My journey now takes me from the former British Somaliland in northern Somalia to the former French Somaliland, now present day Djibouti. Although the country gained independence from France in 1977, remnants of that French occupation can still be seen, and heard, in Djibouti today.
My final day in Somaliland and my first in Djibouti is marked by a protracted wait at Hargeisa Airport. Eventually I realised that my Jubba Airways flight is delayed (and thankfully not cancelled) The check in counter opened an hour after the flight was due to depart and the new departure time is announced; four hours late.
It took us only 45 minutes flight time to arrive at Djibouti Airport; just as the sun is setting. The visa on arrival process took some time even though there was only a handful of us to process. Eventually, I paid my USD60, picked up my backpack and left the Terminal. It was dark outside. A taxi driver appears 'taxi, taxi?'
Twenty US dollars later I am dropped off at my Hotel right in the centre of Djibouti City. I've arrived on a Friday, which is Islam's holy day. I decided not to go out to exchange money or buy food as not all businesses would be open and (avoiding) arrivals into and navigating a new place at night is one of my Top Travel Hints.
I dug into my emergency stash of snacks and watched yet another BBC News cycle, it was the only program available in English. Russian diplomats expelled. Aussie cricketers caught cheating. Roseanne back on TV.... It was time for an early night!
Breakfast was delivered to my room at 0800 as requested. I looked at the tray piled high with carbs; chocolate croissant, a full french stick, as well as a small pot of hot water with tea, and thought 'I'll have enough bread for lunch as well'. Ten minutes later the bread and pastry had been reduced to crumbs, the tea slowly followed.
Today, I made a few forays outside to get my bearings. I needed Djibouti francs. I had drunk all of my water and would need to purchase food and replace my snacks (that would be another top travel hint - always have snacks)
As I emerged from the foyer I was ambushed by a scrum of taxi drivers. I managed to convey to them (in French) that I didn't need a taxi, and spied a Bank across the road. Although it was Saturday, the Bank was open but the building was packed with people. Possibly because yesterday was Friday and the Bank was shut. It took a minute to locate the currency exchange counter. I calculated a significant waiting time. I decided to return later.
As I wandered around taxi drivers consistently offered me their services. This wasn't helpful as I was distracted and stopped paying attention to landmarks. I resolved to take note of the street signs. That was when I realised that they are named after cities: London, Paris, Athens, Moscow, Rome, Geneva, Madrid. I thought that was pretty cool. So I took a photo. An old man called out and wagged his finger from side to side when he saw me photographing the sign.
As I continued on my walk, the 'photo-phobia' continued. A lady in a shop window started yelling at me when she thought I had deliberately photographed her. She remained angry even after I crossed the road and showed her the photo (possibly because she had trouble locating her image within the frame) I said sorry and deleted it in front of her. She glared at me, muttering dark threats. Later, a pair of ladies sitting on the sidewalk objected loudly when I asked if I could photograph the building behind them. I retreated back to the Hotel.
After a rest I emerged into the afternoon heat to find that the Bank across the road had shut. All the Banks had shut. So had the shops. The streets had emptied. I returned to the building. The women had moved on. I took my photo. And many more.
The city centre had a certain faded glory. The architecture in the European Quarter is an interesting mix of Arabic and European styles. This is fused with a more modern, African aesthetic: bold colour and hand drawn signs. But this city is in transition. High rise buildings are under construction. Older buildings are derelict or boarded up. The homeless squat on the streets. Surely, it is just a matter of time before the character of the original city yields to time, neglect or progress?
I visited the lowest point in Africa today. It lies just over 100km west of the capital in a crater lake surrounded by dormant volcanoes. Lake Assal not only has the distinction of being one of the world's lowest points in the world but it's water is some of the saltiest!
There is no public transport directly to the Lake. Most visitors come with tours, or hire their own vehicles or taxis. One traveller posted on the Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree forum that he had taken a local bus to the turn off and walked/hitchhiked the rest of the way. As the temperature at Lake Assal was due to hit 43C today, I sensibly opted to get there via private vehicle.
Mr Lee, from the China Town Hotel, picked me up just after 0900. Ken, from Rushing Waters Adventures, had kindly put us in touch. Also along for the ride was Akihiro, a Japanese teacher on vacation. With two passengers, this day trip ended up costing me $120USD.
