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To have nothing and give everything – Travels in Somaliland

If the friendliness of the consulate in London and the ease of the visa process was an indicator of nationhood then Somaliland would not be one of the only states in the world not recognised by the United Nations.

Mention the word Somalia and images of terror, war and lawlessness spring to mind. Images fuelled by the chaos of a civil war that has wreaked havoc for a quarter of a century. Yet during the same time Somaliland has enjoyed an enviable peace. Peaceful presidential transition and multi-party elections, largely believed to be free and fair, reflect a political maturity that has eluded many African countries recognised by the United Nations. Word association is the undoing of this nation of remarkably friendly people who thrive in spite of all the odds stacked up against them.

“Welcome to Somaliland,” everyone chorused at me as I walked up to the barrier crossing the border from Djibouti. Smiles all round. The reception was intimate and personal, a world away from that of surly officialdom that I had just left in Djibouti.

I handed over my passport, its details were quickly and efficiently noted down in a register and then I was free to go.

“Mr Justin?” Shebelleh my guide was waiting outside for me. Rather than whisking me into the vehicle and heading off to Hargeisa, Somaliland’s capital, he suggested quietly that we sit down, relax and have a drink.

“I need to change some money.”

“Don’t worry,” said Shebelle. He ordered a couple of cokes, asked the stall-keeper for his number and texted the money through to him via zaad.

Shebelleh introduced me to Mohammed our driver and Ayaanleh, the Somali Protection Unit guard, who was there to escort us. Shebelleh was quick to reassure me that the country was very safe, that its people were very friendly. He handed me a variety of documents and academic papers espousing the virtues of Somaliland’s archaeological sites. He told me that I would be staying in a new hotel this evening, that it was “very clean, very modern, very good.” He was clearly ‘very’ proud of his country.

We head off to explore his country. The landscape is desiccated, burned by the sun. We drive along wadis, we drive through sand, we drive over rocks. Always dirt. We saw a couple of gazelle, a lone jackal but not one single car for seven hours on the road.

Driving in Somaliland

Tortoise, SomalilandWe passed many nomad camps and their dome-shaped thatched tents. Herds of goats always nearby, camels rambling further afield. Somalis are largely pastoralists, indeed the name Somali is derived from the words Soo maal which means ‘to go and milk’.

The Somalis have pride in their country but not the countryside. They throw away rubbish – bottles, food wrappings, plastic bag – with abandon. No appreciation. Thus villages, and especially the surrounding areas, are littered. Squalor.

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IMG_1951We stop in villages for sweet tea. In one it is qat time and the men sit around and chat whilst the women work and busy themselves in the background. The men chew qat and chatter ceaselessly as a consequence. They talk excitedly and quickly – the only thing they do at speed. Everything else is slow and languid; so much so that I am sure that the silver digital Casio watches they wear must be for decoration

Aside from its people one of the key highlights of Somaliland are the 5,000 year old rock paintings of Las Geel. A five minute clamber takes me to a great vantage point on a rocky promontory overlooking the point of confluence of two wadis. Hence the name in Somali, Las Geel, which means ‘the camels’ well’. It is quiet and still as I look out over the countryside. The silence broken by the occasional cooing of a pigeon.

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IMG_3478 Las Geel, Somaliland (4)

Here is the first of several natural shelters eroded by the combined effects of corrosion and wind erosion that are home to the rock art. The first shelter houses 350 animal and human figures. The cows are stylised with large horns and protruding udders. The human figures have small rounded heads, some of which are on their side and set above a truncated neck. Many of the humans are often under the cows indicative of the relationship.

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The colours – red, black, white and yellow – are startlingly clear in spite of the passage of millennia. There is a giraffe, there are dogs, there are men hunting. Predominantly it is cow and although they take many different forms, two stood out more than the others – one a bull mounting a cow and the other of a calf embryo inside a pregnant cow. I shudder with a sudden gust of sadness for the unknown dead who leave a tantalising fragment of themselves behind.

