We stopped for lunch at Dhikil after the return 2h drive on the bumpy desert and then set on an even more deserted stretch of road which was built by Yugoslav criminals with Saudi money, or so does our guide say. After the construction finished, they were set free.
It is an elevated road, built on top of a path made of gravel and rocks standing out like the ones you see in fairy tales and fantastic movies. It is not always smooth and at times it looks like it is cracking under the dry hot air. The road’s edges are literally crumbling and the pavement is breaking off. Often times the road disappears and it all turns into rocks and potholes.
The landscape is ever changing but always keeping on the grey, maroon, black and white tones. Sometimes it evolves into volcanic rocks, other times it softens into a simple sandy dessert; occasionally the donkey bushes cover the surface. The sand and dust from the dessert rains on our car windows as if it was grainy rain.
As desolate and inhospitable as it is the view through the dusty window is also fascinating. How can life exist in such unwelcoming landscape? I keep wondering about the little bushes, the few villages, the occasional acacia and the wildlife who seem to be surviving on what little there is as if they were challenging the universe.
For such empty landscapes the amount of wildlife is surprising. There are camels wandering by the side of the road and goats climbing trees and munching on branches.
We stop on the way to have a look at a canyon formed over years of tectonic plate movements. Djibouti is at the crossroads of the three tectonic plates that separated the Arabian Peninsula in ancient times and may well split off from the mainland one day in the future. It is a truly impressive sight. Of course, through our entire journey we do not see another tourist but these couple of stops we made on that day were met by an attempt at souvenir selling by some nomads that appeared from nowhere when the car stopped. We try to track down hyraxes that live on the canyon walls but the blazing heat ushers us back onto the car. It is the winter in Djibouti but day temperatures easily exceed the 35 degrees in the sun. At night, in the cold of the dessert they drop to around 15-20 Celsius.
I am dozing off after the limited rest I got on the camp the night before when Akram, our guide, calls the driver to stop and reverse. In anticipation we wonder what he has seen and, all of a sudden, a tiny jackal watches us from the side of the road. There he is, right by the pavement, ears standing up, still and looking at us. I snap a photo as he climbs up the hill still watching us.
Along the ride we spot various gazelles, elegantly jumping and running away in the most gracious of ways.
All these animals are perfect chameleons and blend into the colors of the landscape, it takes a trained eye to spot them.
Eventually, we catch a glimpse of the sea. Deep blue and green in color the water contrasts with the dryness we have experienced in the last few days. From up on the hills the sea looks very far away and almost unreal. Lake Assal is a crater lake. It lies at the top of the Rift Valley depression in the middle of the Danakil Desert.
We see Devil’s Island in the distance. The locals used to fear it was populated by the Devil because thing used to disappear. Before the road was built there were lots of accidents further supporting the idea that the area was cursed. Diving off Devil’s Island is very good. There is big game and lots of corals.
As we descend from the mountains Lake Assal appears in the distance. The shores look white washed with powder sand. However, this is just an illusion for instead of sand your feet are met with crushing salt and crystals often as sharp as miniature stalactites.
As we stop to take a shot already on the lakeshore one of our tires goes flat so I take advantage of the stopover to take a dip into the sea.
The water is remarkably warm, bathtub temperature, and very pleasant. After two days in the most desolate of desserts it feels like an oasis of calm; and a welcoming opportunity to wash away all the dust that has accumulated. Because of the high salt concentration it feels soft and slimy.
We come in the winter when temperatures drop to the incredible mark of 30+ degrees celsius, the summer temperatures in the rest of the world. In the heat of the hot season thermometers can easily reach temperatures above the 50 degree mark topped with the incessant hot dry wind that is present in this part of the world. I can’t even begin to imagine what it must be like. Having lived in the Middle East and put up with Dubai’s 45+ degrees for 4-6 months I know what heat means but without a tree or any shade in sight this is one of the most desolate landscapes I have ever seen.
The salt concentration in Lake Assal is 45%, highest in the world after a lake in Antarctica, and definitively higher than in the Dead Sea of Jordan and Israel. It is the lowest point in the African continent and the third one in the world after the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee. Its salinity is due to the high evaporation of water from the extreme summer temperatures. The origin of this salinity is unknown and there are several theories from increases in sea level to volcanic eruptions.
