At first it looked like finding a boat to leave Africa would be easy.

‘Inshallah this will not be a problem’, were Mohammed’s reassuring words as I found myself sat in a newly built air-conditioned office during my first morning in Berbera.

‘We are agents for Maersk. One of our ships will arrive here tomorrow. If the Captain agrees I see no problem for you to travel to Salalah in Oman when it goes back’.

I liked his optimism. This sounded perfect, particularly when I enquired what it would cost me.

‘Oh don’t worry about that. As a Muslim I wish to help and shall see that you go free’.

I went away from his office in high-spirits. What a weight off my mind. Now I could continue exploring what looked to be one of Africa’s most alluring places.

Central Berbera

Berbera’s importance as a seaport goes back many centuries before the British administered it as the capital of their protectorate in 1884. ‘The true key of the Red Sea’ and a ‘harbour coveted by many a foreign conqueror’, was how the explorer Richard Burton described it at a time of Ottoman influence. Arab, Persian, Asian and even Jewish communities all settled here at some time. The evidence of which remains to this day in a fascinating, display of crumbling decay.

Old building in Berbera

Berbera ruins

Berbera ruins

View over Berbera

Were Somaliland internationally recognised I have little doubt that the old quarter of Berbera would be given UNESCO World Heritage status. Here is a time-warped treasure trove of colonial and pre-colonial buildings, most of which were abandoned when Civil War broke out.

Fish warehouse Berbera

Central Berbera

What I first assumed was war-torn damage is in fact due mostly to the weather. It rarely rains here, but when it does heavy storms bring down roofs and old walls. The result is a sad sight. Many buildings are in a desperate need of preservation. The little construction I did see taking place is not to restore the historical fabric, but to build new again.

In the summer months Berbera records temperatures of 45C plus. Now in December it’s at least 10C cooler, which is hot enough.

Old Persian mosque in Berbera

Mosque in Berbera

Mohammed’s ship, the MV Souni, duly arrived as he said, but wasn’t expected to dock at the port until sometime later the next day. This seemed like a good opportunity to venture into the port itself, have a look around and hopefully meet the Polish Captain, whose name I had written down but couldn’t pronounce.

Well that wasn’t going to happen. Berbera’s port security took an instant disliking to the idea, even if I was with Mohammed’s logistics officer and agreed to leave my camera with them at the gate.

Mohammed arranged for the Captain to visit the shipping office the following morning, where I soon discovered I would not be on his ship leaving for Salalah later that day. The Captain was open, honest, even apologetic, explaining that for matters of insurance, safety etc etc, he wasn’t in a position to authorise it. Only if one of the ship’s 19 crew were not on board would there be a chance of getting a passage, and that would still require authorisation from the Greek owners.

I probably could have been told this three days previously had I been able to communicate directly with the Captain, who said he had no real idea why he was meeting me until that morning. The search for a boat would have to begin again.

My general upbeat mood changed now. I couldn’t relax. Before arriving in Berbera I imagined spending my last few days in Africa on the beach. There was endless white sand and crystal blue waters a few kilometres from the town, which I’d visited briefly when I first arrived, but I wasn’t going to find a boat out there. I realised I needed to find more contacts, be persistent and be taken seriously. This meant staying in the town, even if little happened between midday and 4pm when businesses more or less shut up shop.

Beach in Berbera

A cold beer or two would have helped ease the stress. Were there just a few simple outdoor drinking establishments for the non-believers in town Berbera would have been an infinitely better place to pass the time. Instead it was male-dominated tea-drinking and qat-chewing establishments all over again, broken up by calls to prayer in one of the many mosques. The closest Somaliland comes to serving alcohol is a pathetic non-alcoholic malt drink that calls itself Bavaria.

Qat and chai

Qat for sale

Somaliland beer import

English conversation was rarely hard to find. Some of Berbera’s older generation spoke fluent English or had returned from years overseas. Many remembered a time when their father or uncle worked for a British man. Like other countries in Africa with an anglophone history, it is the older generation who speak better English than the youth of today, where large class numbers and poorly trained teachers typify most government schools.

Still, the kids here were mostly friendly and less of a nuisance than their Ethiopian neighbours, some of which had come this far to clean cars, polish shoes and beg.

Berbera Boys

Young girl in Berbera

Woman and daughter Berbera
Mother and daughter

Berbera children

Many men would call me over from the side of the road, curious to know why I had come to Berbera. Most were always high on qat, or on their way to becoming so. After exchanging a few pleasantries I would move on. Perhaps it was the heat or character of being a port town on the edge of Africa, but Berbera also seemed like a haven for madmen. There were many of them wandering the dusty streets between the litter and goats. Perhaps they were also hoping for a boat out.

Colourful rubbish in Berbera

Qat chewer

Mad qat chewer

My hotel room was about the only refuge in town – incongruously modern, clean and providing consistently good wifi for $10 a night. Sitting outside during the day meant dealing with armies of flies. Perhaps that’s why everyone ate their plates of spaghetti and rice so quickly. I don’t recall any other town in Africa so full of them.

Local tea shop Berbera

Young girl in Berbera

There were also plenty of cats and goats, but they were less of a concern for my health. If Berbera was the first place you came to in Africa I’m sure your digestive system would take a battering.

