Warning: this report describes one of my travels in 2008. Developments early 2012 showed that the safety situation in the Ethiopian Afar region (Dallol / Erta Ale) can deteriorate rapidly. If you are planning to visit the area please make sure you take necessary precautions and are well informed about the actual safety situation.
Erta Ale volcano and Dallol volcano expedition 2008 travel report
After extensive preparation I got on a flight to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to attend an expedition to the Erta Ale and Dallol volcanoes in the Danakil Depression. Together with four German and an English volcano chaser I hoped for a boiling lava lake and colorful salt formations without problems in the border area with Eritrea of with the local Afar people. Because these risks are for real the Dutch Foreign Ministry (February 2008) advises not to go into the Danakil area.
Arrival Addis Ababa 2 February 2008
The KLM flight brings us to a rather chilly Addis Ababa where we were picked up by Henok Tekla of Origins Ethiopia - Tours and Travel. After meeting the guide and driver and after paying the necessary cash it became clear that the rest of the trip would not be so luxurious anymore. So we had a nice beer and hoped for the best. You never know with volcanoes, jeeps and the Afar people.
Croco in Awash National Park 3 February 2008
After a swift breakfast two old Toyota Land Cruisers brought us to the Awash National Park. Half way the Somalia Road we stopped at Lake Basaqua, near Methara. When we arrived at the Awash National Park campsite the tents were already setup at the edge of the Awash River. Under supervision of a bunch of monkeys the cooks prepared dinner. Apart from monkeys there appeared not to be much wildlife in the park. But in darkness we got some company. Out of the blue we found a two meter long crocodilian laying just a few meters from our tents.
Sleeping in Logia 4 February 2008
After a crocodilian free night our breakfast was ready at dawn. After a game drive in de the Awash National Park, photographing some baboons and visiting the Awash Waterfalls we traveled to Logia. This time the Djibouti Road brought us through more rugged terrain and rising temperatures. 300 km and 7 hours later we arrived in Logia. To bad all hotels were fully booked. So I ended up sleeping outside in a bit too small bed.
Trip to Afdera and the Afdera Salt Lake 5 February 2008
Today we really entered the Danakil Depression and from now on we could expect extreme temperatures. This area is 100m below sea level, similar to Death Valley, and it is very hot. The road changed from asphalt to dirt and here we see the first camel caravans, Afar huts, lava fields and other volcanic formations. Once we arrived at the Afdera Lake we had the tents set up close to the lake’s edge. Afdera village consists mainly of Afar huts. Most locals work in the saltpans to produce potassium salt. A hot moist wind blows through the tents. An added bonus: at night a slow and beautiful fireball drops straight from the sky and disappears at the horizon. With a thought about tomorrows climb to the Erta Ale summit I fall asleep.
Stage to Erta Ale and summit climb 6 February 2008
After an easy breakfast we wrapped up the camp. This was going to be a long day with lots of impressions and experiences. Every tourist group needs to take policemen with them for protection. And of course that needs to be paid for. Also the camels need to be hired for carrying some of our luggage, drinking water and food. With the policeman on board we drove towards the base of the Erta Ale. A sandstorm halted us for some hours and when finally on our way again we got stuck in the desserts sands. Pushing and pulling is hard work at 43 °C.
On the horizon the Erta Ale shield volcano suddenly appears and after crossing a rough lava field we cant drive any closer. After unloading the Toyota’s we sorted our gear for hiking the last 12 kms to Erta Ale’s summit.
