A Volcanic Love Affair

If you ask a child to draw a volcano you will almost certainly get a picture of a big, pointy mountain with red and orange lava flying out of the top.  From a different angle, you might see a picture of a crater containing a bubbling pool of molten rock ready for ancient sacrifices to be made, or for Hobbits to throw jewellery into.  Adults aren’t much different, and if you imagine a volcano, chances are you will be thinking of the dramatic fire fountains seen in places like Hawaii, or perhaps the incredibly powerful (but slightly geologically inaccurate) explosions as seen in one of the defining films of 1997, Dante’s Peak.

Unfortunately, I have bad news; instead of massive brown mountains spouting fire and rock, most of the volcanoes we know about are quietly doing their thing miles below us on the ocean floor, or spend their time on land looking like regular mountains with the odd hiccup of ash or gas betraying their identity as one of nature’s most powerful creations.  However, before you get too disappointed, there are mercifully a few locations on earth where you can witness the childish perfection of climbing to the top of a crater and looking down into a bubbling lake of molten rock, a fact I found out from a man with a beard and a dubious choice of knitwear.

 No bubbling lava lake in Montserrat...

No bubbling lava lake in Montserrat...

Being a high school student in the late 90s, most of my lessons revolved around over-copied worksheets and the height of modern technology, the overhead projector.  However, there were occasions when you would witness the most exciting of all the lessons, starting with your teacher pushing a giant cube of a television to the front of the class, complete with retro VCR, and a jumble of wires.  Assuming your teacher wasn’t too old, it would then only take them about 15 minutes to find the right channel, get the tape in the VCR the right way around, and adjust the tracking before the inevitable cheesiness of a made-for-school educational video would begin.

As someone who went on to train as a geography teacher, it’s probably no surprise that I enjoyed most of my geography lessons at school; I say most, because the geography videos we watched, were universally terrible.  The ones we were subjected to tended to involve a bearded old man, wearing a dated cardigan that I’m sure my Grandma would describe as “natty”, and variously dull backdrops.   Educationally these videos were incredibly poor, and the shoddy camera work, terrible animations, and cringe-worthy attempts at using ‘youth’ language, did little to excite and engage a bunch of teenagers in the fundamentals of the common agricultural policy, or some other dry content from the curriculum. 

 Trying to look cool in a brown boiler suit...

Trying to look cool in a brown boiler suit...

There was however one exception; It started like any other video lesson, the ancient television was wheeled to the front of the class and the on screen static was replaced by a poorly edited opening sequence, but instead of a ‘fun’ take on soil substrates or a cheesy animation explaining food mountains, the reassuringly familiar bearded old man, now stood at the top of a dusty hill; as the camera panned out, the hill revealed itself to be the edge of a crater, and there, far below the natty jumper, was a lake of bubbling lava, a real life version of a child’s drawing, it was the first time I had realised volcanoes like this actually existed – I was hooked. 

For the first time, I devoured all the information the video had to offer; I discovered that this incredible volcano was named Erta Ale (meaning Smoking Mountain in the local Afar language), I discovered it was one of the most active and most remote volcanoes in the world, being as it was in the middle of a notoriously hostile desert in Northern Ethiopia, and most incredibly of all, I discovered, as I watched scientists standing on the edge of the crater wearing tin foil suits and poking the freshly deposited molten lava, that ‘volcanologist’ was an actual job!

Not having many other concrete plans for my life at the age of 17, I decided there and then that I wanted a piece of that action, and announced to my entire geography class that I was going to be a volcanologist.  For the remainder of my time at school I dedicated my geography lessons to learning as much as I could about volcanoes and their processes, often to the detriment to the other topics I was supposed to be learning – so complete was my obsession with becoming one of those people who got to wander around active volcanoes, that I forced my then geography teacher to promise to put a plaque up in his classroom should I ever meet a fiery end at the hands of a pyroclastic emergency.

 Fresh Mexican lava flows...

Fresh Mexican lava flows...

Although arguably flippant at the time, this interest in volcanoes certainly played quite a large part in choosing to study Earth Sciences at the University of East Anglia, where once again I lapped up everything I could which related to volcanoes, and neglected some of the other units I considered less relevant, a technique I later realised didn’t lend itself to the best marks.

