“Welcome to Somaliland for your travels”, said the friendly and enthusiastic immigration official . “Have a good time in our country”, said another.
After crossing through no-mans land between Ethiopia and Somaliland the excitement crept in, as I was now entering a country that isn’t officially acknowledged by the international community.
The world recognises Somalia as being made up off one country comprising the areas of Somalia, Puntland and Somaliland. However back in the nineties Somaliland fought a war with Somalia and won.
Somaliland declared itself an independent country and has had its own security forces, money, passports and so on ever since.
There is one major problem for Somaliland: most of the world does not recognise its independence.
So as large parts of Somalia continue to have violence between warlords and foreign armies, Somaliland itself has largely restored law and order in its own territory, and as such is a relatively safe place to visit.
Yet still many people hear the word with ‘Somali’ in it and images of Mogadishu and terrorism come to mind.
But after leaving the smiling immigration officials behind there was hope this will be a fun and safe visit to Somaliland.
Somaliland Travel Journal
Entering Somaliland From Ethiopia
Most travellers that do travel to Somaliland do so as a side trip from Ethiopia and come across the border from Ethiopia via Harar, which is exactly what I did.
The border town between Ethiopia and Somaliland was like being on the frontier of something that was still waiting to happen.
Dust blew on the streets, while traders sat around looking for business, and taxi drivers vied to whisk you away in the cars.
I was soon underway in one of those taxis, a crapped out old Datsun estate car from what was probably the 80,s, and had no idea how the hell it was still running as things clanged around inside its rotting body.
The other passengers were friendly locals very curious to know why someone would come and travel to Somaliland.
I tried to explain that normally non-touristed places can be much more friendly and authentic, as the people have not become jaded after decades of foreigners visiting.
They sort of understood. Sort of.
The first 20 kilometres of road towards the capital are not paved (update 2019 there is a possible new motorway planned for travel between Ethiopia and Somaliland), and having rained earlier in the day it was a mud-bath.
After only a few hundred meters we got stuck and had to get out and push, but to no avail. So a rope was attached underneath and were pulled until free, only to be stuck again 100 meters further on.
This went on for an hour, with other cars and trucks getting stuck behind.
Finally, now stained from the waste down in mud, wa paved road was hit and the rest of the journey to Hargeisa continued.
But optimism sometimes comes to early, and as such the paved road to Hargeisa soon turned into pothole hell, to make for a slow, bumpy ride.
Every 20 minutes we would come across a security checkpoint. They take the security of foreigners very seriously after several aid workers were killed by terrorists in 2003.
Ever since tourists visiting are officially supposed to be escorted by their own security guard, but we had no problem getting through the checkpoints without one.
With dusk coming sooner than thought,we were soon driving in the dark, with the familiar glow of a big city on the horizon coming up. Hargeisa.
A little tired from an early start and long day of travel, we finally rolled into the dusty streets of Hargeisa and I found a hotel for the night.
Collapsing on my bed after a quick dinner and shower I was deep in thought about the coming days of exploring Somaliland, and curious how it would be as I was one of the few travellers who actually visit Somaliland as a tourist.
But the beginning signs made it seem alright. “Welcome to Somaliland” I was told several times already, hoping that there would be a lot more of that to come.
Hargeisa – Somalilands De Facto Capital
Having arrived at the capital Hargeisa with a sense of excitement and wonder at what the place would be like.
I can say right away that after spending one week in the capital it’s one of the friendliest places in Africa I have visited, after many years of travel. I met a total of only two other travellers in the one week I spent in Hargeisa.
Going out into the city in the first few days all by myself I lapped up the atmosphere on the street.
Entering into the big central market on my second day there, I sat down with a fruit seller who spoke good english and chatted away for a good 30 minutes.
I soon drew a bit of a crowd around us, as people were curious to know where I was from and why I was visiting Somaliland. They also wanted very much to express how much I was welcome in their country.
Laughs and smiles we’re had by all. I liked it there.
