Today’s post continues the review of the 13 day expedition to the Danakil Depression in northern Ethiopia. If you’ve missed it, part one can be found here.
Before talking about the third day it is probably a good time to mention an aspect of the trip that, if you travel alone, you have no control over: The people you travel with. Travel with the right people and the problems that arise can even be fun. Conversely travelling with people who aren’t enjoying themselves can really ruin the experience.
Being a solo traveller I am used to being dumped pretty much wherever there is space for me and I’m generally OK with that. Most of the people I meet travel as couples or in groups and so obviously they want to stay together which leaves spaces here and there that solo travellers then fill. So, perhaps because we were native English speakers, I ended up with an American couple, who even by day two were showing signs of perhaps realising the conditions that they had expected and the conditions they were experiencing were somewhat different. After a day in the 4WD with them being short with each other, followed by awkward silences, I asked to be moved to another vehicle. I can’t criticise them for being bothered about the sanitary conditions – if that is what the issue was – the conditions were getting worse, and they did manage to stay on the trip for a few days more, when the sanitary conditions became as bad as they can get. But I didn’t want my trip ruined by a bad atmosphere. They problem is that when you ask to be moved like that, you’ll likely cause offence.
Anyway, back to day three…
A new event occurred after breakfast. Enku – our guide – made a point of getting us to all take rehydration salts. Over the past couple of days we have been slowly descending from Addis at about 2,500 metres altitude to Logia at 900 metres. But today will see us descend even further and the relatively cool temperatures – somewhere between 25°C and 30°C will increase as we descend. In retrospect this is one of the most critical things to remember on this trip – keeping hydrated is very important and water will not be enough, you will need rehydration salts. You’ll likely be given the ones we were which, whilst I didn’t mind the taste too much, others were less keen on. In any event buy your own before travelling as you’ll really need to keep taking them until you return to the highlands on day 10.
Today you’ll pass through Logia and soon after turn off highway 2 and head north to Lake Afdera (as local maps refer to it), a journey of 200km. This has only recently become a modern tarmac road – another sign of Chinese investment. The most immediate change is that the huge number of transport trucks drops sharply.You will still see a few as Lake Afdera is the base of a commercial salt mine, but there is nowhere near the volume that you have just experienced over the past two days. One of the highlights for me was that shortly after lunch we stopped at an obsidian field. I’ve indicated its approximate location on the map but it’s worth checking that you stop there as I suspect that we only did as the trip we were on had an emphasis on volcanism and geology. I found it impossibly difficult to photograph and do it justice but it shimmered as the inky black lumps of obsidian – many as big as your forearm – caught the sunlight. Just be aware that you do need a mineral export license to take some home as a souvenir and they are quite thorough in scanning your bags at the airport. Even so, I managed to sneak a few pieces through. If this is important to you however, insist on having an export license before you travel as you can’t get one at the airport.
Again we arrived close to the end of the day. Leaving earlier (at the time we had planned) would have made a difference as it would have given us time to scout out locations for sunset. As it was we had to rush around to find something. Here there are large man-made salt fields where saline water is left to evaporate and catching the sunset in these would likely be an interesting composition, but you may be short on time to find one – a composition that is. The shoreline by the lake may be more interesting although standing on the shore facing the lake puts you looking east and so the sun unfortunately sets behind you, but on the plus side that does mean sunrise will be good. There are a couple of jetties out into the lake so silhouettes are an option.
Tonight we exchanged rooms for tents on the banks of the lake which was wonderfully picturesque but had its own challenges not least of all it meant that you will see, hear and probably feel mosquitoes. Mosquito repellent is a must. The second challenge is that, you are now below sea level and, at an elevation of -102 metres, you will have gone from the relatively temperate climate at Logia to a hot and humid one. There are natural hot springs close by and you can take a refreshing dip in them to cleanse yourself, but as soon as you get back out you’ll feel the heat again. Mixed groups need not worry; there are conveniently two hot springs and so there’ll be a ‘his’ and ‘hers’. To be honest it is worth taking a dip even if you do get all sweaty again immediately afterwards. If you’ve never bathed in naturally heated water it is an experience to keep with you – it is not just hot water but rich in minerals too. The men may also be sharing the hot spring with local salt workers and due to my timing I ended up sharing it with the Muslim workers who were cleansing themselves for evening prayers. Doing this will likely make you feel less like a tourist. It will also introduce you to the wonders of the volcanic nature of the Danakil region. In the movies volcanoes bring destruction and chaos, however they also bring life and fertile lands.The third challenge, and this is the one that most people struggle with, is that the concept of a toilet – in fact any sanitation – no longer exists. The camp did have a hole in the ground made private by sheets of corrugated iron, but there was a gut-wrenching smell emanating from it. So when we asked about what to do about toilets, and the reply was a hand wave gesturing into the jet-black night, we all just accepted it. Now I am not going to delve into the details but before you spend around $6000 (by the time you include flights etc.) to come on this kind of expedition, you owe it to yourself to fully understand what you are letting yourself in for and whether you are prepared to cope.
