Sweltering in Djibouti

Djibouti is damn hot and dusty as all hell. Flying in all you can see is endless rocks and sand. I didn’t have a visa but my sources had indicated getting one was possible on arrival. The only problem was that none of the officers on duty that day had ever seen a kiwi passport. So it took me a good 20 minutes to persuade them in my politest French to let me in. I got a ride to the cheapest of the good hotels in town – the Atlantic. Djibouti is incredibly overpriced!

Waiting for the bus
I wasn’t up to much on day 1 as had arrived from Melbourne and was feeling ropey so promptly passed out for 12 hours. On day 2 I met my guides Omar and Mohammed who were taking me to the desert…. there was no other way to get there without a private car. Best not to ask me how much it cost as sadly I wasn’t able to find another group who were going.

The day started stonkingly hot. Leaving the capital we were stopped twice at police checkpoints…. not for any other reason than they wanted a ride back to base. Before long we had 8 gendarmes in the back, I felt like a VIP. The road was heaving with trucks.

Cigarette vendor
Apparently everything in Djibouti is imported from Ethiopia (water, food, electricity), so in exchange Ethiopia gets full access to Djibouti’s port. As a result there are apparently 6000 trucks per day crossing the border. Apart from some camels and a couple of cars, we saw nothing but back to back trucks for the first hour.

Lac Assal
We turned off the main road to head to Lac Assal – the lowest point in Africa at 155m below sea level – a crater lake surrounded by extinct volcanoes and still mined extensively today for the salt. I had a swim – or more accurately a float, and wished all my swimming races were in water this salty, it was a breeze to swim in, and stunningly beautiful.

Lac Assal

Salt crust on Lac Assal
Then it was back to the main road to head to Lac Abbe, pausing after two hours for a proper European tourist lunch in the town of Dikhil. I love the African interpretation of what westerners eat, and the tuna salad, chicken and chips, and Nutella crepe were pretty good.

Camel roadblock on RN1 – the main highway
After Dikhil we had three hours of off-road (endearingly referred to as a 4wd African massage) to reach camp. In the two days we were out there we saw one other 4wd. Weirdly just when you feel like you are in the middle of nowhere with only the swirling dust devils for company you pass a couple of kids with a herd of goats, or a dromadaire with his camels, or a rectangle marked out with stones which is obviously the nomads meet up point for a regular match. The desert is stunning and full of life, but the heat shimmering up from the stones makes me exceedingly grateful for Mohammed’s speedy driving….it provides free air con with the hot wind blasting through the window (better than no wind) as the 4wd doesn’t have any AC.

The grand chimney at Lac Abbe
After three hours of ‘massage’ we arrived at the famous chimneys of Lac Abbe. All of this area was under 50 meters of water 30000 years ago, so the rock formations are like a weird form of coral. They are known locally as chimneys as with the geothermal activity there is smoke belching out the top. And you have to watch your feet as there are some boiling hot springs and quite a few areas of quick sand!

Cows wandering home with the chimneys in the background
It’s so hot that in spite of drinking 5 litres of water since we left town, I have peed once…. that is a miracle as I have a Kmart bladder.

Chimneys at sunset
We arrived at camp, which was pretty basic, and I was the first guest for a week or so. Spring isn’t tourist season with the temperatures in the 40s and no one comes in summer! I sucked back another two litres of water with some electrolytes thrown in and went for a stroll as the sun went down. I came back to another substantial euro meal of salad, spag bog and fruit.

Kids taking their goats home
It was finally cool outside with endless stars so I was hoping for a blissfully peaceful night turning in at 9. The goats were making a bit of a racket so I preemptively put the earplugs in, and then retired to my traditional afar ‘tent’ made with palm leaves. I think it would have been better labelled as a sauna, as it was as hot as all hell in there, so I eschewed the mozzie net and dragged the mattress outside into the wind and went to sleep. Sadly the wind dropped at 11pm and the mozzies arrived. Not just any mozzies but world champion, bloody noisy, aggressive biting mozzies of the like I have never seen (and I come from the home of the sand flies). I lay there half delirious trying to decide if I wanted to die of mozzie bites outside or die of sweating inside the tent under the net. I went with the net. In hindsight I should have skipped the tent all together and rigged up a net outside (definitely possible), but at midnight I wasn’t really alert enough to think this through. Oh well, the mozzies won that round and I didn’t get much shut eye.

Chimneys at dawn
I gave up trying to sleep and got up at first light and went for a walk. Then the guides joined me for a ‘hike’ through the small chimneys and out to the lake. Omar (27) challenged Mohammed (35) and I (43) to a run to the lake edge.  He took off like a shot and so did Mohammed. I am old, so stopped and did my laces up, then set off at a slow jog given the heat and hoped like hell the exuberance of youth would fail him after a km, and my hopes were rewarded.

Mohammed and Omar warming their hands at the hot springs
It was probably about a 2k run, Mohammed stopped  at about 300m and Omar collapsed on the ground at 1km….and I sailed pass at a slow jog to take the race by at least 500m – so proud! On the way back we strolled until I told Omar that he would always beat me over a short distance given his youth and speed so at about 600m from the car he took off again. Fortunately his youthful exuberance led him to think the race was done 5m from the car where he stopped just in front of me and so I sprinted past and hit the car first. Old lady 2: young dude 0. Oh, the lake was stunning btw…. but that probably won’t be my highlight memory of the day 🙂

The chimneys near one of the few water sources

The cracked surface of the mud near the lake

Me at the edge of the lake, having won the race
After a ‘light’ breakfast of what appeared to be deep fried naan bread with a side of Nuttella, we headed off back to Dikhil with four extra passengers, including a frail 71 year old lady who had a gorgeous wrinkled face. I was summoning up the courage to ask her for her photo before we arrived at the village, but unfortunately the bumps in the road were too much for her and she started vomiting. I offered up my front seat but they weren’t having any of it.

Chiefs house

Our poor vomiting passenger
We stopped in the village to visit a friend of Omar’s. As always these visits are a huge reality check. Home for ‘Chief’  was a one room ‘tent’ with a bed for five and a small hearth and a few possessions hanging from the wall – a pot and a empty tin of powdered milk. No electricity, no running water and the nearest water source was at least a km away and was probably hugely unreliable. And it was baking hot outside (in the 40s) and hotter inside! I can’t help but be hugely grateful for my cushy life.

Roadside vendor

A couple more hours of African roads and dodgy overtaking and I was back in the capital city, where I swiftly made for my room and pumped up the AC and lay in a heap until it got a bit cooler in the afternoon.   I eventually roused myself for a walk around town, and visited the cathedral – probably the nicest thing to see in Djibouti!

Djibouti cathedral
The highlight of the afternoon was watching the young Djiboutians hanging out in the main square – boys on one side, girls on the other – it was just like a high school dance!

A lovely few days and off to Somalia tomorrow!


May 3, 2017, Djibouti City, Djibouti


p.s apologies to regular blog readers for the delay since the last post…. I have been busy engaged in an unusual activity called work!