By: Heather and Matt
We arrived in Ethiopia with little knowledge of where to go and what to see. With one major exception, we knew we wanted to visit the Danakil Depression located in the north. The fairytale-like landscape of the Dallol region and of course, the fiery lava on top of Erta Ale volcano made the area a photographer’s fantasy land.
We set off on a 4-day Danakil Depression tour with Ethio Travel and Tours (ETT). From Mekelle, we drove about 80 km’s to Dodom, which consisted of about 20 or so military hamlets located at the base of the volcano. The road to Dodom was quite possibly one of the worst roads in the world. Lined with dirt, rocks, holes, soft sand and dust storms we bounced and jerked in our seats for the last 2 ½ to 3 hours of the 6-hour ride. Erta Ale was only accessible with a local guide and armed guards, thanks to a continuing conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea.
After we had arrived in Dodom, we were fed and fueled by sugar drinks and caffeine. As the sun begun to set, we started our 3-hour ascent to the crater with our armed escorts in tow. It didn’t take long before we were hiking in total darkness over uneven lava rock. The hike itself was not challenging, but the heat was exhausting even after the sun went down.
The pitch black of the night allowed for some incredible stargazing. Between the clear and bright Milky Way and the red glow of the lava lake, we couldn’t decide which was more exciting. We did come across a baby snake, maybe 2 feet long. He seemed to be in the middle of the trail, and only a small group of us noticed him. The guide wasn’t able to tell us what type of snake, but he assured us it probably wasn’t poisonous. Matt, of course, was not pleased when I lingered to try to take a photo. Neither of my photos turned out.
We reached the crater campsite and were quickly broken up into small groups of 3-4 and shown the camping area. It consisted of a field of C-shaped pods with rock walls, we ditched our gear and prepared to descend into the volcano. As we made our way to the back of the campsite, the red glow turned into a red & orange mass of ooze and popping fire. The night was so dark we couldn’t see the surrounding landscapes at all. Even the earth below us was invisible as we made our way down a steep ledge to a ground of crunchy dried up lava and headed to the illuminated pit.
The air temperature had dropped, and most of us were feeling quite good until we got up onto the crater edge, and a waft of dense hot air slapped us in the face. The sort of rolling thunder sound and crackling of the boiling lava was weirdly relaxing and reminded some of us of ocean waves. The heat was only intense when standing or when lingering around a vent. Most of us sat on the edge of the crater for about an hour and watched in awe as the lava swirled, folded and exploded in front of us. It was hard to gauge the extent of what we were experiencing because everything was black around us with only red or orange in front of us. It was quite surreal.
We hiked back to camp where we slept on the ground under the stars with a few local armed military as our only protection. It was my best sleep in weeks. We awoke at 4 am to return to the crater edge for more lava activity and watch the sunrise.
The excitement of arriving at the volcano the night before was hard to top, but the experience of a sunrise on a volcano crater edge was unbelievable. As the sun rose, Erta Ale introduced us to herself. The ground near the cavity was covered in hair like lava shards, some quite sharp. The terrain in the surrounding area consisted of hollow crunchy pumice stone. It was as if it were a protective skin covering her fiery insides below. Most surprising was the sheer cliffs surrounding us. I think most of us had assumed we would be looking down at a valley instead of up at massive cliffs.
The morning 2-hour viewing went so quickly and turned into a race against time to make it back down to the Dodom starting point. It was about 6:30 am, and we could already feel the heat rising fast. The just under 10 km hike furnished zero areas for shade or protection from the heat. Getting down quickly and safely was everyone’s priority. I made the mistake of lingering at the top with the camel caravan and stopping to take photos of the terrain along the way. I didn’t think 20 minutes would make a difference but in the end, it made a lot of difference.
The landscape changed quite a bit from top to bottom. In parts, we could see where someone could get turned around and lost. Disappointedly, the light did reveal a disgusting plastic bottle litter issue. The locals don’t currently have the means to collect and transport the garbage. Instead, the garbage left at the top of the volcano was put into a pit and burned – plastic and all. The garbage left along the trail was collected and deposited into holes and crevasses. Both horrible solutions for a growing problem. If the hikers would just be responsible enough to take their garbage with them back to the Dodom camp, it would be much better for all.
The hike ended back at Dodom where ETT’s chef, Mary, had prepared a delicious breakfast of fruits, scrambled eggs, bread, tea, and coffee. Following that, we packed up our supplies and began the journey to Abala, which was the staging area for the next leg of our adventure to the salt mines and the vivid Dallol; we could not wait.
We took our tour of the Danakil Depression through Ethio Travel and Tours (ETT as known by most locals). We did a four-day tour that took us to the Erta Ale Volcano as well as, the Dallol volcanic crater and the salt mines. You do not have to do all four days; you can just visit the Erta Ale Volcano as a two-day excursion. ETT did not always feel the most organized, but the got the job done. Price varies for tour duration, be sure to negotiate; many various prices were paid amongst the travelers for the same trip.
While ETT is based out of Addis Ababa, they have many satellite locations. We got ourselves to Mekelle, via Ethiopian Airlines, so that had an effect on our tour price. Buses are also available to take you from Addis Ababa to Mekelle, try Sky Bus or Selam Bus Line.
*TIP: If you fly into or out of Ethiopia via Ethiopian Airlines, it qualifies you for a special discounted rate when booking your internal flights in Ethiopia. To take advantage of this 50% discount, you must book at an Ethiopian Airlines branch and tell them that you have an International flight with the company, and you would like the discounted rate for your internal flight.
I know it’s not that much fun to carry around, but on this trip, I highly recommend bringing a tripod.
5 out of 5 Travelationship High Fives. If you like adventure, partier, historical, bucket lister type travel, you will love Erta Ale, not to mention you will have a fantastic story to tell.