When we think of Lost Worlds, our minds tend to drift to other planets or unreachable destinies all with a rather science fiction feel. However, Earth still possesses many mysteries of places seldom explored and not easily attained. On today’s Science Fiction Reality blog, my featured guest has been to just such a Lost World. He shares his adventure here and in the next several blog posts. Hope you will join us for the ride.
By featured guest Tom Arnold, astrophysicist, geologist, and author
What is the essence of passion?
Clearly it will vary from person to person. Yet, for me, during my college years, being surrounded by others who shared my passions was as addictive as any drug.
From an astronomical expedition in southern Mexico to witness and record the longest total solar eclipse of the 20th century…
to mapping the Sierra Madre Oriental mountains of northern Mexico…
and to visually confirming, by telescope for NASA, the explosion of the service module of Apollo 13…all were driven by a burning passion to learn and explore.
Those passions remain alive and well.
Today, this deep passion embraces Volcanology, and the volcanoes of Ethiopia hold a particular fascination for me due to their unique oceanic character in addition to the highly unusual lava lake of Erta Ale and the otherworldly appearance of Dallol. Widely known as the hottest place on the planet, an exploration of this area is challenging due to its remoteness and lack of direct access.
Last summer I learned of an expedition that was being formed to visit these volcanoes. Though I was reluctant at first, my wife convinced me that I should join the group and follow my passion to see, first hand, these geological wonders.
For me, the journey began at that point.
I am sure most of you would agree that flying internationally today is not fun. Long lines at security, extremely uncomfortable seats, flight attendants that insist you eat when all you want to do is sleep, crying babies and even the occasional ominous odor of airline food being grudgingly digested (fart)—all tend to make a person wonder: Isn’t there a better way to travel?
Entering a Third World Country is equally interesting. Yet the two additional hours it took to complete customs was worth the delay considering I was now in Africa. What had been a dream was now reality.
“TIA!” I thought. This is Africa!
Without hesitation, I left the terminal and followed the mass of people with their luggage carts, hapless children, grandparents, and a few family pets to a parking lot chocked full of vehicles parked every way one can imagine. There, standing beside two white aging Toyota 4X4s—with gear packed high on the roof racks—a man gripped a sign bearing my name.
After meeting up with the other five team members at a nearby hotel, we headed out of the bustling city with our guide and drivers, and embarked upon a highway I christened, Suicide Alley (seen on the map as the green line heading southeast out of Addis Ababa).
For perspective, via Suicide Alley, it is about four hundred miles from Addis Ababa to the Djibouti border. A trip that takes three hard days, our guide told us. This road is a major trade route between the two countries and is crowded with double length trucks forced onto a two lane road that is barely wide enough for regular-sized cars. The old pavement is pitted with holes—some large enough to swallow a Hyundai.
The drive is a constant search for hazards: derelict vehicles, wrecks, wandering camels and donkeys, tuk tuks, baboons and throngs of people just walking about paying little attention to the traffic. This made the drive s-l-o-o-o-w, forty-five mph on a clear stretch which never lasted very long
Shortly after leaving the city we encountered a hysterical sight—a truck hauling cars was stuck under a bridge! The driver slowly pulled his vehicle through, scraped the tops of the cars, skedaddled, and left both his cargo and the bridge damaged.
Awash National Park
Our first night was spent in the Awash River National Park. A real treat, it provided a glimpse into the Serengeti of Kenya and Tanzania. With the sun low in the west, we were greeted by vistas that were pure Africa, accented by volcanoes in the distance.
This gorge is a result of the African Rift system that will one day split the Horn of Africa away from the rest of the continent and flood the Red Sea, forcing it back into the Danakil Desert where it once existed.
The falls of the Awash form a geological structure known as a graben or rift valley. This created a captivating image within the lens of my camera, but I soon discovered there was more to see here than just a beautiful waterfall.
I surveyed the scene and attempted to capture the moment. I noticed an object in the water just below the middle falls. I grabbed binoculars and brought the thing into focus. A large crocodile lazed on the surface patiently awaiting breakfast—and probably me—if it had been up to the creature.
After taking many pictures of the gorge and our ever-watchful predator, it was time to continue our discovery of the Awash. I thought that recording the place I spent my first night in Africa was important. I took this shot just prior to leaving.
The blue mosquito net hanging over the bed was needed during the long African night. I heard many of the pests fly about the tent in search of a place to get a free meal.
Once we left the camp, the wildlife assured us that this was indeed Africa. A herd of wart hogs dashed in front of our vehicle and disappeared into the thick brush by the road. I had no time to take a picture. All I can do now is remember the incident and smile at the comical nature of their bolt across the road like something out of Lion King.
After the wart hogs, giant mounds of termites dotted the exotic landscape. These amazing structures stand nearly five feet tall and one can only imagine the millions of termites that inhabit them. These massive edifices were everywhere.
The Awash is well known for its extensive herds of Oryx that are protected within the park. We soon spotted the large African antelope. We proceeded to get as close as possible without creating too much of a disturbance within the herd. With a little patience, our efforts were rewarded. We found ourselves close enough to get some great photos of both individuals and the herd as a group.
