From Hargeisa to the coast at Berbera and the hill town of Sheikh. Orange dots on an otherwise all red FCO map. I'm not sure if driving there counts as ok. I suspect not. The strategic road to the port is crumbling at the edges, but paved all the way (other than the desert turn off to the paintings of course) and it even has yellow central line markings at times. As always, there are numerous roadblocks, ropes stretched across our way and soldiers checking the vehicles. Soldier Abdi puts his beret on when he sees one coming up and chats to the guards on duty and they let us through.
My hotel is on a beach on the Gulf of Aden; it’s a flat rocky stretch, scattered with bottles. It reminds me of a semi cleared waste dump. The surf is high, and some locals are frolicking in the waves, fully dressed of course. I don’t think that’s for me, and I can imagine the uproar if I actually take my clothes off. Besides, the relentlessly blue sky has given way to cloud and drizzle. My bungalow room is comfy, until some little brown bustards (aptly named) begin to party on the corrugated roof.
Berbera is sited on a strategic point at the entrance to the Red Sea and the UAE are commissioning a military base here, an interesting development in the ongoing Cold Wars with Iran, and with the west. There’s an atmospheric port area, with a fish market and a cluster of associated restaurants and numerous faded and collapsing buildings, British and Ottoman, finally ravaged by the war. It’s very quiet - Guide Badri explains that this is because it’s cloudy and people have stayed in bed.
The road ascends, through increasing cloud cover, to the little town of Sheikh, atop the mountains, where more crumbling buildings are testament to the British rule. There’s the remains of a fortress and the governor’s house. We eat lunch in a tent that’s part of a wayside restaurant – tuna fingers, goat soup and rice. Animals come to beg for titbits, there’s a tabby cat at our feet and some horns appear at the head of the table. ‘Fucking goat,’ shouts Abdi. It appears that’s he knows more English than I thought.
Now, back to Hargeisa
Today, I’m bouncing over desert in Somaliland yet again, but this time on the road from Hargeisa with three men. Guide cum driver Badri and soldier guard Abdi have been joined by Mohammed, a professor of archaeology from the Ministry of Tourism. I’ve no idea why, as it’s cave paintings tomorrow. He’s brought his camera, so maybe he just fancied a jolly. The East Africans have a penchant for decorating their cars with hairy mats and this one has shag pile seating in back with sheepskins in front, even over the gearstick. It’s also left-hand drive designed, as are nearly all the vehicles here, even though the road is right hand drive, to align with most of Africa. It makes for interesting overtaking, with Abdi shouting directions.
Bedri has good English as long as you stick to very basic vocabulary - he's self taught. Abdi has a very limited repertoire of phrases and Mohammed speaks some English. But his accent is so thick I can’t understand a word he says. I’m not being consulted on in car entertainment. They are alternating wailing Somali music with very loud conversation. The Somali language is even more guttural than Arabic. Abdi sounds as if he’s gargling a lot of the time. Maybe he is. They’ve also bought khat, the local variant on coca, to chew, from one of the many roadside booths. The leaves are smaller than coca and it’s sold in spriggy bundles. I’ve tried it, but it’s horribly bitter.
The desert here has greener shrub than in neighbouring Djibouti and a variety of succulents and little red to yellow sunrise effect sand hillocks appear, as we near the escarpment, of Ga'an Libah, which is our goal today. It must be glorious when all the aloes flower. The inducement for our journey is a view and a variety of wildlife. But the fauna must all have disappeared to Djibouti, where I was very lucky – there’s a few fleeting gerenuks and a solitary dik-dik. It takes three and half hours to reach a small gated encampment. Mohammed points out everything remotely connected with colonial times on the way – he is very keen on British references -and there are old, very crumbling British buildings here in the breezier highlands.
We have lunch in a compound sitting on mats. The air is fresh and birds and papery white butterflies hover over head. Badri has bought supplies from the supermarket (as well as khat) and our feast comprises dates, Pringles and Nutella and peanut butter (together) sandwiches. We are joined by two Somalilanders who now live in Canada and the USA, also out exploring. Finally, I am taken to see the view from the top pf the ridge, across the green stippled desert and almost out to sea. The sun catches dots of tin roofs marking villages on the winding road, shimmering in the distance. ‘This is where the British drank their tea,’ says Mohammed.
We halt on the way back so Badri and Mohmmed can pray in the bushes. Abdi stays with me, still wielding his gun. 'Security,’ he beams, flicking khat around. He has a very cheeky face. We jolt back across the sand, all three of them singing tunelessly along to the radio. Mohammed arranges coats for me to rest my head on and tries to persuade me to sleep on his lap. It’s been an utterly surreal day.
We’re driving west in Somaliland today, along a road that is being rebuilt and extended to Ethiopia. The Ethiopians seem to have been very busy on the access to port front lately. The road has just been inaugurated and there’s a Kenyan media delegation in my hotel, filming the event. Then we leave the main ‘highway’ for another off-road desert rally driving experience. The scenery is not dissimilar to yesterday. Distinctive snow-white sheep with coal black heads form picturesque groupings under trees. The nomad tents in Somaliland are also igloo shaped, but covered in a faded patchwork of old clothes flung over plastic sheeting. There is also evidence of some cultivation – rows of umbrella like papaya trees, in orchards.
