November 2012: As part of a larger middle east and east Africa trip, my friend Evan and I traveled to Djibouti for 4 days.  Going to Djibouti was a back up plan because I was not able to get a visa to visit Socotra, Yemen.  Aside from making jokes about the country’s name, and that there were French Foreign legion training bases in the country, we didn’t know a whole lot about Djibouti before arriving.



About Djibouti

Map of Djibouti

Djibouti is largely a hot, and humid desert. It was once part of the biblical kingdom of Punt and in the 1800’s-1960’s a French colony until gaining independence in the late 1960’s. The population is mostly Arabic and French speaking, Islamic and of Somali and Afar people.

Djibouti is strategically located in the Horn of East Africa near the inlet to the Red Sea. As a result, many of the world’s largest militaries have established Navy bases in Djibouti (China, USA, France) or use Djibouti has a Naval Port enroute to other locations and Djibouti has benefitted economically from the leases of these bases and other military services.  The French Foreign legion have also had training bases in Djibouti for decades. It has also served as an important cargo port for East Africa as one of the only stable countries along the Red Sea in the region.

Djibouti City

Evan and I flew to Djibouti City via Addis and landed in the evening. We stayed near the city center and after visiting a few bars it didn’t take long to notice the impact of all of the Navy Ships visiting Djibouti Cities port. The bars were overflowing with prostitutes and despite that most people in Djibouti do not speak English, most of these girls spoke fluent English. Djibouti considering the poor quality of accommodation and rampant poverty was not a cheap country to visit. Locals in Djibouti City were not the friendliest and a camera in public was guaranteed to incite anger. I was still able to take photos, but I needed to be very covert about it. The mix of Ottoman and French architecture were interesting and kind of beautiful in their state of fading decay. Our goal in Djibouti was to get out of the city and swim with whale sharks, which were present off of Djibouti shores during our visit and to visit Lac Assal, the lowest points in Africa at -500′ and one of the lowest in the world.

Market place

Djibouti City

Djibouti City Alleyway

Djibouti City

Djibouti City

Djibouti City Street Scene

Djibouti City Street Scene

Lac Assal-Lowest Point in Africa

I didn’t want to pay for an expensive package trip with extra fees going to a middleman, so we just booked the booked the Lac Assal trip via a taxi driver we found in the street. The drive took a few hours, and we crossed through some pretty desolate desert country with Afar nomad conical huts and Hamadrya baboons on the side of the road trying to sneak into our vehicle and steal food. Lac Assal was incredible. We met some of the Afar nomads living nearby, visited a hot spring and even went wading in Lac Assal. The lake is 500′ below sea level and has a high salinity level leaving white crust like salt formations all throughout the lake. The best part of the area is the vivid colors and sense of extreme desolation and remoteness in the area. At the time of my visit, there were no other structures in the area, and it was all wild. I wish we would have brought camping equipment because camping on lac Assal would have been an incredible experience.

Afar Nomad Huts

Eager Hamadrya baboon Trying to Enter Our Vehicle-Needless to say we locked the doors and rolled up the windows

Hamadrya baboons

Lac Assal

Lac Assal

Me at Lac Assal

Swimming with Whale Sharks

To arrange a boat to swim with whale sharks, Evan and I went down to the fishing docks and found a fisherman with a small open top boat and negotiated a price for a day trip. From there set off into the Red Sea with no life jackets, and a few busted up snorkel masks we found at the fishing market. It was a wild experience and I wondered what would happen if our boat motor broke down given our lack of drinking water and the extreme desolation of the Djibouti shoreline. We eventually pulled up within 100 yards of a beach that the captain informed me was near a French Foreign Legion training base and multiple fins appeared out of the water. The captain said get ready and jump in. As the fin approached, I jumped into the water in front of it and when I opened my eyes in the water, a huge 30′ whale shark appeared before me with its mouth open inhaling clouds of small minnow fish and plankton rich water. The whale fish was oblivious to my presence, and I struggled to get out of the giant creature’s way as it turned, and its huge fin emerged between my legs almost decapitating my manhood. I briefly felt the rough skin of its tail rub on my leg but luckily, I was able to avoid the brunt of any potential impact from the massive tail. For the next few hours, Evan and I swamp with multiple whale sharks, and we were the only one’s swimming with them until a US Navy boat appeared bringing young, enlisted servicemen to also swim with the whale sharks.

Days catch of fish at the fishing market

Evan sitting on the bow of our hired boat

Whale shark

Me Swimming with Whale shark

Feeding whale shark 

Me Swimming with Whale shark

Crossing into Somaliland

Evan had to return to work for a few days in Dubai before meeting me later on in the Danakil Depression, Ethiopia so I decided to continue traveling by myself into Somaliland, which neighbors Djibouti. I crossed the border in the evening and via a small, shared taxi bus and once in Somaliland, I organized another shared taxi bus to travel all night through the Somaliland desert on sandy desert tracts to Hargeisa.

7 + 3 =

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