Djibouti: Lac Abbé
Horn of Africa
May 4, 2011
Djibouti has the modern colonial syndrome. The French rulers departed thirty-four years ago, but here, like other places in the world, even after a generation or two, people are still pissed off. Unlike Ethiopia, sometimes invaded, but never colonized, where everyone smiles a sparkling smile, folks in Djibouti City sneer, more or less, with a rotted out set of khat -gnawed teeth. So what in heaven’s name am I doing here?
I am here for the lakes.
Ah, what lakes!
Since 1999, Djibouti has been ruled by Ismail Omar Guelleh who took over from his uncle who came to power after the French left in 1977.
Djibouti is a mostly Muslim country. Nevertheless, Djibouti has a raucous nightlife. The club in the basement of my hotel was so loud that the vibrations and noise rose up to my third floor guestroom. I changed rooms three times but there was no respite until closing time - 3:00 am! I swore I would not spend another night in this place.
This busy port city and militarily strategic city location of more than 600,000 is, simply put, unappealing.* The city is surrounded by slums of the worst sort. Taxi drivers, tuk-tuk drivers, tour operators, shopkeepers…everybody’s hustling. To be diplomatic about it, restaurant and hotel service is, poor. And to top it off, since most everything is imported, including power, everything is very, very expensive.
Lac Abbé is the first lake on my itinerary. But it’s a long drive to get there. All day in fact across some of the most desolate terrain I have ever seen. Yet desolate has its own beauty and there is an “oasis” or two along the way, including the small, home town of my driver.
We arrive at the lake at dusk. This is a very strange place. And hot and humid. So instead of sleeping inside what could be generously called a “hut”, my host set up a cot under the stars. And with no city, town, or even village glare anywhere nearby, the stars are the stars.
The next morning, before breakfast, I wander across the ancient bed of the lake. This place gives real meaning to the word “awesome.” Have you ever felt that you were walking on an ancient, yet living sea bed? Across a so-called “moonscape”? Lac Abbé was the set for Planet of the Apes!
On the border of Ethiopia, Lac Abbé sits on the fault lines of three tectonic plates. Steam and hot water boil up from the depths. Limestone “chimneys” up to 50m tall (164 ft) cover the flat, sandy landscape. The rock itself is light, irregular, and pock-marked. I am thinking, “bizarre.”
On the opposite side of the camp and down the hill, it’s a long walk to the undrinkable-water-filled lake that hundreds of flamingoes call home. Occasionally a very young girl crosses the desolate flood plain minding her drove of goats. Where is she going? What will the goats will eat? It’s a mystery.
*Djibouti serves as the major import-export venue for it neighbor to the west - landlocked Ethiopia.
Djibouti sits astride the Bab-el-Mandeb, the Strait of Mandeb, a very narrow strip of water indeed that connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. Just across the strait lies the Arabian Peninsula – Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
I don’t know how many air force and navy and foreign armies are stationed here in this strategic spot. I met American and French military. I suspect there are Dutch and Germans here as well. At the airport I met a young Belgian man who is a volunteer in another contingent - the French Foreign Legion. He pointed out the airbase across the tarmac where an American drone aircraft was taxiing. Countless small planes helicopters took off and landed.