Rachel - Danikil Depression: Erta Ale
29/01/2011 - 30/01/2011
This is where everything is going to turn into exclamation marks. Serious desert conditions! Unending salt flats! Standing at the edge of an angry active volcano! luminous green sulphur lakes! If I didn’t have Dave with me to confirm I’d think I’d dreamed it all.
The Danikil Depression
The Danikil depression is at the north eastern spot of Ethiopia and overlaps with Eritrea and Djibouti as well so it’s vast. It’s one of the lowest points on earth and in summer it's officially the number one hottest place on Earth. The area was formed and is still being formed as three tectonic plates move away from each other (the same rifting process that is forming the rift valley) so it’s studded with still-active although geologically speaking young volcanoes. I read somewhere that in millions of years time the red sea is going to erode the edge and flood the depression and the rift valley, splitting Africa into two distinct landmasses (!). A reminder that the earth we walk on is still being created and destroyed and the globe we’re familiar today in millions of years time will look very different. Thank heavens for the geological animation on TV eh, otherwise I couldn’t begin to imagine that.
Without a tour company the only way of getting out to the depression is to join with one of the camel caravans who bring salt to the market in Mekele and that way the journey to the depression takes a week. Adventurous certainly, and I do love camels, but for once I think we’ll throw money at the problem and join an organized trip.
Driving to the volcano
Getting out to the depression takes a full days driving from Mekele. I was sharing the car with Dave and two very funny French guys so we swapped the iPods over from hour to hour and generally got to know each other better while staring out at the beige, rocky, dry, scrubby mountains for hours and hours, watching the in-car altimetre fall bit by bit. We stopped in a village at the edge of the depression to grab a bite to eat (while we were treated to the sight of a goat being slaughtered and gutted in the kitchen) and pick up local guides and armed scouts. For once the scouts are necessary because the nomadic Afar people of this region have a history of violence towards foreigners (killing and then removal of the male genitals being a featured point of pride) and this is also an area near the Eritrian border, peaceful at the moment but only fairly recently. Actually as for the Afar people, apart from the odd disgruntled fist wave from small boys, we only saw smile and waves and everyone arrived back from the trip scrotally intact.
While we were waiting to set off again Dave and I approached one of the outdoor table football games that you find all over in Ethiopia. It was surrounded by young boys of about 10 years old who were at first quite hostile and shouted at us to go away, I think thinking that we wanted to push them out and have a game by ourselves. Using only sign language we assured them that we just wanted to watch and after no more than 30 seconds the most shouty of them all invited me to share a side with him while Dave was put in attack on the other side. I had to raise my game fearing the loss of body parts but me and Shouty managed to scrape a narrow defeat and shared many a high five and taunt of “cheat”. We all parted with handshakes smiles and waves. That game is a particularly fond memory and example of communication using the things you can find that you have in common (in this case laughing at Dave being disapprovingly moved from attack to defense)
First nights camp was at the edge of the improbably located village of Hamedela. The wind was hot and gusty, the earth flat, rocky and dry. The accommodation was a basic hut of rough wooden posts with gaps between them covered in places by sacking. The toilet was “nature” but with no bush or even large rock cover you would be spotted half a mile away in all directions so best “visited” at night. Despite all these things it felt kind of welcoming and when everyone chose to bed outside under the stars there was certainly a feeling of anticipation amongst the seven of us.
The second day’s plan was to drive to the base of the volcano, pick up some camels to take our camping equipment and food, and walk the last three hours to The top. This was the day of the 4 by 4. The first 4 hours drive or so was through sandy desert; a proper desert with cracked earth, dunes, animal skeletons, nomads, wild camels spotted in the distance…the whole works. The sights of the desert were slightly strange when associated by the funk and disco songs being played by our driver (we decided Pink Floyd would have been perfect) and even an entire Michael Bolton album which I actually know all the words to thanks to being played on Sunday mornings by my mum and so I spent lots of the driving time thinking of family and home (hi mum!) which was nice.
