Djibouti is not a country that springs to mind when contemplating where to spend a vacation. However, ever since we heard that juvenile whale sharks congregate and are all but guaranteed to be seen in the Gulf of Tadjoura from the months of November to February, we just knew that we simply had to go. Any chance to swim with whale sharks is high on our to-do list. Scant information on Djibouti tourism is available but a few intrepid travelers had posted their photos and trip suggestions, so we eagerly soaked up their advice and made it a point to check out Lac Abbe (famous for its otherworldly lunar landscape) and Lac Assal (one of the saltiest and the 3rd lowest point in the world). Our hotel (Djibouti Palace Kempinski) seemed to be crowded with a coalition of military members who are all part of the anti-piracy task force combating the nearby Somali pirates. At times, it felt as if we were the only bona fide tourists in the country as the shopkeepers and residents of Djiboutiville stared at us and our cameras in utter shock and disbelief, mistaking us to be journalists despite our vehement protests that we really were just tourists interested in their country. Our whirlwind week in Djibouti saw us swimming for hours alongside whale sharks (freaking awesome), getting invited to chew qat (khat) with some friendly locals, dancing up a storm with Afar nomads at Lac Abbe, and floating effortlessly on Lac Assal. Our trip was quite expensive (Djibouti is surprisingly heavy on the wallet), but the memories from our trip are priceless. Djibouti shattered our expectations, and we had a great time in the Horn of Africa.
04 Nov 2013: Our FlyDubai flight from Dubai to Djibouti was delayed by an hour, setting us back until 3 pm. We had counted on getting a visa upon arrival, which wasn’t as straight forward as we would have liked but relatively pain free (it helped that we were at the front of the line, and our passports were the first ones processed). The visa upon arrival processed worked like this: first we had to wait in line with everyone else at the passport control desk where our passports were reviewed and set aside. After a few minutes, an employee gathered the stack of awaiting passports and walked them over to the visa office where a large unwieldy group was forming. With everyone pushing to get in line, we followed our passports and were the first ones assisted. Visas were $90 each (valid for 30 days) and we were sent on our way back to the passport control desk where we were finally stamped into country. Our luggage was already waiting for us, as was our driver from the Kempinski. Since we had booked the “Adventure of your Life” tour, the hotel had thrown in a free pickup/drop off for us. It was a short 10-15 minute ride from the airport to the hotel but we were quickly able to get a first impression of Djibouti. We normally never stay in ritzy hotels like the Kempinski but decided to make an exception since we figured we could take care of all the highlights (whale sharks, Lac Abbe, Lac Assal) with their assistance. Becky was able to get a package deal for us, which made things a bit more affordable, but this portion of our vacation was still exorbitantly priced. The Kempinski is one of the nicest in Djibouti, complete with all the luxuries (infinity pools, spa, gym, restaurants). Checking in was quite simple, and the sales manager who had coordinated everything with Becky in advance even took the time to come out and personally welcome us to the hotel…it was a nice touch! Our room was upgraded to an ocean view and we immediately went to check out the infinity pool which looks out over the Gulf of Aden. The pool bar was in full swing (packed with GIs, mostly American) along with accompanying music. Other guests sunning themselves on the loungers by the pool included French and Spanish contingents. It seemed that 90% of the guests at the Kempinski were military members, with the majority of them in the anti-piracy task force. It was a surprise to see how many military guests had their families in tow, complete with a noisy collection of kids. The infinity pool was pure bliss…what a nice change from the cold weather in Kabul! We lounged about for a bit before exploring the area beyond the pool, walking down the long pier which extended out for several hundred meters. Some of the more active military members were using the long walkway as a running track, squeezing in a bit of exercise before the sunset. Neither one of us felt like exploring further than the grounds of the Kempinski that night so we opted for a quick shower before heading out to the Tentazioni Italian restaurant. The food was decent, but way overpriced…$40 for a pizza dinner…seriously? Not good value! We quickly vowed not to make the same mistake twice and figured we would do some research to find alternative dining options for the duration of our stay in Djibouti.
