Mekele to the Danakil Depression. First stop, Erta Ale Volcano. A long story

The below map is from Maps.me and is cool because it shows all of the volcanos in the relative area we travelled. Erta Ale is one of only eight volcanos in the world with an active lava lake and the longest existing lava lake being present since 1906.

We had a very frustrating evening of not knowing where we would be staying, a terrible and expensive western style dinner and a challenge to have breakfast before our pick up which we assumed we would be at 7:00 am. We had no vouchers, we had nothing to lead us to our next destination so all we could do was assume. Around 7:00 am after a quick breakfast, yay! we went to the vehicle driveway area of the lodge hoping for a sign from God. All through the previous night we listened to amplified chanting and hymning echoing from the plethora of churches that dot this incredibly religious landscape. He must be nearby and looking over us no? We barely slept.

At the vehicle driveway a man with long hair and a beard (no not him) approached us and asked our names and insinuated to us he was there to take us to the airport in Mekele”. No we said, you have the wrong people. He also threw out the word “Magma Tours”. We had no idea what he was talking about. Ultimately he was in fact our driver and Magma Flow Tours was the tour we would be joining in Mekele. It would have been nice to have known this in advance and to be honest his hair was short and he didn’t have a beard but the stranger who joined us, his brother, looked and dressed like he could maybe be a saviour of some sort or other.

We departed Gheralta Lodge very disappointed with our stay and with how our tour company had left us hanging with no vouchers, proof of payment etc.. We had a two hour drive to Mekele. Located in a high elevation valley in the Tigray Region it is the 5th largest city in Ethiopia and a town where the air is polluted by a steel mill and cement factory. As we descended down into the town the air was unfortunately smoggy and with Joyce still dealing with a cold, cough inducing.

We were dropped off at the headquarters of Magma Flow Tours at 9:00 am and then waited 2 hours for part of our group to arrive, 4 young German girls. We hopped into Toyota Landcruisers and headed out for a 2 night, 2 1/2 day trip to the Danakil Depression to visit Erta Ale volcano, Dallol and the sights in between. Our first stop was the town of Abala, about an hours drive and where we would meet the remaining 4 people in our group. Hmmm.. our maximum group size was supposed to be 8 people and we were now going to be a group of 10.

Off we went to Abala with our driver, Abraham, comfortable in our seats and listening to great Ethiopian music. It wasn’t a long drive, about 50 kms and was on very good roads through mountainous and semi arid terrain. The town would be our lunch stop for today and the next two days. The reason for this is there is no road between Erta Ale and Dallol so you have to backtrack to Abala and then take another road from there to either Erta Ale or Dallol so the town acts as a switching point for tourists who are doing the reverse itinerary.

We had lunch in Abala and ended up spending 2 hours in town waiting for the remaining group to arrive, have their lunch and then head off so we were about 3 hours behind schedule.

Joyce and I really don’t like group tours but for now this seems to be the only way to see this area due to security concerns.

We made our way in a 4 vehicle convoy, 3 vehicles with our group and 1 supply vehicle with the guide, cook and supplies. When we approached our destinations police and local militia escorts would join us to visit the sites and stay overnight at our camps. Militia escorts sound exciting because it gives you this idea that the area you are travelling to is dangerous and once you’re with your escorts the dangerous adventure begins! There is danger everywhere in this world and in the areas we would visit there was risk although less than one or two years ago. The area was known as a haunt for rebels and bandits from both Eritrea and Ethiopia and the concern that lingers is from serious instances that happened in 2017 and 2012 so, better safe than sorry.

In January of 2012, five tourists were killed, three were injured and four people were kidnapped during an attack at Erta Ale volcano. It was believed to be carried out by Eritrean-trained rebels. Ethiopia blamed Eritrean terrorists and the animosity between the two countries intensified once again. In 2017 a German tourist was shot and killed while ascending Erta Ale but it was thought to be a case of mistaken identity. Who really knows? Check it out here. https://www.volcanodiscovery.com/erta_ale/news/66415/Erta-Ale-volcano-Ethiopia-German-tourist-killed-probably-by-accident.html

The below notice from the Government of Canada Travel Advice and Advisories site might deter people from visiting however we felt quite safe travelling to and through these areas.

