At first glance, Djibouti’s Lac Assal could easily be mistaken for a Caribbean beach
At first glance, Djibouti’s Lac Assal appears as a glorious expanse of aquamarine water ringed by blinding white sand. It could easily be mistaken for a Caribbean beach. However, it is all a façade, a mere simulacrum of paradise. The vast plain is not sand at all, but salt. Walking barefoot towards the water across the crystallised salt field is uncomfortable at best. As you near the lake’s edge, the fierce wind whips across the plain and slings salt particles against your skin. Entering the water offers no respite. The warm, shallow lake has a strange, viscous quality; an oily texture that leaves a film on the skin. It stings the eyes and bites on every contact. A tiny paper cut becomes utter torment. The film of salt, tolerable in the water, becomes itchy when scorched dry in the sun. The debris bristles on the skin and leaves you itching like a flea-ridden dog. This is no Caribbean beach.
Lac Assal is the lowest point in Africa and the third lowest point in the world
At 155m below sea level, Lac Assal is the lowest point in Africa and the third lowest point in the world after the Dead Sea (-423m) and the Sea of Galilee (-214m). It is fed by seawater via 5km-long subsurface geothermal springs linked to the Gulf of Tadjoura, an extension of the Gulf of Aden to the south-east of Lac Assal. There are no natural outflow points in the lake, meaning the lake water is trapped in the crater under Djibouti’s searing sun. Thanks to high rates of evaporation, Lac Assal has an average salt concentration of 34.8% (which climbs to as much as 40% at a depth of 20m), around 10 times saltier than seawater. It is the second saltiest body of water on Earth after Don Juan Pond in Antarctica, which has a salinity level of more than 47%. The Dead Sea has an average salt concentration of 33.7%.
Lac Assal is situated on a geological depression known as the Afar Triple Junction
Lac Assal is situated on a geological depression known as the Afar Triple Junction, where three of Earth’s tectonic plates are pulling apart, causing some unusual, often surreal, natural phenomena. The African, Somalian and Arabian plates meet in the depression, which stretches across the borders of Eritrea, Djibouti and the entire Afar Region of Ethiopia. The depression is home to an array of ecological anomalies, including the Dallol sulphur pools and Erta Ale volcano in [Ethiopia’s Danakil Desert](http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20160913-inside-ethiopias-sizzling-cauldron). Encircled by dormant volcanoes, Lac Assal – like so much of the surrounding landscape – feels like it could be on a different planet. As the water evaporates, salt and other mineral deposits cling to one another, creating jagged pillars and other formations that make up this otherworldly landscape.
Trains of camels and donkeys can still be seen carrying up to 120kg of salt each
Despite the inhospitable landscape, the Afar and Issa people have long lived and worked in the area, with salt fuelling bountiful trade for centuries. Members of the communities scrape and dig the salt from the lake’s shore to be transported along ancient caravan routes to Ethiopia in exchange for coal, coffee and other commodities. Historically, ivory and even slaves were traded for Lac Assal salt. Trains of camels and donkeys can still be seen carrying up to 120kg of salt each to Berhale in Ethiopia, a journey that can take up to five weeks. There, the salt is unloaded and taken by truck to Ethiopia’s larger cities for wider distribution.
The salt from Lac Assal became known as ‘white gold’
When the [Eritrean-Ethiopian War](https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-44004212) broke out in 1998, Djibouti replaced Eritrea as Ethiopia’s primary salt supplier. The demands of Ethiopia’s population (around 62 million at the time) kept prices high. Thus, the salt from Lac Assal became known as ‘white gold’. Traditionally, the majority of Lac Assal’s salt extraction took place on shore by hand. However, with higher demand came the need for faster and more modern extraction processes. Heavier machinery was used to extract much larger pans of salt from the water instead, where it is softer and easier to mine. Salt production in Lac Assal rocketed from thousands to hundreds of thousands of tonnes per year, leading Djibouti’s government to expand the extraction process, further utilising modern methods in order to export the salt all around the world.