WHEN I received an invitation from Djibouti tourism authorities to visit this Horn of Africa nation, my reaction was probably like that of most people. Where’s Djibouti?
Well, it’s a small, Arab- and French-speaking nation sandwiched between Ethiopia and Somalia, home to about 847,000 people and the only US military base in Africa.
My four-day trip there gave me a brand-new perspective of both the country and the continent. It would rank as an adventure holiday.
There are no direct flights between China and Djibouti. I had three choices: traveling via Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, Istanbul in Turkey or Doha in Qatar.
The flight to Addis Abba, with a connecting flight to Djibouti, took 15 hours. The first thing I had to do upon landing was applying for a visa at the airport. The small visa office staffed by two people was crammed with visa seekers. They were mainly businessmen or workers.
The heat struck me as soon as I stepped out of the airport. April is the beginning of summer in Djibouti, with daytime temperatures in the mid-30s degrees Celsius or higher.
I was told that the best season to visit is winter, from November to February, when the temperature averages a more pleasant 25 degrees.
The downtown of Djibouti City was about a 20-minute ride from the airport. I saw a lovely beach on the ride in, but it was Sunday and empty of people. Sunday is a workday here, after the Friday-Saturday weekend.
On my second day, a guide took me to Lake Assal, a crater lake about a two-hour drive out of town. The closer we got, the hotter it became.
My guide Maamo Idriss, who spoke fluent Mandarin after studying for six years in Beijing, told me that the lake, at 155 meters below sea level, is the lowest point in Africa and the third-lowest point on Earth. Heat settles in the valley and stays there.
As we approached the lake, we could see from high a tranquil, deep blue surface set against a mainly brown and yellow landscape. As we drew nearer, a saltpan could be clearly seen on one side of the lake — its white rings and stripes creating a unique vision I’d never seen before. Little rain falls here in winter, so the lake level was quite low in April.
Although the scenery was stunning, both Idriss and I were quickly defeated by temperatures as high as 42 degrees Celsius. She told me that the lake is so salty that no creatures live in its waters. There is an island in the middle called Devil Island.
Idriss said local people seldom visit the lake vicinity after twilight because of popular ghost stories. I could imagine that the desolate landscape could seem quite scary after dark.
The lake is an oval 19 kilometers long and 6.5 kilometers wide. Its watershed covers 900 square kilometers. The government of Djibouti has initiated a proposal with UNESCO to have the lake declared a world heritage site.
This huge lake is of no help in alleviating tight fresh water supplies in Djibouti. Several days later, I read a government advertisement in a local newspaper soliciting global bids for the exploration of mineral resources in the lake. I wish them all the best.
Beaches and diving
Along the coastline of the capital Djibouti City is Fishermen’s Port, or Port de Pêche. It’s a bustling area, filled with the smells of sea air and freshly caught fish.
The port also serves as a wharf for tourists to get to outlying islands in the Gulf of Aden, where beaches and diving excursions await. The two main beaches are Moucha Island and White Sands, or Les Sables Blancs.
Moucha is a small coral island near the Gulf of Tadjoura. In addition to traditional beach attractions, it also has a diving school where visitors can either book a recreational dive or take a professional diving course.
I decided to give it a try.
The instructor at the Aqua Club Diving Center was quite reassuring. Before we got into a speedboat, he explained in detail how the equipment worked, how I should breathe underwater and how we were to communicate with sign language.
The sea around Djibouti was perfect. The waters are unpolluted and very blue. Only 5 meters below the surface are white coral and colorful tropical fish.
The best diving season is said to be in winter, when whale sharks pass through. After diving deeper than 10 meters, my ears started to hurt from the pressure and I had to return to the surface.
So much for my maiden dive. It was easier than I had initially imagined and an experience I won’t soon forget.
I had lunch on the island, where stray cats prowled in hopes of getting tidbits to eat. Several tourists started a barbeque just behind the beach.
A mangrove forest on the other side of the island is said to be one of the few green sites in the country. Visitors can rent a boat to explore the mangrove.
“It is entirely dark inside the forest,” Idriss told me. “The branches and leaves are so thick that no sunlight can creep through.”
