Staying healthy & safe in Djibouti

There's more than an apocryphal movie set to see in Djibouti... but take care!

Lights! Camera! Action! Lake Abbe is one of the most famous attractions in Djibouti, a salt lake situated on the border with Ethiopia and one of a chain of six connected lakes in Africa. Travellers journey to the Lake to see the 50m limestone chimneys; the pink flamingos; the salt flats; the incredible sunrises... and to see where the last scene of Planet of the Apes (the original 1968 version) was filmed.

(The real lake. No Statue of Liberty.)

Except it wasn't. The film set story is widespread, but is probably a concoction of some local entrepreneur who's been cashing-in on the tourists ever since.

The "Statue of Liberty buried in the sand" scene was shot on the eastern end of Westward Beach, Malibu, California. Sorry to burst your Planet Of The Apes-buff bubble, but nor was the "forbidden zone" filmed in Djibouti, go to Horseshoe Bend in Arizona's Glen Canyon for that.

Still, there's always the pink flamingos and limestone chimneys, just don't drink the lake water, it's poisonous!

Crime

In general crime levels in Djibouti are relatively low and not just compared to some of its immediate neighbours (think Somalia and Eritrea). That's not to say that the country is crime free so you should always use your common sense and be particularly alert for pickpockets and theft in general.

There have also been some reports of occasional banditry outside the Capital.

Like anywhere in the world it is wise to avoid travelling alone to isolated places particularly coastal areas like Dorale and Khor Ambado - which are very isolated. As always, walking around after dark on your own is not safe.

Natural Hazards

Djibouti has an incredible landscape, so maybe they should use it as a film location. However, its beauty hasn't come without cost. The country is renowned for its seismic activity and Scientists are predicting that over time (read millions of years) Djibouti will disappear into the ocean having finally been pulled apart by the African, Somali and Arabian tectonic plates which are separating at about 2cm per annum.

The general rule of thumb for earthquake safety is DROP, COVER and HOLD ON. So, drop to the ground; take cover and hold onto something solid until the shaking stops.

(A couple of locals waiting out the latest tremor.)

Don't Chat Too Much

Being a predominantly Muslim Nation Djibouti is fairly conservative, but not restrictively so. Be respectful of local culture and dress conservatively especially in rural areas.

Be particularly aware of the restrictions and customs during Ramadan. If in doubt ask a local for advice.

Throughout Djibouti the leafy narcotic chat is widely chewed and while it's legal in Djibouti it is not elsewhere so don't even think about stashing a bit to show your mates at home. Strangely, chewing narcotic weed and drinking are both legal, but public displays of drunkenness can result in a two year prison term so watch your intake.

Homosexuality is illegal as is photographing public infrastructure (including but not limited to public buildings, seaports, the airport, bridges, military facilities or personnel). If caught your photographic equipment will be confiscated and you risk being arrested. Hunting is also forbidden by law.

Cash Only

You should also be aware that Djibouti is a cash economy and credit cards are not widely accepted. ATM machines are limited you can count them on one hand! Changing money on the street is legal, but be aware of possible scams as well as personal safety considerations if people observe you carrying large amounts of cash. The exchange rate on the street will be similar to that at a bank or hotel.

Health Issues

Like many African nations; Malaria and dengue fever are prevalent in Djibouti. Travellers who become ill with a fever or flu-like symptoms while travelling and up to one year after returning home should seek prompt medical attention and tell the physician their travel history and what anti-malarial drugs they have been taking. In 2005 polio was found in all of Djibouti's neighbours (Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Yemen) and health professionals strongly suspect it is present in Djibouti. Tuberculosis is also an increasingly serious health concern in Djibouti.

Also, in May 2006, avian influenza was confirmed in three chickens and one human in Djibouti. In an effort to combat the virus, immigration authorities at Ambouli International Airport take travellers' temperature before admittance to the country. If a visitor is found to have a fever or otherwise appears to be sick, they may be detained or denied entrance.

Djibouti Vaccinations

You should consider the following vaccinations before travelling to Djibouti:

  • Hepatitis A & B

  • Typhoid

  • Meningococcus

  • Rabies

  • Revaccination / booster shots for Measles, Mumps and Rubella and Tetanus-Diptheria

Mind Your Step

Ok, so crime isn't such a problem in Djibouti, but getting around might be. While the country has been declared a "mine-safe" country, this only indicates that landmines have been identified and marked, not that they have been removed.

Landmines are prevalent in the northern districts of Tadjoura and Obock and the southern district of Ali Sabieh.

In addition, there may be mines in the Ali Sabieh area of the south.

Travellers should stay on paved roads and should check with local authorities before using unpaved roads or any area Off the Beaten Track so to speak.

Scarey Roads

Roads in Djibouti are not of a good standard. They are often narrow, poorly lit and badly maintained. Roaming livestock are an additional hazard. The standard of driving and vehicle maintenance is generally poor.

Driving at night is extremely dangerous and strongly discouraged on all roads outside Djibouti City. Scared yet?

As if the roads aren't bad enough; minibuses and cars often break down; when breakdowns occur, local drivers usually place branches or rocks behind the vehicle to indicate trouble, but these warning signals can be difficult to identify as such so drivers should be cautious at all times.

Often

Police set up wire coils as roadblocks on some of the major roads, and these may be difficult to see at night. It's best not to travel at night and overland travel should be undertaken in a convoy.

The Tourism industry in Djibouti is in its infancy to say the least. Lower your expectations! The safety standards you might expect of transport and tour operators, including adventure activities, are not always met. Sufficient safety equipment may not be provided and recommended maintenance standards and safety precautions may not be observed.

The only means of public inter-city travel is by bus. Buses are poorly maintained and their operators often drive erratically with little regard for passenger safety.

(A typical Djibouti street - at least they've got air con.)

Border Disputes

Do not travel to the border with Eritrea. From 10 to 12 June 2008, there were military clashes between Djibouti and Eritrea after an incursion of Eritrean forces into the disputed Djibouti border region. This led to casualties on both sides. The situation remains fragile and further conflict is possible.

You should also avoid travelling to remote areas, including the border with Somaliland, in the North-West of Somalia, where the presence of security forces is low.

So remember: drop, cover and hold on this rule should serve you well for both earthquakes and driving in Djibouti.

Good News

The good news about Djibouti: it's a perfect spot for swimming with one of these magnificent creatures, and all you need is a snorkel kit!

(Being this close to a whale shark would be worth all the hassle.)

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2 Comments

  • Mar said

    Hi, when was this article written? Can’t seem to find th date. Thanks.

  • Allyson said

    Hi Mar,

    I believe the article was written two years ago. It, like many others is in the pipeline to be updated.

    Is there something specific you need to know? Or if you have any tips or information for traveling to Djibouti, please feel free to share.

    [email protected]

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