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Djibouti: Meet nomadic tribes and brave flying fish in the tiny former French colony

Being slapped in the face by a wet fish is, it is my duty to inform you, every bit as unpleasant as it sounds – and just as comically uproarious to others. The baby barracuda were whipped up to the top of the sea by the power of our tiny motorboat, the loudest thing for miles around in the Bay of Tadjoura, as we weaved a choppy course through the pitch-black night.

Flickering like malfunctioning fairy lights on the spume, the first barracuda leapt over the side of the boat to give me a fierce smack on the nose. As my eyes watered and my boat companions collapsed in hysterics, another silvery missile flew into my forehead, then another on to my left ear – a singularly sore punchline to a bad watery joke.

The Bay of Tadjoura is a smile-shaped indentation in the minuscule country of Djibouti. Located on the coastline of the Horn of Africa, this former French colony has benefited little from Western travellers. The 19th-century French poet Arthur Rimbaud described it as an "awful colony" and a "filthy country" when he passed through, working as a coffee and weapons merchant in the 1880s.

Djibouti was the last French colony in mainland Africa to gain independence, doing so in 1977. Warfare immediately broke out between the two main tribes: the nomadic Afars and the Issas. The latter group now have possession of almost all the political power. A truce was reached in 1994, and the chances of future conflict look slim – due in part to the presence of an American military facility here, the only US base in mainland Africa, which is maintained because of Djibouti's proximity to the hot-spots of the Middle East.

Djibouti produces virtually nothing, relying instead on its port, which neighbouring Ethiopia uses for its own imports and exports. Nowhere is the country's inability to cultivate its landscape more evident than in the area surrounding the extinct volcano L'Ardoukoba – one of the many sights I took in while on a sailing boat trip around the Gulf of Tadjoura, which cuts deep into the centre of the country.

A crudely gouged hollow 300 metres above ground awaited us as we scrambled up the rubble. It dates back to 1978 when L'Ardoukoba erupted and then promptly subsided within a week. The eruption harmed nobody but left an awesome scar on the landscape. The sable-coloured rubble creaked beneath our feet as we walked over the roofs of small tunnels created by the rampaging lava flow. Upon reaching the summit, we saw the raw crust of the coastline in the distance, looking like burnt sponge cake.

It's hard to imagine life ever prospering here. The only sign of movement came from one small crack in the ground where a single wisp of steam lazily sailed upwards into the sky. When I placed my hand gently above the opening, a blast of heat immediately – and painfully – pierced my palm. This episode provided a physical reminder of just how close we were to one of nature's most active works in progress.

Driving back to the shore it was hard to miss the huge fissure in the middle of the road. "That is the start of a new ocean," said our guide, Mohammed. What we were looking at was part of the Assal Rift, a point of convergence between three tectonic plates that is creating a crack, widening at a rate of 2cm a year. Djibouti, it seems, is nature's building site.

"Millions of years from now, a new ocean as big as the Atlantic will be here, separating Africa from the Middle East. It will be called the Eritrean Ocean," Mohammed informed us.

Until that happens, the majority of the Afar people that make up the population in the north of the country still lead a nomadic existence, eschewing modern vehicles in favour of camels, which they say are more reliable for getting the caravans of salt from Lake Assal over to Ethiopia, where it is swapped for grain in the market places of Addis Ababa.

I spotted a group of them on a short drive from our boat on Ghoubet to Lake Assal, in a tiny rural township. I stopped to greet one elderly man, resplendent with huge beard, dyed bright orange with henna – a common symbol of authority among older Afars.

While we vainly attempted to communicate in the five words of Afar I'd learnt, children in threadbare T-shirts peeked out of corrugated iron shacks that straggled along the side of the cracked and narrow concrete road. That a community could survive in this raw, unforgiving environment is testament to the physical reserves of these people, many of whom have chosen to continue living away from the comparatively opulence of Djibouti Town. The meagre facilities also suggested that there was more than a sand grain of truth in the common belief that the Afar people were still being given a raw deal by the Issa-dominated government.

Lake Assal itself, the lowest point in Africa, is a place of willpower-sapping heat (temperatures regularly top 50C). The salt flats stretched far into the distance when I reached what was left of the lake's water. It hasn't rained here for two years. The colour was a sun-bleached pale blue; the lifeless lake had a crystallised bottom the colour of creamy marble.

Another group of Afar locals, who have clearly realised that, as a livelihood, selling the bounty of the lake to Westerners is preferable to travelling to Ethiopia on camels, had set up stalls. Here I was offered toffee-coloured gypsum crystals and salt sculptures in the shape of gazelle skulls. It was the only sign I saw in rural Djibouti of traditional culture being altered by the faint footprint of tourism, though many of the deeper beliefs of the Afar people remain utterly traditional, as I found the next day when we sailed to the Bay of Ghoubet, known locally as the Bay of Demons.

Given the relative abundance of marine life offshore, the lack of fishermen on the bay is surprising. The reason is said to be an Afar adage, which states that deadly creatures lie underwater, waiting to suck down those who are reckless enough to fish here.

It's certainly a forbidding place. Surrounding us was a three-tiered arena of crumbling, lifeless cliffs. Small holes are gashed into the face of the sheer edges of "Devil's Island", located in the middle of the Bay.

The maritime explorer Jacques Cousteau apparently encountered an unidentified large mammal here, which stokes the fires of those who believe that an equivalent of the Loch Ness Monster resides in the 200m deep underwater fault.

Further east, as we sailed back towards Djibouti Town, we encountered the most celebrated inhabitants of this stretch of ocean: whale sharks, the biggest fish in the sea. There were three of them. I quickly wrestled on my snorkel, then spent half an hour swimming alongside them. I'd been told not to swim too close lest I be whacked by a flip of its tail. I followed this advice dutifully, little knowing that later on those baby barracuda would have a last, fishy chuckle at my expense.


Getting there

The writer travelled with Explore (0845-013 1537; explore.co.uk ), which offers the 10-day Djibouti Seatrek from £1,935 per person, plus a local payment of $250 (£179). The price includes return flights from Gatwick to Ambouli airport in Djibouti with Daallo Airlines, transfers, accommodation with breakfast and some meals, including six nights aboard the motor cruiser in a shared cabin and one night in a hotel, excursions and the services of a guide.

Further information

British passport-holders require a visa to enter Djibouti, which can be purchased on arrival at the airport for US$30 (£21).

Djibouti Tourist Office: office-tourisme.dj