A travel moment in Mordor

‘Only twenty minutes to the top,’ says Tesfa, for the 5th time in the last hour or more and still agile himself, loaded with a growing weight of other people’s kit and cameras.

We scramble painfully over crumbling lava formations following an invisible path ever upwards in the darkness, our small torches lighting only the next unsteady step. 11 Kilometres sounded an easy evening stroll from the bottom but we feel like hobbits at our last gasp struggling across the burnt landscape of Mordor.

Suddenly we are there, the air colder and fresher at the summit, the sky lighter and a cutting wind blowing up dust between a handful of rocky shelters in a roughly improvised campsite. An unseen camel or two groans disagreeably in the lee of a makeshift wall where the dim crouched shapes of tribesmen, sleep upright, with blankets over heads and ancient rifles propped nearby.

Just a steep cliff to climb down, its base hidden in the deeper blackness but we shy away at the top, pit ponies without blindfolds, by this time the spark lost and anticipation for the goal ebbing away. We
are exhausted. You can do it if you don't look down and we have been waiting for this moment, our goal the heart of the volcano, the only lava lake in the World. This is Erta Ale, the Mountain of Smoke, the perpetual flame at the centre of the killing heat of the Danakil Desert in Ethiopia.

‘Can I hold your hand Tesfa?’

Another walk in the dark, crunching across the caldera, wobbling between shifting footholds and sudden holes in the surface, ever weaker torches failing faster even than sore feet and middle-aged knees. Then we are much, much too close to a ragged edge and can only stand swaying, not believing our eyes, dumbfounded but for the ‘O my Gods’ over and over again. Below us a glowing portal to the underworld; a seething, heaving, living lake of fire; a constant tidal swell breaking against the glowing cliffs of the pit as great gouts of bright molten rock bubble up and burst from the burning surface, hurled into the air like sea spray hitting rocks.

We are mesmerised. We may stand here, as smoke clouds billow away from us in the wind, until tomorrow, or the day after, or until the crack of doom. Rivers of fire run randomly across the seething pit in burnished burning ribbons and then die down; quieten down; sigh; build strength for another assault on the walls in an endless attempt to break out of the mountain and pour the contents of hell down its blackened slopes once more.

A Loyd

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