The natural born pyromaniac in me edges closer still, despite the increasingly unbearable heat emanating from the pit directly in front of me. If it feels as though I am a willing co-voyager on Jules Verne’s Journey To The Centre Of The Earth, about to descend deep into the earth’s bowels, then it is probably because I am as close to experiencing life in the planet’s core as I ever will be. I am standing on the very edge of the world’s longest-existing permanent lava lake, drawn like a moth to an incandescent pool of bubbling magma. An unwitting smile spreads across my face as my immediate unconscious reaction is to think of the first company to offer me gainful employment: once a lava lover, always a lava lover.

 The Danakil Depression in Ethiopia’s northern Afar province contains some of the most inhospitable terrain on the planet and justifiably earns the accolade of hottest place on earth. It is also home to two of its most astonishing geological features: Erta’ Ale volcano and the Dallol sulphur springs. In an eight vehicle expedition convoy of intrepid adventurers, experienced guides and local armed escort to deter potential bandit attacks near the disputed Eritrean border, I set out to visit what every single backpacker encountered in this stupendous country has enthusiastically and convincingly described as the highlight of their Ethiopian trip. They were not wrong.

Given the somewhat unconventional nature of our destination and the potential security hazards involved (hello voided travel insurance policy!), it is no surprise to note that the vast majority of the group are fellow battle-hardened travel veterans: a French couple in their sixties whose first trip in 1971 was to drive a 2CV from Paris to Afghanistan; a German retiree who set off for Africa from Munich in his Landrover four years ago and is still bouncing around the continent after thirty-five countries and sixteen broken gearboxes; a veritable plethora of long-term round-the-world backpackers; and yours truly, the self-styled lucky bastard escaping the clutches of the real world for as long as possible. The four hour nightfall hike to the volcano summit passes by in a flurry of excitable exchanges of travel anecdotes, but as a subtle orange glow finally comes into view in the dark somewhere in front and slightly above us, so does the conversation fade into an expectant hush.

Whilst there are a number of active volcanoes globally plying their molten trade, Erta’ Ale is the only active lava lake this ridiculously accessible. Cresting the ridge in what is now full darkness, we pause to catch our breath and allow the stragglers to catch up, and anticipate what we are about to witness. If the lookout above the crater plane with a glowing lake in its centre were in the United Kingdom, this is where we would remain: behind a barrier one hundred and fifty metres from the bubbling crater and with only a faint glow and barely discernible eruptions to appreciate. With Ethiopian health and safety regulations being as non-existent as its reliable WiFi, we descend into the pit and walk the short distance across the potato crisp crunchy texture of a fresh lava field to the very edge of the volcano.

As the amateur and professional photographers within the group prepare tripods and time-lapse settings, we mere mortals stare disbelievingly at a scene we are unlikely to ever see again. Random pockets of angry red cracks split through the soft black caldera surface and burst into spectacular fountain eruptions of lava. It is as mesmerising as it is cauldron-hot, as beautiful as it is unpredictable. Every so often, a particularly violent spit of liquid fire casts furious droplets close to the circle of excited onlookers, pushing us back temporarily in a burst of fireworks worthy of the 4th of July. But we quickly return, aware of the limited time we have here. When we are finally gently cajoled away from the spectacle by our patient guide, back towards our mattresses under the stars not one hundred metres away, it is only with great reluctance that we consent.

Let the show begin!

Just wow…

The following morning, we return to see the sun rise over the volcano pool. The ever-brightening dawn light brings new contrasts and photographic angles, but the same cooings of delight. Again the temperature is skin-crispingly intense, a wall of searing heat of such proximity that it defies and fries the senses. With the stellar combined travel CV of our group, it is testimony to what we are witnessing that we are all in agreement: this is awe-inspiring in the most literal sense of the meaning. Rising in the sky with a hint of potential jealousy, the desert sun quickly reminds us of its own potency and it is time for the long walk back down the volcano, but with more than one last longing look over our shoulders.

As stunning a sunrise as I will ever experience

They call me Mr Lava Lover… (Shabba)

Feeling the heat a little (a lot)

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