Written by James Kessler
While it might be best known for its extreme heat, legionnaires, and whale sharks, Djibouti is also a land of stark, otherworldly beauty. Writer James Kessler ventures off the beaten path to explore the far corners of this tiny, fascinating country in the Horn of Africa.
As Muhammad and I crested the black, volcanic ridge, after a long day driving across arid desert, I finally caught sight of it: an unearthly forest of stone chimneys, many belching smoke, rising abruptly out of a salt-encrusted plain.
Springs of boiling water gurgled from rust-coloured depressions at the base of the chimneys. Then beyond the ‘forest’, a shimmering, incongruous expanse of pale, milky-blue water. The scene was straight out of a 1960s sci-fi film’s vision of another planet. I understood perfectly, in that moment, why the original Planet of the Apes could have been filmed in this desolately beautiful corner of exotic Djibouti – although it appears that it was not, despite persistent rumours. We had arrived at our goal: the shores of Lac Abbé.
I travelled to Djibouti in large part to seek out the lunar landscapes for which the country is famous – and Lac Abbé specifically. While the adventurous tourists who make it to this tiny country, situated strategically at the intersection of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, will often take day trips out to well-known Lac Assal or dive with whale sharks in the Bay of Ghoubet, few venture into the deeper wilds of this land. Yet those who do explore the harsh outer edges of Djibouti will be rewarded with the hospitality of the Afar, one of the toughest nomadic peoples on the planet, and with mesmerising, interplanetary vistas.
I met my guide and driver, Muhammad – a lanky, affable Afar man – early on a Saturday morning in the centre of the European Quarter of Djibouti City, the heart of this former French colonial outpost. Although Muhammad knew only a few words of English and I spoke only caveman-like French, we managed to communicate quite well with a hybrid of the two languages, plus some Arabic thrown in for good measure. As I had learned almost from the moment I landed in Djibouti, this was pretty normal. This important port at the mouth of the Red Sea has long been a crossroads of many peoples and cultures – so a linguistic mélange is typical.
Djibouti is not a big country, but it is an easy place in which to get far away from it all. Soon after leaving Djibouti City, we passed through the village of Oueah, a base of the French Foreign Legion, crossing paths with long caravans of Ethiopian trucks plying the so-called highway. Other than the dusty town of Dikhil, about halfway to Lac Abbé, that was pretty much the last we saw of ‘civilisation’.
The highway soon gave way to narrow, rough-tracked road and eventually disappeared altogether, as Muhammad drove us into the Grand Barra Depression. The Barra Depression, the remains of an ancient seabed, is blindingly white and nearly featurelessly flat. The only sound was the wind whipping up dust devils and miniature sand storms. I was happy that Muhammad was at the wheel, as I lost all sense of direction in the emptiness.
Yet that emptiness belied a surprising amount of human activity. As I peered out of the window of our Toyota 4x4, watching sun-baked desertscapes, without a sign of greenery slip by, I would suddenly spy a goat herder or camel driver with his charges materialise on the horizon. Like a mirage. I couldn’t help but wonder: what were the animals feeding on? We were travelling in the relatively temperate winter months, but what about the summer, when temperatures can soar to 50°C or higher in the shade? How did the nomads and their animals survive? The Djiboutians are indeed a resilient people, as I quickly realised.
Lac Abbé, my main goal in this journey across Djibouti, is a large body of highly saline water situated on the border between Djibouti and Ethiopia. It is something of a deadly tease in this brutally hot, brutally parched corner of Africa. When I visited, there had been no rain for at least five years. And the only springs, mostly found among the smoking, calcareous chimneys, are boiling hot and sulphurous. So the lake beckons with its promise of sustenance, only to prove useless as a source of water or food – except for the large flocks of pink flamingos, the only flash of bright colour in the landscape, which feed on the tiny brine shrimp that are about the only things able to live in Lac Abbé’s waters.
As the lake is on the edge of the Danakil Desert, part of the so-called Afar Triangle, one of the lowest regions on earth, you can sense somehow that you are closer to the fiery interior of our planet. The hot mineral springs just reinforce the idea that the crust is relatively thin at this point. I felt like I might fall into the centre of the Earth.
The only place to stay close to Lac Abbé is the Campement Touristique d’Asboley, a cluster of permanent nomad-style tents perched on a hill overlooking both the lake and the limestone formations. As the sun descended, enflaming the water and rock, I watched the unfolding drama from the camp, sipping a strong, cinnamon-laden tea. And when night fell, the number of stars arcing the sky humbled me. As I was the only guest that evening, I felt like the last person on earth – except, of course, for Muhammad and the Afar family running the camp. The night was uncorrupted by electric light or the incessant hum of modern convenience. The silence was total. The sky, a black velvet.
In the morning, Muhammad and I bathed in one of the hot, stinking springs, watching the rising sun do its magic on this Planet of the Apes-sans-apes world. A lone jackal wandered by, barely noticing the humans submerged in a natural hotpot.
It was with great reluctance that I piled back into the 4x4 to begin the rewind back to Djibouti City. Although we would be stopping at the other great salt lake, Lac Assal, I knew that Lac Abbé and its moonlike surroundings would haunt my sci-fi-fuelled imagination for a long time to come.
Swimming with Whale Sharks
As soon as I slipped over the side of the boat and into the warm waters of the Bay of Ghoubet, I found myself staring into the gaping mouth of what I might have taken for a sea monster if I hadn’t known better. I nearly choked on seawater as I gasped, forgetting the snorkel in my own mouth. Here I was, within touching distance of the world’s largest fish, a massive whale shark. It stared me down for a moment, before slowly turning, nearly flicking me with its tail. Then from beneath me, emerging from murky shadows, rose another. And then another.
The Bay of Ghoubet, between mid-October and February, is perhaps the best place in the world to see whale sharks. The question will not be if you will see one, but how many. A number of dive operators in Djibouti organise whale shark diving excursions. Check with Dolphin Services or the dive centre at the Djibouti Palace Kempinski Hotel.
Camping, Afar Style
To truly experience the desolate beauty of Lac Abbé and the surrounding desert, spending a night in an Afar-style tent at Campement Touristique d’Asboley is a must. While the accommodation is rustic, the Afar food and hospitality (try the cinnamon tea), not to mention its almost lunar views, are unforgettable. Reservations can be made through hotels and travel agencies in Djibouti City.
Muhammad and Dolphin Services
While perhaps best known for providing PADI certification courses and organising scuba diving and snorkelling trips, Dolphin Services is one of the best overall tourist agencies in Djibouti. They helped organise my journey to Lac Abbé and Lac Assal, arranging a guide and driver, Muhammad – a cheerful Arabic- and French-speaking Afar man – who really opened up the unique beauty of Djibouti to me. If Muhammad is available, I highly recommend his services. Dolphin Services, Boulevard de la République.
If you look at a map, it should not come as a surprise that Djibouti’s cuisine would derive its inspiration from a mix of many cultures, including from Yemen. I had the pleasure of tasting poisson Yemenite, a delicious whole fish baked in a clay oven and served with a thin chapatti and mukbasa, a purée of dates or banana with honey. Try Restaurant Saba (Avenue Maréchal Lyautey) or Mukbasa – 7 Frères (Ave 13) – or any number of hole-in-the-wall restaurants around town that specialise in the dish.
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