Things are looking more positive now. In April 2018 Abiy Ahmed Ali was elected as Prime Minister of Ethiopia. In July 2018 a bilateral summit was held between Eritrea and Ethiopia and a formal declaration was signed ending the border conflict and restoring full diplomatic relations. Peace looks possible and Ali’s winning of the Nobel Peace Prize for working to end the state of war that existed between 1998-2000 and the border conflict that dragged on from 2000-2018 gives him incentive to continue on this path. There are still tribal differences as Eritrea was once a part of Ethiopia and only gained independence in 1993 following the 30-year Eritrean War of Independence but things haven’t gone well since. It’s a very long and and extremely interesting story and the borders still aren’t open but both governments are still talking.

The truth is, everything you read is generally wrong about travelling safely around the world. No matter where you go, 99% of the population is just like you and me with their wants, desires and aspirations. No one wants war, no one wants corruption and phoney want-to-be-dictators. We really are all the same.

It’s a little confusing when talking about Erta Ale Volcano and Dallol and the Danakil Depression and unfortunately for us, our guide didn’t spend any time explaining to us where and what we were seeing. She was too wrapped up with the younger crowd that was the majority of our group. Sixties sadness boohoo!

The Danakil Depression is a vast plain hosting many volcanos, lava fields, salt lakes and salt pans and is located in the Afar Region near the border of Eritrea and in the northern part of the Afar Triangle. The region is about 125 metres below sea level and is the hottest place on earth in terms of year-round temperatures. It is also commonly referred to as the cradle of humanity because of the discovery of the famous Lucy, dated back to 3.2 million years ago as well as many other fossils of hominins found in the region. It is hypothesized this area is where the human species first evolved. Very cool!

Dollol is a cinder cone volcano/hydrothermal field in a remote part in the north of the Depression and is known as one of the lowest craters or subaerial vents in the world. It is more than 45 metres below sea level and is a unique terrestrial hydrothermal system. Acidic fluids are discharged through small vents that create colours and patterns and a landscape that is apparently out of this world.  

The drive to Erta Ale was through a surreal landscape of endless volcanic lava fields. I have no idea but there must have been an absolutely catastrophic event or events that occurred millennia ago. Your mind wanders as you drive through this lifeless landscape dotted here and there with an impossible plant thriving in a patch of sand and volcanic ash. As far as the eye can see is black lava. Some of it is smooth and rope shaped from uninterrupted cooling and some formed in abstract patterns from sudden cooling from the seasonal rains. It was an incredible site to behold and out of nowhere we would see a few Afar people wandering through this landscape somehow immune to the inhospitable environment.

All of the driving through the lava fields was on an excellent paved road, the best roads we have experienced in Ethiopia, but the fun began when we had to leave the tarmac to head to ErtaAla volcano, 75 kms away from paved civilization. The road was crushed lava but smooth and then turned into an endless landscape of volcanic ash. We drove through paths of deep ash and sand, ostrich running out of our way as we competed with the other vehicles dust trails, all of us jockeying for position to stay up wind from the dust. I wish I had a drone. The scene was like something out of a Morocco/Sahara desert race. It was a lot of fun and to top it off we listened to really great music. The final stretch was again on a road somehow cut through an incredible expanse of lava.

We made it to our base camp at around 6:15 pm and then the “real fun” started. We had lunch many hours ago and we were hungry and drive-tired and thirsty. We pulled up to our camp for the evening and were informed we would start the hike within the next 1/2 hour. If we had stuck to the original schedule and not had to wait several hours in Mekele and Abala we would probably have arrived at the base of the volcano around 3:00 pm, had time to rest and have an early dinner and be fuelled and ready for the hike in 35+ C temperatures but it was not to be.

We were told the hike would take about one hour. It turned out to be almost two hours to reach the volcanos crater edge. We were okay with this as the original itinerary suggested a 3 1/2 hour hike so no complaints. We were told there could be sulphur smoke and fumes so gas masks would be provided if needed so we could hike the last leg over solid magma to view the bubbling lava in the lower cauldron. As we approached the crater edge I could feel the sulphur smoke tightening my lungs, (I have mild asthma), so I really needed the gas mask to proceed for the final hike. It was dark and from our perspective it looked like at least another 1/2 hour hike to reach the cauldron but because we didn’t have an English speaking guide, in fact no guide, we were not told that the last leg was in fact only about 10 minutes, regardless I needed a mask to continue.

