The natural world is an ever changing, ever shifting beast. Mountains rise, valleys form, lakes are created or disappear, glaciers meander across the landscape; the face of our planet is malleable, ever moving. While most of these changes take place over millions of years, there are those bizarre instances when there are suddenly geographical features that mysteriously appear out of nowhere. The appearance of sinkholes and mysterious holes in Siberia are well documented, but what are perhaps more little known are the mysterious appearance of not one, but two lakes in Africa that appeared seemingly from nowhere, and have held the locals enthralled.
One of the mysterious lakes appeared in seemingly overnight in one of the places one would least expect a lake to be; in the middle of a searing, parched desert in Tunisia. In August of 2014, shepherds in the remote, arid landscape of the Gafsa region of central Tunisia were out toiling in the hot summer sun when they stumbled across a site that must surely have stunned them into silence; a lake glimmering in the heat where none had ever existed before. It was a man by the name of Mehdi Bilel who first spotted the bizarre sight in a desert canyon, of which he later said to journalists:
After several long hours on the road without a break, I honestly thought I was hallucinating. I don’t know much about science and thought it was magic, something supernatural.
The mystery lake, which is around a hectare in area and has an average depth of 10 to 18 meters, has indeed been seen as some sort of miracle by the local tribes, who are unaccustomed to seeing such large bodies of water in the harsh, drought-ridden region. Due to the lake’s impressive size, people in the area set up a makeshift beach, which locals call Lac de Gafsa, or “Gafsa Beach,” and many flocked there to swim and cool off in the region’s 40C heat. It is truly a remarkable sight to see people diving, swimming, and paddling about on a beach in the middle of one of the hottest and most arid regions in the world.
It is not known exactly when the lake was formed, as the region is so sparsely populated, but it is mostly agreed that it came into being rather rapidly. The reason is also not particularly well-understood. One theory is that a minor earthquake could have fractured and underground aquifer, allowing water to well up to the surface, but no aquifer that could be responsible has been found. Others maintain that it is simply rainwater that collected in the canyon, although the lake is thought to have formed in the middle of a drought and the area receives very little rainfall to begin with. So far, geologists have not been able to figure out what exactly is going on here, and the origin of the lake remains a mystery. Most locals believe that the lake was created by supernatural means, as a blessing to the people eking out a living here in the unforgiving terrain.
However, it could be more that this mysterious lake is a curse. Its waters started as a clear, crystalline blue and have since slowly turned to a muddy green due to a bloom of algae, which could be potentially poisonous. The presence of so much algae also means that the water is not being replenished and could become a cesspool of bacteria and disease. There is also some concern that the water of the lake could be contaminated with phosphates from mining. The region has been heavily mined for phosphate since it was discovered in the southern Tunisian region in 1886, and Tunisia is now the fifth largest exporter of phosphate in the world, with the town of Gafsa being the center of the industry. The potential presence of phosphates and possibly radioactive residue in the water of the lake could mean that it could be carcinogenic, which has prompted Gafsa’s Office of Public Safety to issue a warning about the dangers of swimming there. Nevertheless, such warnings have not dissuaded the throngs of people that still come here to stave off the extreme desert heat.
Tunisia is not the only home to mysteriously appearing lakes. In Nigeria, yet another lake also appeared at the Ameke Nanchi community, in the country’s Enugu State, and it has gone on to be seen as a place of magical healing by locals. Allegedly, on November 11, 2014, local herdsmen heard a booming explosion and when they went to investigate the source of the noise found that water was inexplicably gushing from the ground. The herdsmen hailed the sight as a miracle prophesized by local legends and collected some of the water, which they reportedly brought to a blind friend who was allegedly healed by it. Meanwhile the lake grew in size until it had reached around 170 meters in diameter. It is still not understood exactly what caused the water to well up or what the origin to the alleged explosion could have been.
Word of the miraculous healing power of the lake caused large numbers of desperate people to flock from all around the country to its muddy waters in the hopes of being cured of all manner of ailments. Many who have made the journey here have reported being cured of numerous physical ailments, including blindness, deafness, disease, and injuries, among others. One paralyzed man who bathed in the water claimed that its restorative powers allowed him to walk once again, and similar tales abound. These claims have had a huge influence on the superstitious populace of this poverty-stricken region, and hundreds of people a day are said to come here to bathe in the filthy water of the lake. The lake, which has come to be known by many names such as the “Pool of Bethsaida,” the “River Jordan,” “Ogbongwu,” and others, has even started to attract people from neighboring countries, like Ghana, Togo, and the Benin Republic. There are so many people of all ages arriving here from all over, that many locals have seen it as a business opportunity, with food vendors, people selling plastic containers for the water, and even motorcycle operators and commercial taxis, all setting up shop near the mystery lake to take advantage of the influx of visitors.
Those who come to the lake for its purported miraculous powers will bathe here, drink the water, and even cut off bark and stems from the surrounding vegetation with which to make healing teas. Some people even bring photographs of loved ones and pray for them here. Although this is the largest the lake has ever been, it is said that this is not the first time the lake has miraculously appeared. It allegedly first formed in 1992, after which it subsequently disappeared again. The Prime Minister of Ameke-Nachi, Chief Dominic Onuigbo, said that the lake was even older than that, and had appeared three times in the past 80 years, always in the driest, hottest times. The legends of the area say that if one is righteous and scratches at the ground here in prayer, the healing water will magically begin to flow from seemingly nowhere.
For all of the talk of magical healing properties, the Nigerian mystery lake has become a cause of concern for authorities and health officials. The water here is thought to be filthy, with people urinating and defecating on its shores and thousands of unwashed bodies bathing in the stagnant, fetid water, making it more or less a disease soup. It is thought that an epidemic could be caused by people contracting a disease such as cholera, among many others, and carrying it back to one of the many far-flung locales they come from. The pool is also a very attractive breeding ground for mosquitos, and could potentially be ground zero for a horrific malaria outbreak. The complete lack of any safety precautions at the lake and the superstitious belief that the magical water here could not possibly cause disease only compound the problem. Time will tell if this lake turns out to be one of healing or one of death.
On this planet of constant geographical change over eons of time, it is always a wonder when the landscape changes abruptly overnight. It is a reminder that we are far from a complete understanding the inner workings of this world we live on. We can only look at a sudden mysterious appearance such as that of a lake in the middle of a desert and scratch our heads. Or take a dip if you’re feeling lucky.