously to save him the bother) and I reached inside for a beer. Something seemed decidedly wrong. The beer wasn’t cold. In fact it was distinctly warm.
Disoriented from a mix of darkness, sleep deprivation, and heat exhaustion, I turned to the barman, asking where he keeps the cold beer. He smiled a toothless smile and said he doesn’t turn the fridge on so he doesn’t have to pay for electricity. My face must have dropped as he looked at me somewhat apologetically. I decided that warm beer was better than no beer (marginally).