Continued 6 February 2008
In the afternoon it cooled down to about 34 °C and we leave for the summit which is a 4 hour hike. My backpack is way to heavy because I don’t trust these camels with my lenses and a brand new EOS 40D. At dusk Erta Ale welcomes us with a red shining over its summit. In complete darkness we arrived at the summit and after small but steep decent we stand inside the crater. Minutes later we are standing at the edge of the pit staring at the slowly moving red hot lava. It is magical. You can actually feel, smell and hear the lava in the pit. Sulphur dioxide gasses are irritating my nose and throat. Meanwhile the camels arrived with our remaining gear but unfortunately no tents. That means sleeping under the stars which is not such a big deal. After taking some shots I crawl in my bag suddenly realizing that I really don’t know what the rest of the crater looks like, and in what potentially risky part I am now sleeping. In the background the lava lake boils and volcanic gasses are stinging my nose. What a bizarre place and what an unbelievable adventurous day this was.
Sleeping in the Erta Ale crater 7 February 2008
In complete darkness we started shooting pictures again. During the day cameras are rattling and memory cards are filled. Only a simple breakfast can stop us for a moment. Only now during dawn I see the full size of the crater and get some sort of overview of the cracks and other dangerous parts. After spending some hours at the pits edge I get some sort of understanding how the lava lake behaves and what to expect next. It goes from fountains and gas bubbles to slow moving plates that dive underneath other plates. Just like tectonic plates behave. Also the level of the lake slowly rises and sinks probably due to gas bubbles rising and expanding deep down the lava lake. In the middle of the night after many pictures I crawl into my sleeping bag and wondering if I brought enough batteries for another day of heavy photographing.
Staying on the Erta Ale volcano 8 February 2008
During waking up everybody is coughing. We all inhaled too much sulphur dioxide gas the other day. Today I will use my gas mask no matter what. Half way during the day the level of the lava lake is higher than we have witnessed so far and fresh red hot lava starts to appear at several spots. The heat radiation from the 1200 °C lava is strong now. Suddenly an enormous fountain shoots up from the middle of the lake. Now the heat radiation is almost unbearable. After 10 minutes the fountain disappears and the lake becomes quite again. The fountain and gas release made the level of the lava lake drop about a meter. Also the north crater is active and enormous clouds of steam and gas are expelled. The hornitos which are just visible make me think of the crater of the Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano, an other volcano expedition I participated in 2004. An interesting phenomenon in the Arte Ale crater is the presence of Pele’s Hair, fine glass like lava needles called after the Hawaiian goddess Pele. This Pele’s Hair can be found all over the crater floor. These glass needles are formed in lava fountains. I took several pictures of the formation of Pele’s Hair. After some more night shots of the red glowing crater it is back to the sleeping bag.
Travel from Erta Ale crater to Ahmedale (Dallol) 9 February 2008
Early morning every one is packing gear because the camels will leave at 5:30. I shoot some last pictures if the crater and at 08;00 we started hiking back to the LandCruisers. Here pancakes are waiting for brunch. Just before we leave Erta Ale I look back thinking what an exceptionally special place this is. The short trip to Ahamed Ale went very smooth without any problem. Ahemed Ale is a small village at the border with Eritrea. Apart from soldiers the main population consists of seasonal workers who mine salt at the Dallol salt flats. There is no luxury at all, no sanitary and no electricity. Only lots of flies. And it is very hot, well over 40°C. Passing by in the morning and evening are the salt caravans with camels, horses and donkeys. That is mainly for the Afar to collect taxes per animal and per salt block.
Dallol 10 February 2008
Like other days we got up at sunrise to avoid the hottest part of the day. This morning we drive to the area with the famous colorful salt formations. After a little climb you walk straight into an alien landscape. Salt formations in all sorts of sizes, colors and shapes are everywhere. This is the Dallol volcano. I fill memory card after memory card and my mobile hard disk comes in handy. During the morning the temperature rises to a blistering 43 C and lucky for me the strong winds make it only just bearable. The afternoon we take shelter underneath an overhanging piece of salt. After a little lunch and loads of water we all take a little nap. At the end of the afternoon we walk through a salt canyon to the 1930 Italian miners camp with our armed Afar guide. Up to now it is not completely clear what the Italians were exactly after and not much data is available. After taking some more pictures we are heading back to Ahmedale where I could only dream of a cold beer or a icy coke. Since there is only a tiny power generator cold drinks are an illusion. At the end of the day I calculated to have drunk more than 8 liters of liquid. I did not know a human being was capable of doing that. A little macaroni with tuna later ,since you do not have any appetite, I fall asleep pretty exhausted.
