Our exploration of a world that time seems to have forgotten continues as my featured guest and Lost World Hunter, Tom Arnold, takes us with him into the depths of Ethiopian volcanoes located in the Danakil Desert of the Afar.
By featured guest Tom Arnold, astrophysicist, geologist, and author
Culture will vary greatly from country to country or even within specific regions. Quite often the environment dictates these cultural differences. A good example of this can be seen in the above photo.
Our expedition descended into the Danakil Desert. We watched wide-eyed as the landscape transformed into endless lava flows in all directions, often, for as far as the eye could see. We approached a small village and noticed some odd-looking manmade structures built upon an old lava flow.
While in the village, we inquired as to the nature of the structures and learned, via our interpreter, that these were the graves of tribal chiefs. They were constructed atop the lava flow because actual graves couldn’t be dug. Yet, the local tribes wanted something special erected in the name of each chief to serve as a remembrance of their reign.
After a short break from the trail to enjoy a hot Coke—Coke is universal across the planet but refrigeration is not—we continued our descent into the Danakil Desert.
Remnants of Mankind
The landscape changed again as we reached sea level. Landforms that appeared to be more indicative of the ocean floor came into view. We stopped to investigate and were intrigued to discover we stood in the remnants of the Red Sea!
A slightly hardened mudstone and clay surface stretched into the distance. Black volcanic rocks of lava and obsidian, deposited by surrounding volcanoes, covered every inch of the ground.
Remnants of man’s presence were visible as well, seen in the form of derelict strips of metal from machinery.
I thought to myself as I walked this odd landscape, It was once the bottom of the Red Sea. Before long, it will be part of the Red Sea again.
The African rift has already allowed salt water from the Red Sea to once more enter this Danakil Desert in some areas. Only very small pools are present today, however, as the rift widens more and more seawater will pour in over time, and eventually flood the desert as it had in times past.
An interesting detail about the Afar region is that the remains of ancient man have been found here. In 1994, a four-foot pre-human known as Ardipithiecus was discovered that was 4.4 million years old.
Ardi, as she is known, can be seen in the museum in Addis Ababa.
Homo Erectus has been found in the Afar as well. This fossil dates back to one million years ago. Both Homo Habalis and Australopethecus—at 2.5 and 2.3 million years, respectively—have been found here too. This is a clear indication that the Afar region first rose above the Red Sea before 2.5 million years ago.
This is the cradle of civilization and home for all mankind.
We descended into the Danakil Desert of the Afar and watched our elevation plummet below sea level. An unbelievable sight rose before us—a blue lake stretched into the distance.
The lake is quite shallow but its salt saturation is as high as the Dead Sea. As we will see later, salt mining has been carried out in the Danakil Depression of the Afar since the time of the Romans. It is still mined today. Vast amounts of salt can be extracted by using the simple evaporation of this lake water.
The large white hills in the foreground of the picture indicate this process.
Our camp for the evening was set against the backdrop of the salt lake and high strata volcanoes in the distance. I felt as if I was encompassed within a scene from an island in the South Pacific. This picturesque setting will forever haunt my memory.
After our long day on the trail, we swam in the salt lake and welcomed the diversion. We found, as we floated, numerous hot springs gushing forth from the lake floor below, some of which were quite hot. To our tired and sore bodies this was a wonderful remedy.
However, after our refreshing dip in the lake, the salt needed to be removed. The Afar had the answer to this issue as well. A cold, fresh water spring flowed adjacent to our camping area.
Had this been a tourist resort, the price for the salt-water swim and fresh water bath would have been expensive. For us, the treat was free!
After a windy and hot night in the tents, we packed up the next morning in the knowledge that this was the day for which we waited.
Today, we would ascend Erta Ale.
On the trail once again, we were soon reminded that this is an unforgiving land. The remains of an overturned truck lay beside the trail, evidence of the plight of a hapless traveler along our route. It served to remind us that here we must be completely self-sufficient. Vehicle problems, sickness, or even injury would have dire consequences. There was no 911. No one to help in case of a problem.
We all accepted the risk and, crazy us, eagerly advanced.
Driving became a challenge. Deep sand, trackless desert, and lava flows filled with rocks sharp enough to puncture a tire in an instant—forced everyone to assist with the identification of hazards.
Still, there were humorous surprises. A lone ostrich, startled by our rapid approach, fled. I jumped out of the vehicle and snapped a shot as the disturbed bird left behind a dust cloud beneath its running feet.
We sped past a tall bush where a Secretary bird hid. It stood about three-feet tall. The two other vehicles were ahead so we were unable to stop and photograph this odd foul. But the memory of the bird remains a favorite image of mine.
A strata volcano of the Erta Ale group loomed large before us. On the other side of this dormant volcano our objective waited. We had to continue through the desert in order to reach our base camp, which was still some twenty miles away. The air temperature continued to rise well above ninety.
We crossed another lava flow and our caravan stopped. We were introduced to our first live volcanic feature on the expedition.
