Erta Ale

One of the hottest places on Earth


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Erta Ale volcano, Ethiopia

GPS: 13.607085579904, 40.661888293918

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The Erta Ale volcano is one of the most active geological sites in the world. It is located in a very arid region of the Horn of Africa (including the countries of Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia) favourable to the movement of tectonic plates. For a very long time, earth cracks show the constant displacement and progressive separation of the Somali Plate from the African Plate. These slow changes have led to the formation of faults, mountains, volcanoes, lakes and significant geothermal activity in the Great Rift Valley as Africa moves away from Arabia and Asia.

Erta Ale is located in northern Ethiopia, in the Danakil Desert (part of the Afar Triangle or Depression). In contact with the earth’s crust, this hostile zone is reputed to be the hottest place on the planet. Erta Ale is a large, effusive shield volcano that has had the distinction of hosting a permanent lava lake for over a century. Unlike explosive type volcanoes, Erta Ale generates fluid lava flows that can extend for miles and form lakes of molten lava. Its very active basalt massif is also known as “the gateway to Hell” because of its continuous eruptions of magma that can exceed 1,200 °C in temperature. Depending on the volcanic activity of the volcano, its reserve of magma visible on the surface can solidify or liquefy, occasionally clogging the crater. Locally known as the “smoking mountain”, Erta Ale remains a constant threat to the nomadic Afar populations and their herds (goats, sheep, zebus, camels). The inhabitants of the region have nevertheless learned to live in this inhospitable area. They exploit grazing areas and huge salt deposits several hundred metres thick which they transport by camel caravan to the nearest towns for trade.

Characterized by its low altitude (just over 610 metres above sea level) and impressive diameter (over 30 kilometres), the Erta Ale volcano was only discovered by Europeans at the end of the 19th century. It has attracted the interest of volcanologists since the 1960s. Despite its difficult access, local geopolitical tensions and the risk of eruptions, this natural site is attracting more and more visitors eager to observe its lake of molten lava. When it experiences sustained eruptive activity, the Erta Ale volcano can generate two lava lakes and overflow copiously into the caldera.

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  • A major volcano that has been erupting continuously since 1967; the quasi-permanent spectacle of molten magma; volcanic and eruptive activity regularly modifying the structural landscapes of Erta Ale
  • The lake of bubbling lava with a reddish glow
  • The shows of the waves, lava flows and fountains; the ancient lava fields
  • The elliptical caldera of the volcano hosting two circular craters
  • Numerous hot springs and salt crusts nearby
  • A visit to the village of Dodom; the culture of the Afar tribes
  • Hikes on the caldera (large crater corresponding to a collapsed volcano); camel treks in the Afar Desert and its lunar scenery; the stunning landscapes of the Danakil depression inside the Afar Triangle (red volcanoes, acid pools, fumaroles, geysers, hot springs and thermal baths, concretions, fairy chimneys…)
  • Lakes Afrera, Bakili and Karoum (salt lakes about 30 kilometres from the Erta Ale volcano)
  • The surrounding volcanoes of the Great Rift Valley (Gada Ale, Alu-Dala Filla, Ale Bagu, Hayli Gub and Borale Ale)
  • Probably born 30 million years ago, the Erta Ale volcano produces a spectacular natural spectacle. It is constantly changing and evolving according to the underground activity of the volcano and the amount of magma that rises from its depths.
  • The activity of Erta Ale is sustained by the movements of three distinct tectonic plates (Nubian, Somali and Arabian) in a process that began millions of years ago. In the very long term, this region could form a new ocean basin (the Horn of Africa and the Somali plate will separate from the rest of the African continent). All the volcanoes located in the Great Rift Valley reveal the presence of active faults in East Africa.
  • Erta Ale is one of 77 active volcanoes in Ethiopia (out of a total of 182 active volcanoes in Africa, the densest volcanic area on the continent).
  • The Danakil Depression (northern part of the Afar Triangle) is 125 metres below sea level. It is regularly cited as the cradle of mankind (the fossil of Australopithecus Lucy, estimated to be 3.2 million years old, was found on this plain in 1974).
  • The Afar people traditionally consider the Erta Ale volcano to be a place frequented by evil spirits mounted on horses.
  • Only 3 of the world’s 600 volcanoes have a permanent lava lake: in addition to Erta Ale, there are Mount Nyiragongo (Democratic Republic of Congo) and Mount Erebus (Antarctica). Kīlauea in Hawaii (United States) had two permanent lava lakes until they disappeared in 2018. Other volcanoes generate temporary lava lakes depending on eruptive activity.
  • The Erta Ale region and the border area between Eritrea and Ethiopia are particularly unstable and even dangerous. They are regularly under the threat of conflict or civil war (as is the case with the neighbouring Tigray Province). In 2012, armed men attacked a group of tourists and scientists causing five victims. A German visitor, having made the decision to travel independently, was killed at the end of 2017. These events led the Ethiopian army to deploy on the ground to accompany any access to the volcano. Each expedition must therefore be organized by a certified travel agency, which must be militarily escorted.
  • The period from November to January is the best time to explore this desert area and it is at nightfall that the light show takes on a meditative dimension.
  • To reach your destination, it is a 5-hour drive from the town of Mekele and a 3-4 hour hike from the village of Dodom. A newly paved road now makes it possible to get as close to the lava lake as possible in a motorized vehicle. On the way, you may be able to enjoy the hot waters and thermal springs around the geological site of Dallol.
  • Make sure you are equipped with protective gear against the dangerous gases of the Erta Ale volcano and the toxic fumes of the Danakil desert. The floor of the caldera, composed of a thin crust of solidified lava, may become crumbly under your weight. It is therefore necessary to progress with caution and to respect the instructions of your guide.
  • In view of the heat in this unfriendly region, make sure you have plenty of protection from the sun and bring enough of water with you (and a cooler to keep it at good temperature).

Where to eat

  • Geza Gerlase
    (local cuisine)
  • Black Rose
    (trendy address)
  • Karibu Kitchen
    (very good pizzas)

Where to go

  • Dallol Volcano
    (martian landscapes)
  • Rock Hewn Churches of Tigray
    (building wonders)
  • Lake Karum
    (open-pit salt mine)

Where to stay

  • Atse Yohannes Hotel
    (on the road to Erta Ale)
  • Desta International Hotel
    (in the centre of Mekele)
  • Planet Hotel
    (advanced equipment)