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IMG_1955It is a great little site which sadly does not have World Heritage status merely because of the fact that Somaliland is not a recognised site by the United Nations. As a result it is little known and thus only had some five hundred comments in the visitors’ book throughout the past year.

This lack of recognition is evident in Hargeisa. There are no recognisable international brands – with the exception of Coca-cola – and there are no NGOs driving importantly around in brand new white Toyota Land Cruisers. It is low key and low rise. The streets are dusty, donkey carts still trot through and goats mill around.

It has a livestock market, which is a maelstrom of colour and noise. Camels roared, goats bleated, women bantered and one particularly cunning vendor used a form of handshake to indicate the price he was offering. Women dressed in their brightly coloured shawls and one young boy looked resplendent in his bright white jibab, it being Friday and the day at the mosque. Throughout, as with the rest of the city, everyone was friendly and welcoming. Always surprising you.

Livestock market, Hargeisa, Somaliland (4) Livestock market, Hargeisa, Somaliland (5)

“Number three and number four are not available,” the waiter said drawing my attention to the items on the breakfast menu.

“Why not?” I questioned still clinging onto my mentality of everything is on demand, all the time, always.

“Because the chef who cooks these dishes has died.”

Disarmed by the candour and enormity of his reply, I was once again reminded of the quiet stoicism of the Somali people.

Somaliland is not the next best thing in travel – it is too raw and unpolished for that. Tourism is embryonic, indeed tourism does not have a separate ministry but is part of the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Tourism. Does that mean that they are expecting young and healthy tourists?

War memorial, Hargeisa, Somaliland

War memorial, Hargeisa, Somaliland (3)

Luxury and service are unknown quantities, laughter and safety being far more important everyday qualities to the wonderful people of Somaliland.

Are you ready to discover Somaliland? Talk to our Travel Experts to start your privately guided tour, call us on 01285 601 753  or email inspire@steppestravel.com.

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Discover Djibouti

Djibouti means ‘the place where the monster was killed’,” Akram, my guide informed me. An unfortunate epithet for this small gem of a country tucked in between Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somaliland.

That having been said, there is little to hold you in Djibouti City or its environs where 7,000 foreign military are based. The tax on whom is Djibouti’s second biggest source of finance.

So I headed west out of Djibouti City on a good tarmac road built by the French with EU money some ten years ago. Ethiopian lorries pound up and down this road to and from Djibouti’s port, the country’s largest revenue earner. We passed through several small villages. In one a sign proclaimed “Ici vente pain”, a legacy of being a French colony. Indeed French is one of the two languages taught at school, the other being Arabic, whilst most Djiboutians will also speak Afar and Somali, the latter a quick fire language of excited babble.

The last eighty kilometres of the journey were off road. At first the scenery was underwhelming but it opened up to reveal a flat expanse of sand and scrub. The vegetation was sparse, the landscape harsh. The preserve of hardy animals. Fittingly we saw camels, indeed a caravan of camels carrying contraband. More surprisingly we saw Thomson’s gazelle and even a few warthog. Inevitably came across nomadic livestock, goats and donkeys.

We were heading for Lake Abbeh, which means rotten, a reference to the sulphurous smells emitted and another illustration that Djibouti needs to sort out its nomenclature. However there was nothing rotten about its stark mesmerising scenery. Captivating and bizarre, the chimneys stand in surreal silence.

Lake Abbeh’s scenery only appeared in the last fifty years with the damming of the Awash River in Ethiopia and the catastrophic effect that it had on the size and waters of Lake Abbeh. The receding waters left these limestone chimneys naked, towering from the lake floor to a height of fifty metres in some cases. Prone to the ravages of the infrequent rains and man, it is difficult to see these curious calcareous creations being around in another fifty years. A great shame as they have a beguiling beauty, especially at sunset and sunrise.

Chimneys of Lac Abbe, Djibouti (4) Chimneys of Lac Abbe, Djibouti (5) hot springs, Lac Abbe, Djibouti (3) IMG_1892

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I sat on a rocky outcrop in ecstatic silence watching the sun set behind the chimneys and fire the landscape in a rich and warm light. Below me, the charming scenes of women herding goats and donkeys back towards the small nomad settlement. The morning and evening ebb and flow of livestock from and returning to the village as constant as the tide.

