Ethiopia: Erta Ale volcano

Community Highlights Africa & The Middle East Ethiopia: Erta Ale volcano

Sleeping on the floor with two buzzsaws was no problem for me, but Karen (and everyone else) had a tough time. A walk through Abala (pronounced Ahb ala), however, contained enough interesting sights to pry open weary eyes. As we walked by some kids, they cheered us on to join in a foosball match. One surprising thing about small towns in Ethiopia is the abundance of games--foosball and pool halls line the streets. I scored a point, lost a point, scored a point, and so on, and the kids kept speaking to me in Afar (the language of the Afar region) -- were they angry or excited? It was hard to tell. Other kids loved to walk along with us, and this one child with a Halloween shirt repeatedly showed us his dance. Another kid ran by with a plastic bag over his head ... for fun. Don't worry, he poked holes for his eyes and mouth. As Christmas was still about ten days away (Ethiopia has a 13-month calendar and Christmas is early in the second week of January), there were some Christmas trees for sale.

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As we drove further east towards Eritrea and our destination, the volcano Erta Ale, the land became flatter as the steep mountains were replaced with black volcanic rock. The oddest thing was seeing an ostrich all by itself surrounded by volcanic rock and maybe one tree in sight. Before going off road, we stopped for some hot penne pasta under a tree--at least the coolness of the shade balanced out the hot pasta in the 100 degree heat.

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Our driver Daniel was an expert at making his own lane in the sands. We were practically racing the other SUVs in our tour group and Daniel won maybe 50% of the time. We could see the smoke rising from the active Erta Ale volcano as we approached. Prior to reaching the basecamp, it was a long slow drive on an extremely bumpy volcanic-rock laden path. According to Daniel, he has had multiple tourists vomit from carsickness on this road.

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The basecamp of Erta Ale was disgusting. Karen described it as a giant toilet. There were no actual latrines and there were no trees or any form of coverage really, so you can use your imagination. Plastic water bottles lay in piles and scraps of paper covered the ground. It was one of the more vile places I have been to. We ate dinner here. As we were about to embark on a six-mile hike I didn’t want to have my heartburn come on with a vengeance, so I ate just plain noodles. Our Australian tour-mate is gluten intolerant, so he ate just the sauce for the noodles. Camels looked on.

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We left the disgusting base camp at sunset. The hike to the rim of the volcano actually wasn’t that hard—it was mostly a gradual incline. It took about three hours to hike the six miles—we went at a quick pace but the speed unfortunately made one of our hiking buddies take a fall. There wasn’t a lot to see at night, except for the glittering eyes of the millions of spiders in the desert. And the stars. When we stopped for our breaks, we would turn out our headlamps and admire the stars. This was without a doubt the most stars I have ever witnessed in my life, and Karen said it is near the top for her.

After several hours of hiking, all of us started to cough simultaneously. That was when our guide told us to put our masks on as we were near the top, where the sulfuric gases were spewing out of the volcano. The air got thicker with a grey smoke. We reached the crater and had to hike down maybe 30 feet to head towards the edge where you could look over. The ground cracked and caved in entirely sometimes as we walked over it.

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The other-worldliness of the volcano Erta Ale is difficult to portray well. We could feel its power as the lava washed around like waves below and gases screamed like a jet engine or made us cough or run away from the intense heat. In looking down into the crater, the smoke covered our view such that no lava was visible, but we could see an intense orange glow. It made for some great (unedited!) pics.

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We had to walk about twenty minutes away from the crater to sleep at night, but honestly it wasn’t far enough as we still needed to wear our masks while we slept. Karen and I had our “couples room” as our guide described it. A few camels had hauled our group’s mattresses and some water up the mountain. While it was a long way away from comfortable, at least the view of the stars was unreal. And tonight the snorers had their own "room."

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Our guide said he would check out the crater at 2 a.m. and wake us if there was lava visible (if the gases and winds had changed), but instead we were woken at 5 a.m., in time to see the sunrise. The sunrise seemed disappointing at first but then it turned into a real beauty.

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This photo is a Where's Waldo. Try and find Dennis!

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It was an easy hike down and then we had breakfast at the toilet of a basecamp.

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Then off to Lake Afdera for a swim! After driving several hours, we got to swim in the ~30% salt lake that was characterized by a one-inch layer of HOT water, salt drifts around its edges, mountains in the background, and a fresh hot spring adjacent to it. I found the hot spring relaxing but to most people it was burning.

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After several more hours of driving, we returned to Mekele. It was New Year’s Eve … or was it? Ethiopia is on the thirteen-month calendar, so it wouldn’t be the New Year for a few weeks. And, it was only like 4 p.m. in the US. But, it was turning midnight in Belarus so we could celebrate with them!

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This featured blog entry was written by karenanddennis from the blog Roaming Rwanda.
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By karenanddennis

Posted Wed, Jan 16, 2019 | Ethiopia | Comments