Lake Abbe in the late afternoon. Photo by Edward Placidi

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I surfaced to adjust my mask and breathing tube, then plunged back underwater. Suddenly I was face-to-face with the largest fish in the ocean, a 20-something-foot-long, multi-ton behemoth with a mouth almost as wide as a car, and he was coming straight at me. I lunged to my left, avoiding a collision by inches. The whale shark did not even seem to notice I was there.

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Tiny Djibouti, located in the Horn of Africa, is a virtually unknown land and hosts few visitors (except military personnel: because of its strategic location at the entrance to the Red Sea, eight countries have military bases here, including the USA).

It may be just a speck on the huge African mainland, but Djibouti makes up for it with some of the continent’s most intriguing sights and experiences – from the otherworldly landscapes where Planet of the Apes was filmed, to the most saline lake outside of Antarctica that is home to the world’s biggest salt reserve and the opportunity to swim with gargantuan whale sharks.

A vast plain of white salt crystals at Lake Assal. Photo by Edward Placidi
A vast plain of white salt crystals at Lake Assal. Photo by Edward Placidi

Most Djiboutians live in the eponymously named capital with its mosque loudspeakers calling out to the faithful at eardrum-rattling volume, residents dressed in an explosive riot of brilliant color, blaring cacophony of voices and car horns, sea of buyers and sellers flooding every street and lane, dilapidated colonial-era buildings and carpet of refuse and trash.  

Djibouti city is a chaotic, pulsating urban scene, but it follows a time-honored daily cycle:  the city begins waking up between 6-7 am, slowly builds in intensity through mid day, then virtually shuts down for the afternoon as the vast majority of the men and a small percentage of the women kick back to chew the fresh chat leaves that arrive daily from Ethiopia.

Chat (sometimes spelled Khat or Qat) is a stimulant  inducing mild euphoria that has been chewed throughout the region purportedly since ancient times. 

Djibouti city center market street. Photo by Edward Placidi
Djibouti city center market street. Photo by Edward Placidi

Between 5-6 pm, when the day is cooling in what is one of the planet’s hottest countries, the city re-emerges from chat time and roars back to life. It bursts with excitement, energy and intensity.

People pour into the streets, countless lights come on, merchants selling anything from oranges to plastic shoes set up makeshift shops on every available spot on the ground, hawkers call out their sales pitches, traffic comes to a virtual standstill, friends seek each other out – and the metropolis comes into its own.

A two-hour drive from the bustling city is a place of superlatives: Lake Assal is the lowest point in Africa, the most saline lake outside of Antarctica, and the world’s largest salt reserve.

The glare was blinding on the vast plain of white crystals, the only sound the loud crunch underfoot as we walked towards the lake’s edge. Two people in the distance were just two black dots in an overwhelmingly white universe. 

Djibouti city evening street market. Photo by Edward Placidi
Djibouti city evening street market. Photo by Edward Placidi

The beautiful panoramas of the lake from a distance ‒ highlighted by lovely green and blue waters ‒ belie the reality that this is harsh and inhospitable desert terrain:  desolate, a constant wind blowing, eye-punishing reflections, dry as a bone, with temperatures soaring to over 120F.

Yet local Afar tribesmen are not daunted by the unforgiving conditions, spending long days breaking up the salt with picks and loading it in sacks to sell and barter. 

A rising tide was coming in fast by early afternoon, flooding the salt flats, so we had to abandon our attempt to reach the lake. We were already contemplating turning back because our feet were aching from walking barefoot through shallow water on the hard, sharp crystals.

Lake Assal is in volcanic country: It is nestled in a volcanic crater and surrounded by dark dormant volcanoes, while much of the route there is black volcanic rock formations contrasting with the brilliant green of thorn acacia and nomadic pastoralists here and there guiding small flocks of goats or camels. 

On the way we stopped to view a deep, rugged canyon with striated walls in the Afar Depression that has been called the “Grand Canyon of Djibouti” because it has a similar appearance. The Depression is located in the Afar Triangle where three tectonic plates are slowing diverging. 

The splitting of these plates has created the most dramatic and stunning site in the Horn of Africa ‒ remote Lake Abbe, straddling the Djibouti-Ethiopia border.

Over millions of years, the plates moving apart allowed magma to escape creating an active geothermal area with anomalous landscapes more akin to a distant planet than earth ‒ and thus the perfect otherworldly set for shooting the iconic 1968 film Planet of the Apes, directed by and starring Charlton Heston.

Swimming with the world's largest fish, a whale shark. Photo by Edward Placidi
Swimming with the world’s largest fish, a whale shark. Photo by Edward Placidi

Negotiating a steep, winding, rocky, slow-go track through a narrow gorge, we emerged to an apocalyptic vision: Rising from the ground all around us were formations ‒ created by magma oozing to the surface over time ‒ that looked like rows of enormous, jagged and beastly teeth of a monstrous chimera.

