Whale sharks, limestone chimneys, salt lakes and a glorious coastline of sandy bays - there's a whole lot more to be said for Djibouti than you might originally think. 'But where is Djibouti?' I hear you ask. All shall be revealed...
A luxurious oasis
I flew from Ethiopia and before I had even made my way through arrivals I was met by someone from the Kempinski, checking I had arrived safely (service like this continued throughout my stay). Set away from the busy districts, yet only a few minutes from the airport, The Djibouti Palace Kempinski is ideally located at a prime beachfront between the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean.
The hotel itself has everything to offer, and especially after having experienced some of the more rustic eco-lodges of Ethiopia, it seemed like a luxurious oasis. My private, palatial junior suite could probably have slept about 10 comfortably (and another five in the bathroom). After rather temperamental hot water in Ethiopia, I was in seventh heaven in the humongous bath.
Following sharks & chilling on the beach
The following morning, it was time for the whale sharks. From mid-October to February, plankton 'blooms' develop in the enclosed bay near Djibouti town called the Goubet al Kharab (the Devil's Cauldron), meaning sightings are almost guaranteed.
For about forty minutes our little boat whizzed along at full speed and as we drove we passed sporadic sandy bays where the volcanic mountainous country behind just seemed to drop away into them. As we slowed down a small pod of dolphins came right up to the boat and later on a turtle bobbed past too. After about an hour, we spotted what we were really looking for, as the dappled body of our first shark made its way past the side of the boat and then disappeared. The real sighting came about twenty minutes later as an 8m long whopper swam right under the boat. As soon as it had passed, we all piled in after it with our snorkelling gear on. It was magnificent, and we followed it for about 100 metres before it disappeared into the depths.
The rest of the day was spent exploring the beautiful coral and chilling on the beach. Because of Djibouti's volcanic activity, the waters are rich in nutrients, attracting large numbers of marine species.
Saltier than the Dead Sea
My next adventure took me inland to Lac Assal. The lake is Africa's lowest geographic point, lying 515 feet (155m) below sea level and is saltier than the Dead Sea. The whole place is very bright and glitters with crystallised salt. The water is the most wonderful turquoise and if you put your feet in a white line will cake them after they have dried.
A breathtaking view
Afterwards we headed to Lac Abbe. The area is the spot where three tectonic plates meet and it is this that has caused the weird terracotta coloured chimneys to rise from the flat white ground. There was something eerie but strangely beautiful about the place and, perched on the hilltop, the little camp where I was to spend the night had the most spectacular view of the whole thing.
Although it sounds clichéd, the real crowning moment was seeing the landscape at sunset. The sun seemed to set in the perfect position, framing the outline of the chimneys against a smoky pink sky whilst the lake glittered deep red.
The camp itself is not for those craving a good night's sleep. The traditional huts are built entirely of wicker which, on a windier night such as ours, meant the noise was unbelievable… but, at about two in the morning, I ventured outside and was greeted by a sky so full of stars it was nearly light. It was breathtaking. The following morning, we stayed to watch a beautiful sunrise before heading back and away from this fantasy place.