Happiness is not the absence of problems, it's the ability to deal with them."
DAYS 3 and 4, Fri 27 and Sat 28 Nov. Abaala village to Dodom village and up Erte Ale.
This was the big day. As great as it all had been, everything before had been a mere aperitif to the wonder and severity of what we now were about to experience. We first head from Abaala south back on the same Djibouti road we had used on entry, before turning east on excellent tar for the first section towards the army camp/village of Dodom at the foot of Erta Ale and our base for the ascent that evening. We first stop and have some coffee in the village of Eripti where we complete security arrangements and pick up our police escort. After this village one again leaves the mountains emerging on the dry, flat plain with only occasional Afar tribespeople. How these people live amongst such extreme circumstances is astounding. According to Dave, our geologist companion, this valley is part of the Great Rift and the terrain around us was littered with lava boulders and lava flows with intermittent volcano-shaped mountains. He was also able to point out to us disintegrated lava tubes and the rough debri from lava eruptions. At one stage he points out that we have travelled through a collapsed candelabra and there is even a large lava plug. All very reminiscent of the Lake Turkana route seemingly ages ago.
After about 3hr and 150km we turn off the tar and onto the unsurfaced road. The tour company terms the last section through the lava field as “the worst road in Africa”, whether the case or not it certainly was comparable to sections found on the Turkana route, although thankfully shorter. First one drives through vast flat sandy plains where for the first time I became a little irritated with the ETT drivers. They drove at a maniacal speed along these extremely dusty roads raising huge blinding plumes of vision-obscuring dust, with us struggling to keep up. The interlacing tracks and many forks were confusing although I think they all lead to the same destination. To make matters worse there were occasional sudden trenches across the tracks and the drivers seemed to have fun, becoming airborne at times as they raced each other. We kept to our comfortable and safe speed and they intermittently stopped for us to catch up. After 31km we entered the rough lava road. This is where my experience paid off and many were the admiring comments on my ability to handle my vehicle. The answer was simple, engage low range and have controlled high torque ascents and descents. I don’t think they used low range. To do this route you will need a full blooded 4X4 with the clearance of a Land Cruiser. This section of road was 12km long and took us about 1hr indicating how difficult the terrain was.
Dodom is a very primitive camp of grass Afar huts that is an army base, once again no running water, no toilets or ablutions of any description and precious little privacy for bodily functions, especially for the ladies. Anne has hairs on her teeth after her experiences in and around this volcano. We had a light early supper of some good soup. Supper would be provided later up at the crater rim. The volcano is not all that impressive from this base camp, although it is quite a distance away. The walk up the mountain started after the sun had set at about 18H00 once the temperature had dropped to below 40C, it is simply too hot to do it earlier and in any case the volcano is spectacular after dark when the lava lake can be seen at its most magnificent. The armed policeman was joined by 3 soldiers armed with AK47 automatic rifles, these security measures are needed following the five tourists killed by Eritrean gunmen at the volcano in 2012 and four others kidnapped for ransom. This was the essence of a hostile environment.
Anne and I had decided on the apparent soft option of riding up and down the mountain on the backs of camels. These are used to transport the matresses and supper on the trail to the crater and although we were warned that these were “desert camels” we had no idea of what this implied. I would like to concentrate on the volcano itself but our journey up and down the mountain is a story in its own right. Dave our geologist friend with camel experience had warned us that a camel ride could be far from a pleasant experience, describing the discomfort and that some susceptible people even suffer from severe motion sickness. When the camels arrived he rolled his eyes at the primitive seating arrangements and indicated that he felt we should rather walk. I was concerned about the walk as I feared Anne or even myself might hold up the group as neither of us are really hiking fit.
Well, I don’t know how others have managed this ride up and down the volcano on camel-back, perhaps there were more equitable seating arrangements. These camels had no saddles or stirrups which Dave considered essential. Instead they were kitted out for carrying goods. To detail the problem, more understandable perhaps after a glance at the photos, there were 2 X-shaped cross-poles mounted on their backs, fore and aft. Connecting them and presumably preventing too much contact and chafing of the camels' backs, is a pole similar to that of a bicycle cross-bar. Believe me, the sheer pain of sitting on this arrangement, even with a few of the thin foam matrasses draped over the pole, was as painful as riding uphill and downhill over very bumpy terrain for 3 hours on the crossbar of a bicycle. To make matters even more difficult one is seated forward of these camels single hump riding rather precariously near the neck of the beast. This meant that one had to hold on for dear life on the fo'rard crosspoles especially on the frequent descents. Even the toughest and most determined of persons would demand to dismount after a while. In fact my camel, for some reason turned out to afford a far more comfortable ride than Anne’s.
We set off merrily enough with me waving a lighted cigarette jokingly at those footslogging. This later turned into a serial cigarette-stoking attempt to distract from the discomfort of the ride. Anne is a real stalwart and did not want to be thought a wuss and was uncomplaining for the first hour or so. However the intolerable pain of a wooden pole grinding on your perineal tissues and bone eventually became too much and she asked to stop and dismount for a break. By this time she was feeling nauseous, dizzy and faint, probably from the motion sickness she is liable to and that I feared would affect her. Those that have ridden on a camel know how uncomfortable its lurching gait is, especially when climbing or descending on such an irregular surface. No stirrups and no saddle meant that there was no way to shift ones seating position and relieve the pressure points. After a short rest we decided to try and walk for the remaining 2hr ahead. This is not an easy hike under the best of circumstances described by others as “stiff”. Our legs were not only stiff from the camels, they were rigid as were my arms from trying to hold my body weight off my (unpleasantly) throbbing perineum. Anne was in a bad state from her ordeal and to my relief, after an hour or so, the camel driver suggested we try riding on swopped camels. We had hardly set off when I realized the extremely painful ride Anne had been so bravely enduring. I immediately demanded to dismount and we walked the rest of the way to the crater arriving about an hour after the rest of the group. My fears were high that we would not make it and was very pleased we had not held up the others who had gone ahead. ETT have undertaken to only use camels in future with decent seating arrangements.
