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Discovering Djibouti

Updated: Sep 6, 2022

Djibouti aka Land of Gods indeed is Paradise for any landscape photographer. Best, unlike Iceland and other photography hot spots it still is barely known. Djibouti? Many will say, where is it?

Salt crystals covering the shoreline around Lake Assal.
Salty sunset reflection around Lake Assal

I was privileged enough to discover Djibouti during a consulting assignment opening the leading luxury hotel in the country. Built and opened in just 10 months. COMESA Conference the first week of operation with heads of state from all over Africa attending. From setting up the pre-opening office all the way to procuring well over a hundred tons of food and beverage on dry ice, jet ski, office equipment, and everything else still missing for a successful opening event, uploaded, transported in from Dubai in a 747, and offloaded in a week of 24/7 action. Our last task on the ground in Djibouti was to provide Destination photography complementing the hotels sales and marketing team efforts adding the Land of Gods to the tourism map.

My Maps on Google Earth our planning tool for any photography expedition we prepare.
Discovering Djibouti Map on Google Earth

VUS Photography & Art Studio private collection of Cool Photography Spots. Here we prepare our trips consolidating information's from various sources on the web all into one map. Handy, especially if we have good internet connection using Google Maps for navigation.

Icons used are red for the main photography spots, yellow as a second priority, green for the nice to have ones and blue are for future consideration and/or scouting. Once you're in Djibouti teaming up with a professional guide is essential, then there are plenty of fabulous additional photography locations to be discovered and in preparation for our next trip(s) we hope you'll share them with us as well.

But is Djibouti safe? You may ask. Is a place safe appearing to have more soldiers from around the world based there than inhabitants? Ok, at least there are days you cross Place Menelik, one of the main places in town, and it seems like it. But why?

Djibouti shepherds have their ways to secure their lifestock, while they enjoy their break napping in the shade the goats go up on a thorny acacia tree.
Talking safety, this is how it's done.

The Worldbank says: Djibouti's strength lies in its strategic location at the southern entrance to the Red Sea, marking a bridge between Africa and the Middle East.

In more detail - Djibouti, small strategically located country on the northeast coast of the Horn of Africa. It is situated on the Bab el Mandeb Strait, which lies to the east and separates the Red Sea from the Gulf of Aden. And the Gulf of Aden for years is well known as a piracy hotspot where Oil tankers and their crews are hijacked by Somali pirates. French Legionnaires, Americans, Danish, Germans... and most of them to safeguard the area.

But more to the fun part about Djibouti and photography. Talking economy, you won't believe how much money one of the poorest nations on the planet can spend daily on Khat. Khat? Never heard of it. Or maybe you just recently again heard about a large Khat shipment intended for the USA intercepted by customs authorities?

Unfortunately, we can't locate the blogpost of an American military reporter about his Djibouti experience and Khat, but in short

As a recreational drug, the leaves and stems are chewed by people in East Africa and the Arabian countries to elevate mood (as a euphoriant). As a medicine, khat leaf is used for diabetes, muscle strength, depression, fatigue, obesity, stomach ulcers, headache, and male infertility

So, when you are in Djibouti around lunchtime wondering why many of the people on the street stare up into the sky, it is the passenger flight from Ethiopia they look for transporting the bundles of Khat leaves. The blog described Khat (also known as qat or chat) in a fun-to-read story, how it is offloaded from the plane before any passengers are allowed to disembark. Then the drug is transported and distributed by one of the simplest yet sophisticated systems on its way to the main marketplace in town. From truck(s) bundles of leaves are thrown off at defined distribution spots to vans, from vans to taxi, from taxi to the buckets of traders already waiting. This way a bunch of Khat, which effect is said to last for a maximum of 48 to 72 h after its harvest, lands in a trader's bucket fast enough for the first consumer already waddling down the road for a relaxing afternoons munch.

This is when humans turn into cows, chewing a cheek full of Khat with green teeth over and over again, like when I eat my all-favorite poppy seed cake here in Bavaria.

But before I get carried away with more stories around Qat, its side effects or medicinal benefits, etc. back to photography in Djibouti. You may of course google for more details.

Important: Despite the genuine hospitality we found throughout the country DO NOT PHOTOGRAPH PEOPLE without explicit prior approval. My early photography days I almost learned this the hard way in Djibouti. Also, leaving the capital city I highly recommend always having a professional guide with you. Not just for guiding but for safety, our guide for example was a French national who was even by the locals acknowledged as a nomad.

Travel Photography in Djibouti, especially landscape and wildlife photography. Some of you may remember breathtaking landscapes from a bunch of famous movies done in the country. The one illustrating most what photography in Djibouti is about is Planet of the Apes, surreal landscapes for example at Lake Abhe Bad. Here is a link to a list of more movies for your easy reference and inspiration

My personal Top 10 photography places discovering Djibouti

  • Lac Assal the Salt Lake is the most known tourism spot in the country. The 1.5 h drive is well worth it, just don't drive on the salt surface even if you see any locals doing so as we almost sunk our car with the ground collapsing. Scary moment at 40-50km/h. Lake Assal is a saline lake that lies 155 m (509 ft) below sea level in the Afar Triangle, making it the lowest point on land in Africa and the third-lowest point on Earth. At and around the lake there is plenty of photography opportunity. Ideally, you come for sunrise or sunset, the salt traders might however not be around then. Still, as usual, it's the better photography time especially since the area tends to get very windy, hazy, dusty during the day.

