Monday, November 21, 2011


Djibouti is a tiny little desert country with a giant U.S. military base bordered by Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somaliland, and the Red Sea. It’s bloomin’ expensive but boasts random geological formations and whale sharks. We decided that the likelihood of us returning to the Horn of Africa was fairly low, so if we wanted to see Djibouti, we’d best do it now. Unfortunately the country started out with three strikes against it:

1)      Lack of communication. We emailed a number of tour companies about visiting the two famous lakes and only two ever responded. Finding out information and booking a trip with one was like pulling a tooth by tying a string to a doorknob.
2)      When we got into the country they almost didn’t let us in because I was at one point a journalist.
3)      When we got to the hotel, they wouldn’t let us stay because two women, even “cousins,” aren’t allowed to share a bed.

Luckily, the attractions of the country outweighed the negatives.

Day One: Whale Sharks
Whale sharks are neither whales nor sharks, but they are big fish. Really, really big fish. We joined an excursion of military folks to go and snorkel with the behemoths. After a two hour cruise on the Red Sea past a stark desert landscape we piled into skiffs to go look for the fish. As soon as we saw one, everyon jumped out of the boats in snorkel gear and swam after them. Jeanette was a super pro at this. She just zipped away with the whale sharks. In fact, if she was about 10 times her current size and covered in brown scales with white dots, she could be a whale shark. I, on the other hand, hopped into the water wearing my oversized lifejacket and saw them from fairly close up only twice. Then I frantically had the skiff driver pull me back into the boat. I do a fantastic impersonation of a walrus.

Day Two: Lac Assal
All of our dysfunctional communication with the tour company finally paid off and an amiable British guy joined us, and shared the costs, for our expensive excursion to the funky lakes. On our way to Lac Assal we stopped to watch the tectonic plates move apart. It was very slow. Only 2 cm per year. But the gorge was nice, as was the nearby salt pond. Our rather unnecessary guide paced about as our British companion took hundreds of photos. Eventually he muttered, this isn’t Lac Assal, you know, and ushered us back into the car.
Lac Assal is a massive salt lake filled with bright blue water. Jeanette and I slipped into our swimsuits and crunched over the salt pan to float in the lovely liquid. The high salt concentration does wonders for one’s complexion, and it’s pretty funny not being able to sink. The hot sun instantly dried the salt on our skin and we got a good idea of what we’ll look like when our body hair turns white. The salt accumulates so quickly that the area is mined for salt by the Afar. They make tourist trinkets by putting things like goat skulls into the lake until they are densely coated with salt. We washed off in a nearby pool of fresh water, pathetically trying to hide behind a rock to change our clothes as other tourists came to check out the hot springs.

Not sure what kind of baboon this is.

Lac Assal

It made our skin nice and soft, but left tons of salt on our bodies.
Our goal was to get to Lac Abh by sunset but a variety of unexplained delays, including a stop for our driver to buy a local, hugely-popular narcotic leaf, put us there just after the sun went down. As the light died we saw random rocks rising up around us. They remained a mystery as we slept that evening in traditional grass mat covered huts.

Day Three: Lac Abh
We awoke for sunrise and were driven back to the rocks. It’s still unclear to us what formed the giant, craggy forms. The surface was white and looked like tiny bubbles all melted together and hardened. The guide said it was ancient bacteria… Either way, the sun rising over the chimney and castle-like forms was splendid. Steam vents dotted the landscape making it seem even more unearthly. The herds of sheep only slightly detracted from the effect. After a lingering breakfast we went to see the flocks of flamingos that live in the salt lake then climbed a rock pile for a view of the plains of strangeness.

This is where they filmed the original Planet of the Apes.

There were random boiling hot springs in a few areas that added to the  place.

On our way back to Djibouti city we asked our driver and guide to take us to the rock painting that was mentioned in our printed itinerary. They had no idea that we had an itinerary, but eventually the driver figured out what rock painting was mentioned. We drove over dried mud flats to a pile of volcanic rock. On one large flat stone were crude drawings of camels. They did not look prehistoric. Nor did the numbers written by them. When the guide and I climbed up the rock hill we encountered small enclosures made of stacked rocks, much like the Afar currently build for their livestock. The guide said that people were washed ashore and stranded on the hill in ancient times when the mud flats were actually ocean. They carried their camels in their tiny sailboats and when they grounded, they built pens on the hill to make sure the camels didn’t wander off. The small hill was about the size of half a city block…

When the tour ended we walked around Djibouti city with our British companion. We both expected the city to be clean and European, given how much things in Djibouti cost and how many expats live there. It was actually fairly disgusting. The sight of the crow picking out the innards of a rat in the bus station was outdone by the sight of the bloated dead cat in a puddle on one of the main streets. The markets offered a great variety of colorful underwear, however, and the restaurants had great juice.

Three days turned out to be the perfect amount of time in Djibouti, a sweeping, desolate desert with a few little hidden gems.


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