05 Nov: Whoever the dumbass was that thought it was a good idea to install a motion light sensor on the night stand needs to be fired. A simple toss or turn of the bed covers was enough to trigger the light sensor and forget about the trips to the bathroom! At some point, the light was stuck in the on mode, so Becky quickly rectified that by unplugging power to the night stand. Our plan was to get up at an ungodly 6 am (yes, we are on vacation!), but since our sleep cycle was all messed up combined with the ridiculous light sensor, both of us were wide awake by 4:30 am. We figured a bit of extra time to sort our snorkel and underwater gear could be a good thing, and we had plenty of time to enjoy the buffet breakfast at the Lac Assal restaurant (included in our room rate). The breakfast buffet had a decent spread of food which was good as we wanted to fuel ourselves for our busy day. Today was whale shark day! Becky had originally contacted the Kempinski’s dive shop (Djibouti Divers aka Lagon Bleu at firstname.lastname@example.org) to arrange a whale shark trip to no avail. Her emails went unanswered which was not a good sign of things to come, especially since it was now whale shark season. However, Sonja from Dolphin Excursions (email@example.com) came to the rescue with prompt and friendly responses, reassuring us that it would be no problem to snorkel with the whale sharks during the time frame we were looking for. We ended up planning on 2 whale shark trips with them, with the first one today on a larger boat (we were going to crash a German navy contingent that had organized a group excursion out to the Gulf of Tadjoura) and a second trip for later in the week with just the two of us on our own private skiff. We weren’t exactly sure of where to meet the Dolphin Excursion team but asked our taxi driver to take us to the Porte de Pesche. The ride cost us 1000 DJF, and we arrived with a few minutes to spare to check out the hustle and bustle of the early morning fish market. A Djiboutian “guide” immediately latched on and volunteered to guide us to the Dolphin Excursion boat which wasn’t necessary as it was immediately obvious which one of the boats in harbor was going to be our home for the day. Sonja and Alex from Dolphin Excursions were waiting for us as promised, and we immediately sorted out our mask, snorkel and flippers. Our “guide” had no qualms asking for a tip, and we had no qualms telling him no. He didn’t seem too put out about it, and we figured that it didn’t hurt him to ask as tourists obviously have rewarded his persistence in the past. The German navy was running late, so we went aboard to get situated and claim a spot. Another party crasher, Antonio from Spain, had decided to join the expedition so we chatted with him while waiting for the rest of the group to arrive. Antonio had already spent several months working in Djibouti and this was his first (and last) chance to snorkel with the whale sharks. He was leaving tomorrow for another assignment and figured he might as well squeeze in one of Djibouti’s highlights before he departed for good. Eventually, the rest of our group arrived and without further delay, we left the fishing port. Almost every single member of the group today was part of the anti-piracy task force, and it was interesting hearing about their experiences in Djibouti. The trip out to the Gulf of Tadjoura took about two hours at a leisurely pace. A massive pod of dolphins greeted us as we anchored at our destination…it would have been cool to snorkel with them but they were too far away for us to catch them in action. Since our group had more than 20 people, Sonja decided to split us into two groups, with one group snorkeling the very well preserved reef and the second group out on a search for whale sharks. We joined the whale shark group in a crowded skiff, with instructions from Sonja to keep our eyes peeled on the horizon for a telltale sign of a fin. After an excruciatingly long hour of no results, we finally backtracked with an added incentive of free beer to the first person to spot a whale shark. Despite our best efforts, the whale sharks remained elusive and with a sinking pit in our stomachs, we returned back to the snorkel site. Sonja gave us a glimmer of hope by suggesting that we might have a chance to join the afternoon group in their quest for a whale shark sighting. Snorkeling in Djibouti was much better than anticipated. As soon as we entered the water, red legged swimming crabs surrounded us and when we got too close, they’d go into attack mode…hilarious! The reef was well preserved and marine life was plentiful. A few guys had signed up for a 2 tank dive but we were quite satisfied with our snorkeling session. Lunch was decent with a hot meal shared between Sonja, Alex (a temporary hire for Dolphin Excursions during the whale shark “high season”), Antonio and us. The Germans had the foresight to bargain down a group rate with the stipulation that they provide their own baguette lunch.
