Traveling around the Horn of Africa is risky business. However, flight cancellations by Air Djibouti from Somaliland made the situation almost criminal due to visa timing. And don’t get me started on what stress Ethiopian Air put us through. We could have ended up in real trouble.
Read on to find out what happened, how we got ourselves out of a hot load of trouble and the lessons that we learned!
First cancellation: We were travelling from Saudi Arabia to Somaliland. Most of the flights go through Addis Ababa. However, our flight out of Addis to Hergaisa got cancelled. Ok, no worries – since Ethiopian Air provides a free night stay in the Transit Hotel, we reorganized everything for our stay in Somaliland.
So our first lesson learned (we seem to learn this one over and over again), is to stay flexible. Poop happens and we just got to go with the flow.
Lesson #2 - Have Contingency Plans
Once we were in Somaliland, we received a note from Air Djibouti. What?! Our flight is cancelled. No other flights are available within our visa dates. Ok, no problem, I start the process to redo the eVisa for the future flight dates. Nope, the dates are within 3 days and the system will not let me do it.
However, our visa for Somaliland runs out tomorrow…we are stuck between 2 countries. What to do? Ok, Rob finds a flight on Ethiopian Air to take us out of Somaliland in time before our visa runs out. However it is 4 hours too early before our visa starts for Djibouti.
Will they let us on the plane in Hargeisa knowing that our plane will arrive in Djibouti before our visa starts? We are in business so we hope that they do give us the VIP treatment and turn a blind eye. We hold our breath at the airport. The airline counter attendants do have a conversation and we understand that they are discussing the date on our visa.
Ooooh, will they let us on? I can’t hold my breath any more and exhale. The two men shrug their shoulders and motion for us to go ahead. They take us to a special VIP room all done up with gold and crystal chandeliers. You have to keep in mind that the Hargeisa airport is nothing more than a glorified shack. This special room is pretty over the top for their standards. No wifi, but lots of dazzle.
Grateful is nothing short of what we are feeling. Our nerves are frayed as we know that we will need to go through this again in Addis Ababa and then again once we land in Djibouti.
Nonetheless, we have our contingency plan ready: If we are held back in Addis – no problem, we just catch the next flight and pay extra. If we are held back in Djibouti, we just spend the night in the airport until our visa is valid. All will be good unless they send us back to Addis.
Lesson #3 - Communicate Any Way you Can with a Smile
As always the lounge in Addis Ababa is full of good food and drink. And as always the wifi is iffy. No problem, all we can think about is – will they let us on the plane to Djibouti with a visa that is only valid tomorrow? We hold our breath yet again. No one wants to see our visa here and we are motioned onto the plane.
Last step. Yet, this is the most difficult one. What will immigration do to us in Djibouti? We land and are first to walk up to the immigration window. Everything seems to be going well. They take our picture, pick up the stamp….but then the clerks eyes squint. The stamp is put down and we are directed to a set of seats on the side.
Time passes very slowly. It is 20:20 on a Tuesday and our visa is not valid until 00:01 the next day. What will they do to us? Send us back? Put us in immigration jail until the airport reopens in the morning? Only time will tell.
Another officer arrives carrying our passports. He has a very concerned look on his face. Speaking to us in French, the officer questions our intentions. In my rusty French and with the best smile I can muster, I apologize and try to explain that our flights got cancelled and that I could not redo the visa due to the timing.
Hopefully I didn’t say something rude as he finally smiled, scolded us and sent us on our way. Phew!
Lesson #4 - It Can Always get Worse
During the evening of our second last day in Djibouti we received another note. Flight cancelled. No no no… we already got in trouble for getting to the country too early. Our visa expires at midnight tomorrow! The new flight would take us 2 days over our visa. Tomorrow is a Friday, so the embassy would be closed.
To boot, our very expensive tour to the Mundari Tribe in South Sudan starts the day after. The visa for South Sudan is organized accordingly. If we miss this window we are out thousands of dollars! And then of course there is the current visa issue. Yikes!
Lesson #5 - Never Give Up
Air Canada is not picking up the phone – they have not for months! Ok, let’s call Ethiopian Air. Rob is on the phone for over an hour. There is nothing they can do. We beg to be put on an economy flight (we were in business).
No can do they say. Once you are in business to be put in economy has to be agreed to by the supervisors. Are you kidding me?! Wait until you get a call tomorrow, they say. Tomorrow?! How are we supposed to sleep?
In the morning, no call comes. We are supposed to check out in a few hours and head to the airport, but of course the airline (which cancelled our flight) is not letting us on to this flight, which actually has seats. What the heck?!
We call again. Another 1.5 hour call. More pleading and begging. We are told to wait. Wait? Wait for what? The supervisor’s supervisor gives us their email address. There seems to be some kind of progress. As hours pass we keep on emailing.
The flight that we are hoping to get on would leave at 5 pm to Addis. We would overnight in Addis and hopefully get on the early morning flight to Juba in time to get to the Mundari Tribe by sundown (and within all the visa contraints that we have). Another hour passes…We email again!
And a miracle happens. We get the confirmation email. The head honcho was somehow able to get us on the flights all the way through to Juba.
Had we just waited and not called back in the morning, then not emailed and emailed, none of this would have happened. We were dogged and resilient. So our last lesson learned in this unpleasant process of flight cancellations and visa issues is to never give up! There is always another channel to try, another person to call or email.
Djibouti as a Travel Destination
During our stay in Djibouti we realized that this is a military country. Basically the only “friendly” for all the allies to place their military on the Horn of Africa.
The large mall in Djibouti City felt like a mall in “anywhere USA”. For us, it was a great place to take out USD from an ATM machine as long as you don’t mind paying $20 USD for every $500 USD taken out.
The highlights for this country are:
- Lake Abbe – this is a destination that can only be reached with a guide as there are no clear roads to get there. In addition an overnight there is recommended as it takes over 6 hours to get there (one way). This is known as the jewel of Djibouti due to it’s unusual limestone chimneys.
- Lake Asaal – is a salt lake that is 10 times more salty than other seas and is the lowest depression in all of Africa. It is a 2 hour drive from the city and can easily be done with a regular car on your own. If you can bring extra sun glasses to leave with the Afar Tribe that mines the lake.
- Arte Beach: Swimming with Whale Sharks – Arte Beach (Plage des Artistes) is an area that only a 4X4 can get to. It is not a great beach destination for swimming, however there are boats there that take you 30 minutes from the beach to swim with whale sharks. This is an incredible experience!
So many lessons learned travelling in the Horn of Africa! In our opinion, Djibouti is not a destination that we care to return to. We are in the process of visiting every country in the world – so as part of our goal we had to come here. However, it is not a travel destination that we can recommend.
Yet, we did learn some very important lessons in the process. Most importantly, to always be flexible, to have contingency plans, to communicate any which way that you can and to never give up!
Have you been to this country? What did you think? We would love to hear from you!