Aras harvests the salt at the shore of Lac Assal in Djibouti. His family sells the salt to tourists.
Trading with salt from Lac Assal goes back to bartering with Abyssinian caravans by local Afar and Issa tribes, and salt extraction by the French colonial power in the 19th century. Today, industrial mining under Chinese leadership extracts millions of tonnes of salt per year from Lac Assal, the world’s largest salt reserve.
The translation of Lac Assal’s Arabic name means honey lake. Salt concentration in Lac Assal reaches 35 percent, ten times the salinity of the sea. The lake is situated 155 metres below sea level in one of the hottest places on Earth.
The Salt of the Earth
Salt is essential to keep us alive. Humans have used salt for food preservation and seasoning for thousands of years. Salt’s scarcity made it a trading commodity almost as precious as gold – illustrated by the etymology of the word salary. Roads and cities have been built based on salt: the Roman Via Salaria led from the Adriatic coast to Rome, and Salzburg in Austria is named after its mines. Wars have been fought over salt.
Lac Assal’s Volcanic Ground
Lac Assal is the lowest point in Africa situated in the Afar Triangle in the north of the East African Rift overlapping the border regions of Eritrea, Djibouti, and Ethiopia’s highlands of Abessynia. The floor of the Afar Depression is composed of lava. One of Earth’s five lava lakes, Ethiopia’s Erta Ale, is found here.
The East African Rift is the largest seismically active rift system on Earth today, running from the Gulf of Aden in the north all the way to Mozambique in the south. The two parts of the African Plate, the Somali Plate and the Nubian Plate, are breaking apart at a rate of 6 to 7 mm annually. In about 10 million years, the Somalian plate will break off, and a new ocean basin will form.
Hominids aged two million years were found in the Afar Triangle’s Danakil Depression. The “hellhole of creation” might actually be the cradle of humanity.