At the end of this lung-blowing journey waits Erta Ale. In Afar language this means “Smoking Mountain”, not a bad name for one of the most active volcanoes worldwide and one of five that has a permanent lava lake.
Christos ploughed the jeep along sand dunes, shrubs & bushes and reached the village at the foot of the volcano in unbelievable six hours! At the tiny Afar village we had to buy a permit to visit Erta Ale. As soon as the engine stopped, nothing could be heard. Immediately we were ushered inside a hut to rest on carpets, but Liza pulled Heidi off to visit the chief’s wife. Liza had acquainted Myriam on a previous trip and had brought her a present.
In a stuffy room, separated by a curtain, the women sipped numerous cups of delicious coffee and listened to the accounts of Myriam’s youngest daughter who had just married. She showed off her dowry, some very fine jewellery. The men on the other side of the room kept peeking around the curtain and certainly listened in to what was going on. Once in a while a cigarette was thrown around, without any comment. Myriam knew what she had to do – light it in the fireplace where she was roasting the coffee and hand it over to the men who were noisily chatting away.
One of the girls who dropped in was wearing a Chador. All you could see was her eyes, a surreal sight among the Afar, where women wear only a loose head scarf. Liza acted surprised and asked why she did not stick to her Afar tradition, but copied Saudi Arabian style instead. After a while she just pulled it off and when Liza and Heidi started trying it on, she lost interest in this thing altogether.
In the meantime Gilles dared the heat and took a short stroll through the village. He counted 23 local Afar men squatting in the sand leaning on their Kalashnikovs. Very few visitors come here so despite the oppressing heat a few people crawled from the hut to get a good look at the foreigners.
Just when we were about to leave a heated argument started among the villagers. We had no clue what was going on and started to feel extremely uneasy among these heavily armed men. Christos rushed us inside the jeep and mumbled something about the men being angry because they had not been chosen by the chief to accompany us.
While we rocked and bounced across endless lava fields, Liza shared more inside information with us. Two years earlier all the passengers of a jeep were killed when it hit a landmine left behind by the warring parties in the conflict between Ethiopia & Eritrea. Why this never reached the Western media? It was the support jeep, not the one carrying the tourists!