Berbera cat

Berbera cats

Berbera ruins

Qat stall and goat

Local restaurant Berbera

As the days went by I built up a mini phone directory of numbers, telling each and every person I met on the street, the sane ones that I could judge at least, how I wanted to take a boat from Berbera. People were always positive, as they often are in Africa, but no-one could ever give me a direct answer. ‘Don’t worry you will find. Inshallah’. This wasn’t the answer I wanted.

What I really needed was to meet someone influential. Someone who could cut through all the pleasant small talk and make things happen.

Initially I thought this might be Hassan, an elderly Somalilander of that educated generation who didn’t seem to be addicted to qat. His friendly speaking English fluency and time overseas led me to believe he was a big shot in town. Surely with 4 wives and 22 children you have to be a big shot in Somaliland?

Hassan

Well if he was short on influence he more than made up for it with kindness, calling around and driving from one shipping agent to another.

I knew there were boats that left Berbera for Oman. I was also happy to wait until my visa expired the next week if one person could say for sure ‘Yes you can take this boat’. After years living and travelling in Africa I should have known that nothing is ever certain on the continent until it happens.

The alternative to leaving by boat would either be returning to Hargeisa and flying to Dubai, now that Berbera’s Airport is no longer in use, or over-landing/flying all the way back to Addis Ababa and flying from there to Oman. Neither would be simple, cheap or the adventure I had in mind. I couldn’t travel West to Djibouti as I had no visa and East lay Puntland, a no-go area.

Berbera Airport Entrance

In the end it proved to be more stressful and complicated than I could ever have imagined.

Port security continued to deny me entrance to the port on three more occasions.

They say you are a correspondent’ laughed Maulid, another young shipping agent who tentatively agreed to allow me to travel on a boat of his to Salalah. This was after I made it clear, on several occasions, that British citizens don’t require a visa before arrival in the country. He’d told me when I first walked into his office how a German, some years previously, had got on a boat in Berbera without an Omani visa. The boat was then held at the port in Salalah for many days while immigration authorities contacted his embassy and made problems for the captain of the boat. Idiot.

I had been in Berbera a week now and still not been inside the port. The Port Manager or even the Mayor might have helped had either of them answered their phone.

From the roof of the hotel I could see several half-sunken ships in the bay nearby. This would have made an excellent place for a sun-downer, although I doubt the other hotel guests thought so. 

Berbera bay

Berbera from my hotel roof-top

When the Indian Captain of the boat Maulid was the agent for agreed and we shook hands one morning I breathed a sigh of relief. That was until I realised he didn’t have the final say. There was an agent in Salalah I needed authorisation from as well as the owner of the agency, Maulid’s boss, who was somewhere else in Somaliland. More nervous waiting ensued.

‘You will be on the boat tonight. Inshallah’. Maulid said as he instructed Hassan to take me to the immigration office after the Captain agreed. Here an exit stamp was issued and I was relieved of $30, which may or may not have been official procedure. I didn’t care. This sounded like progress. If my passport had an exit stamp from Berbera Port then surely I must be leaving from here.

I returned to the hotel to pack up and buy some supplies for what I’d heard was a 3-4 day journey. The boat would leave that night when its cargo – 500 cows, were loaded.

I checked out of the hotel and sat in the reception. I was still nervous and had a headache. Maulid called and said to visit his office.

‘My boss says you can go, but the bicycle must stay here’. This sounded ridiculous. When I asked why some nonsense about port rules in Salalah and the boss of the shipping company not wanting to be responsible for anything that wasn’t his cargo, was given to me.

‘Don’t worry you can leave the bike in Maulid’s office and they will send it on another boat to Oman. Or just buy one there’, suggested Hassan. It was clearly apparent that no one realised how important this bike was to me. Leaving it in Berbera on the premise that it would be sent at a later date just wasn’t an option. I wondered if Maulid and Hassan had hatched some plan to keep my bike for themselves.

It was dark now and the boat would soon be leaving. I left Maulid and cycled down to the port with Hassan following in his car. Now that my passport had been stamped out of Somaliland and I had a port pass I finally made it inside.

I wheeled the bike between various shipping containers and made my way to the dockside. A large wooden boat was moored alongside. ‘Shahe Al Sabir’ was written around the bow. This was my boat.

I waved up at the Captain standing 3 metres above me on the deck. He’d seemed nervous when we met in the agent’s office that morning. Now on more familiar turf he smiled and waved, keeping a close eye on half a dozen cows that were flying through the sky 10 metres above me. The last of the 500 cows were being strapped together on the dock and soon to be craned into the open hold of the vessel.

The reality was this boat was about to leave within the next hour and the Captain wasn’t going to allow me to take my bike unless he had authorisation to.

My headache had intensified by this point. There was no way I was leaving the bike behind, but staying now that my passport had been stamped out and my visa soon to expire was going to be an equally big headache.

Maulid arrived to give the boat final clearance to leave. This was the first time he had seen my bike. I pleaded and asked for the shipping owner’s number.

‘This bike and the bags on it are my life. It is impossible to leave it’ I shouted as Maulid checked all was ready for departure. It was becoming clear that the bike mattered.

Telephone calls were made. The Indian crew looked down at the bike and me, confused I’m sure as to what was going on. I don’t recall ever being so stressed in all my time in Africa.

A few anxious minutes passed and Maulid called me over. ‘He says you can take the bike’.

I helped and watched the crew hoist it over the side with two ropes tied onto the frame, before speeding back to Maulid’s office in his pick-up, where I was asked to write something to the effect of clearing the agent of any responsibility for me.

This was it. I was leaving Somaliland and Africa by boat.