I’d like to change some US dollars into Djiboutian Francs, please.’
‘Into what, Sir?’
‘Djiboutian Francs, please’
‘Which country is that?’
‘I’m sorry Sir. I don’t know where that is.’
The foreign exchange teller at Dubai International Airport gave me a slightly puzzled look when I stated that I was going to Djibouti for a long weekend break. She wasn’t alone. When I mentioned to any of my friends that my wife and I were going to one of Africa’s smallest countries for an ‘off the beaten track’ city break they looked at me as though I’d gone slightly mad. But I was disheartened. In recent years we have done the bling of Dubai, the rugged charm of Oman and the jaw-dropping sights of Jordan. This time we wanted something different. And we got it ……….
Djibouti sits on the East African coast at the meeting point of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Although it is predominantly populated by the Afar and Issa clans, it has a heavy French influence as a result of having been a colony since the 19th century. It peacefully gained independence in 1977 after the population overwhelmingly voted for self-determination. It’s fair to say that it hasn’t got the easiest of neighbours. The self-declared autonomous region of Somaliland sits to the East with piracy and illegal fishing problems. More problematic is Eritrea to the North, a country that has, in turn, entered into armed conflict with neighbouring Sudan, Ethiopia, Yemen and Djibouti in the last 20 years. Only Ethiopia to the West maintains amicable relations based around thriving trade agreements.
That’s probably the reason why, as I stared out of the window of the jet as it made its approach to Ambouli International Airport, what I could see most starkly were drab grey military aircraft from half a dozen foreign countries. They were all parked in neat rows within a sprawling secure area on the opposite side of the runway to the slightly shabby looking terminal building. A reminder that, unlike the foreign exchange teller, there are plenty of people who know where Djibouti is and how important it’s role is in regional security.
An hour later, I was cursing the word ‘security’ as it seemed to take the Immigration Officer at least ten minutes to process every passenger. Then, when I finally got through, the door to the Arrivals Hall was locked. As I got steamed up and looked around for some other way out, my wife switched effortlessly in French and charmed a smiling guard into unlocking the door. Seven hours after leaving Kuwait, we were ‘off the beaten track’.
We wanted to experience as much of Djibouti as we could and make our money go as far as possible. So we booked into the Auberge Le Heron for our first two nights. Situated about 2 km north of the city centre in the Heron area, the accommodation was a little basic, but the rooms were clean, tidy and air conditioned. The staff were very helpful and arranged for one of their cars to take us out. We headed straight for town.
It’s fair to say that Djibouti City is a little past its prime. The paint is fading and peeling on the colonial-style buildings and the roads are pot-holed. But when you looked closer you can see that the shops are well-stocked and the streets are largely free of litter. There did seem to be a sense of order to the place. You could see the French influence everywhere - the buildings, the signs and the street names. Even the minaret on the Hamoudi Mosque had the look of a Breton lighthouse! After wandering aimlessly for an hour we sat and drank freshly squeezed orange in a juice bar on the Rue de Soleillet and took in the vibrant sights and sounds of this small but bustling East African city. I asked the owner if there was somewhere that we could change some money. He told me to wait, and a few moments later, a woman in traditional dress sat down on the seat next to us with a very large purse. It was the quickest service and probably the best exchange rate I have ever got. With the deal done, we headed for dinner at a local Pizzeria and then back to the Auberge. We had a busy day ahead of us.
A good night’s sleep and a simple but filling breakfast behind us, we climbed in to the local travel company’s Toyota Landcruiser that we had arranged for the day. We were greeted by our two smiling Issa guides, Hassan and Ismail. We made our way past the docks and headed out to the West on the EU-funded road that connects Djibouti City with the towns in the north of the country. As we weaved our way between the hundreds of lorries also escaping the city we got a sense of the importance of this little country in terms of trade links between land-locked Ethiopia and the rest of the world. I had read that in 2013 a staggering US$8.4bn of Ethiopian trade had moved through the tiny Djiboutian ports.
