• Arabian contrasts : Mwanza-Muscat Part 15 January 26th, 2016

    At first I was hesitant. Was it safe? Should I be asking permission from someone? Would an audience soon gather around me or visitors come in the night?

    The sea was calm, clear and blue; the beach long, sandy and empty. It was my first day on the road in Oman and I’d arrived at a beautiful place to camp.

    Camping on Mughsal beach

    In most of Africa a beach like this, at least one next to a paved road, would never be so peaceful nor safe to sleep alone on. There might be a fishing community living in makeshift huts beside it – possibly some high-walled compounds housing the comparatively rich nearby.

    Camping alone in such an easily seen and accessible place might be risky. I’d more likely ask someone to pitch my tent or choose to sleep in a nearby Guest House.

    But this was Oman – a World away, as I was to discover over the coming days and weeks, from the life I’d left behind in Africa.

    When a few 4x4s later drove along the beach at sunset, the drivers merely waved at me. What I was doing appeared to be totally normal. Camping, as I soon learned, is very much a part of Omani culture, although no-one camps alone here.

    I expected my time cycling in Oman would be a contrast to travelling through Africa. And so it has been – on many levels. Be it the quality of the roads, the ease of finding food or water, the safety of camping and the silent and seemingly empty towns, or the interaction with people who often wanted to give me things (usually bottled water, food or even money) Oman has turned out to be one of the simplest and most peaceful places I’ve toured through.

    Also beautiful, as I hope some of the pictures below are testament to. I’ve taken so many during my time here that I’ve split this update into two blog posts.

    Any negatives? Well alcohol is prohibitively expensive (around £5-6 for a beer in a licensed hotel) and like many Islamic countries conversation tends to be only with men. That gets a bit boring after a while.

    Anyhow, here is the first part of a visual tour from the last 5 weeks on the road in Oman, covering around 2700km. Most of the photos here follow a chronological order from when they were taken, moving from Salalah in the South to the small town of Ibri, where I’m writing this from, in the north.

    A map showing the route I took can be found at the bottom of this page. For those reading and wondering where exactly Oman is, here we are:

    Where is Oman

    Frankincense Seller in Salalah souq

    My first stop after saying goodbye to the Indian crew who brought me from Somaliland to Oman was the souk in Salalah, famed historically for its sales of frankincense and perfume.

    Frankincense for sale

    I always wondered what Frankincense looks like. Well here it is – a product that has been traded through the Arabian peninsula for thousands of years. Not much use carrying this in my panniers. Every other shop in the souk seemed to be burning it.

    Cruise boat tourists in Salalah Souq

    My arrival in Salalah and its souk coincided with that of a cruise ship carrying over 2000 passengers. Now this was a curious sight….

    Frankincense tree in Wadi Dawdah

    Frankincense trees grow around Salalah, although most of the World’s production comes from Somalia. The trees are mostly small and hardy in appearance – more impressive for their ability to grow out of barren looking surfaces.

    Wild Camp Wadi Dawdah

    I slept one night within a Frankincense tree plantation at Wadi Dawkah, a short distance from Salalah. The site came with a bench and pristine clean toilet block. I haven’t encountered such civilised wild camping since I cycled in Japan.

    View back to Mugsahl

    I cycled west from Salalah to begin with, taking me towards the border with Yemen. This was a good decision. Not only was there that beautiful beach to camp on, pictured at the top of this blog and in this picture, but some wonderful mountain and coastal scenery. During the summer months of June and July this coastal stretch of the Arabian peninsula turns green as monsoon rains transform the barren hillsides. That deserted beach would then probably be full of Arabs from around the gulf, who apparently flock to Salalah during those wet months. I was happy to have it to myself.

    Climbs ahead

    View towards Salalah
    Climbing up from the coastSteep climbing here, from sea level up to 1000m with gradients of 10-15%+. Other than beautiful views, the road had almost no traffic and the air temperature was no more than 30C. This would be truly murderous to cycle during the summer months when temperatures soar above 40C.

    Awdah the awesome Omani

    It was mid-way up this steep climb that I met Awdah, the first Omani I’d really spoken with since arriving two days previously in the country. He had pulled off the road a short distance up ahead and was taking pictures of me with a large camera as I slowly climbed towards him. Once we got talking I realised he also had an interest in travel and adventure, although preferred to drive off into the desert with a gun. ‘Not for people just for fun’, he explained before I was given about 2 kg of bananas and several litres of bottled water. ‘When you come back to Salalah just call me. We meet OK.’

