The Danakil Part Four: The Gateway to Hell

If you were woken up and told that today, was the day you would be heading to the Gateway to Hell, what would your choice of breakfast be?  A Full English perhaps? Or maybe a giant stack of pancakes complete with all the toppings?  I tell you what it probably wouldn’t be: a packet of banana cream biscuits!  Yes, remarkably someone has actually created this monstrosity, and they are, as you can imagine, absolutely terrible!  This was the reality we faced as we waited outside a small police check point, deep in the Ethiopian desert, for our paperwork to be signed, before we could continue our journey; fortunately, we had been given some excellent coffee to offset the taste of the biscuits, and we both agreed that this was a journey well worth enduring any number of banana creams for.

 Next stop Djibouti - the road off into the desert...

Next stop Djibouti - the road off into the desert...

The journey we would be undertaking was to the Erta Ale volcano.  Translated from the local Afar language, Erta Ale means Smoking Mountain, and within that smoking mountain is an active lava lake, known enigmatically as the Gateway to Hell.  Perhaps not high on everyone’s list of places to visit, the Gateway to Hell was exactly the reason for travelling to this remote part of the country, and I was beyond excited to be so close to somewhere I’ve wanted to visit since I was a teenager. 

Signed paperwork in hand, we thanked the policemen for the coffee and jumped in the land cruisers ready to start our long journey, and pulled away onto another beautifully smooth new road which appeared to be heading into the middle of nowhere.  The tarmac road was flanked on both sides by the unmistakable dark mass of solidified lava, and it was easy going until, just after a sign directing us to the neighbouring country of Djibouti, we veered off the road and headed towards a looming cone shaped silhouette on the horizon.  We were now on a real desert road, and the deep sand caused the land cruisers problems, often throwing sand right over the roof as our driver tried to maintain a semblance of control.  Despite the random appearance of an ostrich, we saw nothing but sand and thirsty looking grass for the next couple of hours until we reached our lunch stop.

 The off-piste driving begins... (Credit: N.Colwill)

The off-piste driving begins... (Credit: N.Colwill)

Throughout my trip to the Danakil, I was consistently amazed by the fact that people actually live there, in some of the most inhospitable conditions imaginable.  Our lunch stop was a perfect example of humanity on the fringes, and we pulled into a sorry looking town, consisting of the now familiar bleached wooden houses, broken infrastructure, and dust.  The people were friendly, but suspicious, and the number of guns on display alluded to the remoteness of this forgotten outpost, removed from the rest of Ethiopian society; we were definitely getting closer to the sharp end of things, and I doubt the state had any knowledge or control over this already semi-autonomous region.  The settlement was a law unto itself, and I couldn’t help but imagine this as the setting of a dystopian future where bands of people eke out an existence fighting other competing groups for an insufficient amount of natural resources.  The scene was validated by the ever-rising temperature, and by the time we headed out onto the final driving leg, the thermometer read a cool 48°C.

 Lunch on the fringes...

Lunch on the fringes...

The final leg towards our destination was on a stretch of road known locally as ‘the worst road in the world’; now I’m well aware that there are several roads in the world which lay claim to this dubious accolade, and I’m sure each one has a reason for making such a lofty claim, however, as this particular example was nothing more than an indistinguishable scratch, randomly picking its way through a lava field in the middle of one of the world’s hottest deserts, I think it could at least be shortlisted in the top three.  The abilities of our driver were evident as he skilfully negotiated our land cruiser through the chaos, trying in vain to keep the ride as smooth as possible to avoid our internal organs from becoming too bruised.

Our progress was predictably slow, and on more than one occasion our driver had to leave the land cruiser and scout out the potential route ahead.  We crawled towards a once distant cinder cone, and eventually managed to trundle past its considerable bulk, revealing another slight rise on the horizon this time with a red hue at its summit: Erta Ale, we were finally within sight of the smoking mountain, and the Gateway to Hell.