In the early morning we took a five minute drive to see the sunrise from the other side of the chimneys. Whilst the yellows and oranges of the sunrise were warming and created a magical light and contrast with the dark silhouettes of the chimneys, what really struck me was the quiet and stillness. I shuddered at the intensity of the moment.

Sunrise, Lac Abbe, Djibouti (2)

The chimneys were caused by geothermal activity and in the morning light steam rose and bubbled noisily from thermal springs. Akram, who doesn’t smoke but did this for effect, blew cigarette smoke and ash onto the water producing a bellow of steam in a chemical reaction that I did not quite understand. Akram then jumped on the ground which reverberated all around us. It made me feel nervous, both at the thought of how thin the crust was over the boiling waters beneath and the news that Norwegian geothermal prospectors were soon to be descending upon the area.

We then walked about a kilometre to where the lake is now, the crunch of the crust of salt underfoot. A Jackal trotted opportunistically along the lake shore. Egyptian geese fed, a few gazelle grazed absentmindedly. We arrived near the lake edge to watch hundreds of flamingos.

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In comparison to the road to Lake Abbeh (or at least the part on tarmac) is the emptiness of the T9 road, which heads north to Eritrea whose communist government has been ostracised – a great pity for a beautiful people and country. Whilst no cars are in evidence what I did see was the detritus of the neglected machinery of unfulfilled promises that litter the roadside. The Americans and Ethiopians have forsaken their share of the carcass of Djibouti’s resources, leaving the considerable remains to the scavenging Chinese. Assal, means salt in Afar. Out of Lac Assal alone the Chinese now extract six million tons of salt every year.

Lac Assal, Djibouti (7)

Lac Assal, Djibouti (6)

Lac Assal, Djibouti (3)

IMG_1944Thoughts of such numbers and scale were silenced as we rounded the corner and I first glimpsed the exquisite and astonishing spectacle of Lac Assal.  It is a beauty of startling contrasts. The colours are radiant and bright, each vying for my attention. White is from the salt, brown from gypsum, black from opsidium, blue is a reflection of the sky and the green is the colour of the lake. The fact that at 153 metres Lac Assal is Africa’ lowest point was of incidental insignificance compared to its brilliance.

“Djibouti snow,” quipped my guide as we walked on the crackle and pop of salt that lay six metres thick below me to the edge of the lake. I kicked off my flip flops and walked into the water to jump immediately back to the comfort of the shore. The salt was surprisingly sharp. I scooped up a handful of water to taste and spat it straight back out. The waters of Lake Assal have a saline content of 45%; in comparison the sea is 3.5%.

Arguably Djibouti’s greatest riches lie not on land but in the surrounding sea and at particular times of year, November through to March, its waters are blessed with the arrival of the largest fish in the sea. They come in such numbers that Djibouti is one of the best places in the world to swim with whale sharks.

The monsters have not been killed. The whale sharks are still very much alive.

Start your Djibouti holiday with us, call us on 01285 601 753  or email inspire@steppestravel.com.

Djibouti - Salt Lakes and Whale Sharks

Djibouti – Salt Lakes & Whale Sharks

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Beauty And The Beast – Swimming With Whale Sharks in Djibouti

“So prepare yourself.”

“Are you not coming in with me?” Could Akram hear the tremor in my voice?

It was not that I was afraid. I knew full well that the whale shark – Rhincodon typus is a filter feeding shark and harmless to man – but rather that I did not know what to expect.

We were in a small bay a mere fifty metres from the shoreline that was littered with a few abandoned concrete buildings. Not far away in the distance was the remains of a French naval base. A particularly unremarkable place to find whale sharks. Or so I thought. What I was to discover later is that the presence of the military meant that this was an area that was not allowed to be fished and hence the profusion of food that in turn brings the whale sharks here year after year. Appearances can be deceptive.

