Leaving Afrera was surreal. A six-lane tarmac road, the biggest we have seen so far in Ethiopia, is leading to… nowhere, outside town we immediately end up on a gravel road where two cars have difficulty passing each other. Apparently, there is a road planned all the way to Mekele, 300 km away, right through the Danakil Desert. So far this trip has not been as adventurous as we had expected; in two years time, even Danakil can be done by comfortable sedan, and who knows, in a few more years, one can drive a touring car up the Erta Ale volcano!
Anyhow, not yet, and for the time being, outside Afrera the real adventure does indeed start. There could be no more desolate landscape than this. We drive through more black basalt, in fact we are driving on top of a lava stream, black stone not unlike asphalt, as far as the eye reaches. You can just imagine this as it originally was, a liquid flow of molten rock, irregular undulating surface, perhaps not unlike waves, which then rapidly cools off, and literally freezes in its liquid form. Big cracks have appeared at the top of the crests, where further cooling has broken up the surface. Occasionally, whitish sand, filling in the irregularities of the surface, and in the distance the a few white dunes. The sand and clay layers have solidified, essentially they have been baked in the hot sun to form a thin crust. So once in a while the shape of a volcano appears at the horizon.
As so often in the Danakil, although few and far between, there are small hamlets, small herds of goats fighting for a place in the shade of the only tree within sights; the occasional group of camels – apparently wandering off from the village on their own to find a grazing place, then cross to where they can find water, to return to the village at night, again. We get to Dodom, a somewhat more substantial village, with a school (127 kids between grades 1 to 8: where on earth do they come from?!), some corrugated iron sheds. Further out there is a whole range of huts, built on the black lava surfaces. I am being told that, in July, it rains here, and that the valley then turns green, good pasture for the cattle. But that cannot last long, in this heat, and all those other months of the year the cattle is actually being taken far away. Why come back at all, then, one could ask?
From Dodom we continue, now turning onto an unclear path right across the lava surfaces. Adventure, for sure, the vehicle is bouncing slowly across the rocks, trying to avoid the sharpest corners. Black, black, black, everywhere; come to think of it, this is how the bottom of the ocean must look like. Actually, we are driving across a proto-ocean bottom, I guess. Another volcano dooms in the distance, would that be Erta Ale? Luckily, it isn’t, it would have been quite a walk up, this one, called Amaytole. On the other side, another big volcano, Boreale, can just been seen through the haze. In fact, Erta Ale is a rather small, minuscule volcano, amidst the big boys. Piece of cake, really.
Ascending the volcano is normally done starting early evening, when it is a little – only a little – cooler. Somebody has established a number of round huts at the base, where we can find some shade, and wait out our time. In the high season this could well be a busy place – well, everything is relative, perhaps 30-40 tourists, plus their entourage. Around the huts, even inside the huts, traces of that high season are well visible. Rubbish in the corners, plastic bottles – especially the broken ones, which have no economic value anymore -, rusty tins, paper. Some of the huts have been used as toilets, disgusting really. How difficult can it be to employ two or three people – from those hefty fees tourists are required to pay – to clear the compound, and burn the rubbish regularly?
next: up the Erta Ale volcano