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Ethiopia is a wonderful country with pleasant temperatures and friendly people. I enjoyed the food, the people, and the sites I visited on my recent trip there. I’ll certainly be returning at some point in the future.
However, every rule has an exception. The Danakil Depression, which is in the northeastern corner of the country near Eritrea and Djibouti, is that exception.
It is a dangerous, hellish place with some of the highest temperatures on Earth. It is dry and dusty. During the three days I was there I saw temperatures hit 46C twice (115F) and many times the dust was blowing so hard that we couldn’t see other vehicles in our small caravan. Few people live here, and those who do, do so by raising goats and camels who eat the few plants that can grow there. Toss on top of that a local separatist movement which has kidnapped tourists in the past, and you have an environment which demands respect.
In this environment is a place called Erat Ale, which is the embodiment of hell for some people. It is an open lake of molten rock, spewing noxious gasses. It is literally fire and brimstone.
On the surface, this is a story of hiking to Erat Ale. However, it is just as much a story about preparedness, information, getting proper hydration, and selecting a good tour company.
Our trip to Ethiopia was organized by the Ethiopian Mission to the UN and by the newly formed Ethiopian Tourism Organization. Like many developing countries, Ethiopia would love to bring in more tourism, which can have a dramatic impact on their economy. Like most countries, they organize press trips where journalists are invited to share what they see with the public. That is the type of trip I was on.
On our schedule, day 5 had listed, “Camp visit and stay overnight at Erta’ale watching the dramatic lava lake.” That was it. From the description I assumed that we would just drive up to the volcano, perhaps walk a bit, and then we would photograph the lava for an hour or so, before heading back to camp.
As it turned out, this was not the case.
In the morning, before we left our hotel in Mekele, we were told we would be walking for 3 hours, but it wasn’t clear if it was 3-hours there or 3-hours round trip. No one could really tell us anything. This lack of information was going to be the theme for this adventure.
After 4 hours of driving on paved roads and another 3 hours of off-roading, we arrived at the camp about 2 hours before sunset. It was here we were informed that we wouldn’t start hiking until after the sun had set. While this is a perfectly reasonable thing to do given the high temperatures, we had no clue we would be doing it.
As we were waiting for the sun to set, the tour company which arranged everything served us soup and……beer. At the time, none of us really thought twice about the beer, but as we were several hours into the hike, the absurdity of serving beer before a hike in the desert became obvious.
After sunset, we set out and I, being the photographer of the group, had the heaviest bag by far. In addition to my camera gear, I brought along my tripod which was a must if I was going to get any decent shots of the volcano at night. The only thing which was told to us by our guides was that we should bring along “some water”. More on that later.
Despite hiking in the dark, it was still very warm. I estimate the temperatures were around 95F (35C) with a very warm, dry wind hitting us the entire time. The rocks were still hot from the heat of the day wind was blowing that heat in our faces.
The total distance from the camp to the volcano turned out to be around 14km (9 miles) each way, with a climb of about 500m (1,500 ft) in elevation.
The pace we were on was also quite brisk. The guides were all at the front of the group and walked at their own pace. Being local to the area, they were accustomed to the conditions and had made this trek many times. They paid almost no attention to their guests at the end of the line, and at one point we stopped to rest just to see if our guides would notice we weren’t there. It was quite a while before they noticed.
It was about 3/4 of the way through when I started to feel the onset of heat exhaustion and dehydration. I was getting chills and started to get dizzy. I was incredibly thirsty and the wisdom of serving beer before this hike now became evident. Alcohol dehydrates you. Toss in the high temperatures, the wind, and the exertion from a 14k, uphill hike across a lava field, and it was sort of a perfect storm of dehydration. The only thing which mitigated it was the fact that this was all taking place in the dark.
While I was the worst off of our group, others were starting to get dehydrated as well. We sort of staged a general strike so we could rest and wait for the supply camels to catch up with us. It was during this break that several things came to light. First, the guides had no real concern for any of us. Not a single “how are you doing?” or “are you OK?”. Second, none of the guides had any first aid training, nor did anyone have so much as a basic first aid kit with them. Not even so much as a band-aid. Third, they had no radio. If something did happen, they had absolutely no way to communicate to get help.
It was around this time I began wondering how the hell I could get evacuated out of there if that had to be done.
I get my travel insurance through Allianz Global Assistance. They have a giant war room and a global team of people whose job it is, is to get travelers out of trouble if they are injured or in danger. Despite the great job they do, I was starting to wonder if I had gotten myself into a situation which even they couldn’t get me out of?
I was hours away from the nearest road, let alone the nearest town or settlement, in one of the most extreme environments on Earth, with no way to communicate with anyone. Ethiopia is a developing country, so it isn’t as if they have rescue helicopters waiting somewhere to rescue tourists.
In the end, the camels showed up with more water. They put me on one of the camels to go the remaining 30 minutes, and everyone else walked rested and hydrated.
The lava pool itself was pretty cool, however, they also didn’t manage to tell us about the noxious fumes which could choke you, or damage your lungs if you breathed it. Another separate group which went up the same night we did were supplied with gas masked. We weren’t even given so much as a warning.
We woke up at 4 am to walk back down to our vehicles. The walk back wasn’t nearly as bad as it had cooled down considerably by then, and we were walking downhill. We all also had ample water for the return trip. I did fall on the way back and badly skinned my knee on the lava stone. There is still a massive scab on the right knee as a write this.
This entire episode taught me several important lessons.
- Pick a Good Tour Operator. We just took it on faith that our guides knew what they were doing. While they knew how to get to the volcano, they didn’t know much else about actually guiding people. They weren’t trained nor prepared. It is something you don’t really know the importance of until you experience a bad one.
- Ask Questions. We should have asked more questions about what we were going to be doing, so it wouldn’t have caught us by surprise. I’m not sure we would have gotten answers, but some of the blame belonged on us.
- Prepare. Even if we had known what we were getting ourselves into, we needed to be prepared for the excursion. That meant having enough water, proper hiking boots, etc. Make sure you have basic first aid supplies and if possible, some sort of communications.
- Respect the environment. I came away from this was a whole lot of respect for the Danakil Depression. This is a serious place and not be messed around with. I’ve seen other warnings around the world, and often I didn’t give them the attention they deserve. People have died recently in the Grand Canyon from dehydration. Despite being a popular national park, you can still suffer consequences if you don’t respect where you are.
- Always have travel insurance. While getting compensation for canceled trips and flights is an important part of having travel insurance, having a team of people who can get you our of trouble is by far the most important aspect of it. After we were out of the Danakil Depression I later found out that there was an Army base with a helicopter which was within flying distance. If something catastrophic had happened, there could have been an evacuation, even if it would have taken a while for the helicopter to arrive.
- Know your limits. Because we weren’t used to the extreme environment, I think everyone in our group could have benefited from going at a slower pace with more rests. Myself the most.
My trip to Erta Ale will probably affect how I travel for the rest of my life. I have no desire to get in such a situation again. For most of my trips, the environment isn’t something you need to obsess over. However, I have upcoming trips planned to the Arctic and other places with extreme environments. You can be sure I’ll be more prepared and informed before I go into those areas.
Disclaimer: I work as an ambassador for Allianz Global Assistance (AGA Service Company) and receive financial compensation.