Past and present dangers of Erta Ale lava lake

Ethiopia's Erta Ale volcano, locally known as 'the gateway to hell', is not the most obvious tourist destination.

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Erta Ale, Ethiopia - The words from the young and energetic guide hurrying toward the Erta Ale volcano in north-eastern Ethiopia were not particularly reassuring. "Tourists will die here someday. I’m sure of it," he said, albeit in a light manner.

Darkness slowly set over the barren landscape, but temperatures still hovered at around 35 degrees Celsius.

The guide's gloomy premonition was also a reminder of a very grim past. In 2012 a group of tourists were ambushed by gunmen on the edge of this crater. Five European tourists were killed and four others abducted.

The Afar Revolutionary Democratic Front, a separatist group, claimed responsibility for the attack. The incident led to a period of fighting between Ethiopian and Eritrean forces as Ethiopia accused the Eritrean government of supporting, harbouring and training the attackers.

Since then security has been buffed up, with government-appointed soldiers routinely monitoring the inhospitable desert terrain for potential ambushers and bandits. All tourist groups are now accompanied by an armed guard and an armed policeman. Indeed, as unrest spread and a state of emergency was imposed in Ethiopia in the last half of 2016 as a result of widespread protests, Erta Ale and the Danakil Depression were among the safest places to travel in the country.

With the dangers of a violence at bay, the tourist guide focused his commentary on the more actual dangers of the fiercely active and constantly erupting volcano, which holds one of only six lava lakes in the world. 

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