Most often you see the dorsal fin first. The boat chugs to a halt, and as quietly as you can from 2 feet above the water line, you slip into the water. As with all feet-first entries, you remove the hand pressing the dive mask to your face to be greeted by the explosion of bubbles you carried down with you. In this turbid blue water they resolve gradually into something approaching clarity, and you begin to kick. Carefully of course - you're snorkeling and the trick is to get power from the stroke at the hips without bending at the knees, and slapping your fins on the surface. That's inefficient and inelegant of course, but more to the point it's startling to the scenery. The shouts of the crew and riders on the boat, in French and English direct you at first. "To your right!", "A droit!", and then suddenly the hazy blue resolves itself into a coherent shape. The spots seem at first to be bubbles, or floating detritus, and then they all move in unison and your visual cortex says "Aha!", and a vast fish swims out of the murky sea. Le Requin Baleine, as our French friends call him. The Whale Shark.
Twenty of us had crowded onto a twin hulled dive boat, which met us at the very tip of the peninsula that Djibouti Ville occupies. At about eight in the morning we cast off lines and powered away south and west down the length of the gulf of Tadjourah. For an hour or so we cruised along the austere coastline, the volcanic hills heaping themselves one upon another to our left, as they climbed steadily higher, approaching the great central rift which birthed them millennia ago. The moderation of the searing heat of summer and fall, and the occasional rains of the winter season left the hills and escarpments a bit greener than when last I had ventured down this passage, but in all truth it is a subtle change. To the newcomer to this part of the world I'm sure it would seem desiccated, brown and lifeless. After an hour or so, our skipper slowed us down, and we began to scan the water for large blue shapes, or the tell tale dorsal fins. Within 5 minutes we had spotted our first, and our first group of swimmers took off in pursuit. It took us a couple of tries to get the knack of quiet entry and approach down, and the first few of the great fishes disappeared effortlessly down into turbid blue gulf - a glance of spotted flanks, the graceful sweep of a scythe-like tail and then emptiness.
Finally though we were able to approach without disturbing our quarry, and for a surreal 20 minutes I was able to swim alongside an enormous natural wonder - ranging from the cavern like immensity of the mouth, watching the huge gills filter the plankton rich waters, contemplating the slow arc of the tail as it propelled this great and gentle creature along. At last he left - swimming with stately grace deeper down toward the sandy bottom some fathoms below. For a few moments, suspended above him, I watched the whale shark fade from view - vast, mysterious and altogether wonderful. It was as if Djibouti had yielded up the last of her great wonders during my last day here on the Horn.
For that is what this is. The Whale shark trip was 2 weeks ago, and tonight as I write this is my last night in Djibouti - presuming the notoriously unreliable rotator flight is on time. We are to report at 0300 tomorrow, and with any luck at all sometime later we will start the long, circuitous flight home.
"Home". You can only really experience all the nuance that word can hold when you are long away from it. The absolute ache for things familiar, comfortable and well loved. The never quite silent hunger for the sight and sound and feel of wife and child. Has it been worth it? I think so, yes. This has been a great and interesting time. I don't know that I have extracted every lesson there was to be learned here, but I have made good friends, seen all manner of amazing, appalling and inspiring things, and tried to profit as much by opportunities afforded here in this corner of the world. I believe that we are doing - or trying our best to do - great work here. The shape of what we want to achieve - helping a volatile part of this old continent develop its own solutions to the myriad daunting problems which beset it - swims constantly before us, now clear and distinct and now lost in the turbid complexities of geography and human nature.
I'll end here. It's midnight, and I have about 2 hours to try to sleep. I'll try to write more - to ruminate a bit on my time here - but this will serve as finis for a while. Many thanks to those of you who kept in touch, who waded through these maunderings and who supported me and my family. God bless you all, and allow me to wish you joy on your own travels, and happiness on your return home.