From hitch-hiking in the back of jeeps of drug peddlers, to exploring one of the most bizarre and arid landscapes, to visiting the world’s largest salt reserve which is a whopping 155 metres below sea level, read about my adventures in Djibouti – a tiny country in a forgotten corner of the world.
I was excited to land in a country that doesn’t feature on most people’s travel itineraries. Given I knew nothing about the country, I had quite a bit of reading to do. Djibouti has no natural resources unless you count salt (extraction) to be one. The country capitalises upon its geographic position and its port (that handles almost all of Ethiopia’s imports and exports) to levy heavy import taxes and customs duties to earn revenue. Because of the heavy taxes on almost all imported goods, everything from water to bread, and electricity to transport is very expensive. The cost of living is worsened by corruption, sadly.
But Djibouti, unlikely many of its closest neighbours (Somaliland, Eritrea), is safe. A fact that was animatedly emphasised by both police forces and locals alike. So I set off on an evening walk by the beach as I landed – a little paranoid that things may not be as safe as they were portrayed to me. To my surprise, even though it was late (8pm), the beach was filled with families, people jogging and children playing football. And I returned, incident-free!
Given Djibouti’s staggering cost of living and the majority of the country struggling to make ends meet, I wondered what the locals thought. In my barely passable French, I had a conversation with Hafsa*, the manager of a small bakery. She was very happy being Djiboutian (a feeling I knew wasn’t unanimous across the population from another conversation). She wondered how Djibouti compared to the other countries in Africa and was surprised when I said how astronomically expensive it was.
I guess for the majority of Djiboutians who haven’t left the country, comparisons aren’t as easy to make. Hafsa recognised the issue of the high cost of living and so many people living below the poverty line but she said that isn’t the most important matter. For her safety and security come first. ‘What’s the point in having money, Vin, if you could be robbed or shot on the way home?’ she asked me. She much preferred living here where her safety was far more certain. I guess looking around at Djibouti’s neighbours – Yemen, Somalia & Eritrea – this is indeed something to be especially grateful for.
Location, location, location
Djibouti is at the crossroads of one of THE busiest shipping routes globally – linking the Gulf, Horn of Africa, Europe and the Far East. The port (slightly further down from the harbour) is not only an important refuelling pitstop for ships but also is the main seaport for Ethiopia – about 95% of Ethiopia’s foreign trade passes through here.
I was quite surprised at the number of military posts here – France, Italy, USA, Japan and now China all have a military presence in this forgotten corner of the world. Djibouti’s stability and strategic location in an otherwise highly volatile region makes it an important playground for all the big boys (its closest neighbours include Yemen, Eritrea and Somalia). Would you believe that USA renewed its lease for its military camp for 20 years in 2014, with a commitment of $60+ million a year in rent?
A drug routine that almost half the country engages in – Khat
Djibouti City has an odd dynamic – it’s bustling in the morning and in the evening, but a strangely quiet stupor comes over in the early afternoon when it seems like a ghost town. The answer lies in a little green plant called ‘khat’, which is chewed by a staggering 50% of Djiboutian men as a stimulant (said to have euphoric effects, on a similar but lower level to speed). By lunch time, men across the country begin chewing these leaves – a routine that can take hours. While there is considerable debate on the long-term impact of khat, what is clear is that a large proportion of men in the country are hooked.
As soon as the daily shipment arrives from Ethiopia and reaches the local vendor (often after changing hands 5 or more times), the men are lined up in the streets, eagerly awaiting their ‘khat’ fix for the day – which they say helps them relax and be more effective (if they’re in physically demanding jobs). Although all I saw was guys relaxing in the shade chewing on this leaf, their mouths bright green. This is sadly not a cheap pastime for the families – with as much as 40% of average household income going towards khat, you can’t help but wonder how much more could be achieved if they managed to kick this habit.
