Your secret African travel destinations:Somaliland surprises
Somaliland, with marvellous beaches, breathtaking diving opportunities, scenic mountains and rich culture, is the definitive frontier of tourism. Not because it is unsafe, but because there is absolutely no tourism infrastructure and you’ll feel like you are the first visitor.
Don’t confuse quiet, democratic and well organised Somaliland with chaotic and violent (southern) Somalia. On most maps, it is the same, as Somaliland is not an internationally recognised country. But Somaliland, de facto independent since 1991, has managed to build the most robust democracy of the entire region and takes great pride in it.
It is this confusion with Somalia and Somaliland’s lack of international funding that has so far prevented tourists from discovering the riches of the country and developers from constructing tourist resorts along its magnificent coast.
Therefore, Somaliland is the perfect destination for the adventurous backpacker, wanting to “discover” virgin lands without fellow tourists, but also willing to bring all she/he needs in the rucksack and accept low comforts. But Somali hospitality and Somaliland sights easily weigh up for these hassles.
There is little travel planning information available in books and on the web. But Lonely Planet’s Africa guide includes a few pages on Somaliland worth reading, listing the following as one of the highlights of the country: “Enjoy the smug feeling of impressing your fellow travellers: ‘Yes, I’ve been to Somaliland!’.” By the way, the Lonely Planet representative visiting Somaliland was unable to hide he immediately fell in love with the country.
So while you wait for the more detailed planned afrol News travel guide to Somaliland, this “secret African travel destinations” feature should inspire you to consider some of Somaliland’s main sites and adventures; to go there before everybody else will do!
Endless talks in Hargeisa
You will probably reach Somaliland through its surprisingly vibrant capital, Hargeisa, either overland from Ethiopia or by air flying for example the country’s own private airliner Daallo Airlines.
Hargeisa is far from spectacular. Don’t come here to see big palaces or ancient architectural pearls. Still, do dwell here to dive into the articulated and wide-spanning Somali culture in peaceful and well organised surroundings.
Getting in contact with Somalilanders – not being difficult at all, and English is quite widely spoken – you risk getting talked your head off. Somali culture is very oral and mastering poetry forms part of basic education. Both the good story and the philosophical analysis are always around the corner, and the freedom and diversity of Hargeisa also permits the deeper and meaningful discussion about hot issues.
The good talk, permitting the traveller to dig deeper into Somali history,politics and culture, is best shared over a good meal in Hargeisa’s many excellent restaurants. Eating out is marvellous in Hargeisa with all kinds of African and western dishes available. Visitors usually love to dine in outside restaurants where people eat delicious roasted camel meet, camel milk, fried sheep liver, all kinds of fresh seafood and other local products in the open air, under shadow-blessing trees.
If you however need a drink to engage in a good talk, Somaliland may be a good country to unhook you from this bad habit. Alcohol is prohibited in Somaliland.
Hargeisa also has excellent hotels, including the five-star Ambassador Hotel close to the airport and several three star hotels. Cheap hostels and guesthouses are widely available, and for longer stays, beautiful and low-priced villas are available and a recommended buy. This wealth of safe accommodation choices contributes to making Hargeisa a low-threshold destination; available for any type of traveller.
Berbera and the coast
Somaliland’s third largest city, Berbera, is far smaller, but still has sufficient hotels and restaurants to offer a good infrastructure for most travellers. In addition, this port town has a more comfortable climate, fantastic beaches and a charming architecture. The somewhat sleepier town is located about 150 kilometres north-east of Hargeisa and easily and safely reached by bus, bushtaxi or air from the capital.
Berbera can boast of more history than Hargeisa, with its older Somali, Arab and British colonial architecture bearing testimony to the city’s former role as a major trade port in the Gulf of Aden. Berbera was also less damaged than Hargeisa during the Somali civil war that led up to Somaliland’s declaration of independence in 1991. But lack of international recognition has let the great potentials of the Berbera port crumble, with Djibouti now having taken over the role of the region’s main maritime transport hub.
Kilometres of lush sandy beaches stretch out from Berbera, to the great joy of the local population, making active recreational use of them. Berbera used to be a Soviet and later US military base, and locals still remember how the Russians and Americans used every occasion to enjoy their beach. Then, the city was livelier. But remnants of these times still exist, and Berbera restaurants can still offer visitors delicious seafood and other Somali and international dishes.
Beyond Berbera, the rough adventures of Somalil
Fastfood in Hargeisa and begin. Especially the westernmost coastline, in Awdal province, can easily claim a title among Africa’s most spectacular landscapes and seascapes. Rugged, green cliffs, tropical beach bays, unexploited coral reefs and ancient towns and ruins – this surely will become an international tourist destination in the future!
The Awdal coast is dotted with small villages and towns, but has no major settlements or tourism infrastructure. The dirt road along the coast is a disaster, and the recommended way of travelling would be in your own boat (do however seek regular updates on the piracy situation!). Travellers should bring all kinds of provisions as only the most basic items can be bought locally. For accommodation, bring your tent or pay locals for a bed.The best would nevertheless be to seek a guide in Berbera or in Boorama – the latter located inland with a dirt road connecting it to Zeila at the coast. A local guide will help out with language – here Somali is mostly the only language spoken – customs, contacts, transports and accommodation.
