Nestled as a small crook in the Horn of Africa lies the tiny former French Territory of the Afars and Issas, now known as Djibouti. Due to a long time French military presence, Djibouti is famous, or notorious, for its bars and nightlife, an imitation Bangkok by the Red Sea.
Djibouti is notably more expensive than neighbouring countries, but the capital is more modern, developed and with better infrastructure than any other city in the region. It still retains a distinctly French flavour, yet with a Horn of Africa touch.
My only previous visit to Djibouti had been a short term stopover in the summer of 1984, between a couple of weeks traveling around Yemen and subsequently heading off to Madagascar. I can remember reading in a guidebook at that time (it might have been an early edition of Lonely Planet’s “Africa on a Shoestring”) the passage on Djibouti noting “Everything is geared to business visitors on expense accounts. Travelers are advised to give it a miss, unless you are keen to drop a heap of money for nothing in particular.” I recall that it was brutally hot and humid and very expensive.
Coming into Djibouti this time, however, was rather more appealing after coming out from Somaliland. After “dry” Somaliland, it was nice to be able to go to bars with a wide range of choices of draft beer in a bar and also to eat some great food in one of the many restaurants in the downtown core.
Abdul and I hired a vehicle and driver to take us to Lac Assal, about a three hour drive away. The first part of the trip was along the main road connecting the port of Djibouti with now booming Ethiopia. There was thus an endless convoy of trucks carrying containers slowly up into Ethiopia. In the opposite direction were trucks careening rapidly back to Djibouti carrying much lighter loads, if anything, back to the port. The traffic was bad on the way out, and it was even more intimidating returning after dark.
Lac Assal is about 150 metres below sea level, the lowest point on the continent of Africa. The intense heat has created a lake that is exceptionally saline. There are still Issa camel salt traders in the region, plying a trade that has been going on for centuries, possibly millenia. It made for an interesting excursion, somewhat diminished in our enjoyment by our driver’s appetite for chewing qat throughout the afternoon. We were understandably nervous as dusk turned to dark returning along the busy road with large truck headlights heading toward us in the night air. We hoped the driver was still connected enough to reality, despite his qat consumption during the afternoon.,to get us back to Djibouti safely.
As we made our way back to safety in Djibouti I wondered if, after 30 years as a Canadian diplomat, I might find a second career as a small scale labourer and entrepreneur. Perhaps starting out as a camel salt trader from Lac Assal might be an opportunity to find a useful niche to give meaning to life, and to make a bit of extra money, after retirement….On verra.