A recent eruption in January 2017 created a new pit crater and lava lake on the Southeast flank of the caldera which is currently inaccessible to tourists. The eruption caused the lava in the existing crater to sink deeper into the chamber, meaning the lava is rarely visible through the smoke, regardless of wind direction or time of day.
Erta Ale is a basaltic shield volcano rising 613 metres out of the Danakil Depression. The volcano contains an active lava lake, which means the lava in the crater remains liquid due to convection currents of the magma system underneath. Visually, the result is a thin charcoal crust that’s pierced by glowing red fissures of searing liquid lava. The lava spits and splatters, and the lack of guard rails at the crater rim means you can peer directly into the fiery belly, known locally as the ‘gateway to hell’.
The gently rising slopes of Erta Ale crescendo to a 1700 x 600 metre caldera dotted with pit craters containing the lava lake.
Erta Ale is found in the Danakil Depression in Ethiopia's Afar region. Summiting Erta Ale is to traverse through one of the world’s most challenging environments. The searing heat of the Danakil means the volcano can only be climbed in the evening as the sun sets, and descended in the very early hours of the morning.
The vast majority of excursions into the Danakil commence at the Tigrayan town of Mekele where you meet your group and pile into Toyota Landcruisers that carry you into the desert in convoy. Your exact route will depend on whether you’re visiting Erta Ale on day one, or whether you’ll first be stopping at Dallol.
The local Afar people are the gatekeepers to Erta Ale, and so your first port of call is a stop-off at the local village Kusawad to pay the chief his dime. From here, you’ll press on to the base camp, Dodom, which lies 10km from Erta Ale.
After dinner at Dodom you begin the trek to the crater rim at around 7PM. While the sun may disappear behind the horizon, the heat of the Danakil lingers and the trek shouldn’t be underestimated. After 3-4 hours, you reach the summit.
Total Trek Distance: 10km each way
Duration: 3-4 hours
Fitness Level Required: Low
Note: it’s possible to rent a camel to carry you to the top of the volcano.
Sleeping and Eating
The sleeping arrangements atop Erta Ale are as basic as they come. Camels transport mattresses up the volcano to the nearby ‘campsite’ adjacent to the crater rim, along with a thin blanket and additional water. The campsite is a matrix of stone walls creating artificial ‘rooms’ hosting up to three travellers each. Being just dozens of metres from the crater rim means there is a significant amount of residual smoke lingering in the air, and the temperatures hover around 25°C at night.
All food is provided for you during a Danakil expedition. Dinner is served around 7PM at the base camp Dodom and breakfast is served there the following morning after the trek back down the volcano. Some small snacks are brought up for some energy before the 5AM descent, but it’s worth bringing some extra nibbles to see you through until breakfast at Dodom.
Safety and Preperation
Erta Ale is a force of nature and preparedness is crucial to making the most out of such an extraordinary, but challenging, destination. All Brilliant travellers will receive a comprehensive kit list for surviving the Danakil before departure.
The hike up Erta Ale should not be underestimated. Although the ascent follows a modest gradient, the length of the hike (3-4 hours) coupled with the intense climate can make for a somewhat challenging trek. Sturdy trekking shoes are an absolute must as the cooled lava is razor-sharp and the surface uneven.
The smoke from Erta Ale is thick and ever-present, and all visitors peering over the crater edge do so wrapped protectively in make-shift masks to prevent excessive smoke inhalation. Those who are asthmatic, or otherwise particularly sensitive to smoke, should bring inhalers and be vigilant of spending too much time at the crater rim.
The Afar region and the Ethiopian-Eritrean border has been fraught with tensions over the years, with tribal violence between Afar people not uncommon. Relationships have drastically improved of late and all excursion to the Danakil come accompanied by armed scouts. There is now a permanent military outpost on the rim of Erta Ale to provide additional protection to tourists. Whilst tourists have been victims of violence in the region in the past, the contemporary threat is low, although it is more risky than other areas of Ethiopia.
Get Prepared with Brilliant
Traversing such a remote and inhospitable region comes with a number of challenges. The key to travelling safely and getting the most out of your visit is knowing what to expect so you can plan appropriately. Our experts will talk you through all aspects of travelling in the Danakil Depression, recommend the kit to bring, and take care of all the travel logistics.
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