From Berbera, the first major settlement is Lughaya. Here, the beach with nearby grazing camels and the unspoilt reefs are the main attraction. Also, Lughaya is a good place to mingle with rural locals, mostly cattle nomads and farmers, to learn about the other side of Somaliland, the non-urban lifestyle that still dominates the country.
Further west, the landscape culminates in scenic cliffs, bays and beaches. Especially the smaller islands off the coast, for example Saad-Din Island, provide the best coral reefs and spectacular dives. Off course, no diving equipment rentals are available.
This breathtaking coastline ends up in Zeila (or “Seylac”, on some maps). Today, the town of around 25,000 inhabitants is a mere shadow of its historic heydays, when it was capital of the Sultanate of Adal. The Sultanate was an influential power in the 9th and 10th century. Zeila again flourished as a city state and a trade and learning hub from the 14th to the 19th century. During colonial times, Zeila lost out to Djibouti port in French Somaliland and the British port in Berbera, leading to rapid decline of the town.
But the ruins of Zeila’s old city can still be seen and culturally interested travellers can enjoy pondering about it and walking through the old buildings, mosques and city quarters. Basic accommodation and restaurants are available. Finally, the beaches, reefs and landscapes are tremendous. Altogether, this makes Zeila one of the most charming and recommended coastal destinations in Somaliland. Zeila is most easily reached from Hargeisa, via Boorama.
Soulseeking further inland
A Somalilander would say that, to really understand the country’s culture, history and soul, you should look inland, away from the coast. Here, where generation after generation has struggled to overcome a challenging climate by small-scale farming and semi-nomadic pastoralism, the true essence of Somali culture is found.
Lucky then, that there are quite a few worthy sites, landscapes and activities for travellers in the historic inlands of Somaliland.
A “must visit” site, Las Geel, takes you way back in history, up to 7,000 years. Located some 50 kilometres outside Hargeisa, close to the Berbera road, Las Geel is the richest, most well-preserved, but least studied and least visited prehistoric rock painting site in the world. It was only discovered in 2003 and still lacks professional preservation, but can easily be visited from Hargeisa.
Deeper into the soulscapes of Somaliland, a visit to the beautiful Erigavo mountain area is truly recommended – but only if security permits it. Erigavo town (also written “Ceerigaabo”) and its hinterland are closer to troubled Puntland in Somalia-proper, which makes claims to the eastern parts of Somaliland. Before travelling to the east, especially Sanaag and Sool provinces, you should contact tourism authorities in Hargeisa, asking for the current security situation! They will give you an honest answer, as their greatest concern is the security of foreigners.
If the Erigavo area is calm – which it usually is – the growing provincial town at 1800 meters altitude can be reached by plane or poor roads. Erivago is the entrance to the highest mountains in the region, reaching over 2400 metres. With the height, the climate improves and the vegetation increases. Some of the misty valleys even surprise with juniper forests.
The scenic mountain landscape and its many trails are an open invitation to trekkers looking for the unusual. In addition to some breathtaking landscapes, wildlife – while rapidly declining – is interesting and includes jackals, gazelles and baboons. Especially, Somaliland is famous for its extensive and exotic birdlife, with over 600 species known, and the mountains being the best place to observe them.
The area also has some nice challenges for mountaineering and rock climbing, including Shimbibris Mountain (2450 m, in the Surud mountain range). Of course, you will have to bring all necessary equipment as nothing is found locally. But you will be able to brag about your exotic peak bagging in Somaliland when you get home.
Make sure to get a guide knowing the area well and able to introduce you to villagers, farmers and nomads. Alternatively, if lucky, the many foreign humanitarian agency workers in Erigavo can introduce you to someone or may even invite you to join them.
In Erigavo, or anywhere else in the Somaliland countryside, there is one particularly memorable activity that can be organised, especially for the younger traveller. Spend a day or two with a typical Somali nomad group and see the men watering camels, the young lads milking and herding camels, while monkeys lead their life in the background. You can sleep in a Somali traditional hut or in the open air courtyard, where you drink milk in wooden containers, eat food in wooden spoons and talk yourself to sleep under the stars.
It doesn’t get more memorable, and you couldn’t get deeper into the Somali soul!
Somaliland is not the standard tourist destination, meaning you should plan your trip well if going outside Hargeisa and Berbera. If you want some comfort, make sure to contact Somaliland tourism authorities or local industry specialists such as Daallo Airlines before you go, asking them to tailor your trip.
If you will be backpacking through the landscapes of Somaliland, make sure to bring all you need from Hargeisa, Berbera or abroad. For example, you cannot count on getting even scuba diving equipment where you suddenly need it. Always have enough water available! And do not shy away from listening to authorities when it comes to security.
All travellers should consider Somaliland’s tough climate as a key to travel timing. There are two rainy seasons – March to June and October to November – and unlike other travel destinations, this is the time to go. Avoid the dry season from July to September, as temperatures up to 40 degrees Celsius make travelling exhausting. Anytime from December to June would be a good time.
You need a visa to go to Somaliland, which will be issued rather easily at Somaliland’s Liaison Offices in Ethiopia, the UK or the US.
Now, get set for the experience of a lifetime. Have a safe journey!