Surprisingly, several folks who were slotted to go whale shark spotting opted out, so we quickly volunteered to fill their slots. Our skiff had plenty of space and we spread out to spot the elusive whale sharks. Once again, the long trip out seemed fruitless, but Robby soon spotted the telltale fin and our skiff captain quickly navigated us in that direction but the whale shark dove down before we could all hop into the water. Bummer! Just as it appeared that all hope had failed us, Becky swore she spotted a massive fin, and it was quickly confirmed by the eagle eyes of the other skiff captain. All geared up, we quickly jumped into the water and spent about 3 minutes swimming furiously after a whale shark dead set on getting away from 20 mad snorkelers. Whale sharks are often described as “slow swimmers”, but nothing could be further from the truth with our encounter. Our whale shark jetted out of sight in no time at all. Some of our group was jubilant at having sighted a whale shark, but both of us were bitterly disappointed as we had hoped to spend more time snorkeling with it. Thankfully we had a second chance later this week so we weren’t too gutted. The return trip back to Djibouti town was relaxing (Sonja told us to enjoy it as our trip back on the skiff would be quite different!), and we opted to walk back to the Kempinski from the Fish Port as it hadn’t seemed too far away on our morning taxi ride. The walk back was interesting as we spotted several beached fishing boats and met a refugee from Eritrea who sadly reminisced fleeing his country. We had been quite keen on visiting Eritrea but with the difficult visa situation, decided to postpone that trip for a future date. By the waterfront, several shisha bars with relaxing chairs looked inviting, and we caught a glimpse of the Presidential Palace (taking photos is a no-no, but it didn’t look all that inspiring anyway). It took us a leisurely hour to walk home, and all the talk from the anti-piracy guys about Al Shabaab planning to target westerners in Djibouti seemed a bit doomsday-ish.
Dinner tonight was at the nearby Melting Pot, which had decent reviews. Within walking distance of the Kempinski, we strolled over to this quaint oasis. Becky had read that this was the place to try camel meat, so she ordered the camel skewer meal which was surprisingly tasty despite being stringy. Robby opted for a leg of lamb which was also delicious. Our overall impressions of the Melting Pot were positive…nice décor, great service and good food. The only thing we didn’t like was the extortionate prices in Djibouti but that is the case with every restaurant that westerners frequent so for us it was unavoidable.
06 Nov: Ever heard of tourists visiting Djiboutiville (aka Djibouti City)? Neither have we. And apparently, neither have the locals. But, there will be more on that in a bit. We originally were planning on back to back whale shark expeditions, but figured a break in the middle might give our bodies a chance to recuperate. So today was an easy, relaxing day with our only plans to explore down town. Djibouti in November is still hot, so we planned our morning excursion immediately after breakfast so we wouldn’t get caught out in the heat. As we attempted to leave the hotel, we noticed security was doubly tight. It would have been nice for the hotel staff to inform us that all streets were blocked off due to the arrival of the Djibouti President but unbeknownst to us, we wandered out and got as far as the main gate when we were finally turned around. The security guard was having a hard time trying to explain that everything was on lockdown due to the President’s arrival, but we eventually got the message and turned around just in time to see his motorcade pull up. Whisked away to one of the conference centers, the President and his entourage had brought everything to a standstill. Once he was safely inside the confines of the building, the security guards reopened the roads and we were allowed to continue on our way. Catching a taxi to downtown was straightforward as everyone knows where Place Ménélik is. It is the main (and oldest) square in the city. Place Ménélik is also known as Place du 27 Juin 1977, significant as it is the date when Djibouti gained its independence from France. The city is divided into a European Quarter and an African Quarter, with Place Ménélik the focal point of the European Quarter and as good a place as any to start our tour. Lined with cafes, bars, and restaurants, a persistent local immediately pounced on us when we arrived so we ducked into a souvenir shop selling masks to avoid him. The shopkeeper was an effective deterrent and once a fight broke out on the street between the wanna-be guide and other touts, we made our escape and continued on our self-guided tour without any further hassle. The colonial architecture on this square is a nice blend of European and Arab influences, complete with whitewashed houses and Moorish arches. The most famous building is the Maison de Tabac (house of tobacco) with its beautiful Swahili style balconies. The City Hall is also of note with its white/grey arches. Next door to the city hall is the diminutive tourist bureau where we ducked in to escape the heat. There