I THOUGHT I WAS THE ONLY BRIT IN DJIBOUTI UNTIL I WENT INTO THE DESERT. There, on a dried-up lakebed miles from anywhere, with nine Belgians and a Liechtensteiner, six grumbling camels and several happy Djiboutians, I met the other one.
He was training the French Foreign Legion in desert survival and was, I think, as surprised as I was to find a fellow-countryman in such a remote place. But Djibouti likes throwing surprises at you.
Located just outside the bottom of the Red Sea and surrounded by Ethiopia and Eritrea, this small country lies bang on the start of the East African and Red Sea Rifts. The area is an epicentre for earthquakes caused by tectonic plates moving apart. Thousands of years from now, we are told, Djibouti and the surrounding nations will become a huge island.
I went there mainly because of an abundance of whale sharks that gather in the Gulf of Tadjoura, a body of water known as the Devils Cauldron - apt, considering the volcanic and geological turmoil going on beneath it.
In November, December and January, whale sharks are supposed to be found in spectacular concentrations. Yet this year they had dispersed early, for some reason. We would see a few, but it was as hit and miss as elsewhere in the world. The lack of leviathans wasnt as big a let down as it could have been, however, but it should be stressed that diving in the Devils Cauldron is not for holiday divers expecting spectacular visibility, no currents and friendly fish.
As a body of water, the Devils Cauldron is neither huge nor deep. Together with a sun so hot that it would melt the Gates of Hell, this creates conditions ideal for a plankton explosion. It is full of plankton for much of the year, which makes the water greenish and keeps viz to 10-12m. However, this weak pea-soup consistency is what makes Djibouti so appealing to adventurous divers.
Plankton is the bottom rung of the marine ecosystems long ladder of life, and where there is plenty, marine organisms from brittlestars to whale sharks thrive. The largest fish in the world feeds on the smallest creatures and in places along Djiboutis coast the plankton forms a living soup. Such an area close to Arta Beach, cited as one of the best places to find whale sharks, was where our safari boat headed first.
On the way we stopped to dive a rock outcrop that broke the surface a few hundred metres from shore.
This gave the disjointed group - me (speaks only English), nine Belgians (Flemish, French and English) and a French divemaster (little English and no Flemish) a chance to see how we all dived.
The Belgians, part of a large dive club in Antwerp, were used to horrendous North Sea conditions and proved to be fantastic divers.
Apart from the visibility - more like a watery French onion soup here - the dive made an excellent introduction. It started over a gentle slope that descended to 15m before dropping more sharply to 32m.
The coral and fish life were disappointing, akin to a beaten-up Red Sea reef, until we rounded a corner and the seascape rose like a drunk on a Friday night and smacked me in the face.
A shoal formed by several fish species filled the water column from the coral almost to the surface. It was joined by several lionfish in the reef crevices, a huge sting ray, about five blue-spotted rays and a patch of sand covered in small holes filled by partner gobies and their symbiotic shrimps.
As time ran low we moved up the reef slope into extremely shallow water and, my fin-tips touching the surface, rounded the outcrop to move into deeper water on the other side. The water was clearer and the coral more profuse, yet with bugger-all fish life.
Fish feed on plankton or other fish eating the plankton, so were concentrated on the lower-visibility side. Coral prefers better clarity, as the symbiotic algae that lives in each polyp can photosynthesise in the sunlight to feed its host.
Once moored, we headed around the headland in a small launch on our first whale shark search. I wasnt hopeful. The sky was cloudy and the water chopped up by a stiff breeze.
Near Arta Beach, the divemaster stood on the prow and searched for dorsal fins. This lonely place hosts a French Foreign Legion training camp and a few snorkellers from Djibouti town with a 4x4 (the only way to reach the stony beach).
Running with the wind, conditions werent too bad, but when the boat turned it felt as if someone had switched on a huge fan and was pelting us with buckets of water.
Whitecaps broke everywhere and the fierce wind blinded us with spray. I didnt want to find a whale shark in this. Conditions were as far from perfect as reality TV is from entertaining. It was a relief to get back to the boat.
As night fell, the clouds cleared and a spectacular desert night filled the view with a billion stars. On the top deck, where we slept, I lay down to take it all in. Its a rare treat to see so much of the cosmos and it made even those elusive whale sharks seem small.