The African Quarter
I was ready to leave the colonial architecture, whitewashed buildings and orderly boulevards of Djibouti City’s European Quarter and go for a wander to explore Quarter 1 – the city’s African quarter. This atmospheric part of town, with a dense concentration of alleyways having numerous stalls and shops, endearing with its vibrantly coloured walls and ramshackle nature, is said to be the true soul of Djibouti City. This is definitely the area you want to be in to have delicious and affordable Yemeni or Somali food. It was also a jolting reminder of what stark inequality can exist in the same city, just moving a few hundred metres in a certain direction.
While wandering through the alleyways, I found women gathered with their friends drinking Ethiopian coffee in a corner chatting away, men in another corner chewing ‘khat’ and looking slightly drowsy, children laughing in the middle of the dusty alleyways, chasing each other and staring in wide-eyed wonder at me – the rather curious foreigner who was exploring their neighbourhood.
Remember that time when you just wanted to listen to music and dance carefree? I came across a girl who was doing exactly that. While roaming through the alleyways, I heard music. Curiosity piqued, I followed the beats. That led me around a few corners to a group of girls who had music playing on a stereo and were happily dancing, singing and laughing. They immediately felt shy when I appeared round the corner, but when I showed them how clumsy I was at dancing, they giggled. While they were squabbling to get each other to resume dancing, this one little girl just busted out her moves – without a care in the world.
The matatu – a minibus ubiquitous throughout East Africa
I’d received advice ranging from ‘these are best avoided’ to ‘run like the hills when you see one of these’. I’ve come to understand that each country has its own twist to these power horses that are an intrinsic part of public transport in each country they operate in. They appear to be the most dangerous in Kenya, a ground for petty theft for less vigilant passengers in Uganda, and pretty safe in Djibouti. Except in Djibouti, these van-like vehicles operate WITHOUT a door. Yes, you ride with no seatbelts and can see the road whizzing by through the large opening in the van where the door should exist.
Was quite an experience driving at adrenaline-inducing speeds (a talent that all matatu drivers seem to possess, regardless of country) and gasp while I held on to the seat and stared at the road racing by next to me.
What food can you buy for £5 or £10?
ANSWER: £10 at Restaurant Saba will get you a delicious Poisson Yéménite with a fresh juice; £5 at the same restaurant will get you a tuna baguette and a juice.
Djibouti’s culinary scene is surprisingly good – potentially owing to the French influence (Djibouti gained independence from France only in 1977). Yemeni and Ethiopian food are the most popular, followed by Italian, French, and Somali (local cuisine is nothing spectacular). I couldn’t wait to try Yemeni food which is revered here, owing to the large community that is present in Djibouti. I was hunting for ‘Poisson Yemenite’ – fish peppered with spices and slammed in the grill until it gets brûléed. It comes with galette (similar to chapati) and a special spicy sauce (sauce piquante). Restaurant Saba did a delicious and a most reasonably priced Poisson Yemenite in an otherwise very expensive city, with an atmosphere of minimal pretension. The fish will set you back 2100 DJF (£8.85) and the array of fresh juices start at 300 DJF (£1.30).
A Chinese hotelier who’s lived in Mauritania and Niger, speaks French and now works in Djibouti
Meet Xiaoming Li (or just Li to his friends) – embodying the spirit of entrepreneurship in Djibouti. Li has one of the most interesting backgrounds of any hotelier I’ve met. With a passion for languages that he noticed in high school, he finished his degree in French Literature in Chengdu. He then joined the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation and was posted to Niger. He didn’t even know where Niger was at the time, he reminisces with a laugh.
After spending several years in Niger enjoying the natural landscapes, his next adventure took him to Singapore where he realised that big city life with nonstop work was not for him. He craved the freedom and the nature of Africa. He soon wound up in Mauritania with a fishing company. ‘It was a strange place. In front of our office was the sea. And behind was the desert,’ Li recalls. But he wanted to do something different after a while. So, when a job came up in Djibouti with a Chinese agricultural collaboration group, Li jumped on it. Once again he admits, with a twinkle in his eye, to not knowing where Djibouti was before he landed here. He used that as a stepping stone to rent this land and build his hotel – fulfilling his dream of working for himself. ‘People always need a place to stay,’ – Li says – ‘so I knew if I was doing anything here it had to be a hotel.’
