Adventures in Northern Ethiopia Part II
Jjust as I was getting fed up and completely exhausted I realized we were there, we had finally made it. Suddenly the ground gave way to artificial rock shelters on an uneven summit. With plenty of other tourists already there from starting their climb earlier, the place was a zoo but of course by this point all anyone cared about was to see the volcano and see it as soon as possible. Thankfully our wish was immediately granted and soon someone called out "over here" and in the far corner everyone scurried to look over one of the rock huts too see the blackness of the night give way to a heavenly orange light emanating from a large hole in the ground maybe 50 feet below and a few hundred feet ahead.
Why were there rock huts on Erta Ale's summit? To sleep of course. Yes, we were going to spend the night sleeping next to an active volcano. I guess it wouldn't make a difference if it were to explode anyways as you'd simply be too slow to get away should it actually have happened. While we admired the scene for a few minutes and thought about our fate, we soon heard another call that we were finally going to view the crater up close and personal.
We gathered our wits and our senses and then hiked down a narrow cliff path before stepping on huge slabs of crunchy basalt rock beneath our feet. With every step a crunch would follow and the ground would slightly move but it didn't stop any one of us from racing to our destination immediately ahead as if we were lemmings rushing to our end.
A few minutes later and slightly out of breath we were there. A deep bubbling gurgle could be heard as everyone peered over the caldera to witness one of mother natures most impressive and important natural events. Actually 'impressive' is wholly an inadequate word to describe what I was witnessing first hand, almost unbelievably so. Standing right on the lip of the caldera, with the boiling hot lava maybe thirty feet below, we watched in awe as the lava turned in on itself, exposing a liquid orange and yellow glow so powerful, it was hard to stare directly at it. Periodically one part would explode, and small lava particles would explode into the air, leaving us a bit uneasy but then relaxed as it settled onto itself and not onto our heads. Giant lines would appear from the cooled black lava that rest on its surface and suddenly break into a lightning like orange glow. This was mother nature putting on one of its greatest shows.
The contrast between the lava and the pitch-black darkness of the night made the mood all the more dramatic and it was easy to lose track of the time as we stared and took many photos. I had to back away more than a few times as the heat was intense but felt soothing compared to the colder air only a few feet distant.
But eventually it was time to go. We gazed uninterrupted for an hour and a half before our guide tapped us out of our trance to go back up to eat a fast dinner and then to take a quick sleep so we could wake up to see the volcano at sunrise.
Again we slept under the stars, and snoozed deeply before being woken up at 5:00 am to make our way down again to secure our spot on the craters side. Tired but eager, we crawled up from the thin mattress on the ground and lumbered over to the craters edge once more.
Still, this didn't disappoint and the experience was different but equally rewarding. Here we stood for another hour and watched as the sun began to illuminate the landscape and the volcanic crater and lava lake came sharply into focus. It was a beautiful sight to see and a great cap off to our adventure.
The Path Down
We began our decent down the volcano almost immediately after the sun rose above the horizon in order to avoid the worst of the sweltering heat to come. On an empty stomach, everyone began to scamper down and I followed with them, initially at a decent clip before my knee began to hurt immensely and I began to really slow my pace. While it was comforting to actually see the path I was walking on and therefore choose my footing more carefully, every foot forward and down, from rock to rock put an incredible strain on my right knee that only continued to feel worse as I continued to make my way. Obviously I couldn't stop half way and I didn't have much of an alternate choice so I pushed on, at least knowing I had a time sensitive goal I had to achieve.
Eventually after much trouble and a lot of hopping around I made it to our base camp, sweaty and limping and happy to have a fresh breakfast ready to devour. Of course while I wouldn't have to walk for much longer, the pain wasn't over as we still had to leave the place and cross the treacherous twelve kilometers of bowel bumping lava rock once more to get back onto a proper road towards Mek'ele.