Sulfuric acid is bubbling up through the salt-encrusted ground. The daytime heat soars over 46 degrees Celsius and the Gara (Fire Wind) is blowing incessantly.
We’re in the Danakil Depression: -116m below sea level and officially, the hottest place on Earth. The Danakil straddles the Northern Ethiopian border with Eritrea, and sits atop the junction of the Arabian, African and Somali tectonic plates – all of which are pulling away from each other to form one of the world’s most volcanically active regions.
Getting here is an ordeal in itself. The area’s remoteness and rugged terrain requires a troupe of LandCruisers and a decent chunk of cash ($400-$600 depending on group size and bargaining ability) for a bare bones bush-camp tour (all that’s on offer). The roads are being built by the Ethiopian military to service the hostile border with Eritrea and are not complete. The workhorse Landcruisers are in their element; the tourist-grade personnel are not. We arrive battered and bruised at our first camp, wondering if anything we see over the next few days could have made it possibly worth it.
Our first night we sleep completely unsheltered, under the stars. Our guides have rented some local Afar beds for us to sleep on, and for the first time in my life I watch the stars on their journeys throughout the night sky. The Fire Wind continues to blow and Christine attempts to block the wind by taking cover in her -7 degrees sleeping bag, only to find her back searing in insulated heat. I chuckle from my silk sleeping bag liner, gambling that the desert heat will not relent. I am wrong and wake frigidly cold.
Our guides have us up early in a race to be back in our air-conditioned oases before the heat returns. Over breakfast, we are notified that unseasonal rains have completely flooded some roads to Dollol. It might be tricky.
Even after seeing others’ pictures, nothing prepares you for the mind blowing spectacle that is Dollol, the lowest point in the Danakil Depression. Sulfuric acid is bubbling up through the ground, creating stalagmite-like formations against a fluroescent yellow, green, and red back drop. It doesn’t even feel like Mars; perhaps somewhere even more inhospitable. It is stunning.
At Dollol our guides reveal that mud conditions have made the road to Erta Ale completely impassable. They decide to take a diverted road to the (relatively) nascent volcano back through Mekele. We follow the same painful road home and I remind myself time and time again how happy we are to have left the PPE at home for this adventure.
The roads on the alternate route to Erta Ale from Mekele are more of the same brain shattering bumps that we have had over the last two days. What awaits is a midnight ascent to one of the world’s five active lava lakes – lying in Erta Ale’s crater. A relatively young volcano (having formed within the last 10,000 years), Erta Ale has been constantly active since records started in the 1960s.
As the hours tick slowly by and we begin nearing our destination, the affects of the recent rains start to become evident as soft sands slowly turn into mud.
In rapidly fading light, vehicles in the group get caught by the mud one after another. We begin to wonder if we will make it to the volcano after all.
At 7pm we are through the mud – and on to the toughest section of ‘road’ yet. The Landcruisers are hurtling over volcanic boulders as we hold on for dear life. At 7:15pm I glance up at the car’s clock praying for the end. At least another hour to go.
After an 11 hour driving day, we reach base camp at Erta Ale and are prepared a quick dinner by the tour chef. At 10pm we begin our ascent.
It feels fantastic to be finally out hiking in the open. Despite the late start time it is still extremely hot. Our guide follows a supposed ‘path’ in the moonlight and us faranjis struggle along with headlamps and hiking poles up the rocky volcanic path.
At midnight we rest and are told another two hours to go. The group is struggling from exhaustion and the heat. It is certainly well past my bedtime – my eyes are getting heavy with sleep and I entertain the notion of a sleep walk. I decide against it.
And just like that, out of nowhere, we enter a little thatched village. I peer out onto the horizon and our goal is in sight. I see a giant volcanic crater with an ominous red glow hovering over it. We are giddy with excitement and instantaneously re-energised for the final push to greet Erta Ale’s heart.
We reach the lip of the crater and for the 2nd time in two days, my mind is completely blown. I stare down into the lava lake as the liquid Earth bubbles over and over itself, with frequent eruptions. My skin is reeling from the 1800 degree Celsius heat as I contemplate the most ominous looking sight I have ever encountered. It is pure, unadulterated, 100% evil. We are staring into the Earth’s core. We are staring into Hell.
We stand mesmerised by the incredible sight for over two hours. With every eruption, we watch the lava lake’s level rise and fall. Two years ago the magma boiled completely over the crater, forming what we currently standing on. At 3am we head for our volcano top camp site for whatever sleep we can manage. We must be up at 530am to begin our ascent down.
From base camp, the group stumbles back into the cars, utterly exhausted after the last 4 days on the road. We brace ourselves for Erta Ale’s final assault on our bodies as we are thrown around once more like rag dolls for another 4hrs.
As we enter the mountains, climbing from Danakil’s Depths back up to Ethiopia’s Plateau, ominous clouds tell us this adventure is not quite over yet. Thundering rains begin to hammer our car, and the road is turning into a muddy abyss. We round a corner only to be met with a savage flood river cutting off the road completely. Dead trees, caught in the tumult flash past our eyes. Our chef, in our lead car, decides to check the depth of the river and comes within inches of his life as he is swept straight through. The guides burst out in nervous laughter. We are not in a good place.
Our only option is to wait it out and eventually, the river slows enough for the drivers to attempt a crossing. It will not be our last.
We arrive back into Mekele, shattered with exhaustion at 9pm. An incredible 4 days in the Danakil Depression.