There are 30 volcanoes in the Danakil Depression, accounting for a quarter of all the volcanoes on the African continent. In this land of lava, the Erta Ale volcano stands out for the boiling pit of lava is has been holding at its summit. It is possibly the longest standing pool of lava in the world, and may have been here for the last hundred years, but it is so remote, no one actually seems to know. The most impressive part is that you can walk right to the edge of it, close enough to spit your gum into the lava pit — a mere five meters below you.
The journey to Erta Ale is through a road less sand desert. As we approach the volcano we have to slow to a crawl so as not to rip our tyres open on lava rocks in the middle of nowhere. We arrive at the village of Dodom, and lay on mats, hydrating in the heat and playing cards until dusk.
While Erta Ale is only a 613 meter (2,011 ft.) gently sloping shield volcano, even trekking the three hours to the top is a serious task in 43 degrees Celsius (109 Fahrenheit) heat. So the best option is to climb it at night with head torches. The hike is still sweaty, but the reward is phenomenal. When we get to the top, we have a view overlooking the lava lake. There is a glowing aura around it in the night sky, and the stars twinkle behind it.
There is too much excitement to set-up camp, so we all immediately descend the outer crater wall in the darkness. However, upon setting foot in the inner crater, it is apparent it is not the best idea. The ground crumbles under your feet like ice cream cones. The lava flow is thin and new from recent overflows of the lake in 2010, and then again in January 2016 — just four months before our arrival.
Having lived in the South Pacific’s ring of fire for years, I know how magma cools into lava tubes. If you are not extremely careful, you can break through the top of them, sometimes landing on molten rock or in a gaping chasm just below the surface. It is super dangerous, and we all stay as close behind the guide as possible.
We walk right to the edge of the lava pool, but the heat is so intense that you have to quickly retreat. Its temperature fluctuates between 200 and 1100 degrees Celsius (392 to 2,012 Fahrenheit), and creates such fierce waves of heat, that you can see them at night. It is so intense that my camera cannot focus, as they are distorting so much light. It is like looking through a rippling wall of water.
I shift my camera to manual focus, but standing at the edge trying to focus feels like the heat is evaporating my eyes. Fortunately, when I squat down, the heat rushes straight up the crater wall in front of me, giving me a little respite and recovery time until I can stand and adjust settings again.
While the conditions are brutal, the show is spectacular. It feels like the lake is alive, changing its moods without warning. Sometimes it flows all in one direction, down into a hole at one edge. Then a fissure in the metallic black crust will slowly pry itself open, exposing a shape like a radioactive snake. This is the time to wait and watch until hot molten, the color of the sun, leaps through the chasm like a ballerina on center stage.
We pass the night sleeping on the ground on the edge of the outer rim. We seemed safe from wildlife on top of this desolate wilderness, until a pair of Fennec foxes started fighting 20 meters from where we were sleeping. It seemed like definitive proof that life can find a way anywhere.
At sunrise we returned to the edge of the lava. The sun crested over the lava canyon wall exposing a land that looked like it was smashed by a giant’s sledgehammer. The cracks in the ruptured lava rock are covered in Pele’s Hair. At first glance it looks like clumps of savannah grass, but it is actually thin strands of volcanic glass, that can fracture into your skin. Just another unique and deadly feature of Erta Ale you do not want to learn about the hard way.
We stand for over an hour, moving around the rim, gawking at the pot of liquid rock cooking just below us. Parts of crust are uplifted, and subducted as the currents in the lava change, and we watch it melt like honey and reform into rock. It feels like the closest thing to the birth of earth that you can witness, and might be the only thing in our world that the surrounding Afar tribesmen fear. Traveling to Erta Ale is a spectacularly unique traveling experience, so make the pilgrimage to see its dancing fountains of lava in the Danakil Depression.
Author’s Note: The Danakil Depression is legendary as a dangerous and remote baked piece of earth in the Afar Triangle. It rolls across the disputed borders of Northern Ethiopia and Eritrea, flanked by the Ethiopian plateau to the west, and marking the point where the Great Rift Valley plunges into the Red Sea in the east. It is created by the Afar Triple Junction, formed by the boundaries of the Nubian, Somalian and Arabian plates tearing apart. As these plates diverge, they stretch the Earth’s crust above, which becomes thin, and sinks (like cheese on separating pieces of pizza).
The Danakil Depression is one of the hottest and lowest places on earth. Some parts of it are over 100 meters below sea-level, and the thin crust of the Earth here allows magma and other minerals to bubble to the surface from the bowels of the earth. Two of the most famous attractions in the Danakil Depression are: The Candy Colored Hot Springs of Dallol and the dancing lava fountains of the Erta Ale volcano.
While traveling to the Danakil Depression felt safe, if something happens out there, help is a long way away. Also keep in mind that travelers were abducted here in 2007, there was an attempted kidnapping in 2008, and in 2012 five travelers were murdered. If you are still up for the adventure, I traveled with Ethio Travel and Tours as they offered the best budget way to get to the Danakil Depression, and were even willing to negotiate with me. I quite enjoyed my trip.
For further tales of these psychedelic lands, I enjoyed National Geographic’s The Cruelest Place on Earth, BBC’s video series The Hottest Place on Earth and Colleen Kinder’s Travelogue: Journey to the Hottest Place on Earth.