When outsiders describe Djibouti, they often rely on Satanic metaphors: demons, hell, the Devil himself. In 1930, Frenchman Joseph Kessel described the gorge surrounding Lake Assal, the lowest point in Africa, as sculpted by demons; explorers named a nearby mountain the “Light of Hell”; and an island off the coast was known as Devil’s Island, home to the king of the jinn. Tales told that this devil king hid his minions, gold and honey on the island, and that he threw stones at anyone who ventured too close.

Italo Calvino wrote in Invisible Cities that travellers take delight not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of theirs. Do travellers in Djibouti see demons to understand why they feel haunted? And what will I find down the winding roads that sliced through swirling desert sands and black lava fields? 

I don’t even know what question I am asking, but I know I need to get out of Djibouti City.

I don’t feel haunted by dark and mischievous spirits, but I am weary. Life in this coastal city has taken a toll. Djibouti is a cacophonous mix of cultures: Arab, Somali and Afar, all Djiboutians. Ethiopians, Kenyans, Malagasy, brought here by their professions. American, Japanese, French, German, Turkish, Chinese; here for work, for their state departments or to staff their military bases. My own family moved to Djibouti a year earlier; my husband is a professor at the University of Djibouti.

The city is hot, dusty, full of honking cars and piles of garbage. Fresh air, open spaces, wide views will revive me. 

djibouti nomads

One of the many huts that line Djibouti’s rocky desert terrain.

It is now Christmas. I am 12,291 kilometres from my Minneapolis home, the temperature is almost 100 degrees hotter than I am used to in December, there is no snow and no hope of snow. There is no Santa Claus, no Christmas songs on the radio, no light parades through the streets.

I can’t recreate the Christmases of my past for my family, but I can leave this city behind on a three-day trip to the hinterlands of Djibouti. We share a Land Cruiser with another American family and, the day after Christmas, we drive down Route 1. Two men, two women, one infant and three toddlers.

For several kilometres, the sides of Route 1 are pockmarked with row upon row of Ethiopian lorries waiting to be loaded or unloaded. Ramshackle huts made from wooden slats painted bright greens and yellows advertise cool drinks, a sliver of shade and a place to rest. Slowly the trucks are replaced by boulders, the huts by acacia trees, and the city drops out of view.

“As we drive closer, 155 metres below sea level to the lowest point on the continent, the temperature gauge in the Land Cruiser steadily rises until it peaks at 43 Celsius, cool for this winter day in the devil’s lair”

After squeezing past lorries and swerving between goats and boys selling paper cones filled with peanuts, we will pass no more villages for an hour. One mountainside reads Allahu Akbar in Arabic, the words drawn with whitewashed stones. The words stand out like bleached bones. A girl, a shepherdess, stands on top of another hill. Her goats swarm among the gray boulders and milkweed plants down below, one has climbed on top of an acacia. The wind blows her red scarf and it flaps like a brilliant kite.

Our destination is Tadjourah and Sables Blancs, the White City and the White Sands beach, three hours around the coast of the Gulf of Tadjourah. But the destination isn’t the primary goal of this trip. The goal is simply to leave the city and see what we can see.

A turn off the main road leads to a lookout over the gulf. There is a rusty and fading memorial to Judge Borrel, a Frenchman who died in Djibouti in 1995. Djiboutian men sell trinkets made of sandstone and quartz. I find a water bottle filled with white balls. I pick it up and open it, curious.

djibouti salt

Djibouti vendors sell bottles of pure lake salt, smooth and round.

“Salt,” one of the vendors says. 

“Salt?”

“From the lake.” That is the extent of the conversation we are able to have in our limited shared language.

I tip over the bottle and pour out a handful of balls. They are salt, formed naturally on the bottom of the lake we are driving toward. They are perfectly smooth and round, mostly large gumball size, but some are smaller, like peas. I buy the bottle.

***

The next turn off takes us onto a bumpy road that curves down, down, down into the “devil’s lair” of Lac Assal, the salt lake.

The colours of the scene below captivate me. Joseph Kessel called it the “circles of hell.” One layer of black lava rock that bled into the crusty silver salt bed surrounding the intense blue of the syrupy water. Another explorer, Paul Morelle, saw “green that makes one think of acid. Yellow like burning sulphur. Blue like the dark, obscure night. White like a breathtaking abyss.” More recent descriptions of the lake, to encourage tourism, say it is like a “geode, a lake like mint fringed with vapor, encrusted with salt cubes, like milky oil in a bowl of ink.”

