Today post is the third of five continuing the Danakil Depression trip review (from the perspective of a photographer) and talking about the part of the expedition that was of most interest to me: Visiting the Erta Ale volcano and lava lake. Lots of pictures and some video (although please forgive the constant howl of the wind). You may also be interested in part 1 and part 2 of the review.
Days 5 – 6
As both days were spent in a very similar vein – at the lake – I won’t bother with a day-by-day breakdown.
You’ll be very well rewarded for making pre-dawn starts. It does help if there are like-minded people on the trip – and I was lucky to have a shooting partner on mine – but I suspect that being this close of a volcano means that wild horses wouldn’t keep you away!During the daytime, the sky is a rather non-descript light blue which doesn’t really make for interesting shots. Dawn however is a different story and purple will be the dominant colour. You’ll still need to use filters as, even in the pale dawn light, the sky is several stops of light above the foreground and you may even want to trying stacking a couple of ND grads. As with most dawn shoots you’ll only have a couple of minutes in the ‘sweet spot’, but luckily you have two dawns to try and capture the moment.
As you arrived late at night your first dawn is also the first time you’ll get to see the landscape around the lava lake and there are a couple of close-by high vantage points – a good one can be seen in the above photo on the right, the wide angle of the image making it appear more distant than it is. The lake is roughly ovoid and is approximately 65 metres in diameter making a wide angle lens – 17mm on a full frame body – pretty much ideal.
The lake you see is the top of magma column 47 kilometres tall and is in a constant state of flux as the convection currents within the magma column bring molten rock to the surface and the centimetres-thick crust gets swallowed back below the surface. Whilst you are now standing right next to an erupting volcano, the geology of the region means that there isn’t a capped magma chamber and therefore there isn’t a significant amount of pressure build-up. The result of this is that Erta Ale spends much of its time gently simmering away with constantly changing patterns of orange moving across its surface. But it does go though cycles of increased activity and on the second day we were there the lake had entered some kind of prolonged activity whereby periods of simmering were followed by the ‘fountaining’ of lava resulting in spectacular shots. We did try and work out an interval between the fountains, but soon gave up just happy that there were several of them per hour. So it is worth being persistent and visiting as much as you can which I’m sure that you will, but I mention this as not only did one couple leave after the first day (presumably because they had seen enough and become bored) but one of the guys interested in photography and geology also returned to the base camp after the same day stating that “it won’t get any better than this”.
Much of your time at the lake will be spent watching and waiting and so keeping the gas mask to hand and having at least two litres of waters is important as, not only is the sun pounding down upon you from above, the heat coming off the lake’s surface is intense.
Even when the lake is just simmering away, there are little bursts of activity as gas in the magma upwell escapes and I and the others spent a lot of time during the daylight hours attempting to capture the interesting shapes. The problem is that you really can’t predict where or when the gas will escape and as the event can last for as little as a second – often less – you have to keep alert. I found having two cameras really handy, a full-frame body with a 17-40mm lens and a cropped body with a 100-400mm lens, as that way I could quickly zoom in capture details when gas was escaping whilst keeping the 17-40mm set up for more usual landscape shots. The 100-400mm lens was overkill and 200mm would have be more than enough.One of the things that you’ll need to be aware of is that the heat from the surface is so intense that your biggest problem will be the heat haze. During the end-of day review after the first day at the lake I was very dismayed to find that the majority of the shots appeared out-of-focus. Indeed I thought that the auto-focus system was damaged. In fact of the 1000+ shots I took of the lake over the time there only around 80 of them are sharp enough to use. I was talking to one of the other people after the trip and she has had worse luck than me. You’re not going to be able to do anything about this in post production and so avoid disappointment I can only suggest three things:
First, shoot lots! I took over 1000 shots and I ran out of memory cards, having to resort to my emergency 4GB ones and borrowing a card of someone. The rule is simple: take enough shots and some are bound to be usable. I’m not suggesting a blind ‘photograph the hell out of it’ approach, but even with the composition set up, the heat haze will be the wild card. Shoot the same scene enough and, as the wind changes direction – even for a moment – the heat haze will shift allowing usable shots to be taken.
Second – and really an extension to the bit above about changing wind direction – I think shooting into the wind likely resulted in more heat haze and hence more unusable shots. Of course, the composition will determine which direction you shoot for landscape work but if capturing close-up abstract shots of the orange against the black crust, moving around the lake’s edge may help a bit.