After a quick stop for water and snacks we drove around the Port area and then out of the City. There's a great deal of construction going on. Mr Lee said the works are Chinese but couldn't elaborate further with his limited English (he explained that he had only just completed a course four months ago; he must have been a good student because during conversations I often forgot that the language was new to him)
The sealed road looks and feels new. There is not much traffic on the road, mainly trucks, and the occasional small bus and 4WD, but even this thinned out as we made our way further west. The landscape is hilly and arid. The temperature was hot in the shade and even hotter in the sun.
We had two scheduled breaks on the way. The first at the Canyon Adaleh and the second at Ghoubet. Just before the first stop Mr Lee warned us about the local salesmen. 'Don't buy everything! They will all come!' He repeated this again with even more emphasis. I understood this to mean: 'don't buy anything or you'll be mobbed by locals trying to sell you something'. I nodded earnestly and reassured him that there would be no sales, but snuck a quick look at the displays when he wasn't looking. Hmmm, salt, hmmm pretty rocks. I wondered what else my nephews and nieces had narrowly avoided being gifted this coming Christmas.
The Canyon was quite deep and long. I took a few photos and studiously ignored the salesmen, but as it turned out they were too distracted to do the 'hard sell'. You see, Akihiro had packed a small drone (in addition to his mobile phone, compact camera, DSLR camera, with impressive long zoom lenses.... ) The men rushed over to check out the 'helicopter'. I shared their wonder. I'd never seen a drone up close before. It looked incredibly small and light.
Akihiro fiddled with the controls for a few moments and then launched the drone into the air. It swooped away gracefully, buzzing like a large mosquito. Soon it became just a speck in the sky. 'Au revoir! Bon voyage!', I joked. Then it returned. Akihiro staged a new 'launch' pose for the camera and the drone buzzes off again. We waited for the drone to capture this angle and that angle. There was no shade. The longer it took, the hotter I got. I began to hate that stupid drone. I wandered off to photograph some rocks, and then some scrub. Finally, the Canyon had been forensically examined and we could go.
Next up, was another lookout point, this time at Ghoubet. Once again, there are handmade souvenirs for sale, but the locals wisely stayed under their shade, watching from a distance. The water was far away. We had a distant vantage point. Fortunately, not great for drones. We browsed the handicraft stall, took some photos of the curios and continued on our way.
The road to Lake Assal looked new. We passed no cars. We stopped several times to take pictures and to admire the crystallised salt and clear water. Finally, we parked on a long, narrow salt beach. There was a short walk to the water, which was warm and shallow. The combination of sun, water and salt was blinding. I dutifully pointed my camera at the scene and hoped that the photos turned out.
As we walked back to the car the local sales people caught up with us. A man accompanied by a young boy and girl. We admired the bull's head crafted with salt but indicated that there would be no sale. The man accepted this and wandered off but the children stayed. 'Water, food, money....' They were persistent and eventually we relented, giving them some water and food but not the money. The boy's name was Umet and the girl's Fatima. They were nice kids and we felt bad for them living in such a harsh environment, but kids will be kids and when we eventually took our leave they ran along beside our car, giggling and laughing until we pulled away. I looked back until they disappeared from view.
We drove a short distance away, parking our car next to an (unmanned) stall. There on the other side of the road, was a stream fed by a hot spring. Mr Lee followed the stream upriver before stopping at some stepping stones. He warned us that the water was very hot before he placed some raw eggs into the bubbling water.
We waited for the eggs to cook at a small (warm not hot) pool of water. It was full of hungry little fish eager to give bare feet a 'fish pedicure'. Akihiro squealed in delight as they attacked his feet.
It wasn't long before the pool was invaded by a large family of esky-wielding locals. We left them to it and retrieved the eggs on the way back to the car.
Mr Lee has a kind heart. He gave half the eggs and some water to the locals who have now appeared at the roadside stall. That's very cool as today is Easter Sunday and those things are more precious than money to these people, living in one of the hottest places on earth.
It was our last opportunity to buy a souvenir before heading back to Djibouti City. I quite liked those natural salt crystals. Their shape and colour and the way they caught the sunlight, but the men weren't interested in a sale now that they had food and water. Pity, as I had pictured the delight on my nephew's little face this Christmas, as he unwrapped genuine salt crystals from Djibouti.
Where on earth....