Oh Man’s Land: Djibouti

Ever heard of Djibouti?  If spectacular landscapes and a beautiful sea aren’t enough of a draw, come for the soldiers.

by Robert La Bua

In the world of tourism, Africa is a continent apart.  Anyone who has been there can attest to the fact that Africa is somehow different from the rest of the world, a continent of incredibly beautiful landscapes and an air of mystery to complement diverse cultures and unique experiences.  Given Africa’s enormous size, this is not completely surprising; what is surprising is that the characteristics that make the second-largest continent in the world so appealing as a travel destination are all found in one of its smallest countries.

Not much attention is paid to little Djibouti, forgotten as it is in the Horn Of Africa, wedged between three much larger neighbours Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia.  Djibouti is not exactly on the main route to anywhere, yet this safe and peaceable country is easily accessible from Dubai, one of the world’s major air hubs.  Also bordering Djibouti is the Red Sea, and it is the sea that provides the country with its major attractions.

When conversation turns to Africa, we hear a lot about the animals.  Indeed, the continent’s wildlife is worthy of a lifetime of observation, but not all animals are on land.  Djibouti is a diver’s paradise, with coral reefs and abundant marine life so vivid as to appear the imaginary products of an animated film’s CGI Department.  Just off the coast of Djibouti are the Moucha Islands.  Whether novice or veteran diver, a plunge is a must, if only for the handsome instructors who guide newbies with all the care and attention of a first-time mother.  Place your trust, if not more, in their hands and in no time you will be observing the rays of the sun shining underwater, ancient coral formations, and walls of impossibly colourful fish usually seen only in aquariums.  Moucha Islands are a wonderful and easy daytrip from the capital, Djibouti City, a charmingly chaotic place with not a single museum.  Modern infrastructure and excellent gelato aside, there remains an African society relatively uncontaminated by the outside world.

Djibouti is a former French territory populated by two major cultural groups, the Afars and the Issas.  The stark desert landscape belies the resilience of the population.  Stop your car in the most isolated of spots and people will emerge seemingly from the rocks themselves curious to know about you.  Tourists in Djibouti are as exotic a sight to the locals as their beautiful Lake Assal is to us.  Lake Assal, the lowest point in Africa, is the saltiest body of water on Earth (yes, even saltier than the Dead Sea).  This pristine body of water is rimmed with a salt crust 80 metres deep, the effect being that it shines like an aquamarine in a giant margarita glass.  The high mineral content of the water makes bathing a natural spa treatment that leaves your skin smoother than a Brazilian wax.  On the road to Lake Assal is an observation point to see the union of three tectonic plates as the Rift Valley enters the African continent.  Looking at dirt is not usually all that stimulating, but rare is the chance to see the inside of the Earth on the outside; it is an inexplicably emotional primal experience.

Further inland is Lake Abbé, a popular destination for overnight camping on Djibouti’s western border.  The desolate landscape, studded with unusual rock formations, was a film location for the original Planet Of The Apes.  Speaking of animals, the Decan Wildlife Refuge, just outside the capital, is worth a visit.  The refuge run by a nonprofit organisation that repatriates and cares for native Djiboutian animals from European zoos and private (illegal) collections.  The leopards are particularly beautiful and able to be observed at close range; more intimately, visitors are actually allowed inside the oryx, zebra, and ostrich enclosures.

While the exoticism of Djibouti is fine for excursions, the comforts of home are well appreciated at the end of the day.  These are readily available at the sumptuous Djibouti Palace Kempinski Hotel, which serves as something of a United Nations headquarters for the country as the only establishment capable of hosting heads of state, diplomats, emirs, sheiks, generals, and gay tourists in the style to which they are accustomed.  Is there such a thing as too much testosterone?  The macho clientele of the Djibouti Palace Kempinski make the typical gym changeroom seem like a Miss Universe pageant in an off year, though admirers of the male form in temporary residence will be too spellbound by crewcuts, square jaws, and bulging biceps to be muttering to themselves over the indignity of Miss Venezuela winning for the 45th year in a row.  Soldiers (men and women) from Spain and a few other places live at the Kempinski, and a lot more come to visit every day.

Even without the lure of American GI Joes, French Legionnaires, and Spanish soldados, Kempinski offers enough appeal on its own in the form of spacious rooms and suites, excellent eateries, and two waterfront pools that are immensely popular with the men (not) in uniform.  The hotel’s Safari Club is the hottest nightclub in town and pulls in a cosmopolitan crowd come Thursday night, the start to the weekend in this part of the world.  Come Friday morning, Kempinski’s spa offers the perfect elixir to the previous night’s antics.  In fact, Kempinski takes care of its guests in every way, arranging any excursion requested outside the hotel as well as looking after guests while on the premises enjoying the hotel’s fine restaurants.

Despite its anonymity, Djibouti is easily reached by a three-hour, nonstop flight from Dubai on flydubai, the low-cost carrier subsidiary of Emirates.  Travellers departing from Perth on Emirates can check their bags straight through to Djibouti, where Kempinski can arrange to have a handler meet you at the airport and usher you through arrival procedures.  On departure, the hotel maintains a private lounge for the exclusive use of its guests.

The law regarding homosexuality in Djibouti is unclear; a 2010 US State Department report states that there are no known reports of violence or discrimination against LGBT people; however societal norms do not allow for public discussion or displays of homosexuality.





decandjibouti.org (in French)