Djibouti, October 2006

When I told anyone I was going on holiday to Djibouti, the first question was always “where?”. Formerly French Somaliland, it's on the Red Sea between Eritrea and Somalia. The flight over was with Daallo Airlines though the flight was operated by Astraeus, a British airline who have since entered administration. The luggage allowance was a reasonably generous 30kgs. Somehow I still managed to be a couple of kilos over, but the didn't say anything at the checkout desk. The flight was a bit eventful. Behind me was sitting the national gurning champion of some country who kept head butting my seat. On my right was a guy dressed in conservative Islamic dress. Next to him were two guys who were obviously drunk. He started by quoting the Koran to them and then eventually decided he couldn't sit there, got up and said he had to sit somewhere else. He did this just as the plane was rolling onto the runway. It carried on much like this for the rest of the flight. There was a brief stop in Paris for more people to get on and eventually we arrived at Djibouti international airport.

Arriving at the immigration desks, it wasn't clear that you were actually supposed to go in the door on the left to buy your visa first. The only sign wasn't really visible when the door was open. Eventually I handed over my €20 and got my visa, a magnificent full page stamp in my passport and frankly worth the money alone. The luggage still wasn't ready and when it finally turned up we boarded the bus and headed off for the boat, the Mila.

One of the small dive boats

It was only a 5 minute drive to the port and we were met by the owner who allocated our cabins. Some where doubles, the others had one double bed and one single bed in them. There was an ensuite bathroom and as is typical for Red Sea liveaboards, you couldn't put paper down the toilet. Servicing of the cabin seemed to consist of occasionally emptying the bin in the bathroom. They didn't do any cleaning as far as I could tell. The air conditioning was non-existant at first. They did do something to it, but it still didn't keep the cabin much below sauna levels. There were also quite a lot of fumes when the boat was underway, which made me feel quite ill.

So I unpacked and gave my bulky case to a member of the crew. The captain was Egyptian and spoke reasonable English. The rest of the crew were local and also spoke some English. The two dive guides were French and had been on the same flight as us, though had worked in Djibouti before. One of them spoke no English and the other one didn't speak that much either. Given that then entire boat was an English charter, this was less than ideal.

Our package included meals whilst on the boat and unlimited water. Soft drinks, such as Coke, were €2 and a small can (33cl) of Kronenburg was €3. They managed to run out of both soft drinks and beer after 4 days even though no-one appeared to be drinking very much. The bottles of water in the fridge on the last 2 days weren't sealed. And it tasted different. Unfortunately, there wasn't really much choice other than to drink it.

There was a delay whilst we sorted out weightbelts and then we sailed across the bay to the nearby Moucha islands. The first dive was a wreck, which cheered my group up. The boat was anchored in, so we were to go down and back up the anchor line. The guide told us to make sure we sorted our buoyancy out on this dive as it would be the only dive where we had a line to come back up. It wasn't a particularly big wreck, but it was intact and there was plenty of fish life. I headed straight for the sea bed in 30m. The bottom was quite silty but there were a couple of nurse sharks resting underneath. There was also a big stingray which made me jump when it emerged out of the gloom and close quarters. On deck and the viz was much better, around 20m. There was plenty of fish life, but there was also and engine room. So the four of us headed straight for that and had a good poke around inside. 35 minutes later and we were back on board, our kit and wetsuits covered in rust, getting strange looks from the rest of the passengers.

There was just one dive the first day. We tied up in the shelter for the evening and the boat set off at 4am for the next dive site. The guide told us we'd be there by 9am. It was more like midday by the time we finally got there. The boat didn't seem to move very fast and it did rock a lot, even though the sea wasn't that rough.

One of the Seven Brothers

Our destination was the Seven Brothers. I resisted doing my best Howard Keel singing impersonation. It's actually a collection of six rocky islands and a headland which was originally thought to be another island. We stayed here for the next three days and did 9 dives. The water was extremely warm. My computer registered it as 31-32°C on every dive. The dives were done from small, fibreglass boats, so there was a bit of work climbing in and out of them on ever dive and passing up your kit. It was quite windy, so there was a reasonable swell on a lot of the dives. I thought that delayed SMBs were essential in those conditions, though those that had rented kit didn't have any.

