Lac Assal – Trip Report

On June 12th we boarded our flight from London’s Heathrow Airport to Djibouti, via Addis Ababa. I had flown in from Belgium the night before; Stephen arrived early in the morning from San Francisco. We spent our day in London catching up with Pete.  The flight out of LHR that evening was uneventful, just like we like them. Our stopover in ADD was about 4 hours and reasonably comfortable.

Upon landing in Djibouti City, on June 13th at about 12:15pm, we noticed it was very hazy but didn’t think anything of it. It did however prepare us mentally for non-optimal photos. On getting off the plane the hot wind hit us squarely in the face and I was secretly happy with it: hot weather, finally! 45°C +! Yes, we were aware that we were visiting Djibouti smack-bang in the middle of summer; it was the only time that worked for us on short notice; and we didn’t want to delay this trip a year, one never knows what will happen in that area.

Getting our visa-on-arrival was relatively painless. One queue to start the process: handover passport, fingerprints and questions. Second queue for the actual visa… only we had to wait for the officer serving the first queue to finish and then start work on the second one. Handover money (USD 60 per visa), more questions and visa sorted.

Our bags were waiting for us, not so our pre-booked transfer to our hotel. We hooked up with a local taxi, which turned out to be painless and $50 cheaper, and got dropped off at the Kempinski. Mentioning the missing pick-up earned us a room upgrade to a junior suite without asking for it, very nice.

That evening at 5pm we met with Max from Dolphin Excursions to sort out the details for our 3-day trip starting the next day.

The next morning we were picked up around 9am by our driver. First we went by their office to take care of the payment and to load the car with food and water for the trip. We almost had an issue with the payment: they needed the US dollar bills to be dated post 2003 (some rule or other by the local banks), a fact not mentioned in our emails, but we got there in the end. After the formalities were concluded we set off with our driver Adu. First stop: supermarché for 2 towels and a sheet.


Around 9:50am we drove out of Djibouti City for the start of our little adventure. It was still very hazy. A young woman working at Dolphin Excusrions mentioned something about there having been ‘an earthquake’ that caused all the dust in the air. A few days later, back in the Kempinski, we found out it was in fact a volcanic eruption, triggered by earthquakes, in neighboring Eritrea. We wouldn’t just hear more about this later, it would also impact our return travel plans.

We followed the RN1 to Dikhil, where we had lunch, and already passed through part of the Gran Barra Depression – more of that the next day. After a satisfying lunch we set off again and promptly turned off the RN1 to take a dirt road that would take us trough Adu’s village, As’Ela, and onto our first goal, Lac Abbé. The road till As’Ela was actually very good and smooth and a lot of fun. Past As’Ela the road got worse but never really bad, apart from a few rather short sandy and rocky sections. Through another village and some rock formations and then we started seeing the surreal landscape that makes up the landscape at Lac Abbé.

We never got really close to the actual lac; according to Adu one has to know the surface and area very well to not end up in treacherous areas. Because of the haze we only had the faintest view of the lac at the best of times.

The area leading to the lac was indeed the best surreal landscape I’d ever laid eyes on; truly spectacular. We stopped for a few forays between the mud formations; and mud they are, not rock. The whole area is formed by geo-thermal activity that somehow pushes the mud up and then it dries in those weird moonscape like formations.

Onwards to campement As’Bolé, our lodgings for the night. Primitive but clean toilets and showers, mosquito nets for us tourists and lots of food. If it hadn’t been for the damn flies that evening I would have totally enjoyed it. Then again the flies were only there from about an hour before till sunset, so outside of that time all was well.

We set out for a sunset walk on the shores of Lac Abbé, but since it was still completely hazy there wasn’t much of a sunset to be enjoyed. The landscape was amazing regardless. There was quite a lot of thermal activity going on and we walked past some seriously hot water pools. The surface also felt spungy and bouncy at times.

Back to the camp for dinner and to retire for the night. The side flaps of our primitive tent were left open so the night breeze could keep us relatively cool. It was after all still 36C°!

Up around 5am for a sunrise walk in the surreal landscape. It was still too hazy for spectacular effects, but oh well. We were still unaware that the haze was caused by the dust of an earthquake a few days earlier.

Breakfast and in the car to start the drive towards the Grand Barra Desert and Lac Assal. On the way out we stopped at the site supposedly used in the 1973 ‘Planet of the Apes’ – I have not been able to get that confirmed online; will have to do some more digging.