You’re going to need a head torch as both hands need to be free. The torch will serve a double duty in both allowing you to see where you are going and what you are about to stand in (remember that your little group is not the only one who needs to answer the call of nature – there will be others too). It will also act to warn others who may inadvertently approach on a similar mission to you that you are already ‘on site’. You’ll also have to become used to the squatting position – not a natural position for many Westeners – and so finding something to prop yourself against may be useful. Make sure that you bring toilet tissue, moist wipes and some kind of anti-bacterial hand lotion as there will be nowhere to buy these. And, perhaps the biggest challenge is the mental one; accept that for most of man’s history this is how the ‘act’ was done. Also, console yourself that no matter how discomforting you may find this, if you limit yourself to once per day, you will only have to do it five more times.
And just to reiterate the point: If the above description of going for ‘a poo’ in nature is at all horrible to you, remember that you are paying a lot for the privilege. The good news is that everyone else you’re with will be having the same feelings as you.
But, finally you are truly away from civilisation. Here, nature rules supreme.
Today is the first day where I found a dawn start really worthwhile. As mentioned the sun rises on the opposite bank of Lake Afdera to which the tents were set up and it was literally a case of get out of the tent and enjoy the sunrise. Some people love sunrise photography so do not, but I did like the abstracts that could be created by not including any manmade feature, such as the jetty. Long exposures work well as the lake will have ripples upon in – despite being dawn the land is already heating up and so a wind is developing.After breakfast we begin to find to why understand why Enku insisted on the rehydration salts. By 9AM the temperature was already at around 30°C and the sun was just beginning to take a hold on the land. At -102 metres you’re in a basin and the heat was being captured in the same way water fills a bucket. The breeze, such that there was one was beginning to feel like a hairdryer. Today you’ll pick up the Afar police and military escort that you need for the next segment of the trip. It is not going to be a speedy process and so, like us, you’ll probably want to walk up to the local town, a place whose sole existence is due to the salt mining and wait in the local bar out of the sun. How long you’ll have to wait is in the hands of the military but by midmorning we had all become bored of waiting and despite the heat when out from the cover of the bar we walked around the chronically poor town, some of us more than once. If you’re interested in candid or portrait photography you’ll have plenty of opportunity here and despite there being an increasing number of foreigners passing through each year, you’ll definitely draw curious attention – nothing to cause concern but people will ask for money. Luckily all the paperwork is completed and we’re ready to go.
Today also marks the day where you swap the tarmac roads for dirt tracks. Up until now the roads have been really very well maintained. From talking to the drivers this may simply be because many of them are relatively new: The road from Lake Afdera to the main Ethiopia-Djibouti route 2 is still shown as a compacted rock road on many maps. It is a comfortable road to drive along, but it isn’t universally loved as many see it as a reminder of the continued Chinese investment in Ethiopia – something everyone I spoke to seemed to be concerned about.
You will feel the heat and for us joy was found in the simple pleasure of having the 4WD windows open when moving whenever we could although as the day progressed this became increasingly difficult. The track we were following to get to the base camp at Erta Ale was becoming less a rocky gravel track and more volcanic ash with the result that the car in front was creating vast clouds of fine volcanic ash. So windows were closed and we relied on the air conditioning to provide some semblance of cooling.
After a while you turn off the relatively flat ash desert and onto the lava escarpment of Erta Ale itself. The lava lake is approximately 60-70 metres in diameter but the volcano itself is around 30km at its base. It is here that you learn why mankind invented the 4WD. I think it is safe to say the shooting from the vehicle with the aim of keeping horizons straight at this point is futile, but good luck.
