The top 5 things to do in Djibouti
If you’re looking for a sausage fest, go to Djibouti. Where? You know, that tiny Pacman-shaped country that’s nestled in between Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia…
Thanks to its strategic position in the Horn of Africa, just a hop over from Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula, Djibouti is home to a handful of military bases, including those of the USA and France. Our hotel was also a temporary home to the German military, which we noticed when we saw the Wi-Fi network ‘Internet – Germans’. Basically there are a lot of men in uniform, but that’s not really the main attraction, not even close. Djibouti may be tiny, but it’s also rather magnificent. Here’s why…
1. Swimming with whale sharks
This is undoubtedly the main reason why people (that aren’t soldiers) come to Djibouti. It’s not a country that’s frequently listed as a scuba diving and snorkeling hotspot, but compared to some of its African neighbours, the coral reefs and marine life are abundant, diverse and relatively untouched.
The reefs are beautiful and deserve to be explored (I saw a HUGE turtle, numerous rays, puffer fish and lion fish, and more), but the main attraction here is the whale shark, which, for a few months of the year you’re almost guaranteed to spot. Named whale for its gargantuan size, but a member of the shark family, these mammoths are deceptively non-threatening, opting for tiny plankton over a chunk of human.
We headed out on our quest to swim with the biggest fish in the ocean from the port of Djibouti with Dolphin Tours (highly recommendable!). 30 minutes before we reached the sites, we were given a brief tutorial along the lines of, don’t be an ignorant tourist and try to ride the whale sharks. Seriously, that’s happened. We were warned not to come closer than three metres, especially at the tail, which can cause a significant blow. This advice proved hard to follow when we were told to jump into the water (there is often a very short window in which to see the sharks; they move fast), upon which I came face-to-face with the most terrifyingly large fish I’d ever seen. It’s often hard to tell exactly where the whale shark might be, so it’s a ‘get in and good luck’ kind of experience.
Upon realizing that we’d found a shark, a boat full of young French soldiers raided our bounty. They paid no attention to the three metre rule and effectively ruined the experience for everyone else involved by frightening off the seven metre shark that easily shrugged them off, hurrying off into the big blue.
The second time around, sans French soldiers, we were able to bask in the glory of the sharks for a little while longer. After we emerged from the water, we came to the realization that we would one day return. Many people take a three day boat trip with the sole objective of discovering the wonders of the Gulf of Tadjoura (Pacman’s mouth). A leisurely amount of time to spot whale sharks in the absence of the countless boats that set sail each day with this purpose.
2. Visit Sable Blancs (white sands)
Eat, sleep, snorkel, repeat… because that’s pretty much all you’ll be able to do at Sable Blancs.
The only building in sight is 'Sable Blancs', a fuss-free hotel, perfectly placed on the white shores of a large bay. The rooms are simple and clean with a view of the water, but you won’t be spending much time indoors. A large reef stretches across the whole length of the bay offering endless explorations. The absolute peace is disturbed a few times a day by the roaring engine of a fighter jet, hurriedly leaving the Bay of Tadjoura towards the Gulf of Aden.
All that’s left to do after getting acquainted with the marine life is lounge away on the sunbeds where you’ll be interrupted twice a day with an array of fresh seafood and flavoursome accompaniments. It’s a hard life…
3. Eat Yemeni fish
Go to Saba (near the Sheraton) for the freshest meaty white fish, cut in half, grilled and covered in lemon juice. Simple and delicious and likely the cheapest wholesome meal you’ll find in Djibouti (this country is expensive!). The fish comes as the centre feature of a three-course meal, including flat bread, chocolate crepe and tea/coffee, all for 2500 Djiboutian Francs (approx. $15). You’ll be hard pushed to find a cheaper feast.
4. Visit the spectacular salt lake - Lac Assal
The Bolivian salt flats get all of the glory. Fair play, the largest salt flat in the world is 195 times larger than Lac Assal, but Salar de Uyuni doesn’t have year-round waters that make the salt tantalizing shades of turquoise.
There’s not much to do here apart from marvel at what’s in front of you. You can go for a float if you bring swimming gear, but I preferred to look at the lake, rather than the sky. Lac Assal is however more saline than the Dead Sea, so you can drift away ‘til your heart’s content.
There are men selling salty goodies along the route. Most notable, yet unfortunately not so practical for hand luggage, was the completely salt-encrusted skull and horns of cows that had met their fate on the water’s edge.
5. Get a fish pedicure (for free)
What can reduce my boyfriend to a fit of giggles? Scores of tiny foot-nibbling fish found in the rising fresh water of interior Djibouti…
The act of having your dead skin and callouses removed by tiny fish became a fad about five years ago. People paid to have this done, although more for novelty than an effective pedicure alternative. Here in Djibouti you can have it done for free in the fresh water pools that spring up next to Lac Assal.