To hell and back again

To hell and back again
A camel caravan is organized before departure. (Bryn Karcha photo)
written by Bryn Karcha
October 5, 2012 12:02 pm

There was a point in my life where I would have done anything for a lukewarm Coke.

But let’s back up a bit. I had met Gareth Coombes and Graham Litman entirely by chance. Seventy-two hours earlier I was in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. Barely two days in country, and I had been offered the trip of a lifetime: a chance to climb the Erta Ale volcano.

The Canadian backpackers had come to Ethiopia for the sole purpose of visiting one of four open lava pools on Earth. Undeterred by the fact that most tourist agencies said it was impossible during the ongoing rainy season, they had finally found a guide. Now all that was left was to find additional adventurers to lower the cost. They had asked hundreds to come.

I was the second person to agree.

The details were daunting. Erta Ale sits in the middle of the Afar Depression, one of the lowest and hottest places on earth. Temperatures reached a daytime high of 50 degrees Celsius, and the seasonal rains turned the parched, volcanic landscape into an impassible field of mud. Dehydration and heat illness had been the end of many travellers in this hostile wasteland.

Then there were the Afar tribes. A predominantly pastoral people, they’re notorious for their sharpened teeth and hostility to foreigners. The Afar region is a common area of banditry and violence, and violent rebel groups from both Ethiopia and Etritrea are common. A few months prior to our arrival, five European tourists had been killed by gunmen.

We caught a flight the next day from Addis to the northern city of Mek’ele. We were joined by Ellen Richmond, an American on a one-year journey around the world, and Mikias Padia, our guide. Mikias spent the night organizing drivers, permits and guards while Gareth, Graham, Ellen and I spent our time at a bar excitedly talking about the trip ahead. We thought it would be a relaxing night of camping, drinking and throwing things into a volcano.

We couldn’t have been more wrong.

We began early in the morning. Within an hour the view had changed abruptly. Green fields turned to rocky desert, paved roads to pockmarked paths, and idyllic villages to ramshackle Chinese construction camps. The thick, cool morning air was replaced with the parching dryness of scathing, dusty winds, adding harshness to an already bleak landscape.

Dirt roads and dusty villages eventually gave way to sandy expanses broken by ridges of jagged volcanic rock. We were deep in the depression, and could already feel the effect of the heat. The car was sweltering, and our supply of water was rapidly heating to the point of being undrinkable. The sun was beginning to affect us all, particularly Mikias.

We reached base camp by midafternoon. Like every other settlement we encountered, the car was immediately surrounded by curious locals. But unlike the excited and friendly smiles we normally received, the Afar were reserved and guarded.

We took shelter from the desert sun under the tin roof of a cinderblock hut while Mikias negotiated passage with the chief. Slowly the villagers overcame their mistrust and came to sit with us, playing with my camera and happily posing for photos with our sunglasses on. After a couple hours we set off again, driving across the cracked earth towards the hazy outlines of distant mountains.

Within five minutes one jeep had become mired in mud. The drivers demanded that we return to base camp. If we wanted to make it to the volcano, it would be by camel in the evening when the sun had set. We spent the next several hours waiting for the camel herders to bring their animals in from the desert. As the sun dipped below the horizon, we embarked on what we were told was a three-hour trek to the volcano.

Six hours later the situation had rapidly deteriorated. Mikias’ health had worsened to the point of delirium, and he had turned back almost immediately with part of the caravan. The four of us, along with five camels and the eight remaining Afar carried on. We had six herders and guides, as well as two armed police officers for escorts, and not one of them spoke a word of English.

Our water supply was also being rapidly exhausted. We all were beginning to suffer from heat exhaustion, and calculated that we would not have enough water to make it back to camp, even in the relatively cool 30 degrees of the night.

With no plan B, and no way of contacting the outside world, we decided to carry on.

We reached an abandoned village at the base of the volcano. We spent another four hours slowly climbing to the top, crossing a surreal, moonlit expanse reminiscent of an alien world. The unending slope finally gave way to the lip of the mountain. Gareth led the final charge and we crested the peak.

The basin we encountered glowed a forbidding orange tinged with gently curling smoke. We climbed down towards the lava pool, walking on papery volcanic rock that frequently collapsed under our weight. We were met at the edge by a blast of heat and nauseous fumes from the bubbling crater. Standing as close as we dared, we tossed in the few items we had brought: a can of deodorant, a dreadlock and a gold ring.

We only spent ten minutes at the volcano. The sun was rising quickly, and we needed to make it to the abandoned village to take shelter from the midday heat. The mood was triumphant but muted on the descent,our accomplishment tempered by severe dehydration and uncertainty. We had been walking for more than 12 hours on what was supposed to be a three-hour hike. We had only a few litres of water each, and everyone was desperate for anything cold.

Finding the land rovers waiting for us at the bottom of the mountain was indescribable. Having recovered somewhat, Mikias had found a way through the mud to pick us up halfway back. It had been 16 hours, and we were exhausted. Above all, we needed to cool down.

A few hours later we found ourselves in a large village halfway back to Mek’ele. We stopped at a small café for lunch. Sitting on tiny goatskin stools in the squalid confines of the mud structure, our hostess ladled water over several bottle of lukewarm Coke before serving us.

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