‘Gateway to Hell’: On the Rim of Ethiopia’s Most Active Volcano

April 5, 2018 Updated: June 12, 2018

My connection to Africa runs deep.

My Genoese uncle, Zio Alfredo, served in Ethiopia during the Italian occupation in the 1930s. Growing up, my mother recounted stories about Zio’s regard for Ethiopian culture and disgust with colonialism.

Years later, my uncle met an African-American lieutenant from Texas who was stationed in Italy during World War II. Zio invited the Texan to a family gathering and introduced him to my mother. They married in a tiny church overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and eventually moved to Washington, D.C., where I was born.

I’d been on an African trajectory, dashing off to photographic safaris across the southern half of the continent. I knew Ethiopia possessed the allure of a land associated with my origins. Ethiopians I’d met told me I looked Ethiopian. I decided to go.

I booked a month-long road trip. Ephrem met me in Bahar Dar, an hour’s flight north of Addis Ababa, in a Toyota Land Cruiser. We time-traveled through the fourth-century home of the Ark of the Covenant in Axum, the ancient walled city of Harar Jugol, Lalibela’s 12th-century rock-hewn churches, and medieval castles in Gondar.

We barreled up the Afro-alpine Simien peaks and cruised down to the Rift Valley lake region. Between the icy plateau and misty rainforest of the Bale Mountains, I realized I had visited six of Ethiopia’s nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

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With Ephrem at the wheel, we drove through lively villages congested with mules, tuk-tuks, and a steady procession of pedestrians. (Giannella M. Garrett)

 The Hottest Place on Earth

Nothing compared, though, to the remote, otherworldly desert landscape of the Danakil Depression in the northeastern Afar Region, near the disputed Eritrean border.

I joined a group led by an operator specialized in the volatile area. We squeezed into a convoy of 4x4s with our guide, a cook, armed guards, and enough supplies to last four days.

The drive felt like a descent into a desiccated seascape. Four hundred feet below sea level, with furnace-like temperatures and fewer than six inches of annual rainfall, Danakil is known as the lowest, hottest, and driest place on Earth.

We drove past sprawling stretches of white-crusted saline pans. We walked, at our own risk, alongside steamy sulfurous geysers, over acid pools, and around salt formations in glowing mineral colors.

We arrived at base camp, a dusty settlement amid an ocean of licorice-black stone as the sun sank behind a ridge. I watched another group load camels with mattresses and jugs of water. In the distance, Erta Ale, whose name means “Smoking Mountain” in the local language, exhaled plumes of ash.

Expeditions encouraged setting out after sunset and returning before dawn, with a night spent on the 2,011-foot summit. After changing into hiking boots and piles of sweaters for the chilly ascent, I sat down to dinner.

Among our group of nine was a quiet Dutchman with an upset stomach and an expat Eritrean-born father and son. The dad and I were the oldest, I guessed.

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Camels prepare to be loaded with supplies in front of basecamp huts, constructed with lava stone and thatched roofs. (Giannella M. Garrett)
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Loading tablets of salt onto camels for the trek to market. (Giannella M. Garrett)

Down but Not Out

An hour later, everyone was leaping up the mountain like gazelles released into the wild. I scrambled over the crumbling rocks and rough scabs of hardened lava to keep up.

A full moon illuminated the sky, but the horizon was an inky sea. The pace felt brisker than I had expected. Without daylight views, everyone seemed intent on bolting for the peak.

When my headlamp made my head throb, I shoved it down so it hung around my neck. The lunar-like landscape that crunched beneath my feet beamed into focus. I regained my zest, dashing to the front. Further ahead, our guide, Haile, and the expat dad sprinted up the rocky slope like Olympians.

The next minute, I went crashing down on a chunk of razor-sharp lava, chin first. My tooth tore into my lower lip. Blood oozed, lava-like, down my chin. The group huddled around me, offering sterile wipes, invitations to carry my backpack, and sympathy.

Shaken and embarrassed, I struggled to recall what made me want to climb a volcano—the world’s oldest lava lake. Photographs of Erta Ale’s stunning caldera, brimming in liquid flames, had compelled my journey to this inaccessible, inhospitable place.

My self-image as a fit, intrepid world traveler was disintegrating into volcanic ash. Could I finish this trek? I pressed a wad of wipes against my lip and decided to keep going.

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Led by our guide, Haile, we carefully stepped over clusters of dazzling mineral-tinted salt crystals above acidic pools and miniature geysers in the hydrothermal fields of the Dallol volcano. (Giannella M. Garrett)

Reaching the Rim

Three hours later, parallel with the volcano’s crest, I fought off exhaustion, anticipating imminent arrival. A 30-foot cliff of loose stones plunged beneath us. “Only 20 minutes more,” promised Haile, pointing to the bottom and an incline of fresh, brittle lava beyond.

I hunkered down on a boulder next to the descent to recalibrate.

A guard with a rifle strapped around his shoulder said, “Let’s go.”

“I’m staying here,” I replied.

He herded the others down the steep incline.

I beheld the crimson aura, content to relax and enjoy the solitude. A group returning from the lake clambered up the incline, tittering with excitement, and disappeared to the camping area. A man from the group joined me on my boulder.

“How was it?” I asked.

“Better than I imagined. You should go see.”

“Tomorrow morning, maybe.”

He urged me not to miss it and said goodnight.

A voice broke the silence. Roy, who had felt ill earlier, was asking a guard if he would accompany us to the lake. To my surprise, he had remained here, too.

The group cheered when we appeared. I peered into the crumbling rim. Blood-orange magma surged up the caldera’s walls. Fountains of fiery liquid lit the sky. The locals call it the “Gateway to Hell.”

Back home a month later, I still feel the scar inside my lip from my tumble. “When one has been injured by a country,” wrote Irish writer Dervla Murphy after she’d fallen down a thorny cliff while traveling through Ethiopia in the 1970s, “then one has arrived.”

I had, indeed, arrived, and looked into the gates of Hell.

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The red-hot liquid stew thickened and rose, moving like a tidal wave, topped off by a fireworks of crashing surf. (Giannella M. Garrett)
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Camel caravans continue to carry slabs of salt to market, a week’s journey in searing temperatures, across the salt flats of the Danakil Depression as they have for 2,000 years. (Giannella M. Garrett)
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The glow from Erta Ale’s lava lake airbrushes the sinking sun in crimson and tangerine. (Giannella M. Garrett)
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A camel relaxes at base camp after the early morning trek down Erta Ale. (Giannella M. Garrett)
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The fortress city of Fasil Ghebbi in Gondar is known as Ethiopia’s Camelot and boasts 16th- and 17th-century palaces and castles. (Giannella M. Garrett)
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One of the colorful homes in the seventh-century walled city of Harar Jugol, a UNESCO World Heritage site. (Giannella M. Garrett)
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The spectacular sandstone cliffs of eastern Tigrai. About 150 ancient rock-hewn churches carved into cliffs like this have been discovered in the region. (Giannella M. Garrett)
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Simien Mountains National Park, with its precipitous cliffs and deep river valleys, is home to Ethiopia’s highest peak, Ras Dejen, which rises 14,872 feet. (Giannella M. Garrett)

Giannella M. Garrett writes about travel and culture. She will be returning to Africa this year.