This is Erta Ale or Irta’ale, Africa’s most active volcano.
There is a permanently gurgling lake of liquid lava in its crater, which occasionally shoots out of the crater to flow down its sides. You have to trek 15 km in temperatures of up to 53°C to reach the crater rim.
Erta Ale, means “smoking mountain” in the local Afar language, but I call it the Devil’s Throne room, and the Gateway to Hell. It looked like the perfect place to dunk rapists, drug pushers, snatch thieves, robbers, corrupt politicians ….. and their spouses too.
I cannot even begin to describe the emotions that raced through my fatigued frame as my eyes feasted upon this amazing, gurgling, cauldron of liquid rock ….. after a gruelling 15 km, six hours trek in 48°C to 53°C heat to reach the rim Africa’s most active volcano. A week earlier, I had climbed up the Ijen and Bromo volcanoes, 8000 km away in Java. And the day after this, we will climb the Dallol Volcano, about a hundred km away from Erta Ale. Four active volcanoes, 8000 km apart, in two weeks. Not bad for a near septuagenarian, even if I say so myself.
Erta Ale has a continuously boiling lake of liquid lava in its crater, fed by a magma chamber lying just 12 km below the surface. Records show that Erta Ale has been spewing boiling lava continuously since the 19th Century. The most recent major eruption was on 25 Sep 2005, which killed some local Afars and hundreds of their livestock. Smaller eruptions occur frequently at Erta Ale, and as recently as last year. But when we were up there, the Gods were kind. Lava was thrown only a few meters in the crater below us
Erta Ale sits more than 100 meters below the level of the Red Sea, whose shores are only a couple of hundred kilometers in the East across Eritrea. It is located in the Afar Depression, in the Danakil Badlands Desert of Ethiopia. This region is not only the lowest region in Africa, but also the hottest, because heat comes not only from a blazing sun above, but also from the ground below. Night time temperatures in the Afar Depression are around 45°Celsius, and in the daytime when we were there two weeks ago, it was 53°Celsius. As if the heat and harsh terrain isn’t bad enough, the native Afar people living in the Afar Depression to mine salt, have a legendary reputation for viciousness towards outsiders. In January of 2012, a group of European scientists and tourists was attacked at Erta Ale. Five scientists/tourists were killed, and several others were wounded, while some were taken as hostages. For safety, we had to hire three AK-47 armed soldiers to guard us. So we made it up and down safely.
The BBC did a documentary of the Danakil Depression recently, and they called it the cruelest place on earth. To have some respite from the searing heat and burning wind, we opted to climb this volcano at night. It took us a grueling 6 hours to climb the 15 kilometers to reach the crater lip from where I shot this photo at dawn.
After trekking 30 km up and down Erta Ale Volcano, without any sleep for 24 hours, and a six hour drive across the Afar Depression in 50°Celsius, the 1000 star Dallol Hilton in 45°C with open air en-suite bathroom and toilet, was the height of luxury. They even had coca cola …. and I fell asleep by covering my face with a towel soaked in mineral water. Made me realize how lucky we were at home in Malaysia, with running water, air-conditioning, comfortable beds and light at the flick of a switch …
I’m thinking of returning to Ethiopia in the cooler season, sometime in January 2015. Anybody wanna come? We can do it if we have three people to share the costs of each 4×4 All Terrain Vehicles.
Climbing mountains is an excellent opportunity for learning about the real you. When you are climbing a mountain, and your heart and your lungs feels like they are exploding from the exertion, and your knees feel like they are crumbling from the pain, and your brain is screaming, “WTF am I doing here?” …..
You find someone to blame for your pain …….. that is the time the best and the worst in you will emerge. You learn painfully, about the stuff you are really made of, and to some, that may not be very pretty. You have only a quarter bottle of water left, and you’ve still got hours more to climb in the searing heat. Your friend asks for water. What would you do? You do what you think is right. And you push on. You push yourself to complete this thing. For your self. For your pride. You succeed. You come home safely. And in your quieter moments you reflect, and you smile quietly to yourself. You realise you’ve achieved something special. You’ve learned a lot. Especially about your real self. And you become a better person for it.
And you will then know the answer to the question,
“Why do we climb mountains ?…….”