The highway from Djibouti port to Ethiopia is an exercise in patience, with nose to tail tankers and container lorries wending their way up the many hills. The scenery doesn’t really compensate initially, as the desert is dirty basalt strewn rocks and thorns. Next, there’s a stretch of flat yellow sand ( the biggest desert in Djibouti says Akram) and more rocky escarpment, but now with my favourite flat-topped acacia trees and wildlife spotting. First, a troop of baboons - with bright scarlet hindquarters. Akram and driver Hassan experiment to see if they like chocolate biscuits - they certainly do - and the whole group are soon swarming all over the vehicle.
Next, a small flock of ostrich. Dainty Thompson’s gazelles are solitary under bushes and there are increasing numbers of loose (or hobbled) camels chewing at the scrub. Akram and Hassan struggle to understand my interest in camels. They say there will be plenty of those. Hassan is garbed for the desert, a big checked neck scarf wound round his neck. Akram however, is dressed in a red and black top, to match the land cruiser interior. He even has red and black sunglasses and headphones. He knows these are Sunderland colours (I didn’t), but doesn’t even mention Manchester United. Akram supports Arsenal.
The country’s population is half Issa and half Afar nomad stock and these groups usually live separately, each tolerating the existence of the other. The president is Issa and the prime minister Afar. The palm tree dotted oasis town of Dikhil is called La Ville de Unité, as it’s the only place where these peoples cohabit. It’s the main junction on the Ethiopian highway and also the only suitable place for us to buy lunch. Besides, we have a puncture. While I’m feasting on chicken and chips and simultaneously warding off the local cat population, Hassan and Akram try to get the tyre repaired. But everyone is away from their workshops sleeping, praying or eating. It’s a long break.
Now, seventy-five kilometres over more desert. There’s no road and Hassan for the most part drives where he pleases, though there are narrow rutty (very bumpy) parts. I’m impressed by how well he finds his way, but then he stops, and his family emerge from the scrub, to collect bags of flour. He lives here. Akram, in his turn, is distributing largesse, dropping off baguettes and water for any nomad children we meet. They grimace and reluctantly pose for photos in return. The villages comprise sacking tents, a few round huts and those little cubed clay houses we made models of at school, when we were studying the Holy Land.
We cross a small ridge and Lac Abbé comes into view. It’s amazing. Thousands of geothermal limestone chimneys, up to fifty metres high, belching sulphur into the sky. If you’re looking for a lunar landscape on earth, then eat your heart out Chile and Bolivia. They filmed Planet of the Apes here, but the set area has been commandeered by a herd of donkeys. ‘Planete des Anes, ‘grins Hassan.
Grazing warthogs are added to the list of fauna spotted, as we weave through the pillars, stopping for perfect sunset pictures; a golden disc drops behind the crags.
The camp is described as simple in the itinerary and I haven’t been looking forward to it. Even simple turns out to be a euphemism. It’s an igloo shaped tent, covered in grass matting, containing two camp beds and an elderly foam mattress. Bare earth beneath. There’s a clay toilet block in front, obscuring the view across the lake. At the moment the panorama (the earlier one anyway) is worth the discomfort. Let’s see how I feel in the morning. On my instruction Akram has sneaked me an extra mattress and two more cotton blankets. It’s sweltering hot till the sun goes down and then the temperature plummets.
It definitely is a great view across the eerie landscape, once you peer round the toilet block.
In the morning Hassan and Akram enjoy demonstrating how to make the fumaroles spit and belch before we set off again.
Back across the desert. I really wish I’d packed a sports bra. Hassan’s music collection varies between Ethiopian laments and African hip hop. I can’t say I’m keen on either, but I’m not being consulted. We drive off the highway for a picnic lunch perched on rocks looking out over a golden stretch of desert. it's a very peaceful break, until Akram announces that he's realised that this is actually a firing range and we should leave. We do.
North to Lake Assal (literally 'Honey Lake'); it’s the third saltiest lake in the world, the lowest point in Africa and the third lowest point on Earth, after the Lake of Galilee and the Dead Sea. It’s also very scenic, shades of turquoise and jade, has salt pans stretching around it and is surrounded by deep canyons and lava flow. The last big eruption was in 1978 and the volcanic cones poke out of the water, as well as towering above. The dark lava and the blue water contrast beautifully.
We teeter round the edge of the Gulf of Tadjoura and back to the town it’s named after. It boasts seven mosques, with seven cemeteries for the seven different local tribes and was once the capital of Djibouti, though the population is only 15,000. It’s now being rejuvenated, with a newly constructed port, ready to serve north Ethiopia.
