I’ve been to Ethiopia’s capital and its main tourist attraction. Time to go off the beaten track to a place which is simply out of this world.
|Erta Ale volcano|
Ethiopia prides itself on being one of the main resistors to colonialism. The British effectively prevented the Italians from taking the land known as Abyssinia – what is now Ethiopia in the 1880s. Ethiopians will tell you they were occupied, rather than colonised, during the Mussolini era in the 1930s; even that period of Italian control was a mere five years.
|Ethiopia and Liberia were the only African nations not|
colonised in the Scramble for Africa in the 1880's
This is not to say that Ethiopia has avoided the tribal and territorial issues which have plagued the African continent since decolonisation accelerated in the 1960s. Eritrea became its own internationally-recognised country in 1993, and tensions between the two have remained high ever since. The situation is at its most volatile along the border, in an area called the Danakil Depression, a desert covering the north and east of the country.
If I were to tell you that this was where I was going, you may think me to be slightly mad. That may change to downright foolish when you learn that a tourist was shot dead in the area one month ago.
There’s another way of looking at this: very much glass half-full. These attacks have happened once every five years. Additionally, numerous statements were published about an increase in the Ethiopian military and police presence in the region – many places are at their safest in the aftermath of an attack due to such a security increase. The fact that the victim went without security, which was strongly suggested before the attack happened, also lends weight to the notion that visiting Danakil would be safe if the right precautions were taken.
This is not to say I didn’t have concerns or doubts about going. A fair-weather traveller wouldn’t come near this place. I wasn’t sure whether anyone else would risk a four-day excursion into the Danakil Depression. I needn’t have worried about that…
I was quite surprised, and certainly reassured, upon discovering that there were almost thirty people on my excursion. Most on the trip shared the view I have just explained; also, they were very eager to see sights of this area, which at the moment is certainly off the common ‘historical’ route through the north and west of Ethiopia. Much of it is uninhabited, with only members of the Afar tribe desperately struggling to survive its inhospitable conditions.
|The low level helps to explain why the region is one of the hottest|
on Earth, with temperatures often exceeding 50'C
Those sights? I think it’s easier for the pictures to give you an idea as to why people come to this area…
This geological nirvana was created by the fact that it lies at a point where three tectonic plates (the Arabian and two splitting sections of the African plate). These helped to create the Rift Valley which is the spine of much of eastern and southern Africa. As the name suggests, the Danakil Depression is also a very low-lying desert area. The location of the colourful rocks, Dallol, is 116 metres below sea level. After walking along the flank for about ten minutes, your eyes fix on the rainbow of rocks in the distance.
It looks like a geothermal image, or an Instagram photo which has been doctored to wildly change the landscape. This is all natural. The different colours represent different minerals and compounds found here: red for iron, white for potash (potassium salt) and yellow for sulphur. Any of you who have been in the presence of sulphur before, whether in a school science lab or near a volcano, will be able to make an educated guess at what smell dominated the area.
It’s a stunning sight. Arriving before other tour groups, we were able to admire the different colours in an almost silent aura, with the only noises being camera clicks, feet crunching over the solidified sulphur and the hissing and bubbling of the liquid below. That liquid was sulphuric acid – not something you want to touch.
Jobs for the Afar people are few and far between but the minerals help to provide a means of income. In particular, salt is extensively mined in the Danakil.
At the request of the Afar and support of the national government, mining is done traditionally and without machines. This means salt is extracted by hand and then dispatched by camel to the nearest major town. It must be unbearable in the summer. I’d recommend that anyone visiting the area buys some cheap sunglasses to donate.
Salt is prevalent throughout the region. Salt deserts exist, with the one surrounding Lake Asale being 40 km by 30 km. The crunch underfoot and bright reflection from the floor reminded me of a snowy Kazakh winter’s day. I wouldn’t have been wearing a T-shirt then, though…
It allowed us a bit of fun in Lake Afrera, a low-lying lake which I imagine is similar to the Dead Sea as you can float in it. I tried swimming and my legs kept popping up out of the water! Bizarrely, you feel different temperatures in the same spot; the top of the water is very warm as it is freshwater from a nearby hot spring, with the bottom, salt-absorbed part being significantly cooler.
Another hot spring is far less attractive. The ‘Yellow Pond’, so-called due to its sulphuric content and hue in certain light, has many dead birds around it. The birds are so parched and desperate for fluids that they will drink from the pond and then perish around it. 80% of the lake is potash, which is a useful fertiliser in this part of the world.
The hottest place of all is also the most dangerous: Erta Ale. Meaning ‘Smoky Mountain’, the volcano which rises to 613 metres above sea level is constantly boiling and bubbling, causing toil and trouble for anyone in its path when an eruption happens. The last eruption? 12 months ago…
If it was easy to get to, Erta Ale would be a constant hive of activity. Driving over sand, cooled lava and seemingly impassable boulders at various points puts paid to that. Vehicles often get stuck, which is another advantage of driving in a convoy. This is a tangible example of ‘off the beaten track’. The lack of toilets would put many off as well…
We set off for the summit in darkness, just after 7:30pm. With the moon yet to rise, the only light was a glowing red blur in the distance. The crater of Erta Ale.
Three hours later, after a surprisingly gentle hike, we were a mere 300 metres from the crater. This was where we were going to sleep, in between visiting the top. Yes, we were sleeping very close to the opening of an active volcano.
The walk across to the crater needs a little more care; molten rock isn’t as strong as stone, meaning that large fragments of it have the potential to break when you stand on them. Soon after, we reached the crater…
In most other places in the world, we would have been stood at least 10 metres away from the edge, which would be roped off and manned to ensure no one did anything silly. Here, atop a windy, smoky volcano, we were told to stay ‘about one metre’ from the edge. One metre from certain death. One metre from a place which certainly would have protected the One Ring To Rule Them All.
The smoke often shrouded the magma beneath; this explains the poor quality of the pictures. It’s actually quite cold due to the wind whipping around the peak. When you get closer to the edge, however, you can feel warmth emanating from below.
What we were able to see was a river of magma, visible when the activity beneath the chamber’s volcanic rock is too much for it to bear. Flowing silently (well, from a distance) from right to left, it sporadically sped up and whizzed very large pieces of rock out of sight. It reminded me of a water slide. Admittedly, this slide would be fatal…
When the smoke cleared sufficiently to see the magma flow far below, an almost hypnotic aura resonated around Erta Ale. Once again, the colours visible are spellbindingly vivid. Once again, the only sounds were camera clicks, the whipping wind and an occasional, barely audible crackling from the fiery hell below. Once again, not a word was spoken.
If it was safe and comfortable, visiting the incredible natural sights of the Danakil Depression would be near the top of almost every adventurer’s list. The challenges for a casual traveller are numerous – I showered once in four days and made more use of the natural world as a toilet in four days than I ever have in my life. More people are coming – an awful visual example of this is the number of plastic bottles left on the flank of the volcano – but this will never be classed as a ‘relaxing’ holiday spot. What it is? An incredible experience of the extreme natural world, and an otherworldly reward for anyone who is adventurous enough to come.
Love you all