Kyle in Lake Assal, Djbouti

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Days 1 - 6, Lac Assal, Djibouti to Dire Dawa, Ethiopia

Day 1 (January 18, 2011): After a fun, but expensive vacation in
Djibouti, it was time to start the big ride. The dive company through
which we snorkeled with the whale sharks also does a car tour to Lac
Assal. It’s apparently a fairly popular tourist attraction since it’s
the lowest point on the continent, is as salty as the Dead Sea, and
has had some of the highest recorded temperatures on the planet.
Sounds like a great place for a bike ride! We had a translator, since
none of us speak French, explain to the driver that 3 of us and a
bicycle are going to Lac Assal, but only 2 are coming back. The
interpreter laughed, asked if we were serious, and then smiled as he
repeated it all in French. It was an amusing scene, but we were all in
agreement, and we set off the next morning.

The drive from Djibouti City to Lac Assal took about 2 hours. We had
our own SUV, and the road is paved. It was my first chance to scout
out the conditions, but way too late to back out. As we kept going
further and further downhill, I started to feel like I made a mistake.

After visiting the obligatory craft vendors at every vista point on
the road down and hearing the military jets buzzing through the
clouds, we finally drove until we could go no deeper. The lake is pure
blue. There is nothing in it but saltwater. Nothing lives there
permanently. It was hot, but January is the ‘cool season’, so it was
only around 100 degree F. At the actual lake shore, we wandered
around, picked up big crystals of salt that resemble ornate
chandeliers, and took in our surroundings. We carried on to the main
shore, where vendors sell some of the same crystals we had just picked
out of the lake ourselves. The salt level is so high that anything
left in the water will be coated in salt. They were selling large
mammal skulls covered in salt. They were cool, but I doubt they are a
natural occurrence as I didn’t see any animals for miles.

We walked the shore some more, and the girls decided to go swimming.
They came back covered in salt from head to toe. I opted as my next
shower might be days away and I don’t need any issues with my skin
right off the bat. While they were swimming, I methodically assembled
my bicycle and loaded all my gear onto it. I added a 2-day supply of
water (16 liters / 4 gallons) which added a lot of weight.

I walked the bike down to the shore, shot some video, and rolled the
tires back into the gentle waves, making sure to only get the salt on
the rubber tires and not on anything metal. I stood with the souls of
my shoes in the water next to the bike, and Low2High: Africa was
officially a go!

I peddled the bike back up to our car where the girls and I parted
ways. I had been traveling for a week with Jennifer and Danielle, and
we were close through our 2 years of Peace Corps service in Ethiopia,
but this was goodbye. I don’t feel like I gave that moment proper
credence because I was so preoccupied. They took off in the truck, and
I started cycling. I was on my own.

The junction from the main highway to Lac Assal was 17 km away. I was
sure I could make it in the half day I had remaining. The climb was
constant, but gradual enough to allow me passage. However, about 30
meters above the lake, the real issue became apparent. The strongest
headwind I’ve ever encountered was blowing straight down the hill in
an unforgiving, constant gale. The breeze was hot and moist, and the
sweat was pouring down my back. Since we arranged our ride through a
tour group, the time was only semi-negotiable. As a result, there I
was peddling out of this hot hole in the earth in a 30mph wind at high
noon. Not the best planning. At around 1:30pm, after some pushing,
swearing, and messy urination, I decided it was time to find some

There are no trees. Zero. I found a rock with a slight lean that
provided just enough shade for my head and torso. It was good enough.
I stayed there until 3pm when it got a little cooler and carried on. A
few other tour groups passed me on the way up, giving me looks of
amazement mixed with ‘what an asshole!’

Up higher, the road was a bit windier. This turned the headwinds into
crosswinds strong enough to push me over. Sometimes I’d be forced to
lean over so far I’d have to jerk the handlebars to the side to
compensate. Next thing I know I’m perpendicular to the road with my
front tire sinking into the soft gravel shoulder looking over a 10
foot slope. I’d have to slam the brakes, get off, back the bike up,
and start again. It was demoralizing.

It started getting dark. Being close to the equator, there’s very
little twilight. I knew it was a full moon, an d the wind was calming,
so I thought about riding in the dark at least until the junction. I
never made it. It was too cloudy to travel by moonlight, and there
were no cars or people to be seen or heard. I pulled over short of the
17km junction, and pitched my tent behind a row of acacia trees,
hidden from the road.