As we drive closer, 155 metres below sea level to the lowest point on the continent, the temperature gauge in the Land Cruiser steadily rises until it peaks at 43 Celsius, cool for this winter day in the devil’s lair. The bleached ribcage of a dead animal decorates the side of the road and there are no plants, not a single bush or shade tree in sight. The only living creatures I see are a few camels sitting on top of a salt-crusted hill, resting, waiting to be loaded with bricks of salt that their Afar herdsmen will haul to Ethiopia for trade. Salt, Djibouti’s white gold.

djibouti salt lake

In Djibouti, salt is white gold.

I open the car door and a blast like from a hair dryer enters the car. The heat seems to imprint itself on my skin and I immediately feel parched. I help my children climb down from the car and they blink in the blinding white glare of sun on salt.

I remind them that it is December, the day after Christmas. “Pretend it is snow.” They aren’t convinced. I wade into the lake and my ankles turn stiff and sticky. When I come out my skin is speckled with a white scaly layer. A French geographic magazine from 1986 recommends people don’t swim in the lake, but my husband does anyway; he wants to feel the buoyancy and bobs along with this hands and feet sticking up into the air.

A trip to Lac Assal would be incomplete without a brief stop at the hot springs, natural pools of boiling water that seep out of cracks in the black rock a few metres from the lake. On the opposite side of the lake, Ardoukoba Volcano rises like a black termite mound, small at this distance. It’s dormant, but bubbles beneath the surface of fissured stone and ancient lava tunnels. Heat, heat, heat. In the air, simmering up from rocks, and in the water, and in the salt on my fingers that I inadvertently swipe across my eyes. No wonder Afar nomads used to describe the forms of the rocks surrounding this pit as the shapes of reclining devils.

djibouti salt lake

Lac Assal, Djibouti’s salt lake, is not meant for swimming.

When we are sufficiently sweaty and thirsty, we return to the car and our stores of water bottles and continue the voyage around the Ghoubbet-el-Kharab toward Tadjourah. The landscape transforms from lava rocks to small dunes and palm trees along the coast. We pass villages, each with a mosque and children who wave eagerly at our car. Blue plastic barrels line the road in front of the mosques or in front of the rounded huts known as aqals. The barrels are for water and a water truck will hopefully drive by soon to replenish them. There is never enough water in this burning, dry heat.

By the time we reach Tadjourah, 175 kilometres from Djibouti City, we are too exhausted to do anything but check into The Gulf Hotel and order dinner. Our room has two single beds; the kids will sleep on the floor. The walls are painted a brilliant blue, the door is Pepto-Bismol–pink and all I care about is that the air conditioner works. We first plan to eat dinner inside the restaurant, but large, tattered posters of topless women line the walls.

“Why don’t the women have clothes on?” asks my four-year-old son.

“Let’s eat outside,” my husband says in response.

Years later, the nude pictures will be replaced by posters from the Djibouti Tourism Office of Lac Assal, whale sharks in the Gulf of Tadjourah and the white sands of Tadjourah’s beaches. But for now, we leave the room. 

***

The next day we drive through sleepy Tadjourah, a town known for its seven unique mosques, and discover the beach. The water is turquoise, darker at the reef, less than 50 metres from shore. The surface of Djibouti is brown, beige, black, all muted by the constant dusty haze. 

But beneath the waves is a cascade of brilliance. Turtles, sea cucumbers, massive clams, octopi, starfish, eels, stingrays. We spend the day exploring coral and chasing barracuda, building sand castles, inhaling the spectacular colours and life of puffer fish and deadly stonefish.

Our next destination is Forêt du Day, the Day Forest, a popular national park near the gulf. There is no clearly marked path. Technically, there is a path, but we don’t know this and don’t take it. A villager tells us to turn at the roundabout near the entrance to Tadjourah and it is only later that we realize he sent us to Randa village, far north off the trails, not Day.

When we pass Randa we ask for the way to Day. People point up and so we keep driving. We should have stopped. We should have turned around.

Keep driving. Keep driving. After three hours, the rocky path turns into a boulder-strewn riverbed. When we left Tadjourah, we purchased several baguettes and water bottles, which the kids devoured before noon. The leftover Christmas cookies I’d packed were gone long ago. The way forward is obscured by trees and boulders. There are no tire tracks, no piles of stones balanced on the side of the road to mark a path.

“I think the road is ending,” my husband, Tom, says.

“I think it ended a few hours ago,” I say.

djibouti skulls

No wonder so many Europeans compared Djibouti to hell: Animal skulls, like the one the author found here, dot the landscape.

The driver asks Tom to jump out, look ahead, and wave him forward. This becomes their mode of operation. Tom climbs out, walks 10 metres ahead, points out the safest path to avoid puncturing a tire or slipping down a crevice. It starts to rain. We inch forward. A nomad appears and Tom tries to speak with him but doesn’t know Afar and the nomad doesn’t know French or Somali. When Tom says “Day,” the man tugs on the rope tethered to his camel and waves us onward.

