A Quick trip to Hell in Ethiopia
Story and photos by James Michael Dorsey

In a land where one security guard per person is a requirement, a hike to the summit of a live volcano adds an extra layer of danger.

Ethiopia travel

All six gunmen arrived at sunset, bought and paid for, and all we had to do was choose who would go with whom. Moussa squatted in the sand, chin to his knees, his opal eyes taking in everything, darting back and forth. He pulled a blade and began to sharpen it on a stone next to him and I remember wondering as I chose him whether he would protect me or kill me. He was quite small as Afar tribesmen go and the way he moved made me think of a feral predator.

I had received the call only two weeks prior from our friend, a volcanologist for NASA at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. She was going to study a rare shield volcano in the northern Ethiopian desert and wanted me to go and write about it. Three other planetary scientists would join us, and my wife, Irene, never one to be left behind, signed on immediately.

Afar guns

We were going to the Danakil, home of people known as "The Afar."

The Afar were first mentioned in the great book Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger, who crossed their land in 1935. He called them murderous thugs. By the mid-20th century there were numerous reports of them castrating trespassers on their land. This scary reputation aside, they were also known for their kind treatment of animals, especially their camels, and for keeping their word to the death once it was given. This latter attribute would save my life.

They stayed pretty much off the international grid until 1998 when Eritrea and Ethiopia fought a stalemated war on their land and since that time they have had almost complete autonomy as a buffer between the two uneasy nations due to their violent nature. They are single handedly credited with keeping Al Qaeda from crossing the Red Sea from Yemen into this part of Africa. Their homeland, in the Danakil depression, is one of the hottest and most barren wildernesses on earth. There they pay homage to local caliphs and recognize no other government. Our destination, the Era Ale volcano, vents its wrath from the center of Afar land.

No Backup Back Home

I did not know until we had arrived that NASA had refused funding and support labeling the journey "too dangerous" and so we were on our own. It was then that our expedition made a deal with the devil to cross into hell. The Afar offered us access to the volcano provided we hire one of them for each of us to act as security.


From the capital of Addis Ababa we flew northeast to the city of Mekele, still recovering from Eritrean bombing, and from there a ten hour drive by Land Rover, past countless artillery craters, into the Danakil brought us to the Afar outpost of Dodom. It is a rambling shanty town of home- made huts populated by sarong-wearing young men with Kalashnikov rifles slung lazily across their shoulders. Money changed hands, loyalty oaths were exchanged, and we were escorted to stone huts to await our night ascent of the volcano.

Irene has one good eye and the trail, such as it was, being razor sharp stratified magma, made us decide that she would ride a camel while the rest of us would go on foot. Our escorts arrived at sunset, and that is when I chose Moussa.

Irene camel

Over Sharp Rocks in the Dark

Irene mounted her camel and was led off by her gunman as the rest of us fell into a single file to negotiate the boot lacerating terrain under a moonless night. Our headlamps, bouncing off volcanic boulders, cast dancing shadows all about, accentuating the eerie ambiance of the evening. It was viciously hot and the earth trembled as we walked up the volcano's flank, a mere 600 feet in altitude gain over six miles, to reach the churning cauldron of the bubbling lake at the summit.

The Afar moved like wraiths and within minutes our group was spread over a vast area of the slope, hidden from each other by massive boulders. Irene was out of my sight and I was questioning the importance of our being there. In the dark blankness Moussa would disappear for minutes at a time and then my headlamp would pick him up, squatting on a boulder, eyeing me like a cat ready to pounce.

My breath came harder with each step, which I chalked up to advancing age and three plus decades of remote exploration, but after two more hours I could go no further and collapsed, sucking air in great gasps. I assumed it was a heart attack and remember looking up at the stars as the earth rumbled under me and thinking it was such a beautiful place to die.

I don't remember how long I laid there and I may have passed out until I found myself looking into the barrel of an automatic rifle.

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Vanishing Tales from Ancient Trails

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Tears, Fear and Adventure

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