THE AFRICAN HORN
With 4x4-jeep across one of the world's most extreme environments, visiting Afar nomads, volcanoes, whale sharks, and war memorials.
The African Horn is not a typical tourist destination.
Compared to some of our other travels in East Africa – e.g. Ethiopia, Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda – Djibouti and Somaliland is unlike the rest. They're wild and totally alien and they offer something rather precious nowadays: the chance for raw adventure as yet untainted by multiple tour operators.
It is a superb new frontier for the intrepid traveler. Actually, the entire Afar Triangle is a fantastic travel destination. This triangle counts parts of north-east Ethiopia, all of Djibouti as well as areas of Eritrea and Somalia, and it is a meeting point for three of the Earth’s tectonic plates – a triple junction – which are pulling slowly away from one another creating sections lying from 40 to 150m below sea level. The Earth’s history is written right now as continents move apart and an ocean is about to be born, with the new ocean floor already being created in front of our eyes.
The result: as if two great chunks of the Moon and Mars has been carved out and jigsawed on to the Horn of Africa
Location: Djibouti and the Somaliland region of Somalia, during 3 full weeks
The infrastructure for adventure travel is very little developed which is part of the charm. There is no public transport and there aren’t any hostels to speak of. So, we arranged a 4x4 jeep and drove it across the region.
Our primary aim was to experience the life of the Afar nomads, a group of tribesmen of Hamatic origin who have lived here for thousands of years. An estimated 250.000 dwell in the western desert of Djibouti of which 50.000 are Danakil nomads. We decided to follow their trails and to stay with them in their desert camps, while also exploring the fantastic scenery along the way. This gave us the opportunity to cover much ground and really get into the depths of Djibouti, both culturally and geographically.
We had read a great deal about the Afar back home - much of the reading contained frightful stories about their customs. The Afar are known mostly for one gruesome custom. To gain the heart of a woman, a young warrior must first prove his valor by presenting to her at least one pair of testicles taken from an enemy, dead or alive. Hostile as the environment is, it is only natural that a woman should consider toughness a desirable manly virtue. This was not a land of tourism, and it is fortunate, but those who will, one day, follow the routes of the Afar will probably experience the same hospitality as we did: tribesmen sharing their huts and performing songs to celebrate the arrival of four Danish strangers.
The landscape is surreal and out-of-this-world. Merciless deserts, mountains of black volcanic rock, azure salt lakes, boiling sulfur hot springs, flat plains haunted by dust devils, smoking volcanic cones, and a brilliant-blue coastline bulging out into the Gulf of Aden. One of the most forbidding places on Earth where the temperature may reach 65 degrees and water is rare enough for nomadic tribesmen to fight and kill each other over it. Yet, it is a place where many scientist of any calling would gladly give an arm and a leg to be able to go for an extended research project to visit the “cradle of mankind”. Here, in this slice of Earth, our species has evolved and diversified in the last millions of years.
For another impression of East Africa check our climb of the wild Mount Kenya Mountain at 5.000m height. If you are keen on diving in the Read Ocean do see the Red Sea part of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel and Egypt or the Read Sea part of our journey to The Sudan. For travels deeper into the African content, check our climbing expeditions in Uganda and DR Congo.
Selected pics from this encounter:
We spent 4 full days here during our two weeks to arrange transport to the inland parts of the country, diving tours in the Gulf of Tadjoura and island hopping in the Gulf of Aden.
The city is small and compact and full of animated streets. We would simply wander around for several hours each day to catch the local vibes. The areas around the African Quarter is especially charming and chaotic with a criss-cross of alleyways where stalls and shops are lined cheek by jowl..
In an alley near the Les Caisses market in Djibouti City while stocking up on fuel, oil, rice, etc. before the first week-long 4x4 trip into the Quoton desert and Dakka desert towards Lac Abbé.
In front of the eye-catching cathedral on Boulevard the la République. This quarter has many whitewashed houses and moorish arcades with a mix of religious buildings, bars, restaurants and shops.
Mostly we would simply walk around the city. Minibusses are convenient for reaching the port, the airport and nearby markets.
The first leg we drove was from Djibouti City to Ali Sabieh through the two spectacular desert plains: the Petit Barra and the Grand Barra. Here, we a having a break at the Petit Barra, remnant of an ancient lake.
Time for coffee.
...in the Ârréï Desert near the border of Somaliland where we spent a the day. This is the second largest city in Djibouti and we came here to soak up the atmosphere. Traditionally robed Afar tribesmen and Somali ladeds jostle side by side in this extremly hot part of the African Horn.
There are innumerable street markets and food stalls in the town region along with a host of natural getaways. The region is extremely innate in nature and has no fancy spots. This is authentic, unadorned and rustic Africa.