I left the rainfly off of my tent. It was nice to have the breeze come
through, and I wanted to be able to see out. I fell asleep easily at

Day 2: At about 2am, I heard a car door close, followed by men’s
voices. The men walked into the woods where I was camped, probably to
go to the bathroom. One spots my camp, and walks over, assault rifle
in hand. He looks right into my tent with a smile on his face, says
something, but all I can reply is ‘non Francais’. The man says
‘Francais!’, gives me thumbs up, and walks back toward his car.
Another man walks over, we exchange the same banter, and he too
returns. The car drives off, and the world goes silent again. I can’t
sleep at all, so at 4am, heart still racing, I pack up my camp and
start an early-morning, moonlit ride. In my haste to get going, I left
my camelback behind. I didn’t realize this for several hours, so
decided to write it off and continue.

I reach the junction point as the sun finally rises. After all that
work, I’m still only 17km from where I started. Not the motivating
start to a day. I cycled the remainder of the road around the Gulf of
Tadjoura to meet up with the main highway. Once on that road, it was
faster going. The road is pristine tarmac, and the wide shoulders gave
me a large buffer from the trucks. The volume of traffic was low, so
most drivers went around me, leaving me plenty of space. Although the
highway is modern and a joy for cycling, the terrain on all sides is a
brutal desert.

A sandpit would be a nice way to describe it. I started counting the
mummified animal carcasses in the dusty grave to my right as I went
by. In the distance, small twisters of sand would kick up, travel a
bit, and then die off. Nothing seemed alive. Again, I’m here at high
noon. For a ginger on a bicycle, it was a living hell.

I made it to the last junction where the road splits to the 2
Ethiopian border posts. To the right, all the cargo trucks carry goods
through the west on a paved highway to Addis Ababa. To the left, a
less well maintained road goes south to the shorter, but harder
crossing to Dire Dawa. That’s the route I was taking. The gradual
uphill and still present headwinds made the going tough. I could hold
a steady pace, but was hot and exhausted. I didn’t even make it to the
border. I had to stop in the last town in Djibouti, Ali-Sabien.

In town, I asked for directions. The stoned-on-Chat men were useless,
so I asked some kids. They honestly didn’t seem to know. I turned
around and headed back to get my bearings when a man pulled up next to
me in his truck and handed me a bottle of water through the window. I
thought, Hey! What a nice guy. He asked me where I was going, and I
said I was looking for the road to Ethiopia. He said he was going in
that direction, and he’d drive slowly so I could follow him. When we
got to the road, he rolled down his window again. He said it was too
late to find a hotel, so I should stay at his house. Great!

His name is Sabir. He’s an engineer from Tunisia working in Djibouti.
He doesn’t speak French or Somali, so he has only one close friend in
town. A man from Pakistan whose name I have sadly forgotten. He came
over, and the three of us had a dinner of roasted sheep, grilled
potatoes, salad, and dates from Tunisia. It was a wonderful turn of
events. I had a shower, slept in a bed, and got an early start the
next day.

Day 3: After breakfast with Sabir, I hit the road. It took only an
hour to get to the Ethiopian border. The crossing was surprisingly
easy. I was stamped out of Djibouti, and was able to exchange some
Djiboutian Francs for some Ethiopian Birr at a good rate. The surprise
came on the Ethiopia side. After a bit of hassle crossing this exact
same border on the way into Djibouti (Ethiopia didn’t want to let us
out), and the massive ordeal at the Ethiopian Embassy in Djibouti in
which we had to work with the Ambassador himself (be warned, you
CANNOT get a visa for Ethiopia in Djibouti unless you are a Djibouti
resident. They changed the rule 2 weeks before our arrival, and they
only made an exception because we had been Peace corps Volunteers in
Ethiopia), I was expecting a giant avalanche of bureaucratic bullshit.
Luckily, I got through, no problem, and was on my way.

My good mood quickly changed when the road turned to shit. The best
way to describe it hard, wavy concrete, covered in cat litter, with
occasional sharp rocks sticking out of it. And of course, it continues
to gradually go uphill. This road went on and on for 200km. More on
that later.

