Travel review: East Africa with tours of Ethiopia and Djibouti

Limestone chimneys by Lake Abbe, Djibouti. PIC: PA

Limestone chimneys by Lake Abbe, Djibouti. PIC: PA

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Nomadic tribes, wild wolves and volcanic wastelands, Sarah Marshall joins a new tour opening up East Africa with tours of Ethiopia and Djibouti.

It’s hard to imagine what the world might look like following the collapse of humanity.

For astronaut George Taylor, Charlton Heston’s character in 1968 film Planet of the Apes, it looked very much like this. Surging skyward from millennia-old riverbeds parched crisp by the sun, hundreds of steaming fumaroles and limestone chimneys served as a fitting backdrop for the post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie.

A mosaic of salt flats pops and crunches underfoot. On the horizon, a woman cloaked in billowing purple silks navigates a herd of goats through a dusty haze.

There’s no sign of Taylor’s forlorn Statue of Liberty submerged in the sand, but I share the same sense of discovering a forgotten civilisation. I’m standing on the flamingo-streaked shores of Lake Abbe in Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa, bordering Ethiopia, Somaliland and Eritrea.

A charred, volcanic wasteland, it sits in the centre of the Afar Triangle, where three pieces of the Earth’s crust are slowly shifting apart, and forms part of the Great Rift Valley, a continuous 6,400km geographic trench that’s visible from space.

Aside from its brief flirtation with Hollywood, the only international interest in Djibouti has been a military one. The former French colony provides a safe and stable base from which to monitor a volatile region, where civil war is raging in Yemen, and the threat of Somali pirates still hangs over the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea.

Proximity to war zones, poor infrastructure and a population that swings between inquisitive and inhospitable, hardly provide the platform for a thriving tourist industry.

Yet the opportunity to explore Dali-esque landscapes is too good for adventurous travellers to turn down. I’ve joined Explore Worldwide’s first escorted tour and it’s completely sold out.

Travelling in a convoy of 4WDs, we thump and bump over rocky, arid terrain, through deserts dotted with thorny acacia bushes. It’s a hostile environment, and inhabitants suitably abrasive.

As we approach a nomadic settlement, our drivers speed up. Unruly children from the Afar tribe chase the vehicles, some throwing stones, others cheekily poking out brilliant pink tongues from jet black faces, while their shy Muslim mothers hide beneath colourful fabrics. Even as I raise my camera, our driver, Ermi, shakes his head. “They won’t like it,” he says, as another rock bounces off the bonnet.

Up until now, few tourists have bothered to come this far. It’s more common for foreigners to congregate in coastal areas, attracted by pristine coral reefs and the opportunity to swim with juvenile whale sharks.

Jason Shrewsbury from local operator Dolphin Services offers to take me out on a skiff boat in search of the gentle sea giants. As soon as we catch sight of a polka-dotted creature, I dive in and find myself staring into a gaping, metre-wide, pillar-box mouth. More interested in measely krill than a meaty human, the largest fish in the sea glides past and disappears into the inky depths.

I spend an hour swimming along the coast, where butterfly fish and manta rays lurk beneath table coral big enough to host a deep sea banquet. Despite the marine wonders, it would though be unfair to dismiss the rest of the country.

The rubbish-strewn Yemeni refugee camps surrounding Djibouti City don’t make for comfortable sightseeing material, yet they give a sobering insight into a detached, troubled world. There’s an unavoidable sadness about Djibouti, a sense it’s been abandoned.

But beyond the rusting water canisters left here by aid workers is a geological wonder world comparable to nowhere else on earth. With a bit of love, it could have so much potential.

The Ethiopian government and their Chinese investors clearly think so, and have spent several billion dollars on a train line to link Addis Ababa with the port in Djibouti City.

Our journey started in the Ethiopian capital, and Explore’s decision to combine the two countries in an itinerary is wise. With tribal groups spilling across the border, fortunes are inextricably linked. In contrast to its stagnant neighbour, Ethiopia is developing at an accelerating pace. The famine-ridden Band Aid years have been consigned to the past and a new picture of progress is emerging.

Ethiopia can be remarkably green (and cold) as I discover on a trek through the Bale Mountains in search of endangered nyala, giant mole rats and Ethiopian wolves. But perhaps most remarkable of all is the degree of religious harmony, with Muslims and Christians co-existing peacefully. The walled city of Harar even earned UNESCO status for being “a city of tolerance, peace and diversity”.

Regardless of religion or ethnic grouping, the people here share a sense of national pride. That’s one “good” they might want to consider exporting to Djibouti.

GETTING THERE

Sarah Marshall was a guest of Explore (01252 884723, explore.co.uk) which offers a 12-day Addis to Djibouti Adventure trip from £2,359pp. The price includes return flights, 10 nights’ hotel and one night camping accommodation on a bed and breakfast basis, most meals, transport and the services of an Explore Leader.