There was a current on most dives. Only on one of them was it particularly strong. However, there was no checking of the direction of the current before each dive and in a majority of cases, we ended up swimming against it. The fish life was quite prolific. There were shoals of spotted sweetlips every where, as well as fusiliers, some blue lined snapper, barracuda, morays and of course, lots of Red Sea anemone fish.

For some reason the dive guide wanted to restrict us to 40 minutes for each dive. We suffered this for the first dive, but then complained and he said we could do 45-50. Most people seemed to be doing more like a hour. There was also one night dive, though there were no torches on the boat for rental. Even the people who hired “full kit” didn't have a torch supplied. It wasn't hugely exciting, but I did enjoy peering into all the table corals looking at the little crabs in them that only come out at night.

Anemone Fish

The highlight for me came on the last dive at South Island. We'd done our diving and we waiting at 5m for our safety stop when I saw a dolphin swim up, have a look and then head up to the surface and jump out of the water. The other 3 people I was diving with didn't see it. I think they believed me eventually.

After three days, it was time to head south to the Gulf of Tadjoura. We were sailing over night for most of the night and a lot of us didn't really fancy trying to sleep in the cabins as the air conditioning wasn't very good, so we elected to sleep up on deck. Typically, that was the only night that it decided to rain. There was a down pour at 5am.

I decided to sit out the first dive as my stomach was less than happy by now, and I wasn't alone as about half the boat seemed to be dosing themselves up on Immodium. Then it was time to go snorkelling with the whale sharks. It seems a bit bizarre to set off in a small boat, look for the fin of the largest shark in the world, and then jump in the water next to it, but that's what we did. Of course, whale sharks are no danger to anything any bigger than plankton, which is what they feed on.

It was early in the season, but we found several sharks to swim with. They move quite quick and just under the surface. They do slow down when they're feeding. When they're not, it was possible to keep up but I found it difficult with a camera and strobe, so I didn't take it in on the afternoon session. We had two sessions for 2 hours for two days with the whale sharks and everyone agreed it was definitely the highlight of the trip.

Whale Shark with snorkellers

The diving wasn't as good as the Seven Brothers. Some of the coral had died off, probably due to the warmth of the water, and the visibility was bad because of all the plankton in the water. However, as that's what had attracted the whale sharks, you couldn't really complain. Again there were loads of sweetlips, fusiliers and I also saw about 10 squid on one of the dives.

Then it was time to head back to Djibouti town. We stopped off at the Moucha islands for one more wreck dive. This was much bigger and lying on its side. There was a split up the middle, where you could get inside a bit. There was also quite a small hatch which we entered. Inside was a mass of walkways but it was very silty with about an inch of fine silt lying everywhere, so I didn't go in very far as I certainly wasn't equipped for that sort of dive. It was a nice dive outside with plenty of fish life and coral growth on the superstructure. It made a good end to the holiday's diving.

Back at the port and there was a bus to take us to our hotel. It was quite a nice hotel. The air conditioning worked in the room which was the main thing. There was a swimming pool, but it was closed at the time for maintenance. Not that we would have had much time to use it. We went into town that night. Around the main square were a couple of bars catering to foreigners. They weren't cheap. It was about €4 for a beer. The centre did feel reasonably safe and the taxi drivers weren't complete lunatics.

Our flight the next day wasn't until 11pm, so the whole group had booked on a tour for €60 to see a bit of the countryside. So we headed off in another one of those colourful buses to actually have a look at the country we'd been in for the last 6 days. Djibouti is on the Great Rift between the African and Asian tectonic plates. We went to Lac Assal, which is a salt lake 150m below sea level. There are also hot springs in the area. Later in the day we went to a spot on the rift itself where there are two cliffs facing each other with a bit drop to the valley floor below. It was an impressive landscape and a trip well worth doing.

The flight home was uneventful compared to the one out. I managed to get a seat in the first 8 rows which had better seat, so even got a bit of sleep.

The holiday was booked through Regal Diving. It cost £1189 per person. I guess it was an adventure. It's also the first holiday in years that I've lost weight on. Out of our group of four, all of us had stomach problems and three of us lost weight. The whale sharks were great, but the quality of the boat let the trip down really.

Djibouti Pics