22-Mar-2008 -- An adventure in the Afar
Whilst looking for something interesting to do during the Easter break, I noticed that Djibouti was one of the few countries left without a CP visit report. This tiny state, is located just 27 miles from my current home country of Yemen, across the Bāb al-Mandab strait, and has two points. One of them, 11N 42E, looked like my kind of day out: it's located in the southwestern desert, deep in Afar tribal territory. I hoped to apply some of the skills learned in my usual confluence stomping ground of Yemen in this comparably desolate and tribal former frontier-land of French Somalia.
The Afar (formerly known as the Danakil) is a term applied both to the region, which cuts across the territories of Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Djibouti, and to the ethnic group which inhabit it. The Afar people have a sobering reputation: European-led missions to the area in 1875, 1881, and 1884 were promptly massacred by Afar warriors. It was not until 1928 that the first Europeans - led by Ludovico Nesbitt - were able to enter the region and escape with their lives (although three Abyssinians in their group were killed in the process).
But this region was more famously visited and documented over a number of trips by the British explorer, Wilfred Thesiger. He was fascinated by the tribal honour systems that inspired the Afar men to commit murderous acts that, to modern Western eyes, appear almost psychopathic in their nature. Afar men were considered to be women (and thus could not easily marry) until they had killed at least once; their kills would inevitably be verified by means of presenting the castrated appendage of their victim to their choum (village headman). The precise status of the individual warrior depended entirely on the number of kills: ten kills earned the right to wear an ivory bracelet above the elbow; more than ten earned the warrior an iron band. All kills counted equally, including male suckling infants and those wounded in battle or suffering from disease. The desire to prove oneself through such acts meant everything to a young Afar man, and the need to 'break one's duck' in killing terms became paramount during adolescence.
It appears from conversations on this trip that, in certain areas, such traditions still hold today. Whether this is true or not, the Afar maintains its fierce reputation and remains a barely governed (or governorable) part of Ethiopia and Eritrea. I can personally recall the awful weeks one year ago, when five colleagues from the British Embassy and British Council in Ādīs Ābeba were kidnapped in the Ethiopian Afar. Thankfully, all were released unharmed in, intriguingly, Eritrea.
So, it was not without some trepidation that I planned this confluence attempt. In fairness, the Djibouti Afar territory is not as wild and lawless as in the two neighbouring states. As one (Yemeni) individual that I met put it: "In Djibouti, the Yemenis control the trade; the Somalis have the political power; and the Afar manage security. It all works rather well." And, in comparison to Yemen, the fact that the tribesmen in Djibouti do not carry firearms came as something of a shock. Even the traditional mean-looking curved knives (the qabagilis) that the Afar traditionally carry, have been successfully outlawed by the state authorities for all but the most remotely located nomads. That said, the journey by itself would be no mean feat. The Confluence is located about mid-way between the former French military outpost of `As `Êla and Lake Abhé Bad - the latter being the spot which provided the rugged backdrop to the film, Planet of the Apes. Temperatures can go up to 50°C, and about half of the route from Djibouti City is off road - on sand, through rocky mountains, and, if one goes the wrong way, into potentially devestating sabkha. I was beginning to understand why Djibouti had so far been ignored by the Confluence community...
The Confluence hunt:
Joining me for the adventure was Angelica, an American friend and first-time Confluencer working for ADRA in Ṣan`ā', Yemen, who had also found herself at a loss for something interesting to do during the Easter break. The original plan had been for me to hire a Land Rover and for us to drive solo to Lake Abhé. However, I had badly misjudged, and we found ourselves in Djibouti City on the same day that Muslims celebrate the Prophet's birthday. As this was immediately followed by the weekend, there was no possibility of hiring a vehicle. Fortunately, a Plan B was produced by the excellent and helpful Bruno, who runs trips for Dolphin tours. Bruno put us in touch with an Afari who was related to the owner of a camp at Lake Abhé. Through him we were able to organise a Toyota Prado complete with driver (Abdul Kader) and guide (Mohammed). I undertook to navigate us to the CP with the GPS and the satellite maps that I'd pre-prepared. Suddenly the trip appeared slightly less adventurous, but there was little other option and I wasn't about to give up and slope back to Yemen without a Djibouti CP trophy.
The asphalt road runs from Djibouti City to as far as Dikhil, an oasis and the former site of an almost impregnable French fort. I say 'almost', because in 1935 the garrison that was stationed there was lured out and obliterated by the Asaimara Afar. The body of the Commandant du Cercle, Captain Bernard, was found in a state of mutilation far too gruesome to recount on the DCP site... But contemporary Dikhil appears to be a friendly, safe place, albeit rather flyblown and dusty. From here we went off road into the Gôb`aad - a punishingly hot stretch of wādiy and desert, where we were perturbed to see that vultures had literally started to circle around us. Only a few traditional Afar huts punctuated the dry wilderness that we had to cross to get us to `As `Êla, the final outpost before Lake Abhé.
`As `Êla effectively marks the border between the territories of the two principal ethnic groups in Djibouti: the Asaimara-Adoimara Afar and the (Somali) Issa. It also lies less than 5 km from the border with Ethiopia. The fact that this area has some of the best grazing in the whole country has historically made it a point of friction between the different groups. During our time in the town, Abdul Kader and Mohammed handed out biscuits to some of the smaller children but, apart from that, we stopped only to collect some supplies for the camp at Lake Abhé before heading off into the increasingly stark Djibouti interior. We witnessed some impressive sandstorms, including one as large as an apartment building, and the going was slow as we covered the remaining 10 km or so towards the confluence point.
I'd attempted to brief Abdul Kader on our goal in a mixture of reasonable Arabic and bad French, but still wasn't sure how up for the chase he was going to be. However, as we trundled along the rough, sandy piste, it became clear that the point itself would be found almost exactly on the most natural route across the desert. I began to feel sure that we would get to the target. In the end, we were able to leave the piste at only 900 m from the Confluence, and covered this distance on the sand in a couple of minutes. 11N 42E lies on a sandy plain of the Gôb`aad, and is host to scattered bushes and small, twiggy trees in each direction. The nearest huts are at Gutabiya, an Afar hamlet about 3 km west of the point. The black hills to the South mark the frontier with Ethiopia, 8-10 km away. Mission accomplished.
But we didn't linger long, as we wanted to cover the 20 km to Lake Abhé before nightfall. The landscape became increasingly lunar, with dark grey rocks slowing our progress, until we reached a small pass over the volcanic hills that led us to the lake. We began to spot gazelles in the distance. From here, we also caught our first glimpse of the astonishing limestone 'chimneys' for which Lake Abhé is justifiably famous. These are a unique geological phenomenon on land, with the only other known examples being found at the bottom of oceans. Small pools of water bubble from the ground at 100°C, and the smell of sulfur explained the lake's toponymy: the word Abhé is derived from an expression meaning 'foul smelling'. We arrived in the early evening at the Afar-run camp and during our sleep later that night we were only moderately tortured by the biting flies that infest the area.
The next day entailed another early start, as we were keen to see sunrise over the lake. The limestone chimneys glowed red in the low light, and we sat gaping in silence at the landscape as we raced back across the desert to catch our plane home to Yemen. It was a truly awesome adventure, and it was an honour to secure the first confluence point in this rather obscure, but fascinating, country.
This Confluence hunt is dedicated to the most hospitable and friendly people of the Afar, who made our short time in Djibouti so memorable.