The only other people using this road are the commercial vehicles bringing all of Ethiopia's imports from Djibouti - its sole road access from (and to) the outside world. Given the nature of the economy, the only traffic was empty fuel-tankers going to Djibouti, and full ones returning. Hence, the border post was orientated towards such drivers who simply produced their driving license, and were waved through.
I produced my South African passport to baffled looks, and so after a few moments I showed them my visa which was studied for several minutes - upside-down. In the end the decided it was OK, and spent 15 minutes searching for a suitable stamp to use - and I was through. Now came customs. That got a blank look, so I tried "Douane". Same reaction. So I just drove on. There are no customs on the Djibouti side of the border.
Apart from the fuel tankers, no other traffic was seen on the road. Hence the road had adapted to this traffic, and although the road used to be tarred, it has degraded into an endless series of large potholes. For a Landrover this meant that one had to travel at around 15 km/h and allow the vehicle to roll from one hole to the next, leaning 20° to the right in one, and then swing through an arc to be at 20° to the left a few metres later. Although the road was not too rocky, it was this constant rolling that took its toll, and was totally exhausting because one had to hold on tight to the steering wheel or be tossed around the cab.
Leaving the border about an hour before dusk, I was hoping to stop and camp quite soon. But there was just no-where where this was safe, especially since some trucks decided it was better to drive off the road, and drive across the desert itself. This took great courage, since the quantity of dust meant that visibility was very poor at best - and when returning I saw a distressing number of vehicles that had been involved in serious accidents. Consequently I ended up having to continue the 100 km to Dikhil - the first town on the main road - a four hour drive.
The only hotel that I could find in the dark was the Auberge de Palmeriae, and for a very mediocre room with no hot water, the price was 5000 Djibouti Francs (approx US$ 30, R175). Of course, there was no opportunity to change any money into Djibouti francs, so after some serious haggling (an interesting experience as I only spoke English, and they only French), they agreed to a price of 150 Birr (i.e. approx US$ 23). No food was available, and the only beer was Stella d'Artois - there is no local brew - costing 750 DFr (US$ 4, R25) for a standard 375 ml bottle. This was my introduction to what was to prove a very expensive segment of the trip.
Friday 17th December 1999
Leaving Dikhil at dawn, I continued towards Djibouti. The road was a little better, in that rather than 5% tar, it now reached about 60%, so speeds of over 30 km/h were still impractical, but at least one could avoid the majority of potholes, and just slow down in the fairly obvious areas where potholes were unavoidable. After another 80 km I reached the turn-off to Arta, at which point the road actually became driveable, so the last 40 km into Djibouti city was quite reasonable, and speeds of 50 km/h were reached.
My first destination was the Ethiopian Embassy, so I could get my application for a visa in before the week-end, and collect it on Monday. Unfortunately, this was another miscalculation, since Djibouti is a Muslim country. Friday is the equivalent of our Sunday, with all banks, shops, etc closed, while Saturday is a half day, with some businesses opening on Saturday afternoon. Sunday is a normal working day. Hence, I would need to return on Sunday morning.
As I result I decided to head around the Gulf of Tadjoura, and try and find the Djibouti Francolin in the Forêt du Day. However, I imagined this to be another tough drive, so rather than continue birding in the city environs, left to return west nearly halfway back to Dikhil. However, to my complete surprise, the only other "tarred" road in Djibouti turned out to be in excellent condition, with the few areas of potholes being actively repaired (at least on the Sunday when I retraced my route). First I changed some US$ to Francs, where the best rates were offered on the street rather than the banks and hotels. However, money doesn't go far with petrol costing nearly US$ 1 per litre.
Before leaving Djibouti, I spent some time studying the tidal wetlands just south of the main road within the city limits. This produced many new species, including Western Reef Heron, Eurasian Spoonbill, Hemprich's, Herring and Slender-billed Gull, Dunlin and many other waders.
The drive was through a real desert, not always of sand, but much of the area is simply covered by black lava flows, on which nothing grows, and must reach incredible temperatures in the mid-day sun. However, even the lava had some bird-life, with White-crowned Black Wheatear being regularly seen there. The sandier areas held Black Scrub-Robin, Rosy-patched Bush-Shrike, Desert and Red-tailed Wheatears, Hoopoe Lark, Singing and Greater Short-toed Larks, Black-crowned Sparrow-Lark being quite easy to find.
An Ethiopian trip: 27/11/1999 to 17/01/2000Giles Mulholland 31 January 2000