Hiking to the rim of an active volcano in a lawless region in one of the poorest countries in the world does not feature on the travel itineraries of most, but for the adventurous visiting Ethiopia, it’s a must.
Camel caravans bringing in blocks of salt, to be sold in local markets.
The Erta Ale volcano is located in the far north west of Ethiopia on the border with Eritrea, standing at only 600 metres above sea level. What it lacks in height, it makes up for with its pool of red hot lava bubbling in a crater at the top, and the surroundings of a dramatic, ochre desert expanse which requires a hardy four-wheel drive, a good playlist and a full day to cross.
Departing from the closest town of Mekele the capital of the Tigray region, the tour ventures across the ‘hottest place on earth’ - the Danakil Depression. The Danakil has an average year-round temperature of almost 35’C, and is home to the nomadic Afar people, pastoralists who eke out an existence in the harsh desert environment.
An Afar salt farmer pauses from hand cutting salt blocks in the midday heat.
In the safety of a fleet of modern and air-conditioned four-wheel drives, the tour sets off in the early morning in a snaking convoy of glinting cars which wind their way across the desert towards the volcano. The drive is about 6 hours and although bumpy at times, offers incredible views of the vast desert expanse including a lunch stop in a local Afar village where travelers are fueled with chicken, rice, vegetables and a cold drink for the onwards journey.
As early evening falls, the convoy arrives at a cluster of dome huts made from sticks and straw, the desert camp for the night. Here travelers eat a hot meal cooked by a local chef who travels with the group, before changing into walking clothes and when darkness engulfs the sky, head torches are turned on, and a snaking line of people begins to wind its way up the mountain. It’s not a tough walk up, but it’s hot and the loose gravel can prove tricky for footing in the dark. It’s about a 4-5 hour walk in the pitch dark to the peak, which illuminates the sky with its active burning orange lava lake. Camels follow the climbers, carrying mattresses, sleeping bags, food and water.
Camels carry mattresses for hikers to sleep on at the rim of the volcano.
A traveller serenades the local camel population with some acoustic tunes while waiting for the sun to set so the hike to the rim of Erta Ale can begin.
Author perches for a snap mere metres away from the bubbling lava pool.
Around midnight, climbers surface and leave their backpacks at the rim where there are a series of sleeping areas on the ground, marked by large stones, and a number of stone huts for eating.
For those content with taking in the breathtaking view of the lava lake from a safe vantage point a couple of hundred metres above, sit back and relax. But for those in search of the next level of adrenalive, follow the armed guards down into the 100-metre-deep crater and stand a mere 20 metres from the edge of the bubbling lake. We crunched our way tentatively across freshly set molten rock which, the guards told us, was from a fresh overflow just the week before. Watching the lava bubble in a broiling pool of golden explosions was mesmerizing and when contrasted with the carpet of stars that shone brilliantly in the middle of the inky desert sky, it truly was a thrilling, sometimes terrifying and totally surreal experience.
The lava pool just after midnight, from inside the crater.
The view of blistering lava bubbling in the crater as the sun rises is equally as breathtaking. To top the experience off, there is a delicious and much needed creation of steaming hot and spicy Shakshuka eggs waiting for wearing walkers back at the camp.
The lava pool at sunrise.
An Afar salt farmer stacks 5kg blocks of salt ready to be loaded onto a camel for the 3 hour trip back to the local village.
**Travellers tips: bring a scarf that can be used to shield the face from dust during the day, and sulphur clouds when inside the crater of the volcano** The overnight volcano trip can be complemented with a trip to the Afar salt flats, where nomadic pastoralists lead camel caravans across vast expanses of salt desert carrying blocks of salt for sale in local markets. The tour continues on from Erta Ale in the same four-wheel drive convoy, and includes staying in small salt mining villages for one or two nights and a day visit to the otherworldly Hamede Ela Sulphur springs. Ethiopian Airlines flies from Addis Ababa to Mekele multiple times a day.
The otherworldly sulphur springs of Hamede Ela can be added into the tour of the Danakil Depression.