Erta Ale Volcano Trek - The Danakil Depression Story | HandZaround

Addis Ababa - Mek'ele - Erta Ale Volcano, Ethiopia, September 2017


Addis Ababa to Mek'ele - by car, local bus or plane

We left Addis at 4am when it was still dark and cold. We were going through the windy roads and it was so cold that I decided to take my sleeping bag out to cover myself. On the way, in the little villages that we passed, we could spot the men slowly getting up, wearing blankets to keep their heads and arms warm. With each beam of the sun, there was more and more cattle on the way and after we had some tibs for breakfast around 7am, the world was fully woken up. I couldn't remember that I was cold a couple of hours ago, now that the sun was hovering over the horizon.
Our drive from Addis to Mek'ele took 15 hours with the stops to eat breakfast, lunch and drink coffee. We traveled in a 4x4 car and it was only us two and the driver. We were to film the tour that we were going on, once we reached Mek'ele. We got some info about buses too, just in case the driver didn't turn up. So, if you're planning on catching a bus from Addis to Mek'ele, go to Selam Bus ticket office in Meskel Square. We were told that Selam buses are safe, reliable and comfy, but we haven't tried them ourselves yet. The ticket will probably cost around 300-400 birr one way, so that's quite a bargain, and the drive will last about 15-17 hours. There's also an option of taking an internal Ethiopian Airlines flight. If you flew in to Ethiopia with their airline, then you are eligible for 50% of discount on internal flights. This makes the Addis to Mek'ele flight cost about 75 USD one way (and probably just over 100 USD for the return flight).

- See our vlog from the Addis - Mek'ele drive here! -

Watch our travel film from Danakil Depression below:

Mek'ele to Erta Ale camp - is it safe to travel in the Danakil Depression?

Our trip to Afar land started from Mek'ele and the plan for the first day was to drive until about 5pm, with the stop for lunch, to get to the military base located a few hour trek from the Erta Ale volcano. 
First, we needed to leave the region of Tigray behind, and enter Afar. This was quickly noticeable, not only by the temperature rising rapidly from 25 degrees to over 30 and then over 40, but also by the 180 turns down the gorges and mountains. There were also a few 'borders' that we, as 'a tourist car' had no problem crossing. The borders were simply a rope in between two huts at the end ofa road, raised up and down by local Afar people. We travelled in a convoy - there were nine 4x4 cars in total, each car with the driver and 3 to 4 people. The people were of all sorts - guys, girls, group of friends, single travellers, a father and a son, etc. Me and Zach travelled with the driver and an assistant guide who were both speaking English and were there to help us with logistics of getting good shots.

- Read our useful article about '10 Things to know before visiting The Danakil Depression' here -

The cars with the tourists in Afar always need to travel in a minimum two vehicle convoy - this is due to security. First of all, we were to drive through some pretty remote places, with no outside help available, that's why there have to be at least two cars - in case there is some mechanical problem with one of them or one car gets stuck in the mud. Secondly, there is the whole personal security matter. Afar borders with Eritrea and the relations between the two countries is best described as 'not in war, but not in peace'. Besides that, Afar itself is very distinct in comparison to the rest of Ethiopian regions and there is always a chance of regional unrest. This is why our convoy, as soon as we entered Afar, picked up Afar policemen who have travelled with us for the four days.

We asked our guide about the possibility of travelling alone through Afar but soon enough we didn't even need an explanation. We left asphalt roads after lunch and started 'the adventurous road' as so rightly dubbed by our driver. First, we sped off through literally nothing - the dry land with very little vegetation, the ground cracked and dusty. There were only a few huts, aka villages, on the way. It was difficult to notice them because they almost merged in with the landscape. The kids would stand by where they had known the cars would be passing. They were wearing no shoes and no hats. We were dripping in sweat just as we left the car so we couldn't believe how well adapted to the surrounding conditions these little humans are. We couldn't even think how burnt our feet would get if we were to walk bare foot on this hot ground. 
Then the rocks started. We were literally climbing with our car up the bumpy and sharp volcanic rocks or passing through the dark grey volcanic sand. Until finally we saw a few rock 'tukuls' - the round rock huts which were a military camp. The sun was setting down slowly but the temperature was still in the mid 40's. We were driving for most of the day through difficult roads, but the most difficult part was just about to start. We started preparing for the trek that would start when the darkness settles in.

Erta Ale trek - How difficult is it?

We were advised to take only a small backpack with the essentials as the trek doesn't belong to the easy ones. There was not much choice for us - all the cameras had to travel with us. This meant each of us had a backpack nearing almost 10kgs, plus two big water bottles each, as the temperature was still over 40 degrees, even though it was now pitch black outside. 
As soon as we finished dinner of hearty pasta, my stomach felt uncomfortable and I didn't know whether it was fear of what we were going to do, dehydration or simply a start of a bout of food poisoning.
We set off around 7:30pm, about 40 tourist, four guides, a couple of scouts, two camels carrying mattresses we would sleep on and a camel carrying a lady who wasn't feeling too good.
Each of us had a headlamp. It took us some time to get used to walking in the dark and before we reached the rocky surface, volcanic sand was getting into our shoes.

