It was a welcome surprise when my passport was handed back to me with permission to freely go. For the previous hour it had been in the possession of a member of the Somaliland Immigration Police Force, whose black-stained teeth and dark wrap-around sunglasses cut something of an ominous appearance as I arrived in a country that doesn’t officially exist.

On most maps, and to most international observers and organisations, the area of Somaliland forms part of a country that continues to be plagued by instability and danger – Somalia. To most other people, Somaliland sounds too much like Somalia to be conceived any differently. ‘Have you not seen black hawk down’? commented one person on Facebook. Mogadishu lies over 1000km away from anywhere I was headed to.

Somaliland map

Somaliland on the map

The truth is that for the past 24 years, when Somaliland claimed independence from its southern neighbour following the break out of fighting several years earlier, the country has witnessed relative peace. Somaliland has its own ruling government, army, currency and free press.

War muriel in Hargeisa

Up until 1960 the area that is now Somaliland was a British Protectorate, and British Somaliland was recognised as independent from its southern neighbour, modern day Somalia, which was then under Italian control.

Despite a relatively untroubled recent past I still wasn’t certain whether cycling here was permitted. The few travel reports that do exist said much the same as my 7-year old Lonely Planet; outside the main towns of Hargeisa and Berbera an armed guard was mandatory for foreigners. It was hard to imagine a soldier with an AK47 over his shoulder pedalling alongside me.

It was not a great shock therefore when I rolled up to a little used border following a peaceful nights sleep in my tent between the Ethiopian and Somaliland immigration posts (the first wild camp since northern Kenya) that I should be pointed to load my bicycle into a waiting vehicle.

No-mans land camp

Despite my passport no longer being in my possession I kept calm and refused, holding onto the handlebars while someone who had been ordered to assist with the loading attempted to relieve me of it.

Words were exchanged amongst immigration police and the driver. I expected a lengthily delay, but was soon permitted to cycle to the nearby town of Borama, 8km away, while this vehicle containing my passport followed closely behind.

I imagined this might be the scenario for the rest of the day, and at some point I would be presented with a bill for the driver’s expense and anyone else who had come along to witness the rare sight of a foreigner on a bicycle in Somaliland.

The fortunate truth was that once another teeth-blackened immigration officer had looked at my passport and visa, deeming it satisfactory to receive an entry stamp, I was free to go.

One of the many problems of not being an internationally recognised country is that there is no international banking system. Somaliland has no ATM machines accepting Visa cards so cash must be brought into the country. Cash means US Dollars.

Soon after gaining my freedom I was in a petrol station forecourt agreeing to change $100 into Somali Shillings. This was a mistake, for it took somewhat longer to count out the 780,000 Shillings, handed over to me in a mixture of 1000 and 5000 denomination notes. I later realised most businesses, be they tin-shack cafes or village shops, readily accept US Dollars, although having much smaller denominations of $1 and $5 notes is obviously preferable when a cup of tea costs about $0.12 and a meal between $1-3.

Somaliland shillings

Unlike other African countries where $50 and $100 notes fetch a higher rate of exchange, here it doesn’t matter what denomination you use to buy Somali Shillings with. 1 US dollar = 7800 shillings and the only notes in circulation are worth 500, 1000 and 5000 Shillings.

Most Somalilanders get over this inconvenience by paying for nearly everything with their phone, electronically transferring funds to an account number displayed by the shop, restaurant or whatever business in question they are paying.

Somaliland lacks Ethiopia’s dramatic scenery, but I soon realised there was none of the roadside frenzy of shouting, chasing and stone throwing as I headed in the direction of the capital, Hargeisa.

The fact that there are far less people living here and very few foreign visitors is one reason to account for this relative normality. Indeed the semi-arid shrubbery at the roadside is more suited to goats than human habitation. There are more than twice as many of them (over 8 million) as there are people (3.8 million) here. Wild camping in such a setting is easy, although hyenas are also common. Now that I’m trained in feeding them I didn’t fear hearing them too much at night.

Wild camping in Somaliland

At least half-a-dozen Police check posts broke up the 120km journey between Borama and Hargeisa, but the effect of qat chewing, which is as ubiquitous here as eastern Ethiopia where its mostly grown, fortunately seemed to have more of a tranquillising effect on  those who manned the rope across the road. A few greetings, smiles and a simple explanation of nationality, where I was coming from and going to was usually sufficient to be on my way again. No one asked for money nor made life difficult.

In comparison to Ethiopia, people, for the most part, seemed wonderfully welcoming and civilized. Perhaps it was the traces of colonial history, or just a strong Muslim identity where the duty to respect and welcome the few visitors that do come here was being adhered to.

