STORY AND PHOTOS PROVIDED BY RACHEL PIEH JONES
Devil’s Island is a bulbous, volcanic island at the innermost part of the Gulf of Tadjourah, an area called the Ghoubet, in Djibouti. Everyone who drives the snaking coastal road from Djibouti’s capital city to Tadjourah passes the bay and comments on the black hill rising up out of the sea. It is tantalizingly close to shore, yet out of reasonable reach due to strong winds and waves.
Stories and myths abound about the island, enclosed on three sides by the East African nation of Djibouti. Djiboutian novelist Abdourahman Waberi wrote a fictional account of a high-security prison on the island in his book Passage of Tears. Explorer Jacques Cousteau supposedly discovered a massive wild beast beneath the water surrounding the island, a beast so terrifying the world was not ready to face its existence. Local legends refer to the island as Devil’s Island, home of the king of the jinn. This devilish king sends out mischievous spirits to disturb swimmers by pulling them down and holding them beneath the water or by stealing any gold jewelry they happen to be wearing.
For my own family, the island represented an opportunity to explore, a chance to touch a piece of earth few people have set foot on, and a new adventure. It is impossible to remember how many times we drove past the island and someone in the car would say, “We need to climb that mountain,” and we continued on without stopping.
Ghoubet-el-Kharab. Maps provided by Wikipedia.
After 20 years in Djibouti, we have climbed every mountain (or it feels like it sometimes), explored every reef, tried to reach every faraway beach. But we had not yet climbed Devil’s Island. We like to climb, explore, and reach new places. But getting to Devil’s Island was going to be hard. Located at the windiest, waviest section of the Ghoubet, we would need boats to reach it.
In April 2023, we were down to our final three months in Djibouti and there the island sat, untouched by us. We needed to conquer it.
My husband, youngest daughter, and I strapped two kayaks to the roof of our Jeep and made the winding drive. We brought waterproof bags of snacks, water, and hiking shoes. Almost immediately after launching into the sea, waves crashed over the orange kayaks as we paddled furiously toward the rounded island. If we stopped for a moment, we lost ground. I leaned into the wind and grunted with each pull, making my daughter laugh. The paddle was brutal and long, an hour with no rest, but we made it to the rocky beaches of Devil’s Island. We slid the kayaks onto shore and raised our paddles over our heads in triumph.
The writer and her daughter on the beach of Devil’s Island.
Towering above us were the “cliffs of insanity”—600 meters (1,900 feet) high. We saw no signs of animal life around us. There were signs of humans—trash and graffiti high on the mountainside, proof that climbing was possible, but we saw no clear path up. We walked around the side of the mountain, but due to the tide and sheer cliffs we were unable to walk the entire way around. We circled back to the beach where the kayaks perched on rocks and strained to look up, up, up, searching for a reasonable path to scramble to the top.
We started up a barely reasonable trail. The rocks were slippery and loose, the climb steep. I stopped about 30 meters up and said, “Nope. I’m not doing this.” My husband and daughter went on without me, and I slid my way back down.
Over the following hour, they hiked up and back while I combed the beach for shells and watched hermit crabs scramble in and out of coral at low tide. I’m a little disappointed that I didn’t continue climbing, but I also am learning to trust my body and my instincts. I had run seven miles that morning and been stoned by a homeless man who sabotaged the end of my otherwise lovely run with a large rock to the ribs. My bruised side ached all day long. I could use that as an excuse. I’m 45 now and generally cautious. I could use that as an excuse.
Do I need an excuse?
We are leaving Djibouti this summer. A Djiboutian friend asked, “What, do you hate us now?” when I told her our plans.
No, I don’t hate Djibouti now. But it is time to leave.
Do I need an excuse?
I am certain there is a metaphor here, and a life lesson, and you, dear reader, are welcome to create one and learn from it. I was content simply to walk along the shore of Devil’s Island and peek into the nooks and crannies of the cliffs, to listen to the waves and wind, and to watch the wind turbines on the Djiboutian coast from this new vantage point. I erased the disappointed feeling and decided to feel content that I had made it this far.
Rachel Pieh Jones writes about life at the crossroads of faith and culture for the New York Times, Christianity Today, Runners World, and more. Her work is influenced by living in the Horn of Africa, raising third-culture kids, and adventurous exploration of the natural world. She has lived in Somalia and Djibouti since moving to Africa in 2003. Currently, she and her husband run the International School of Djibouti. Rachel is the author of Pillars: How Muslim Friends Led Me Closer to Jesus and Stronger than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa. Visit her at www.rachelpiehjones.com or her Substack Stories from the Horn.