A Djibouti Experience

By Wendy Nassmacher
April 15, 2008

The weather in Djibouti isn't hot yet, but it will be. And it can be unpleasant by noon at Lac Assal, the lowest point in Africa, so we set off at 8 a.m. It's about a 1.5 hour drive (about 80 km) from Djibouti City along the Gulf of Tadjoura to Lac Assal. By leaving at 8 we could get there and back before lunch, and the high temperature at Lac Assal would be around 37º C, relatively cool at a place that regular bakes at 45.

Lac Assal is a little bit of the Gulf of Tadjoura that was clipped off and separated from the Gulf by volcanic activity sometime in the unknown geological past. Because it no longer connects with the sea, it began to evaporate, and the salt content in the remaining body of water is now about ten times saltier than sea water. It is also about 150 meters below sea level, making it the fifth lowest dry land on earth. If all that weren't interesting enough, it is also located at the head of the fault zone that creates Africa's Great Rift Valley, so visiting Lac Assal has more than a little cachet. This is why we decided to collect dirt here for the Common Ground project.

The trip between Djibouti City and Lac Assal features a lot of rocks. It hasn't rained in most of Djibouti in over a year, and there is little in the way of green plants. Even the acacia trees are barren now after such a long dry spell. There are plenty of camels, and plenty of goats, and surprisingly, a lot of people amid all the rocks.

I've seen postcards from Djibouti that show a goat perched up in the thorny top of an acacia tree, and on this drive to Lac Assal, we were actually lucky enough to verify that this does actually happen. A little before the Lac Assal turnoff, there was a white goat perched in the barren thorny branches of an acacia tree.

After the climbing goat, we turned off the main road and descended the rocky hillside toward Lac Assal. The descent gives one a good view of the varied colors of Lac Assal's water sparkling in the sun. In addition to being hot, Lac Assal is weirdly beautiful. The lake covers about 54 km2 in surface area and large sections of it are less than a meter deep, creating shimming aquamarine blue water that contrasts beautifully with the white salt deposits around the lake. Deeper sections are dark blue, while streams of brown water laden with gypsum also cross the lake, creating patters of blue, brown, aquamarine, and white.

The twisting road down to the lake is rough but not badly maintained most remarkable are the guard-rails which lie twisted along the roadway at strategic points. The high salt content in the earth eats away at the metal anchors and the guardrails collapse inexorably.

At lakeside, no plants or animals were in view, but there was a throng of people. There are always native Djiboutians at Lac Assal ready to make a buck selling you some kind of salty souvenir, but I've never seen crowds at the lake on a weekday morning. What was this? Clearly the group of 30-50 people were soldiers, all wearing dessert camo pants. As we parked, I engaged a nearby group in conversation.

Turns out they were French navy sailors from a training ship called the Jean d'Arc. Their ship was at anchor in Djibouti and they were spending their two-day furlough hiking (yes? hiking!) from Lac Assal back up to the city, camping in the desert. A troop of camels hovered nearby laden with camouflage bags attesting to the truth of what the French sailors were telling me. More interestingly, it turned out these sailors had just finished trailing a group of Somali pirates. The pirate story is a good one: you can find it on CNN or BBC, but the rough outline is: A pleasure boat on its way from the Seychelles to Alexandria was captured by pirates, who held the boat and passengers hostage for $2 million ransom. A French Navy ship tailed the boat, and when the ransom was delivered and the pirates disembarked, eager to spend their loot, a French military helicopter quickly lit on them, shot up their get-away car, killed a few pirates and got the others to surrender.

And here were the Navy trainees from the boat that trailed the pirates, now at Lac Assal, starting their desert camping adventure while I collected soil for the Common Ground project. We said goodbye to the group of sailors as they hiked up the road with their camels. Then we got busy collecting salty mud and enjoying the warm salty waters of the lake. The water is so salty that any part of your body that comes in contact with it quickly dries to a white salty crust. Wikipedia reports that Lac Assal is the most saline body of water on earth, with salt content at 34.8 percent. I have not actually tried to float in the lake since there are no facilities at lake side for washing off no fresh water near the lake at all! This means if you go for a swim, you either bring your own fresh water to clean off, or you become a dessicated salt-crusted hull on the 1.5 hour ride back to civilization. I had not planned ahead well enough to bring water for a rinse, so actual swimming was out, but we toured the edge of the lac and enjoyed the solid white crystallized bed.

Despite the heat and barren landscape, there are always local people at Lac Assal ready to materialize should a car appear. They have booths lining a walkway out to the shimmering water, booths topped with a variety of Lac Assal specialties: crystallized salt in balls the size of marbles, chunks of wildly beautiful white salt crystals or brown spikey collections of gypsum, geodes, and my favorite, goat skulls immersed in the brine to form crystallized, weird art. We spent a few dollars on souvenirs, snapped photos, scooped dirt, and headed back up the long climb to sea level.

On the ride home we were quiet. We waved to the French sailors as they toiled up hill in the mounting heat. We didn?t see the goat in the tree. No baboons today, no jackals. Just a ribbon of pot-holed highway through rocks and dry acacia trees, back to Djibouti City on the edge of Africa.

- Wendy Nassmacher, Soil Collection Volunteer

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