From what I gather trips up to the summit of Erta Ale all follow the same basic process. You arrive late afternoon as the sun is beginning to lose its strength and swap the 4WD vehicles for camels. In our case, perhaps because we had 13 days worth of possessions with us, we began the process of dividing or items into what we needed to take up to the lave lake and what we could leave behind at the base camp. The ascent involves a 7km trek and a climb of approximately 500 metres, which isn’t really that arduous but even in late afternoon the heat is still above 30°C and most of us weren’t used to such temperatures. As a result the ascent is usually made after dark although this does have its own reward in that you get to make the trek in pitch black across ash plains, razor sharp lava inclines and, well I really don’t know what else as it was pitch black.
It was all very Blair Witch. We did make occasional stops for water and to let people catch up and when we did we turned off the head torches. It was phenomenal: An eerie, windless silence under a billion pin pricks of light. When nature puts on a show, she really does it in style. Again, a bit of time invested in learning how to spot the north star and night sky photography would be rewarded here.It was about 11PM when we got to the top and despite being oddly tired the fact that we were a few hundred metres away from a volcano banished all thoughts of resting – for many of us at least – and anyway, the camels hadn’t arrived with our stuff. This is another tip: If you decide that you are going to have the camels carry your camera back pack – which we all did – make sure that you have your tripod and a fairly wide angle lens with you so you can get set up as soon as you arrive. The above shot was taken from the summit camp which is up on the caldera wall, but that’s not going to be enough to keep you happy for the evening and you’re going to want to head out and get closer.
There’s a simple rule at Erta Ale: All visits out to the volcano’s lake must be accompanied by (at least) one of the Afar military. This is mainly for your protection, although at least for the first night, it also shows you the way. It also means that, should an accident happen, there is someone who can go for help. Speaking of accidents there are several risks that you need to be aware of.
First, between you and the lake is approximately 300 metres of lava field which looks, forgive the pun, rock-solid. It is not. Erta Ale is a very gassy volcano and so the resulting lava is surprisingly light and very brittle. As you walk over the lava you hear this somewhat disconcerting crunching sound. Over the next couple of days there will at least one incident where you’ll put your foot through the lava and you’ll be glad of wearing a good, strong, walking boots when you do; to protect against sprains and nasty cuts.
Second, this is an active volcano and despite its apparently calm appearance it is a bubbling lake of molten rock. If you are lucky you’ll get to see some Strombolian eruptions – the classic fountain of lava – but whilst beautiful they come with the risk of lava bombs. You only have to read my recent post on my selfie to see this.
Third, whilst the gassy nature of Erta Ale can give some photogenic eruptions, the gas is mix of poisonous gasses, predominately hydrogen sulphide. Short exposure can be handled by holding your breath, but for any real photographic work you’ll need a gas mask. Yes, you will look silly and yes it makes breathing harder, but when you see others have to abandon their shots you’ll be grateful for that mask.
The final point worth mentioning is really an extension of the first one. This is not a tourist attraction, it is an active volcano. There are no safety barriers, no warning signs to indicate danger and – again, forgive the pun – in the heat of the moment it is easy to get too close to the edge. Don’t. The edge is very unstable. Over the years there have been few deaths due to the edge collapsing. Again, this is a benefit of a properly organised expedition – a knowledgeable guide who will keep you safe.
So off we headed into the inky darkness. There is no real way that I can explain the experience of meeting your first volcano and would probably make it sound rather underwhelming if I tried, but I think my best description so far has been that it was like the sound of nature ripping apart very slowly – an odd mixture of a deep bass with a kind of fizzing high-pitched sound. It had a similar creaking sound as an iceberg make as it thaws – nature under extreme stress – albeit the noise was octaves lower. It is a disquieting sound that leaves you feeling that you are in the wrong place.
The remainder of evening – we were they until about 1:30AM – was spent getting used to being this close to a volcano. I think it is a good idea; the photography is limited to capturing abstracts of the bright orange lava against the black centimetres-thick cooling surface, but for me the biggest thing I got from the evening was to get ‘being awestruck’ out of the way.
Anyway, at some point you will have to return to the camp so make sure you get some sleep – you have to be back at the lake before dawn at around 6AM!