    Greetings from Oman

    Road to Muvvai

    I later turned away from the coastal road, which would have taken me to the Yemeni border, and headed into the desert on a dirt track towards the remote town of Muddai.

    Searching for shade

    Not much shade out here – well none in fact. Earlier in the day I’d stopped at a military air-base and filled up with about 4 litres of water for this 70km stretch of bumpy gravel.

    Desert diversionThe GPS app (maps.me) on my phone proved useful out here where tracks often veered off in different directions.

    Desert sign-post

    Naturally I wanted to make sure I stayed on the main track on this gravel stretch.

    Village supermarket

    Even in what by Omani standards are remote places, a village shop here will often be as well-stocked as a much larger place in Africa.

    Luxury for a night

    Before arriving back in Salalah I decided to call Awdah, who explained through a Whatsap message that accommodation had been arranged for me. I assumed this meant an invitation to his home or a place to pitch my tent, but he had gone ahead and booked me into a hotel. When I enquired about the price, he made clear that I was his guest. And so I checked into what was a 2-star hotel, which probably cost around £40-60 per night, feeling slightly odd that this stranger I had met on the road for 10 minutes was paying for me (I realised when I checked out that he was friends with the owner so perhaps there was no money exchange on my behalf).

    Hotel room in Salalah

    With wild camping so easy, safe and free in Oman and budget accommodation, when it does exist, starting at around £20 a night, but more typically £30 upwards, I chose to camp throughout my time here.

    Selfie with AwdahAwdah later came to meet me, hoping I would stay around Salalah longer. We continue to keep in touch through Whatsap.

    Salalah Roadside

    Leaving Salalah for the second time I headed east along the coast. Salalah and its coastal environs, largely because of those monsoon rains, is greener and more tropical than the rest of Oman. Coconut palms grow along the beach road beside banana and papaya plantations.

    Taqah beach front

    Roadside fruit stall Salalah

    I managed to find space in my front panniers for half a kilo of bananas and some tangerines on the way out of Salalah.

    Mosque in Taqah

     Mosques are everywhere in Oman, which is of no surprise as the population is predominantly Muslim. For the cycle tourer who wishes to wild camp this is particularly good news as almost every mosque will have a chilled water drinking dispenser beside its ablution block, as well as some toilets. The latter, which usually consists of at least several cubicles depending on the size of the mosque, will always have a tap beside the squat toilet, which allows one the privilege of an African-style bucket shower (there is usually a plastic container beside the tap) and opportunity to wash a few salt-encrusted clothes if need be. I timed my arrival at mosques to be outside prayer times, which meant they were usually empty. In this way I could happily tour for days and weeks while camping every night and keeping clean.

    Night cycling

    The night-lit roads were my first ever views of Oman when I flew into the country a few years ago on a night flight from Tanzania. Back then I thought what a contrast this was from Africa – street-lights stretching for many kilometres beyond any human settlement, shining throughout the night. I avoid cycling in the dark whenever possible, although on roads like this it doesn’t really matter. I was looking for somewhere to camp.

    Sunrise from my sleeping bag

    And ended up here – 10km beyond the small town of Taqah. It was a stunning spot above the sea, but the wind was so strong that it was impossible to pitch the tent so I rolled my mat out on the concrete remains of a mosque.

    Oman flag at Mirbat Fort

    A short distance along the coast from Salalah lies the quiet coastal town of Mirbat. Quiet is a word that could be used to describe almost every place in Oman. Mirbat retains some of its historical charm, with a pretty little bay and perfect swimming beach in front of the fort.

    Sea-front at Mirbat

    Despite being so close to the sea for a lot of the time in Oman, this is the only place I went for a swim – my bicycle conveniently within sight leaned against the wall of the fort just behind where this picture was taken.

    Town of Mirbat

    A view of Mirbat’s old town from the top of the town’s restored fort.

    Indian bike outside Mirbat Fort

    The classic Indian roadster is a common sight in Oman, used by many of the South Asian’s (Pakistanis Indians and Bangladeshis) who come to work and live in Oman.

    Bike shop in MirbatBicycles and sea-air don’t mix well. Many of the bicycles I did see in towns along the Omani coast were rusted.

