It's time for another travel adventure! First up is a country that doesn't exist: the self-declared Republic of Somaliland. In the eyes of the UN and the international community it remains an autonomous region of Somalia. This is handy for me, as I can count this trip as travel to Somalia.
My trip to Hargeisa starts in Sydney's International Airport. My 14 hour flight to Dubai is a killer. My seat doesn't recline and I've been on the go for days with minimal sleep. I arrive at DXB at midnight and realise that my luggage has not been tagged through to Somaliland. This means queuing for 45min to pass through immigration then a limousine ride over to Dubai's Terminal 2 to check in for my 3-hour flight with FlyDubai. A regular taxi trip would have been cheaper but I would have been queuing for an additional 45 minutes!
The heater on my earlier Emirates flight had blasted the whole flight, leaving me a limp, sweaty, dehydrated mess. I make a beeline for the Toilets so that I can change into some new travel clothes. Somali ladies completely cover up so I've bought a loose, blue 'modest' dress. The cut fascinates me. I bought it online and when it arrived I inspected the thick, jersey material and thought 'this is the worst fabric ever, it's going to be clingy not loose'. Well, I put it on and it falls elegantly from my shoulders straight to the floor. The heavy, jersey material 'anchors' the loose cut, allowing the fabric to drape away from the body.
I exit completely covered in my dress and scarf. It feels comfortable. In the past, I have tried to get by in Muslim countries with a long tunic top over loose pants with a scarf. The fabric feels cool now but I wonder how comfortable it will be in warmer weather.
As I move about the Terminal I check out the other ladies and note the great diversity in Islamic women's fashion. Not all women are completely covered, some wear western clothes and a scarf, but others wear the black burqa.
Thanks to the time difference between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres Day 2 of my trip is actually Day 1 of my itinerary. On the approach into Hargeisa, the Somali landscape looks dry and arid, but the Acacia trees remind me that I am back in Africa.
The Hargeisa Airport is small and quickly fills to capacity with the passengers from my FlyDubai flight. It's 6am local time and while not much is happening around the Airport, there are armed men visible around the Arrivals Terminal.
We pass quickly through immigration (curiously my passport remains unstamped) I pay USD60 at a cashier desk before showing the receipt and walking into an adjoining Baggage room. Once I have located my backpack and produced my luggage tag I am free to enter Somaliland.
Fortunately, the Airport Transfer that I booked for USD10 is waiting just outside. The man puts me and my luggage into a van and then returns to find three additional hotel guests. It turns out the three men are here working for an NGO (Non-Government Organisation) I had hoped that they were travellers like me as tour costs are much better when shared but that was not to be.
The drive into Town is short. There is not much traffic at this hour of the morning and cars share the sealed/unsealed dry, dusty road with donkey drawn carts. It looks vaguely familiar to me. Ethiopia? Kenya? Uganda? Just the minarets of the nearby Mosques are new.
The sign writers, great all over Africa, are equally good here. I see beautiful, hand painted signs promoting dentists, restaurants and hairdressers. I try to remember where they are located in case I have time to take photographs later.
The closer you get to the city centre the greater the concentration of street hawkers selling cheap Chinese imports: backpacks, watches, clothes, shoes. Women hustle down the street in their flowing dresses and matching long head scarves. The men are predominantly dressed in western clothes and small groups congregate under large umbrellas, some chew khat (a herbal stimulant traditionally used in Ethiopia, Somalia and Yemen for thousands of years)
The Hotel is centrally located. My room is modern with air conditioning, TV, room safe and private bathroom with hot water. The Hargeisa War Memorial, featuring a captured Somali MiG fighter, is visible from my window. After a cursory examination of the room, I succumb to jet lag and rest until the afternoon.
My first foray outside is brief but informative. My outfit does not stand up to the heat. The tightly woven polyester fabric does not breathe. It heats up quickly as I hurry down the dusty roads. If there is a sidewalk, it is indiscernible to me. Of course, it is obvious that I am a foreigner, if not from the colours and style of my outfit, then from the lighter colour of my skin. Some people acknowledge me with a 'hello'.
It is almost inevitable that I come across a group of beggars just near the Oriental Hotel. One small child latches onto me with persistence. I don't have the heart to be cross with her, so I say nothing and do my best to ignore her. Local vendors have no such qualms. The men challenge her in the local language and throw small branches of khat in her direction. She eventually gives up.
