Information about Djibouti is scarce to say the least and when you arrive there you realize it is very different from what you had expected, unless you spoke to someone who has been there before. So here are a few things to be aware of before you go.
Djibouti does not feature on tourists trails for a reason: security concerns. The country is taken over by military bases and personnel and everywhere to you look someone is trying to assess your Intelligence Agency status, at least that’s what happened to us. After a couple of days though, most of the country police and army will know you are just a tourist and not the next Mission Impossible Evil and leave you alone, but in the meantime don’t raise eyebrows and follow these tips:
– No drones. Right, that might be an obvious advice for most people but I had not truly understood the extent of the security and piracy threat in the region so I thought it would be great to bring my drone along and shot some amazing photos of Lake Abbe and Assal from the air. And it would have been, but bring the drone without proper official permits was a bad idea, very bad idea! It remained with the customs officer for my entire trip and I was lucky they did not steal it. The same thing may apply to large cameras or tripods so be careful. And that was after a long discussion where I heard the word “espionage” mentioned over and over again. At one point I thought we were ending in jail. I credit the fact that I come from the weak sex in a very sexist country for our release, unharmed and uncharged
– If you can, stay longer. A quick 4 day trip looked very suspicious, who the heck goes all the way for such a short time? Thought the immigration officer. He didn’t believe that is how we roll. Pack a lot of colorful tourist clothes to reaffirm him of your foolishness and, if you can, stay longer or bring a friend who clearly looks as out of shape as you are, don’t bring your James Bond lookalike fiance or you may end up in jail on charges of espionage
– Do not approach vessels, of any kind, at any time, without a clear advance invitation. You are not likely to set sail on your own but if, for any reason, your captain has a death wish make sure that you tell him off for getting too close to any floating vessel lest them think you are trying to charge through with a bazooka – no kidding here by the way! We approached a super yatch close to the port and you could see the entire crew immediately come out to the balconies check us out and make sure we did not carry weapons of any kind. Again, my floppy hat and flowery bikini may have saved us but if you were planning on going with your gym lifting friend you may want to dress him with colorful Hawaiian shirts
– Wear no military clothes. If you do, they will think you work for any of the army bases and you will need accreditation so it’s best to look like at a tourist. Hula shirts again. And you thought you were not going to ever wear them again!
2. Scarf and hat
Do not come to Djibouti under any circumstance without a hat and, if possible, bring a scarf as well. There is a reason why the nomadic tribes in the desert wear scarves over their heads, the sun, sand and wind is unabating and it will make you go mad. A hat is essential to protect from the sun because there is no shade anywhere in the desert and the scarf, a thin cotton one if possible, not a wool one – temperatures are well above 30 in the winter – will protect you from the wind and the sand dust that is lifted by the wind. The constant beating of the sand grains against your face is very unpleasant.
3. Don’t set off on your own
Needless to say, once you deviate from the main roads there are not roads so to visit the major sites you will need a 4×4 and a very experienced driver who can drive through the desert and find the place after hours of just dunes and desolate landscapes. if you try to find it on your own you are very likely getting lost and the heat and barren landscapes promise a sure death. For a reliable and very friendly tour company contact Daniel Jean from Horn of Africa Tours at firstname.lastname@example.org he speaks perfect English and so does his guide and will organize the tour, car and food for the whole trip. Very recommended
Again, an obvious piece of advice which becomes a life or death decision in Djibouti. The desert is arid and extremely inhospitable. On our way through the desert we came across various nomadic men transporting goods on their camels, some were smugglers, and the one and only thing they always asked from us was water. Not money, not food, just water. If they struggle imagine what a city person would do. Consider at least 3 liters per day and make sure that your guide has as much before you set off into the desert
5. Proof of onward travel
This is a requirement in many countries but, truth be told, I have been asked for this very few times, Djibouti is one of them.