 Negotiating the 'worst road in the world'... (Credit: N.Colwill)

Negotiating the 'worst road in the world'... (Credit: N.Colwill)

Finally, after hours of slow, sweaty driving, we approached a series of small huts made exclusively from the surrounding volcanic rocks and roofed with a thin layer of dry grass.  We were told that this was a military outpost where the Ethiopian special forces trained, and sure enough as we pulled into the dusty square in the middle of the round huts, we were met by half a dozen young, well-armed, and professional looking soldiers, if it wasn’t for our driver greeting them like an excited puppy, followed by the resulting laughter, the situation could have proved to be quite intimidating.

The mood was instantly lifted, and we were given a thin mattress and a space in the shade of a hut in which to relax for a bit to recover from our bone crunching journey.  We wouldn’t be heading up the volcano until the evening, so we made the most of the opportunity to catch a couple of hours of sleep in preparation.  Opening my eyes, I was just in time to watch the sun set, disappearing below the horizon, and immediately enhancing the glow from the lava lake which was now radiantly dancing above the dark outline of the crater, looking both foreboding and exciting at the same time.  We assembled by the vehicles with our torches and warm clothes, and without ceremony, began following the camels along a well-trodden path, out of the camp, and into the inky darkness of the desert night.

 Loading up ready for the ascent...

Loading up ready for the ascent...

The gradient was slight, and the walking should have been easy, but at night, with only a head torch for illumination, walking over the razor sharp frozen lava was slow going, and several people tripped and fell with bloody consequences.  Without the moon, the limited amount of terrain I could see in my head torch was unchanging and monotonous, with the exception of a rotting corpse of a dead camel who had fallen in a hole during a previous expedition, and couldn’t be extracted; I made a mental note to be extra careful so as not to make the same mistake.  After four hours of walking, we neared the crater and were surprised to come across dozens of small stone circles.  Apparently used by goat herders, this evening these circles were to become a make shift camp, and taking our mattresses form the camels which hadn’t fallen into a hole, we set up our beds and I prepared to achieve something I had started planning to do fifteen years previously.

 The volcanic glow eminating from the Gates of Hell...

The volcanic glow eminating from the Gates of Hell...

With our camp established, we walked along the edge of the crater, until we reached a small rise.  I found myself almost running towards the top of the rise in the direction of the menacing glow, and as I did, there before me was that volcanic cliché from a child’s drawing: an active lava lake.  We were still at a fair distance, but it was unmistakably a lava lake, and you could just about make out the cracks in the surface of the thin crust.  A large cloud of gas was blowing to the north, and sporadic splatters of fresh lava were thrown from the crater by the mighty tectonic processes far below, with a satisfying gurgle.  I was utterly transfixed.  This was undoubtedly one of the most incredible things I had ever seen, I took stock of my situation: stood on the top of a mountain, in a remote corner of an Ethiopian desert, looking at a hole in the earth’s crust with a view down into the fresh magma, and not only that, but I was looking at something I had wanted to see for 15 years.  I was fully immersed in the moment, and whilst others wasted no time in getting their cameras out, I just stood there and did everything in my power to absorb this almost spiritual sight.

It’s difficult to describe just how profound that moment was for me, but eventually I snapped out of it, and tried to take some pictures to do this incredible feat of geomorphology justice; I briefly cursed the loss of my GoPro, as a time-lapse of this bubbling masterpiece would have been amazing, but this was a time for appreciation, not one for dwelling on past problems. 

 The best shows on earth...?

The best shows on earth...?

The group who had previously been quite loud had been hushed into reverent silence by the natural spectacle, but slowly, one by one, tiredness got the better of them, and they headed for bed.  Nick and I were the last to leave, and I would have happily stayed there all night, staring into the fiery abyss and trying to fathom the mysteries of the universe, but I was told in no uncertain terms by a man with a gun that wasn’t an option, so I too headed for my mattress.  Looking up from my spot behind the low ring of stones sheltering me from the cold wind, I was able to see hundreds of stars, the milky way, and the reddish glow of an active lava lake – I went to bed an extremely happy man, setting my alarm for 4.30am to make sure I didn’t miss my chance for a closer look.