Surrounded at times by curious locals, asking the same questions that always get asked to foreigners in many places.
Where are you from? What is your name? What are you doing here? As well as others.
But in Hargeisa it is all genuine. They don’t want to sell you anything, they are really curious to know you, and make you feel very welcome in their country.
Walking back from the camel market, it took longer to get back to the centre simply because we stopped to speak to so many people. I couldn’t believe how friendly this place is.
I was trying to think of other capital cities where I have had this kind of reception. Some places in Iran sprang to mind, again because it is not heavily touristed.
Naturally you will get the occasional asshole trying to cause a bit of trouble, but it is very rare compared to other countries.
I originally only intended to spend a few days in Hargeisa, but fell in love with the atmosphere and the friendly people.
If anyone was to ask me what there is to see in Hargeisa, I would tell them not much. It isn’t a place you come to see, it is a place you come to feel.
The days were passed walking around, relaxing at cafes drinking coffee and watching life go by, and talking to people.
The dusty streets of downtown Hargeisa are lined in parts by small cafes under trees, nondescript little places that you would not give a second glance.
But having met some local people and hanging out a bit with them, you can sit in these cafes and meet many people of consequence.
From local businessmen to Somaliland reporters, all hanging out chewing Qat and discussing matters. Going for dinner in restaurants and meeting the chief of the electric company etc.
It makes Somaliland seem very available to the ordinary man.
Staying at the oldest hotel in the capital, the Oriental hotel, you can feel the heartbeat of the city outside your room on the dusty streets.
Full of market traders, money changers, workers, shoppers and so on, all going about their business.
The big mosque calling out for prayers adding to the scene. The feeling that you are somewhere true and unique.
Watching the money changers do their business is interesting, with the Somaliland currency not being strong, it takes blocks of money for just a few US dollars.
Leaving Somaliland and coming back to Ethiopia, part of me did not want to leave.
I was excited about the new adventures to come, but also a little sad at leaving behind some of the friendliest people I have met.
Laas Geel Rock Art Day Trip
Laas Geel is an area near the capital of Somaliland, Hargeisa.
It’s famous for some of the best preserved rock art in Africa, dating back 9000-3000 years BC, set in several caves.
Now for some people the prospect of visiting what is essentially an outdoor art gallery may not be that exciting, but the area itself is very beautiful and rugged.
Having spent a few days in Somaliland already I decided to visit Laas Geel.
Technically your supposed to bring your own security guard for protection, which I did, but have heard reports that you can visit without one, but may run into problems in the area with local security.
Anyway the guard only costs 20 dollars and is kind of fun to have around, and also doubles as a tour guide for the area.
Hiking up the small escarpment you arrive at the first cave, covered in paintings depicting cows and other animals.
The caves were apparently used in the past as cover when it was raining, and the herders painted the art when using as shelter.
The reason so many cows are portrayed is related to the area being used heavily for grazing them in the past.
Moving onto some more caves in Laas Geel, the most impressive being a massive overhang with great views, you can see more of the rock art and generally soak up the ambience of the place.
In the heat of the day it’s good to go slow and appreciate your surroundings.
Laas Geel is a snakes paradise, with all the rocks and caves to hide in, and rodents for food running around.
One’s mind does tend to think before stepping around certain rocks that could be good cover for them!
Visiting Laas Geel is worth it, if anything just for the surrounding area, the paintings being an added bonus. And for people into neolithic paintings, well it’s obviously a must see site!
Although I don’t personally know many neolithic fanatics.
Port of Berbera Shipwrecks and Beach Life
Having spent almost a week in friendly Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, It was time to descend to the heat of the coast, at the historic Port of Berbera.
When asking anyone in Hargeisa what Berbera is like, they reply simple with one word, HOT!
With average temperatures of 35-40 degrees and humid to go with it! So with that thought in mind I entered the cramped shared taxi and headed on.
The three hour drive there slowly got hotter and hotter, until all windows open, the sweat starting to pour off the forehead, Berbera was spotted in the distance, with the inviting sea beyond.
