The week I spent in Djibouti was by far the most unexpected and pleasant surprise out of the two months I spent travelling in the "Horn of Africa". This small and little talked about country is home to some of the most dramatic, magnificent and truly out of this world landscape I have ever come across, and if that in conjunction with hospitable people and a diverse mix of cultures doesn't do the trick for a perfect travel destination, I don't know what does! Read on...
I flew into Djibouti city's international airport (JIB) on a direct flight from Hargeisa (HGA). It wasn't exactly as cheap as it should have been for a 40 minute long flight, but the prospect of spending nearly a day on a local bus under +35° temperatures was not at all appealing to me.
Arrival was rather easy, and although expensive (USD $90), getting a visa on arrival was fast and hassle free.
Before reaching Djibouti, I was positive I would come across other independent travellers on their way there as well, and was hoping that I would somehow group up with people in order to share excursion costs around the country. I was well aware that Djibouti can be an affordable country when travelling with others (from my pre-trip research), and was rather surprised not have met many people at all, on the road or on online forums, that were venturing that way.
My reasons for wanting to visit were plenty. Everything about the country’s unusual geological attributes seemed impressive: salt lakes, canyons, volcano plateaus, the Tadjoura gulf, its whale shark spotting opportunities and so much more... Besides, Djibouti was a French colonised country, which made it sound like a very culturally and architecturally rich, unusual place, where a mix of Arabic and Africans somehow spoke French... How could it be that not enough people shared the same desire to visit it as I did?
It turns out that what truly goes on with travellers and Djibouti is a bit of a vicious cycle. The country has a fame for being expensive, but in reality, the only reason for it costing a fair bit more than its neighbour Ethiopia, is the very fact that there aren't enough people around with whom to share excursion costs. The per day cost of fuel and 4x4 vehicle trips aren't much higher than in Ethiopia, but over there, a traveller can easily join tours with plenty of people with whom to share costs at any given time, and in Djibouti, it is rather challenging. So people don't come for thinking the cost is high, but the only thing that makes the cost high is the very fact that people don't come!
There are a few visitors, sure, but often people on a high budget or visiting as a part of a UN mission and things as such. They travel privately and don't often open up their groups for independent travellers to join. So, for a group of 3 or 4 friends travelling together, doing the usual activities in Djibouti is a piece of cake, for solo travellers such as yours truly... Well, not so much, But I made it!
Djibouti City and true hospitality "from Afar"
My first two days in Djibouti City were spent devoted to a single objective: To find a group I could join. I was luckily being hosted by a resident expatriate, and got a good introduction to the country and its history. Djibouti is pretty much split half/half between the Issa people (from Somalia) and the Afar (original residents, as claimed by them, from the western part of Ethiopia to the location now called Djibouti). There are tensions between both ethnical groups, but the country functions well and is rather peaceful. I would say that only half the residents do in fact speak French – although it is the official language taught in school, at home they either speak Afar or Somali.
Djibouti City didn't boast the European architecture I was aiming to see, but strolling around the busy streets in the centre, getting lost in alleys leading to either old small mosques or to a colonial style square was interesting and fun. The temperature was really hot, and most people were hiding indoors between midday and 4pm.
I had no time to hide from the heat, so I took the local bus from the area where I was staying and headed to the centre, with high hopes.
Much to my privilege, after having attempted to ask about trips in every single hotel and travel agency in town, I came across an agency that had trips planned. Although the dates didn't quite suit me, while in that office I came across two brothers that worked with that agency in a business of their own in the office next door.
After hearing about my attempts to see the country on a solo backpacker budget, as well as hearing about my travel experience in over 108 (by then) countries, they reckoned they'd do their best to help me, and their interference made my journey in the country not only possible, but absolutely amazing. They were Afar, spoke fluent French, and were a lot more powerful and influential people in their country than I could even imagine at first, but rather simple and kind people.
Lake Assal, Tadjoura and Obock – an unbelievable road trip
Mr Houmed, whom I had just met while trying to negotiate affordable tours for myself, was an extremely kind and generous business man. He basically told me that it didn't seem like I could afford to go on a tour, and that he was travelling on business around the country for the following two days to visit some of his entrepreneurial projects. He invited me to join him, telling me that on the trip I would go by most of the destinations tourists visit while in Djibouti, such as Lake Assal, the Day Forest National Park as well as the fishing villages of Tadjoura and Obock.
How could I refuse such an offer? And little did I know that they had so much more to offer than exposure to the amazing landscape of their country on their invitation. I joined Mr Houmed and his friend/helper Mr Abdullah on the two day road trip, visiting local schools, meeting local politicians and sleeping at real Afar households, as a guest. They were incredibly kind and fun people to be around, constantly ensuring that I was comfortable, well fed and happy with what I was seeing.