At the town of Ayshau, there is supposedly a junction. Town names and
road signs are all but irrelevant in this part of the world, so I went
through the town, saw no junction, and continued on. At around 4pm,
Truck drivers started waving at me to turn around. I checked my map,
figured I was on the easterly road to Dire Dawa, but I want the
westerly road since it has more towns (towns = food and water). The
easterly road put me right near the Somaliland border as it was
getting dark. One man was very helpful with my map, and then pointed
to some mountains and said ‘That’s Somalia right there!’ Not
necessarily a bad thing, but combined with the warning from drivers, I
started to get a sinking feeling. So, reluctantly, after traveling
25km past Ayshau, I turn around and went all the way back. On the
upside, I got to watch a camel caravan walk across the desert at
sunset. It was a hauntingly beautiful sight that I would have missed
otherwise. It’s hard to believe that in the year 2011, people still
carry goods across the desert on the backs of camels. It was a jump
back in time, and worth the extra riding. Back in Ayshau, I hopped
over the railroad tracks and laid out under the stars for what turned
out to be a great night sleep.

Day 4: I waited until sunup to pack my camp and get moving so I could
ask people for this westerly road. Finally, a man was able to show me.
It follows the tracks just like it should according to my map, but
it’s even worse than the road I had been on. No vehicles are taking
this road. Bus after bus came barreling down the road from the day
before so, yet again, I turn around and head away from Ayshau to
travel the same stretch for a third time.

The mistake wasn’t really a mistake. I knew where I was, I just
thought I wanted a different road. Plus, with the information I had at
the time, I feel that I made the right call. I cost me 50km of riding
on a painful road, but I had a safe night and was passing through the
questionable stretch of road in the day time along with the other
trucks. All in all I played it safe, so I was content with how it
worked out. It did, however, mean I was in for another night in the

I carried on to a town called Biye Kobe. There is only one restaurant.
I stopped there, at some Shiro and eggs and chatted with the local
police. It was odd to see 10 police officers in a town of 50 people,
so I asked them about it. They said it was a high-security area so
they were assigned there. None of them actually grew up in the town.
The server was a Somali girl named Niami. We spoke in Amharic, and she
was amazed at my journey. I showed her my ‘I am not a spy’ document,
which is a copy of my hometown newspaper where an article about me was
written. She was so impressed that she said she loved me and wanted to
marry me. I politely declined, even though she was the prettiest thing
I’d seen in days. I hopped on the bike and rode until dark. I slept
under the stars again in a drainage ditch, hidden from view from the

Day 5: ‘Today is the day!’ I told myself. I had wanted to get to Dire
Dawa in 3 days. It was now day 5, and I’d had enough of this damn
desert. My American contacts were having a barbecue, and dammit I
wanted some! I rode hard. The sun was unforgiving, but the wind had
basically stopped. About 40km north of Dire Dawa I received the best
gift I could have ever wanted… tarmac! Even though it was covered in
gravel, it wasn’t rutted and full of holes like the last 100+ km had
been. My ass was grateful.

The bad news was it was a lot of climbing to get to Dire Dawa.
However, after another hard mountain pass, I saw my first glimpse of
Dire Dawa in the distance. I was so happy, I peddled non-stop to the
edge of town. I called my contacts, but they didn’t answer. I rode
straight to their house, hoping I hadn’t missed the big feast. At 4pm,
I sat down in a chair, opened a cold beer, and ate like a king. It was
good to be out of the desert.

Day 6: Rest day in Dire Dawa. A part of the bike had actually broken
on the ride. There is a threaded hole in the frame that a bolt goes
through, holding the rear pannier rack in place. The bolt had sheared
off, leaving the shaft inside the hole. I simply moved the rack to a
different pair of holes meant for the rear fender. Today, I was able
to find a machine shop open (on a Sunday!) that had a tap and dye set.
It was fixed properly in 10 minutes. I also had to patch 2 tubes that
had punctured, and of course, upload this blog and photos to the

The day of rest has been great. My body surely needed it, but I think
it’s good for the mind too. Tomorrow I’m off to Harar to feed some
hyenas and eat camel meat! It’s a big, 20km climb out of Dire Dawa,
but it’s paved all the wat to Addis Ababa, so I’m not going to
complain. I’ll update again from Addis. Until then, cheers!


  1. You're amazing, Kyle! I can't wait to hear more about your great adventure. :)
    Thinking of you!

  2. Kyle:

    Way to soldier through a tough start to a trip. Rough roads can be hell on pannier screws; you need to buy the most expensive ones you can find, and make them long enough that if they break, you can twist them out yourself with a pair of pliers. (Or else find a gunsmith!) Hope it all gets easier from here!! Kiss a hyena from me.


  3. What an adventure! Thanks for documenting it so well for us to follow along vicariously. Stay safe!

  4. Wow...way to forge through it! You're my hero.

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