Somaliland – Hanging out in Hargeisa

I am technically in Somalia – home of pirates.  I had planned to go to the capital of Mogadishu, but doing so requires hiring four armed guards for lots of money to look after you.  My husband sagely suggested that if they can be hired to protect you for $1000, then a motivated individual might pay them twice as much to kidnap you.

Early morning at the livestock market

So, instead, I am in Hargeisa – the capital of the unofficial republic of Somaliland- a zone of relative tranquility and stability which has seceded from Somalia and is trying to get UN recognition as a sovereign state.  They deserve it – they actually have a democratically elected president and relative border stability – unlike many other states in Africa.   The other advantage of coming to Hargeisa, apart from avoiding kidnapping, is going to visit the famous cave paintings at Las Geel.

The colourful ladies on the goat side of the livestock market

I had a lazy first day, checking out the hustle and bustle of downtown, where the tourist highlight is a Somalian MIG jet which crashed when bombarding the city.   Apart from that the other priority was to try some camel meat.   Reading Mark Hay from Roads and Kingdoms had prepped me well…..

You’re going to eat a metric shit-ton of gamey, tough, and greasy camel meat….Somalia is home to half of the world’s 14 million camels. Camel meat is not tender.  You’ll also eat a fair share of camel’s hump, which is a spongy, fatty tissue, resistant to all mastication… ..

Yup – that pretty much summed up the experience

Camel spat

And then I spent the rest of the afternoon smelling the flowers in the garden at the Ambassador Hotel near the airport.  I was staying here not because I wanted to hang with all the aid workers nor spend $60 a night versus the much more reasonable $15 at the Oriental hotel, but because it is one of the only hotels in town that isn’t right next door to a Mosque.  Somalilanders take their worship incredibly seriously and the 4 am wake up call is ear splitting…….

The herd of the man with the most camels

I was up early my second morning in town and headed down to the livestock market. Somalis are still nomads at heart and camels are an important source of food and transport. The camels kicked up lots of dust in the early morning sun as the traders shouted prices around them. There is pretty strict division of labour here…. men do camels, women do goats. People are very friendly, lots of people said hello and asked here I was from, but no one was hassling or trying to sell me anything. These markets pop up all over the country where nomads come together but this is one of the biggest ones

Kid by the side of the road, in what the locals describe as the ‘bush’

Then I headed out to Las Geel. In spite of having no major incidents against foreigners in over ten years, (the last incident was three aid workers being murdered by terrorists from Mogadishu in 2003,) the government requires tourists to have an armed government escort and a permit to travel outside of Hargeisa. So it turns out I was getting armed guards after all….. but these were government approved, and likely to be under-utilised.

View from inside one of the caves at Las Geel

After the guide requested an early start it turns out he had the opening times wrong for the tourism ministry, where we needed to stop to get a permit. So we ended up hanging out for 45 minutes chatting to various men and eventually a form in triplicate was produced after I had shown them where Nz was on google maps. Not quite done, we then had to go pay for the permit at the finance ministry, and then back to the tourism ministry for another piece of paper. Eventually after 90 minutes of African bureaucracy at its finest we hit the road.

5000 year old rock painting of cows shagging

Las Geel was amazing. The 5000 year old rock paintings are in open sided caves near an ancient wadi. Historians think there must have been lots of water there so ancient camel herders had plenty of time for painting. Interestingly there aren’t any paintings of camels – it’s mostly cows.

Female cow

More amusingly, even back then shagging was an art theme, and there is a great painting of two cows shagging. I was the only visitor there and it was a magical hour scrambling up and down the sides of the rocky outcrop seeing the paintings. I haven’t seen anything like this before, and would definitely recommend a visit to any history buffs.

Female cow with a man underneath

Additional notes

– you must have a visa to come to Somaliland. You can get these easily and for free at their mission in London, alternatively for a small fee at the embassies in Addis or Djibouti. I didn’t have time for either so paid the hotel $60 to arrange a visa on arrival which worked well

– Any of the hotels can arrange a trip to Las Geel. It is not cheap and the guides at the site, as well as your driver and guides will all also ask for a generous tip

– Sometimes the Lonely Planet (commonly known amongst serious travelers as the Lying Planet) omits some startlingly important things.  I had read a couple of blogs about women getting rocks thrown at them for wearing trousers and no head scarfs…., and even wikitravel mentions it as a requirement, but nothing in the LP. Big thanks to Vanessa for her donation of an ankle length skirt before I left Australia, and my sarong doubles up as an ok headscarf.

A man and his dog

Random side note – it never ceases to amaze me in Africa how the borders bear no reference to historical tribal divides. I guess it is not surprising when they were historically drawn up by European cartographers assisting their governments in divvying up the colonies and their resources. I can’t help but wonder how many of today’s civil wars and partitions might have been avoided by drawing lines in places that recognised the locals history and tribes.

Somali nomad hut – unlike in Djibouti they use old fabric and plastic rather than palm mats for walls

Second random side note – there are khat shops everywhere if you want to try ‘African salad’…. its a mild amphetamine related to the betel nut

The khat shop


Hargeisa, May 5, 2017

2 thoughts on “Somaliland – Hanging out in Hargeisa”

  1. Always a joy reading your blog, and pleased to hear Stephane gave you some sensible advise on travelling to Somalia.

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