I suppose at this point there is no reason to go backward, though none of us know how far we have yet to go. We have never been to Day Forest, have only heard about its dying juniper trees that twist and reach with gnarled branches toward the sky. White and gray bark choked by strangling fig trees, each species desperate to survive. Shadows cast like fingers of corpses with scraggly fingernails. The kind of forest where trees can talk, like in The Lord of the Rings.

The kids start to cry. They are hungry. They can’t sleep, packed up against each other in the far backseat of the Land Cruiser. They ask how much farther. No one answers.

The sun has long ago reached its apex and now drops behind the Goda Mountains. Already, down in the riverbed, we were shrouded in shadows, but now dusk swoops in. This close to the equator, darkness falls fast; we don’t want to be here, lost and stuck, all night long.

The men move faster, Tom jumping out, waving us forward, the driver lurching the car over rocks and roots, kids crying, wives trying not to bang our heads, trying to keep the kids calm. We pass a camel skeleton, then the rotting corpse of a goat. 

We have been driving, if this can be called driving, almost nine hours.

“I dread the drive back down the mountain and can’t imagine how we will do it, and survive, in the dark with no food or water. But I also can’t imagine how we could spend the night in the village”

Up ahead there is a ridge and the driver guns the Land Cruiser over a ledge of stone. Suddenly, rising before us is the forest, exactly as creepy as I imagined but all I can think is, Good. We got here. Now we can go home.

First, though, we drive through the forest and stop where the trees stop, at the edge of a cliff. A house, the home of a French colonel from Djibouti’s colonial period, sits a few metres back from the drop off. The roof is gone, the walls are mostly crumbled. There is a large fireplace filled with branches, garbage and feces. Baboons jump from tree branches down in the ravine below. This forest is the world’s only home to the endangered francolin bird and we don’t see one.

I dread the drive back down the mountain and can’t imagine how we will do it, and survive, in the dark with no food or water. But I also can’t imagine how we could spend the night in the village.

This is when having a local along or asking questions before embarking on a trip in a foreign country might have come in useful. Later we will learn that there is a lovely place for tourists to sleep, eat and take a bucket shower in Day Village. My family will come here several times in the future, and it will become one of our favourite places in Djibouti. But today, we don’t know about this encampment and start to drive away.

A man runs down a hill to our left. He shouts at us and chases the car until we stop.

“How did you get here?” the man asks.

My husband points down the hill toward the path we took.

“You can’t come that way,” the man says. “That’s not a road.”

No kidding.

“That’s the way we came,” my husband says.

“But that’s not a road.”

This is a refrain I hear several more times over the years when I recount this story. You can’t come that way. But we did. That isn’t a road. I know.

He shakes his head, points down the hill in the opposite direction. “That is the road. Go that way.”

Grateful, we drive away. Now darkness settles over the mountainside in earnest. He was telling the truth, this is a road. It’s narrow, and the remains of cars that tipped over the edge litter the sides, but it is relatively smooth and we make quick progress.

Until a tire bursts. The flap-flap-flap and sudden tilt of the car alert everyone to the problem. Myself, the other mother, our three toddlers and the infant all get out and sit on the dirt road. My husband and the driver take out the jack to begin changing the tire.

The jack breaks.

djibouti road trip

Fixing a popped tire is no easy business with a broken jack.

I look up to the hills and wonder when a shepherd or nomad will round the tops, following a lingering goat into their thorn-protected pen for safekeeping from hyenas and thieves. Maybe someone will see us and welcome us to their hut for the night. Maybe someone will appear from behind a grey boulder and hand us a baguette, a cup of rice, a functional jack. Maybe the best family Christmas trips only become treasures in retrospect, once everyone is safe, fed and home.

My husband props up a pile of flat stones beneath the car and sets to work. I walk away. I don’t want to be there when the car falls and crushes his head or cuts off his arm. I breathe deep, pray hard, keep my mouth shut. 

Finally, a voice from the darkness calls me to return to the car. The tire is changed, everyone is alive.

“Get in. Let’s go home.”

I don’t know who says it and I don’t care. I obey.

With one small delay while we wait for the president’s entourage to zoom by, we are home before midnight. We eat bowls of corn flakes and collapse into bed.

As I drift into a dreamless sleep, I realize that Italo Calvino was right. I have my answer to the question I didn’t realize I had asked. I don’t feel haunted, I don’t see Djibouti as the Devil’s Lair or as filled with demons. I see it as a fascinating, rustic and warm country. It isn’t easy, developed or luxuriously comfortable, but my question is more practical, and the answer is yes. 

My question is: will I make it here? And the answer is yes, I will survive with my family in this desert nation. I can maybe even thrive.

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