Compared with Moucha Island, White Beach was closer to a traditional seaside resort. It boasts a waterfront hotel, with eight standard rooms and several dormitory cottages. Resort manager Hasna Houssein spoke fluent English.
“I like meeting tourists and listening to their stories,” she said. “Many of them are on around-the-world trips.”
At night, the beachfront was quiet and dark. The absence of artificial lighting makes it a great place for stargazing. As I lay on the white sand, looking skyward, I thought how the experience didn’t fit any of my stereotyped expectations of Africa.
Tadjourah and Bankoualé
A half-hour drive from White Beach is Tadjourah, the oldest town in Djibouti. Its name in the ethnic language of the Afar nomads means “those who have goatskin flasks to draw water.” Most of the buildings in the town are painted white, hence the local nickname White Town.
The road to Tadjourah was a winding, uphill mud track. The ride was so bumpy that Idriss joked the journey was an “African massage.”
I thought the town was our destination, but I was wrong. Our true destination was a village called Bankoualé, about a 30-minute ride beyond Tadjourah.
To get there required “African massage, round 2.” It was not only incredibly bumpy but the road hugged the top of a steep cliff side.
I was accompanied by Idriss, a driver and a Tadjourah local guide, who seemed oblivious to the perils that were putting my heart in my throat.
“Are we going the same way back we came?” I asked Idriss timidly.
She laughed and nodded.
We made it to the village in one piece. It consisted of small house built of stone or palm branches. Family of five lived in a hut no bigger than 8 square meters, cooking, eating and sleeping in the one place.
It’s largely a subsistence lifestyle. The villagers grow mango, guava and other fruit, using camels or donkeys to carry the products outside to exchange for food. Water is fetched from wells. Though not all that far from a relatively modern city, Bankoualé seemed to be stuck in a distant past.
The United Nation is carrying out an aid program for women there, encouraging handicrafts that can be sold to visitors. The handicrafts looked rather rough and raw, but I felt the warmth of humanity as women sat outside their huts weaving palm fronds into coin purses and hats or stringing beads into necklaces.
I left the village with several souvenirs. As we departed, a family walked slowly past, their donkey laden with daily necessities. I watched them and wished I knew more about these people.
Accommodation and dining
Most foreign visitors choose to base themselves in Djibouti City, which is a good decision where accommodation and hygiene are concerned.
If you choose to visit more faraway places, such as Lake Abbe, which unfortunately I missed because of scheduling, or Bankoualé, you might find yourself having to sleep in tourist “campsites,” which are huts holding four or five basic spring beds. Having one’s own sleeping bag is helpful.
The sites also provide a public bathroom and showers. Meals are served in a rustic hut. Don’t expect to find mobile phone coverage or Wi-Fi.
Hot, spicy cuisine dominates in Djibouti. It is a mixture of foods from Ethiopia, Somalia and Yemen across the Red Sea.
The best meal I had in Djibouti was in a restaurant called Janateyn, which specializes in Yemeni food. It serves great naan, with cheese and grilled fish. The fish was a bit spicy, but it tasted fresh and juicy.
The resort on White Beach also provides an array of dishes, including fish kebab, roasted goat and a local snack called samboussa, which is a deep-fried dumping stuffed with minced fish and onion.
There are also street-side juice bars in Djibouti City that sell smoothies, juices and ice cream — all great comforts on a hot day.
1. Bring a lot of sunscreen, especially if you visit after March.
2. Take mosquito repellent and apply it liberally. Mosquitoes are fierce here, and in some areas, you need to be cautious of malaria.
3. You might want to wear long-sleeve shirts and pants in spite of the heat because they help block out the sun and fend off mosquitoes.
4. Always carry water with you. You don’t want to get dehydrated here.
5. On connecting flight into Djibouti, be sure to leave ample time between arrival and departure times. Flight delays are common.
6. It is advisable to book activities through travel services. They include:
• Dolphin Services
This group arranges all kinds of sea activities in Djibouti, including diving and cruise trips. Visitors can choose to sleep overnight on the boats instead of hotels.
• Aqua Club Diving Center
The center provides diving equipment and reliable instructors.
• Les Sables Blancs (White Beach)
The beach resort here provides accommodation and dining. Visitors can also book their trips to other places in the country from here.