A team of NASA planetary scientists invited me to join them as a journalist to study a rare volcano in Ethiopia. My wife went because she would not be left behind.
Erta Ale is a shield volcano and NASA wanted to compare it to a similar one on Jupiter’s’ moon, IO.
Our journey took us into the Danakil Depression of Ethiopia, where the temperature hovered steadily at 120 degrees Fahrenheit and the local nomads, all heavily armed, and known as the Afar have a reputation for killing intruders. How could I say no?
The Afar agreed to lead us to the volcano in exchange for a hefty price that included a “policeman” (Their term. I would say, armed thug) to accompany each of us on the torturous trek of several miles over razor sharp volcanic rock that can shred a hikers boots. To stumble or fall is to invite serious injury. There is no trail per se, only sandy paths between boulders the size of cars, a mere 600 feet above the valley floor that must be negotiated at night due to the intense heat. It is extreme trekking at its best.
Our party was soon spread over several miles, each of us making his or her own way with little assistance from the Afar other than to squat on a boulder and wait for us to catch up. I could not halt the thought of what would happen if this gunman actually had to defend me. Would he fire at a local person? Would I be his victim? We were at their mercy.
Irene had gone ahead, riding a camel because she has only one good eye, and we agreed she could not negotiate this ascent under the best of conditions on foot. Within minutes she was out of my sight and I had to trust I would find her safe at the summit.
I could not understand why I was so out of breath from such a journey as this was my type of trip and only found out weeks later that I had multiple lung embolisms that should have ended my life then and there.
Six hours later I collapsed near a red glow from the summit, lying on the ground, gasping for air and worrying about my wife when a silhouette approached.
It was my gunman who had disappeared hours before, returned to see what happened to me. I was so disoriented I did not know if he was going to rob or kill me. What he did was kneel down, roll up in his long robe, and fall instantly to sleep beside me. In seconds he was snoring and it was all I could do to keep from laughing at the absurdity of the situation. It will be one of those bizarre moments that flash back at the moment of my death.
In a few minutes I staggered to my feet, waking him, and together we crested the summit, and I found my wife staring into a bloody red stew of churning molten lava, the heat so intense we could only stay a few seconds before retreating.
It seemed to be only minutes later when we were prodded awake by a rifle barrel and saw the first cracks of dawn breaking. Four hours had passed. The Afar were telling us we needed to begin our descent before the sun rose higher as it was already baking us.
I got Irene on her camel when two shots rang out and the high pitched whine of a bullet sent us scurrying behind a boulder. One more shot rang out just as Irene took a bad fall diving for cover. Thinking she had sprained her ankle and could not stand, we wrapped it tight with duct tape. It seemed that our Afar had betrayed us, when suddenly our personal gunman motioned for us to move downhill, and he stood with his rifle leveled at the summit as though providing us cover. We moved fast, Irene’s camel breaking into a downhill trot that had her holding on for dear life, while I ran, praying she would not take a bullet.
Six hours later I collapsed in camp, electrolytes spent, and forced enough Gatorade down to uncramp my body from head to toe.
I fell into the Land Rover and my final memory was the sound of a rifle chambering a bullet as the Afar were yelling for more money as we sped away.