|Near the Somali border|
We left Djibouti town early this morning, passing a huge US base behind the airport, vast rubbish dumps everywhere, an enormous vehicle graveyard with the shells of hundreds of wrecked cars and trucks, a myriad tyres, and arrived at the border with Somalia for a look-see. Then we turned west past low green bushes, copses of thorn trees with low flat tops, large flocks of goats, a herd of camels, a desert golf course of sand and pebbles with not a blade of grass, make-shift shelters of nets and tarpaulins hanging from scant branches, bunkers left over from World War II to ward off an Italian invasion from its Somali colony – and everywhere arid stoney plain and bushes littered with plastic bags and other refuse.
|Road near the border|
We come to a huge pile of rocks and climb up to see 10,000-year old red rock paintings of giraffes, elephants, oryxes, unfortunately degraded by ultra-modern white graffiti. We drive back across the sun-baked ground, Daniel in desperation. In the distance a large sheet of water stretches out close to the roadway. At last a mirage that I can see! And non-existent reflections of trucks in the non-existent water, too! More mirages.
|Local resident appears from nowhere|
Grand Bara plain
There's a large qat market in Ali Sabieh, and our driver, Adam, now has an enormous bunch of the stuff on his lap, breaking off the leaves and chomping contentedly, the bulge in his left cheek growing exponentially by the minute. This should prove an interesting afternoon's drive. Daniel swears qat's not a soporific, merely a euphoric. Let's see if Adam gets too euphoric and starts dancing and kangaroo-hopping all over the place.
|View of part of Alie Sabieh with refugee camp in foreground|
Now my camera's shutter cover won't close properly; it looks like a drooping eyelid. It must be because I electrocuted it at the bonobos near Kinshasa. We arrive at Dikhil palm oasis. It's 42 Celsius, 108 Fahrenheit, but dry. We stop off for a drink. When we return Adam has a left cheek burgeoning into Mount Everest, teeth and lips green, and an idiot grin on his mug. He still manages to function, though, and we pass the house of an orphanage that a Dubai organisation is building – and of course the usual refuse everywhere, plastic bags clinging to stones or flapping from bushes.
Planet Of The Apes - Groves of greyish brown thorn trees, the same colour as the stoney ground, stretch out towards grey brownish crags and mountains – the moon with trees. It's an ocean of rocks and stones. A small patch of solitary green – the same colour as the driver's mouth – on the cusp of a low cliff shows there must be some water somewhere.
|Ali Sabieh street|
Up close the chimneys are even more fantastic, something to illustrate a Grimms fairy tale. There must be hundreds of them soaring up from multiple bases, reaching up to 150 feet, the largest standing in solitary majesty. Boiling water bubbles up from the ground and the chemicals-laden lake stretches out into the mountains of Ethiopia. At twilight the chimneys take on even more fantastic forms; one looks like a seated lion, another like a wolf baying at the moon, a third like a huge French poodle begging. One more African dusk: the curfew tolls the knell of parting day/The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea... Only this time the herd are eey-oring donkeys belonging to nearby Afar villagers.
|Ali Sabieh railway station|
|Smugglers' camel train|
|Planet of the Apes - Lake Abbe volcanic chimneys|
|Chimneys with bird head in centre|
Volcanic steam pool
|Volcanic steam pool with garbage|
|The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea|
|At left and right, poodles baying at the setting sun|
|Reaching for the sky|