I stand still without movement, just gazing, mesmerised by the phenomena below me. My arms, legs and face getting scorched from the intense heat rising up from beneath. “The gateway to hell” locals call it. Magma bubbling and spitting up all around me with the rubber of my shoes slowly melting. Where am I? …I’m standing at one of the world’s most bizarre, dangerous, rare and impressive sights this planet has to offer. I’m staring down into the heart of Erta Ale, a magma pit bubbling straight from the Earth’s core, located deep in the Afar Depression, northern Ethiopia, straddling the border of Eritrea. This desolate region in north east Africa is dubbed “the cruelest place on earth” by National Geographic, and it holds the hottest average temperature on the entire planet.
The journey here, in a way, started much earlier, when we were travelling throughout northern India. We were soon to be catching a plane to Kenya, so we thought we’d make an east Africa guide book purchase, to get some ideas and gain the feel for our next chapter of the journey. This is when we read about a lava pit in western DRC. One of the very few on the planet. We HAD to go! But, by the time we were heading east across Tanzania towards Rwanda, we discovered that the west of the Congo had been overtaken by rebels, and any hope of entering was utterly shut off. We were devastated!
Unbeknown to us at the time, we happened to be heading in the path of another (uncannily, as there’s only a few on the planet), but we had not heard about it until we entered Ethiopia. Ethiopia is one of those places that remains as an enigma until you unveil it by travelling there. When we found out that we had a second chance, we jumped on it. But it came with quite a risk. It was straddling the border of Eritrea, and previous visits had resulted in kidnappings and executions. A decision that shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Relaxing by the waters of Bahir Dar, a fascinating town that rests on the southern shores of Lake Tana in west Ethiopia, a local man was boasting that he could organise anything for anyone, via his ‘connections’. So I decided to put him to the test, and asked him about Erta Ale and whether it was possible to get my wife and I there safely, or not. That evening, after many phone calls, he caught up to me and gave me some good news. He had a contact in northern Ethiopia that had also had a special request from a couple of backpackers about getting there. Banding together over a few emails, we decided to give it ago. The price was …ALOT! The deal was that in addition to the normal expenses, we had to hire our own personal army of a dozen Militia. These guys were to protect us from any Eritrean rebels that may come across the border.
Hitchhiking across Ethiopia for two days with a stranger we met on the side of the road, arrived us at our taking off point. This is where we met the rest of the backpackers that were also in for the adventure. With a day of preparation to get supplies and ready ourselves for the four day journey into the desolate, we were ready to rock and roll! So off we went, along with about 50 litres of water in each 4WD for the onslaught of heat we’re about to encounter.
After we came down from the mountains in Ethiopia, we travelled from a cool and wet environment straight into a dry barren one. The mountains were bare, but enchanting. Few villages are beyond the mountain range due to environmental conditions, but the ones that we found were very segregated. We stopped off at a few of these villages for a couple of hours at a time to organise permits from the military in order to pass. This gave us an opportunity to explore some of the remote areas. Though, keeping mindful that venturing too far away from the 4WD was a little dangerous, as things were different out there. One thing that was common all over Ethiopia though, was that the kids flocked from everywhere to see us. Word of the strange foreigners must travel like wildfire. Within minutes of our arrival, there were 40 or so surrounding us, staring intently with those big curious eyes.
Following several hours, mountains, and canyons later, we flattened out and began to traverse the desolate. Though, what I’d normally classify as “desolate” we surpassed a while back. I don’t have a word for this! We left the dirt road we’d been travelling on and headed completely off road, passing through and over solidified magma that had covered this entire region a few years back when Erta Ale erupted. We’ve now left Earth! So, after thirty minutes of being thrown around in the back of the 4WD from negotiating the terrain of magma, I was happy to hit an open expanse of desert. We sped along at high speed through what I can only describe as “nothingness”. An open plain of 360 degrees, consisting flat soil to the horizon. Every 50-60 minutes or so we passed a few wooden stick huts, where the dozen or so occupants threw rocks and sticks at our 4WD as it sped past. These occupants were to be avoided at all cost, apparently. Castaways living a voluntary exiled and minimalist life, away from a society they shun.
Finally arriving at a very small settlement of tin sheds and mud brick houses that were wedged in between some of the only vegetation for hundreds of miles, this was our sort after militia outpost we’d been searching for over the last several days. Things were different out here and not quite what I expected. Friendliness didn’t seem to come quite so easy, and the locals weren’t quite the same as to what we’d been used to. Every one of us began to get the feeling that we weren’t too welcome. Indeed, by warnings from our driver (who was negotiating the hiring of a small army of malicia at the time) told us to stay together and close to the cars while they sort permission to cross through the region.
