How I Climbed an Active Volcano, Peered into the Boiling Lava Lake Below and Lived to Photograph it

Adventures in Northern Ethiopia - Part One

Peering over into the volcanic lake of the Erta Ale Volcano

Early morning at the active Erta Ale volcano, in north-eastern Ethiopia within the Danakil Depression, the hottest place on Earth and the third lowest point. By this time the lava lake below was significantly less active and far cooler than a few hours prior when it was bubbling and exploding all over.

Mount Doom? - The hottest place on Earth

Do you remember Mount Doom, from Lord of the Rings, where Frodo dropped the One Ring into the boiling pit of lava? Because I think I was just there, at the Erta Ale volcano in Northern Ethiopia, or at least one of the closest real world equivalents to it. It certainly took some effort to reach the magnificent lava lake but it was one well worth the slog and adventure.

Pre-trip planning

From a few photos I had seen from other travelers online, I knew I had to find a way to visit  the Erta Ale volcano myself on my planned trip to Ethiopia in December 2014. After hours of research online, I had come to two conclusions; one, I couldn't visit on my own, I could only venture to the area with a pre-arranged tour group and two, the Ethiopian travel company ETT (Ethio Travel and Tours) was the cheapest, most efficient, and generally well regarded tour company to get me there. As I knew my time was tight while in Ethiopia and I didn't want to wait around, I contacted them via email and received a reply shortly after with a quote and itinerary. 

While I had asked for a better price as I also wanted to combine a three day tour of the Simien Mountains, a private car ride to Mek'ele, the gateway city to the Danakil region, as well as the tour to the volcano itself, this was basically a non-starter. The person replying to my inquires from ETT basically said "sure, we can talk about that after" but obviously would never bring it up again himself. The lack of any discount, or haggling wasn't at all a surprise though, as any traveler trying to arrange a tour within a country last minute would know. Barring certain circumstances, you basically don't have any leverage negotiating for a tour through email or overseas. The concept of 'walking away' to get a better price just doesn't have the same psychological power as it does walking out of a person's shop or office. If one really wants the best price on a tour, you have to have the time, sometimes the numbers (bodies), and you have to arrive right in the tour companies office and negotiate in person. TL;DR Simply put,  if you want to book a cheap tour, whether it's a safari or a excursion to an active volcano, the cheapest way will always be to just show up and negotiate in person.

Eventually I agreed upon the tour price advertised on ETT's website, a four day Danakil tour for $600 USD. Looking at what other's had paid prior to my departure and after the tour in hindsight I think it was a fair price and well worth it. Basically I didn't feel as if I were being ripped off. 

Unfortunately in order to secure my spot I had to make a deposit via bank transfer to ETT in Ethiopia. While this would normally raise a red flag for me and made me quite nervous as I had never made an international bank transfer before, it was fairly straightforward minus a few rather large bumps on the way. To allay my fear of sending money internationally to a company I had never worked with, I did some more research (Tripadvisor/Lonely Planet Thorntree) and found a bunch of other travelers who had sent money to them as well and didn't face any problems. I went to my bank in Toronto, filled out a form and promptly sent them my deposit to anxiously secure my spot. Next it was the waiting game, constantly going back and forth with ETT to see if they had actually received my money and unfortunately waiting is exactly what I did.

I'm usually very patient but most disconcertingly after a week's time and multiple emails back and forth, the representative at ETT kept saying they had yet to receive my funds for a money wire that should have taken around two business days. Unfortunately due to how the money wiring worked, I would be unable to find out from my bank if the funds were actually received by the person I intended them to and would have to simply trust ETT that they did get my money. My logic in trusting that this would work out was based on other people's positive experience transferring money and that it was simply a deposit and not the full amount of the tour. I figured why would they want to screw me when instead of receiving a few hundred dollars, and a trashed reputation and review, they could have hundred of dollars more and another happy customer to spread the word about this relatively reputable low-cost tour company.

And I Can See For Miles

Outside of the Chenek campsite in the fabulous Simien Mountains, Ethiopia.

Yet by the time I had to fly to Ethiopia, they still did not confirm receipt and I simply had to wait to deal with them in person and on the ground when they picked up me up in Gondar to take us to the Simien Mountains. Amazingly, and I was definitely worried for a while, they did arrive at our guesthouse in Gondar and took us to the Simien's hours away and didn't mention a single word about the money I owed them. I wasn't exactly going to bring it up either and was waiting for them to show their hand first. It took till we got to the trail head way up in the mountains for them to ask for the rest of my money for the tour.

Right before we were to set off on our three day trek, the ETT representative asked me for the rest of the tour's cost and that's when the worst of what I was expected came to fruition. He claimed the amount I owed him was the full amount including the deposit I had already transferred but had yet to be confirmed. But I wasn't going to pay them any more money. I had already made up my mind. I wasn't going to pay them more and if they kept claiming I didn't pay them, even though all signs pointed to yes, that they were now trying to actively swindle me.

Immediately I rejected the number he gave and told him how I had already paid my deposit and only owed a much smaller amount. The ETT representative politely argued with me for a couple minutes before giving up completely. He took the money I offered, he drove away with the vehicle we came in and we began our trek. I sighed and thought to myself at the time "well at least I'll be able to hike these fantastic mountains for the next few days" and yet amazingly, maybe even shockingly, it was never brought up again, it didn't make sense!

