Written by: Simon OChen
It was 41ºC as we drove off the smooth tarmac highway and ventured off-road into the desert. Like a sea of algae, solidified lava rock covered the area known as the Afar region. We stopped for lunch in the middle of nowhere in a tiny village. How people can survive out here is beyond me.
As soon as lunch was over, we hopped straight back into the heavens of our air-conditioned car. We had 35 kilometres to tackle. And in the desert, off-road, it would take about four hours. As the sun started to set we arrived at the military camp and once we had settled in and the sun had disappeared, the three camels were loaded with our mattresses and dinner, and we began our hike up to the crater of Erta Ale.
The name means ‘Mountain of Smoke’, and the hike to the top of this volcano would take three hours. It was still achingly hot, even in the dusky evening. As we hiked closer to the crater, we could see the red glow reflected off the clouds that hovered around. Flashes of light in the distance indicated the lightning storm that would eventually hit us later that night.
Base camp was another collection of stone huts manned by the Ethiopian Army. We waited for everyone to come together before Aki, our guide, gave us the safety speech.
“Please be careful,” he said. “The lava is constantly shifting and changes from where it shoots out of. It is extremely hot and the ground isn’t very stable, so please watch your step. The lava near the crater is like shards of glass so shoes,” he looked at me, “are a must and try not to use your hands.”
We followed him down the incline and into the inner crater. The red glow of the lava lake was just a short hike across solidified sheets of lava that moved when stepped on. Deep holes and sharp shards where strewn about like bad housekeeping. I stepped on one plate that made me feel like I was about to be swallowed up.
We reached the rim of the lake and the heat of it knocked us back a few steps. Nothing can prepare you for the view of a lava lake. Nothing.
To put it into words is near impossible. Yes, there’s the classic, hot-like-an-oven analogy, but what the locals deem as the gateway to hell, I only saw as the beauty of our planet’s heartbeat, the blood of the Earth – rising, spitting, shifting, bubbling. From this it all began.