As soon as we set foot in the airport’s arrival hall we were asked for all sorts of proof on onward travel and local reservations. Have your flight return ticket and hotel booking handy and, if you can, ask for your tour guide to pick you up, they usually can come into the arrivals hall and talk on your behalf if you need. English is not widely spoken. Again, the immigration officer will not be happy you are coming to visit and he will challenge your decision. I got a visa for exactly 3 days although we were technical staying 4, but who am I to argue.
6. Dust off your French
Djibouti is an Arabic and French speaking country. If you can speak one of the two you will do much better. English is very rarely spoken but with French you should be able to at least read signs more easily. If you can learn a few words it will help. I found their French accent to be very similar to the French spoken in other colonies in Africa. If you can speak Arabic all the better
7. Army living
Although the big powers have their own massive navy bases offshore some of the smaller contingents such as the Germany, Spanish and Swedish Armies are staying at the large international hotels. They are not very used to seeing tourists and will be willing to chat and tell you more about the country so if you are staying at the Kempinski or the Sheraton approach them and start a conversation for the insider, local views. It will be fascinating!
8. Piracy is VERY real
So Djibouti’s reputation as a safe haven and military base is directly related to its strategic position in the Horn of Africa at the entrance of the Red Sea. From there, most military efforts are aimed at protecting the vessels that may be kidnapped by Somali pirates. This is taken out off Captain Philip movie but the entire situation is very interesting. Wander around the port, talk to your local guide or to other locals if you speak the language, chat with the military personnel and observe, it is the talk of the town and conspiracy theories to keep you entertained abound. Free first-row movie tickets!
Locals are extremely friendly and not very used to seeing tourists so you are unlikely going to be harassed by touts. It is a great opportunity to learn more about the local live, the traditions or the food. Chefs will be happy to show you how the Poison Yemeni is being done, how the oven works or how the bread is cooked. Your local guide will be very happy to share a slice of his life or to go buy khat with you. The lady selling khat will pose for your photos, smile when you shot a short video and tell you all about the quality level of the leaves. Even the nomad men tiredly walking across the desert will be happy to tell you what they are carrying and where they are heading. it is the type of living one has in a small village. People are open, there are no threats, no selfishness, no safety concerns, no fears and no discussion about privacy. It is the shared economy at its best. To me, this was a fascinating part of the trip and an opportunity to hear stories that had never been told before. Traveling to Djibouti is a gift, a chance to see a place most people will never experience.
10. Luxury trip with barren conditions
Once you leave the flashy Djibouti hotels behind you are in for some real nomadic living. There are no decent, or otherwise, hotels in the country and the major sites only offer very basic accommodation in the local type of huts. But don’t expect the quality to match the price. You will be paying top prices for this as everything in Djibouti is expensive. A 2 day tour of Lake Abbe, Lake Assal, some petroglyphs, the canyon, Dhikil town and the Barra Deserts will set you back around $850 for two people. This includes food, car, petrol, driver and guide but it is pretty expensive when you see where you will sleep. Unfortunately, independent travel does not really exist so your only bet is renting your own car. There are no group tours and no public transport.
Just because you don’t see them during the day out and about it does not mean they are not there. Mosquitoes don’t like wind so they are not likely to bite you during the day while you are visiting – one of the few advantages of the ever-present wind. However, beware at night. When you settle inside your basic hut the construction is done to withstand the wind and to stop it (kind of) so mosquitoes will feast inside. Pack a tone of repellent. The mosquito net is full of holes so if you can, bring your own and just drench it in repellent. I am in favor of the spray on one because you can use it to spray on your clothes and net rather than having to put it on your skin because it is a very toxic substance to continuously rub on, plus it is likely to end up in your mouth plunging you to a sure toilet run, something you really really really want to avoid in the basic camp conditions. So pack repellent, the strongest you can find and spray it on the entire place while you sleep.
Alternatively, if you come in the summer, sleep out in the open like the locals, they surely know best. The wind will keep the mosquitoes at bay.