were several displays showcasing artifacts from Djibouti in what could only be described as Djibouti’s only museum. The only other building of note in the square is the Hotel Continental, the oldest hotel in the country. The exterior looks virtually unchanged from its heyday. After wandering about the square, we made our way up to Le Beverly Café for a panoramic view over Place Ménélik. From here, we wandered over to the African Quarter of the city, which is dominated by the Hamoudi Mosque. The colorful Marché Central (central market) is located in Place Rimbaud on Blvd de Bender and it was here that we realized tourists are a rarity in Djibouti. A plainclothes “policeman” accosted Robby upon realizing that he was taking photos of the Hamoudi Mosque. He demanded to see his journalist’s credentials and stated that all photography was forbidden. Since he wasn’t in uniform and only spoke French, we didn’t pay him any attention and even after he displayed a weathered laminated ID card, we still ignored him. Despite his demands that Robby accompany him to a nearby police station, we just wandered on our merry way thinking the guy must be a bit loony as no one else was hassling us. However, when a police cruiser pulled up several minutes later and again asked for Robby’s journalist credentials (pointing to his SLR camera), we realized that the tourists must be few and far between in this country. After Robby insisted that he was a bona fide tourist and was taking photos for his own personal collection, the police gave him a polite warning and drove on their way. It was a bit bizarre but it didn’t put us off on the rest of our walking tour. A few people shouted out “journalist” when they spotted Robby’s camera which was a first for us. Perhaps a lot of journalists visit Djibouti? Several vendors in the market were camera shy, so we avoided taking their photos. The most interesting section of the market for us was the khat (qat) area. We had arrived just before the midday delivery from Ethiopia but it was evident to see that khat is big business here. While the women were out shopping, the men were lounging about chewing on khat. We were invited to join a khat chewing session but politely begged off. Both of us felt that a few hours of wandering the streets of Djibouti was sufficient, so we headed back to the Kempinski, opting to walk back in lieu of a taxi. To be honest, distances within the city aren’t too great and exploring on foot is what we prefer. Plus with the added incentive that each taxi ride was costing about $6, we figured we could save some money and see more sights on our leisurely stroll back to the hotel. With a slight detour to check out the minaret that had been looming over the horizon for days (the Djibouti Port mosque), we were back at the Kempinski in no time. The second infinity pool (sans kids) sounded inviting but for the life of us, we couldn’t figure out how to get to it. With a bit of persistence, we eventually stumbled upon it and what a peaceful oasis of tranquility! We had the entire pool to ourselves and plenty of loungers to choose from. Robby was having a temper tantrum with the incessant parade of flies that kept taunting him, and we stayed out by the poolside until he couldn’t stand it anymore and begged to seek refuge within the air-conditioned confines of our room. For dinner, we decided to check out the highly recommended Restaurant de la Gare (opposite the now defunct train station by the circle near Siesta Beach). Unsure of how far it was from the Kempinski, we bargained with a couple of taxi drivers for the short ride there. With quotes ranging from $4-10, we offered $3 (which was still outrageous as we later discovered it was only about a 2 KM ride). Eventually, a taxi driver begrudgingly agreed to take us for the fare offered. However, we quickly realized he hadn’t a clue where to go so we had to provide spontaneous directions to a place we had never been to before! Thankfully, Becky had studied a map beforehand and the restaurant was easy to find. The cheeky taxi driver had the nerve to increase the fare to $5 and we told him he was lucky to be getting $3 out of us. Restaurant de la Gare has the reputation of being Djibouti’s best restaurant and we now know why. It was excellent. The service, ambiance and food left nothing to be desired, and we were very impressed with this recommendation. Becky’s Yemeni fish was a whole fish split open down the middle, and covered in seasoning. This is the dish to get while in Djibouti. Robby’s Yassa fish was served up with a tangy sauce and onions, which was also excellent. Piping hot portions of Yemeni bread (made in the same manner as pizza dough but much thinner and fresh from the local oven just outside the restaurant) made an endless appearance, and the charming owner (a French woman fluent in multiple languages) came out to chat us up. Great dinner at a fantastic restaurant…we would definitely eat here again. Both of us were up for a stroll back to the Kempinski after dinner but stopped over at the old train station for a quick photo. All of Djibouti’s bums now call the train station home but no one bothered us. They probably thought we were a bit mad taking a photo of a non-functioning train station!
