The beauty of Djibouti: A breath of fresh air in the Horn of Africa

Djiboutian woman

Perched on the Horn of Africa, and controlling access to the Red Sea, Djibouti has become a nerve centre for America's battle with al-Shabab. But despite nestling between some of the world's most dangerous countries, it feels surprisingly tranquil, reports BBC Security correspondent Frank Gardner.

A flag. A great big Stars and Stripes fluttering in the African breeze. That is the first thing I noticed as we landed at Djibouti airport, on the shores of the Gulf of Aden. The only permanent US military base in Africa is right next to the civilian terminal. Gunmetal grey transport planes take their turn queuing on the runway with the incoming Air France Airbus from Paris.

Camp Lemonnier, a former French Foreign Legion base, is so close to the terminal you can actually hear the bugle calls as the US flag goes up and down at the start and end of each day.

When I first came here, 20 years ago, Djibouti still felt very much like a French protectorate. Sunburned legionnaires in khaki shorts and kepis stood watch over arriving passengers. The country, which became independent from France in 1977, had just defeated an insurgency on its border with Eritrea, and there were mine craters in the road out of town. The capital, imaginatively called Djibouti, was dimly lit and dodgy after dark.

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Women in dazzling scarlet dresses charged at the baboons, waving rags and baring their teeth”

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Things have improved here since then. The town has more lighting, the mine craters have been filled in, and the rural signposts with rusting bullet holes removed. The tiny capital, with its broad, leafy boulevards and cafes, also feels more cosmopolitan.

"Frank Gardner," a voice hailed me as I rolled down the street in my wheelchair. "I listen to you on the BBC," he said.

Abdi had spent eight years living in Manchester, now he was teaching at the national university. Coming back to Djibouti after all that time was hard, he said, and he missed the rain, but I was pleased he felt his future was here.


I was hailed too by the town's small colony of beggars on crutches and in wheelchairs. They seemed enormously cheered to see a foreigner visiting in a wheelchair and gave me great slaps on the back and thumbs-up as I rode past.

Europeans do feel curiously at home here. For a country sitting uncomfortably close to two of the world's most tense and dangerous hotspots - Yemen and Somalia - Djibouti is extraordinarily relaxed.

You see French families strolling round town in shorts and skirts, babies cradled on their shoulders, and teenage girls in skimpy T-shirts skipping across the road, smiling at the Djiboutian gendarmes.

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There are bars too, not that we had time to visit them, and I've heard Djibouti described as the Sodom and Gomorrah of East Africa, luring working girls from neighbouring Ethiopia to mingle with French sailors coming ashore on port calls.

Yet for five months the Americans here were confined to their base after security was stepped up following the al-Shabab attack on Nairobi's Westgate shopping mall.

Unlike the French, who often give the impression of being either on holiday or still in charge here, the Americans are very much on their guard for a terrorist attack.

Strapping myself into a Pavehawk helicopter, I took off with the US Air Force combat rescue pilots for what turned out to be the most breathtaking low-level flying over the Rift Valley.

As a routine training flight, the door machine gun was mercifully unmanned and I had an uninterrupted view of the crinkled ravines and dry thorn bushes flashing past just 100 feet below.


We circled Lake Assal, the lowest lake in Africa at 515 feet below sea level. Devoid of life yet stunningly beautiful, its saline surface glittered in the sun, hemmed in by fields of black, volcanic lava. It looked like a landscape from the dawn of time and frankly, a dinosaur would not have looked out of place here.

I longed to be down on the ground myself so on our final day, our broadcasting all done, I flagged down a battered green taxi, agreed an hourly price, and got the driver to take me upcountry to the Rift Valley hilltop town of Arta.

The suburbs of Djibouti are not an appealing site. As the road heads west towards the Ethiopian border you pass through an endless succession of oil-stained workshops, broken engine parts, truck parks and desperately poor shantytowns, a scene relieved only by the vibrant colours worn by the women. But Arta was, quite literally, a breath of fresh air.

High up in the hills, the breeze was warm and clean with the faint scent of jasmine from the walled villas and gardens. I sat on the edge of a precipice, shared a packet of biscuits with Yunis, the driver, and gazed down at the distant shores of the Gulf of Aden.


Suddenly there was a commotion. Shouts and screams from the tiny stone-walled village in the valley below. A troop of fierce looking hamadryas baboons was marauding through the village, led by a large, red-rumped male.

Women in dazzling scarlet dresses charged at the baboons, waving rags and baring their teeth. The animals regrouped, then slunk away, probably to plan a night-time return.

But for now, peace had returned to Djibouti's tranquil Rift Valley.

Photographs taken by Frank Gardner.

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