Ringing the antediluvian ambiance are many circular domes of ancient volcanoes, reminiscent of the crater-studded surface of Mars; the largest volcano, Dama Ali, remains active.

Punctuating the otherworldly scene are towering chimneys emitting sulphurous steam, some soaring more than 100 feet high, the products of dissolved calcium carbonates deposited by the boiling water that bubbles up here.

Sunset brought more dramatic vistas ‒ of ominous black serrated silhouettes, like the spiked spine of a stegosaurus, against a glowing orange sky. As darkness fell, in the peaceful silence, removed from the world, I was joyously reminded of the breathtakingly vast number of stars seen in the heavens above when there is no light pollution.

After a quiet night in the very basic camp here, offering cots in traditional Afar huts and a simple restaurant, a magical morning dawned.

Walking by the lake’s edge at dawn we were enveloped in eerie stillness, serenity and soft light, painted in blue and aqua pastels. Pink flamingos were tranquilly feeding in the reedy shallows. Tall, spiked magma peaks rose from the water, the rising sun’s rays glistening across Lake Abbe’s surface.

The rugged, striated walls of the Djibouti Grand Canyon. Photo by Edward Placidi
The rugged, striated walls of the Djibouti Grand Canyon. Photo by Edward Placidi

This could not be present-day earth; my imagination took me back to another age when dinosaurs could appear at any moment.

Later that morning, we descended from Lake Abbe down the steep, four-wheel-drive-only track. When we reached the flat, hard desert floor, my guide/driver suddenly punched the accelerator, reaching nearly 60 mph while he sang along and drummed on the dashboard to Afar tunes.

He would not listen to my pleas to slow down; he countered that he knew what he was doing because he had driven the route numerous times. 

While I had avoided a head-on with the whale shark, I was not so lucky this time – yet I must have had a travel guardian angel watching over me. The inevitable happened: We hit an area of deep sand and he lost control.

We slid sideways in the sand, which thankfully slowed us down quickly, and then flipped, slamming down on the driver’s side, then flipped again landing hard on the roof. 

The smashed Toyota Land Cruiser settled wheels in the air and I was hanging upside down in the shotgun seat, firmly belted in. I unlatched the seat belt and crawled out, not a scratch on me. My driver, who was not latched in, hit his head and had multiple contusions, on his arm, head  and feet.

I was more irritated that he had acted so irresponsibly than phased by the accident. Not 10 minutes later, four kind French travelers pulled up and gave me a ride out of there; their guide and mine knew each other and made arrangements ‒ surprisingly there was cell phone reception out there ‒ to have me picked up several hours down the road.

Traditional Afar huts of the tourist camp at Lake Abbe. Photo by Edward Placidi
Traditional Afar huts of the tourist camp at Lake Abbe. Photo by Edward Placidi

My trip to Lake Abbe was unforgettable, but my jaunt with whale sharks was just as exciting ‒ with only a hint of danger. We had been bouncing up and down over small white caps for well over an hour when the captain suddenly cut the launch’s throttle and announced, “We’re here.

Start watching for fins zigzagging in the water.” Nothing seemed different about the spot – more uninhabited rocky coastline back dropped by low brown mountains in this inlet from the Gulf of Aden ‒ but not 30 seconds later we saw them. Donning our snorkeling gear, we went swimming with whale sharks. 

Plunging into the warm water, we instantly found ourselves among huge denizens of the deep, the world’s largest fish. We began swimming hard in a futile attempt to keep up with them.

While their speed outclassed us, we quickly discovered they were moving in a definite pattern ‒ swimming several minutes in one direction, then turning and coming back, though not necessarily in straight lines ‒ enabling us to catch up with them again, and again, and again.

Whale sharks are known to be gentle and no threat to humans; they feed by filtering plankton as well as use their tiny teeth to consume shrimp and small fish.

Main square in the center of Djibouti city. Photo by Edward Placidi
Main square in the center of Djibouti city. Photo by Edward Placidi

Yet it is still easy to feel vulnerable when you are dwarfed by your swimming partner, especially when you find yourself face-to-face with one coming right at you and adrenaline kicks in, contact with one can cause a painful graze called a “shark burn,” and the gargantuan fish does not appear to be cognizant, or just not care, that you are there.

It was exciting and exhilarating to get so close to four of the planet’s largest creatures ‒ or was it six whale sharks? We couldn’t ascertain for sure how many there were. 

But about Djibouti there were no doubts:  This is a remote, untamed destination, unchanged by the mass tourism of today, rewarding adventuresome travelers with unique sights and experiences. One of Africa’s safest countries to travel in (unless you have a madman for a driver), the people are generally welcoming, but not effusively so.

They adamantly do not want to be photographed, but often relent if you ask politely. When I checked into the Ras Dika Hotel in Djibouti city, the owner told me, “Now that you are here in Djibouti, you are one of us. You will not be treated as an outsider.” Now that I think back on it, it was not a passing comment to reassure a new guest; her words rang true.

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Author Bio: Edward Placidi

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