Erta Ale ghost haunted my imagination for ten years. What would it be like to stand on the rim of the caldera and witness, first-hand, the awesome spectacle of a lava lake? After two full days absorbing the experience of one of rarest sights on Earth, I know the answer.
Heat rises from the churning, erupting lava and slaps you hard in the face. Molten streamers shoot upward in arcing cascades like fireworks on the 4th of July. The muffled sound of each eruption switches your attention from one side of the lava lake to the other as new eruptions occur without warning.
The wind changes and blows the pungent odor of sulfur and other volcanic gases toward you. It fills your nostrils with a burning sensation as the gases make their way down into your lungs. You struggle to pull up your gas mask and relief is both quick and welcome.
Below your feet, heat rises through cracks in the ground. These cracks connect to fresh lava that invades the bedrock surrounding the lava lake. For a few paused moments in time, you stand and allow the heat to penetrate the soles of your boots until it becomes so hot you’re forced to step back, away from the cracks. You are reminded: Do not to get too close!
This is raw nature both dangerous and beautiful. It demands respect. To do less would be unwise.
Two days and three nights on the volcano provided the answers to my questions and memories that will last a lifetime. However, it wasn’t until I returned home, that I realized how extreme the environment around the volcano was. As I was putting away my equipment, I noticed the condition of my hiking boots. Not only had the tread on the sole melted, a hole—about the size of a nickel—had perforated the bottom of my boot and nearly reached the inside of the right boot. This was Erta Ale’s extreme heat leaving its mark as a permanent reminder of my visit.
THE DALLOL VOLCANO
The morning of the third day we rose early, before sunrise, and began the long hike back down the volcano to base camp. Pack camels, loaded with our gear, made the trek down much easier than the one going up.
As the sun rose and bathed the landscape with light, we could now see what had been shrouded in darkness during our ascent. By this time that memory consisted only of vague images, recollections of the ache in my back and total exhaustion that had engulfed my body. In daylight, the trail didn’t look anything like that daunting experience at night.
Back at base camp, the vehicles were reloaded and the expedition turned its attention to our next volcano, Dallol. Only twenty-five miles away, one would naturally think that it wouldn’t take long to drive. Wrong! This is Africa and the terrain between Erta Ale and Dallol encompasses some of the most extreme desert on the continent, a point none of us appreciated until we were well under way.
…barren wastes with sand dunes stretch as far as the eye can see.
…odd looking bushes grow out of the sand. They flourished overnight as a result of a recent rain. The Afar people claim them to be deadly.
…wandering camels grazed on patches of grass entangled among the poisonous plants.
Crossing more lava flows, we were soon reminded that visitors here must be prepared for any situation. Our support vehicle blew a tire, probably punctured by the volcanic rock we drove across the last lava flow.
Our support team worked in the blazing sun. They found solid ground upon which to place a jack and struggled to change the flat tire. In the meantime, local camel herders attracted by the rare activity paused to observe our dilemma.
Once the tire was replaced, the expedition hit the trail again. We hadn’t eaten anything since the quick breakfast of fruit that morning on Erta Ale…seven hours earlier.
On the horizon, a line of palm trees and green bushes popped into view. An oasis in the desert? Much to all our delight, it was.
As the group unloaded and a quick lunch prepared, I investigated the oasis in search of water. It was my belief that an oasis was supposed to have a pond of spring water. Wrong! There was no pond. The vegetation was the result of a shallow water table only a few feet below the surface. This was the beginning of Lake Assal.
”How can there be a lake in the lowest and hottest place on earth,” you might ask? Bear with me and I will explain shortly.
After lunch we continued to the place we would be camping for the next three days. Here we would explore the Dallol volcano and the vast salt deposits in the depths of the Danakil Depression, over five hundred feet below sea level.
Our destination was a mining camp and military outpost adjacent to Lake Assal. It was populated by some of the Afar nomads along with their goats and donkeys. The Ethiopian military had a base here as well. The endless truck traffic— produced by the mining company constantly driving the single dirt path through camp—created huge clouds of dust and dirt. The strong, hot wind blew nonstop day and night. This camp proved to be an extreme environment for our expedition.
The temperatures hovered around 100 degrees and no one imagined that it could get hotter and even more uncomfortable…but it did.
However, the hot and windy night passed into memory with the beginning of a new day. Expectations were high. The anticipation of seeing the strange and bizarre land forms of the Dallol Volcano became all the motivation we needed to propel us onward.
Dallol last erupted in 1926. Technically called a maar—which refers to a volcano that erupts through water—Dallol is underground. It is topped by beds of potash and salt with an aquifer penetrating the summit of the structure. Like Erta Ale, Dallol is a shield volcano. As we crossed the salt lake, the shield was easily distinguishable.
The trail up the volcano was a mixture of lava, salt and potash which create weak surface structures that could easily collapse under the weight of a person. Because there was no specific trail, each hiker had to make their own path to the top. Heat approached 123 degrees, and made the short hike exhausting as I maneuvered to avoid soft spots and drank gulp after gulp of water to replace the sweat pouring from me.
At Dallol the water filters down through the salt and potash and is heated by the hot lava below. It is then returned to the surface and boils back as pure sulfuric acid. The salt and potash—held in suspension within the solution—quickly settle out and create the strange land forms that appear here—and nowhere else—on earth.
When we crested the summit and looked back, we were surprised at how high above the salt plain we’d climbed. I took another drink of water, surveyed the landscape, and found it necessary to pause a moment to allow a light-headed feeling to pass.
Ahead the true nature of Dallol began to appear. Bizarre flower structures, one to two feet wide, created from salt, loomed on the horizon. Volcanic hornitos of salt, potash and lava also dotted the landscape. Active in an earlier time, the size of Dallol was clear.
With only a short walk up another rise, the vista of the active part of Dallol came into view.
Terrace structures of salt have formed within the acid hot springs and created an otherworldly appearance indicative of a science fiction Lost World. Testing the water, I found that the pH registered a negative one. Zero is technically pure acid. I then measured the temperature of the water near a bubbling vent and discovered that it was just over 200 degrees. The occasional smell of hydrogen sulfide floated on the wind and reminded us of the volcanic origin of these amazing, boiling, sulfur pools.
Each of the numerous active hot springs contained something different and provided incredible micro and macro structures to investigate.
Below are photos that offer a view of my otherworldly experience.
Hope you continue to join us.
Tom Arnold, my featured guest and hunter of Lost Worlds, graduated from the University of Texas Pan American with degrees in Astrophysics and Geology, and has directed several planetariums around the country including those in: San Antonio, Texas; Hutchinson, Kansas; Columbia, South Carolina; and Dallas, Texas. (More on Tom: http://clarabush.com/2014/12/08/lost-worlds-imagine-yours-science-fiction-reality/)
All photos were taken and graciously shared by the author, Tom Arnold.
AND THE WINNER IS
I will probably wait to see if they stick so I don’t feel like I am left hanging. A couple years back I was on a focus group talking about Sci-Fi(I refuse to use the new name). Everyone on the group hated the direction they were taking. There was a cooking show they tried to get us to like. It would have been cool on a different network but if I wanted that I would be looking at a reality channel. I am hoping your new line-up means we are turning a corner.