Savouring the life of an entrepreneur, Li is a master networker with everyone from tour operators, to the local policeman, to people at the fish market stopping by for a chat whenever he goes by. His latest venture? Pursuing his love for goats by collaborating with the Djiboutian Agricultural Ministry to establish a company that produces animal feed.
Apparently it is very difficult to get a job after school/university and youth unemployment is very high. In order to enter a government controlled industry or sector, connections are vital. As a result, power and money are highly concentrated within an elite circle of the ruling government, their friends and family (something few people are outspoken about).
“You don’t have to be remarkable to lead a remarkable life”
Chance encounters are the best. Especially when they lead you to people like John Linnemeier. When you meet other solo travellers wandering through places like Djibouti, you can almost certainly be guaranteed that they will be among the most interesting people you’ll ever meet. As was the case when I met the incredibly adventurous John.
John is in his seventies, but has not lost any of the childish excitement and eager anticipation of visiting new places. Since his wife had no desire to travel to such remote lands, John set off on his own to visit Djibouti, followed by Somaliland and Palestine.
Having travelled all his life, John has incredible stories from his adventures to over 125 countries. From meeting with tribal chiefs, to almost being killed by elephants three times, being shot in the chest in Vietnam, nearly freezing to death in the Himalayas, being saved by dolphins, almost dying of thirst in the Sahara, to being stranded at sea on a freight ship – John’s tales can fill many a book (and indeed he has written a few!).
But perhaps what’s most striking about John is his humility, infectious sense of humour, childlike excitement at exploring something new and ability to put someone at ease instantly. And his mantra still echoes in my head today – “You don’t have to be remarkable to lead a remarkable life.”
Djiboutians know how to dance in style
I was with John, a new friend I had made, and we were hunting for the post office in Djibouti City when we heard the beautiful sounds of the tanbura (a string instrument) and the drums – music that sounded a mix of Ethiopian and Arabic, with lots of laughter. John, with his curiosity not dampened one bit by the seven decades he’s lived, was terribly excited to go and explore. We soon realised it was an official function outside the Board of Foreign Investment with several bigwigs in attendance. But we looked at each other and had the same thought. Let’s go join the fun! And we did. Luckily for me, this time I didn’t get reprimanded by any public official.
Outside the Capital
Djibouti’s landscapes and villages are unlike anything I’ve seen before
Apart from a few pockets, the landscape is vast, mountainous, arid, dry. Barely any green trees. The highlights are the incredibly salty Lac Assal (which puts the salinity of the Dead Sea to shame) and Lac Abbé. Over 60% of the country’s 1 million people live below the poverty line and in appalling conditions. Many live in makeshift huts (rubber tyres, corrugated sheets, rocks and tarpaulin) by the roadside. Often you’ll find containers toppled over along key transport routes and they’re left to rot there because it’s cheaper to leave them rather than pay to haul them away. In some cases, the poorer people use these empty, overturned containers by the roadside as their home.
Djibouti’s population is dominated by two ethnic groups – the Afars and the Issa-Somalis
The Issa Somali majority make up 60% of the population and is historically nomadic, living in small huts that can easily be packed away and transported on camel-back. The Afar minority, making up 35% of the population, live in the mountains and desert. Traditionally, they were organised into kingdoms, each ruled by a Sultan. Unrest between an Afar rebel group and the Somali-dominated government resulted in a civil war in the 1990s that ended with a peace accord being signed in 2001. Since then a fragile peace has prevailed with a cloud of simmering anti-government sentiment in the Afar-dominated north.
On a road trip with Li, we stopped to buy some fresh goat milk that a Somali lady was selling on the road. Li’s talents even extended into discussing prices in Somali! He swears by the quality of goat’s milk, but I think I still prefer the regular cow’s variety.
