Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Lac Assal

Hello All,

Well, no complaints of nothing to do this week. It was evident early on in the week that change was in the air as, against all expectation, it rained. I don't mean a little rain either. I mean a loud-hammering-on-the-metal-roof, dirty brown water cascading down the main street, soaking your bathroom rug because you forgot the little window was open kind of rain. A cloudburst which has since repeated itself twice. The season of the Fifty Days is emphatically over, and remarkably close to the 50 days of the folk wisdom. The weather may be a trifle cooler now (say in the high nineties), but the humidity is truly astounding. The air has the feel you might get in resort steam room, minus the eucalyptus scent. At night, as temperatures drop into the 80's, the air has a palpable, almost silky feel on the skin - a sensation I remember from summer nights down near the riverfront in St. Louis. It's not unpleasant until the sun comes up and you get to feeling again like you're a turkey in one of those self-basting bags. Phew!

One definite improvement though is the clarity of the air. The air for the

past two months or so has constantly had a perceptibly dusty quality.

Sometimes it has been just at the edge of perception - a taste in the wind,

or the dun cast of the sun as it nears the horizon - and sometimes it has

been the dominant fact of negotiating the world outside of the CLU - a

gritty, stinging miasma swirling and eddying in every corner and creeping

into every imaginable spot. No more! The air is clear, the distant hills

of Somalia and the truncated volcanic cones standing guard over the

Djiboutian plains stand out in sharp detail. At night the Southern Cross

can now be seen pointing the way down the Great Rift Valley to Africa's

ancient heart. It's as if nature has polished its spectacles and only now do

we realize how used to the haze we had become.

This all could not have come at a better time, as I had a chance last week

to join the CJTF-HOA geologist and some companions on a trip to Lac Assal,

and to enjoy some spectacular vistas on the way. The lake is the saltiest

in the world, outside of a couple of hyper saline ponds in Antarctica, and

is the lowest point in Africa, at about 153 meters below sea-level. It sits

in the Afar depression- one of the most interesting geological spots in the

world where the East African plate is tearing itself away from the rest of

the continent and from the Arabian peninsula to its north. This is

technically an mid oceanic ridge spreading zone, and the only other one

above water is in Iceland. The landscape is some of the starkest and most

interesting I've seen. And that was only part of the fun!

So, we set out in two separate vehicles at about 0900 on a Sunday morning.

Clouds from the last rain storm still darkened the western horizon, but at

our backs the African sun set to work to boil away the overcast, and by noon

it would be almost cloudless. We headed west out of the city, angling

toward the tip of the gulf of Tadjoura, just inland of the Bay of Goudouk.

Driving out of the city on the N9, one quickly climbs into an arid plateau.

We passed Arta, the town that overlooks the bay where I had done such

rewarding diving a month or two ago. The road, except for a 10 mile stretch

a few miles part Arta, was pretty good. Most of the traffic was made up of

heavily laden trucks in various degrees of disrepair, many pulling trailers

of equal or greater decrepitude. They were laden with all manner of

produce, machine parts, construction materials and other goods too various

to name, all bound for land-locked Ethiopia. The country on either side of

the road was rocky and arid, with mostly drab brown and muted green scrub,

and the occasional flashes of vivid green where water rose close enough to

the surface to sustain some vegetation. There were scattered small

settlements as we left the port well behind us. Some were ramshackle

affairs of crumbling cement and dilapidated stone buildings. Some were

collections of corrugated metal and whatever scraps of wood and cement the

occupants seemed able to collect. The larger villages had mosques, whose

minarets were the tallest structures for miles around.

Some score or more miles past Arta we turned north. We were now high on the

plateau that descends as if in giant steps down to the basin in which Lac

Assal sits. Our first stop was " The Japanese Monument", which Len - the

geologist - said had been erected to commemorate the deaths of some Japanese

citizens in a traffic accident on that lonely highway. The monument was

surrounded by a low cement wall, enclosing a space in which two weathered

pyramidal markers sat, with the explanatory plaques on the front long since

pried off and presumably sold off as scrap metal. The melancholy scene was

completed by the soughing of the dry breeze off the Ethiopian highlands, and

the bleaching bones of a long deceased camel. We paused, reflected, drank some water and headed back on the road.

