They say that good girls go to heaven and bad girls go anywhere they want. One thing is for sure: curious girls go to Ethiopia and they knock on the devils door.
You might have read about it, you might have heard about it but the truth is that nothing can truly prepare you for that experience. I had seen an amazing active volcano before (Vanuatu), therefore I wasn’t as excited as everyone else in my group. If you travel a lot, at some point it’s hard to find things that can truly impress you, excite you or move you. Does it make me an insensitive travel snob? I hope you just whispered no. I heard from many that Erta Ale is a really impressive volcano but during that trip my mood was kidnapped by skeptical thinking and I chose to challenge the place. From the start I had a limited trust and little enthusiasm. Just to stay on a safe side.
Show me, don’t tell me
On average it is a fairly smooth 4-5 hours walk to get to the top of Erta Ale. Walking up the hill is not an issue, the tricky part is that you need to climb at night in total darkness. In this particular region during daily hours temperature can rise up to 50 degrees celsius making this trip almost impossible to commence. So you travel at night, no other choice. Now depending on what kind of flashlight you choose to pack, your walking experience can be rather lonely (iPhone torch app) or very sociable (my powerful torch was brighter than Manhattan). As I was a proud and thoughtful owner of a good torch, I had a lot of people by my side. They were drawn to me like hungry moths to the light. I wish it was my shining personality that attracted the crowds, but no it was not. So I had a group of admirers of my impressive torch who entertained me all the way up to the rim. I enjoyed that long walk.
We were lucky to have a really fit group that climbed the volcano very fast (less than 3,5 hours), which impressed even the local guards. Speaking of which, we had about 10 to 15 seriously armed local army men to protect our wellbeing. That’s part of the deal when you sign up for the tour: you pay a lot (600 USD for few day trip in the Third World country is a lot of money) but in return you don’t need to worry about safety too much. Independent travel in the region is not recommended — volcano is next to the border with Eritrea that makes it politically unstable area. Danakil depression doesn’t have the best reputation mainly due to previous kidnappings and gun attacks in 2012, killing 5 Europeans. Nevertheless at the moment tour agencies make a lot of effort to bring tourism back: local tribes are well paid to stay away from tourists, army men are well paid to protect tourists from potential terrorist attacks and tour guides are well paid to pretend that there is no danger at all. Those safety alerts definitely aren’t just a theatre that they play for tourists to get more money, but is it something to be really worried about? You judge that.
Shape of my heart
It was dark outside and raining inside. I was in a doubtful mood, can’t deny that. Unquestionably, I was grateful to be in Ethiopia and happy to climb, but at the same time I was a bit concerned about the volcano itself. Mt Yasur in Vanuatu set the bar really high. Singing and rumbling lava cheerfully throwing rocks in a firework style performance was really hard to beat. I guess I was afraid of being disappointed. Yes, I read quasi-motivational, quasi-academic books on how we need to cherish our inner child and let any fearful experience transform our soul and mind. Also on how every challenging encounter can enrich us and throw a new light on our existence. Oh yea, i’m sure about that. But honestly while climbing that volcano I couldn’t care less. I felt sick (unbearable flu that attacked me in Addis), emotionally fragile (aching heart) and lonely (after some time the torch crowd made me feel blue). Sorry inner child, no fun this time.
It’s all about (to) change
When does the magic happen and how to attract it? Most often it happens when we least expect it. All of us climbed the volcano with a hope to experience something special. The air was filled with excitement since the beginning of the trek. All travellers were thrilled more and more with every step closer to the crater. Their enthusiasm was contagious, which made me feel grateful to be around them. Two camels, transporting all camping equipment, were leading our group quite fast, leaving little space to breath and rest. When we finally reached the summit and walked very close to the crater my heart jumped. I jumped with happiness and disbelief: how on earth could I ever hesitate about the beauty of this place?
Erta Ale was sexy, fierce, magical, mesmerizing and unpredictable. And it was all about the c h a n g e. When we finally arrived at the volcano rim I realised what the whole excitement was all about. Yes, it was a breathtaking, evil, red-wine-coloured lava lake, but moreover it was an ever-changing, dynamic show, which entertained its audience in so many different ways. It was like a good suspense movie, clever thriller that you just can’t stop watching trying to figure our who the murderer is. Marvelling at Erta Ale is never boring, taking photos neither and you can never guess who killed until the dawn. Like in the cinema when the lights go on, after sunrise you can’t believe that the movie is over. At that point you know the storyline and you know the end but you can’t help it — you keep rehearsing the plot over and over again. It’s addictive. Looking at Erta Ale is so addictive, because of its constant change. Lava is jiggling impatiently within the crater walls, creating lightening-shape cracks and frivolously bursting bubbles. Those bubbles must be home to some vicious spirits. I swear I could see devil’s smile giggling at us. As much as we enjoyed the lava show, he enjoyed looking back at us, straight into our wide-open, hypnotised eyes.
There are just six volcanos with lava lakes in the world and Erta Ale is one of them. Erta Ale means ‘Smoking Mountain’ and locals call it ‘Gateway to Hell’. Quite accurate right? It’s an enormous pool of active magma that goes through the cycles of cooling down (black layer) and activity (lava flows, red cracks and eruptions). It is a powerful and impressive display of nature’s force and can be quite intimidating. How to stay cool next to that hot beauty? In this crazy world it is a good exercise to practise equanimity and seek for inner zen. Let Ethiopian adventure smooth your mind and all your senses. Bon chic, bon voyage x