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Djibouti’s White Gold

Today I’m sending you to my story Djibouti’s White Gold, published in EthnoTraveler.

I’ll confess that I loved writing this piece. A little history, a little hell and devils, a little family adventure…It required research, in French, and lots of editing. Learning about Djibouti’s history and geography and landscape fascinates me but precious little is written about it at all. What is written is in French and the French books are in the little library but the ones I want to read can not be removed from the building, which is closed during the summer months (who closes the library in the summer?!). This makes research quite challenging, which makes it feel like a treasure hunt. I’m only scratching the surface of these treasures and these books and this is the first piece I’ve written based on it. Would love for you to read and share and enjoy.


Djibouti’s White Gold

Salt caravans still cross the Danakil Depression between Djibouti and Ethiopia. Camels, led by Afar men and loaded down with salt bricks and crystals and smaller granules to trade, plod through this portion of the Great Rift Valley, the 6,000 kilometers-long trench stretching from northern Syria to Mozambique, as they have done for thousands of years.

The salt comes from Lac Assal (Salt Lake), the lowest point in Africa and, at 155 meters below sea level, the third lowest depression on earth. It is the second most salinated lake in the world, after Don Juan Pond in Antarctica. Volcanoes surround the lake like sentries, like ancient, immovable pillars. One of them, Ardoukoba Volcano, erupted in 1978. The dry winds and relentless sun that scorch the land and sap the air of moisture have earned this region a most forbidding nickname: Hell.

In 1937 Edgar Aubert de la Rüe and his wife began the arduous task of mapping Djibouti, or what was then known as French Somaliland. In the region of the Ghoubbet el-Kharab they descended into Lac Assal, into hell. Under the full moon, so as to avoid the blistering sun, they hiked down a corridor carved into the basalt, passing the graves of people who had apparently died of thirst.

lac assal salt crystals

They climbed over cliffs and by the time they reached the lake, beads of sweat had formed on their brows, as though they were in a steam bath though the day had not yet fully begun. “We felt we were literally suffocating,” Edgar wrote about the hike, “and there was a violent, brusque wind.”

French explorers Joseph Kessel and Henri Mondfried had stumbled across Lac Assal seven years earlier, in 1930, while following an ancient slave trading path from Ethiopia to the Red Sea. They referred to the “death waters of Lac Assal” and described the gorge as having been sculpted by demons in the pit of hell. Monfried wrote that the lake had three circles, “one of black lava, one of shining silver, and one of intense blue.”

Go here to read more about the colors of hell and what my family does when we get there: Djibouti’s White Gold.

Salt Balls

Lac Assal is 120 kilometers west of Djibouti City. Past what we call Djibouti’s Grand Canyon, past the overlook with the memorial to French Judge Borrel who died in Djibouti in the 90’s. Down, down, down a curving and bumpy road. The temperature climbs with every minute of descent until it reaches 50C or more. This is the lowest point in Africa at 155 meters below sea level.

Here are some of the treasures found in Lac Assal. Read more about the salt balls on this website of gourmet salt.




Does it amaze anyone else that at the lowest point there are hidden unique, beautiful, and pure objects?

all photos by Frame the Story

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