To left is a picture of a fumarole—steam vent—and the largest I have ever seen. It measures about four feet across and the opening descends down into the earth hundreds of feet. While taking the temperature of the upper portion of the feature, I discovered that the heat rising from below was 145 degrees Fahrenheit. Somewhere deep below our feet active magma flowed. How deep? It was impossible to tell.
Our next stop was another very remote Afar village. Here we talked to the local chief in order to obtain his permission to climb Erta Ale. The air temperature approached 100 degrees. We were escorted into a small hut to get out of the blazing sun.
Beauty From Afar
The local children, curious about these visitors to their village, came into our hut, and chatted nervously. Much to our surprise, one little girl spoke to me in English and wanted to know my name. I told her, but was unable to understand her response. I assumed it was her name.
She was curious about the hand lens around my neck, so I showed her how it magnified the pores of her hand. She appeared fascinated and wanted to see other ‘wonders’. I showed her my compass and attempted to explain how it pointed north. I don’t think she understood, but she remained interested.
The people of the Afar are the most handsome I have ever seen. Their facial features are nothing short of beautiful. This is considerably different from the other people we had seen outside the region.
What was it about this area that created such beauty, I wondered. I don’t know the answer. Unfortunately, taking pictures of the people was not recommended. They believe that photos steal a person’s soul. For this reason I did not photograph these amazing people. Yet, I will forever remember their beautiful faces.
We left the Afar village and traveled another two hours with a village guide and guard. The guard was armed with an aging Russian Kalashnikov machine gun. The chief provided us with the guide, guard, and gun. These additions to our expedition continued with us for the next week at Erta Ale and Dallol.
Our first glimpse of base camp was a sampling of the lifestyle to which we would soon become accustomed. Huts made of lava topped by a roof of wood and grass became our homes. It was like a page out of King Solomon’s Mines. No running water. No power. No toilets. No trappings of civilization. This was existence living.
This site was actually an Ethiopian Special Forces camp located here due to the close proximity of the Eritrean border. The two countries don’t have good relations!
The air temperature made the ascent up Erta Ale in the daytime impossible. We planned to start the ascent just after sunset. We understood we would climb in the dark for the majority of the four to five hours as we hiked to the summit. We knew this would not be easy.
While we waited for the night, we unpacked the vehicles and carefully selected the items we would carry and those we would load onto camels. As it turned out, I should have loaded more onto camels and lessened my load—a mistake I soon deeply regretted!
At sunset our expedition began the climb along the rugged path toward our passion. The way was lit by our dim headlamps…only. We looked like a three-eyed Cyclops with our center eye glowing in the dark.
Are We There Yet?
Over lava fields, across deep black lava sand, and up the rocky slopes of Erta Ale, we hiked. Believe me…it was hard and dangerous. Five hours later, after maneuvering in the pitch black and downing three liters of water, sweat surged from every pore in my body.
The hot air barely quenched my struggle for oxygen. I felt as if the cells in my body were under attack, making each step an increasing effort.
“How much farther?” I asked our guide, Enku.
“Just a little more,” he replied.
But it was always the same reply, each time I asked.
My backpack that contained all my camera gear bit into my shoulders. The twenty pounds or more it added was now too much to bear. I found myself walking for five minutes and having to rest for five minutes, slowing up the progress of the group. A member of our expedition, John, an Englishman and explorer, offered to take my pack.
I didn’t want to burden anyone else with my mistake. However, practicality booted shame in the butt, and reluctantly I relinquished my pack to him. My load lightened by the Englishman, and my fluids replenished with a fresh bottle of hot water, I was now ready to complete the climb.
After what seemed to me to be an eternity, headlamps grouped together, moved in odd directions, and indicated the approach of our camp.
Yes, the summit was finally in sight!
Once all members of our group were gathered and accounted for, Enku asked if we wanted to proceed to the lava lake or wait until morning. Much to my relief, everyone voted to wait til morning—especially after Enku explained that the descent into the caldera had claimed the life of a visitor only a few weeks prior. The unfortunate soul had fallen from the narrow and rocky path down into the dark.
Sleep came swiftly, somewhere between a vertical and horizontal position for me, as I attempted to make it to my air mattress. I recalled nothing until the next morning.
I woke to a day without a cloud in the sky. I surveyed my location. It was somewhat uncanny to have laid down my head down and slept without really knowing where.
I spotted dwellings that resembled the lava huts first seen at base camp, twelve kilometers back down the volcano.
Slowly our group gathered.
Our first view from the crater’s rim was like looking at a picture from another planet…or…Lost World! We stood speechless, awed by the vast lava-scape. A slight rise in its center indicated the location of the lava lake.
The lake was created during previous periods when the lava had overflowed. The flowing nature of liquid rock was everywhere to be seen. Pillow lava, like what one would expect on the ocean floor, was clearly visible. Lava tubes and—off in the distance —the tell-tale shimmer of Pele’s Hair (volcanic glass), charged every nerve in my body.
This was exactly what I had traveled half way around the world to see!
The steep path down required very careful footing and constant attention to the loose gravel, on flat rocks, set into the trail. A sheer cliff—inches away from our feet—reminded us of the need for extreme caution.