I’m off to see cave paintings . I’m not wildly excited – rock art has never done it for me before. And these are only billed as the second best in the country. The most impressive are scheduled for tomorrow. It’s Friday, so there is none of the customary nose-to-tail traffic on the pot holed tarmac and scores of camels are out grazing, by the wayside. Badri tells me that the smallest are worth 300 dollars and the largest 1200. I ask if wives are still sold for camels. He says sometimes, but he paid gold for his wife.
There are three caves with paintings, but the 7,000-year-old artwork in two of them has been destroyed by smoke from nomad fires. I’m still struggling to find the primitive pictures of giraffes, dogs and cows interesting, even though it’s incredible that they are so ancient. Badri agrees with me that the surrounding rock formations are much more beautiful. It’s an enormous cluster of striated boulders balanced precariously and artistically by nature. There’s no one else around, unless you count the plaintively bleating goats, whose rest we have disturbed. ‘Hello Sueooooooo’. I’m back in the Antarctic for a second. Badri says that there used to be giraffes and a great deal of other larger mammal life in the area, until the war. The animals (unsurprisingly) left and never returned.
A bodyguard comes in very handy at times. A man yells at me for taking a photo of his orange stall, but quickly changes his tune when Abdi appears, flourishing his rifle. The vendor is soon begging me to take a picture. I decline to do so.
It’s the number one rock painting site in Somaliland today, My abaya is certainly cooler than trousers, but something of a liability scrambling up steep slippy paths lined with thorns.
The paintings here are at least fenced off and guarded, although we are, again, the only visitors. There are several decorated caves, mostly formed by overhanging rocks, the red and white images better preserved and more detailed, cattle mating and men drinking from a cow’s udder. There’s also a proliferation of wild life (at last) inhabiting the rock formations: hyraxes, tiny squirrels, lizards and assorted colourful birds, including hornbills, weavers and the red breasted grosbeak (great name).
On to Berbera and the coast.
Somaliland is the closest I’m going to get to Somalia, given the current situation. I’m not keen on the notion that I might be kidnapped by pirates. And as far as the United Nations is concerned Somaliland is part of Somalia, even though the people of Somaliland don’t agree.
I have to present myself in person for my visa before I can travel here too. The consulate is buried on the ground floor of a small block near the hospital on the Whitechapel Road. I squeeze into one of its Lilliputian offices, no waiting, and am given my visa immediately. On receipt of £30 of course. I’m not asked any questions about my reasons for visiting, though the consular official has quite a lot to say about the stupidity of Brexit.
The flight from Djibouti to Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, covers flattish desert, edging the Gulf of Aden. Now I’m almost on the Horn of Africa itself.
Somaliland is not an internationally recognised country. It is a self-declared republic that has been seeking recognition since 1991.
Somaliland became independent from the United Kingdom in 1960 and then existed as an independent state for five days before it agreed to join the rest of Somalia (previously under Italian rule) to form Greater Somalia. Things didn’t go well. The Somalilanders felt oppressed and took the opportunity to try to claim independence when President Bare’s regime collapsed.
Somalilanders are officially Somali citizens and so need to obtain a passport from the central government to travel internationally, although some countries allow Somalilanders to travel with their Somaliland passport.
The Somali currency, the Shilling, suffers from rampant inflation, so is constantly devalued and its value decreases on daily basis. The current exchange rate is about 8,000 Shilling to the US Dollar. It doesn’t help that the World Bank estimates that 98% of the currency in circulation is fake.
Somalia is one of the poorest countries in the world, with the 2012 Human Development Index putting it among the five least-developed of 170 countries. The poverty rate is very high.
Somaliland, together with the rest of Somalia, is officially, the least visited country in the world.
Somalia is well off tourist limits, due to armed conflict, the ongoing very high threat of terrorist attack and kidnapping, and dangerous levels of violent crime. It's totally coloured in red on the FCO maps. Somaliland is similarly scarlet. though there are orange rings round Hargeisa, the capital, and Berbera, on the coast, as well as the famous rock paintings. Essential travel only. and these are therefore the areas I am travelling to. I have been assured that this is overly precautionary. So I'm a tad surprised when an armed soldier dressed in combat gear, clambers in to the 4WD with Badri, my guide-cum-driver. Badri says he’s called Abdi and he’s coming with us everywhere we go. That certainly wasn’t on the itinerary.
There are a couple of other early surprises. Apparently, I’m expected to cover my hair, which isn’t great news when it’s so hot and I’m ideologically opposed. Not opposed enough to make a stand, travelling on my own, however. Though I’m only complying outside the hotel.
And guide Badri says I shouldn’t go out alone unless I’m wearing a loose skirt. At least that’s what I think he said. His English isn’t always very good. He told me that I need something to cover those round things - I’m not sure if those are my legs or trousers. Or something else?
This is another piece of information I could have done with before I left. I don’t have any skirts with me, let alone loose ones. All the Somali females, even the very young ones, are swathed head to toe in voluminous garments. The dress code is stricter here than in Iran, except that no-one has threatened to cart me off to prison for offending. And I do have my own minder to keep dissent at bay. There’s no alcohol anywhere and the muezzin resounds through my bedroom walls.
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