People frequently slowed down in passing cars to greet me, quickly asking my name and where I was from. Some spoke fluent English, having spent time overseas – be it in America, the UK or somewhere else in Europe. They were returning to visit family or set up a business in Hargeisa.

Roadside chat

Education seems to be taken seriously here, at least if the number of schools and universities is anything to go by. Hargeisa is full of them, as it is pharmacies.

‘Good business’, explained Ismail, a young Somalilander, educated overseas but now back to help run his family clinic in the capital.

Fortunately I had no need to visit a Somaliland pharmacy, but wondered what regulations existed to ensure the authenticity of medicines sold.

I stayed in Hargeisa’s oldest hotel – the Oriental, during my time here. Compared to Ethiopian standards accommodation in Somaliland is definitely an improvement, although that isn’t saying much when I think of some of the bed-bug filled cells I passed a night in there.

Internet is also an improvement. Mobile Internet in Ethiopia is amongst the most expensive in Africa. It’s cheaper in Somaliland and the broadband service is far faster owing to a fibre-optic cable linked to Djibouti.

Too bad there is no alcohol. Other than sit in the company of other men and drink Ethiopian coffee, fruit juice or chew qat, there isn’t a huge amount to do in Hargesia. By 9pm most streets are deserted.

Like lots of other Muslim countries I’ve travelled through it was plainly obvious how much of a man’s world this was. I could freely walk around day or night and sit to eat and drink wherever I chose. A single foreign woman would either have to be very brave or in the company of other women or some male friends to feel quite so comfortable to explore.

Outside my hotel window

This doesn’t mean to say Hargeisa was dangerous – quite the opposite in fact. Walking around the congested and chaotic streets it was easy to be drawn into friendly conversation with people. At first I was wary and assumed there must be a catch. There are almost no big cities or capitals in Africa where anyone who approaches you for conversation has merely a conversation and offer to freely help in mind. Sad, but true. Hargeisa, for the most part I think, defies this. Whether I was sitting in a busy restaurant in the centre of the city or visiting the capital’s livestock market, as I did one morning, people were mostly curious, sometimes too much so.

Clothes market from my hotel window

Hargeisa market

Livestock market in Hargeisa

Women and goats

Goats for sale in Hargeisa.

I visited the Ministry of Tourism on the morning I left Hargeisa. Somaliland’s main tourist attraction consists of a series of caves filled with ancient rock paintings dated to between 3000-9000BC. Located some 60km east of the capital on the way to the coast, entrance to Las Geel, I had been informed, needed permission from the ministry and payment of $25.

In a country whose annual number of tourists runs to hundreds rather than tens of thousands, the friendly team of Somalilanders weren’t particularly busy when I arrived at the ministry, issuing the permit within a few minutes. No mention was made of a mandatory armed guard, and I politely refused the offer of having a letter written for me at the cost of $20 to explain to the police at various check posts what I had successfully already been doing.

At Somaliland's Ministry of Tourism

Las Geel, should you ever be in Somaliland, is well worth the visit. Not only is the site surrounded by some magnificent desert scenery, but it’s more or less guaranteed that the experience of viewing these ancient rock paintings will be done so alone, which adds to experience.

View from Las Geel caves

View from Las Geel

Las Geel rock art

Las Geel rock art

Las Geel rock art

Las Geel rock art

Somaliland desert

Somali house

Camping here also made the trip memorable. Rain started falling shortly before I arrived and pitched my tent next to a wadi. What had been a waterless bed of sand dramatically transformed into a fast-flowing river within seconds as I watched a surging body of brown foam roar its way past my tent, safely pitched 10 metres away.

Camp at Las Geel

‘Are you the guy trying to get a boat from Berbera’, said a female voice from inside a car the next day as I headed towards the coast. Indeed I was. This had been on my mind for days, weeks in fact. How I was going to proceed from Somaliland. Soon I was about to find out.

The American tourist and her German travel partner were visiting the coast for the day in a private car, having also stayed at the Oriental Hotel, where they’d obviously heard about me. I saw them again later in the day on their way back, the passenger seat now occupied by an armed policeman.

It seemed absurd that here I was out on the road alone, passing through check posts more or less freely, while other tourists were renting cars and so called mandatory armed guards when I suspect they could have been using local buses. If there was a danger from terrorism or kidnappings it wasn’t apparent. Not one Somalilander warned me of any threat to being on these roads alone. There were so many check-posts and the desert landscape impossible to traverse by vehicle that unless I was going to be kidnapped by helicopter I really didn’t see any threat.

Desert scenery in Somaliland

I’d told plenty of Somalilanders about my plan to leave the country by boat from Berbera. The responses had been optimistic. ‘Oh don’t worry you will find one, inshallah’, had been the general reply. Little did I know then how much the word inshallah would unsettle me over the coming days.