Erta Ale and Dallol, 2002

A retrospective by Richard Roscoe

in deustch

Erta Ale shield volcano is located in the Danakil Depression in NE Ethiopia, which due to its remote location, extreme climate and the presence of often hostile Afar tribesmen, is only infrequently visited.  Recently, renewed tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea have further complicate travel in the area.

Purely by chance, whilst on Stromboli in spring 2001, I overheard Roberto Carniel (of Stromboli online) talking about a possible expedition to the volcano.  The expedition was being organized by Roberto in collaboration with Luigi Cantamessa of Geodecouverte, who via his local contacts could organize the necessary logistical support.  Obviously, when I was offered the possibility to join, the decision was an easy one.

Finally, in February 2002 the volcanologists and photographers making up the group assembled in Adis Abeba and then flew N with Ethiopian Airlines to Makele.  At the time, Makele had a tiny terminal complex, basically consisting of 3 sheds, housing restaurant, toilets an the check-in counter, although a larger terminal was already being built.  Makele airport also has a large military section, due to the proximity to the Eritrean border.  After a night in Makele, we returned to the airport, where an Ethiopian Military Mi-8 transport helicopter awaited us to ferry the group in two batches to Erta Ale.  The flight initially passed mountainous terrain which then rapidly fell away as we reaching the Danakil depression and approached Erta Ale.

1a  1b  1c  1d

After briefly flying over the volcano (Fig.1a) the helicopter finally landed on lava flows emplaced in the 1970s near to the active pit crater (Fig.1b).  Camp had already been set up, including a cooking niche in a small crevace covered by a plastic sheet, and a dining area consisting of a ground sheet and suspended tarpaulin to keep the sun off (Fig.1c).  Sleeping arrangements were simple, with participants just looking for flattish areas in the vicinity to spread out their small foam mattresses.  Simple, but what more could one want (apart from at times a large ventilator to blow away biting fumarole gases which occasionally were blown over the camping area  ;-)…).   Since it doesn’t rain at this time of year, there was no need for any canvas to spoil the fantastic nighttime view of the clear starlit sky.  The camp was guarded by armed Afar policemen who are needed to protect against hostile tribesmen (Fig.1d)

2 2 2c

2d  2e  2f

The rim of the pit crater can be approached easily, yet due the risk of collapse it was wise to attach oneself to a safety rope laid parallel to the crater rim when spending lengthy periods observing the lava lake.  The lake presented itself about 80 m below us as expected, with a semi-solid crust which moved around, folded, tore apart (Fig.2a, 2b, 2c).  The motion resembles a high speed model of plate techtonics and has indeed often been used to illustrate this on documentary programs.  Occasionally, one or more lava fountains could be observed breaking through the crust of the lake (Fig.2d, 2e).  Activity was irregular, with active phases of up to three or four simultaneous fountains being followed by periods of relative calm.  As a result of the fountaining activity, Peles hairs were deposited around the edge of the pit (Fig.2f).

3a  3b  3c

Although the active pit was the main attraction, other points of interest were the larger inactive N pit (Fig.3a) and a tiny central inactive pit (Fig.3b). Fumarole activity was centered N of the active pit and minor fumarole activity was also found at the top of the N flank of the volcano near a small inactive hornito, presumably dating from the 1970s.  Whilst the photographers focussed on the visible activity, the volcanologists also set up instrumentation to measure the seismic activity.  Fig.3c shows Josh working by his seismometers.

4 4 4 4d

After several days the helicopter returned with additional supplies and the crew was surprised when we boarded in expectation of a scenic flight to the south of the volcano.  After some confusion, it turned out that the helicopter didn’t have enough fuel to make the trip and after some discussion the crew returned to Makele to fill up the tanks.  After its return, we finally took off and headed south, passing Hayli Gubbi volcano (Fig.4a), numerous small rift zones and craters (Fig.4b), and the lakeside Borawli volcano (Fig.4c), before returning to Erta Ale (Fig.4d).

5 5 5c

5d  5e  5f

After a couple more days of lava lake observation, the helicopter returned again and we crammed everyone and the luggage into it before setting off in a northerly direction to make a brief 24 hr visit to the Dallol hot springs.  En route, we passed Borale Ale (Fig.5a), Dalaffilla (Fig.5b),  Alu (Fig.5c) and Gada Ale (Fig.5d) volcanoes and the Elizabeth Cone (Fig.5e) that rise from the salt planes of the depression, before hovering over the deserted italian mining town (Fig.5f) and landing in the midst of the springs (Fig.5g). 

6 6 6

Dallol was last significantly shaped by phreatic eruptions recorded in 1926.  Currently, activity is in the form of hot brine springs.  Salts washed out of the underlying layers are transported to the surface by geothermally heated water and rapidly crystallize as the water evaporate.  The characteristic white, yellow and red colours are apparently the result of sulphur and different potassium salts.  Dallol is located on top of an at least 1000m thick layer of quaternary evaporates including large potash (potassium salt) reserves.  Most of the potash is in the form of sylvite (KCl), but carnallite and kainite are also reported. The deposit is highly stratified with the main sylvite-bearing zones being between 15 and 40m in thickness and total recoverable sylvite estimated at around 60 million tonnes.  Small-scale mining in the Dallol area occurred in 1917 and 1927 and a small italian mining settlement was set up at Dallol in the 1930s and was operational until shortly before british troops arrived in 1941.  The US Parsons company performed exploration work in the vicinity of Dallol in the 1960s, yet all work was stopped in 1967.  However, in 1997, Norsk Hydro A/S aquired exclusive rights to the Dallol deposit, so it is possible that mining operations could be resumed in the near future.

6d  6e  6f

Although at first puzzled by the idea of leaving behind a lava lake to go and see some hot springs, I rapidly wished we could stay longer.  In spite of temperatures reaching 44 degrees C, little use was made of the tarpaulin offered as sun protection and reels of film were being used up fast.  Dallol is simply stunning and unlike at Yellowstone you can walk right up to the springs.  Unfortunately, my canon EOS 50 (and sony video camera which packed up shortly afterwards) didn’t take at all kindly to the high temperatures and exposure to the sun.  Most photos were unuseably underexposed as a result since the light meter located near the top of the camera apparently malfunctions if grilled (they could have mentioned that in the instructions ;-)))..).  Fortunately, a few photos which are shown here were made with the backup EOS500N camera.  The photos show various hot springs with their fantastic intense white, yellow and red colourations (Fig.6a-f).


After spending a night at Dallol, the helicopter returned to pick us up and fly us to Makele.  There, the group split and three of us headed off by 4WD vehicle to look at some of the other attractions Ethiopia has to offer before returning home.  These included various churches built high on (or in) rocks in the north of the country (Fig.7a), Axum with its famous Steles (Fig.7b), the royal palace complex at Gondar (Fig.7c), the Blue Nile Falls and the unique monolithic churches at Lalibela (Fig.7d).  Without wanting to go into further detail here, I would highly recommend extending any Erta Ale visit to get an impression of the country as a whole.

7 7 7d

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Erta Ale and Dallol tour, 2008 oder 2011


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