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Published: November 15th 2018
Top of Erta Ale Volcano at dawn
Through that smoke is a bubbling lava lake; one of only seven permanent lava lakes in the world. I've now been to two of the seven and saw no lava lake at either due to steam and gases.
Erta Ale was to be the highlight. I’d previously been to one of the other seven “permanent” lava lakes – Volcan Masaya in Nicaragua – but didn’t see any lava due to excessive smoke, steam and gases. The documentaries I’d seen of Erta Ale made me think this one was more guaranteed as you can get up close and watch the miniaturised and sped up plate tectonics on the surface of the bubbling magma. Well that was the case until Erta Ale erupted in January 2017 and since then the lava level and activity has declined. Again, I didn’t see a thing due to excessive smoke, steam and gases. They saw it last week. I’ve started to take this personally. Two of the remaining lava lakes that haven’t refused me yet are on Vanuatu. Perhaps these are signs further confirming that I must start working on Pacific Islands!
They say be careful what you wish for: pre-PhD, Ethiopia was the country in Africa I had always wanted to visit the most and despite three lengthy travels on the continent visiting nearly thirty of its countries, I had never made it to Ethiopia. Now I have been
A scene that probably hasn't changed for centuries.
to Ethiopia five times in the last three and half years. This trip was my second trip as a postdoc rather than as a PhD student; after submitting my thesis in April I am now essentially carrying on the research but with a proper salary. The five Ethiopia trips have been five weeks, four weeks, three weeks, two weeks and now one week. This is partly due to how much I needed to get done on each trip, partly due to the fact that as a PhD student you have lots of time but as a postdoc your time costs a lot of money, partly due to the in-country work probably now being more important but less fun so I squeeze it into less days – office based work, meetings and workshops in cities rather than get your hands mucky hiking miles and miles in the remote rural areas fieldwork spending time with simple folk rather than important people – and finally due to all the other work trips that Ethiopia must be squeezed in amongst (that I half-heartedly complain about in the knowledge that five years ago if you would have told me life and work would have involved
so much travel I would have bitten your hand off for the opportunity).
I’ve tried to add a few days of travel to each of these trips; time didn’t allow during trips three and four, but they did involve fieldwork in new parts of the country, so I was still sated. This trip I was determined to get a travel in, especially since it may be my last visit under the current research contract and because I was still yet to visit Ethiopia’s most famous sites; the reason the country appealed to me so much in the first place. However, because I would be on my own, I always feel guilty visiting somewhere really beautiful and would rather share it. Thus, the UNESCO recognised and supposedly incredible rock-hewn churches of Lalibela and Tigray, the castles of Gondar, the Simien Mountains, and the ruins of Axum, all remain unvisited. Instead I went to famously inhospitable, dangerous and expensive Afar, on shocking roads staying in dirty places. Inhospitable because it’s the lowest point in Africa at 155 metres below sea level and is consequently the hottest continuously inhabited place on Earth with a mean annual (that’s day and night,
Kind of sulphorous salt volcanoes bubbling up out the ground.
summer and winter) temperature of 35C and average daily maximum of 41C. The Afar people are notoriously unwelcoming and bandits abound, plus you are close to the Eritrean border from where raids sometimes occur. This explains the cost of the trips as certain permits and armed guards are required. Despite the cost, you “sleep” in the open on a thin mattress on rocky ground inhaling toxic volcanic fumes surrounded by trash where there are no toilets or running water. And that’s following a long hot uncomfortable drive on terrible roads in battered 4x4s.
Why go then? Haven’t you heard of Erta Ale volcano? One of the handful of continuous lava lakes in the world where you can peer down into the crater and watch bubbling lava rising, sinking, and flowing. Or what about Dallol, where sulphur springs emerge creating a kaleidoscope of colours and bizarre formations as far as the eye can see? Or the Danakil Depression, where a huge salt flat is mined by hand as it has been for thousands of years for the slabs to be loaded on camels to be transported across the desert in long camel trains?
Erta Ale Volcano
Climbed it in the dark to see the lava lake at the top.
In addition to these “highlights”, just travelling through there was interesting. The unexpected mountains, many made up of glittery schist, were pretty, the endlessly flat and shimmering salt plain had a thin veneer of super salty water turning it into an enormous sheet of glass, the Afar were friendly and fascinating – how they eke out a living in those parts was quite a mystery – and the little hikes we did made the bone jarring dirt roads worthwhile; though I think I would have preferred to hike the 10 km up Erta Ale in daylight even if it might have been a bit warm. It was far more interesting descending in the morning among the weird lava formations with a view out across the Danakil Depression.
I would recommend this place to anyone, but I probably wouldn’t bring anyone as I’d instead feel too much guilt about the discomfort I was putting them through. I don’t think I slept more than a couple of hours during the 3 days (looking up at the stars was nice until moon rise around 9pm when we seemingly got second daylight) and I lost quite a lot of weight due
to the diet of white rice and a few stringy bits of cabbage or a chunk of squash. The heat wasn’t actually too bad. Though I wouldn’t want to live there. It was a lot more comfortable than Malaysia earlier this year where it never quite reached 30C but the humidity meant any movement and you were moist. And you didn’t have to put up with being really dusty and grubby for too long as on the last day we passed a crystal-clear hot spring where you could get clean. A hot spring with 60C water; just what you need when it’s 42C outside. Anyone seen the cold spring?
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