    Omani boy with his bicycle

    Omani cyclist

    The only Omanis I saw riding bicycles were children. Not much status to be had on two wheels when you can roar around in 4x4s on cheap fuel (£0.20 a litre).

    Exploring Mirbat

    Exploring Mirbat and its Yemeni-style architecture. Many buildings like this are no longer inhabited.

    Omani architectureTraditionally Oman was a sea-faring nation. Many buildings along the coast depict this with maritime features in their facade.

    Old Omani house front in Sadah Old Oman

    Meeting Oman's road construction workers

     The Salalah to Muscat coastal road is entirely paved, although in stretches work crews are in the process of making it into a dual carriageway, which doesn’t seem necessary considering how little traffic there is. Many new roads in Africa are financed and built by the Chinese. Here it is South Asian labourers (predominantly Pakistani) doing the work, with lots of these human lookalikes holding flags to warn drivers.

    Wadi SunriseIt’s rarely hard to find a place to camp in Oman. After several nights I decided to leave the rainsheet off my tent, which allowed for better star-gazing, although on some nights a heavy dew would descend leaving myself and gear somewhat damp in the morning. Wadi’s, (dry riverbeds) such as this one between Mirbat and Sadah , are everywhere in Oman and often the most obvious place to pitch a tent as there are soft spots of sand and usually trees/rocks to lean the bike against or provide some protection from any wind. Wadis can also be very dangerous places to camp should there be any rain, quickly filling with water in a matter of minutes. I always tried to find a spot away from the main channel or beside the wadi itself.

    Coastal road to Hasik

    Seeing faces

    Coastal road to Hasik

    East from Mirbat the Dhofar mountains drop into the sea, providing for some spectacular coastal cycling.

    Fishing boats on Hasik beachFishing boats on the beach at Hasik

    Turquoise viewsCoastal view in Southern Oman

    Up until a few years ago this stretch of stunning coastline, east from the village of Hasik, was only connected by an unpaved road.

    Southern Oman coastal road

    Beautiful Oman
    Tobias from AustriaThe first touring cyclist I met in Oman was a young Austrian. This was Tobias’s first tour – a 4-week ride from Muscat-Salalah. It was late in the day when we met so we ended up camping together on a nearby beach outside the town of Ash Shuwayimiyyah.

    Sunrise on Ash Shuwaymiyyah beach

    Tobias had no tent, which isn’t a necessity in Oman as it rarely ever rains. I too started the night without pitching the tent, until the whining sound of a few mosquitoes dive-bombing my ears woke me up.

    Packing up from Ash Shuwaymiyyah beach.

    Meeting Wolfgang in Ash ShuaymiyyahAbout 20km down the road in the town of Ash Shuaymiyah I met another Austrian – Tobias’s step-father Wolfgang. For one reason or another they had decided to cycle separately.

    Fish Biriyani for lunch

    King-fish BiriyaniRestaurants and cafes are easy to find in Oman, typically run by Pakistani, Indian or Bangladeshis, and often very good value for money. Fish Biriyani, such as pictured here, would cost around £2-3 and a simpler plate of fried dal with chapatis less than £1. I often used the time in these small roadside eateries to charge my mobile phone.

    Camp pasta concoctionEvening meals while camping often consisted of a large bowl of spaghetti/pasta/rice, mixed with whatever vegetables I was carrying and possibly some tinned tuna and takeaway roti/chapati from one of the cafes and restaurants I had been in earlier that day.

    Camping near Shalim

    Thorny tree and my loaded Thorn

    Broken kickstand

    Camp spots with a tree or rock to lean the bicycle against became more important when my kickstand decided to split. No point in trying to weld this as it’s aluminium plated.

    Camel racing

    ‘Do you want to see camels racing’, came the voice from a pick-up passing me by on the desert road east from Shalim one morning. 10 minutes later my bicycle was parked beside a camel racing track and I was sitting alongside a Bedu driver who was timing half a dozen camels running a 1km course. ‘Just practice today’. 90 seconds was the winning time. A minute later I was handed some water bottles and back on the bicycle.

    Racing camels near Shalim

    Making Omani friendsPhoto stop

    Random Omani wanting a pic

    On an almost daily basis Omani’s would pull over on the road and offer me bottled water, sometimes a soft drink and on several occasions I was asked if I needed financial help! Some spoke English, others just wanted to say hello and take a picture.

    There are plenty more pictures to come from this journey through Oman in the next blog post.

  • 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.