Lake Assal and the surrounding landscapes are within easy reach (1.5 h) from Djibouti City.
Road leading to Lake Assal in the far distance

  • Connected to the above you can cover Guinni Koma Island at Lake Ghoubet, stunning lava rock fields and other photography places are nearby. Lake Ghoubet on windy days tends to also draw kite surfers. On the way there tend to be traders on the roadside plus the one or other nice canyon landscape.

Volcanic Island Guinni Koma in Lake Ghoubet
Guinni Koma Island in Lake Ghoubet

  • The Grand Bara Desert landscape is on the way to the next spot (Lake Abhe Bad) below. This desert landscape with plenty of sand, dust as well as cracked mud surface provides the first appetizer to what you will see at Lake Abhe Bad. Djibouti's hidden rock art offers window to the past reads an article on the internet, some of these ancient rock art paintings can also be found here, others are from more recent artists ;-) Also, the one or other wildlife shot may be taken on the way, you'll come across baboons and other wildlife.

Baboons along the road may appear relaxed but don't take any chances.
Far from peaceful as they may look

  • Lac Abbe, Lake Abhe Bad is at least a two-day trip with an overnight at the lake. You may choose to camp or experience my luxury accommodation below. In any way, don't rush off early with a bit of luck you'll experience a sunset not to be missed. The second Salt Lake of Djibouti at the Djibouti-Ethiopian Border. It's one of six connected lakes. The river Awash flows into the no-drain lake. Lake Abbe is the center of the Afar Depression. Here three pieces of Earth's crust are each pulling away from the central point.

Rock and straw built hut nearby Lake Abhe Bad.
A true experience, luxury accommodation by Lake Abbe.

Lake Abhe landscape with flamingo and sizzling limestone chimneys.
Lake Abhe Bad at the Djibouti-Ethiopian Border

  • Foret du day, Djibouti's Day Forest National Park has its own magic but before you make it up the bumpy rubble road into the mountains, please do research the location(s) online so you don't end up complaining like the one or other rocket scientist on TripAdvisor "much of the forest is dead...". It's good to know where one is, what the climate influences are, ... and never forget we are guests in all these places. This is more than a day trip from Djibouti city and to have a nice sunrise and/or sunset I'd highly recommend an overnight in a mountain village called "Banquale". With a good guide, you can also hike up one or another mountain riverbed for some scenic shots. Again, only with a professional guide who knows the area, please.

Colorful Day Forest National Park on a sunny blue-sky day.
The Day Forest National Park in the highlands of Djibouti.

  • Tadjourah, Obock and Ras Siyyan/Ras Bir with the lighthouse are another 2-3 days trip with simple accommodation or camping. On the way you can pass by the Goudaira Mangroves, early morning the harbor in Obock is quite interesting when the fishermen bring in their catch. If you really drive all the way to the volcanic cone called Ras Siyyan or Ras Bir, be ready for an adventurous drive through muddy "Sabkha" along the cost with the 4x4 drifting meters to the left and right not to get stuck. Ras Siyyan is fabulous for camping at the Bab al Mandeb Strait and has a view of the 7 Brother Islands.

Goudaira Mangroves nature reserve can be accessed and discovered by boat.
Goudaira Mangroves accessible on water

Beautiful sunset view of Ras Siyyan volcanic cone to the right and the 7 Brothers Islands in the far distance.
Romantic sunset at Ras Siyyan with 7 Brothers Islands in the distance

  • In case you're into the local wildlife there is a Wildlife Refugee Camp just outside Djibouti City, it seems to be called Decan Refuge now.

  • And last but most certainly not least, considering the 3-4h half-life time of Khat, use the time in between 1300 and 1700 photographing the empty streets of Djibouti City.

  • Moucha and Maskali Island by boat or again with a guide by Jet Ski. This is more for underwater photography.

  • Last but certainly not least: Did you know, the Gulf of Tadjourah is among the places with the highest probability to dive with whale sharks. An experience of a lifetime and with a seasoned captain/guide sailing out between October and March you cannot miss this.

  • Since we always aim to under promise and over deliver - Djibouti sits on the African Rift Valley. The Afar region is home to a triple junction at the boundaries of three tectonic plates: the Nubian, Somali and Arabian. They all meet near Djibouti and neighboring Eritrea. The interesting part for us photographers here is the various signs of the continental rift starting with a crack in the street... Here is a more recent interesting article on the topic.

In case you still don't have enough of Djibouti and continue to discover more please do not forget to comment and link below your findings as I most certainly want to go back one day repeating the tour.

The above are only a few sample shots, more in our Discovering Djibouti gallery. For WallART or licensing requests please contact us through eMail, chat, or contact form on our website.

I will also highlight the above locations and the one or other additional on our private collection of Cool Photography Spots Google My Maps.

To all stock photographers, since 2006 Djibouti is next to one other magical place in Africa, I'll write about in a separate post, the hottest selling destination in our portfolio.

How to get to Djibouti? The best connection is likely to be with Emirates Airlines/Fly Dubai through Dubai, United Arab Emirates, or through Addis Abeba, Ethiopia.

Where to stay in Djibouti? While there is a respectable number of hotels including several internationally branded ones, I do recommend staying at Djibouti Palace Kempinski. The hotel offers a perfect combination of facilities and services in between the day trips out into the country with the one or other overnight (camping) in places like Lake Abhe Bad, Ras Bir, or in the Mountains.

Some other sources and reference sites potentially triggering your interest or assisting your planning stage: Djibouti Tourism Office, Djibouti Palace Kempinski,

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