After nearly an hour of discussions, they decided to let us pass. We were back in business! So with our new addition of two 4WD loads of armed militia for protection, we barrelled on through the desolate once again. Bizarrely, this area is actually prone to flash flooding at a certain time a year and is a death sentence if one was to occur while there. We pushed on as the sun set over the desert and arrived at one of the cast away settlements as night fell. Out here the language is completely different, and only spoken by several hundred people in the local area. The militia tried to bargain and pay for the use of some camels, but the locals wouldn’t have a bar of it. Along with us, the militia are also shunned out here. In the past there have been violent attacks against foreigners from these settlements, some from teenagers following violent tribal traditions of passing into manhood. Lucky for us though, we have a dozen guys with AK47′s that tend to be good at keeping any potential violence at bay.
Back onto the magma, we bounced and jumped our way (even more viciously this time – my head took a beating!) across the alien landscape for an hour or two until we reached a bunch of abandoned stick huts, our camp for the night. At this point, it was pitch black and we were all quite hungry, and not to mention worn out from the long drive. But our night was FAR from over. In fact, it hadn’t even began! Slowly readying ourselves, our drivers cooked some of that amazing Ethiopian food to energise us for the upcoming hike to Erta Ale. With the excitement of what we were about to see, mixed in with the danger of potential rebels lurking in the dark, everyone was very much on edge!
There have been quite a few incidents of significant violence against tourists in this location, many ending quite tragically. It’s extremely important people do their own research into the current situation and safety risks which are relevant to the time of their potential travel/exploration. Safety considerations also need to be placed on season, as tour operators cease bookings during the floods. This is to be taken as a serious and life threatening occurrence. I can not stress enough how much consideration people need to place in upholding their own safety.
Bellies full, backpacks loaded, we were ready! Off we trekked into the surrounding darkness, but behind our private army that ventured into the void 20 minutes earlier to scope the area out first. Staring down at the only circular piece of earth that was lit from my head torch, we marched on and up through the most insane environment consisting of solidified magma chambers created from the previous eruption. The ground was hollow and unpredictable. You never quite knew whether what you were standing on was solid, or whether it was to collapse beneath your feet. This place was void of nearly all life; no trees, no animals, only the odd shrub growing in between volcanic cracks. It was like something straight out of a sci-fi movie. Three and a half hours it took for us to get to the top of the crater, and absolute torture making the climb in the intense heat with a risk of dehydration. Eventually a red glow filled the sky in front of us, as we were nearly there. Scampering down the side of a cliff into a basin, we made the last 100m dash to the epicentre of it all and peered into the abyss.
Everything was for this moment – we were here! Churning, bubbling and spitting, the magma rumbled and glowed a bright red in the middle of the night. The intense heat scorned our faces, but I couldn’t turn away. This was too surreal! I couldn’t help but just stand and stare down, utterly mesmerised. The gigantic hole was filled with red hot boiling metal, flowing from one side to the other. Lava constantly spitting out and landing randomly around the rim of the volcano. Sometimes right where we were standing. Incredible! And without pun, this was possibly the coolest thing I’d ever seen. Even though they were warm, carrying a couple of beers up to celebrate was the best idea we had!
After spending the night at the volcano, void of sleep, dawn slowly made its move forward. Along with our hired guns, we slowly made our way back down the precarious landscape and all collapsed in exhaustion inside a stick hutt we had left from. What an absolute crazy and unique experience this was! I’ve travelled quite a bit over the years, but never before have I done anything remotely like this.
Photographing Erta Ale
Conditions here are intense, and travelling light is the best advice I can give. For the journey there, you’ll want something fast with a bit of zoom to shoot the landscapes from the moving 4WD (say a 50mm – 100mm prime). Once you reach your destination though, the last thing you’re going to want to do is hike up to that volcano with heavy gear. So as I said before, travel light. When you arrive up at the volcano, shooting ultra-wide to wide is going to be your pick. A tripod is also a must due to the harsh lighting conditions – it’s hard to photograph a more extreme environment. When you do take those long exposures, try not to face your lens at the lava for too long, as the heat intensity is incredible and could start to melt or damage parts of your camera. Try not to touch the ground as much as possible, as the dried magma can be razor sharp, and you’ll spend ages trying to get the metal “splinters” out (believe me, I know).
Most importantly: Getting close is great, but also very dangerous! Keep a constant look out for spitting lava that jumps up and out from below and lands where you’re standing. The last thing you’re going to want is to be hit by a clump of 1,200 degree molten metal!
Continue to part 2: Danakil Depression, The Cruelest Place On Earth