Starting to walk into the old town you can see the old port, with some shipwrecks lining the shore.
The heat is in-escapable, and everything you do slows down to a crawl, dreaming of something cold to drink.
That wish comes near the fisheries at the seafront, with a restaurant serving up delicious freshly caught fish, and freshly squeezed juices, nice and cold.
Happily content and with a bit of a sea-breeze to help with the heat, a walk around the crumbling old town is done.
Watching the fishermen bringing in the fresh catches on their small boats, then move them into numerous fisheries on Berbera ports old waterfront, is a relaxing site.
Especially with the evening light approaching, and the weather cooling just a little, but still scorching hot.
Stopping to speak to some fishermen down near the quay, they were very friendly (like most people I have met in Somaliland), and happy to show off some of their catch from the day.
With the sun setting, the shipwrecks in the old port shadowed in the foreground, and the atmospheric sound of the mosques evening prayer calls, the heat is forgotten, and a brief moment of pure peace takes over.
At that moment, I was happy to be in Berbera.
If you think nighttime brings an escape from the heat, think again! Trying to sleep in a non air conditioned room was mission impossible.
Tossing and turning, sweat all over, with strange dreams of an ice-cream and ice cold water bath to take away the heat, sleep was elusive.
Waking up and once again walking into the salty humid heat, it was time for a dip in the sea to cool of.
Heading a few kilometres away from the town, a beach with inviting green sea was to much to ignore.
And with the empty beach almost all to myself, ran into the surf with a big smile. Aaahhhh coolness, how I missed thee!
After a while it’s unfortunately time to go back to town, to get a shared taxi back to Hargeisa.
Waiting for 2-3 hours for other passangers to join, in the midday heat, drenched in sweat, lets just say ones patience is tested rather hard!
Giving up for a while, pretty much saying f**k this! I went back to the seafront to the seabreeze and for some of the best fesh juice I have had anywhere.
Freshly squeezed pineapple juice, cool from the fridge was unbelieveably good. I downed three glasses in a minute.
Telling the driver to pick up at the restaurant when full, he showed up and stuffed into another crappy old estate car that was falling apart, we we’re on our way back to Hargeisa.
Cooler, cooler, cooler… Until, even though still warm, was happy to be back in the capital and the relative cool. I liked Berbera in a strange kind of way.
If I visited when it wasn’t still the heat of summer, I would most likely have enjoyed it more. But the heat almost kills any ideas of doing much!
Why Go To Somaliland
Somaliland travel can be hard there, making it all the more fun for adventurous travellers. Spending 3-4 hours waiting around in hot heat for a share taxi to fill up is not fun.
Officially at the time of writing you need to be escorted by a soldier when visiting anywhere outside the capital. From experience not many people do this, as it really isn’t needed around the main areas, so don’t be put off by that.
That said, having your own soldier can be quite fun.
The only possible danger exists when traveling to the border regions with Puntland. I didn’t make it to that region mainly because of transport issues.
Those looking for some real adventure though could be well rewarded from what I have heard from others.
All that talk about soldiers, and maybe a little danger, is another reason to visit Somaliland. It adds excitement. For the most part the people of Somaliland are very friendly and will look out for visitors to their country.
One reason for that is they are trying to get international recognition, and will go out of their way to help you. Any bad publicity will be good for their country.
Foreign businesses are paying attention to the natural resources available there, which could open the doors to more visitors.
In a few years the feeling you get now off being off the beaten path will most likely be gone, making now a great time to visit.
It is also a cheap country to travel to, with the currency being very weak. You can see money changers with huge stacks of cash on the streets.
I am rather passionate about my experiences in Somaliland and want more travellers to visit. If you are in Ethiopia already then it is not too difficult to get to the border.
Hopefully the world will open up more to Somaliland and give its people what they deserve.
Useful Links For Travel to Somaliland
This is a good guidebook for travelling to Somaliland:
And if you’re coming across from Ethiopia like many travellers do then this is the best guidebook for Ethiopia: