ARTA BEACH, Djibouti --
Located around the Horn of Africa, the jut of land south of the Red Sea and west of Oman and Yemen at the bottom of the Saudi Arabian peninsula, just across the water, it’s geographically related to Oman, if not directly. Cousins perhaps. Twisted volcanic rock reaching hundreds of feet into the sky next to long dry river valleys, all beat flat by incredible heat that goes unrelieved by the wind that blows inconstantly down them. The rock, folded by whatever processes created it, looks alien in stark headlights, driving past it at night – you can almost place yourself in some sci-fi movie looking at the shadows as you drive through the canyons, engine roar echoing off the rock.
The heat saps Djibouti; a process of just draining any desire to move as the day goes on. Even in the shade of the camouflage nets, it’s dead hot out here.
Sleeping out here is different. No longer the cool of dissipating heat typical to other deserts, it’s still uncomfortably warm long after the sun sets. Either way, you’re waking up in a puddle of your own sweat – even the nights are tropical hot.
They say it rains in Djibouti twice a year. We were fortunate to be present for one of those. The sky flickered for hours – heat lightning, nothing more, I thought. Last time I saw something like that was Philadelphia on the 4th of July a year ago, walking back from the festival and the fireworks with friends, watching the sky spasm, waiting for the rain to pour. It was a want that went unrealized. Not so in Djibouti.
Heat lightning tears through the sky – silent, spooky, flickers all around us, like reflections from some celestial event above the cloud layer. I remember stepping out to use the bathroom, walking through the silent camp, dead save the wind, the square edged shadows of trucks and tracks and trailers and generators and the assorted accoutrements of expeditionary warfare, and the occasional sleepy eyed glance of Marines on duty, trudging around, wearing a track into the dust. Walked out, walked back, went to sleep, lying out on my sleeping mat, sleeping without any sort of bag or blanket, so warm was the night.
Twisted into motion literally without conscious thought as the rain started to fall, tearing into my backpack for a waterproofing bag to jam my camera and computer and clothes into before the rain soaked them. The camp, exploding like a trodden-upon anthill, bodies running everywhere, flashlights flickering as they’re waved to and fro, yelling and responses, everyone trying to secure their gear at once, to hide anything electronic from the sudden deluge. Pulling my sleeping bag’s outer layer over me, listening, feeling the rain hit the polyester half-inches from my face. It felt like the water was leaking through, but it was only the cool of the raindrops outside the bivvy sack, the outer protective layer of my sleeping system.
In the morning, it all dried out in hours, like it never happened, save for the pattern of the fallen rain on little patches of dried mud and dirt, away from the camp, away from the wind.
The rest of the country was all valleys. It felt almost computer generated, some random number of valleys and ridges generated by a machine, inserting variances in the peaks and troughs in an unsuccessful effort to break up the monotony. Occasional camels, Djiboutians, wandering from who knows where to points unknown. Walking through the desert with repurposed bottles, holding what I can only hope is water, not, as the labels indicate, motor oil and laundry detergent. Kids, gaping and pointing as we rumble past in amphibious assault vehicles with me looking back at them impassively from atop the vehicles from behind goggles to keep dirt out.
It’s an unlikely and glorious place. It’s the bad parts of the Lion King out here in the desert – the valley of the stampede, the twisted badlands. It’s the line of the fourth continent I’ve been on in nearly as many months. It’s one of the places my father remarked about and somewhere I’ve now seen a bit more of.
There is an upside, another side of the coin.
The beaches are gravel, raised berms at the water’s edge, marked by flotsam lifted to varying levels by the tides. Rusted cans and faded plastic, thousands of flip flops. The breeze is less inconstant, and it’s a few degrees cooler, on the edge of the salty sea. Salty is not writer’s alliteration here – any swimming in the water leaves you covered in a film of salt, drying you out before the sun starts to drain the sweat out of you again, mere minutes after leaving the water.
Under the water, though, all the desolation of the land is forgotten. Coral outcrops grow on bottom rocks, fish swimming everywhere, punctuated by the occasional ray, or octopus, or eel. At the sun’s peak, the colors of the fish are everywhere – yellow and green and black and vivid electric blue, flitting around little towers of coral or waving fronds of submarine flora, dodging your shadow as you pull yourself through crystal clear water.
Under the water, ten feet from the shoreline, this is a different world.