• Cattle Cargo: Mwanza-Muscat Part 14 December 30th, 2015

    The cows didn’t smell as bad as I thought; hardly at all in fact. This had been my initial worry when I realised I would be spending three days and four nights at sea with them.

    Cows on the sea

    Some of the 500 cattle

    There were 500 in total, crammed into a series of pens on three tiers of decking. There was also a fourth deck – the forecastle, at the bow of the boat, loaded with covered straw bales for the cows, and a quarterdeck of sorts at the stern, which is where I and the crew spent most of the time. This consisted of a bridge and two cabins, around which a covered wooden decking allowed movement from one side of the vessel to the other, and access to one of two long drop toilets either side of an enormous wooden rudder. More on that later.

    Bike firmly strapped on.

    A large wooden wheel manned in six-hour shifts by one of the four pilots dominated the bridge, to the right of which the engine controls, a compass and small GPS were fitted.

    Majid one of the Pilots

    Behind the bridge a bare-floored central cabin provided space for crew to sleep. This gave access to the aft-cabin – a cozy carpeted space that contained two berths, one for the captain and the other kindly offered to me. Attached to the captain’s cabin was also a small cubicle for a bucket shower. All in all simple, but fairly comfortable and sufficient quarters to pass time at sea I thought.

    Crew sleeping

    My berth on the boat

    The boat, the Shahe-Al-Sabir – so named after the owner’s son, measured 39m in length by 11m in breath and was built almost entirely of wood. Like the crew it was Indian in origin; both from a place called Salaya in Gujarat to be more precise.

    According to the captain around 100 similar vessels, known as vahans, ply the seas of the Gulf of Aden, mostly transporting livestock from the Horn of Africa to the Arabian Peninsula, and foodstuffs on the return voyage. All those Somalian goats and sheep I’d seen weren’t being consumed by Somalilanders, but Arabs in Saudi Arabia, Oman and other gulf nations.

    On the third day another vahan carrying 5000 goats from the port of Bossaso in Puntland (another autonomous region of Somalia) came close by. The crew, like the crew on all vahans, were also Gujarati. As for the cows I was accompanying, well they had come from Ethiopia. This was a long journey to the slaughterhouse.

    Another Indian boat

    Other than the captain, Sabir, and the first engineer, Salim, none of the crew (15 in total) spoke English. They were all young guys in their twenties, not only coming from the same town in Gujarat, but from the same extended family.

    Captain Samir

    Crew member

    Gujarati crew

    Despite the barrier in communications I made the effort to learn everyone’s name and quickly felt welcomed onboard. Chai was frequently offered and meals were shared in typical Indian fashion.

    Sitting with some crew

    Meeting the crew.

    One goat and four chickens started the journey with us. Ayai, the First Cook, and his younger brother Riswan, the youngest crew member at 19, served these up in hot oily sauces with rice and chapattis during the voyage, cooking on the starboard side of the quarterdeck over a couple of simple covered gas hobs.

    Ayaj the first cook

    Preparing goat meat

    Communal dining

    The sea was relatively calm during the 660 nautical mile journey through the Gulf of Aden. The 1200CC 12-cylinder engine that Abid, one of the Engineers showed me, powered us along at a gentle 8-10 knots in speed. What little spray did come over the bow ended up giving the cows on the open section of the third deck a refreshing cool-off.

    The Engine room

    Crew member

    During the hotter months of the year on a crossing with little wind this would have been an uncomfortable journey for both crew and cargo. When there was a lull in the sea breeze during the second day the crew attached an awning for the cows out in the open, and blew air through the use of two large fans for cows on the lower decks. For most of the time a large sail channeled the sea breeze to cows on the lower decks.

    East to Oman

    The cows were silent most of the time, although mid-morning for one reason of a bovine nature seemed to be a time of increased activity within the pens, with many an attempt at procreation taking place. Considering how tightly packed the animals were this required much manoeuvring on the part of certain cows in order to hit the target so to speak.

    The bales of covered dry straw were fed to the cows once a day, just before sunset. As for water, despite the boat carrying 10,000 litres for them, which Salim said they would receive on the third day, the poor animals never got a drink. Naturally 500 cows urinating on an open wooden deck shortly before arriving in Salalah would have created quite a mess for the crew to clean up, which I assume is one of the reasons they didn’t get their drink.

    As far as I could tell when we did dock, all of the animals had survived, although I’m sure a number of kilos in their body mass would have been lost during the time at sea.

    Feeding time

    Feeding time

    As for my diet and digestive system, the daily diet of chapattis and apprehension of squatting 5 metres above the sea in open view only seemed to block me up, which reminded me of an episode of Micahel Palin’s 80 Days Around the World when he took a sea voyage to India.

