Week 3: Djibouti

I ended up in Djibouti because I have a small obsession with whale sharks, which are usually in residence in the Gulf of Tadjoura until the end of January. Unfortunately, they were all gone or too deep in the water to see by the time I got there. However, this crazy search for charismatic marine megafauna brought me to a country full of surreal beauty.


views from the train going from Addis Ababa to Djibouti City (these are all from Ethiopia)

Before I left on my 13 hour train journey from Addis, everyone told me Djibouti was going to be hot, hot, and hot. It was hot, but tolerably so and while I was there, it even rained. Djibouti is a desert and everything is imported from elsewhere which makes this one of the most expensive countries I’ve ever visited. It has two main economic income streams: shipping from the port (where everything is currently trucked overland to Ethiopia) and tons of military bases (including the US, France, UK, Italy, Spain, China, Saudi Arabia, and Japan). Perhaps not that surprising, I rarely ever saw foreigners on the streets, they seem to stay almost entirely on the bases.


view of Balbala (where most Djiboutians live because they can’t afford to live in Djibouti Ville), old port, house in Balbala

Arta Plage

Since whale sharks were nowhere to be found, I signed up for a kayaking and snorkeling trip to Arta Plage. The day we went kayaking, we were treated to some extremely rare weather: rainy, windy and almost chilly. The water was warmer than the air, which was crazy compared to how hot it was in following days. We did run into hordes of tiny jellyfish, who speared us with their nematocysts, causing some unpleasant tingling in the arms, legs, and especially the skin around the mouth. We took a break for lunch and headed out to rougher waters, where there were less jellyfish and more gorgeous meter wide fan corals. Djibouti has some of the most beautiful reefs I’ve ever seen outside of the Red Sea. (I know nothing about coral identification, as can be seen be the captions.)


coral reef, nasty hordes of jellyfish, coral


coral, fish, coral


fish, corals, giant clam

Djibouti does have some interesting life outside of its water as well.


Djibouti cow, ostrich (squint and you can see it), hamadrayas baboon

Lac Abbé

After a long, long, long Land Rover journey, we arrived at Lac Abbé which is on the border of Ethiopia and Djibouti. This area sits on top of active geothermal activity. Thousands of years ago, this area was still covered by the salty lake and as mineral-rich and super-hot fluid from underneath the earth escaped into the lake, it formed these crazy limestone chimneys. This area is part of the Afar Triangle, where three plates are pulling away from each other at the same junction. Many of the chimneys are situated along jaunty lines, showcasing the faults below. It makes for some surreal landscapes, both during the day and especially at sunrise.


limestone chimneys


chimney, close-up of rock-hard, bubbling surface, me & chimney


morning steam from hot springs, dawn in Lac Abbé, sunrise at Lac Abbé

This area is dominated by Afars, some of whom have settled into more permanent structures. We stayed in the ones that look like armadillos, which were quite comfortable even in the desert chill. One of the biggest daily traditions in Djibouti is the consumption of khat (also spelled qat, chat). It’s chewed every day in the afternoon, or all the time if you’re a driver. Khat is an upper, making people feel more alert, a milder version of speed. Almost all of the khat consumed in Djibouti comes overland in trucks from Ethiopia. Apparently the smaller leaves are best and it costs about 300 Djiboutian francs ($1.75) for a bundle. My driver went through 2-3 a day.


wooden structure, armadillo structure (wood or rebar framing), khat wrapped in a towel to keep it fresh



view from the Afar camp we stayed in as the goats are taken back in for the evening

Lac Assal

Lac Assal is the other huge tourist attraction in Djibouti. It’s the lowest point in Africa at 509 ft (155m) below sea level. The water from surrounding areas drains into it but the water has nowhere to go. Instead the water evaporates, leaving behind a very salty lake (the third saltiest in the world).


Daouid (my guide), me & Mohammed (my khat-chewing driver), random Afar guy at Lac Assal

I, of course, had to get in and try it out. Because the water is so salty, it has a higher density. This creates a larger buoyancy force pushing up on the human body and humans float higher up in the water (very similar to the Dead Sea). When I got out, I was covered in a light dusting of salt and my guide had to pour two liters of water over my head to make the ride home palatable.


floating in Lac Assal, view from above, walking towards Lac Assal

This means I have been to the highest and lowest points on the continent of Africa. This was not an accomplishment I set out to achieve, but it’s kind of cool nonetheless.


Highest Point: climbing the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Lowest Point: swimming in Lac Assal