After dinner, the Belgians put the beer aside and started on drinks a little stiffer. Many divers enjoy a drink after a days diving, but these guys had brought an off-licence, and a fancy one at that. Aged single malts from Scotland, Ireland and the USA were joined by Sambuca, Baileys and other quality beverages. And each night they got through at least two bottles.
Next morning we headed out again in the warming desert sun. With only a gentle breeze, surface conditions were perfect for fin-spotting but after a fruitless hour, dejected and frustrated, we headed for a dive instead.
At the edge of the bay in which we were anchored was a steep sloping reef which topped out at 14m and went down to 38m. Visibility was only slightly better than the previous days.
It was a pretty slope, with plenty of coral and fish and even a couple of whitetip reef sharks on the sandy patches, but it wasnt awe-inspiring until we started back. At the top of the reef, previously hidden by the poor viz, was a clownfish metropolis of commuter-clogged proportions.
Anemones and clownfish are not that unusual, but neither is a Ford Focus. A hundred Focuses driving round the M25 together would draw curious looks, and the massed anemones had the same effect on me.
The wind picked up after lunch and threatened to turn us inside-out as we resumed our fruitless search near Arta Beach.
That afternoon, after a pleasant shallow dive on a finger reef, I got a call from Bruno Pardigon of Dolphin Dive Excursions, the boat-owner.
A producer/director from the US Fox News Network wanted to do an and finally piece about the whale sharks. Could I help film his presenter in the water with one No problem, I said, except that we hadnt seen any.
Undeterred, he arranged to meet us next morning. I went to sleep to the sound of bottles clinking downstairs.
As the sun rose and warmed my back, the dive launch headed for Arta Beach. We picked up the Fox News crew of three plus Bruno, a happy French lawyer who had chosen the desert life. He was keen to show off the whale sharks, and 10 minutes later I was dropping into the water next to a 6m adolescent male we had located just past the Legion camp.
It had a massive healed propeller scar just forward of its dorsal fin. It didnt appear to hamper the animal but was a stark reminder of the threat these fish face from mankind.
He swam slowly, gigantic tail swishing gently, but I still had to fin as if my legs were about to fall off to keep pace.
My video camera rolled almost constantly, as I sensed that this could be my only chance to swim with a whale shark on this trip.
With the footage for Fox in the can, the whale shark drifted away before I could capture any stills. Back on the safari boat I skipped the next dive to air my footage.
So guess what happened Yep, the Belgians saw three whale sharks. If you ever find yourself diving with me, swim the other way. Im cursed!
We decided to move the following day to the other side of the Cauldron and Devils Island. As if to send us on our way, a whale shark appeared that night, drawn to the plankton attracted by the boats lights. The 8m fish circled a few times but disappeared just as I got my camera into position. Typical!
The Belgians were having a fantastic time. In one day they had seen four whale sharks. No wonder they were so happy - or was it the whisky and Baileys
Towards the end of the Cauldron, and about halfway across, a reef rises to 12m and falls steeply to 38m. It is exposed and requires calm weather, a fairly strong nerve and little current to dive it.
We went straight off the safari boat but it didnt anchor. The reason became apparent once we reached the reef, because on the upper surface no bare rock was visible, just masses of soft coral trees waving in the sub-aquatic breeze. I had never seen such a concentration in one place.
Among it were several hawksbill turtles, groups of bannerfish, numerous wrasse, butterflyfish and angelfish. It was a mad, mad dive and a reminder of why there is far more to Djibouti than whale sharks.
At Devils Island, a beach is set aside for rich Djiboutians to enjoy weekends away from the city. It was Tuesday, so there wasnt a soul around.
After a rather ordinary reef dive, made more enjoyable by watching several species of partner gobies bossing their symbiotic shrimps around as they constantly dug the hole both species shared, we enjoyed a meal on dry land.
Some of the Belgians, after sampling several different whiskies, let their hair down. They spent the night on the beach and by 11.30 were running into the sea stark naked. At around 12.30 they settled down (I had made the right choice and slept on the boat) but by 4.30 they were up again. Those Belgians knew how to have fun!
The mornings dive was at the end of Devils Island on a beautiful wall, and the Belgians were still in surprisingly good humour. The site was a steeply sloping wall with good visibility (by Djiboutian standards) and more recognisable as a good Red Sea dive.