Lo and behold, there were no gas masks. Our so-called guide, who didn’t join us (you will read more on this later), failed to make sure to have these available at the summit so without the mask there was no way I could continue. This was a once in a lifetime trip to the farthest reaches and to one of the few hike-able active volcanos on earth and we couldn’t finish the hike. We had read several months earlier that the volcano had become just a smoking cauldron with not much to see, there was apparently too much smoke to see the boiling magma but it had recently started to get active again with the smoke clearing only 6 days earlier so the lava lakes were again visible. We didn’t see it. A very big bummer in our books!

We had two militia who accompanied us on our hike up to the volcano. Neither spoke english. Our guide, who speaks english and was supposed to bring the gas masks and help us through the hike had menstrual pains so didn’t join us. We were with a much younger group of people on the hike and they tended to leave us in their volcanic dust so we were always behind them as we ascended the volcano. We had several occasions where we couldn’t see the group ahead of us or the path we needed to follow. It was dark and there was an almost full moon and although we had head lamps we still couldn’t see the way forward. Fortunately the militia man who walked behind the group and with us would return and continue to guide us. He was a very nice man and ultimately led us back down. Through interpretation we were able to tell him how much we appreciated his assistance because we had absolutely no assistance otherwise on a very expensive excursion to a far out place. We gave him a very nice tip and he was very appreciative.

Something we must comment on is the amount of garbage strewn throughout the whole area. It brings what you read about Mount Everest and the garbage in that area into perspective. Literally thousands of plastic water bottles plus food wrappers and assorted crap lined the hiking route and our base camp was certainly no better. There is a road between Erta Ale and Ahmed Ale being constructed by the Chinese company Defense Construction Enterprise and an additional road between Afdera and Erta Ale by China Wyi Pic to access the potash mines in Dollal. This will drastically open up tourist access to these regions and we can’t imagine the amount of garbage this will bring to the area. Some advice…..visit now before these roads are completed. It will be the end of this great adventure to see these places.

The total hike time was a little over 4 hours. We had lunch about 6 hours before the hike and only water on our ascent and descent and were wobbling on our feet and slipping in the lava gravel when we finally returned to “camp” and the temperature was still way above 30 C.

We arrived back around 10:30 pm, had a major confrontation regarding the gas masks with our menopausal guide, who we found lazing on a mat chatting and laughing with the drivers and then had dinner consisting of pasta and salad and warm water. The same thing we had for lunch. It really isn’t that hard to make nice meals under limited conditions. We have had many memorable meals prepared on two hot plates in the middle of nowhere.

After dinner we prepared to sleep under the stars however we had another surprise in store. Earlier before we headed up the volcano we had discussed the sleeping situation with our “Guide”. We asked if the sleeping arrangements would be semi-private and be spread around the area we were told “yes”, blankets and mattresses would be placed in areas around the camp and there would be separation between people. We were a group of 10 and laid out behind some crude huts were 10 very thin mattresses, pillows and sheets laid side by side on a smooth section of lava. Dormitory living at it’s best and there was no way we were going to sleep with 8 strangers so we requested to move our stuff somewhere else. Well, little miss-guided had a fit, told us there were no hotels here and fine, you can sleep in the hut with sand floors and no roof but don’t be surprised if the mice get you! Good night little miss, you are now definatley in our bad books. We didn’t sleep well primarily because our pillows were like large stuffed sacks of wood chips and there were no mice.

Below is our sleeping quarters. Ours is on the right without the thatched roof. The kitchen was on the left and was very noisy at 4:00 am. There were no toilets. We had to make our way into a lava field and evaluate large lava protrusions and determine if they would block your bum from prying eyes. This was not dig and cover. The ground is solid lava so you poop and hope somehow the very arid air and high temperatures will render your poop into a non-squishable, don’t get stuck in my shoes lump of, well, dried poop.

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We departed fairly early the next morning very dissapointed in the experience so far and headed back to Abala to have lunch and prepare for our next leg to Dallol.

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