Ethiopia's Door to Hell

Introducing Erta Ale Volcano

Erta Ale
Robert Schrader

If you're up on the latest travel information—and, particularly, off-the-wall travel information—you've probably heard of Turkmenistan's "Door to Hell" (also known as the "Gate to Hell"), a gassy inferno that's been burning for as long as stories of a fiery final resting place for the wicked have haunted the Earth. This place is alluring, no doubt, but requires not only an expensive tour upon arrival in Turkmenistan, but the very expensive journey there to begin with, and all the logistical nightmares that come with travel in Central Asia.

To non-travelers, Ethiopia probably seems just as difficult to visit as Turkmenistan, although as I've described here, parts of it are actually quite easy. Certainly, you need an organized tour to visit Erta Ale Volcano, Ethiopia's answer to Turkmenistan's gassy inferno, although the costs and headaches associated with doing so are much less than you'd face in Central Asia. Continue to the last section of this article if you're interested in traveling to Erta Ale, and I'll break it down for you!

The rest of you, please enjoy the pretty pictures and the stories I'm about to tell.

Erta Ale: The Story

In fact, the story of Erta Ale—as locals tell it, anyway—is not particularly intriguing, at least not in the beginning. The phrase "Erta Ale," you see, means "Smoking Mountain," a rather innocuous moniker that could be ascribed to most any volcano in the world.

Although some websites report that the local Afar people (from whose language the translation to "Smoking Mountain" derives) are the ones who came up with the "Door to Hell" or "Gateway to Hell" names, it seems impossible to verify this using a source of any prestigiousness.

Indeed, it would seem more likely that an unaffiliated person, either one of the scientists who discovered the volcano in 1906 or one of the tourism professionals who has since attempted to sell tours here, decided it would be a good marketing tactic, whether or not they knew about Erta Ale's sister hell-door (which is actually not a volcano at all) when they chose it.

Erta Ale: The Science

And yet while most volcanoes on Earth are indeed smoking mountains, the fact is that Erta Ale is unique. The feature that creates the illusion of a door to hell, you see, is colloquially known as a "persistent lava lake," and is found on only four other volcanoes in the world: Ambrym, in the island nation of Vanuatu; Mount Erebus, on Ross Island in Antarctica; Kilauea on the Big Island of Hawaii; and Nyiragongo in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

(Actually, if we're going to get technical, Erta Ale has two lava lakes, but due to the treacherousness of hiking its summit, tourist expeditions generally only visit one of them.)

Another interesting fact about Erta Ale is that it is Ethiopia's most active volcano, which makes sense once you travel in the country, which features some of the oldest mountains in Africa—The Semiens. With this being said, it is unlikely that an eruption of harmful scale would ever occur, certainly that it would happen with tourists at the top. The last major eruption of Erta Ale was in 2005, during which only livestock fell victim to its fury.

How to Visit Erta Ale

Erta Ale is located in Ethiopia's Danakil Depression, an extremely low (I'm talking "below sea level" low!) portion of the country located in its northeastern corner. It's not so much Danakil's low elevation, but how much lower it is than the rest of the country, which sits on a 2,000-or-so meter plateau, that makes the region and its landscapes seem so incredibly bizarre.

I bring up the larger Danakil Depression, because unless you book a completely private tour (translation to Amharic: $$$$$$), you'll need to see Erta Ale as part of a tour to the entire depression, and usually at the end of it. Other destinations on the tour include the sulfur fields at Dallol, one of the hottest places on Earth, as well as some salt flats and other strange attractions. Costs vary—and can be bartered for—but generally run around 600 USD for a four-day tour. 

(NOTE: If these costs seem high, keep in mind they include a military escort, which is necessary thanks to the authoritarian government of Ethiopia's neighbor country Eritrea killing tourists back in 2012. Although the military members who travel with you are less than convincing in their fierceness—they wear jelly sandals, for one—they're better than certain death at the hands of Eritrean terrorists.)

Once you arrive at Erta Ale (which, again, should happen on the third day of your four-day tour), you'll take a three-hour, mostly-dark hike to the top of the volcano, where you will eat dinner and camp. You'll spend about an hour at the actual Door to Hell (and I mean at the door to hell, closer than you'd ever be allowed in a country with any sort of safety laws) before sleeping, then you'll wake up an hour before dawn to watch the sunrise over the fiery pit, before hiking back down and heading back to Mekele, the nearest city.

It is technically possible to visit Erta Ale all year round, although general travel in northern Ethiopia is difficult between June and September, i.e. the rainy season. Although rain rarely falls heavily enough in the Danakil Depression to jeopardize travel plans, your difficulty during certain times of the year will be getting to Mekele itself.