07 Nov: Another early morning wake up as we wanted to have our fill of breakfast before our day of snorkeling with the whale sharks. A short taxi ride later, we were at the Port de Pesche where we had time to take more photos of the bustling fish market. It was sad to see so many sharks for sale as Sonja had told us that she had never been lucky enough to see a live one while SCUBA diving. Now we know why…marine life is indiscriminately netted and put up for sale. We thought the locals might be a bit camera shy but everyone appeared to be quite proud to display their fish for sale. Sonja and Alex were waiting for us near the Dolphin Excursion boat. Sonja looked a bit sleepy and she told us she was heading back to sleep, assuring us that we’d be in good hands with Alex. Our private skiff was a bit larger than we expected, and we were glad that we had pre-coordinated everything before arriving to Djibouti as everything (lunch, snorkel gear, life jackets) was ready to go. We had read that it is possible to just show up at the Port de Pesche to negotiate privately with the fishermen for a skiff for the day, but since the price ended up being the same ($300 for the entire day, negotiated down from $420), we felt it was really decent value. Plus based on our first trip with Dolphin Excursion, the company certainly has its act together and the staff is top notch. Our skiff captain was a nice guy named Abdul and we were hoping he had good whale shark spotting skills. After our first disappointing trip, we had our fingers crossed that today’s quest would be more rewarding. The skiff had no overhead covering but we came prepared with sunscreen and sarongs to cover up from the sun’s rays. The ride out was much faster, but also a hell of a lot more bumpy than our previous trip. A pod of dolphins (perhaps the same one we spotted on Tuesday) greeted us on the ride out, and a few of them did aerial acrobatics for us…very cool! Abdul was more than accommodating, circling our skiff around the dolphins so we could spot their antics. When we finally got near the area where the whale sharks normally are, Abdul slowed our skiff down to a slow crawl, and we spent over 30 minutes looking for any evidence of a whale shark feeding on plankton near the surface. Just as we were getting the same sinking feeling that we experienced on Tuesday, Abdul excitedly told us to don our snorkel gear. A juvenile whale shark was feeding at the surface and this time it didn’t dive under when we arrived. Instead, Becky was able to follow it around for the better part of an hour. Meanwhile, Robby had spotted a different whale shark so he snorkeled in pursuit of it, only to run into two others, all exhibiting vertical feeding postures. It was a magical experience to snorkel with these magnificent creatures, especially since it was a private trip and we could spend as much time with them as we wanted. The whale shark that Becky was with appeared to be quite laid back. However, each time she tried to race in front of it to take a frontal plankton feeding shot, the whale shark would pick up steam, relaxing its pace once Becky stopped trying to get ahead. It had a massive fishhook stuck in its side with a trailing piece of fishing line about 15 feet long. Becky and Alex later discussed how badly they wanted to pull out the hook but both were afraid to do more damage as it was apparent the whale shark had been swimming with it for a while now. Both of us had a blissful hour swimming with our respective whale sharks, and clambered back aboard our skiff only to swap out batteries. Finding more whale sharks proved easy after our first session, but all of our subsequent encounters (with 3 or 4 other whale sharks) were much shorter than our initial contact as it appeared the whale sharks were done feeding and therefore a bit less interested in lounging at the surface. We followed them until they submerged too deep for us to keep up. All in all, we had about six or seven whale shark encounters over the span of about 2 hours, and it was a fabulous experience. As disappointing as Tuesday’s excursion was, the trip today more than made up for it. We both were thrilled with our encounters and told Abdul that we were more than satisfied, so he stopped looking for additional whale sharks for us to snorkel with. It was a bit too early to head back to town so we went back to the snorkel site that we had visited on Tuesday. Again, the coral reef did not disappoint, and we spotted lots of giant clams, reef fish, moray eels, a blue spotted sting ray, and a turtle. Alex and Abdul told us we had as much time as we wanted to snorkel but after an hour, we took a break for lunch (yummy chicken sandwiches) and then opted to head back to port. The skiff ride back was bumpier than our outbound trip because we were driving into the waves. Poor Alex was at the bow of the boat and he definitely felt more impact as our skiff came crashing up and down on the waves. The return trip was non-stop punishment for about 2 hours, and we were happy with the port of Djibouti was finally in sight. A Ukrainian navy vessel was in port, and we glanced over at about a dozen sailors all armed with fishing poles trying their luck in the harbor…very funny. Abdul was rewarded with a hefty tip for his excellent whale shark spotting abilities and we thanked Alex for a fantastic day while settling up our bill. Neither of us was keen on walking back to the hotel so we negotiated a taxi ride back to the Kempinski where we showered, cleaned our camera gear, and got ready to meet our friend Steve for dinner. Steve had been in Djibouti for a few months already, but it seemed that we had sussed out the restaurant situation better than him, so we agreed on a return trip to the Melting Pot. Our dinners were great (mixed grill for Becky, camel cutlet for Steve, and lamb skewer for Robby), and the conversation was perfect. We were so glad that Steve made an effort to link up with us during our short stay in Djibouti as it was nice to catch up. It wasn’t a late night as Steve had to work the next day, but back at the Kempinski, we could see the party animals starting to emerge for a hotel sponsored “70’s Beach Party”. Nothing got started until about 1 am, and by then, the music was pumping and a sizeable crowd had gathered. By 4 am, the party was still going strong and by 7 am, the last stragglers were leaving the beach area…apparently the party doesn’t start till the early morning hours in Djibouti and boy do they like to get their party on.