The next stop was considerably less sombre. We arrived after another 15 minutes at a site called (by Americans) The Djiboutian Grand canyon. I haven't found a formal name on a map, so I can't give any more details, except to say that the comparison is not altogether unwarranted - it certainly could be taken for a small section of that great American monument. The photo in the top right doesn't quite do it justice. It was formed by water erosion of the alternating layers of basaltic lava and paleosol, as the water ran off the plateaus to the west down to the Gulf. We spent a few minutes clambering about, snapping photos and "hallooing" into the maw of the canyon, which gave back quite a satisfying echo. Then off to the next stop...

We paused at a scenic vista, looking from the lofty shoulders of the high country down to the Gulf of Tadjoura at our right, the Gulf's all but sealed off western end - the Ghoubet al Kharab, a bay with a slender channel into the greater gulf, and beyond a lava bridge, plummeting to the lowest point of the continent, Lac Assal. I don't have a photo that does the scene justice, but suffice to say that, geology-wise, this is a happening place. We stayed long enough to buy some carved pumice, geodes and obsidian flakes from the vendor who seemed to have an informal franchise at the lookout - a dilapidated box roped to the side of the guard rail. Then back to the cars to begin our own descent to the nadir of the Rift.

The road deteriorated a bit and finally gave way to rutted dirt - not the worst such in Djibouti by far. Next stop was a valley toward the Western shore of the lake. Here a five minute walk led us to a spring at the end of a box canyon. The stream that bubbled up from beneath the rocks was scalding to touch - we measured 170 degrees Fahrenheit at the source. It is heated by the volcanic processes churning away beneath the thin crust of this spreading zone. More than moment spent in that clear running water would parboil the flesh on your bones, but literally the width of a decent long jump away, in a small pond with a slightly cooler water source, swam prolific schools of tiny fishes - smaller than minnows but in great number. What a marvelous thing is nature, how ingenious and how profligate with her genius! The failure of the barrier wall, the slipping of a well placed boulder and the little colony would be so many bite sized sole meuniere. Ain't that all of us in miniature though..?

Finally the lake itself. We arrived at the great salt pan - a vast precipitation of halide and gypsum crystals on the marge of 21 square miles of the saltiest water north of Antarctica. The water was shallow and warm. The lake is normally fed mostly by sea water which seeps through the fissured basalt that forms the bedrock as well as the bridge which keeps the lake separate from the larger bodies of water away east. It's an impressive sight. The water level was high that day, the recent rains having added their substance to the lake's total. For that reason we avoided a swim - the camel and goat dung bobbing high atop the hypersaline surface were indication enough of what might have been rinsed from the surrounding hills. Embarrassing to contract diarrheal diseases when you're the most senior medical guy. We clambered, snapped, picked up and bought samples, and loaded the enterprising teen-age boys selling souvenirs with some of our extra water before calling it a day and heading back east.

The trip was interrupted for a quick descent to the the western shore of the Bab al Ghoubet, where we parked the sturdy little SUV's and splashed into the water. Another group of Camp Lemonnier based travelers were already there, refreshing themselves after the torrid trip to Lac Assal. We splished, splashed, and there may have been some cavorting although I wouldn't testify to it. We dried off quickly in the late afternoon Djiboutian sun, and then into the cars for the final leg...home.

There was much more to the trip than I have mentioned here - geologic sights, wildlife, and the people of this end of the Afar Depression eking out their lives, but I have tarried too long in getting this out already. Indeed as I write this, I am seated in a hotel room in Garmisch, nestled among the Bavarian Alps - so there is much to tell. I did want to mention one animal sighting though. En route home our lead car pulled over to let a troop of baboons cross the highway. This they did, deliberate of foot and stately of mien. The alpha male crossed first, and watched us dispassionately as the ladies, children and subordinates proceeded across. Wow. This really is Africa. What an amazing place.

We made it back weary, salty, sunburnt, and entirely enchanted. For all its heat, inconvenience and grinding poverty Djibouti is one of Earth's special places. I'm not ready to start my own eco-tourism business here you understand, but with amazing diving, geologic wonders, exotic animal species, and French food...well such a thing could be imagined. As long as your air-conditioner held out, I guess.

Anyway. Next entry more from the alps...

Photos are of the Salt Pan, the "Grand Canyon" and the Alpa male baboon.

Auf Wiedersehen!

PS: Sorry about the weird spacing in some of the paragraphs. It's not an attempt at blank verse. It's an artifact of cobbling together bits written on different computers and different programs. I'll spare you blank verse...

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