An additional treat came when a small group ran past and provided an excellent view of them in action.
Our next encounter was a little more subtle, but still interesting. Nests of Weaver birds—high in the trees—can be found throughout the park. Unfortunately, we were unable to encounter any of these creatures on our short visit. However, we were told that they were quite colorful.
Up Close And…
We left the park and returned to Suicide Alley. The rift valley widened as the Ethiopian Escarpment and Somalie Escarpment disappeared into the distance, all the while our elevation continued to descend. The dwellings of the people changed as well and became more primitive and indicative of a nomadic people.
The Afar people don’t stay in any one place long. Their livelihood constitutes the necessity to graze their livestock: goats, camels, donkeys and a few cattle. In terms of the cattle, they reminded me of the Texas Longhorn, not only in their size and large horns, but also in their gaunt stature’s clear ability to withstand harsh conditions.
Later that day, our caravan of vehicles entered a village. Many people shopped at road side vendors and went about their lives as we observed the difference in the way they live compared to us. We pulled into a make shift parking area by an open-air bar to quench our thirst with a beer or Coke.
John, an Englishman who sat next to me, spoke up indicating some were from Switzerland and the rest of us were from other places. Then one of the men, in broken English, said that he was Somalie, and had just crossed the border earlier that day. His attitude was arrogant and smug.
Being an American, I kept my mouth shut—well aware of the relationship between the two countries. After a few additional remarks, and the complete lack of interest by the women, they left, much to my relief.
We finished our drinks and I returned to the vehicle while the others wandered into the crowds to get a feel for the local color. As I looked over some of the photos made that day, the calm was soon shattered by…pop, pop….then pop, pop, pop. These were unmistakable gun shots. I leapt from the vehicle and sprinted in the direction of the gun shots—the same direction my friends had gone after leaving the table.
Ahead, people scattered in fright. A soldier appeared in the middle of the dispersing crowd. He pointed his machine gun into the air. At that instant my friends came into view and hurried toward me. Our guide ushered them along. “Into the vehicles,” he ordered. Everyone complied without question.
When I heard the gunshots, my immediate assumption was that the Somalie, who had talked to us, caused the commotion. To my surprise our guide told us that it was a local Afar woman confronting a soldier from another tribe who had created the problem.
This is Africa! I reminded myself.
Our second night was spent in a village in a make-shift hotel. Our guide and drivers remained outside and slept, under the stars, on beds covered by netting.
It was here we were joined by our cooks and their driver. (Later our group grew larger when our guards and desert guide joined us.)
Our caravan now consisted of three vehicles. The two white 4x4s held the primary expedition team while the dark blue vehicle carried our support team. That day we officially entered the Danakil Desert. I could only imagine what might be ahead.
Anything can happen, so they say, and it did. A small pickup containing soldiers circled our loading area. Thankfully, they had no interest in us.
The landscape continued to change as we journeyed forward. Baboons scampered about and looked for scraps from the passing trucks and cars along the road.
People changed as well. Different tribes in the Afar traversed and herded their livestock and children away from the busy road. This appeared to be a full-time task, and I wondered why more living beings were not killed by the traffic along this main artery.
The manner in which the local people contain their livestock is interesting. By using a local thorn bush that grows everywhere in this part of Africa, a fence can be created that works much like barbed wire.
The bushes still play a key role in the lives of the people within this region. Now, however, they serve to contain livestock rather than fending off hungry lions. ( Note: Those lions can be seen today at the Field Museum in Chicago.)
Up to this time, all the volcanoes and lava flows could only be observed in the distance. I wondered when we would finally be able to get close to one.
This was to be the day.
In 2005, the Danakil was rocked by earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. To my knowledge all the major activity had occurred in extremely remote areas only accessible by helicopter. However, when we pulled off the road beside an obvious lava flow, I was surprised to learn that this flow was created by the events of 2005. It was an unforgettable site.
At this location, we were also treated to the opportunity to observe an acidic pond left over from the eruption. Although it doesn’t look like much in the picture, it is a perfect example of the relationship between volcanic activity and water that is turned to acid. (Not as acidic as Dallol to come, but acidic none the less.)
The day continued. I looked at my map and now wondered when we would finally make the turn toward Erta Ale, off Suicide Alley. As the afternoon wore on, the caravan pulled up to a ruin. We learned that the ruin had been created by an earthquake before WWII.
These were an Italian military installation remains. They’d been destroyed during a large quake. From the looks of the place, the destruction had been complete. As you can see, only a few small walls remain. With little to erode structures here, this is probably a good indication of what the site looked like immediately after the trembler.
From here we left the main road, turned into the Danakil Desert, headed toward Erta Ale and finally Dallol. At this juncture, our expedition became a lot more interesting.
Late in the day, we found ourselves on the road that took us off-road to Erta Ale. We spotted an odd sight—a lone camel standing atop an ancient lava flow. Odd because: Where did he come from?
Hope to see you then. The Lava Lake is a Lost World all to itself
with a science fiction edge.
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 #72 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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