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Smoking Mountain and Human Origins: A journey into Ethiopia'a Afar triangle

Sunil Rajagopal | Updated on July 01, 2021

Fire in the mountain: Erta Ale is an angry gash belching out living fire and sulphurous fumes   -  SUNIL RAJAGOPAL

A journey into the remote Afar triangle of Ethiopia, a junction of three continental plates, takes you to the smoking mountain that still simmers with magma and a fascinating history

* We are in the remote Afar Triangle of Ethiopia, the land of beginnings

* This dramatic landscape is pockmarked with moody volcanoes, endless salt flats, scalding deserts and smoking, psychedelic sulphur lakes

* We are going up Erta Ale, ‘Smoking Mountain’ — an active basaltic shield volcano with a volatile lava lake

* The sound is overwhelming; it is like a great beast resting, growling to itself

***

The tarmac ends abruptly, swallowed by desert. Our Landcruisers swerve and swim through sand tugging at their wheels. One is in a billow of dust to our left, another racing in the shadow of the volcano to our right; while we bounce over small dunes and bush.

Three Masai ostriches with impossibly long necks materialise from the dust. Two brown females and a striking, black and white male. They are as startled as we are, and take off. Ostriches are magnificent in flesh and blood, nearly nine feet tall and 150 kg of muscle. Even more so as they stand against the backdrop of solidified lava.

Graceful run: Ostriches are magnificent in flesh and blood, nearly nine feet tall and 150 kg of muscle   -  SUNIL RAJAGOPAL

 

The male is at the rear before warming up and easing past his consorts. With a beautiful, high stepping action, the trio peels away from us, effortlessly outrunning V8 engines. Now I know where Ethiopian long-distance runners get their technique from. They just keep running, feet skimming the earth, until they are lost to the eye.

And they say an ostrich cannot fly!

We are in the remote Afar Triangle of Ethiopia, a unique triple junction of three distinct continental plates. Each pulling apart from the other, ‘rifting’ as they say, slowly and surely over many million years. One of these rifts, ripping southwards through Kenya and Tanzania, forms the great East African Rift Valley. The forces at play here are far beyond our conception of time and space. Eventually, this rifting may birth a new oceanic basin or perhaps give rise to a continent.

This dramatic landscape is pockmarked with moody volcanoes, endless salt flats, scalding deserts and smoking, psychedelic sulphur lakes. Temperatures routinely cross 50°C and it barely rains. The Awash River system simply gives up and dies out in a string of salt lakes before making it to the sea. Nothing much grows but for some thorny acacias and dhoum palm. To the north, the oppressive Danakil Depression is among the lowest points on earth; 155 m below sea level.

And yet, some of our earliest human-like ancestors evolved here. Best known among them is ‘Lucy’, a member of Australopithecus afarensis; and named after a Beatles hit! Some theories suggest that the original landscape was wet and thickly forested. When it gradually shifted to drier, open grassland savannah due to geological changes, our ancestors lost the need to climb trees frequently. They now needed to stand bipedal more often to look out over the tall grass. Prey and predators grew larger, and they had to coordinate and use tools to bring them down. Eventually, they crossed the land bridge over to Eurasia to become what we are today.

We are in a land of beginnings — an otherworldly cradle of human life.

Land Afar

A dust devil gambols through the desolate plain while we wait. Dust devils are strange — substantial and menacing in the distance, translucent and immaterial when closer. Like our problems. Hidden behind the dome of a dormant volcano looming in the distance lies Erta Ale.

No path in the Afar is public. Here, even the Ethiopian military does not seem to hold currency. Anyone passing through must have permission from villages on the way. We cross three such village militia posts before Erta Ale. At each, one of the drivers goes out to negotiate. Some money and a crate of mineral water gains us access. The money is token, the water is non-negotiable. The headman assigns escorts to accompany us to the village border, where his responsibility ends. They sport wickedly curved daggers called ‘Jile’ and assault rifles, and an utter lack of remorse in using them.

The land itself is named after these salty and deeply insular people. ‘Afar’ broadly means ‘the first’, hinting at their ancient claims on this land. They are ethnically distinct from their neighbours and determinedly remain so. Outsiders are frowned upon. The mistrust is mutual, because the Afar historically acted as guides for Arab slave traders in the Danakil.