On the fun side, floating is almost guaranteed. I remember when I went to the Dead Sea and the salt quantity in the water made every single open cut, regardless of size, or little rash, burn. At Lake Assal I feel nothing of that and instead I just lower my body and float, legs up.
For a lake the waves and the undercurrent are pretty strong and as soon as I lay back and try to relax the water takes me away from shore so I have to keep swimming back. Despite nobody being there but my friend Edwin and Akram I feel very self-conscious about standing there or bathing in the lake in my bikini. Djibouti is used to seeing foreigners in the shape of the hundreds of military personnel on site but women are not a very common sight.
When we meet a convoy of French and Djiboutian army trucks and tanks on our way out of Abbe I spot only 3 women out of a total of perhaps 50 people. It is not that I felt at any point observed, surely Akram must have seen plenty of tourists in their bikinis, or that this is an insult or a disrespect to the local customs, after all there isn’t anybody to offend there, but it is the social pressure and my never ending self-consciousness for not doing anything that locals would not do that gets the best of me. So I quickly come out, use the drinking water Akram brought to rinse off the salt and quickly wrap myself with the bed sheets we bought at the market in Dikhil to dry myself off.
The shore is covered with extremely shiny white salt crystals that reflect the sunlight and look extremely beautiful. A Chinese company has signed the contract to extract and process the salt. At the main stopping point there are several tables lined up with all sorts of salt formations, sculptures and even goat sculls covered with salt. Some of the salt rocks look exactly like the quartz you see in any shop in the West only at a fraction of the price and in large quantities.
The lake is the largest salt reserve in the world although extraction does not seem to have reached mass production levels and I have never seen salt from Djibouti other than in the country. That being said, a Chinese company is said to be building a massive port in Tadjoura which will help with the shipping of salt extractions to Saudi Arabia and Europe.
The color of the lake is fascinating. If you look carefully you can differentiate 5 shades. Brown and black from minerals in the water, the blue from the sun’s rays reflection, white from the salt and green as the natural color of the lake. The colors mix and blend in with the water and only from up a hill can you appreciate their shades.
There is nobody there. We see an occasional car driving through, only 4×4 can make it to this end of the world and they are usually packed with more people than you would imagine could fit.
Historically, the Afar tribes inhabit this part of the country and used the salt for bartering with the tribes from Ethiopia in exchange for food and tools.
As with the rest of the country, the wind is unstoppable, continuously beating your head, your clothes, your face. It is strong enough to blow my hat away and to infuse a layer of dust on my skin. The nomads we find on our journey wear scarfs over their heads to protect themselves both from the sun and from the win. It is unforgiving and after a few hours it makes you go mad.
I can’t help but wonder, over and over again, how an entire population can inhabit such inhospitable places. What leads entire civilizations to lead such a harsh life where the very basic of needs are a daily struggle for survival?
It is a fascinating question, and one that I cannot answer for there is an impossible to understand need for never ending movement. The nomad tribes constantly move from camp to camp, herding the cattle, re-building houses and a new life in greener pastures. Taking a sneak peek and, for a very short period, experiencing life like the Assar and Issa nomads live everyday has been an utterly enlightening experience. These aren’t the images of a National Geographic documentary or the pages of a book, they aren’t even the stories of a YouTube video, these are the realities of the people who live in some of the most unforgiving of places, one where a longer than expected draft may kill your cattle and your family.
I realize, painfully, that, despite my continuous exposure to places like Djibouti through my travels, I still feel, more often than I would like to admit, as if I was still watching the reality in front of my eyes from the comfort of my sofa, back in my convenient and safe life where I can turn on the tap for water and leave it on without a care for the world. I am grateful for my place in life and for the opportunity to be reminded that life is a precious gift and that, even in the harshest of situations, children and adults can still laugh and life joyfully.
The Djibouti government is in talks with UNESCO to include the lake as a site and I sure hope they do because this is one of the most incredible place I have ever been to and I can’t understand how I had never heart of it before.