I couldn't stop smiling. The drive to our first stop, Lake Assal, from Djibouti City was absolutely fantastic, driving by the beautiful Gulf of Tadjoura and its Devil Islands, set against mountainous backgrounds and beautiful beaches along the way.
And then we reached Lake Assal – a panorama so stunning that it nearly blew my mind away. I just couldn't believe what my eyes were seeing. Infinitely beautiful nature, displayed in all shades of coulours, and for myself only. The crater lake happens to be Africa's very lowest point at 157 metres below sea level and is the world's largest salt reserve. Having done the whole “floating on a salt lake” thing in the Dead Sea years before, I didn't care to jump into the water, and instead, spent the limited time I had appreciating the volcanic landscape and trying to capture the beauty of the moment to the best of my modest photographer's abilities.
After having visted a school in the Day Forest National Park, a really cool ancient forest way uphill from the gulf itself, we continued into the fishing village of Tadjoura, where we spent the night.
Our early start the next morning took us into the nearby fishing town of Obock – much like Tadjoura, full of little mosques everywhere, giving it a rather exotic feel. In Obock, we drove into the city's port, where I could see something rather unusual: A boat being loaded with cows and other animals, in order to cross the gulf into nearby Yemen! Observing the loading of the little boat was rather interesting, and just thinking that Yemen was only 2 hours away on a tiny little boat blew my mind.
The best thing about driving from Tadjoura to Obock and back was the 45-minute coastal road ride. Cutting through mountains, right by the sea, the landscape was beyond beautiful, just like most of what I was seeing.
We reached Djibouti City by the end of the day, and although we had been making phone calls trying to find a group with which I could visit Lac Abbe (Lake Abbe) the following day, we were not having much luck. I tried having a good attitude, being happy for all the amazing things I had managed to see and not focusing on what I would potentially miss out, but upon reaching the office, Houmed went above and beyond: He contacted a cousin of his that generally takes tourists in such trips and asked him to take me for a very low cost, slightly more than paying just for fuel. Houmed also happened to be the owner of most of the touristic camping sites in Djibouti, as well as most of the 4x4 cars used by the operators. I could hardly believe it when he told me I would be visiting Lac Abbe, on my own, the following day.
Lac Abbe – The closest landscape to Mars I might ever come across
Lac Abbe was far. Rather far, beyond the city of Dikhil, near the border with Ethiopia, nearly 400 km away. It is by far the most impressive thing to be seen in Djibouti and unfortunately, not very easily accessible, due to the nature and topography of its location.
There's no such thing as visiting much of what is available in Djibouti on public transport, unfortunately.
Remember the “Forbidden Zone” from “The Planet of the Apes” movie? It was shot there, and it is easy to understand why the area would be used to represent a lunar landscape.
After nearly 4 hours on poor roads (the worse came in the last hour) and extreme heat, I was absolutely shocked to approach this desolate lake entirely surrounded by clusters and clusters of limestone chimneys blasting with steam. It seemed like I had really exited planet earth. The last hour to get there cut through a rough desert, with few small villages scattered here and there, and there is nearly nothing around the lake itself other than Mr Houmed's camping site.
How could such an amazing destination be so little explored? How could such few people give themselves the chance of experiencing what I was experiencing, in absolute awe over so much beauty before my eyes? My brain stopped working for a moment, as I just got lost among the horizon, where different earthy shades of brown got mixed with green and blue, from the ground up to the sky...
Lac Abbe lies on the basin of the Afar Depression, and is the largest of a group of 6 salt lakes. The chimneys are created as a result of the warm waters pushed up by magma, coming through the cracks left by the plates in the Depression, depositing calcium carbonates that tower up as chimneys.
Sunset was absolutely beautiful, and that experience could only really be left with second place to the stunning sunrise I was privileged to see in the early hours of the following morning.
I was impressed at just how well-structured the camping grounds were, for such an isolated area, and surprised to see nearly nobody other than me, taking advantage of such a beautiful display of natural wonders.
Back in Djibouti City – no marine adventures, but a happy, happy camper
The drive back to Djibouti City had me so happy and put me in such a state of awe, that I wasn't even slightly disappointed by the fact that I didn't end up diving to sea whale sharks whilst in the best part of the world to take upon that activity. It had rained on the day I had planned to dive with the world's largest mammals, so it wasn't possible.
My time was a bit limited as the flights out of Djibouti towards my next destination weren't daily and I couldn't really manage to stay more than another day or two, if anything. But it didn't matter. The idea of returning to Djibouti one day, even if just to take upon the marine activities, really pleased me. I had the best possible experience I could have asked for in that small country, with incredibly kind people, and indeed, what the country lacks in size, it boasts in natural wonders and beauty, making it an amazing, truly out-of-this-world destination for any travellers. Certainly not one to be missed!