Belonging: The land itself is named after these salty and deeply insular people — ‘Afar’ means ‘the first’, hinting at their ancient claims on this land   -  SUNIL RAJAGOPAL

 

In this land of little, the Afar cling on to life as nomadic pastoralists, dependent on salt mined from the flats and roving herds of camels, goats and sheep for everything.

Beyond the plain is an apocalyptic, grey world of basalt, spindly lava flows and ash deposits — some high enough to be a small hill. Scattered, Igloo-like huts thatched from dried grass and dhoum fronds perched on them. China Wu Yi company is building a road here. Their mobile cabins, porta-potties and heaps of plastic rubbish add incongruous colour to the scenery. A lithe girl and her donkey carrying blue plastic tubs wander through this dystopia, looking for water before the sun goes down, setting fire to the volcanic haze.

We lay our beds down in the headlights of the Landcruisers, where they refuse to climb further. Night draws a curtain of darkness on the valley below and the mountain above. Lady Venus takes her seat first in this theatre of the night, followed by her twinkling celestial attendants. But we have barely checked in to this million-star hotel when we are summoned again. The wind blows favourably. It’s a good time to see a volcano.

Bubbling magma

“You step where I step, no one walks in front of me,” says our 17-year-old guide Isam, who carries only a torch. Amin, 30, the rearguard, has an AK-47 slung across his back. “No one walks behind me. You stop when I say stop; No one talks, just listen to the leader,” he says.

And then up we go, single file, in the pale arcs of lamps strapped to our heads. Shoes painfully kicking stone as we struggle to match Isam. I imagine Orion, leading our way with a bent bow and a Jile gleaming on his belt. When I turn around, the others seem like fireflies lost in a bad dream.

We are going up Erta Ale, ‘Smoking Mountain’ — an active basaltic shield volcano with a volatile lava lake. An explosion in the recent past collapsed its magma chamber, causing the lake to drop by several feet.

Not far from here is Eritrea, which is to Ethiopia what Pakistan is to India. Endlessly squabbling siblings. The politics of the region are about as stable as the earth’s crust in the triangle. There is always some magma bubbling below. A few European tourists were shot dead on these slopes in 2017 and a few more kidnapped. Ethiopia blamed Eritrea. Eritrea blamed the Afar tribesmen. The Afar blamed the rogue Ethiopian military.

Did the earth just tremble? Not for the first time, I don’t feel very clever.

Bowels of the earth

We descend down a narrow crevice, hands over feet. Climbing up or down steep places is not my forte. But the darkness makes it easier, my astigmatic eyes only need to see where I put my next step. The bottom is a gently sloping bowl with sheer rock walls. A crater.

Then it is a slow, tortuous walk. Feet slipping, breaking through brittle layers as we inch towards an unearthly red glow and an ominous rumbling that shivers through my chest. I can barely move by the end. Isam holds my hands and moves me gently to the edge of the caldera.

I peek over my feet, willing myself to not tip over in fear. In to the very bowels of the earth. An angry gash belching out living fire and sulphurous fumes. Boiling red magma gushing violently out, blackening and spreading on the churning surface of the lake, as it cools on contact with air. “Door to hell,” Isam says.

The sound is overwhelming. It is like a great beast resting, growling to itself. Like a giant furnace wheezing. It is indescribable. The earth is breathing, at once fearsome and life affirming. It is much more than we know.

Mortals once again

We descend in a daze towards our mortal camp. The volcano pulsing in our heads and drowning out the silence. I slow every time my torchlight glints back off dark rock. Black Obsidian or volcanic glass, polished by time and the elements to a mirror-like crystalline quality. Amin snaps at me to keep moving. Who is to argue with men carrying AK-47s? But now and then, I bend furtively to tie my laces; to break off and pick up pieces of interesting rock. I have a friend who would dearly love to look at them under a microscope.

Our rotund driver has drummed up pasta and roasted eggplant for dinner. Fancy, for where we are. The Afar men huddle together, their faces blue in the glow of a mobile screen. Isam beckons us over with a careless wave of a gun muzzle. He has something to show us on his phone. We peer in. On screen is Tamannaah Bhatia’s fetching midriff, sinuously keeping tune to a Tamil song. Swipe. Hrithik Roshan is rippling his well-oiled muscles. Gidhiggi, Afar for thank you, we tell them before retiring to bed and dream of normal places.

Sunil Rajagopal is an amateur birder and photographer based in Delhi

Published on June 29, 2021

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