For a moment, as a superheated desert wind scorches across my face, I share Charlton Heston's vision of purgatory. In the final scene from the 1968 cult film Planet of the Apes, Heston encountered a displaced Statue of Liberty and it dawned upon him that his simian escapades in a hitherto unknown world had actually taken place on a post-apocalyptic earth. Scenes from the movie were shot where I'm standing, at Lac Abbé, near Djibouti's western border with Ethiopia. Before me on a baking plain of crazed mud is a silvery lake stretching as far as my eyes can squint in the stinging heat. It is too poisonous to drink, tainted naturally by a cocktail of salts. Surrounding it is a sawtooth range of calamine-coloured chimneys, wickedly beautiful, and squeezing out sulphurous gases which give Lac Abbé its local name: "the stinking lake". Apocalyptic indeed.
Djibouti, a nation one-sixth the size of England located on the Horn of Africa, is a film set ready made for any director looking to expand upon the Mad Max genre. It has never required a thermo-nuclear war to fashion its nightmarish landscapes, because the bowels of the earth are doing a splendid job already. For Djibouti's nemesis is in full swing; the country is being inexorably pulled apart at the juncture of three tectonic plates in a hurry to get away from each other. Strange place for a holiday perhaps?
I had arrived several days early to meet the first small group tour from the UK to visit Djibouti. The trip was being sold on its weird geology and cruising the warm coastal waters, but on touching down in the capital I realised how little I knew about the place. Formerly the "Territory of Afars and Issas" (after its two largest tribal groupings), this ex-French colonial possession gained independence in 1977. At the crossroads of Africa and the Arabian peninsula, its port, Djibouti's raison d'être, is at the elbow of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. And despite being surrounded by bona fide neighbours from hell (Somalia, Yemen, Ethiopia and Eritrea), it is very stable, made more so by strong French and American military contingents.
Djibouti City itself is a raw place, crammed on to a small peninsula, with a container port on its western shoreline and sandy beaches to the east. The sweltering capital's Francophone quarter is a methodically planned district of peeling townhouses with louvre shutters and arched walkways. While the city centre slumbers around midday, the African quarter to the south never rests. A turbulent market, Les Caisses, around Place Rimbaud, battles for supremacy with a cacophonous minibus terminal. Raffia baskets and fiddima mats are woven in situ; guavas and custard apples are in season; qat, narcotic leaves bundled like watercress, are kept cool under moistened hessian; and prostitutes hiss loudly from balconies, provocatively beckoning passers-by. I hear Arabic, French, and many unrecognisable dialects. I see Somali women, tall and gaunt-faced, swathed in colourful shawls, and old Afar men with beards and hair hennaed ginger. At breakfast, I sip sugary black tea with Mahmoud, a Palestinian trader, and Habte, an Ethiopian refugee. It is a true port: cosmopolitan yet seedy, a city of promise and poverty in equal measures.
There are moments, though, of quiet sophistication. In a small café on the whitewashed Place Menelik, I linger over my coffee and croissant, enjoying the air-conditioned sanctity, and Bistro Le Grill quickly becomes my favourite lunch spot: sea-breezes and shady palms accompany freshly barbecued skewers of fish. I was glad, however, when the vanguard tour group, lead by Lindsey, an easy-going ex-web designer from London, finally arrived, and we went to sea. For a week we had been captives of an elegant three-masted Turkish wooden ketch – The Deli – riding the cool ocean breezes westwards into the Gulf of Tadjoura. This was her third voyage under Captain Hamdi and his attentive crew. We would sleep aboard the ketch, and use it as a base for excursions into Djibouti's interior.
My cohorts had very different reasons for visiting this unheralded outpost. Naomi, from Essex, was weary from two weeks in Ethiopia. David, from Birmingham, "loved deserts", while Kathryn, eschewing a cheap package deal closer to home, simply "had a spare week's holiday". What we all inherited, though, was an instant liking for Camille, our 20-year-old chef from Paris. Dubbed "la petite chef", she quickly fired her opening culinary salvos. They were devastating. Caviar canapés, followed by poisson Normandie, then potato au gratin. Soon we were begging for gastronomic mercy, yet the numerous courses kept coming. "I want you to stay with me for ever," she would say to us in an accent as sexy as her compote de pommes au bateau.
Ten miles west of Djibouti City, we anchored off the burnished coastline near Moucha and Maskali islands. The two tiny islands, both marine reserves, resembled slices of cheesecake. Djibouti has some fine reefs for snorkelling and diving, and at around 28C, powder-blue waters so warm you never want to climb out. The snorkelling was excellent, with brain corals, giant clam shells and huge, spiny diadem urchins providing a playground for a spectrum of parrotfish, clownfish, sea-cucumbers and electric-blue tiddlers.