I was now on the lava field. Next, I would actually make visual contact with the lava lake itself.
I walked up the volcanic bulge, and I became enraptured with the incredible scene that unfolded before me. I hesitated for a moment. I was about to see one of the rarest sights on Earth—a lava lake seething with molten magma at nearly two thousand degrees Fahrenheit. This was the realization of a dream that had been ten years in the making. I took a deep breath and a swig of hot water from the hydration bladder and crested the top.
A wind blew across the top of the lava lake in my direction and blasted sulfur dioxide infused hot air into my face. I quickly put on my gas mask. I looked down into the blackened, lava covered walls of the gaping abyss, and there it was—the lava lake of Erta Ale—about seventy-five yards wide and crater walls thirty-feet high. Again, thoughts of a Lost World or a planet in a science fiction novel played in my imagination. It seemed out of place even here atop this huge shield volcano.
To the local tribes, this was the entrance to hell, and as I stood looking into the mouth of the monster, it became apparent to me why they felt that way.
Adjoining the lava lake, an ancient hornito (mini volcano) emerged. In celebration of reaching my primary goal, I climbed the hornito and withdrew a cigar. I had nursed this cigar all the way from home for this one exact moment in time. I smoked it and did a jig—my personal victory dance.
Later, I sacrificed what little remained of the cigar to the goddess of the volcano, Pele.
Erta Ale is known as a shield volcano and is more akin to marine volcanoes than those found on continents. This photo was taken several years ago. The entire complex is massive and stretches for many miles. It is made up of two large caldera complexes.
This shot was aimed toward the opposite end of the Erta Ale complex. The caldera rim is clearly visible and provides an indication of the overall size of the volcano. This photo was taken from the ancient hornito directly adjacent to the lava lake.
In 2005, only a few hundred yards from the lava lake, another volcanic vent opened. It is now over twice the size of the lava lake. Within this crater the distinct bulge of its floor is visible. It is created by molten lava—just below the surface—pushing upward.
In the center of the 2005 caldera, another smoldering hornito brews. It provides a pressure valve for the volcanic gas generated by the molten magma, which lies only a hundred feet or so beneath.
The ground surrounding both the lava lake and the 2005 caldera is subject to collapse—at any time—into either crater. This instability is caused by the heat and gas rising through the rocks from below. A constant vigil was required by me to be sure I stayed on solid ground. The photo illustrates how easy it is for the ground surface to collapse into a crater.
Recent deposits of sulfur and continuous releases of volcanic gas can be seen everywhere around the 2005 caldera.
All the while, the smoldering hornito in the center of the 2005 vent continues to release steam and gas, and at times, these vapors completely obliterate it from view.
And The Goddess Pele Replied
The lava lake offered awe-inspiring views both during the day and especially at night. The following images provide testament to this fact. Keep in mind as you look at these pictures, the lava is flowing across the top of the lava lake and will descend down in a continuous circulation close to the edge. This provides a microcosm of exactly how the continents move atop the mantel on the earth’s surface.
The lava lake is eating away at the walls surrounding the pit creating large cavities under the rock rim where molten lava erupts. Up close it is like peering into the mouth of the gorgon!
Moving away from the lava lake at night provides a beautiful view of the stars. In this view, we can see the constellation of Orion shinning just above the red glow of the lava lake.
Turning away from the lava lake to a sky filled with stars. Below we can see the Milky Way stretching across the sky like a great celestial highway.
We spent two full days and three nights on Erta Ale with the watchful presence of our armed guards ever near. I ventured off by myself many times. A guard always noticed me alone and followed at a distance to be sure I didn’t encounter any type of trouble. There was so much I needed to see and experience that my personal time on the volcano was extremely important.
The time I spent on Erta Ale helped me to ‘know’ the volcano in a way that only someone who has experienced the awesome and stark beauty of the place can understand. It was an experience I will carry with me always. For me, it was worth all the hardship necessary to climb the volcano and remain there for the duration of our stay.
Next on our journey is Dallol, also known as the hottest place on earth. A label we learned to appreciate in a very personal way. Join me at clarablogspot, after Christmas as we continue the exploration of a LOST WORLD.
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: https://clarabush.com/2014/12/08/lost-worlds-imagine-yours-science-fiction-reality/)
2. A $20 gift certificate to Amazon via email.
3. My opinion of the first twenty pages of your novel or novella. (Someone else’s opinion of my writing is something I look for every chance I get. Just thought you might be looking also.)
All photos were taken and graciously shared by the author, Tom Arnold.
blog post #74 by Science Fiction Author Clara Bush
The Science Fiction Reality blog is a little science, a little fiction, a little about writing, a little real, and a lot of weird. (Name change after the new year.)
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Amazing article and images. I have been trying to get to Sicily for years to see the volcano there. This gives me an idea of what to expect should my dream ever be realized. Thanks much for sharing this!!
Clara Bush says
Thank you for returning and leaving a comment. Your name has been placed into the Magic Jar. Hope you win!
When you make it to Sicily, please, will you share some of your amazing photographs on my blog?