Lac Assal – the world’s largest salt reserve
This saline lake lies a whopping 155 metres below sea level making it the lowest point in Africa and the third lowest point in the world. No wonder it was so hot. I found it hard to believe that the salinity level of the water here was 10 TIMES that of the sea and higher than the Dead Sea, until I dipped my finger and tasted the water. It felt like drinking concentrated salt solution. And wherever the water splashed on my legs and shoes, a film of white appeared barely minutes later – a layer of salt, which is terribly itchy.
The view on approaching Lac Assal is phenomenal. The colour of the water changes during the day; at midday it is a shimmering emerald with what appears deceivingly to be powdery white sand. It’s only when you walk up close do you realise that the ‘white sand’ is actually jagged, sharp salt crystals that crunch under your shoes. Not an area for lying down or walking barefoot.
Beauty often lies in hidden nooks and crannies, just like in Lac Assal. On my walk through the white crunchy salt crystals along the edge of the lake, I came across fascinating and colourful formations with black lava fields and dormant volcanoes in the background. I was transfixed – it was unlike anything I’d seen before. The Nomadic Afar and Issa tribes that have lived in this area have known the value of this salt for decades. They’ve carefully extracted salt and used age-old routes to Ethiopia to barter this for other commodities. Their method of extraction is quite different to today’s industrial production methods – whole families would wade through the waters of the lake to find spheres formed out of salt crystals. Classically, the men would do the wading to gather these spheres and women would dry, shape, and sort these spheres before they were transported for sale.
Interesting fact – among the nomadic Afar, accepting a drink of milk symbolises a bond between a host and a guest. This bond includes the host being responsible for the guest’s safety should there be trouble, and for avenging his death should he be killed.
The Afar Triple Junction
I remember learning about Rift Valleys in secondary school geography lessons but wasn’t ready for how majestic they looked up close. Djibouti is extremely unique in that it sits in the ‘Afar Triple Junction’ – a meeting point for 3 of the earth’s tectonic plates, resulting in an other-worldly landscape. These plates are all pulling away from each other, which means millions of years from now, East Africa will break apart from the rest of the continent and form a new land mass on its own. I’ve often wondered what life might look like that far in the future, but who knows if we’ll still exist or if life as we know it will still remain on this planet?
A snorkelling and diving heaven
The best time to go snorkelling in Djibouti’s waters is between November and January, when the whale sharks are around. Snorkelling around these majestic creatures is supposedly an indescribable experience but sadly I arrived a week too late. I was glad I found Dolphin Excursions – they’re one of the old boys on the scene, are very reliable and have a great value snorkelling day-trip. After setting off at 8AM from Port de Pêche, we moved along the coast to Trois Plages, where we anchored and spent the whole day at sea. The coral gardens are fairly intact with lots of curious fish around, but my favourite still remains the Maldives for its calm waters and excellent visibility.
Given I’m happiest and calmest while by the ocean, I couldn’t think of a more relaxing way to spend the day: snorkelling for 2 hours, coming back to the boat for a delicious, fresh lunch spread, having a small snooze in the shade, a quick coffee and then back in the water for another 2 hours before returning home.
On hitch-hiking in the back of jeeps of drug peddlers
I was keen to see at least one other town outside of the capital to get a broader sense of what Djibouti was like. The problem was that the next biggest town, Tadjoura, was a whopping 200km away and nobody seemed to know what the minibus schedule was to get there. I finally obtained this information in an animated conversation (in broken French) at a restaurant. They found me so amusing, they gave me a tea on the house.
The journey to Tadjoura or La Ville Blanche, was not without drama the next day. Apparently in Djibouti, you need to carry your passport when travelling between towns, as there are security check-posts that verify your ID. I very nearly was not let through. Pleading innocence and ignorance, saying that my passport was at the Embassy, I showed them a photocopy which appeased them enough to wave me onwards.