Anne was so exhausted that she could only brave the clamber and walk across the main crater to the lava lake crater much later in the early hours of the morning. She collapsed exhausted on the thin mattress and I suspect was asleep before I set off to fulfill a long-awaited dream. As I had ascended I had become progressively more excited as the glow of the crater lake in the dark night sky grew brighter and whiffs of the sulphurous gasses grew stronger. One has to carefully climb down quite a precarious 50m long steep path from the main crater rim before walking across the very uneven solidified lava flow surface of the 800m wide main crater before reaching close to the smaller central crater in which lies the smouldering, intermittently erupting and burping active lava lake. The view is incredible and the lava appeared to be only about 10m deeper than the rim. It is this easy visibility and proximity of the view that are so astounding. One has to keep at least about 10m away from the crater edge because of the precarious softness of the lava rock closer to the rim, and also the severe heat. There is apparently no other lava lake on earth that can be approached this close.
The first things that strikes is the heat and the intense molten glow, followed by the illuminated continual gas and steam emissions overhanging the crater lake. Then one sees the black surface of cooled lava rented by seams of shifting and changing molten lava like a cracked egg shell floating on the lava surface, as it cools slightly. That night the lava surface was rotating in a clockwise direction from the main source of continual lava flow at one side of the crater. When we returned at 4H00 it was flowing anticlockwise. It is amazing to think that the temperature of this lava is at more than 1,000C and this only about 20-30m away from where you stand. The most riveting feature was the continual belching of molten lava from one side of the crater base, The volume of lava flow ebbing and flowing and also every few minutes a pyrotechnic series of spurts, burps and eruptions, were the real attention grabbers. The group were standing entranced as if involved in some primitive religious experience. At times the eruptions were accompanied by an explosive roar and the heat required the almost hypnotized viewers to take a few backward steps. Absolutely, totally and emotionally overwhelming. This volcano is obviously classified as highly unstable and explosive; perhaps one of these days some tourists…..? , but not us! I have seen a few of the natural wonders of the world and would it be in my power, they would be reclassified. Victoria Falls is a massive tourist magnet in our part of the world but it cannot hold a candle to what we were experiencing here. The Ethiopian government and indeed the world quickly need to step in more actively here to prevent this site deserving of international heritage status, from becoming completely befouled by human waste and empty plastic water bottles! After the trance came the photographs but they are a very poor substitute for the sheer impact of a rare view through the front door of planet earth enabling a unique view into the mythical bowels of the earth.
A short sleep was later behind the shelter of a half meter high wall of lava rocks, barely shelter against the strong breeze. We have had better night’s sleep. After a couple of hours of restless and uncomfortable snoozing and some grub we were up again at 4H00 to view it all again, particularly to watch the sunrise illuminate the rim, just to add a different visual perspective. I first had to clamber urgently down the slope to the toilet area away from the sleeping area. Once again the terrain was littered with evidence of multiple previous simirlar visits, I had to choose a spot for a rather explosive evacuation, unfortunately a forerunner of some troubles ahead. With sunrise came the prospect of the difficult 3hr descent which need I say, Anne and I did on foot despite sleep deprivation over 3 nights, a cowboy gait and stiffly painful muscles and throbbing other unmentionables. I must note that I was extremely proud of Anne in achieving her goal under extremely daunting circumstances. We drank plenty of water as we made our way down and we made it only 30min behind the lead group. Some great people hung back to keep us company despite the rapidly increasing heat and scorching sunshine.
After some lunch and lots to drink we eased our aching bodies into our vehicles to make the long 214km and 5hr 30min drive back to Mekele. I started off driving although feeling rather grim. On the sandy flat section exiting the volcano area, the source of my malaise revealed itself when my bowels suddenly and catastrophically revolted. I am sure that the description catastrophic is understood by most and I was very embarrassed by others having to watch (the cheek of them) Anne pouring water over my nether regions as I bent over to be washed. For once I was grateful that none of my family or friends were present, I would never have heard the end of it. This occurred a second time during the drive home. I was running out of shorts. I can only think how incredibly lucky I was that this had not occurred up the volcano, I would not have been in any state to hike down and there were no facilities for help of any sort. This mishap will tickle my daughters pink.
Anne capably took over the driving and we were able to take refuge in the Hilltop Hotel where I experienced 2 days of churning bowels and vomiting, never has such an illness been better timed. I recognized the features of a Giardia parasitic infection and a course of suitable antibiotics had me on the go in 2 days.
To those contemplating a trip to Danakil and Erta Ale, please do not consider the camel-ride option. I doubt if any would manage unless they have a different seating arrangement. For those fit enough for a decent hike grab the opportunity with both hands. The circumstances and environment are tough and if you feel you are too fastidious, what are you doing in Africa in the first place!
Main. The lava lake at Erta Atale.
1. A contrast between lava rock and not.
2. The end of the tar road and the salt flats of Lake Assale.
3. My camel for the ride up the volcano.
4. A bad start to a failed ride.
5. Just call me Lawrence.
6. View from a camel’s back, my first and last
The rest are all pics of the amazing lava lake.
AND FINALLY PROOF THJAT ANNE REALLY DID MAKE IT!!