Djibouti is out of this world. It’s a claim no travel writer should ever make, but it really is as if a great chunk of Mars has been carved out and jigsawed on to the Horn of Africa. Seated on the Afar Triple Junction – the meeting point for three of the Earth’s tectonic plates, which are pulling slowly away from one another – Djibouti is a jostle of black volcanic rock, flat plains haunted by dust devils and a brilliant-blue coastline bulging out into the Gulf of Aden. These are the raw lands that 20-year-old Wilfred Thesiger travelled through in the 1930s and later featured in his Danakil Diaries travelogue.
Until recently, travellers have been slow to follow in his footsteps. Images of the civil war that broke out in the region during the 1990s linger – as do concerns about pirates in the Gulf. But these impressions are outdated. Aside from the occasional pickpocket, Djibouti is safe and unassociated with the problems that persist in neighbouring Somalia and Eritrea, its coastal towns insulated from marauders by the Gulf of Tadjoura.
It offers intrepid travellers a new frontier. Outside the colonial-style capital, Djibouti city, development is in its infancy: accommodation and services are relatively frill-free, there’s no public transport and it’s expensive. But the real draw is the wealth of adventure activities on offer, from trekking up the dormant Ardoukoba volcano and snorkelling with whale sharks in the Bay of Ghoubbet, to floating in the briny waters of Lac Assal – the lowest point in Africa.
One of its most impressive landmarks is Lac Abbé – a salt lake on the border with Ethiopia. It’s the terminus of the 750-mile-long (1207-kilometre-long) Awash River, which starts life west of Addis Ababa. Droughts and extraction for irrigation upstream have caused the water level to drop 20 feet (6 metres), leaving behind copper-coloured flats studded with jagged limestone chimneys that bite the skyline. It’s so otherworldly they were used as a filming location for the first Planet of the Apes.
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