There were pelagic and reef-dwelling fish in good concentrations and the coral was pristine, as shown by the quantity of delicate table corals.
Heading back to Djibouti town, we stopped overnight at Musha Island to dive two wrecks the following day.
Within half an hour we were visited by a small RIB with a big gun and even bigger French military personnel. They use the country as a training base and provide much of its military protection.
Our visitors were on an anti-pirate patrol. Pirates from Yemen are still a problem, especially for shipping around the bottom of the Red Sea, and the French patrols keep them outside Djiboutian waters. We hope!
Wrecks need time to come good - several years at least. Or so I had thought until I dived the Musha. It had been left to rot in Djibouti port until the authorities decided to clean it, tow it out to Musha Island and sink it. I wasnt expecting much but its in a high-current, high-nutrient environment, so looks as if its been down not five months, as is the case, but five years.
Even the rope leading down was covered in barnacles and the wreck itself was festooned in soft corals and shellfish. A gang of batfish hung next to the bridge on the current side and a shoal of snappers danced over the wheelhouse. Two huge grouper had made the forecastle home, and inside were glassfish and their worst nightmare - lionfish. This wreck is a living example of what the sea can do very rapidly to man-made objects.
The next wreck had been down longer, but was not in such a high-energy environment.
Sheltered from the current, the 260ft freighter had matured differently. The hull was coated in huge barnacles and oysters and the superstructure was awash with snapper, grunts and angelfish. Being sheltered, this wreck was far easier to dive.
Sub-aquatic scenery apart, Djibouti is just a large lump of desert. I had to see it, so a few hours after making port at Djibouti town, I found myself watching the sun setting over a barren wasteland.
I went to sleep on a camp-bed to the sound of whispered Flemish, low-level Arabic and the grunts and groans of disgruntled camels. I felt like a stranger in a foreign land.
The morning threatened rain and the camels were grumbling. Their handlers have to keep them active during the day to stave off their constant lustful thoughts.
We set off across a landscape of broken rock, palm scrub and dark orange sand. I carried my camera gear and two bottles of water, and the heavy pack soon dug into my back and shoulders though, unlike the camels, I didnt complain out loud.
After an hour we started crossing a dried-up lakebed. I was thankful for the clouds. Under a bare sun, I would have learnt what a roasting chicken experiences. The cracks in the mud deepened and widened until we were walking on fragile columns of dried mud that collapsed under our weight. My strength and resolve was draining, but the only way was forward.
Another hour and we saw clouds of dust and then half-ton trucks and 4x4s. The French Army surveyed us through binoculars, probably wise to check out the rare sight of 11 westerners and eight nationals with a bunch of camels walking over a dried-up lakebed. A 4x4 headed for us and three figures emerged.
French was spoken and I stood not understanding a word until I noticed that one of the men wore a Union Jack
on his uniform. Are you a Brit I asked. He was as surprised as I was.
In a gorge by the lake we ate free-range chicken and lazed for a few hours before starting the three-hour walk to Allouli palm grove, our riverside camp. It was more of a brook, but in a country where it rains only 13 days a year, this was a substantial body of water.
Next morning we set out along the steep-sided Oued River gorge. The river was mostly a trickle and the going fairly tough, with much scrambling over large rocks, but the ships of the desert took it well.
The camel-handlers sang loudly, their voices echoing. At lunch I sat on a small rock and lowered a foot into the cool water flowing towards a lake. The shallow stream came alive with inch-long mottled brown fish nibbling my feet. It was relaxing in the way I imagine a bath of warm baked beans must be. Weird, but therapeutic. I lowered the other foot in as well.
Over the last mile to the dried-up Assal Lake, rock gave way to gypsum beds and solidified larva flows. Close-up, the lake looked like a frozen sea.
Solid waves of salt crunched underfoot. The glare was immense. I was hot, sweaty and squinting, having lost my sunglasses the day before.
The salt could have been anything from 20 to 80m deep, but in the distance I could see Djibouti selling it off fast. I had seen a camel train earlier, but usually nowadays huge lorries cart off what the earth-movers dig out.
Craving a cold drink, I could see our waiting vehicle, but it never seemed to get any nearer. Finally, I stepped into briny water and the salt stung my blisters. I watched the camels coming up behind - it was the end of the road.
Hours later I was back in the international airport, again the only Brit in the place. Oddly enough, knowing that there was another one out there somewhere was a relief.