I’m more interested in the beach to the north (more very rough tracks and relentless African dirge music), where there’s a surprisingly beautifully tended beach erroneously named White Sand. It’s actually beige, but gorgeous and peaceful, with an excellent reef (an assortment of huge vividly coloured fish and exceptionally clear water) that you can wade out to. It even has beach beds, circular thatched bungalows for rent and waiters to bring lunch on a tray. It’s a little paradise. But paradise in my experience always has a sting in the tail. This is a literal sting in the form of jellyfish. But only a small one.
I’m very reluctant to leave, but Akram is insistent. He wants to get home. As we bounce our way back to Djibouti, I persuade Hassan to play some Bob Marley.
I've flown in from South Sudan. Djibouti City is, unsurprisingly, reminiscent of Moroni in the Comoros. It's either a charming mélange of fading Arabic architecture, with French language facias and colourful African peoples, or a hotchpotch of crumbling ramshackle buildings, depending on your mood. Half of the population of Djibouti live here.
It’s an interesting morning’s wander, the odd goat ambling alongside. Guide, Akram assures me it’s very safe. Brightly attired, fully covered women sit on plastic armchairs in the streets, clutching big shopping bags full of cash. They’re the local moneychangers.
Djibouti is a melange of different architectural styles that represent various periods in its history. A few of the building fronts have been renovated and date back to the nineteenth century. The Place of 27 June in the city centre is also distinguished by its Moorish-inspired arches. The old section is filled with bazaars and souks nestled along narrow streets. There are also wide streets, restaurants, large plazas and plenty of cafes. Many of the boulevards are lined with trees. This is both a centre for commerce and entertainment, and a residential area.
There’s a small bustling vegetable market, a bigger clothes market, (Akram says the middle class shop here), a banking district and a compound that is part building site, where the rich live in super-sized mansions, mingling in with key embassies - Saudi, Qatar, the USA and France. The contrast with the surrounding poverty, sprawls of one-room tin huts, woven wood shelters and dust is profound. Nearby, a modern, almost upmarket mall, where we stop and drink milkshakes. Akram is a big fan.
To accommodate the growing middle class, many new apartments and housing developments are being constructed in and especially on the outskirts of the the city.
Known as the Pearl of the Gulf of Tadjoura due to its location, Djibouti is strategically positioned near the world's busiest shipping lanes and acts as a refuelling and transhipment centre So, the port is huge and expanding, with free trade zones. Out in the gulf, boats representing the big navies of the world patrol the strategic mouth to the Red Sea. So we’re also, I’m assured, safe from pirates too.
The final stop, the National Restaurant (fake Persian Islamic architecture), which serves the best meal I’ve eaten this trip. Huge portions of beautifully spiced and grilled fish (Yemeni style) with ground banana and date and the freshest charcoal baked flatbread.
Next, we are heading out into the desert.
I've flown in from Juba. Immigration at Djibouti Airport is fairly straightforward; there’s little queueing, though the official I’ve selected has to move booths three times before he can get his new-fangled technology to work. I’ve eschewed an e-visa as they were demanding 130 dollars online and I was told it was only 90 dollars on arrival. So, I’m delighted to be charged just 15 dollars for a transit visa, as it's a short stay
I’m in a five-star hotel, which charges five-star prices. The room is freezing cold and won’t warm up, (it’s still forty degrees outside), there’s no hot water, the fridge won’t work, and the bathroom looks as if it hasn’t been refurbished since the 1950’s.
In antiquity this was the Land of Punt. The Djibouti area, along with other localities in the Horn region, was later the seat of the medieval Adal and Ifat Sultanates. It then became French Somaliland, established as a French colony in the late nineteenth century. Independence was achieved in 1977. Today, Wikipedia describes Djibouti as a ’unitary dominant presidential republic under an authoritarian dictatorship’. There’s one TV channel - state run.
About 40 percent of the population live in poverty and over half of these people in extreme poverty. The arid land makes Djibouti a poor place for farming. In fact, just 0.04 percent of land in Djibouti is arable. There is therefore very little in the way of exports - the country makes a living through commerce, utilising its strategic position at the mouth of the Red Sea. Ships and planes from western powers vie to use the port and establish military bases. It also supplies vital port access to Ethiopia.
Lonely Planet says this is a safe country because of the considerable western military presence. The FCO talk about landmines on the border with Eritrea, bandits on the road and piracy, as well as petty crime. I didn't have any problems
The original plan was to drive overland to Somaliland, but the Djibouti authorities have announced, for some reason known only to them, that the border will not be opened until 4 pm each day. Which doesn’t allow long for my drive to Borama and overnight accommodation. So now I’m flying direct to Hargeisa. Djibouti Airport reminds me of my hotel bathroom. The departure lounge is accessed up two flights of spiral stairs.
Stay in touch. Get travel tips, updates on my latest adventures and posts on out of the way places, straight to your Inbox.