From beautiful volcanic landscape to spiritual tranquility
I have just returned from a five-night trip to the Danakil Depression, trekking to the top of Erta Ale, Ethiopia’s largest active volcano and visiting Dallol, followed by two nights in Lalibela. I was awestruck by the variety of scenery I saw, and the excitement of visiting in one of the world’s most inhospitable, inaccessible and hottest areas.
The main reason I chose this trip was to visit Erta Ale, the most active volcano in Ethiopia in the North Eastern Afar region. Erta Ale is famous for its active summit crater lake, where you can see lava bubbling and spitting and glowing red in the night sky, and that was what I wanted to see. After an early morning flight to Mekele I joined a large group of people who were driven to Erta Ale in four wheel drive vehicles. Once leaving the tarmac road there is a six hour drive across one of the world’s roughest roads where it is best to become like a rag doll not resisting the vehicles violent movements up and down and side to side.
It’s necessary for the tour operators to obtain permits to enter the Danakil Depression and this took over an hour longer than expected at lunch time, so we didn’t arrive at the camp site until after dark, around 7:00 pm. We had dinner at the camp site then 35 tourists, accompanied by three guides ascended the volcano in the dark, with head torches if you want to use them, but surprisingly most people didn’t because there was a full moon that night. (If your tour company tells you that you’ll ascend in a small party don’t believe them, as groups will all join together.) It’s a tough 3 hour trek, because it is done at a fast pace so you need to be fit to keep up, and the ascent is 450 meters over rough volcanic terrain, getting steeper at the top. If you fall, as I did, then the rock is razor sharp and cuts easily. One man fell at the top, where the crater edge is quite treacherous and gashed his leg open on the sharp rock.
Camels take up the mattresses and some spare water, and a sleeping blanket each, but you have to carry two liters of water yourself which is heavy, plus clothes for the top. We slept outside on thin mattresses close together in low walled pens, and it did get cold from the wind, despite the blanket so I didn’t get much sleep. We arrived about 11pm, and were woken at 4am to climb down into the old crater and walk to the new crater edge to hopefully see the lava lake below, spitting and bubbling and flowing red. Unfortunately all our group saw was the volcano emitting sulfur clouds which obscured any view of the lava lake, which was very disappointing given the hard work of getting there, but the name Erta Ale does mean ‘smoking mountain’. I think a group will be lucky for the volcano to reveal its secrets rather than clouds, but the guides said that a group the previous night had seen the lava, so it’s pot luck. We left the crater side around 6am, after sunrise, and walked back down to the camp for breakfast. It’s worth noting that there are no toilet facilities other than what nature provides, and due to the numbers of tourists using ‘nature’, without any subsequent clean-up, the toilet area is pretty disgusting and dirty.
We then drove back the way we had come over the very rough track until we branched off for Hamed Ela. The drive took about 7 hours plus breaks and we reached our accommodation in a family house around sunset. We all stayed in mixed accommodation rooms on mattresses on the floor, and there was access to a bucket shower which was a relief given how sandy and dirty I was. The food at this family home was very good, being a variety of lentil dishes, injera and bread..
Another 4am wake up, so by this time I was very tired, and we set off for Dallol, which is 116 meters below sea level in the Danakil Depression. The journey was very interesting as we drove through the salt pans, which seemed endless and then through a shallow salt lake, Lake Asale, which was very beautiful with the morning sun reflecting off the water, and a clear blue sky. Finally we reached an island emerging from the water and salt pan, nicknamed ‘the colorful place’ which is the volcanic area of Dallol. This is a wonderful place where the earths’ volcanic activity bubbles beneath the surface and produces beautiful colorful structures of vents and rocks, and shallow areas of bright yellow or lime green acidic water caused by the interplay of minerals, sulfur, iron and salt. This area is one of the hottest places on earth in summer, with temperatures reaching over 55c but we were lucky in that there was a wind blowing whilst we visited, and it was November so the heat was tolerable. The group spent about an hour and a half looking at all the colorful geological structures and they were fantastic. It is noted that we were accompanied by two armed guards but I had no feeling of not being safe during this trip, but there have been incidents involving tourists being attacked in recent years in this area.
On the way back we stopped to have a look at a small poisonous crater lake where the water was bubbling from hot springs and was very oily and hence slippery. One of our group got too close and slipped in to the water, being fully submerged to her shock and discomfort, and was hauled out with cuts on her legs and obviously shock, and washed down with water.
We drove back via the salt canyon, stopping to see the impressive salt pillars and cliffs, to Mekele where I stayed a night, ready for an early start to be driven to Lalibela with another couple. I am so glad I didn’t take the easy option of flying to Lalibela as the journey across the countryside, taking about eight hours, over very rough roads at times was so interesting and an opportunity to see the traditional rural way of life. As it was a Saturday and market day in the small towns or villages we saw lots of people either on their way to the markets or returning along the road, so it seemed very busy and colorful.
We arrived at Lalibela around 4:00 pm and I checked into the Tukul Village hotel, a comfortable retreat. The following morning I was woken at 4am by the sound of chanting from the churches, as it was a Sunday when services start very early in the morning. It was lovely to lie in bed drifting in and out of sleep to the sound of chanting and singing.
In the morning I was assigned a guide to show me round the collection of 11 medieval rock-hewn churches, dating back to the 12th Century and the time of King Lalibela. These churches are amazing as they are underground and have been carved out of the solid rock. I was pleased that I was by myself and not with a group whose first concern is often to take a photo rather than listen to the history of each church with respect. Lalibela has a small museum and interestingly they have only found one implement used to carve the churches out of hard rock, which is on display, so all the other implements must be buried in a site yet to be found. The guide explained that King Lalibela’s aim in the 12th century was to create a ‘new Jerusalem’ in Ethiopia, so that people did not have to take the hazardous journey to Jerusalem.
I found my stay very relaxing and on the final night took a tut tut ride out to a restaurant called Ben Abeba that sits high on a ridge with wonderful views across the valleys below, and over a beer and an Ethiopian Shepards pie, I watched the sun set. I didn’t want to go back to Addis as for me it will be the wonders of the volcanic landscape, the beauty of the ‘colorful place’ and the quiet religious awe of the underground churches that I shall remember in my heart for many years to come.
Contributed by Pauline Smith