Monday, January 12, 2015

Erta Ale & The Danakil Depression

I have visited only a couple of volcanoes up-close (mainly in Indonesia), and none of it with any visible lava activity. So I was pretty excited when I finally came face-to-face with a lava lake in the crater of a volcano!

There are not many volcanoes out there with an active lava lake, and Erta Ale in northern Ethiopia is one of them. However, reaching it is an endeavour not to be taken lightly. Erta Ale lies in a region known as the Danakil Depression - a geographical depression and one of the lowest places/land in the world (-125m). It is also one of the hottest places in the world with temperatures reportedly soaring above 50 degrees Celsius, and with almost no rain year-round. Needless to say, this harsh and inhospitable land poses a logistic challenge to anyone who wants to go there.

Afar nomads in the harsh environment
Drought-stricken land

In order to visit the volcano, permits, military escorts and local politics add to the complexity. The Afar region, as it is also known, with its proximity to Eritnea and Djibouti, is pretty lawless and so a permit and four military personnel are required for a visit. Two local policemen were also deemed necessary for company, and of course, a special local Afar guide. And then it's hours of bumpy and dusty jeep ride in 40-ish degree or more temperatures (we went in Oct). While our jeeps have air-conditioning, oftentimes our driver had to switch it off intermittently for fear of engine overheat and/or to conserve power to maneuver over harsh terrain etc.

Finally, our jeep could only bring us to a El Dom, a village "base-camp" of sorts, close to Erta Ale itself. Led by the Afar guide and the militia, a 3-4 hour hike in darkness over jagged rugged volcanic terrain would then bring us up to near the crater to see the lava lake. The hike should only be attempted after the sun set, as otherwise, the heat would probably suck our bodies dry!

But brave through all of the above, and you would be rewarded with one of the most surreal and mesmerizing nature displays on earth....!

Heading towards the glowing crater mouth
Lava Burst
Photographing the lava lake!

Flowing Inferno
Pardon the poor timelapse video, which was done using an old GoPro2

The hardship is not over yet! A short nap in some ramshackle huts close to the crater allowed us some rest and before sunrise, we had to head back to El Dom. This time though, the brightening sky made the going easier. Otherwise, we certainly wouldn't want to be caught in the heat when the sun rose too high!

One of our soldier guide resting on the volcanic terrain

If it's not evident already, visiting Erta Ale is certainly quite costly. Most trips start from the city of Mekele, and typically would include another highlight of the Danakil Depression - the sulphur springs and salt mines of Dallol which I would cover in the next blog post. So, watch out for it!

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