The birthplace of a new ocean

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Lake Abbe straddles the border of Ethiopia and Djibouti

Straddling the Ethiopia-Djibouti border and surrounded by an arid, apocalyptic desert, Lake Abbe is one of the most extraordinary and inaccessible bodies of water in the world. Measuring 19km wide and 17km long and brimming with so much salt it’s poisonous to drink, this vast alkaline lake may look like a desert oasis, but its unusual geology is more akin to a lunar landscape. Hundreds of giant limestone chimneys dot the horizon, soaring above the blue-green salt flats and reaching heights of up to 50m. These spired pinnacles often belch clouds of steaming sulphur into the air, creating an otherworldly scene in one of Africa’s most inhospitable regions.

The alkaline lake sits in the middle of the vast Afar Depression

Lake Abbe is located at the junction of the Somali, Arabian and Nubian tectonic plates. Also known as the Afar Depression, the region is home to the earliest-known human fossil specimens and is believed by some palaeontologists to be the cradle of civilisation. The lake’s unique appearance is the result of the underground tectonic plates gradually splitting, causing the Earth’s crust under Lake Abbe to continuously thin. As these plates slowly moved apart, underwater springs allowed magma to escape through thin cracks deep in the lake. As it did, deposits of travertine (a volcanically heated, calcium-rich limestone) created gigantic desert chimneys over thousands of years, which only became visible as the water level of the lake dropped by two-thirds in the 1950s when it was funnelled away for irrigation purposes.

Geophysicists believe this area will be the home of a new ocean in 10 million years

Today, the tectonic plates below the Afar Depression are still diverging at a speed of around 2cm per year, and geophysicists believe that in roughly 10 million years, the Afar Depression – and this vast alkaline lake – will be the birthplace of a new ocean. As the plates continue to rip apart, scientists believe the Red Sea will flood Djibouti’s coastal highlands and the Afar Depression will be completely covered in water. According to the scientists at the [NASA Earth Observatory](, the Red Sea, the East African Rift Valley and the Gulf of Aden will transform into an ocean as big as the Atlantic, while the Horn of Africa will become an island.

The Afar people living in the area are semi-nomadic

Though the Afar Depression is one of Africa’s most isolated and inhospitable environments, it’s not uninhabited. Driving 150km west from Djibouti’s capital, Djibouti City, to Lake Abbe, scattered settlements and isolated aris (armadillo shell-shaped huts made of palm mats) dot a sun-scorched landscape with too little water for permanent farmlands to survive. “Living in an ari is very common among the Afar [people who live here],” said local guide Mohammed Omar Ali. “They are easy to carry from one place to another.” Many of the Afar living in the region are semi-nomadic. They migrate around the Depression’s salt flats with their families, finding salt to trade and water and food to survive before moving on. Most of these small, makeshift Afar villages don’t have potable water or electricity. According to Omar Ali, many of the settlements around Lake Abbe didn’t even exist until relatively recently due to their inaccessibility.

Climate change has increased temperatures in this already-sweltering region

With temperatures hovering around 30C in winter and 45C in summer, Lake Abbe is one of the hottest year-round places on Earth. Many young Afar shepherds, farmers and merchants work under the blazing sun in harsh conditions. In recent years, the effects of climate change have increased temperatures in the region even further and also exacerbated droughts. But according to Omar Ali, the Afar are hesitant to leave the Depression and prefer to stay, forming makeshift communities and continuing their traditional way of life.

In the morning, steam from underground springs pours through vents in soaring chimneys

This eerie landscape is most evocative at dawn, when the temperature is the coolest and steam rises from the underground hot springs up through the vents of the chimneys. Later, at sunrise, brilliant shades of orange and pink fill the sky, illuminating the hot springs and salt deposits in a dazzling light show. No other place on the planet looks quite like this. In fact, scientists believe the most similar chimney-like formations are located at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, where large tectonic plates are also slowly ripping apart and creating comparable structures.

Most visitors only see Lake Abbe on a brief day trip from Djibouti City

Even though most visitors come to Lake Abbe on day trips from Djibouti City, the best way to discover Lake Abbe’s diverse topography and to see the lake’s famous pink flamingos is to camp overnight. Also, only a handful of guides, such as Asboley Camp leader Kamil Hassan, can take visitors to the lake. Hassan has lived a large part of his life in Lake Abbe and has seen how the region has become drier and less fertile over the years. With his topographical and cultural knowledge of the region, he is now trying to spur tourism as an alternative means of survival for the Afar.

Pink flamingoes live in the hypersaline waters of Lake Abbe

“Tourists rarely try to see the flamingos. You are the first one this year,” said Hassan. “It is just too difficult.” Reaching the hypersaline waters of Lake Abbe and seeing the migrating flocks of lesser and greater flamingos is an expedition in itself. From Asboley Camp, bird enthusiasts drive until the soft and viscous mud of the salt flats start to sink under the vehicle’s weight. Then, visitors must walk for several hours through grass fields, hot springs and vast salt flats without a trace of shade to protect them from the harsh rays of the sun. Around 300m from the coastline, the jelly-like terrain of mud and quicksand causes anyone – or anything – to sink half a metre with each step, creating a natural barrier that protects the birds from predators.

At night, Lake Abbe looks like a sci-fi set

Once the sun goes down, Lake Abbe transforms into the perfect dystopian fantasy set. The silhouettes of the distorted chimneys look otherworldly as the temperature drops. As stars blanket the sky, life slows down at Lake Abbe. Most Afar spend time in their nomadic communities and the only people visible from a distance are shepherds herding donkeys back to their settlements before nocturnal predators such as jackals or hyenas emerge to hunt.

Few places are as remote as Lake Abbe

With no marked roads, electricity or basic infrastructure, Lake Abbe’s remoteness creates a feeling of isolation like few places on Earth. And while travellers who visit Lake Abbe may view this remote landscape as a world apart, for the Afar, it’s home.

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