Wednesday, September 15, 2010

40 - Mad Dogs and Englishmen, Extreme Version

Dikhil oasis
Time to move on from Planet of the Apes – and still no sightings of Galen. We roll off over the grey stoney plain, pretty little gazelles and rampant tusked grey boars finding sustenance in the scant green of this unforgiving landscape. We stroll around the palm oasis of Dikhil which the French transformed into a fruit and vegetable garden. Kids are playing football in a square near the tomb of and monument to a Frenchman and his 16 Djibouti Afar companions who died 80 years ago pushing back an invasion by Ethiopian Afars. One of the kids shows off his English, putting on a winning smile of welcome and sweetly saying F... off, much to Daniel's horror.

It is at such a time as this that muggins decides to change the programme. Daniel has planned to visit the hot spots, literally, at around 4 p.m., when they become less hot. Nah, quoths I, let's go now and get the full monty. So we pile into the van and make the first important port of call – Dikhil's qat market where Adam buys his daily dose for $10, carefully wrapping the moistened leaves in a carefully moistened towel.

Dikhil street
It's about 2 p.m., the hottest period of the day, when we hit Adeileh Canyon - and it's 48 Celsius, 118 Fahrenheit. Ah nothing, quoths I, jumping into the furnace. The canyon is true desolation, sheer grey and black ribbed walls curving, twisting and dropping 400 to 700 metres where the Arabian, Nubian or African, and Somalian plates intersect in the Great Rift Valley network. The stark grey-blackness is relieved here and there by stunted green bushes on the ridges, barely perceptible and few-and-far-between blushes of red lurking on the escarpments – and, remarkably, a small brilliant emerald pond at the bottom of one of the deepest rifts.

In several million or so years, give or take a few hundred thousand, a new sea, provisionally called the Afar Ocean, will appear here; the plates are separating at the rate of two centimetres a year. But by that time parts of Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia will have broken off to form a new land mass – and Morocco and the Mediterranean will have disappeared under the European plate, so the geologists tell us.
Adeileh canyon
Coming back to our own days: wow, it IS hot; we return to the van, liquefied. But it doesn't seem to affect a troop of grey, red-arsed baboons who lope insolently across the road on a post-prandial perambulation. And Adam's left cheek is swelling most cheerfully again.

Pool at bottom of canyon
Fahrenheit 451 - OK, it's not high noon but a little after 2 p.m. when we reach the lake that is the lowest point in Africa, Lac Assal, about 500 feet below sea level. It's 52 Celsius, 126 Fahrenheit, ready to do us to a nice crisp. And that's in the shade. But there IS no shade. Gawd alone knows what it is under the bare sun. Daniel's original plan is beginning to seem rather attractive.

Hundreds of little holes bubble up with boiling water from the earth's bowels, filling green algae-adorned pools that feed a lake far saltier than the Dead Sea. And what do we have here? Some arsehole has thrown a plastic bottle into one of the pools, another has abandoned a plastic spoon nearer the lake, a third has abandoned an empty tuna fish tin on the blindingly white salt-caked shore. Still others have left ugly graffiti memorials to their presence in barely accessible rocky nooks. Daniel plays the good citizen for the first three – he doesn't want to break his neck for the last.
Lac Assal

The lake shore shines like snow in the sizzling heat, the nearby water glistens a light blue-green, and the lake itself vanishes into the haze against a backdrop of stark brown mountains. OK, enough is enough! We return to the van, the air-condition - and Adam's growing bulge and idiot grin.

Assal bubbling pool

Lake feeder from the pool
Lake Assal view

Lake Assal
Lake Assal
A 'blush' of green in Adeileh's dsesolation

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