A dream vacation in…Somaliland

For a number of years, one of my good work colleagues at the Department, Abdul Omar, a Canadian of Somali origin, and I had been planning a trip to Hargeisa in Somaliland. Fortunately, this trip finally came to fruition for us in November 2011.

I had arrived in Addis Ababa a couple of days before Abdul in order to obtain my visa from the Somaliland Liaison office. As an ethnic Somali, Abdul was exempt from this requirement. Abdul is currently working on secondment to the World Bank based in Tanzania.

Abdul and I initially flew from Addis to the eastern town of Dire Dawa. We took a local bus from there to the fascinating town of Harar, in a hilly range a couple of hours further east. Harar has a unique culture and is an attractive walled city in its own right.

We hired a vehicle to take us to the border at Wojaale. Our route descended down through the hills and emerged into the flat plains inhabited by ethnic Somalis. At one point we stopped at the side of the road and bought some camel milk, to fortify us for the journey into Somaliland.

In the eastern town of Jijiga, we stopped at a local restaurant and had a delicious meal of camel meat, with a side dish of camel fat from the hump. As roadside restaurant meals served in corrugated iron sheds in isolated African villages go, it was one of the tastiest and most delicious I have ever eaten. It was served at the Khoroxay restaurant. The next time any reader of this website passes through Jijiga in eastern Ethiopia, I would strongly recommend a meal of camel at this restaurant.

We continued along the flat plains beyond Jijiga until we finally came to the border town of Wojaale. African border crossings in remote area can be challenging, but fortunately these were straightforward.

Once past the Somali immigration and customs, we hired a driver to take us to the capital of Hargeisa. Within a few minutes after we started driving along the dirt road, Abdul started making comments about what a great guy the driver was. We ended up hiring him until the end of our stay.

Following an uprising which began in the 1980s against then dictator Siad Barre, Somaliland declared its independence from the rest of Somalia in May 1991. To date, no other country has formally recognized the de facto independence of the country. Due to occasional terrorist incidents emanating from Somalia and Puntland, Somaliland takes security seriously. On our journey, there were five checkpoints between the border and Hargeisa. While the security sheds were extremely basic, all interactions with the security forces were normal and professional. The guards looked at our passports and us, and then let us proceed.

We stayed the first night in the Oriental hotel in downtown Hargeisa. Abdul was tired after dinner and went to bed at about 10pm. I then decide to go on my own, wandering around the downtown core. I have spent more than seven years posted in African countries. While not perfect, I have developed a sixth sense of whether I should be walking around on my own in a city at night. Hargeisa was very relaxed and easy going. Even at night I had no sense that I might be at risk, and I enjoyed the evening ambience.

While we made our way from the Ethiopian border to Hargeisa just with our driver, any additional travel beyond Hargeisa required an armed guard, at our expense (about $20 plus some inexpensive food) as an escort. The local intelligence I was given on the ground was high quality. At the Ambassador Hotel, the driver quite impressively, gave a village by village assessment of the country, between “peaceful” and “problems”. There were five villages of problems near the frontier of Puntland, two villages to the east not far from Djibouti and one in the south. None were within even 80 kilometres proximity of where we were going.

We picked up our armed guard the following day and began our trip. “George”, an anglicized version of his Somali name, was in his 70s. We were to learn that he was a legendary fighter with the Somali National Movement in the 1980s, and was a national hero. Because of his presence in the vehicle, at virtually all checkpoints over the next days, the guards talked to him in awe and admiration, and never checked our passports.

We drove along towards the main port of Berbera. A little over half way between the capital and Berbera we went off the main road to Las Geel, a superb site of Neolithic cave paintings dating back almost 10,000 years, the details of which were elaborated by a French archaeological team in 2002. Later we went to the port city of Berbera at the edge of the Red Sea.

Perhaps it was partly due to the relentless heat and humidity, but I found the ambience of Berbera to be oppressive and unpleasant. The following day we climbed up into the mountains to the charming town of Sheikh. It is about 1500 meters above sea level and has a great climate Now here is a place that travelers to Somaliland could really enjoy. We did some great light hiking in the hills.

We later continued on to Burcao, rougher around the edges, but in its own normal way, like a busy, noisy, dusty and slightly less attractive Hargeisa. In theory there was a road connecting Burcao to Hargeisa directly, but our driver said the road was very rough so we drove back the same route through Berbera again.

Make no mistake. Somaliland is extremely poor and would appeal mainly to more enthusastic adventure travelers. Yet in its own way, I found my visit there enjoyable, positive and inspirational. Much of it was related to the insights into Somali culture I got from Abdul. And in a world of travel caricatures about how terrible Somalia is, for me my days in Somaliland were far richer, in the genuine aspect of travel than in many other places I have visited.