It was the Dalai Lama (was it?) that once said that once a while you must go some place new. I subscribe to that. I never pass an opportunity to go to paths I've never been to, within limits of course. The Lama's statement didn't include getting out of one's comfort zone but I see no reason why not.
I was one morning convinced by a colleague that going to Ethiopia would be a good idea. I didn't protest. I had a few other trips lined before this one and I therefore gave him carte blanche to plan all activities. My type A personality wasn't able to let him have all the power so I bought a Brandt Guide book and gave it to him for reference. He came back with an interesting itinerary, including climbing Erta Ale, and I didn't object. He managed to convince me that it's not very physically challenging.
Before we continue I must paint this picture for you. Im not the most physically active person I know. Once a month I go for a mandatory 5km run in my neighborhood. Some month are luckier than others that we go to a longer run and perhaps take steps to my 5th floor office if the lift isn't working or is crowded. That's pretty much it.
Erta Ale is Amharic for burning mountain because of the live volcano atop the mountain. One of the majestic landmarks in Ethiopia's Afar region (and really I wanted to tell people that just came from afar when they ask me where I was on gaycation)
We flew from Johannesburg to Addis Ababa via Nairobi because of my plans to miss my return flight between Nairobi and Johannesburg to spend more time in Kenya. We arrived quite late in Addis and planned a night at an airport hotel nearby Bole International Airport. The main idea was for us to catch the earliest flight out of Addis to Mekele, a city in the Tigray region north of Ethiopia. Here one finds various tour operators that have tours going to Erta Ale and Dallol, one of the hottest places on earth (will write about this one day).
The day of the tour arrived and we drove to the Afar region. What a beautiful drive. The Afar region is dominated by pastoralists who raise goats, cattle and sheep in the desert. They are mostly Muslim and since we traveled during Ramadan there was very little activity in the day time in the small towns we passed. You could feel it getting hotter the further into the region we drove.
Some Buna for the road.
A small town in the Afar region with little activity at daytime.
We arrived at the base of Erta Ale just before sunset and it was 44 degrees centigrade outside. We were to have dinner then head up the mountain to see the volcano. We would also sleep a few meters away from the mouth of the volcano. I'm not going to lie to you, never in my life have I doubted by choices like I did that afternoon before climbing Erta Ale. We were told that the last eruption was in January. And honey!!! That got me sweating like Gypsy with a mortgage. I imagined another eruption while asleep. Panicked that I'd die in foreign lands because I like things. And to make matters worse there was no cellphone reception and the last bit of life we saw was around an hour away from base camp.
At base camp with camels ready to carry water, sleeping bags and mattresses for us.
After dinner we waited for darkness and for it to cool down to a manageable 36 degrees before we trekked up the mountain. We could see the volcano from where we were. It didn't look very far and that was comforting. The guide said it will take around 2.5 hours to get up there. Seemed doable. At the start i was just annoyed by the soft 'sand' from the crushed lava. Made it hard to walk: reason 22 346 why I never take long walks on the beach with shoes on.
After about two hours of climbing and no end in sight my patience ran dry and so did my water bottles. I was so close to screaming profanities when the guide said we are only half way the 10km climb. I was ready to be left there and collected in the morning. The poor guide was so sweet he offered to take my load (and by that I mean my bag) for me. It helped a lot because I managed to get to the top of the mountain. I don't even think I had time to high five myself for a job well done. As I was catching my breath he started giving us instructions on what to do when we eventually got to the mouth of the volcano.
Living on the edge: the mouth of the volcano.
All I wanted to do was sleep. I didn't care much for the volcano. I was happy seeing the glow from a few meters away and those occasional sparks that came. Everyone was so excited that the whole excursion to the mouth of the volcano took an entire hour. I wanted to sleep! Eventually grabbed a mattress and sleeping bag and slept under the stars. Apparently it's romantic and magical. That night I wanted nothing to do with stars or the volcano, I needed sleep.
I must have gone out like a light when I put my head down. Only to be woken up by the guide to go see the volcano in morning light. This time I put my foot down and told him I'm not going anywhere near that thing again. I wanted to sleep. Only then did I notice the beautiful sky just before daybreak and appreciated the glow from the volcano too.
The walk down was much better because i left with the group that left just before sunrise to avoid the heat of the sun. We walked fairly alright and made it down in just over two hours. I was so happy to get back to base camp and welcomed by our driver with a bottle of mango juice.
We didn't see what we were stepping on the night before. This is the lava we were walking on in the dark the night before.
I'm not in a hurry to go back to Erta Ale after my crazy night but I'm glad I did it. It was a brand new experience for me that I'd never have taken had it not been of a resilient spirit to try new things. I came down from that mountain a changed person (because the sun burnt me so much) with a torn pair of shoes that's looking forward the the next adventure.