It may sit in one of Africa’s most troubled regions, but Djibouti’s otherworldly landscapes are starting to attract tourists
Djibouti is out of this world. It’s a claim no travel writer should ever make, but it really is as if a great chunk of Mars has been carved out and jigsawed on to the Horn of Africa. Seated on the Afar Triple Junction – the meeting point for three of the Earth’s tectonic plates, which are pulling slowly away from one another – Djibouti is a jostle of black volcanic rock, flat plains haunted by dust devils and a brilliant-blue coastline bulging out into the Gulf of Aden. These are the raw lands that 20-year-old Wilfred Thesiger travelled through in the 1930s and later featured in his Danakil Diaries travelogue.
Until recently, travellers have been slow to follow in his footsteps. Images of the civil war that broke out in the region during the 1990s linger – as do concerns about pirates in the Gulf. But these impressions are outdated. Aside from the occasional pickpocket, Djibouti is safe and unassociated with the problems that persist in neighbouring Somalia and Eritrea, its coastal towns insulated from marauders by the Gulf of Tadjoura.
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It offers intrepid travellers a new frontier. Outside the colonial-style capital, Djibouti city, development is in its infancy: accommodation and services are relatively frill-free, there’s no public transport and it’s expensive. But the real draw is the wealth of adventure activities on offer, from trekking up the dormant Ardoukoba volcano and snorkelling with whale sharks in the Bay of Ghoubbet, to floating in the briny waters of Lac Assal – the lowest point in Africa.
One of its most impressive landmarks is Lac Abbé – a salt lake on the border with Ethiopia. It’s the terminus of the 750-mile-long Awash River, which starts life west of Addis Ababa. Droughts and extraction for irrigation upstream have caused the water level to drop 20ft, leaving behind copper-coloured flats studded with jagged limestone chimneys that bite the skyline. It’s so otherworldly they were used as a filming location for the first Planet of the Apes.
As we drive towards the plains, heat warps the air and the chimneys appear on the horizon like a long caravan of humped camels marching through the desert. In the distance, Afar women draped in cloths of purple, orange, red or blue flash bright as birds against the sandy sky
I lean out the window of the 4×4 as we navigate the scabs of sparkling salt that encrust the dirt and pop like bubble wrap beneath the tyres. A boy, leading his two camels, walks past us; arms dangling over the herding stick slung across his shoulders. We wave, and he nods his head in reply. Off to the left, a jackal nips at the ground. He’s cornered a rodent of some kind and darts back and forth, unsure of us but unwilling to abandon his hard-won lunch. We stop the car. He races back and plunges his snout into the earth, emerging with a furry gerbil between his teeth and darts behind a rock to eat in peace as we crackle onwards. Further on we see a pair of pug-nosed warthogs with tusks white and curved like smiles, but they quickly trot away into the haze.
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Hussein, our quiet Afar guide who sits in the passenger seat, holds up his hand and signals for our driver to stop. He speaks French – the national language alongside Arabic – and I translate for the others. “Follow my footsteps; be careful where you walk: there’s areas of quicksand.“ So we pace after him, eyeing up the contorted formations. One is over 200ft high and is nicknamed – rather unimaginatively – La Grande Cheminee (The Big Chimney). It’s utterly silent save for the warm, whispering wind.
At the base of another, Hussein points to a fumerole – a pool of boiling water that bubbles and steams invitingly like a Jacuzzi. “See. This place really is heaven and hell,” he smiles. “It comes from so deep that it reaches halfway up the vents,” he says, pointing to nooks further up where I notice pigeons roosting. “They have to be careful not to cook themselves” Hussein says, grinning and rubbing his tummy hungrily.
Leading away from the pool is a thin, shallow channel carved through the salt and dirt. “What’s this for?” I ask. “Afar adults build them to steer the hot water – which cools enroute – to small fields where they grow grass for their animals,” he explains. “Then the children bring the goats and sheep here.”
The Muslim Afar – or Danakil – make up a third of Djibouti’s population of under a million, and have a fierce reputation. One of their most beloved proverbs reads: “It’s better to die than live without killing.” Today, their attitudes are softening, but smiles are not easily won.
We return to the car and drive up to a small escarpment where a basic campsite sits overlooking the chimneys and fumeroles. Accommodation is in the form of ari – traditional Afar huts built from a matrix of branches bent into a dome with a woven mat slung over the top to act as a roof. Beneath this is an Army-style camp bed.
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We wander into the cool, dark interior of the main tent. Its dark-green canvas walls flap in the wind. The only decoration is a dried leopard pelt – head and ears intact – splayed across a side table; its regality all the more poignant amid the barrenness.
Inside are four travellers – two men, two women – sitting around a simple table on folding chairs; their legs splayed out in rest. The camp cook offers us small, scratched glasses of piping-hot coffee, which we pincer carefully between fingers and thumb. I sip at the brown water and let out a long, quiet whistle; it’s so sweet my fillings rattle.
“What brings you to Djibouti?” I ask the group of newly assembled friends who had met in Ethiopia. “Adventure!” they cheer in unison. “I can’t wait to sleep in my hut tonight,” beams an Irishman called Enda, his sun-reddened cheeks blending into his russet beard.
The sun is starting to set so we them bid farewell and drive back down to the plains. The low light casts silhouettes making the chimneys appear as dark mountains from a distance; serrated like the backbone of a dinosaur.
As we wander towards one of the grassy patches, we notice two girls and a younger boy grazing their goats. They stare at us unflinchingly. I crouch down to run my fingers through the turf and, looking up, lock eyes with the eldest. She leans her head against the shepherding branch clasped in her hands. I can just make out the tribal markings on her face; two blackened stripes, as if a bird had lightly perched on either cheek. I nod and smile, but she doesn’t respond.
The light is fading fast now. Hussein says it’s time to go and starts walking back to the 4×4. I hang back to take in the surroundings and realise the children are following me. I turn and greet them in French, but they stay silent; I take pictures on my smartphone and flip the camera so they can see themselves, but they peer at the screen wordlessly. And then I have it. Fastened to the fraying satchel slung around my body is a gold Omani badge pin featuring two crossed khanjars (daggers); a small token I picked up on my travels. I take it off and attach it to the dress of the eldest girl, near her shoulder. It glints in the sun and she runs her fingers over the small button. Before she can stop herself, her lips crack and curve into a smile revealing bright-white teeth. Quickly, she whips her hand up to her mouth to cover it and her eyes settle into a tough stare again. We’re nearly at the car. She grabs my hand and gives it a quick, firm squeeze and runs back towards the grass and goats.
Djibouti can be disconcerting at first. It’s unlike any other African country: in place of the cool eucalyptus forests and green terraced valleys found in Ethiopia, are unique gnarly landscapes forged from rock, sand and salt. It’s wild and totally alien, but it offers something rather precious nowadays: the chance for raw adventure as yet untainted by multitudinous tour operators. Give it a few days and it will – as with the young girl – elicit the sincerest of smiles.