Djibouti, land of salt and pristine waters

#56. Djibouti, the shores of lake Assal

Djibouti, land of salt and pristine waters

Djibouti is larger than its size, with unique geological wonders, beautiful azure waters with plentiful marine life, and a very French laid back atmosphere.

A short introduction to Djibouti

“Is Africa getting a Dubai?” was the title of a recent BBC article about Dj ibouti that surely got our interest. I dreamt of huge skyscrapers, a cosmopolitan attitude and a high degree of luxury. And with the crazy prices of the Djiboutian hotels, I certainly expected a lot for my money.

But let’s get some facts first. In ancient and medieval times there was almost nothing here, the most significant city and power base for the Ifat sultanate being Zeyla (now an insignificant village in bordering Somaliland). According to one tale, the land of Djibouti was supposedly sold to the French by the Ethiopian emperor Menelik II (with the money consequently spent on frivolous high life luxuries), though the actual process involved a series of treaties with the local Muslim authorities. Although Tadjourah was already an existing small town and thriving port, the French founded Djibouti city in 1888 from scratch as their own base. From most of its 19th and 20th century existence, the country was known as French Somaliland, serving as the end of the Addis Ababa-Dire Dawa-Djibouti railway. It became independent on 20 September 1977. Today it is one of the largest ports in East Africa, and is home to a number of foreign military bases (the biggest being former French Camp Lemonier near the airport), including a Chinese one, which overall contribute greatly to the nation’s wealth (and prices inflation). The population comprises of Afar (35%) and Somali (60%) people, with a small but significant minority of European expats as well. Regrettably, there was a civil war during the 90’s, although now the country is surprisingly peaceful, liberal and well developed, particularly if compared to its immediate neighbours. From all the countries around the Horn of Africa, only here I felt enough at ease to openly reveal myself as an atheist to the (Muslim) locals. However, on the other hand, it is estimated that about 94% of women had undergone female genital mutilation. Djibouti is so close to Yemen, that there were even some Saudi plans at some point to build a 28.5km bridge connecting the two continents, namely “the bridge of horns”.

The wonders of the gulf of Tadjourah

The first morning was dedicated to beach time. Although there are two beautiful (to look) beaches inside the city, the true white sand marvels require a shortish boat ride starting from the busy commercial fish market. There are 3 major choices, the Arta beach to the west, the White Sands resort near Tadjourah to the north across the bay, and the Moucha island in the middle of the gulf. Most tourist companies can arrange trips to any of them, although the prices are Djiboutian high. The first two are about 1,5 hours away, also accessible by car, and probably require a full day trip. Moucha is just 30′ away, and can be done in a half day, leaving around 09:00 from the harbour and returning around 14:00, including lunch with sandwich or on a resort restaurant. It is a very beautiful island (evident as the choice for the president’s private beach house), with white pristine beaches and extensive inner mangroves, with fish swimming in the shaded undergrowth and frisky small crabs living within rented seashells, wandering around the sand. I enjoyed the water and beach in the company of six very happy Chinese tourists, who gave me very funny looks when I went into the big blue thing (=the sea), and thought of it as so interesting as to even take photos.

Arguably, the biggest sea attraction in Djibouti are the huge majestic whale sharks, frequenting the waters in general from mid-October to mid-February. One can easily snorkel or dive alongside the gentle giants, for one of the most unique (and perhaps a bit scary) experiences with the animal world. However, in recent years their appearance is becoming increasingly erratic, and this season they had already went their way even before Christmas. Sadly, the local fishermen have started to kill the poor defenceless beasts, in order to decrease competition for the local fish catch, thus slowly destroying one of the most beautiful migration sights on our planet.

The city centre

Having arrived to Djibouti after dark, there was little to see in the city. However, from the very beginning you get the feeling that you have landed in a different Africa: normal (albeit old) taxis replace the trademark tuk tuks of Ethiopia and Sudan, and a Renault car dealership stands side by side with a Toyota one. Reaching the city centre, it seems that everybody is out enjoying the warm, humid evening, drinking tea, juice, or even beer for the European expats. This is certainly a lively city after dark, with lit and safe streets. I chose a hotel in the very heart of the action, next to Rue d’Ethiopie, where many bars and restaurants are to be found, near the central square of 27 June, where the handicraft shops are also located. The accommodation, however, was a huge disappointment, as the hotel was barely a 2* and very old, although charging the same amount than a luxury 3* in Ethiopia, and sadly similar remarks can be made for every other hotel I bothered to check, up to the (supposedly) 5* Sheraton. A note to the wise: when you are in an expensive location, aim always for the no frills lowest price, and forget about the overcharging underachieving “upmarket” choices. The service you will get might be a bit poorer, but it will be friendly, honest, and much more value for money.

