The last two days of the Danakil Depression tour is all about one thing – Erta Ale. This involves crossing the desert, hiking in the late afternoon, to the top of an active volcano. The route is not steep, nor is it long; it takes about 4 hours depending on the fitness of the company. The hike is done in the late afternoon; half of it in light, half of it in darkness so bring your headlamps.
Before getting there, there is still an array of things to see in the brutal desert landscape – “skyscrapers” made from stone, rising from the middle of nowhere, an endless stretch of igneous rocks left from the last eruption of Erta Ale, and a sizable group of people living in the middle of nowhere.
Of course that was not the main event. The main event is to see one of the few (~5) permanent lava lakes in the world. After four hours of climbing (take note that this is Night #3 in the desert!), weary, grumpy, and cold (it has switched from 40 to 12 C – so confusing!) – all of this was soon forgotten by a spectacular sight: a volcanic eruption right in front of your eyes. Photo courtesy of Gilles Durdu, my camera sucks in low light!
And there was silence for a good part of an hour. I’ll let the video speak for itself…Yup, need to update that Most Amazing Thing Seen list…
Surprisingly, the air was not filled with the smell of rotten egg, nor was it hot. But we were very close to the lava, as you can see from the video. Had the volcano erupted, well…it wasn’t such a bad sight to see…
Before we headed home, we spent another 30 minutes looking at the lava lake at daybreak. Since we arrived at camp in the dark, we didn’t realize we camped out at the lip of the crater.
Again, I will point you to Ethio Travel and Tours for the trip – no this is not an advert, but just a tip of the hat to the folks who put this together.
Admittedly, I had a difficult time putting together a two-week itinerary for Ethiopia. Apart from so much sights to choose from (Visit the Southern tribes? Meet baboons? Desert safari?), there was the concern on getting from one place to another. Plane fares were double the cost if you did not fly in via the national carrier, and intercity bus travel took 8-hours minimum and no option for late night departures.
Fortunately, I had one thing that I wanted to see – sulfur formations in the Danakil Depression. Located in some 120 meters below sea level, they sparkle in yellow, green and orange in 50 degrees heat.
The only way to get there is via an organised tour. The Danakil Depression is close to the border of Ethiopia and Eritrea, and let’s just say both sides don’t fully agree where that demarcation line really sits.It is amazing how much this land is disputed given that it’s one of the most inhospitable places on Earth. Back to the tour – you can choose the two day version which also includes a visit to the salt lake. Bring flip flops – the high salt content in the water may ruin your shoes, and cake them when they dry up. Unfortunately, I had forgotten mine, so I got to as far as I can handle the sharp salt crystals on my bare feet.
The two-day version will involve camping in the desert. The good news – it cools down from 53 Celsius in the daytime (and it’s not even high season!). The bad news – it cools down to about 35 Celsius at night. Whenever the wind would blow, it felt like a fresh waft of air from your car exhaust. This was my bed for the night – like they say, it’s not a 5-star hotel, but it’s a thousand-star bed.
We were also fortunate to see the salt caravan of the Afar people. The chop up the ground into salt blocks, load them into camels, then haul them back to markets to trade. We went to the desert on a religious holiday, so we were not expecting to seem the caravan. Fortunately they trades need to happen!
That’s a brief summary of what you get to see on the two day trek. I had seen what I wanted to see and I thought it was spectacular. However, I am glad I took the whole 4 days for the trip, because at the end of four days, I had to update my “Most Amazing Thing I Have Seen” list. I will speak more of that on the next post. Before I forget – I made the trip with Ethio Travel and Tours. I fully recommend them – it was excellent service from the booking of the trip (I didn’t want to do international money transfer, so I paid the day before the trip started. They picked me up from the airport, brought me to their office, and returned me to catch my evening flight) to their very gracious drivers. You can’t DIY the Danakil trip, so I would point you to the company with the most experience in such a difficult to navigate region.