The ride back seems faster, as we backtrack and bounce over the road that brought us to the limestone chimneys. After a repeat of yesterday’s lunch in Dikhil, we soon roll down the windows through twisty mountain roads and let cool winds refresh our faces. We’re on our way to one of the world’s saltiest lakes, which also marks the lowest point of land in all of Africa, Lac Assal.
Baboons beg for food near the stopping point at Djibouti’s “Grand Canyon.” Relationships and comradery begin building in our tour group evidenced by increasing jokes and laughter.
Our caravan of land cruisers approaches Lac Assal, rimmed with salt instead of waves. “You can float on top of the lake,” Erellah says. “But don’t force your head underwater. The large salt crystals are sharp and will cut you.”
While the rest of the tour group don bathing suits and float on the surface of this salty lake, Marilynn and I have a different plan. Since we’re at the lowest point of Africa, why not get high? Sounds better than getting salty. Enter Omar Tata, who invites us to the crew’s private hut for khat and conversation. We join Omar, his sister, Yusuf our driver, a few members of our kitchen crew and some local Afar friends. Yusuf explains that they do this after work, and in moderation.
Turns out, I’ve been chawing khat all wrong. Instead of biting into the leaves like a goat, Omar demonstrates how to pick the small, fresh leaves from the stem and discard the others. Here we are, Marilynn and I, sitting in a desolate hut chawing khat with the locals and trying to communicate. We offer some of our wine bottle, but alcohol is forbidden in Islam and they strictly abide, without casting judgement upon us. Maybe we start to feel a little something from the khat, or is it the wine?
“When Ethiopia quit exporting khat to Djibouti in a trade war, people were very upset.” Omar explains. “After a week without khat our Prime Minister initiated negotiations and made allowances to make sure we got our khat.” Omar smiles. “Now the Prime Minister grows his own patch of khat at his home in the mountains.”
Pretty soon, Yusuf, Omar and his sister sing a song in Afar. They sing one line, then Marilynn does her best to sing it back. As we continue chewing Marilynn’s singing in Afar improves. Maybe we’re feeling the khat?
Marilynn and I must emerge from the “khathouse” and rejoin the group, which appears to be gathering for dinner. Unsure of whether we’re buzzed from the khat or the wine, we first grab our military cots and look for a strategic spot to sleep under the stars on a salt mountain. Darkness descends. At least we have head lamps. Ever try to carry an outstretched military cot in the wind on a salt mountain while stoned? The gods must be with us crazies, as we find a perfect spot to camp next to a ledge that shields us.
Dinner brings more Djibouti salad, rice, potato sauce, French fries and bread, but this time we have well-done fish instead of chicken. Our American friend appears to be a bit hammered as well, and we love him. Suddenly, we love everybody! We enjoy the best night of sleep on this trip thus far, out in the open under trillions of stars.
Tears roll down Marilynn’s cheeks in the morning, as she’s deeply moved watching a salt caravan trek under the rising sun. The camels will carry salt for the five-week journey to Ethiopia.
Afar nomads dig salt from the shores, as well as gather perfect spheres of salt formed from years of rolling on the bottom of the lake, they walk to Ethiopia to sell the goods. “White Gold” trading has been going on for many generations. This lake is ten times saltier than the ocean.
The Chinese built a salt plant here to gather the commodity. Once they finish the railway to Ethiopia, local Afar people who toil so hard to scratch out a living could be put out of business.
Let’s take a hike!
Ardoukoba Volcano last erupted in 1978. We trek at a slow place and take lots of breaks. “It’s not a competition,” Erellah explains. “We enjoy the sights and drink lots of water.” That’s a lesson that I am learning, to slow down.
The gods bless us with cloudy skies this morning. Black volcanic rock dominates the boulders, mountains, gravel, sand and valleys. Members of our group gather discarded plastic water bottles, left here from Somalian refugees who have walked this route, the only alternative to escape war, famine, rape and torture. People of Djibouti may appear poor but have a rich heart, offering life-saving asylum to many of their neighbors.
That hot African sun appears several hours later during our ascent to the crater. All of us make it out and express joy at the sight of those old, rugged Toyota Land Cruisers filled with cold soft drinks!
While nobody feels much like walking in the sun any longer, we embark for a unique sight. This significant surface crack with a deep hole in the middle represents the African tectonic plate and Arabic plate slowly separating.
Tonight, we stay in huts atop a misty mountain, next to the Dead Forest, where the Prime Minister lives, and grows his khat. Whoopee! We get to shower!
Thank you, Abundant Universe!