Djibouti's rugged scenery blends into unspoilt beaches
Any qualms I have about travelling to Djibouti - a small country in the Horn of Africa sandwiched between Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia, and opposite Yemen - are dispelled as soon as my Flydubai plane comes in to land. The airport sits next to a giant US base, and fighter jets and other military aircraft are parked alongside the runway.
A strategic centre for attacks against Al Qaeda affiliates including the Somalian Al Shabab, and a hub for anti-piracy operations in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, it is armed to the teeth and crawling with troops. It feels like the safest place in east Africa. The French navy has a large presence and even Spain, a country with apparently little money to spend at home, can afford to maintain around 60 anti-piracy troops in luxurious comfort at the 177-room Djibouti Palace Kempinski.
After paying the hefty US$60 (or 10,000 Djiboutian francs) visa-on-arrival fee, I'm transferred to the hotel in a new air-conditioned Land Cruiser in under 10 minutes by Thian, a feisty Senegalese who points out the city's vast port and underwhelming Corniche on the way. It's a Thursday and the streets are quiet, he says, because it's the start of the weekend and "everyone is chewing qat".
The fortress-like Kempinski was finished in in 2009 and was built, I'm told, on reclaimed land in a record-breaking nine months. Sitting on the end of an ultra-secure promontory called Ilot Du Heron, it's owned by Dubai World and is part of a portfolio of multi-million-dollar investments in the country which also include the operation of the port and airport.
Yet Djibouti is not a mere city state. Although it's just a speck by the standards of its African neighbours, at 23,000 square kilometres it's about the same size as Macedonia or Belize. Boasting 370 sq km of largely unspoilt coastline, its dive sites and rugged scenery caused by geothermal activity will, claims the hotel's director of business development, Rao Israr Ulhaq, appeal to "sophisticated travellers from the GCC, Europe and the US looking for a unique and exclusive experience".
The hotel itself is certainly unique and exclusive: never before have I seen holidaymakers sunbathing alongside tattooed female US Army personnel in bikinis. The property is Sultan-esque, with a grand lobby and a selection of fine restaurants. Some of its suites are huge, with views out to open sea. The evening is sultry, and we head out to dinner at a restaurant in the next-door diplomatic enclave. The Melting Pot is a pretty villa decorated with fairy lights and flowers, guarded by a security officer with a big wooden stick. We eat on a garden terrace busy with expat families at the start of the weekend. Sushi, steak, camel meat, pasta and Ethiopian food are all on the menu - I go for spicy tuna rolls and fresh grilled fish with almonds and mangoes. After dinner we drive around the old city, which has some beautiful old buildings in a surprising state of decay.
Back at the hotel, a full-moon party is starting on the beach. Again, it's a bizarre scene: gently lapping waves, disco lights, smoke machines; military personnel in civilian clothes, expat teenagers and some Djiboutians. There is loud music, dancing and drinking until 6am, and everything from where to eat to how to deal with pirates comes under discussion after a recent mistaken attack by pirates on a Spanish military boat. The Spanish sent the pirates to Spain for trial.
The next morning, we're off to find whale sharks. Captain Musa Abdula meets us at 9am at the hotel jetty in his boat the Koko Beach II and we set off up the Gulf of Tadjoura, a huge natural harbour that cuts into the Djibouti mainland and is currently out of the scope of pirates, who daren't enter thanks to the military presence and the fact that large ships stay farther out to sea.
It's choppy weather, and the Yemeni fishing boat with a motor is fast but uncomfortable in rough weather. Still, we press on, as it's the end of the whale shark season and we may still be lucky enough to see one of the gigantic but harmless "fish".
"A group of cabin crew saw six the other day," the hotel concierge has told me, so I'm hopeful as we head up the barren Arta coastline to some bays where there have been recent sightings. The landscape reminds me of the Yemeni island of Socotra - closer to Africa than Arabia, hilly and rugged, with no roads and few trees. We pass some small beachside military bases and then come across a boat full of Frenchmen who claim to have seen a shark but are just leaving. We contemplate jumping into the water but it's cold, so we sit tight until our captain spots one.
We go up and down the bay repeatedly, a practice I'm somewhat uncomfortable with given that the sharks stay at or near the surface and can be injured by the boat motors going over them at speed. Then we meet another group who claim there is a shark in the area, so I jump into the water clutching my snorkel.
No sooner have I put on my mask than there it is - a spotted whale shark looming ahead of me. It's a young shark and "small" at only a few metres long (adults can grow up to 18 metres), but it's a spectacular sight and for a few minutes I enjoy being as still and silent as I can be, hovering on my own with this docile grey mass which seems to look at me sideways, its comically straight lips pursed. I keep my distance from its huge tail, but soon another group arrives and it slowly disappears into the deep water.
