Djibouti the Beautiful

Splendor in the desert

By / January 2013

Djibouti’s starkness and burning heat have earned her articles entitled, “High in Hell” and “Hell-Hole of Creation.” This petite, pac-man-shaped nation is better known for the leafy drug khat, searing temperatures, and lifeless dusty deserts than for lovely vistas. But to the discerning, with eyes open to see beyond trucker fumes and sweat-soaked skin, Djibouti offers beauty that can stun observers into silent humility.

The Grand Bara desert stretches kilometer after kilometer of cracked clay, not a bush or a dying acacia to break the flat expanse. But squint, and through the haze a shadowy image emerges, shimmering in waves of heat. A girl with a yellow bucket in one hand. She leads a camel by a rope made of shredded red and green cloth, braided. Camel and girl are barely visible, could they be a mirage? A flickering ghost of life and thirst in this emptiness.

Heaps of garbage mark the potholed road between Djibouti Town and the desert, along the US military base Camp Lemonier all the way to the border with Somaliland. Broken toilet seats, cars stripped of useful parts, headless baby dolls, bicycle handles, plastic bags, empty bleach bottles. Faded, crushed, slowly turning to dust and ash. But squint, and through the choking black smoke of burning tires, a volcano rises.

On the other side of the wadi and the circles of temporary nomad homes, on the other side of the railroad tracks, a black volcano, humped like the camel in the Grand Bara. And between the garbage and volcano, violet flowers, weeds known as Devil’s Horsewhip, bend and stand again, proud, startling. Alive.

Rocks and broken shells and the bodies of dead, bleached-white crabs line the coast, which curves around the Gulf of Tadjourah, past the strait of Bab-el-Mandeb, into the Red Sea. Waves foam and settle, lazy, against the shore. The earth here is pallid and desperate. Divets in the dirt are scarred white, like the crabs, from salt deposits that kill off hopeful, hopeless plant life.

But squint, and through the humid breeze thick with the scent of rotting fish, the hull of a boat crests a wave. Dark blue wooden slats contrast the inky ocean depths. A fisherman casts his net, weighted with circles of dried mud and buoyed with orange cones tied at uneven intervals.

In December Djibouti cools and beauty migrates to her, beneath the water, wild and untouched. Here, no squinting is necessary, only a snorkel mask and a bit of courage. Dolphins, sea turtles, eels, sting rays, black tip reef shark, octopi, and starfish flourish year round. But in the temperate winter months, whale sharks.

Longer than the fisherman’s net, bodies the shade of a camel’s tail and speckled with spots the color of bleached crabs. Whale shark mouths are as long and narrow as the braided rope between girl and camel until they gape wide open to suck down plankton. Cavernous yet toothless, harmless.

Swimming alongside these sharks, within a hand’s reach, is to swim on the edge of exhilarated, terrifying, peace-filled awe. On the beach, wind whistles through thorn trees and dust devils swirl over the sand. But beneath the water, whale sharks feed and dodge dangling human legs. They seem playful and move toward swimmers, their white mouths almost smirking, and at the last moment, dive deep enough for flippers to brush their backs. Surface, turn, swim back, and dive again.

This is Djibouti, the beautiful. The girl and camel are no mirage. The garbage can’t out-shadow the flowers or the volcano. The fisherman isn’t consumed by dust and water. And to think that underneath it all, between the surface and the ocean floor, a whale shark lumbers peacefully, powerfully.


Rachel Pieh Jones has written for the New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, and Running Times. She lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children and blogs at