Lake Assal also known in French as Lac Assal, is a crater lake in central Djibouti and lies 515 feet below sea level. It’s shores comprise the lowest point of land on the African continent. It’s also one of the hottest places on earth and the air temperature can reach 140 °F and higher. Lake Assal is considered the most saline body of water on earth outside Antarctica, with 34.8% percent salt concentration. The sources of the lake are hot springs that reach over 135 °F due to underground volcanic activity and the temperatures of the water averages 94 °F and higher. The Lake is a reserve of salt and a source of income for the locals who mine and transport the salt to Ethiopia by camels. The brightness is so intense that you’d think you are at a ski resort on a sunny day, minus the cold. The lake keeps evaporating, leaving behind more salt adding up to the large amount of salt already existing. This large surface of salt around the lake is about 2 feet thick and you can drive a car on the surface.
My friends and I set off for Lake Assal in the early morning hours on Thanksgiving day. After securing a couple of vehicles from the Motor Pool we loaded up a cooler with tons of food from the Chow Hall. It was enough to feed an army (no pun intended). There were 12 of us and it was to be a 2 hour drive with a few stops along the way to take photos. After getting lost it stretched the drive time out to 3 hours. There really aren’t any signs in Djibouti to figure out where you are going. It’s probably because there isn’t much to do or go to in Djibouti. After a few wrong turns we almost wound up in Ethiopia for a day trip. Which wouldn’t have been a bad thing as there are some really beautiful parts of Ethiopia. We just wouldn’t have made it back to base before our midnight curfew. That and the fact that you don’t want to drive at night in Djibouti as it’s mostly African desert with no street lights and the streets are filled with pot holes.
After stopping a few times to ask the local Djiboutian’s how to get to Lake Assal we were finally on our way. Our first stop was a Canyon, called by many in the region as the Grand Canyon of Djibouti. There were several local Djiboutian’s selling chunks of salt carved out as small sculptures for souvenirs. A few more stops to take pictures and “behind the rocks” breaks we finally made our way to Lake Assal.My first impression was that it looked like a lake surrounded by snow. It was extremely bright and blinding. Sunglasses were a must. We got out of our vehicles and walked around for awhile and the sound of walking on the salt sounded like boots crunching in the snow. A few of us tested the temperatures of the water and decided to jump on in. The only problem was it was only 2 feet deep for half a mile out. We waded out for 10 minutes with our shoes on to find the water only 4 feet deep. The bottom cuts your feet due to salt crystals forming on the lake bed. There is so much salt in the lake that you literally cannot sink. You could strap on 20 pounds and still not sink. We were all so giddy we were laughing uncontrollably like children. It looked as if we were laying on rafts but in reality we were floating on top of the water. After floating for a couple of hours laughing and telling stories we decided it was time to get out. We had taken cases of water with us and took turns showering each other off. The salt cakes on your skin turning it white.
Before heading back we decided to try to find the hot springs nearby that someone had told us about. We actually found them by chance. We tested the water and almost burned our fingers off. It was so hot that if we kept our fingers in the water for more than a few seconds it would have peeled our skin off. There was definitely some volcanic activity going on below. Finally heading out of Lake Assal to make it back before it got dark we made the mistake of stopping for a large family of baboons. We had some extra food left over which consisted of a few bananas, cookies, crackers and fruit. Feed one baboon and you had better have food for everyone because they won’t get off your car otherwise. We decided to make one last stop at the new Djibouti port that just opened. It is the largest port in this part of Africa and imports goods for all the neighboring countries; Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia. We took some photos of the camels being shipped off and actually made it back to the Camp as the sun was setting.
I always talk about those “life experiences”. This was one of them. I spent the day with really great friends that was filled with fun and laughter and new experiences. As I laid my head on my pillow that night I smiled thinking back on what a great day it was before drifting off to sleep.