Upon returning to dry land from our little sea venture, there is plenty of time to take a good look of the city centre, which however is curiously devoid of sights. The Mahoudi mosque is one of the oldest in the city, right next to the colourful central market of fruits, vegetables, clothes, Chinese junk, and, of course, khat. Khat is definitely the king, and you see scores of people doing nothing all afternoon, other than chewing the addictive stimulant leaf, sitting unceremoniously in the squalor of the pavement, a sorry sight for the eyes and a definite taboo for taking shots. The Djiboutis, as other Somalis, are very peculiar about photography: most they will aggressively fend you off, although a significant minority will actually invite you to it, giving you the chance to interact more directly with the locals. Pictures aside, they are a friendly and curious bunch, who often will talk to you out of pure interest (here, a foreigner taking photos is more likely a journalist than a tourist), and scams are minimum and rather benign. The expats are actually more reclusive, with a colonial aloof attitude, and the division between the poorer African neighbourhoods and the affluent, high security European section (particularly past Tokyo square) is very sharp indeed. The city centre acts like a buffer zone between the two, where you can observe the local middle class in action, unseparated by skin colour or religious beliefs. Of course, Djibouti has Islam as a state religion, therefore you always wake up to the minaret sounds and pork is practically non-existent, but beer is served freely to everyone in most of the major restaurants and the dress code and overall attitude are both very loose and laid back. However, Djiboutian plates are hard to find in European style establishments, so you need to search for a local joint, preferably with the aid of a knowledgeable friend. Their cuisine is a combination of many tastes from the surrounding countries, and the Red Sea of course provides for some excellent fish dishes, particularly Yemeni style. To those interested, Djibouti is indeed very cosmopolitan, and apart from the European standard selections of meat and pasta, you can even find sushi and Indian food on the more posh side of town. A note to the wise: when the locals speak of “sandwich” they mean a half meter long loaf, perhaps enough to satisfy two people. The Terrace restaurant has good reviews, as does the Chaumiere, and the Ali Sabieh hotel offers excellent pizza and pasta.

The Siesta beach is a favourite of the locals, less so for the swim rather than for the hanging out, and in the afternoon is transformed into a huge football stadium, with youths having the ball time of their lives. Further north lies the old railway station, nowadays occupied by squatters probably with the president’s blessing, and from there begin the richer neighbourhoods, where most embassies are located, with high fences topped with barbed wire and private security outside the homes. On the north-western corner there is also Heron beach, smaller than Siesta, and within sight of the sprawling, but evidently aged, Kampinski luxury hotel.

A journey to the salt lakes

But the sightseeing is far from over. Perhaps even more famed (and much more reliable) than the whale sharks, are the two outlandish lakes of Abbe and Assal, two geological monuments which can be visited by arranging a 4×4 tour with a local agency, again regrettably with high exorbitant prices. Lake Assal is a salt lake 155m below sea level, the second lowest point of earth after the Dead Sea, and has the most saline waters outside Antarctica, being replenished with seawater from an underground channel. It is the biggest salt reserve on the planet, and a proposed Unesco site. The salt extraction by the local nomads has been going on since ancient times, with caravan trade routes linking to Ethiopia. Today, although nomadic people still make their livelihood out of it, there are also some big corporations engaging in industrial scale mining. The route to the lake is also a sight on itself, with viewpoints overlooking a majestic canyon and the expanding beginning of the gulf of Tadjourah. In each point, as well as on the lakeside, you can find numerous souvenirs, in the form of smart handicraft, mineral rocks, and of course salt. Reaching the shores of the lake, standing on the salt plain, with caravan camels being loaded from the human toil, the sight is one of the most amazing on earth. For the most intrepid, you can even taste the salt directly from below (it is very tasty and clean), or even dare to take a floating dip in the (not particularly inviting, though) water. Lake Assal can be made into a daytrip from Djibouti city, or as a two days combo with lake Abbe.

To reach lake Abbe requires much more hardship than lake Assal, as more than half of the way is off road through the Bara desert. The highway is also heavily trafficked by Ethiopia-bound lorries, as the Djibouti port is the main trade outlet of the neighbouring country. The town of Dikhil provides a good lunch break point, halfway to the lake just before the off road part. It is also a good opportunity for your crew to go and buy some khat, which is a take it or leave it cultural experience, so you must put up with a driver chewing his drug leaf all afternoon, apparently though not visibly affecting his driving skills. The desert track goes south, towards the As Ela village, before turning north again, bypassing a small mountain chain and following the Ethiopian border. The nomadic huts are mostly in a derelict state, bordering extreme poverty, but the people seem sturdy and friendly enough. Inside the desert there is plenty of wildlife, gazelles being the most abundant, and there are some wild boars on the lake shore. The salt lake is equally shared between Djibouti and Ethiopia, and is on the same water system with five more on the Ethiopian side. This is the heart of the Afar region, where three different Earth crust plates are slowly pulling away from each other, resulting in a very strong geological activity.

This activity is very evident in the form of the huge towering chimneys dotting the shore, and the hot steam emanating from some spots on the ground. This (according to Lonely Planet) is supposedly the Forbidden Place featured in the original Planet of the Apes, although this has long since proved to be a hoax, without however diminishing the eerie beauty of the unearthly landscape. The best spot to view a magnificent sunset is right from the nearby Afar operated encampment, which has straw and stone huts for the travellers to choose from. After the included dinner, a short folkloric dance show is often performed, with a small donation appreciated afterwards for the village kids. A before dawn wakeup call enables you to enjoy the sunrise among the chimneys, afterwards making the 20′ walk towards the actual receding shore, where flocks of Ibis and pink flamingos are taking their morning meal. Afterwards, is back to the camp for breakfast and return to the city. The journey can be made both ways, visiting either lake first, although perhaps the optimal is to start with Assal.

Final thoughts

So, at the end of the day, what is the verdict? Low quality service? Yes, but friendly and really trying. Ridiculously high prices? Yes, but is a take it or leave it situation. Drugged natives drooling all afternoon? Yes, but is also considered their cultural tradition. White beaches? Check. Geological marvels? Check. Whale sharks? If you are lucky, check. Free military air show from the opposite base while waiting for your return flight? Most likely check. Djibouti is French speaking, quite liberal (for its region), well developed economically in the city, and with significant natural sights in the countryside. So no, Africa is not getting a Dubai (yet), but perhaps is getting a Lebanon. But it is still a work in progress.