Once in a Lifetime

There are great adventures we encounter by accident. And then there are epic adventures we design and participate in, which are fraught with danger but we take them anyway. What is an unexplored life worth anyways? These are the type of ‘once in a lifetime’ exploits. For me, this type of adventure came in November of last year in a visit to the hottest place on earth and one of the lowest points on the planet. The irony in that is perhaps that the trip coincided with one of my personal low points in life. In essence, travelling to explore Earth’s core also enabled me to explore my own core.

The four-day adventure, which felt like weeks, started in the town of Mekelle in the company of three great travel companions, as we made our way through winding roads into the Afar region. The main itinerary consisted of witnessing the hundreds of camel caravans coming out of the Danakil with their salt loaded camels; sunset visit to Lake Asale (one of the salt lakes in the Afar region); walking amidst the colorful sulfur springs in the Danakil Depression; seeing potassium and sodium lakes; and last but not least, hiking up steep volcanic rocks for three-hours in the dark to come face to face with the contents of earth’s belly – the very active Erta Ale volcano, spewing burnt orange lava.

Our drive through the vastly changing landscapes of the Afar region often happened in 52 degree Celsius heat. From asphalt we sped through and across shifting sand, rock, and bumpy rides for hours on solidified lava. We spent the nights outside under the stars in pitch dark and often with the windy slap of sand; we used the toilet in the bush and cleaned our dusty and sweaty bodies with wet wipes. We hiked up in complete darkness from the base of the volcano to its pit, our way lighted only by flashlights. We stood on the ledge of Erta Ale watching mesmerized as it devoured and spewed hot lava, and we inhaled its hazardous fumes. We slept a few meters away from the volcano placing our lives in the hands of the Gods and Goddesses that were dancing in Earth’s belly and in the military guards who stood watch above and around us, lest some trigger-happy rebels attempted a repeat of the 2012 kidnappings.

When you leave the comforts of your everyday surroundings, many things happen. To begin with, in such an environment and the heat added to it, each of our temperaments got tested. But beyond our minor annoyances with each other, a space of carefreeness opened up. Bonding. By the second day, it did not matter what we looked like and a certain shedding of masks begins to occur, unraveling raw humanness. After all, there really is no dignified way of searching an un-littered spot and defecating out in open air. You just do it! 

In the middle of such a peculiar environment, witnessing many landscapes and then finally standing at the pit of the crater smelling, seeing and hearing the very core of the planet that hosts us, I felt the power of insignificance. How in the grand scheme of things, our worries, our frustrations, our scramble are minuscule in comparison to the largesse of the Earth that hosts us. And at how at any second, a shift can happen that would wipe that all away – metaphorically. Literally, I realized I was standing on an active volcano, and if it so decided could erupt right there and then. In that, I experienced a confrontation of the unknown – both metaphorical and literal. 

In the local Afar who were skeptical that we were Ethiopian (supposedly many of us don’t visit the area) I witnessed fortitude. I’m not sure any other place can be so hostile to humanity as the Danakil depression, and yet they survive, with very little water. As we weaved our heavy bodies up in darkness and down in daylight along the mountain, our local police pranced ahead of us, light in feet, proud in gait, often stopping several times to wait for us. This made me reflect on adaptability and our human capacity to be expansive despite our circumstances.

Within the 12 hour period of climbing up, camping and hiking back down at sun rise from Erta Ale, I had fallen down six times! Each time landing on the same leg and knee. Each time, I got myself up and took the next step and the next one, before the next fall. I was tired, partly in pain and scraped but in that space, there was no room to stop and contemplate all that was not right. So at each fall, I smiled, got up, dusted myself and continued till the next fall until we reached camp Dodom, at the base of the volcano. This made me become aware of the parallels I could draw in that specific experience to that in everyday life where many of us fall and get back – keeping in mind that the getting up matters much more than the fall, lest we break momentum. 

In our local guides and fellow travellers from many parts of the world, I experienced unity. Strangers are not so strange. Regardless of where each of us came from, we dabbled together in the common denominator of being human – eat, defecate, sleep, and repeat cycle. In the bareness of Earth that we collectively experienced, there was no time to be anything but human.


Billene also blogs at www.africanfeminism.com