We passed the hilltop town of Arta and the flow of traffic receded as the road split and we headed north. We kept the glittering Gulf of Tadjoura on our right-hand side as the road rose and dipped over the barren and broken volcanic landscape. As a diver I was slightly disappointed that we visited in August as between October and February the Bay comes alive with hundreds of Whale Sharks when the docile giants come to feed on the annual plankton blooms. Maybe next time.
As we continued our drive we saw clusters of people milling around the most basic of buildings. Our guides explained that these are the nomadic people who used to make a living from mining and transporting salt. It is impossible to imagine how they could survive in a countryside that seems to support no plant life whatsoever. But as we drove past we saw groups of bright blue water barrels placed near the side of the road. These were filled every couple of days by government bowsers from the city, allowing these people to continue their primitive existence. This scene was repeated a dozen times over the next three hours before we reached our intended destination.
We had climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in 2010, ticking the box of reaching the highest point in Africa. It was therefore personally rewarding after our long drive to stand on the salt-encrusted shores of Lac Assal, which at 509 feet below sea level is the lowest point in Africa. We left the Landcruiser behind and strode out over the salt to reach the lake. The bright salt crunched beneath our feet as we covered the hundred yards to the water’s edge, and we could have been forgiven for thinking that we were standing on a pristine white beach in the Caribbean. On reaching the lake I could not resist taking a taste of the heavily saline water. I dipped my finger in and was in the process of sticking it in my mouth when Ismail told me that I probably didn’t want to do that. Too late. He was right. It was foul. With the picture taken we headed back to the car, picking up some ‘Djibouti Cutie’ salts and an impressive crystal from an ad hoc stall at the side of the road. It was time for lunch.
A thirty minute drive took us to the edge of the Bay of Ghoubet and into a ramshackle picnic sight. We weren’t expecting any elaborate food as part of the trip and so were pleasantly surprised when out of a hut popped a man with plates of salad, chicken, fruit and bread. We sat and ate our feast looking out over Devil’s Island, a bleak and windswept rock at the entrance to the bay that is steeped in Djiboutian folklore.
Lunch finished, we packed up and climbed back into the Landcruiser. Our next and final sight was the moonscape of the Ardoukoba volcanic area. We left the smooth tarmac of the road and rocked and bumped our way higher and higher over the volcanic rock until we drew to a stop next to a large expanse of flat broken rock. I followed Hassan as he picked his way between the rocks and then he disappeared into a hole in the ground. Ducking down, I follow him and we found ourselves in a dark oval tunnel that was noticeably warmer than outside. We were in a lava vent, Hassan told me, as he took out a cigarette. He lit up and waved the cigarette in the air, and as he did the sulphur-laden atmosphere began to smoulder. It’s quite impressive, but I began to wonder what else may be coming up from beneath our feet. With smoke rapidly filling the chamber, it was time to leave and head back to Djibouti City.
After another night in the Auberge we decided to give ourselves a day of luxury and moved to the Kempinski at the tip of the peninsular. Undoubtedly the best-appointed hotel in Djibouti, it is the accommodation of choice for many involved in trade or security business in the country. Subsequently, it was bustling with men in suits and military uniforms. Slipping past the parade we dropped our bags in our luxurious room and headed to the pool for the afternoon. There I would have happily stayed, but after a few idle hours my wife declared that it was time to go shopping.
We spent the evening ambling in and out of the shops on Rue de Bender, where we bought colourful local woven baskets, intricate metalwork boxes from Yemen, and beautiful silver Ethiopian Coptic Cross necklaces. Carrying our bargains, we walked into Rue de Foucald to catch a taxi back to the hotel for our final night before catching the flight home in the morning. It was then that I saw what I really wanted. Swinging lazily in the evening breeze outside a souvenir shop was the souvenir for me. A bright red T-shirt with bold yellow letters proudly stating ‘ MY BOOTY WAS IN DJIBOUTI’.
Dubai has direct flights four times per week from Dubai International Airport to Djibouti.