Third, you’ve got three nights and two days up here and then you’ll be gone so make every minute count. One of the benefits this expedition has over the others I could find (certainly in 2014) is that you have access to the lake in various lighting conditions – night time, day time, dawn and dusk. The other trips only give you a single night – great for abstracts, not so good for landscapes.The guy who thought that day one was the best it would get (and so left) was, of course, wrong and missed some stunning shots as the second day saw the lake fountaining lava. Most of the group didn’t bother getting up pre-dawn to head over to the lake to see the sun rise above the caldera wall, again missing not only some stunning photography, but one the best spectacles nature has on offer. It may seem rather presumptuous of me to suggest that you would do anything other than make good use of the time but the combination of dirt, dust, heat, no sanitation, mice in the huts and lack of proper sleep can make anyone’s resolve weaken. Also, if you’re travelling as a couple or group, there may be other pressures too. But you’ll likely never be back here again so it is worth making use of the time.
The expedition doesn’t really provide a schedule of events for these two days which is ideal for photographers but perhaps less so for non-photographers. Saying that there are other things to see, the most notable of which is a hornito – or lava dome – in the nearby second crater. For our visit the hornito was simply steaming away although it also has periods of fountaining activity that can be impressive. At an altitude of 600 metres you’ll have some panoramic vistas too. But I suspect that the lava lake will be your focus.On the last evening there was a bit of a commotion when one of the military spotters thought that they saw some activity in the DMZ. At the time we were standing atop the hightest point next to the lava lake (see the dawn photo at the top of the article) and so were pretty exposed. Although unlikely to have been anything the military escort we had decided it would be better to descend and by the time we had out gear together and began to descend we passed three of the guards in sniping positions. It was a sobering reminder of where we were and just how close to the border. We were still allowed to remain at the lava lake so it wasn’t the end of shooting (photographic, that it) and for the next couple of hours we busied ourselves making sure the we had captured everything we were after. That evening we also had a reminder of how lucky we were to be on this expedition instead of one of the shorter four/five day ones as around 10PM a large group of around 25 people turned up and headed out to the lake. They were there for a couple of hours and then gone before we awoke at 5AM the next day. They missed so much of the beauty and spectacle of this amazing place. So you want to see a volcano?
Well, who wouldn’t. But after visiting the Bolivian Altiplano in 2010 and Iceland in mid 2014, both of which are overflowing with volcanoes, why did I – and why may you – want to visit Erta Ale? After all, it is not exactly the most convenient volcano to visit.
The answer for me was simple although perhaps hard to explain but in essence I want to see landscapes that show the scale and power of nature on a vast and unbelievable scale. And, of the elemental forces of nature, the volcano best represents just how immense and powerful nature can be. But to really appreciate the majesty of a volcano I wanted to see an eruption, I wanted to see lava flowing and I wanted to have the experience of being as close to this process as I could get whilst having a reasonable chance of surviving. The problem is that volcanoes don’t really erupt on demand and so trying to plan a trip to one isn’t an easy task. But it can be done.
Erta Ale has the distinction of being one of only six known persistent lava lakes on the planet and although not the biggest (that would be Mount Nyiragongo the Democratic Republic of the Congo – or DRC), it is the oldest having been in permanent motion since 1906. For me, the key part here is persistent.It might not be the largest of the lakes but at 60-70 metres in diameter you’ll certainly be impressed. Also, despite the apparent choice of lava lakes to visit your options are constrained. As of the end of 2014 Mount Nyiragongo, within the Virunga National Park, is still closed after a recent civil war; Mount Erubus in Antarctica is off limits to most; Kilauea in Hawaii has succumbed to health and safety worries and is definitely more a tourist attraction than a wonder of nature; and Ambrym in Vanuatu, whilst certainly very active, is not only fairly remote but the lake’s surface is about 500 metres below the crater rim making it a ‘view from afar’ experience for most people. The sixth and newest lava lake, Lake Nyamuragira, is also in the DRC and part of the same volcanic chain as Nyiragongo. But it is not yet fully persistent and very small.
So, if you want to have as much guarantee as possible that you’ll see an active volcano ‘doing its thing’ then Erta Ale is really your only option. But you better be quick. Small-scale tourism to the area has been increasing year after year despite the uncomfortable conditions and high cost. However with the construction of a road to Dalol now complete one of the main obstacles for mass tourism – access to the area – has been removed. Erta Ale may still require effort to get to, but it is no longer, as National Geographic have described it, one of the most remote places on Earth.
This may be great for the local economy but as more tourists arrive, the safety aspects of an unprotected hole full of molten rock will obviously become a concern and I can see safety barriers being erected. And that it not really something that will enhance any landscape photograph.