    The long drop

    When not seeing to the cows, which didn’t take up that much time, the crew spent most of their day preparing and chewing betal nuts. This practice is to some Indians what qat is to Somalians. While eating was very much a communal affair, and the job tasks on board were shared, each crewmember appeared to have his own stash of betel nuts and chewing tobacco. The sound of betel nuts being crushed with a pair of pliars was a familiar one, both day and night, during the voyage. Once the nut was crushed into small pieces it would then be mixed with tobacco and a white powder I never identified, before being thrown into the mouth. This made conversation with the captain, who seemed to chew practically the whole day, somewhat challenging, unless he’d just leaned over the deck rail and spat the contents of his mouth – a reddish liquid, into the sea below.

    Betel nut preparation

    If not chewing or sleeping the crew would be watching videos on their phones. I never asked what salary any of them made, but almost everyone had a smartphone, although that’s not really a big deal these days. There seemed to be a happy harmony amongst them onboard.

    During June and July they told me they would be back in India with their family, leaving again in August with a cargo of rice for Somalia. This simple life didn’t seem like a bad one to me. Out at sea under the immensity of a cloudless sky in a vast expanse of blueness beneath, all of the World’s problems seemed far away.

    Several large navy ships came into view on the third day. I had by this stage asked the captain about pirate attacks in an area of the World renowned for them. Well that was the case several years ago. Of late there have been very few incidents of piracy in these waters, owing in large part I guess to international navy boats, such as those we saw, patrolling the seas. A boatload of cows and an Indian crew also didn’t seem like great booty. I had already imagined smearing myself in straw dung and hiding in one of the pens should we have been attacked.

    International Navy boat

    A forecast of stronger winds on the third day had the captain changing course slightly so that we steered closer to the Yemeni coast. When I first thought about this trip back in Tanzania, Yemen had been included, but with the current insecurity there was no way I was heading there – a shame as the towering mountains that rose out of the sea looked dramatic.

    Mountains of Yemen

    Sunrises and sunsets were special, although dinner always seemed to be served about 5 minutes before the latter. It was only me who paid any attention to what for everyone else was just another period of time in the day.

    Sunset over Gulf of Aden

    Shortly before sunset on the third day, some 10 miles or less off the Yemeni coast and just after the crew had fed the cattle for the final time and thrown the remaining straw overboard, we saw a pod of dolphins, perhaps 50 or more, playing in the sea close to the boat. This the crew did take more interest in. I had been told it was common to see dolphins and sometimes whales. It was a magical sight and I was partly sad the journey would be over the next day.

    When we did dock in Salalah the following morning I was in no particular rush to leave the boat. Small tins of blue paint were the first items to come aboard, almost immediately after we tied up. At first I thought this was for the crew to do some touch-up work on the boat’s paintwork, but they were soon amongst the cows marking the backs of all of them with a zero. This, I was soon told, was to identify the owner.

    Numbering cattle

    A crane arrived soon after and so began the process of unloading all 500 cows, a job that took most of the day. It was somewhat saddening to have spent several days with these animals, who must have been in discomfort, to watch them being taken away to a slaughterhouse rather than some open green pastures.

    Unloading cattle

    ‘Do you want to borrow my phone to call your people here’, asked the captain, who assumed I had friends in Salalah. Back in Berbera I had mentioned something about having friends in Salalah as an assurance that if there were a problem when I arrived I had contacts who would assist me. I knew no-one here.

    By the time I’d got my Omani visa and bought a sim card to connect my phone it was afternoon. Salalah was 15km away. No hotel was going to come at the prices I was familiar with in Africa, so I asked to sleep aboard another night. This wasn’t a problem, so I shared a final dinner with the crew and sent photos I’d taken of them during the journey to their phones.

    When I did leave the next morning it was time to pay the captain. Not once had he ever asked for money. Back in Berbera it had been me telling Maulid the agent that I would pay for the voyage. I’m sure the captain must have thought I would tip him, but it required some effort for him to accept the $100 bill that I pressed into his hand. For him, the crew, the shipping agents, immigration and so many other people, the fact that I was with a bicycle and choosing to take a passage at sea for 4 nights with 500 cows and 15 mostly non English speaking crew was surely because I couldn’t afford other means to travel.

    Saying goodbye to the Gujarati crew

    For me the experience and adventure had been priceless. I would have happily spent another day at sea, or longer with this crew. Now though it was time to explore a new country; one that I imagined to be very different to any in Africa – Oman.

    A map showing the course the boat took from Berbera-Salalah can be viewed at the bottom of this page.

  • Goodbye Africa: Mwanza-Muscat Part 13 December 15th, 2015

    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.

  • Cycling Somaliland: Mwanza-Muscat Part 12 December 10th, 2015

    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.