When we eventually showed up at the ETT branch office in Mek'ele no one mentioned a peep and finally at least I was at ease. I wondered, had they had my money this whole time and tried to scam me? Did they just try their hand with me in the Simien's hoping I'd naively capitulate? Was it simple incompetence or disorganization and they didn't even know what really was going on and they suffered from some serious lack of money management skills? In the end I'll never know, but at the time it surely didn't matter as I was on my way to stand on the edge of an active volcanic lava lake.... yes, an active volcanic lava lake. When you get to say those crazy words to yourself a few times,  quibbling over some money didn't seem to matter that much.

Sand storm in the Danakil Depression

A sand storm spontaneously develops in the Danakil Depression.

A special volcano

It took the majority of a very long day to get to the base camp of Erta Ale. Why? Because to get there we had to take one of the worst roads in the world - if you could even call it a road. It would all be worth it, at least that's what you constantly tell yourself on your extremely bumpy and dusty journey to this little patch of our often very exotic planet.

What makes Erta Ale so special compared to the hundreds of other volcanoes around the world is it's one of only three or four active volcanoes in the world that has a continuously flowing lava lake at its centre. Usually, you would only see the lava flow when the volcano would explode periodically under pressure like in Hawaii or Iceland and even then, rarely would you ever see a lava lake, let alone be able to "safely" walk to it's edge, close enough to fall in and melt away.

Obviously this makes the volcano extremely extraordinary as it's lava lake has been active for over a hundred years and is increasingly popular with foreign tourists. I was initially worried about coming here as only three years prior a terrorist attack occurred. It was likely premeditated and committed by opportunistic  Eritreans that had crossed the contentious border and attacked a group of tourists killing several as well as a few local Ethiopians and then proceeded to kidnap several others near the very same summit I was about to climb myself. I thought about this for a while and the possible risk this might pose by journeying into such a remote ares but after some deep thinking and plenty of research I wasn't convinced that it was something that was likely to happen again and the chance of any terrorist action remained quite low. There hadn't been any recent reports of any terrorist hostility in the area in several years, and with the local security increasing since then (armed escorts, though how effective they would be, who knows) I decided it was time to take the leap.

Getting there was half the battle

The first part of the journey to simply get to the base camp at the bottom of the volcano we had to cross an open and wide desert, barren except for some shrubs in a blistering 35 degree Celsius heat.  Our driver in his Land Cruiser was pushing 100 km/h on relatively flat white sand constantly shooting up behind us and a giant dust cloud enveloping on the horizon. Beside us it was a real sight to see four other Land Cruisers sprint by at even faster speeds, followed by the huge plumes of dust that would rain into the area as the tires spun away.

After driving for maybe thirty minutes we reached an entirely different landscape all together, a seemingly recurring theme in beautiful Ethiopia which always kept you staring out your window. We had reached the beginning of the volcanic range. With six other volcanoes in the area, all part of the famous Great Rift Valley, for two hundred and fifty square kilometers in every direction, jagged black volcanic rock from pebbles to boulders laid strewn across the landscape as far as the eye could see. It was a sight to be seen, as the cliche goes, a landscape that looked like the surface of another planet.

Unfortunately, this beautifully bleak landscape was also the biggest pain in the ass to drive over, literally. It took us over an hour to drive twelve kilometers over it, the bumpiest you could imagine and the whole time extremely uncomfortable as our stomachs constantly shook up and about. If Toyota wanted to film an adventure commercial for their Land Cruiser showing what it's capable of. this would definitely be the right place to do it. The black volcanic landscape that surrounded us had to be one of the craziest places to drive on in the world.

Erta Ale Base Camp

The base camp at the bottom of the Erta Ale Volcano in the Danakil Depression, Ethiopia.

Base camp and the climb

After a grueling hour drive over the bumpiest, uneven terrain you could imagine, driving no faster than ten kilometers an hour we eventually we made it to the base camp below the volcano. Basically this camp consisted of a bunch of huts made of the copious amounts of volcanic stone that could be found everywhere on the ground and previously constructed and inhabited by the Ethiopian military as a staging ground.

Once we had regained our stability everyone began to prepare before the trek began at around six pm. By this time the temperature had mercifully  begun to drop to a reasonable twenty degrees or so but left us with a lack of visible light right before we would have to ascend up the banks of the volcano. Ascending into the darkness was of course intentional as we wanted to reach the summit with the sky a pitch black to contrast with the orange glowing lava as well as to avoid the heat of the midday Sun. However this also meant a strenuous hike up on uneven volcanic rock for three straight hours.

This worried me greatly since four days earlier I had really strained my knee hiking the Simien Mountains. By now my knee had felt much better but still not yet 100%. I knew from the beginning that this would be more difficult than the gradual incline the volcanic path seemed to provide. It might have been only an easy three hours up but with a bad knee, the three more hours that would follow down might actually turn out to be worse. And as it turned out, it was.

Going up was hard enough, and I felt the strain on my injured knee with every step. Walking up in the dark it seemed the ascent would never end. We would periodically get to a peak and have a chance to peer further up and across the landscape, hoping to glance at the orange glow that was said to emanate from Erta Ale, yet we would continue to be disappointed, as all we encountered was more darkness. Instead the path would simply continue in another direction, stretching to our limited visibility like it climbed into infinity.

It also didn't help that I had a heavy and uneven bag on my back. I had to carry all my photo gear and since we were spending the night at the top, I had to carry both water, heavier clothes and a sleeping bag which made my back and shoulders ache from the wonky load on the uneven terrain. But I had a strong feeling that it would all be worth it and all I could do was to keep moving and brush the pain temporarily aside, all in search of one of mother nature's most incredible jaw-dropping, mind-blowing wonders. 


>>>Part 2<<<

More photos from my time in Ethiopia

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