08 Nov: The Kempinski offers an “Adventure of your Life” tour which includes a trip out to Lac Abbe and Lac Assal, two of Djibouti’s must-sees. We booked the tour in advance and requested an English speaking guide. With our overnight bag packed, we had breakfast and waited in the lobby for our pickup. Our guide, a personable guy named Omar, was waiting for us so we headed out straight away to meet our driver, Kamal, and get settled in for the long drive to Lac Abbe. Omar explained that our itinerary would include a drive through the Grand Barra Desert, lunch stop in Dikhil, onward drive to Lac Abbe where we would overnight at the Campement Touristique d’Asboley. Next morning we would wake before sunrise to see Lac Abbe transform in those magical hours before driving back to Dikhil for lunch, and then to the world’s 3rd saltiest lake at Lac Assal for a quick float before finally returning back to the Kempinski. Sounded good to us! We quickly realized that we were going to have fun with Omar and Kamal, both of whom were extremely accommodating and happy to show off their country to us. At a mountain pass, Hamadryas baboons were waiting patiently for a handout. It appeared that most Djiboutian motorists stop to feed the baboons. A large male baboon approached the car, calmly received a snack from Kamal and sauntered off nearby to enjoy his treat. The drive from Djibouti town to Dikhil was on decent roads until we reached the Grand Barra Desert. Our guidebook informed us that the desert is actually the remnants of an ancient lake. The Grand Barra is essentially a plain of white clay that has been baked, dried and cracked by the sun. Surprisingly, wildlife (gazelles, dik-dik, antelope, jackals) thrives here. We saw birds of prey while Kamal displayed his off-roading skills. From the Grand Barra Desert, it was a short drive to Dikhil, where we stopped at the Palmeraie de Dikhil restaurant for a leisurely lunch. Kamal and Omar were on the quest to find qat, so they headed into the town to rummage up fresh supplies that could be enjoyed once at Lac Abbe. After lunch, Omar took us over to the ancient palmeraie (palm garden) which was a shady oasis full of palm and fruit trees such as bananas, mangos, and pomegranate. We met the resident green monkey which was busy admiring herself in a mirror…very funny. She only stopped checking herself out and paid attention to us when Omar offered her a treat. An ostrich lovingly cared for was also a highlight in the palm garden and we were allowed to feed her. Two 4x4s full of French tourists were waiting for us back at the restaurant parking lot, so once we returned from the palmeraie, everyone loaded up and we started a group convoy out to Lac Abbe. The road eventually deteriorated, and we saw the need for an overnight stay at Lac Abbe as it really is a long journey from Djibouti Town to our destination. Our bumpy journey was halted by a brief stop at a village near Lac Abbe. Here, Omar coordinated for some water jugs while we were given a few minutes to stretch our legs. Becky took a few photos of the children and was an instant attraction as every child in the village surrounded her to look at photos and request their own portrait. They only gave her a break when Omar gave one of the village adults some treats to distribute to the children. Then he became the star attraction. We found it refreshing that the children didn’t ask for anything (unlike in neighboring Ethiopia where the incessant begging is a huge detraction). Bidding this friendly town adieu, we drove onward towards Lac Abbe. As we neared this remote region, wildlife started appearing. We spotted several Soemmerring gazelles and learned that the locals won’t touch them due to a hunting ban that is strictly enforced. We also saw some of the legendary camel convoys led by the Afar tribe. A few KMs out from Lac Abbe, Kamal pulled over to a fantastic lookout point and we were finally able to see the panoramic view of limestone chimneys from afar. Absolutely brilliant! From here, our 4×4 convoy split up, with each group tackling a different area of the lake to check out. We headed over to la Grande Cheminee (the big chimney) and were surprised to see a warthog family living in this area. Apparently, despite the salinity of Lac Abbe, there are some freshwater underground springs. Pockets of greenery dot the landscape, and the nomadic Afar people drive their herd here to feed. While visiting the largest of Lac Abbe’s chimneys (the big one towers at 50 meters in height), we realized the necessity of bringing a knowledgeable guide as the entire area is full of hot springs. One misstep could be quite painful as the water is dangerously hot and any exposed skin would result in a scalding burn! Omar demonstrated how the hot