Save for the now familiar red, volcanic glow, 4.30am was dark, very dark.  Despite being surrounded by desert and lava, the early hours were also incredibly cold, and we sheepishly made our way out of the goat pens, and down into the cylindrical crater.  The floor of the crater is made exclusively from fresh lava flows, which have frozen into sculptures of brittle dark rock depicting its previous fluid movement.  Some of these flows were as recent as a couple of days old, and still retained hundreds of degrees worth of heat, so we had to tread carefully.  We used our headtorches to pick a path through the warren of lava, dynamically frozen into natures very own sculpture park.  At points, you could feel the heat from the ground, and the lava would often crack and crunch under our feet, raising the heart rate a little each time.  We reached the edge of the inner crater, a deep hole which contained the bubbling lava we had seen from the edge, and our guide went on to investigate further.  As he did, he was silhouetted against the glowing orange cloud coming from the volcano, a powerful image which relayed so much about where we were.

 Casual walk towards the lake...

Casual walk towards the lake...

He returned with bad news: the new lava flows were too extensive and fragile, meaning that getting any closer on foot would be too dangerous, as one wrong step could literally land you knee deep in molten rock.  Initially I was disappointed, we had come so far, and I longed to be able to peer over the edge and down into the inner workings of the volcano, but it wasn’t to be, so an alternative plan was hatched to try and salvage the situation.  Within the crater itself was a smaller cone which would provide an excellent viewing platform if we could get there and climb it.  We moved with purpose towards our target, and as we moved round to the north, we were quickly engulfed by the noxious plumes of volcanic gases which made it difficult to breathe and made our eyes water.  After a tricky twenty minutes, we reached the old cone, and carefully made the short climb to the top where we were greeted with an incredible view of the crater and the lava lake, this time from above.  From our new vantage point we could see the lake in all its glory, and I watched mesmerised as lava fountains splattered the crater walls, and convection currents battled against the rapidly forming crust to create a tectonic dance, a perfect demonstration of the movement of the earth’s crust.  This was exactly the view I had come to see, and taking a deep breath, I took a moment to thank my teenage self for coming up with such an excellent idea.

 Thanking my 16 year old self for having such a brilliant idea...

Thanking my 16 year old self for having such a brilliant idea...

The sun began to rise, revealing the previously unknown secrets of the crater; and alongside the crunchy spikes, and waves of solidified lava, we were able to see a vast patch of jet black rock spewing from the most active section of the lake.  This is where our guide had gone to investigate further, this was the fresh flow which had prevented us from going any closer, and on reflection our guide had made a very good decision.  Crossing back across the crater in daylight allowed me to look at everything up close, and to try and recall my volcanology lectures from university.  I found huge bundles of Pele’s hair and Pele’s tears (imagine candy floss and long needles but made from strands of solid rock) and some incredible examples of volcanic bombs which had been thrown by the volcano and splatted onto the crater floor creating surreal formations.  I grabbed a couple of examples and stashed them in my bag, safe in the knowledge that they would be rapidly replaced by this continuously erupting volcano; you’d be forgiven for thinking a rock makes a rubbish souvenir, but when you consider that the rocks found in the crater of Erta Ale are amongst the youngest rocks on the planet, then I hope you appreciate they hold some significance (I like them anyway!).

 Nature's beautiful sculpture park...

Nature's beautiful sculpture park...

Back at the crater rim, the sun had well and truly destroyed the night’s chill, and we rehydrated in preparation for what was going to be a long, hot walk back to the army camp, followed by the even longer and hotter journey back across the plains, salt flats, and mountains to Mek’ele, and civilisation. 

It had been a hot, dusty, uncomfortable few days getting to Erta Ale, dealing with some of the world’s hottest temperatures, enduring physical damage from hours of being thrown about in the back of a land cruiser, and sleeping in a goat pen, but I had loved every second of it.  This had been a real adventure, and one which not many people deicide to undertake; most importantly though, however sad or misguided you think I might be for this, I had achieved something I had always wanted to do.  A decade and a half in the making, I had travelled to Erta Ale and seen the active lava lake, thus completing something which I promised my teenage self that I would do; walking down the mountain with that thought in my head I smiled, not only because of this achievement, but also because I had made other promises to myself, and now I knew that even the most outrageous of ambitions were definitely possible.

 Dusty but happy...

Dusty but happy...

© Andy Browning 2017