The salt miners of the Dallol 11 February 2008
The salt miners of the Dallol 11 February 2008
Very early we visit the salt miners of the Dallol salt flats. These workers break up big salt plates and cut them in little square sheets. Packs of these sheets are loaded onto camels for transport. The whole process of breaking up and cutting the salt, carving, trimming, packing and exporting is interesting to see. These miners work in very hot weather for a little money. Still they have to pay the Afar taxes for each camel or donkey and for every carved sheet of salt. Photographing is a challenge not only due to the high temperatures but also because not every miner allows his photo to be taken or want to cooperate. By the end of the morning we are back in Ahmed Ale. We take it easy this afternoon with lots of warm cola.
Trip to Mekele 12 February 2008
So far this expedition is going so smooth that we decide going home via a detour and visit the rock churches of Lalibela. We have to pay a little extra for renting the Toyota's some extra days. During this stage we first drive to Bere Ale and then to Mekele. In Mekele I finally experienced some luxury again. Nice food and a hot shower. And after 10 days without a bath that was more or less necessary. And after cleaning my equipment from dust and recharging all batteries I can sleep in a nice soft bed.
From Mekele to Lalibela 13 February 2008
After our hotel breakfast our trip continues. We travel to Korem where we stop for lunch and from there to Lalibela. Especially the Ethiopian Highland with wide views and beautiful landscapes are impressive. During dusk, and with painful knees from being cramped up in the back in the Toyota, we entered Lalibela. The no star hotel with a room full of mosquitoes was very interesting. Lucky for me I brought my own mosquito net which came in handy. Hopefully tomorrow we can see some of the churches.
The Lalibela rock churches 14 February 2008
King Lalibela ordered the built of these churches in the Thirteenth century. These churches are completely hewn top down from a monolithic rock which must have been a monumental task. Today the church Bete Ghiorgis is best preserved and is still in use. Some other rock churches a now protected by a lightweight roof construction to prevent further damage. Priests are guarding the churches and will show tourists relics on request. In return they expect a little fee. Inside these churches it is dark and only long exposures will show the beautiful colors of the floor carpets and wall paintings.
From Lalibela to Kombolcha 15 February 2008
By now the whole group feels the same: done everything, seen everything, and now back to home ASAP. People normally fly to Addis but this time there were no tickets available. That means another two full days driving with the Toyota's. First stop is Kombolcha in 300 km's. Since this is the Ethiopian highland with only dirt roads progress is slow and two flat tires don't help. Eventually we arrive Kombolcha at 1800 and again a room full of mosquitoes. The Italian 4 course menu helps to compensate a bit. Meanwhile my knees are cramping up. Tomorrow finally going home but it will be tough again. Again 350 km driving, repacking for the flight and checking in. Lucky enough it will be my turn to take a front seat with a little more leg space.
To Addis Ababa 16 February 2008
The trip continues early morning from Kombolcha via Debre Berhan to Addis. We arrive in Addis around 16:00 where we are dropped off at Hotel Ghion. Here we sort our luggage for the flight home. After a meal in the hotel we are dropped off at Addis Airport. A little while later I am flying home to Amsterdam, with loads of photo's and experiences.
Here a wonderful and intensive Ethiopia volcano expedition ends. I will probably need many days to really comprehend all impressions and experiences. I think 5000 photos will help with that. Despite the many risks involved this trip is a success from start to finish.
All credits for this trip go to Martin Rietze, one of the German participants, and to Henok and his colleagues from Origins Ethiopia - Tours and Travel. Still, considering all risks involved in traveling in the Danakil Depression, the Erta Ale and Dallol volcanoes is not for everyone.