Tadjoura in comparison to the capital was tiny. I had lunch by the sea, explored the small beach and then quickly rushed back to the petrol station to await a minibus returning to Djibouti City. I was warned to arrive by 2.30pm in order to be sure of getting the last minibus back, since there were no other transport connections one could take. Sadly since there weren’t enough passengers after lunch, no minibus was willing to make the journey back (they are essentially vans that depart when full). Instead the drivers decided to binge on ‘khat’ and get high instead. Given I had no money for a hotel and all my things were in the capital, I had two options. One was to roam around the town, drink a lot of coffee, stay awake all night and then take the first minibus back in the morning. Or two – find an accomplice and some way to hitchhike back. Little did I know that my accomplice would come in the form of Abdul, a Deputy Head Teacher in a regional school. Here’s the tale of the rather exciting and nerve-wrecking events that unfolded.
6PM: Myself and my new friend Abdul (also headed to Djibouti), manage to find two guys going in a jeep to a big truck intersection (Stop 51) to collect ‘khat’ (a narcotic-like leaf that everyone chews here) which comes in overnight from Ethiopia via truck.
7PM: We hop into the back of their jeep and hide under a tarpaulin (when I ask Abdul why we had to hide, he just mumbles and says it is best to do it). He raises his finger to his lips indicating silence when the jeep is stopped at a police checkpoint. My heartbeat increases, just a little bit.
10PM: Jumping out at Truck Stop 51, we make our way to a customs checkpoint and spend an hour on the roadside with a policeman. Abdul pre-warns me to stay in his shadow and not utter a word (I didn’t have my passport with me). We wait for a night truck going in the direction of Djibouti City and finally manage to flag one down that is willing to take us both – surprisingly it is the policeman who helps us get it!
11PM: Truck driver stops at the depot for the night which is about 40km from the capital. We wearily start moving, thinking we may have to walk the full distance. I’m positive we can make it – 40km is much more manageable than the 200km we started with.
11.30PM: We spy a stray tuk-tuk in the distance and yell furiously and flash my torch (not sure if God heard our prayers). It obediently comes and picks us up and is willing to drop us off at the edge of the ex-shanty town near the city.
12:00AM: Reach the edge of Balabala (ex-shanty town). It appears there is no mode of transport left apart from a drunken taxi driver (chewing ‘khat’) charging a steep fare. I refuse, thinking it is madness to be driven by someone in that state. Abdul thinks that’s a far better solution that walking through the shanty town at night, with drunk people and such…
From being stranded at the petrol station 200km away from Djibouti City and finding a trusted accomplice (#1), to spending an hour at a police check-point by the road (#2), to hitch-hiking in a lorry (#3) and finding a stray tuk-tuk to get closer to the city (#4). What a journey.
12:30AM: Luckily, after Abdul was almost going to resign with despair, we find a public bus that is heading to town. I bid farewell to Abdul, knowing that we may never meet again and get on the bus. I’m solo now.
01:00AM: Reach town centre. Victory! Quick celebratory tea for energy and then begin the 5km walk to my guesthouse.
02:00AM: Arrive at the guesthouse, safe and sound, with nothing stolen. Slightly in disbelief of the journey I’ve just had.
This whole escapade made me incredibly grateful for the limited French I learnt at school – the journey back would have been near impossible without it.
– Staying in Djibouti: China Shandong Hotel – a great place and amazing value by Djibouti standards. US$144 for 4 nights including breakfast for a room with shared facilities. Everything was spick and span, rooms clean, with air-con. You also get free and unlimited water, tea and coffee and the WiFi is the best in East Africa.
– Good value Yemeni food – Restaurant Saba with Bait Al-Mundi coming a close second
– Snorkelling Trips in Djibouti – Dolphin Excursions are good value, excellent and highly reliable. It’s best to reserve your place at least 1-2 weeks in advance; email works well. USD 85 gets you a delicious fresh lunch, water, coffee, snorkelling equipment, guidance from the team and the journey there and back (8AM-5PM). Departure point: Port de Pêche at 07:45AM. Top Tip: Saturday trips are the best because it’s a big boat that goes out and the lunch spread is the best on this. Note visibility can be poor and drop to 5 metres on some days.