In 2001, Peile Thompson trekked the length of the Awash River north of Awash Saba, the first person to do so unsupported since Wilfred Thesiger in 1934. Shortly afterwards, he sent me the following information about the remote Lakes Gummare, Afambo and Abbe, which has been included in the last few editions if the Bradt Guide. I am now posting it on this update website as it will be removed from the next printed edition of the book in order to make way for less obscure information. Note, however, as detailed in the upcoming 7th edition, that the bridge at Ebobe has been rebuilt, so it is now possible to visit Gummare as a 4×4 day trip out of Asaita, stopping at a village called Afambo, where you will need to pay US$30 at the police station to pick up a pathfinder and armed escorts.
South of Asaita, the Awash River terminates in a chain of about six shallow saline and freshwater lakes, of which the largest (and last) is Lake Abbe on the border with Djibouti. The deep blue lakes, fringed by lush salt-tolerant vegetation and surrounded by high mountains, support dense populations of hippos and crocodiles. The lakes form one of the most important waterbird sites in Ethiopia, and attract large numbers of Palaearctic migrants during the European winter. On the Djibouti side, Lake Abbe is a popular weekend destination. The Ethiopian side of the lakes, however, is totally undeveloped for tourism, and likely to remain so for some time. At the time of writing, the lakes are inaccessible in a vehicle, following the collapse of the bridge across a river at Ebobe, 10km south of Asaita. Until such time as this road is repaired, the only feasible way of reaching the lakes is by hiking or setting up a camel expedition.
Over May and June of 2001, Peile Thompson explored this area on foot, using routes that hadn’t been walked by a faranji since Wilfred Thesiger in the 1930s. Peile travelled with six camels (to carry supplies and water), and many of the routes he followed would be suitable only to experienced and well-prepared adventurers carrying sufficient water to last several days. However, he has kindly passed on details of a relatively straightforward round hike between Asaita and lakes Gummare and Afambo, which could be undertaken over two (or better three) days without inordinate preparation.
To do this hike, you’d need to carry two or three days’ food, depending on how long you take over it. Drinking water is available at reasonably regular intervals, but it’s always advisable to carry some water (and refill whenever possible) in case the pumps aren’t working. It would be inviting problems to travel through this part of Afar country without a local Afar guide, and written permission from the regional authority. A permit can easily be arranged through the tourist office in Asaita. They can also arrange a local guide. Travelling in this area without a guide is foolhardy, not only because he will interact with local Afar people on your behalf, but also because there is a genuine risk of losing your way, with potentially fatal results.
The most accessible lakes are Gummare and Afambo, which are linked by a short stretch of river about 20km south of Asaita by road. To get to the lakes, you must first follow the main road south of town for about 10km to the river at Ebobe. If you want to cut down the walking time, a local bus service does run at least once daily between Asaita and Ebobe (timings are erratic), and there is plenty of transport along this road on Tuesdays (market day). You can normally cross the river on foot, but the banks are too steep for a vehicle, which is why the bus and all other transport terminates here. Shortly past the crossing is a police post, where you will be turned back if you don’t have written authority. South of this, the track runs through fertile land dotted with rural Afar settlements and small papyrus-fringed lakes – the birdlife is incredible.
Another 10km or so along the track, you reach a deep 15m-wide river. Here, the local Afar people have made a raft out of fallen reeds and will pull you and your kit across to the other side for birr 5 each. You could swim it, but there are a lot of crocodiles around! About 500m beyond this crossing, you reach the river linking Lake Afambo to Lake Gummare. There used to be a bridge over this 150m crossing, but it collapsed some time ago. This crossing has to be done with a raft as there are many crocs and hippos around in the lake. The border traders are all queuing up to get on the rafts, with camels laden with salt and goods. The animals swim across, but the goods are placed on the papyrus raft and ferried to the other side. The people who operate the rafts will charge you ridiculous sums to get across, knowing you have no option … but don’t be tempted to swim it as we did, we nearly got scoffed, and the locals went crazy! This is real smuggler’s country, so be a little careful, as things get heated and everyone is armed. For the few that make it here, the view of Lake Gummare is magnificent with the rich birdlife, the Afar hustle and bustle, and the high surrounding escarpment that drops down to the opposite lakeshore.
Having crossed the river, you pick up the track again as it winds up the high escarpment towards the Djibouti border. After about 3km, this climb of several hundred metres in elevation leads towards a point marked on several maps as Afambo. We expected there to be some form of settlement here … wrong, unless you count a derelict bunch of buildings and an observation post, remnants of the old Derg border post! From the abandoned camp, the views over the lakes and back west towards Asaita are awesome. Note, however, that the surrounding area is mined, so you should always stick to the path, and that no safe route other than the track you have climbed connects the camp to the lakes. The hike up from the crossing to Afambo takes about 90 minutes, but it’s really worth the effort for the views.
There is no accommodation around the lakes, nor are there formal campsites. Travellers can camp rough anywhere they like, ideally slightly away from the villages to avoid masses of people (and ticks!). The area is very hot, even at night, so it’s not necessary to carry a lot of camping gear – but you will need some protection from the prolific mosquitoes. Expect to be investigated by young Afar warriors asking questions (and sometimes a fee). This is when you need a local guide and piece of paper with the Afar Tourism Board stamp on it. I should stress that federal stamps and pieces of paper count for nothing in Afar; you must have something with an Afar government stamp or people will turn you back.
From the crossing point described above, Peile notes that it’s possible to continue south along a little-used track that follows the eastern shore of Lake Afambo to Lake Abbe, where you can cross into Djibouti. The hike from the crossing point to Lake Abbe takes four days. Peile stresses that no drinking water is available until you reach Lake Abbe, where there are some freshwater springs. Lake Afambo’s water was potable in Thesiger’s day, but it’s now very saline due to the various irrigation schemes along the Awash River. In this hot and exposed terrain, you would need to carry at least ten litres of water each per day – that’s a total of 40 litres of drinking water each for the full hike, which would have to be carried on camelback.