Our journey had begun amidst the fishing harbour of Djibouti, replete with the smells of the catch of the day and the flies buzzing around what had not yet sold. The phrase tiny acorns grow into a mighty oaks seemed inappropriate in its Englishness but not in its metaphor. I had to think positively as our boat bounced its way out of Djibouti harbour to be confronted by the towering obelisks of modern day shipping.

Given the profusion of crates, cranes and cargo was there really any chance that we would find whales sharks, let alone swim with them? The marketing poster with someone taking a selfie with a whale shark in the background seemed wildly optimistic. An hour later we stopped.

“Why are we stopping?”

“We are here.”

It was then that I looked around and saw the French naval base and realised with a certain lack of confidence that I was the only one going into the water – not only was Akram, my guide, not going into the water but nor was the young man helping Moussa, the captain of the boat. In Akram’s case it was because of his ears, in the young man’s it was that he was afraid of the whale shark’s mouth.

“There. Over there,” shouted Akram as if to detract me from my inner doubts.

I looked to the portside and saw a fin almost flapping the surface. Was the shark on its side? Slowly I realised that it was the dorsal fin of a whale shark and the head of the shark was some twenty feet further on. I gulped.

I jumped into the water and fumbled with my mask. I put my snorkel in my mouth and took a breath only to be swamped by a wave and take in a mouthful of salt water. Spluttering, I put my head above the surface. I readjusted my mask and snorkel and put my head back into the water. Nothing. I raised my head again and looked questioningly at the boat. They gabbled excitedly and pointed behind me. I turned quickly around to see the beautiful dotted pattern of a whale shark recede into the gloom.

Opportunity missed I clambered aboard getting my fins caught on the ladder and tumbled onto the floor of the boat, floundering like a landed fish. This was not going well.

Moussa, the captain of the boat, scanned the waters, unperturbed by my incompetence and my inability to see a whale shark that was right behind me. Sure of his expertise and his waters he persevered with me. Unerringly, Moussa found another whale shark for me to try and see.

As I launched myself awkwardly from the side of the boat into the water Akram shouted at me, “Don’t touch it. It will dive.”

How was I supposed to touch it? I hadn’t got anywhere like close enough to have such a tactile experience. Kicking my legs awkwardly – I was still not comfortable in the sea – I put my head underwater to see a huge whale shark swim gracefully beside me. Against my better judgement, I swam quickly after it. Sadly I could not keep up with it, in part because I was still not happy with my snorkel and taking in sea water, and slowly the shark ghosted effortlessly beyond my visibility.

As I climbed back into the boat – still clumsily – I chattered excitedly to Akram. He smiled. “Again?” I nodded my approval.

I am not superstitious and do not believe in third time lucky but something clicked. I slipped into the water, I breathed smoothly, I swam easily and best of all I spent it alongside a whale shark for ten minutes or more.

There I was swimming alongside, in front, behind – I never quite trusted myself to swim below – the largest fish in the sea. I watched at close quarters its gills filtering furiously. I swam alongside its eye for a while, in awe of its acceptance of me.

whale shark, djibouti

At any stage throughout the whole time I could have touched it. I was curious to touch the whale shark but didn’t. Not because of Akram’s warning that it will five into the depths if I did so but that it was so trusting of me that it would have been wrong to violate that trust and the sanctity of the moment.

And then the shark stopped its tail dropping and it floated vertically, gulping greedily. Its mouth opening and closing in a feeding frenzy. I floated in ungainly fashion right beside it, right in front if is mouth, occasionally having to take a stroke away for fear of literally bumping into it and interfering with its feeding.

whale shark feeding, djibouti

Euphoric I had no problems getting back into the boat this time.

I dived for one last time. I looked around and turn to my left almost to bump into a feeding whale shark. Both as surprised as each other. Both go our separate ways.

For the record, restraint has not been my strong point and in a moment of weakness, I took not one but several selfies of me and my passive partner.

Start your Djibouti holiday with us, call us on 01285 601 753  or email inspire@steppestravel.com.