Whilst at university I had the chance to sign up to the ‘year in industry’ programme (mainly because my friends were all doing it and I didn’t want to miss out).  This programme allowed you to take a year out of your studies to gain a year’s worth of valuable work experience, which in theory, made you more attractive to employers upon graduation.  Most of my friends were enrolled with big companies like the environment agency, or the forestry commission, but I was after something slightly more niche, and approached the lecturer in charge with quite an unusual request; he humoured me, and informed me that in theory, as long as I could convince an employer to let me work for them, then I could complete my year in industry anywhere, I thanked him and practically ran home to put my plan into action.

Back at home I fired up my computer, opened my favourites bar, and clicked the little picture of a volcano next to the letters WOVO: The world organisation of volcano observatories; I’ll admit, this isn’t the most exciting website, and certainly not one which would typify the web browsing history of a regular student, however it did have something which was about to prove pivotal in getting me closer to those volcanoes – an email directory of every volcano observatory in the world. 

 Enjoying the Mexican sunshine at 4200m... 

Enjoying the Mexican sunshine at 4200m... 

That afternoon I sent close to 100 emails to volcano observatories across the planet.  Every single email address I found was sent a personalised plea in the relevant language (thanks to google translate), from a young student without any tangible skills, or experience, asking for the opportunity to learn how to be a volcanologist – it was a long shot, but I figured if I sent enough emails, probability would be on my side.

Immediately I started getting replies, this was going to be easier that I thought, that was until I read the subject line: <Message Delivery Failed> turns out the email directory isn’t updated all that often; it certainly wasn’t the best start, but I have always been an optimist, so I continued to stare at my inbox clicking refresh long into the evening.  Incredibly, by the end of the week I had received five legitimate replies amongst the error messages, three were along the lines of ‘thanks but no thanks’, but incredibly two of them had said yes.  Somehow, I had managed to convince the Montserrat Volcano Observatory and the Centre of Exchange and Volcanology Research in Colima, Mexico to give me a job; my plan had worked!

What came next was the most incredible year; not only did I get the chance to fulfil my volcanology dream: flying around active volcanoes in helicopters, firing lasers at rapidly expanding lava domes, and achieving that most childish of ambitions – poking red hot lava with a stick, but it also gave me the chance to live on a tropical island in the Caribbean for three months, followed by nine months of Mexican madness, and granted me a real insight into different cultures, languages, and ways of life.  My year in industry was a defining moment in my life, where I not only achieved something I had set out to do, but where I also realised that not only was adventure and travel a possibility, but was something I was capable of doing.

 What would you do if you saw this...

What would you do if you saw this...

After graduating I wanted more, but as I began looking around for volcanology jobs, I quickly found them to be few and far between, and those that were available weren’t really interested in employing anyone without a PhD or a serious amount of experience.  It dawned on me, after a few failed MSc and PhD applications, that I perhaps didn’t have the academic rigour needed to pursue volcanology any further as a career, and instead volcanoes might have to remain a hobby.  Fortunately, I had a new passion.  After having had a taste of adventure, the idea of utilising my degree in an office somewhere didn’t really appeal, and so instead of getting a job, I started thinking about how I could combine travel and volcanoes into a suitably adventurous experience, and of course a plan jumped out at me immediately – my childhood fascination: Erta Ale.

I began to read everything I could about Erta Ale; I researched Ethiopia, the Danakil Depression, and the Afar people who lived near the volcano.  I studied previous trips, and began to look into logistics.  I even contacted legendary adventurer and explorer Benedict Allen for some advice after remembering the solo trip he made through the Namib desert by camel, a form of transport I thought would make sense given Erta Ale’s location; if I wasn’t excited enough, Benedict’s warm, friendly, and enthusiastic reply was all the encouragement I needed, I was going to go to Erta Ale...well, I was until a teaching qualification and the opportunity to spend a year living in Tuvalu came along, which the latter, I hope you will agree, is a chance which is impossible to turn down, so plans to visit Erta Ale were put on hold, but certainly not forgotten.  Visiting Erta Ale and seeing this incredible example of volcanic processes for myself had become a firm ambition, and had been added it to the long list of big adventures – this wasn’t simply a dream, but was something which I knew I would one day get the opportunity to do so. 

 If you're like me the opportunity to poke lava with a stick is something you can't pass up... (Credit: K.Johnson)

If you're like me the opportunity to poke lava with a stick is something you can't pass up... (Credit: K.Johnson)

Little did I know then, that the day in question would arise almost by chance, after taking a detour around South Sudan following in the footsteps of my Great-Grandfather, and finding myself in Ethiopia only a matter of kilometres away from the volcano I had first heard about after watching that now infamous video in a geography lesson almost 15 years previously – a new plan was quickly put into action, I was finally going to see Erta Ale for myself.

© Andy Browning 2017