Sunday, March 12, 2017

Erta Ale's living lava lake

With a last mechanical groan, our four-wheeled drive pulls into base camp. For the past three hours or so we have been forcing our way over the cracked lava fields of northeastern Ethiopia, where more than thirty volcanoes - not all still active - dot the landscape. The going has not been kind to us nor to the rest of our convoy. Thrice we have had to stop to change tires and jump start flat batteries. Now, finally, we are on relatively flat ground and hopeful for some respite.

Base camp is a collection of circular stone huts with roofs of grass, situated on a slight rise. From this vantage point we can see the parched brush and black volcanic sand stretching out for miles around. Sinewy soldiers in weathered uniforms stride around the compound with their AK-47s slung carelessly across their chests. Other than a few sharp commands of "no cameras!", they don't bother to interact with us foreigners. The hostility of the environment is palpable - both within the camp and without.

We're told that the armed guards are necessary because of continuing conflict with Eritrea, a small country in the north that gained independence from Ethiopia in 1991. In 2012, five European tourists were killed. Both sides blamed the other for the attack, and the Ethiopian government has mandated military patrols and escorts in this border region ever since.

After a paltry dinner of canned soup with dry bread, our guide announces that we are going to trek fifteen kilometres across the lava field tonight - so much for rest! Still, I'm looking forward to stretching out my legs after a whole day of bumping around inside a stifling hot car (air-conditioning is non-existent here, even at day-time temperatures well above forty degrees).

The reason we're setting out after dinner is that trekking by night is the most comfortable way of attempting this journey. The Danakil Depression, a desert basin one hundred and twenty-five metres below sea level, is one of the lowest, driest and hottest places on Earth. On top of that, we are aiming to come face-to-face with Erta Ale, an active volcano with a living lava lake (one of only four in the world and the record-holder for the longest one in existence).

By the time dinner is done, the stars have crept overhead. There's a full moon tonight and it's bright enough to see our way around without a torch. Against this brilliant celestial backdrop, someone points into the distance and wonders aloud, "Is that the volcano?" In the direction of his gaze, there is a vivid orange glow on the silhouetted crest of a darkened mountain; it flickers and flares ever so slightly, almost as if by a trick of the eye.

We hike over rock and gravel for three hours. Without any kind of prior agreement, all of us somehow fall into a loose formation - us twenty foreigners walk two or three abreast, flanked by faceless armed soldiers who skirt the edges of our lamplights.

In a way, trekking by night makes the journey a lot more tolerable. It isn't just about escaping the heat; the harshness of the landscape is veiled by darkness, making it easy to focus on each step without thinking about the distance yet uncovered.

Around midnight, we reach a clearing that affords us more space than the ones before. Scattered around are low circular walls made of stacked stones. Our guide gestures at them grandly. "We sleep here tonight," he says. Already thin foam mattresses are being unloaded from the camels and laid out in each of the hollows. Amidst the confusion and general surprise, Dad and I snag a "room" to ourselves.

The two hours of sleep we get are sorely needed but elusive. Partly it's because the stone walls do little to block the wind; mostly it's because of the (unseasonal) rain that starts pelting down on us. With no overhead shelter, we curl up under our windbreakers and try to will away the cold. I suppose from the shuffling noises and muted whispers that no one gets any real sleep. Eventually, the sounds peak and it turns out it's time to start our last hour's trek to the volcano.

From here on the ground changes. The rocks underfoot become increasingly brittle and black, crunching with each step. The guide tells us that these are new lava rocks, barely three weeks old. In places they are so fragile that they cave in with a sudden hollow whuumph, and so we learn to test each footing before placing our whole weight on it. Still, more than one trekker end up with legs shredded from the serrated edges of an unfortunate misstep.

Cautiously, gingerly, we inch across this menacing landscape. Our progress is punctuated with starts and stops as we circumnavigate collapses in the basaltic crust. Everyone is understandably - and some visibly - tense. With my head down in concentration, it's only when I almost walk into the person in front of me that I realise the group has come to a complete stop - we can't go any further, because there is lava flowing out of the ground just ten metres in front of us! 

It is an incredibly surreal experience being able to stand so close to actual, moving lava. One of the movies I remember most from my childhood is Volcano - specifically, the scene where Stan tries to leap over a sheet of lava but fails and lands in it and oh god he bursts into flames and melts into nothing in twenty seconds flat. So okay, naturally I've always thought that lava would be inconceivably hot and you'd get burnt just from standing too close to it, except here I am, ten metres away, and there isn't all that much heat emanating from it. It turns out that watching basaltic lava flowing is more meditative than thrilling. I mean, you can outrun - outwalk, even - the lava. But it's all good, as this gives us all the extremely unique opportunity to observe the lava up close.

All this while, we can see the occasional glow of spurting lava at the other crater pit a few kilometres away. For our safety we aren't allowed to go near that crater as it has been getting increasingly active the past few days, but it doesn't take too much to imagine how beautiful that view must be as well.

In the east the sky brightens; dawn has come, and with that, the blistering African heat. We hasten to pack up and begin our long walk back to base camp. By daylight the landscape looks so inhospitable that I'm astonished we traversed all this way overnight. I don't know if it takes us longer to cover the distance this morning, but it definitely feels like it given that we're functioning on zero sleep and an empty stomach. A thoroughly unforgiving first 48 hours in Ethiopia!

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