...outside Ali Sabieh. The camp has alctually merged together with the city and we reached it by crossing a small hill. This camp hosts mainly Somali refugees although there are refugees coming from the neighbouring countries such as Eritrea and Yemen. The estimated population of the camp is around 10.600 refugees.
As we left the main tarred road after Dikhil we got into real desert driving through the Dakka Desert. Here, we started to encounter numerous Afar tribe nomads traveling from one point to another with their camels and gear. Picture taken near 'As 'Êla, where a small patch of solitary green reveas that there must be water here.
Soon we reach open ground and stoney desert dotted here and there by small thorn trees. Far ahead, shining like a mirror in the sun, stretches the shallow flats of Lac Abbé where the Danakil Afar tribesmen live, the most fierce of the Afar tribes. Most of them live in NE Ethiopia, but a fair share live in this corner of Djibouti. Along the way we meet several soletary caravans as well as groups of tribesmen.
We stop for break in a remote location where a family is setting up a camp, and after just 30 minutes we are almost suffering from a heat stroke. These people are among the poorest people on earth, who over the centuries have grown used to the fearful heat.
This village is really remote and consists of a few concrete buildings and hundreds of traditional tents stretching perhaps a few kilometres in lenght. We arrived late in the afternoon while charming kids from the nearby tents assembled around our jeep and tent. Later, we played soccer together with them.
The Muslim Afar make up a third of Djibouti’s population of under a million, and have a fierce reputation. One of their most beloved proverbs reads: “It’s better to die than live without killing.” Today, their attitudes are softening, but smiles are not easily won.
Danakil Afar boys must give proof of their courage long before they become men.
We got to sleep in the form of aria - traditional Afar hut - that we borrowed from a local family. The hut is built from a matrix of branches bent into a dome with a woven mat slung over the top to act as a roof. Beneath this is an Army-style camp bed.
Freshly baked bread and coffee. The camp cook uses small glasses of piping-hot coffee, which we pincer carefully between fingers and thumb. We sip at the brown water and let out a long, quiet whistle; it’s so sweet our fillings rattle.
He is a pretty little boy, perhaps 4 years old.
After Koûta Boûyya' and 'As Bahaltau villages we reached the western part of the Lac Abbé region. We'll never forget the first glimse of Lac Abbé: a plain dotted with hundreds of limestone chimneys, often described as "a slice of moon on the crust of earth". Groves of grayish brown thorn trees, the same color as the stark stoney ground, stretch out towards grey-brownish crags and mountains — the moon with a few trees. It’s an ocean of rocks and stones.
The area here is very mountaneous and it was fun to do a day of hiking down to the lake shore. The central part is extermely dry and also the most "spiky" part with lots of limestone chimneys. Some of these stood as high as 50m amongst boiling, sulphurous-smellings springs. We were happy to have a local guide who could steer us clear of quicksand as we hiked around the vast area.
Western Lac Abbé region. As we hike towards the plains, heat warps the air and the copper-coloured and jagged limestone chimneys bite the skyline.They appear on the horizon like a long caravan of humped camels marching through the desert .
Although the landscape is very desolate the region is not uninhabited. Numerous mineral-rich hot springs feed the farms of local Afar nomads who graze their camels and goats here.
The lake produces on it fringes rich green grass, a magnet for thusands of hungry goats which, every morning, trot to oit ahead of the Danakil Afar herders. In the background, oddly shared by eriosion, rise the sandstone castles.
Leading away from the sulfurous pools are many thin, shallow channels carved through the salt and dirt. “What’s this for?” we ask. “Afar adults build them to steer the hot water – which cools enroute – to small fields where they grow grass for their animals,” the guide explains. “Then the children bring the goats and sheep here.”
At one point our guide points to a fumerole – a pool of boiling water that bubbles and steams invitingly like a Jacuzzi. “See. This place really is heaven and hell,” he smiles. “It comes from so deep that it reaches halfway up the vents,” he says, pointing to nooks further up where we notice pigeons roosting. “They have to be careful not to cook themselves” the guide says, grinning and rubbing his tummy hungrily.
The scenery is sensational. Flamingos gather on the banks of the lake. Boiling water bubbles up from the ground into pools or spurts geyser-like into the air. The chemical-laden lake stretches on into the mountains of Ethiopia, a sheet of sultry, inhospitable grey. The lake is the terminus of the 750-mile-long Awash River, which starts life west of Addis Ababa.
His dark skin and sharp features attest his Hametic anestry. His eyes, suspicious and cunning, are devoid of innocence - no innocent creature survives in his hostile world.