springs are interconnected to the chimneys by puffing on a cigarette just over a hot spring and pointing to the top of a chimney where we could see steam rising. It was very cool. Luckily for us, the wind had picked up and created a very mysterious curtain of dust around some of the chimneys. After sunset, we made our way to our campsite (Campement Touristique d’Asboley) which sits on a small hill overlooking both the chimney field and Lac Abbe itself. The French were already settled in, so we were left to scrounge around for suitable housing, settling on a traditional Afar hut to call home for the night. Our “tent” was a woven from grass reeds, and our beds were military style cots with a foam mattress and a mosquito net hanging over it. It was a little warm but comfortable. The campsite had western style toilets and cold water showers. Quite a surprise for us as we expected bush camp facilities…this was a pleasant upgrade! We took a quick shower before heading over to the open air dining area. Omar brought over a flask of hot spicy tea (similar to masala tea), which instantly endeared him to Becky who drank several cups before asking for a flask refill. When dinner was finally served, it consisted of a healthy salad, spaghetti with tomato and bean sauce, and beef skewers. Our dinner entertainment consisted of the Afar boys/men dancing and singing for us. Becky was selected to join the group in the festivities and towered over the much smaller and shorter Afar men. After the show, we finished a second thermos of tea before calling it a night beneath our mosquito nets (which came in handy as there were plenty of mosquitoes buzzing about tonight). Our French neighbors were quite loud and annoying, making us glad that we only had to deal with them for one night.
09 Nov: With inconsiderate neighbors, it was not hard to be up by 5:30 am for the morning sunrise viewing (the main reason we wanted to come to Lac Abbe!). Omar was already up and waiting for us with Kamal in the car ready to go. We drove a short distance from the camp over to the field of limestone chimneys where all the 4x4s parked. From here, we got out to walk the rest of the way as the ground becomes too treacherous for vehicles. Hot spring vents and underground channels were aplenty so we had to carefully watch our footing. With sunrise just minutes away, Becky opted to climb one of the chimneys for a higher vantage point. Meanwhile, Robby stayed firmly planted on the ground so that we could both get a different angle of the sunrise. It was cool to watch the sun rise from different perspectives as our photos would late prove. The limestone chimneys transformed with the shifting light, making for spectacular photos. This is definitely a highlight to anyone interested in visiting Djibouti. After the sunrise, we checked out several hot springs before slowly making our way over to Lac Abbe itself, where flamingos gather for early morning feeding sessions. Omar warned us that whenever tourists got too close, the flamingos would take off, so he wanted us to get a little spring in our step to beat the French groups over to the lake. The pink flamingos numbered in the hundreds in little groups spread all along the coastline of Lac Abbe for as far as we could see. We took a few photos of them before heading back to camp. The French opted to retrace their steps for a ride back, while we decided to hike all the way back to camp. Robby’s choice of footwear (flip-flops) was a bad one as the area beside Lac Abbe was treacherously muddy. He barely escaped with flip-flops intact! Our hike back wasn’t too strenuous (it was still too early to be hot yet), and unbelievably, we beat the French contingent who lagged behind us by a few minutes. Back at camp, our breakfast was awaiting us. The Afar cook does a marvelous job as our pancakes were quite tasty, and the spicy tea is to die for. We had one last look at the vista of beautiful Lac Abbe’s chimneys before reluctantly piling back into the 4×4 for our long drive to Lac Assal. Interestingly, we learned that Lac Abbe can only be visited from the Djibouti side. Even though the lake straddles both Djibouti and Ethiopia, it is virtually impossible to visit the lake from the Ethiopian side. As it was, getting there from the Djiboutian side was no easy task, but well worth the effort. The French were not headed to Lac Assal, so they were still hanging around camp when we pulled out. A few miles from the campsite, we happened upon the camp staff pumping water into their water buffalo from an underground spring. So that was how we were able to take cold water showers and flush the toilets out in the middle of nowhere! Wildlife here thrives as we spotted several small gazelles and a black backed jackal. The return drive didn’t