I’ve decided I’m a desert person, despite the harshness there’s a peace to be found in feeling like you can only ever be a temporary visitor in such an open place where only the elements of earth and air are kings. But every time I find a place where you think life could never be possible suddenly there you find people. In this case, miles from anywhere, we would come across a few dome shaped nomadic structures and a few families and their goats. Every time I think I’ve found the human limit I am shown that we’re capable of limit breaching imagination and tenacity.
As we reach the far edges of the reach of the previous lava flows the landscape changes startlingly to sharp black rocky solidified lava – over time a path had been found or cut into the rocks and the 4 by 4 bounced and curved and tilted and juddered its way up and over the rocks. Take that Chelsea mums – this is what a 4 by 4 is for! I love to see machinery and engineering doing what it was designed for. Again I was sure in my thinking that nobody but volcano tourists could possibly have been past here in thousands of years but yet again we found ourselves at a small village of huts – heaven knows what the people do there (I really should have asked) because this place is in the middle of nowhere and there’s no soil for growing food and no animals other than camels that I saw. We rested here for some hours, with nothing to do but juggle with small rocks of black lava and wait in the shade until the sun was low so we could make the final climb to the crater.
After the sun had started to set, in unspoken but mutually felt excitement, we slowly walked up the gently sloping side of the volcano for the next three hours as the sun set and highlighted the jagged outlines of the volcanic rock against the pink sky. In places you can clearly see the ripples formed as the lava cooled and solidified, reminding me often of the surface of chocolate brownies. The last of the ascent was made in dark silence and as we reached the top, through a few stick huts where we would camp we saw the slightly pulsing red angry glowing cloud of smoke streaming from the crater not 500m away. That’s where we were going for the next three hours!
At that time Dave’s hope was to camp right by the edge of the crater so we picked up the small bag of camping things, a bottle of wine we’d brought and some water and then stepped down into the first crater. The volcano has held a permanently visible lava lake for 120 years and has been in a state of continuous eruption since1967. Past eruptions have created calderas and inner craters and while the camp is at the edge of the oldest crater you need to walk over the old solidified lava, then up and over layers of newer and newer lava to reach the visible lava lake. The last overflow was in November last year (one of the guides we met up there had witnessed it himself) and the freshest lava was like walking of gun metal gey sparkly super dense wire wool with air pockets revealed underneath (which we’d occasionally lose a foot through but there was solid rock underneath that). Everyone was chattering excitedly as we approached the silhouettes of other people backlit by the red glow but as soon as we saw the lake we all hushed to silence with the odd whisper. I tell you what, if it comes to a fight between man and nature...nature wins. It holds all the cards.
I suppose in some ways it looked exactly like you’d expect it to look, like on the telly. Surrounded by a 30metre crater was an orange glowing pool of cooling rock broken by streaks of yellow fresh lava which slowly altered as the surface flowed due to convection currents. Every now and again there’d be a gasp as bubble of gas would cause a bubbling splutter of white/yellow rock. I would have to keep reminding myself I wasn’t watching this at the cinema but we were actually there staring into the very centre of the earth and watching a mini version of the earths crust erupt, cool, flow and be consumed again. Fortunately there was a high wind that night and blowing the hot air and occasionally hotter belches of hot suplhur gas and lingering eggy smells away from where we were stood.
Watching with us were a team of French and German volcano enthusiasts who had been there for 2 days studying the lake. Their guide was telling us how the lake goes through cycles and how at the moment it was calm but every now and again there would be geisers of lava like the bubbles we’d seen already. He also told us how the surface we were standing on was formed only in November and that before the visible lake had been lower but wider, oh and that the fresh surface we were standing on was actually being eaten away underneath…look at that white crack on the other side over there a few metres back from the edge – that’s where gas had been leaking only yesterday and in a few weeks that would probably break off and fall into the lake below. In fact I could feel scalding hot patches in a few places under my feet although no cracks were visible where we were stood.