The next day came our first 4WD foray into Djibouti''s "Afar Triangle", regarded as one of the most extraordinary zones of geological shenanigans on the planet. With Hassan, our live-aboard guide and Paris-trained geophysicist, we drove inland, bumping across caustic black lava-flows of basalt which tumbled towards the coast pockmarked with burst gas bubbles resembling bad acne. The landscape was like Iceland coupled with the blitzkrieg heat of Dante's Inferno. A few acacia trees defied the threadbare soil, their crowns flattened by scorched winds, and a small herd of Thompson's gazelles kept a watchful distance.
"In several million years there will be no ground beneath your feet, just an ocean as wide as the Atlantic," announced Hassan. Djibouti, albeit slowly, was disappearing beneath us. The lava fields marked a diverging zone where the African, Somali, and Arabian tectonic plates were pulling apart at around 2cm per annum. Like pondering where infinite space ends, I grappled with the mind-expanding concept that below us were fault lines giving rise to the East African Rift Valley running southwards, the Red Sea northwards, and the Gulf of Aden eastwards, and that one day they would open sufficiently to join with the Mediterranean, forming an ocean, while East Africa, a new mini-continent, sailed blissfully off on to the horizon.
Climbing the abrasive lava-flow, which dimpled your flesh if you leant on it, we paused on top of Ardoubka, a volcanic crater oxidising cherry red. It was Djibouti's most recent eruption. As the plates pull apart, the crust is thinning, allowing magma to escape through the surface. "I was in high school in 1978 when it erupted and we had to leave the classroom every few hours or so each day for two weeks as tremors shook Djibouti City," Hassan told us as we examined a sizzling steam vent. "Some Afar shepherds thought it was the apocalypse."
It couldn't possibly get any hotter, could it? But after a lunchtime baguette on the beach, it did. We descended to Lac Assal, a salt lake marking Africa's lowest point, and the afternoon became quite surreal. For a start, The Deli was now moored at sea level a few kilometres away, yet some 155m above our heads, while Clive's watch, which had an in-built thermometer, went ballistic, touching 40C in the waning sun. "Fifty-seven degrees has been recorded here," said Hassan. Assal's blinding white salt shoreline which scrunched underfoot like freshly laid snow. I clambered up a bank of brown gypsum crystals and gazed across at Assal. Its translucent hues of blue, and there were many, flitted before my eyes. Assal was a lake of brimstone and fire. The Deli's shade and a relaxing swim awaited our return. We were moored in Ghoubbet-Al-Kharab, a bay known locally as the "'abyss of demons" owing to its dangerous currents and great depths. The locals believe it to be haunted. Our final excursion took us across Djibouti – only a four-hour drive – to the western edge at Lac Abbé. Crossing the Afar's Sahelian lands, we paused frequently to photograph dromedaries, salt-and-pepper herds of goats, dust devils the size of tornados, and the occasional "giraffe gazelles" (gerenuks), which strained their long necks to nibble at mimosa trees. Traversing the Grand Barra Depression,, I watched endless shimmering mirages.
By dusk at Abbé, we had settled into traditional daboytas at Camp As-Boley, a simple Afar tourism project. The huts resembled bronzed armadillo shells, constructed from bent-over reeds and covered in mats woven from duomo palms.
At sunrise, we explored Abbé's shoreline of otherworldly chimneys, some of which are 30m high. Formed from travertine, a volcanically heated, calcium-rich flow which issued from under the lake bed, the chimneys have risen up over centuries, though have largely been left high and dry as irrigation and drought have shrunk the lake dramatically. They have a crumbly texture and occasionally belch puffs of sulphur. We continue down to Abbé's deathly still shoreline, and watch pink flamingoes fly in near perfect sine-waves. A few chimneys, still within the lake, seem to hover above the silvery horizon. "They remind me of that French dessert, les flottantes," observes Simon, a business motivation coach from Buckinghamshire. A future Camille culinary creation crosses my mind, but even she, I suspect, could not conjure up anything as fanciful as these.
Mark Stratton travelled to Djibouti courtesy of Explore Worldwide (01252 760000; www.exploreworldwide.com) on its new 10-day Africa Seatrek, which departs between October 2002 and April 2003 (except February). The price starts from £1,285 per person and includes return flights, all transport, seven nights' accommodation aboard The Deli, one night in a hotel, most meals, and the services of an Explore Worldwide tour leader.
British Airways (0845 7733377; www.britishairways.com) flies return to Djibouti via Nairobi from £628.
Wilfred Thesiger's The Danakil Diary 1930-4 is published by Flamingo (£8.99), and Lonely Planet features Djibouti in its guidebook Ethiopia, Eritrea & Djibouti (£13.99).
A 10-day visa is provided on arrival and costs £12.
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