- See our vlog from the Erta Ale trek here! -

Soon enough I was ready to give up - my stomach was feeling horrible and I was very close to throwing up. The trek was getting more and more difficult. There were sharp rocks everywhere and the path was gradually getting steeper. Luckily Zach was there to keep my spirits high and hold my hand so I wouldn't sprain another of my ankles like back in Cambodia. 
Eventually, somehow we got half way and one of the assistant guides offered to carry my backpack. This made everything so much easier! I felt better about walking although my stomach was still turning upside down. After having walked two thirds of the way, we were quite exhausted and the path was getting more challenging. Our tired legs had to skip the pointy rocks and holes in the ground. The whole group has now divided into two sections - a fast one and a slow one, with the camels stepping slowly at the end of the convoy. We stayed in the slow one and were taking a lot of rests as we were nearing the volcano. Eventually we saw the outlines of the stone huts against the lights of the faster group. The orange gaze of Erta Ale, which was behind them, became very vivid. We got to the camp! Everyone sighed in relief and got mentally ready for the next couple of hours during which we would walk to the volcano, catch a glimpse of the lava and walk around the rim, and come back to the camp for a couple of hours of sleep. 

The last eruption of the volcano happened a mere few months ago so the way leading directly to the rim was covered with a layer of pretty fresh lava. It crushed under our steps and we really had to pay attention not to bury our feet in a hole or step on a sharp rocky edge. As we neared the volcano, everyone put their scarfs or masks over their faces as advised by the guides. The monster was smoking and the grey layer was climbing up against the night sky. Sometimes, due to the smoke, the lava isn't visible so even though all I wanted was to lay down in a comfy bed because of my sore stomach, deep inside I was praying to be able to catch a glimpse of the earth literally cooking from the inside. And so it happened - carefully leaning towards the edge of the rim, I saw the boiling red and orange mixture, so bright that it hurt my eyes. It was an incredible spectacle and for a few seconds, the whole strenuous trek was just a vague memory. The temperature wouldn't go lower than 40 degrees and the heat coming from the lava was warming up my face even more. Eventually the horrible moment that we've been warned about came - the smoke headed straight towards us and before we knew we were all coughing, trying to catch a breath. The acidic mixture filled my lungs and made it impossible to breath. The feeling was so bad that I just held my breath and went low to the ground like the rest of the group. Luckily after less than a minute, the smoke moved and we could all breath again. 

It was impossible to believe that there are places like that on Earth. The boiling orange lava bubbling under the surface of the ground that we have just stepped on... I couldn't believe we were then and there at that moment and the difficulties in getting here made me appreciate it even more.
I was feeling extremely sick after an hour or so of being around the volcano so my photos, which I wanted to take so bad, were careless as I was trying to push the shutter button whilst focusing on not throwing up. Luckily Zach was feeling decent so he walked around a part of the rim to collect some footage.
After midnight, we walked back the 10 min route through the solidified lava and rested our heads on the mattresses the camels carried up. The morning before I was worried that the mattresses were all dusty - now I laughed at myself thinking back about that, as in this particular moment I would be able to sleep even on the volcanic rocks and I would not mind a tiny bit. We had about 3-4 hours to sleep before having to wake up at 5am and trek back after 6am.


The sunrise at the Erta Ale volcano

Me and Zach were supposed to stay at the volcano with Fisha, the guide, to film the sunrise over the rim and trek back separate from the group after 6am.
Unfortunately, I was throwing up before sleep, and during the night, so when I woke up after an hour's sleep I was exhausted and my body was feeling very weak. Luckily we still had a packet of electrolytes left - these really helped me to stay at least a bit hydrated in this high heat.
The camels haven't left yet so I decided to go back on one because before the sunrise my stomach got even worse. 
The sunrise was yet another beautiful spectacle. The circle of the sun was fully visible through the thick volcano smoke and me and Zach sat on the edge of the cliff filming and photographing it, with the breaks of me running around and looking for a place for toilet...

The trek back was much quicker for us as I sat on the camel and Zach and Fisha walked together with the camel owners and police officers (until the latter sped off in the morning heat without any water (!) as we were probably too slow for them). You would think that I was extra lucky to be able to rest on the camel. Nothing further from the truth! The road through the rocks was difficult and steep and the camels turned out to be the least graceful animals ever. They would literally jump from one rock to another with me bouncing on their backs and almost rolling off down their necks. I felt sorry that my camel had to carry me, but in that moment of time, in that 40 degree heat and with a sore stomach, I couldn't care less. I was just grateful that my body is being carried even though it was bouncing up and down, left and right, for two and a half hours.
We got to the base camp around 8:30am and our wonderful driver, Eyob, was waiting for us with the breakfast and a jug of water to splash our faces, necks and feet. 
Soon after a short rest it was time to leave - the day two of the trip has just started and we still had so much of the Danakil Depression to see! 

We traveled to the Danakil Depression with ETT on their four day Danakil Depression tour.
We were guests of ETT but as always all the opinions in this article are our own.

See more articles, photographs, videos and vlogs from the Danakil Depression:

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