Lava-filled volcanic cauldrons, gem-like crater lakes, and steaming vents are among the many reminders of the violent tectonic forces that have molded – and continue to shape parts of – the Ethiopian landscape.
Ethiopia’s most spectacular volcano is Erta Ale, the ‘Smoking Mountain’ of the Afar, whose 613m-high caldera of crumbling black rock contains the oldest of the world’s six semi-permanent lava lakes. Bubbling at temperatures of more than 1,000˚C, this ellipsoid cauldron of black-and-red magma is a truly mesmerizing phenomenon, as violent red fountains of molten rock spurt tens of meters in the sky, accompanied by nose-searing waves of ammonia gas.
Set in the Danakil Desert, Erta Ale is reached along a shadeless 10km footpath that can be treacherously hot in full daylight. For this reason, it is conventional to ascend the volcano in the late afternoon, sleep at the top, then return to the base early the next morning.
Also in the Danakil, Dallol is a flat-sided volcano that formed in 1926 when an area of standing water was infused with emergent magma to evaporate instantaneously in an explosive plume of steam and rock. At its center lies a staggeringly beautiful field of multicolored geysers fed by the world’s lowest-lying volcanic vents, at 50m below sea level.
Erta Ale and Dallol aside, the Danakil is among the most tectonically active regions on the planet, with more than 30 active volcanoes protruding from its fault lines. These include Gada Ale, a prominent stratovolcano enclosing a lake of boiling sulfur and mud, and the 429m Mount Allu, which most recently erupted in 2008.
Other prominent relicts of volcanic activity in Ethiopia include Mount Fantelle, whose steep crater towers over the lava-strewn plains of Awash National Park, and a field of beautiful crater lakes at Bishoftu, only an hour’s drive east of Addis Ababa.