I went to Laas Geel. It is an archaeological wonder that Lonely Planet declared: 'one of the most impressive collections of ancient rock art on the African continent'.
It was all arranged last night. The Hotel called Khalid from Somaliland Tours and we met and agreed on a time and price. I was relieved that I didn't have to obtain the Government permit necessary to pass through Security Checkpoints along the way or organise the mandatory armed guard.
We met just before 10am in the Hotel Reception. The armed guard rode 'shotgun' with Khalid in the front, I sat in the back seat behind the driver. I enjoy 'people-watching' out the window, which is why 20 minutes into our journey, I didn't see the water tanker driving towards us on the wrong side of the road.
Khalid drove the car off the road to the right. The truck travelling behind us fortunately chose to go left, but he was travelling way too fast and 'fish-tailed' erratically through the scrub. As the dust settled, we are relieved to see the truck, all wheels on the ground, parked further down the road. The driver wasted no time thanking his lucky stars but immediately turned around and sped back in the opposite direction, looking to confront the driver of the water tanker, who didn't stop.
Fortunately, I have travel insurance, but I am horrified at this near miss. The thought of having an accident in a developing country is an unwelcome one, but it's a good time to reflect on my contingency plans. Perhaps I should leave a copy of my insurance policy with the Hotel Reception?
The turn off to Laas Geel is easy to miss if you don't know that it is there. The road into the site is a single lane dirt track that gradually snakes it's way down to a dry river bed. There is a small brick building on the river bank and two small toilet blocks (of the 'drop' variety) a little further up the slope. Inside the main building are large printed panels (written in English) explaining the 'discovery' and significance of the sight. I assumed, from the rolled up bedding, that this is also where the Guides sleep at night.
It is a short walk up to the caves or 'shelters'. Apart from myself, there are only two other tourists, both British. The local guides, who speak limited English, don't provide a commentary but point out the more interesting paintings and the best vantage points for photos. The Lonely Planet says that there are over 20 shelters but we spent just over an hour visiting seven of them.
The paintings are in great condition. The natural 'earthy' colours and stylised animal and human figures are beautiful in their simplicity. The narrative, if there is one, is about herding or hunting animals. There are far less human figures depicted than animals, of the latter there are cows, goats, antelope, giraffes. Tourists are encouraged to take photos but without using a flash. This presents no great problem as the shelters are quite open, illuminating the artwork with plenty of natural light.
The shelters are located in large granite outcrops overlooking two 'wadis' or dry riverbeds. If you turn your back to the artwork there are wonderful views over the surrounding countryside.
All in all, it was a great little day trip from Hargeisa. Another option is to do an overnight trip to Berbera, on the coast, with a visit to Laas Geel en route.
I hope that the site gains UNESCO World Heritage status so that more financial and technical assistance is extended to the Somaliland Government. These paintings are a unique part of our 'human story' and it is important that they are preserved for future generations
It's an early start to the day. The call to prayer starts just after 4am. I take the opportunity to check emails and onward travel arrangements.
After yesterday's excitement on the road, I've opted to do the rest of my sightseeing on foot. You see, I didn't mention the other accident we avoided on the way back from Las Geel to Hargeisa.
This time a car overtook us, realised they weren't going to complete the manoeuvre in time and ran their vehicle off the road rather than collide head-on with oncoming vehicles. A thick, trail of dust suddenly appeared to our left then petered out from view. Looking back we could see bystanders running into the scrub to assess the damage.
Khalid said this was like a scene in the movie 'Final Destination'. I didn't want to alarm him any further, but in the horror film Final Destination, the main characters initially cheated 'Death' but then 'Death' caught up with them and they subsequently died in freakish accidents! Bad analogy.
It's kind of ironic that after worrying about 'the threat of kidnap' identified by the UK FCO and debating whether to purchase additional hostage and ransom insurance, I had almost fallen victim (not once but twice) to a combination of poor road conditions and poor driver behaviour! Seriously, why would you travel anywhere without adequate insurance?
Anyway, fortunately my hotel is centrally located making it easy to explore the City on foot. Apart from the War Memorial, featuring a Somali MiG fighter, there are no landmark sights, which means the day to day activities of the locals becomes the real point of interest. I kept my camera in my bag and soaked up the atmosphere.
Here are some photos that I took on my last morning in Somaliland.