After we’d been watching for an hour, Dave had passed through the hot sulphurous cloud to the other side of the lake for a different view, and the expert guide on my side started throwing bottles of water onto the surface and watched as it was burned up, I think he was trying to break the surface of the crust and indeed after I said aloud “er, *please* don’t anger it” there was a whoosh, the sky turned yellow , the guide started whooping, the crowds stepped back and then spits of yellow rock started appearing over the side of the crater higher and higher until they were landing on the floor where we had just been standing. No need to say I wasn’t there anymore, I was hightailing it as far as possible but where do you run?? A few seconds later everything calmed down and we were ordered around the other side of the crater to higher ground where I found Dave. “Um, that was scary” I said, “you should have seen it from here!” he said. Apparently one of the geisers had formed and violently bubbled and spat out fountains of molten rock. One of the French girls said excitedly it was the most unusual activity to be that high. Um….
The same geiser was still active although much calmer and so we stayed on this side to watch the crust around it being sucked in and melted, after another hour or so the main party of our group went back with the first scout and Dave, Monica and I stayed on to wait for the other guide. Suddenly there was much excitement in the French camp as they noticed that the crack in the far side of the crater which had been showing spots of red was getting larger and then right while we were watching trying to see what they were excited about a big (but actually relatively tiny) chunk of the side of the crater slewed off into the lake. Everyone was amazed, I mean properly stunned. They were saying that they’d never seen anything like that in 10 years of visiting and how lucky we were.
Well after that we weren’t going anywhere, the churning and bubbling and spitting carried on on the other side but everyone’s stares was fixed on another area on the side that they were predicting might fall any day now and I started to weigh up the facts of where we were and had a flash of reality. I refound Dave who was on higher ground fighting his urge to see better into the heart of the crater with the knowledge of where he was and what we knew and the conversation went something like this:
Me: “Um, I think I’m going back, it’s been 4 hours now, and, well, I figure now it’s either going to get less interesting and I’ve already seen amazing things…or, it’s going to get *more* interesting and, weeell, I don’t want to be around for that”
Dave: “ha ha, okay…… 5 more minutes”
Me: “errrr, okay but I’m actually getting quite nervous now”
Five minutes later….
Me: “Amazing isn’t it! Um but I’ve been thinking I really would like to go back now”
Dave: “Yeah! Can you believe we’re standing on the freshly cooled lava of an eruption that only happened last November”
Me: “yyy-eear… it’s just that I’ve realized we’re *standing* on the freshly cooled lava of an *eruption* that only happened last *November*”
Dave: “oh, and the activity is really unusual!!”
Me: “yyy-eear… and the activity is really *unusual*”
Dave: “And bits of the side are falling off as we’re watching the lake eating into the crater below our feet!”
Me: “yyy-eear…and bits of the *side* are *falling off* as we’re watching the lake *eating* into the crater below our *feet*. And over there is a really hot patch, and remember there’s that big gassy crack”
Dave: “sigh, oh okay then…… One last look!”
Dave had decided on first sight of the area that it was daft to consider sleeping there, what with gas clouds and spitting rocks and all of the above, so we headed back about 1am and everyone was fast asleep in their sleeping bags. We never could drag our eyes away long enough to open the bottle of wine we’d brought to the lake so we opened it back and camp and sat up by ourselves on the edge of the caldera and watched the not too distant red cloud some more, pinching ourselves about what we’d just seen. Fortunately we’d negotiated to go back to the lake just before sunrise or I don’t think we’d ever have gone to bed
A few hours later we bounced out of bed, me reassured that nothing dramatic had happened in the night and there were people already up by the edge anyway. We think some more pieces may have fallen in the night and created what looked like a devilish lava face in the side of the crater. But compared to the previous night we just watched the surface for an hour as the sun rose and then left to walk back down the black rocks to the camp for some breakfast.
This entry is getting a bit long so i'll split it in two... *bing* turn the page