After a picnic on a sheltered sandy beach nearby, the sky clears and we're taken to a great snorkelling spot with excellent visibility, impressive corals and a decent array of fish, including huge parrotfish, moray eels and barracudas. It seems either fitting or wrong that that night we have a sensational meal of spicy Yemeni-style grilled fish at the Kempinski's beach restaurant, Bankouale.
The next morning we're up early again to meet our next guide, Duba, who drives us north-west in a battered 4x4. We head out of Djibouti city, or "Djiboutiville" as it was known under the French, past shanty towns and signs urging residents to give zakat payments, onto a tarmacked road that takes us 120km to Lac Assal, a spectacular saline crater lake at the lowest point on the African continent.
Most of Djibouti is situated in the East African Rift Zone, and our guide stops at what he says is the juncture of the African and Arabian plates - a deep basalt chasm that looks like a small version of the Grand Canyon. We continue on to a ridge at the western end of the Gulf of Tadjoura. We look out at "Devil's Island", a volcanic cone in Ghoubbet El Kharab, a sheltered bay shimmering in the heat. Our guide leads us through hard tunnels made by the flow of molten lava and points to where jets of steam leak out from under the surface crust.
We move on to Lac Assal, which is as bright and almost as pristine as it has looked in all the photographs I've seen (the world's largest salt reserve, there is some evidence of industrial exploitation near its southern shore). We drive down onto a flat sandy plain and then walk to a beach of diamond-hard salt crust. We're the only ones there. The sun shining through the water onto the white salt makes it look like molten topaz. We don our bathing suits and protective shoes and head out into the water, which is saltier than the Dead Sea, so we float easily.
After a makeshift shower consisting of a water can poured from the roof of our vehicle, I notice that my skin is shining and my congestion has cleared - just like the Dead Sea, Lac Assal, at 155m below sea level, seems to have medicinal value. We buy some smooth salt pebbles from local vendors before the drive back to Djibouti.
After another quick shower we head out again - past an enormous Japanese military facility - to the Decan refuge, a wildlife reserve on government-owned land near the Somali border. Started 10 years ago to provide a home for cheetahs rescued from trafficking, inappropriate use as pets and general mistreatment, it is now a relatively spacious, scenic home for antelope, zebra, ostrich, oryx, Somali donkeys, leopards, lynx, caracals, hyenas and even lions. Most of Djibouti's wild animals have been driven to extinction by hunting and overgrazing, so it's a great place to see native east African wildlife in a safari-type environment.
"The lions were passed to us by our president who was given them as a gift from a former minister in Somalia," says Bertrand Lefrance, the passionate French veterinarian who founded the project and shows me around. After watching the sun set over miles of ochre-red earth and acacia trees from a viewing tower, I leave hoping that the project will succeed in its mission to expand all the way to the sea.
The following morning, after a fatigue-relieving massage at the hotel's Softouch spa, I'm ready to take on a final sightseeing tour of the city in a local taxi. Our driver drops us at the market next to the central Hamoudi Mosque, a beautiful structure with a circular minaret. Vendors push wheelbarrows full of fruit through the streets and women in brightly coloured chadors and African dresses dot the streets. On street corners, groups of female money-changers are stationed with large bags of money carried over their shoulders. Cautious at first, my friend exchanges a US$100 note for a better rate than she would have got at the bank. In the colonial centre, the Hotel Continental sits in a state of absolute decay, its sign damaged, once-grand wooden shutters broken and paint peeling. I wish I had another few days here, to explore the city's coffee shops and juice bars, and to venture farther afield to the moonscapes of Lac Abbe and the Day Forest National Park. One could easily spend a week here, but a weekend in Djibouti still packed more thrills than I ever would have imagined.
If You Go
The flight Return flights with from Dubai to Djibouti with Flydubai (www.flydubai.com) cost from Dh2,653, including taxes
The hotel The Djibouti Palace Kempinski (www.kempinski.com/en/djibouti; 00 253 21 32 5555) has a three-night "Discover Djibouti" package that costs from US$775 (Dh2,845) per person, including accommodation for three nights, half-board, a snorkelling excursion to the Moucha Islands and a trip to Ardoukoba volcano, Grand Barra and Lac Assal
The info The best time to see whale sharks is from November to February. At other times of year, snorkelling and diving are popular. For more information on the Decan refuge, visit http://decandjibouti.org/