Lac Abbé & Lac Assal – Djibouti’s alien landscapes

JUAN MARTINEZ

December 18, 2020

Lac Abbé & Lac Assal – Djibouti’s alien landscapes

Desertic and inhospitable, but simultaneously bizarre and flabbergasting, Lac Abbé and Lac Assal in Djibouti are some of the world’s strangest landscapes.

I will never forget the first time I glimpsed Lac Abbé’s surreal landscape at the horizon. The scenery looked so dystopian and desolated, that for a moment I thought I landed on planet Mars. Thousands of gigantic limestone chimneys dotted the vast area, temperature was so hot I had trouble breathing, and vents steaming sulphur gases made me realize this was not the place where humans should live.

Sunset at Lac Abbe Djibouti
Sunset at Lac Abbe Djibouti

On the other side, Lac Assal looks at first sight like the garden of Eden. It is a lake of crystal clear waters ringed by a perfect white beach and surrounded by the most beautiful mountain landscapes of Djibouti. But the reason why not a single tourist or local comes here to take the sun or swim in its warm waters is not to preserve its pristine state. Up close, Lac Assal is one of the most inhospitable places on earth. The colorful water is an oily hypersaline lake where life is inexistent and the snow white sand is actually salt that burns your skin.

These are the lakes of Abbé and Assal. Two of the most desolated places on earth, but at the same time two marvels of nature.

view of Lac Assal
view of Lac Assal from the main road

An otherworldly section of planet earth

The Afar region in Eastern Africa never ceases to amaze me. I had the opportunity to visit this part of the world several times and the more I explore any of its natural sceneries, the more astonished I get. This is home of some of the weirdest landscapes I have seen and one of the few places on planet earth, where human actions are almost inexistent

Visiting Lac Abbé and Lac Assal is also not easy at all. These two lakes are located in Djibouti, one of the least visited countries in the world and not practically a popular tourist destination. Beside some members of foreign military bases, as well a couple of adventurers who feel a fascination to visit countries off the beaten path, there is not much traffic of visitors.

Tourist photographing in Lac Abbe Djibouti
Tourist photographing Lac Abbe’s surreal landscape

With limited flights, land borders in conflict and a strategic position for military alliances, Djibouti is also considered the most expensive country in Africa. 3-Star hotels here rarely go below 80 USD a night and multiple day tours can easily go up to a couple of thousand of dollars.

NOTE: Even though multiple local companies offer day tours to Lac Abbé and Lac Assal, there were only a few travel agencies in the capital city I could personally visit. It was way easier to book a tour online and plan my trip in advance. I booked with the company Somaliland Travel Agency – a local agency that focuses on tours around Djibouti, as well the northern part of Somalia, also known as Somaliland.  

Djibouti - Salt crust in the shores of Lac Assal
Salt crust in the shores of Lac Assal

The unapproachable Lac Abbé

One of the biggest surprises I found when visiting Lac Abbe, is how unapproachable its waters are. This is one of the most inaccessible bodies of water in the world and therefore the attraction to Lac Abbé does not lie in seeing the lake, but in exploring its coastal surroundings.

Reaching Lac Abbé is an adventure as well,  as we drove from Djibouti’s capital for at least 7 hours. Even though the distance between these two places is just 170km, there are no roads in a big section of the journey and at some point, we were even driving on top of a dense quicksand – this is definitely not the road to travel independently, as on our second day we spotted a French military vehicle that got stuck in the quicksand, simply because they did not know the road (Ironically the rescue vehicle got stuck too).

Once in Lac Abbé, most tour guides simply take you for a walk, explain you the uniqueness of the landscape and show you to a couple of limestone chimneys that are strong enough for you to climb up and watch the sunset.

Nights in Lac Abbé are simple but charming. The few visitors who come to this place stay at Asboley Camp, a tourist camp consisting of over a dozen armadillo tents and owned by a local Afar, Kamil Hassan.

Asboley Camp in Lac Abbe
Tents at Asboley Camp in Lac Abbé

As the curious adventurer I am, I talked my way into Kamil and convinced him to join me visiting the lake on the next day. He told me I was the first traveler of the year who wanted to go that far and warned me that it was going to be quite an expedition.

From Asboley Camp to the shores of lake Abbé there are only 12 km apart. However, driving so far was not an option, as we could only go right before the soft and viscous mud of the salt flats start to sink under the vehicle’s weight. We had to walk for hours through grass fields, hot springs and salt flats – all of this under a temperature of almost 40 degrees and not a single shade to take a rest.

Sadly,  around 300m from the coastline, the jelly-like terrain was sinking me half a meter with each step. The hot quicksand mixed with sulphur started burning my skin up to a point, in which I could not take another step further. Even though I spotted the flamingos from a distance, I was not able to reach the saline waters of the lake – an example of how protected this lake is.

Read more: Visiting the Danakil Depression – The world’s hottest place

Lac Abbe- Lac Assal - Djiboutimy legs full of mud and sulphuric quicksand
my legs full of mud and sulphuric quicksand

The illusory Lac Assal

From Lac Abbe multiple day tours usually go next to Lac Assal. In contrary to Lac Abbé, Lac Assal is located only 1 hour 45 minutes from Djibouti City and the roads are in excellent shape. This is also a common day trip destination for business travelers or military members who got the weekend off.

From far away, Lac Assal can be easily mistaken for a Caribbean beach. The multi-colored waters of the lake reflect different tones of blue, green and turquoise. Also, the large coastline can be misunderstood as a perfect white sandy beach. From a distance, it is difficult to understand the lack of travelers/locals exploring this gorgeous area.

Coastline of Lac Assal in Djibouti
Coastline of Lac Assal in Djibouti

At 155m below sea level and with a salinity of 35%, Lac Abbe is the lowest point in Africa and the saltiest lake outside Antarctica (the Dead Sea has a salinity of 33%). This is a place where life can’t exist and even by standing next to the shore, my skin got some kind of oily and salty texture, that made me feel uncomfortable and itchy. I wanted to leave this place as soon as possible and just look at it from a distance.

The sole purpose of the lake is not tourism, but to extract salt. It is the world’s largest salt reserve and it provides most of the salt Djibouti and its neighboring countries use. Lac Assal is far away from being a tourist hotspot, but at the same time it is a fascinated place to explore.

Read more: A travel guide to Djibouti City – The Paris of Africa

Extraction of salt in Lac Assal - Djibouti
Extraction of salt in Lac Assal – Djibouti

NOTE: Djibouti is an expensive country. Day tours to Lac Assal start in 100 USD and 2 night tours visiting Lac Assal and Lac Abbé cost around 700 USD. I could not find any group tours for just one or two nights.

These tours incluide accomodation, transportation, food and a local guide who speaks English.

Read more: Exploring the White and Black Desert in Egypt

Salt flat of Lac Assal in Djibouti
Salt flats next to Lac Assal in Djibouti

Lac Abbé and Lac Assal are not the usual places to spend your holidays. At the same time, its inaccessibility, remoteness and inhospitable climate, makes it one of the few destinations on earth, where someone can really disconnect from modern concerns and explore raw nature. There are not many locations like this and to those who explore it, they will find a new world they have not seen before.  

Read more: Lac Abbe – The birthplace of a new ocean

Stargazing in Lac Abbe - Night photography
With zero pollution in this part of the world, stargazing in Lac Abbe is one of the best activites at night

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