seem to take as long and before we knew it, we were pulling into Dikhil for lunch (chicken sandwiches…yummy). Upon leaving, Omar told us to keep our eyes peeled on Dikhil’s thriving market so we could check out the midday rush to resupply on khat (all the locals were out either buying or selling some). The road from Dikhil to Lac Assal was very good, and we were making excellent time getting to our next destination. Near Lac Assal, Kamal pulled over so we could check out Djibouti’s very own “grand canyon”, known locally as Dimbya Canyon. Entrepreneuring locals were selling pumice (volcanic rock) souvenirs carved into camels, cell phones, cars, etc. Near Dumbya Canyon, we stopped at another lookout point to see Devil’s Island in the Bay of Ghoubbet. At long last, a distant view of Lac Assal (155 meters below sea level) appeared on the horizon. We were instantly mesmerized by the milky looking layers on the lake itself. Known as the 3rd saltiest lake in the world (after the Dead Sea and Sea of Galilee), we were planning on floating here. Neither of us brought any fresh water to rinse off with but we decided to cross that bridge when we got there. Kamal and Omar decided to eat their lunch here while we changed into our swimsuits for a quick dip. Several Afar vendors were selling salt souvenirs by the lake side, but we were more interested in getting wet! There wasn’t an ideal place to put our belongings, so we decided to take turns dipping into the lake with each of us striking our favorite floating poses. The entire floating experience was reminiscent of our time in the Dead Sea, except the views from Lac Assal were much more impressive. We were both snap happy, taking care not to expose our camera to the salt water (which would have been instant death for our poor camera). After we swam to our heart’s content, we got out and noticed the salt crystals that appeared on our skin. Time to rinse off! Omar helpfully pointed out a nearby water buffalo where we had to siphon off some water to rinse with. We used it sparingly as we realized the Afar people living out in this remote region rely heavily on the water. One of the men asked if he could hitch a ride back with us and we readily agreed. Kamal surprised us with a present of salt crystal balls from Lac Assal. A lifetime supply of salt….awesome! Sadly, this was the end of our tour. We still had the drive from Lac Assal back to Djibouti Town but that didn’t take too long on the well paved roads. As we neared the Kempinski hotel, we got Omar’s contact details in the event we ever head back to Djibouti. He was an excellent guide and we enjoyed experiencing Djibouti with him. After thanking both Omar and Kamal, we trudged into the Kempinski where once again, all of our stuff had to go through the security scanner. What exactly the security staff is trying to discover is beyond us. It was a heavenly feeling to hop into the shower to get all the salt off us, and change into fresh clothes. Nui from the Kempinski had thoughtfully made beachside reservations at the Bankouale Restaurant for our dinner tonight (included with the Adventure of your Life tour). The open air setting by the beach was absolutely perfect, and our meal did not disappoint. Starting with the carpaccio fish appetizer, fresh Yemeni bread with an assortment of cheeses, we both ordered with Yemeni grilled fish as our mains, which were cooked to perfection. This was a perfect meal to end our stay in Djibouti.
10 Nov: Last morning in Djibouti! We slept in for as long as we could before our final fancy breakfast at the Kempinski. Becky was keen on checking out a bit early as she wanted to be sure there were no issues charging the room to our credit card. The bill had to be scrubbed several times as there were some charges that needed to be removed but overall it was a simple process with the helpful receptionist. We were expecting a free shuttle ride back to the airport but the front staff wasn’t tracking it, so we coordinated it at the last minute with the front desk. The ride back to the airport took less than 20 minutes and check in for our flight to Addis was a breeze. The lady at the check-in counter forgot to ask us to show the credit card used to purchase our Ethiopian airlines ticket but she ran upstairs to the waiting lounge to catch it before we were allowed to board the aircraft. Ethiopian air sure does have some strict rules! The airport had free Wi-Fi so we were able to check emails before our onward journey to Ethiopia.
In summary, yes, Djibouti is bloody expensive! However, we had budgeted for a pricey trip and did everything we wanted to (whale sharks, walking tour of Djibouti Ville, Lac Abbe, Lac Assal), so we both felt very satisfied with our quick getaway to this very interesting country.