“Djibouti means ‘the place where the monster was killed’,” Akram, my guide informed me. An unfortunate epithet for this small gem of a country tucked in between Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somaliland.
That having been said, there is little to hold you in Djibouti City or its environs where 7,000 foreign military are based. The tax on whom is Djibouti’s second biggest source of finance.
So I headed west out of Djibouti City on a good tarmac road built by the French with EU money some ten years ago. Ethiopian lorries pound up and down this road to and from Djibouti’s port, the country’s largest revenue earner. We passed through several small villages. In one a sign proclaimed “Ici vente pain”, a legacy of being a French colony. Indeed French is one of the two languages taught at school, the other being Arabic, whilst most Djiboutians will also speak Afar and Somali, the latter a quick fire language of excited babble.
The last eighty kilometres of the journey were off road. At first the scenery was underwhelming but it opened up to reveal a flat expanse of sand and scrub. The vegetation was sparse, the landscape harsh. The preserve of hardy animals. Fittingly we saw camels, indeed a caravan of camels carrying contraband. More surprisingly we saw Thomson’s gazelle and even a few warthog. Inevitably came across nomadic livestock, goats and donkeys.
We were heading for Lake Abbeh, which means rotten, a reference to the sulphurous smells emitted and another illustration that Djibouti needs to sort out its nomenclature. However there was nothing rotten about its stark mesmerising scenery. Captivating and bizarre, the chimneys stand in surreal silence.
Lake Abbeh’s scenery only appeared in the last fifty years with the damming of the Awash River in Ethiopia and the catastrophic effect that it had on the size and waters of Lake Abbeh. The receding waters left these limestone chimneys naked, towering from the lake floor to a height of fifty metres in some cases. Prone to the ravages of the infrequent rains and man, it is difficult to see these curious calcareous creations being around in another fifty years. A great shame as they have a beguiling beauty, especially at sunset and sunrise.
I sat on a rocky outcrop in ecstatic silence watching the sun set behind the chimneys and fire the landscape in a rich and warm light. Below me, the charming scenes of women herding goats and donkeys back towards the small nomad settlement. The morning and evening ebb and flow of livestock from and returning to the village as constant as the tide.
In the early morning we took a five minute drive to see the sunrise from the other side of the chimneys. Whilst the yellows and oranges of the sunrise were warming and created a magical light and contrast with the dark silhouettes of the chimneys, what really struck me was the quiet and stillness. I shuddered at the intensity of the moment.
The chimneys were caused by geothermal activity and in the morning light steam rose and bubbled noisily from thermal springs. Akram, who doesn’t smoke but did this for effect, blew cigarette smoke and ash onto the water producing a bellow of steam in a chemical reaction that I did not quite understand. Akram then jumped on the ground which reverberated all around us. It made me feel nervous, both at the thought of how thin the crust was over the boiling waters beneath and the news that Norwegian geothermal prospectors were soon to be descending upon the area.
We then walked about a kilometre to where the lake is now, the crunch of the crust of salt underfoot. A Jackal trotted opportunistically along the lake shore. Egyptian geese fed, a few gazelle grazed absentmindedly. We arrived near the lake edge to watch hundreds of flamingos.
In comparison to the road to Lake Abbeh (or at least the part on tarmac) is the emptiness of the T9 road, which heads north to Eritrea whose communist government has been ostracised – a great pity for a beautiful people and country. Whilst no cars are in evidence what I did see was the detritus of the neglected machinery of unfulfilled promises that litter the roadside. The Americans and Ethiopians have forsaken their share of the carcass of Djibouti’s resources, leaving the considerable remains to the scavenging Chinese. Assal, means salt in Afar. Out of Lac Assal alone the Chinese now extract six million tons of salt every year.
Thoughts of such numbers and scale were silenced as we rounded the corner and I first glimpsed the exquisite and astonishing spectacle of Lac Assal. It is a beauty of startling contrasts. The colours are radiant and bright, each vying for my attention. White is from the salt, brown from gypsum, black from opsidium, blue is a reflection of the sky and the green is the colour of the lake. The fact that at 153 metres Lac Assal is Africa’ lowest point was of incidental insignificance compared to its brilliance.
“Djibouti snow,” quipped my guide as we walked on the crackle and pop of salt that lay six metres thick below me to the edge of the lake. I kicked off my flip flops and walked into the water to jump immediately back to the comfort of the shore. The salt was surprisingly sharp. I scooped up a handful of water to taste and spat it straight back out. The waters of Lake Assal have a saline content of 45%; in comparison the sea is 3.5%.
Arguably Djibouti’s greatest riches lie not on land but in the surrounding sea and at particular times of year, November through to March, its waters are blessed with the arrival of the largest fish in the sea. They come in such numbers that Djibouti is one of the best places in the world to swim with whale sharks.
The monsters have not been killed. The whale sharks are still very much alive.