Back through Dikhil and then we went for a little off-road detour through the middle of the Gran Barra Desert, fun and hot. Back to the road, which through the effect of a mirage looked like a huge lake; probably the best mirage I’ve seen. We then proceeded towards some ‘old rock paintings’ and almost got stuck in the soft sand. The paintings weren’t much too look at.

For photos of this part of the trip go to:

Djibouti and Lac Abbé


We rejoined the RN1 and took the turn-off to Tadjoura towards the main goal of our trip: Lac Assal. Instead of taking the main road to Lac Assal we turned onto a road marked ‘Private Road – Salt Investments’. According to Adu it led straight to a beach on the shores of Lac Assal, and right he was.

We more or less determined where sea-level was (we took the average between the readings on our Garmin and Nikon GPS’s ) and stopped for a photo.

Shortly after we caught our first, albeit still extremely hazy, glimpse of Lac Assal we made it to said beach. Salt beach mind you; sandals required or you could get some nasty cuts on the salt crust. It was absolutely beautiful. And hot. Very hot. The hidden sun still reflected off the salt we were standing on. I could feel the heat burning but couldn’t care less: I had made it to yet another of the 7 lows! My fourth! Sunscreen on my legs and long sleeves did help J. Who would have thought a year ago I’d ever be here. The idea of only took shape in June last year (2010).

We set up the tripod, took our photos, walked around, felt the hot water and generally enjoyed the moment.

We were limited in time and Dolphin Excursions did not permit us taking the car on the actual salt flat, but nevertheless it was well worth the trip!

Afterwards we headed towards our camp for the night. While As’Faille camp looked reasonable form a distance I was not at all taken by the totally dilapidated state it was in. On top of that the ‘rooms’ were corrugated iron huts, far to hot to even set foot in (with daytime temperatures  of 48° and nighttime temperatures of 36°C!). So… I was told we would sleep ‘en plein air’. Ok. Deep breath… Not nets? What about mosquitoes? And creepy-crawlies? Enfin, since the iron roms definitely were not an option, I had to start mentally preparing for a night under the stars. As the evening progressed an our beds were set up for the night I got used to the idea. We had the total lunar eclipse that night to look forward to!

Electric lamps were produced we really had dinner by electric candlelight. The moths liked it as well. The flies, of which there were much less than the previous night, again disappeared after dark. The toilet was clean and had 2 rolls of paper and a bucket with water; no showers though. Oh well.

We retired to our room with a view around 8:30pm. The gulf was at our feet, the full moon rising in front of us and about to be eclipsed. It was balmy with a breeze, the insects were negligible (and that’s saying something coming from me) and all worries about sleeping under the stars had gone. And wouldn’t you know, Io slept better than the night before.

I woke up to Stephen moving around and saw that the lunar eclipse was in full swing; I couldn’t believe the stars I saw, despite the continuing haze. We had told Adu about the eclipse and even though he had told the other locals at the camp that it was a totally normal phenomenon, it still scared them.

We woke up around 6am, to find the water had receeded about 7m and the beach was full of little crabs. Breakfast at 7 and away by 8am.

We spent part of the morning exploring the volcanic area just southeast of Lac Assal. This area is part of the Rift Valley and 3 tectonic plates converge there: African, Arabian and Somali Plates.

The ‘road’ was rough and some serious 4WD’ing was needed. Our car did break down 4 times in about 30 mins, which had us worried for a while. In hindsight we think Adu pressed a wrong button at one stage and was driving on the empty auxiliary tank. Once he realized that, all was well again. We were never more than a 5mile hike away from the main road, which would have been doable. We also had lots of water. Suffice it to say though that we were all very happy to be back on the main road with a functioning car!

We then basically gunned it back to the Kempinski hotel in Djibouti City.

After checking in and freshening up we found out about the volcanic eruption and that our flights out the next day were cancelled due to it. We booked an extra night in the Kempinski.  I could think of worse places to get stuck for a day.

Dealing with Ethiopian Airlines proved to be a bit of a challenge. Nothing could be done over the phone so we headed over to their office in town upon opening the next morning. We got on a flight from Djibouti City to Addis Ababa a day later, but they couldn’t give us any information on onwards flight from ADD. The scene at Djibouti airport was one of pure chaos and for a while there it looked like we weren’t going to get on the flight, but somehow we did. Almost upon arrival at ADD we got confirmed on the next flight from there to LHR. Things could have been worse!

Although a very short trip it was well worth it! Stephen and I both enjoyed being there and adding another one of the 7lows to our list!








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