There’s Something about Somaliland

I could have flown from Djibouti to Somaliland, but I had heard a rumor that the Somalian airline Jubba Airways uses old, refitted livestock transport planes to transport their current human passengers… and that they’re flights are notorious for being delayed or cancelled, so I decided because of the latter to go overland. It was a little over 400km, and all I knew was that the journey would take a whole night and the mode of public transport was (outdated) 4×4 Toyota Landcruisers. In the end it took nearly 19 hours and the road there was merely a sand track repeatedly followed by the same Landcruisers, but their tires had no traction and a little bit of rain had caused 3 to get stuck on the way.

The border sold Somaliland visas on arrival, but I had had mine from the embassy. The other 5 passengers in my vehicle were either Somali or Djiboutian, and they needed a visa too, which 4 refused to pay for. Instead of turning them back, we (I didn’t realize I was innocent and free to move) were held at gun point (one was foot-cuffed) to see how long it would take them to give in and pay. In the end we waited more than 3 hours and only 2 out of 4 paid, but somehow 3 out of 4 made it through and Im still wondering what happened to that last guy.

the cornerstore

the cornerstore

Arriving into Hargeisa was an anti-climactic relief. The roads hadn’t really improved, just hardened and gotten dustier, and getting local money meant bag fulls of notes worth between $0.07 and $0.70 (there weren’t larger bills or any atm’s – could you even imagine withdrawing $100 from one?). Besides breaking my back being jostled around for a whole night, the Somali music had kept my spirits up, and I was happy to see some live music and eat local food at a cultural village my first night. We ate goat and camel while sitting on goatskins, but I wondered what the fat-tailed sheep might taste like or how the hyde would look with their tails flattened.

At first sight, Hargeisa had taken me back to a super conservative, Islamic place, where some women covered even their hands in gloves and girls years younger than puberty had already started covering their hair (and it was around 40°c). Covering was a nuisance in such heat, but its camoflauging ability wasn’t worth abandoning. Instead of a Holy Bible in the drawer like a typical American motel, prayer mats were provided at all hotels. Alcohol and pork disappeared, though I hadn’t really noticed it in Djibouti even though I thought I missed them, and the calls to prayer got louder and closer no matter where I was. Courtships between men and women were very discreet, with walled VIP rooms, private tents, or separation partitions set up between tables at restaurants so that no one could see who’s dating who. At least the women here were allowed to go out alone with their romantic interests, and they seemed to enjoy more colourful clothing and henna tattooing than their gulf country counterparts. Still many men had multiple wives but not as many marriages were arranged as in Oman.

a woman waits for a bus at a gas station

a woman waits for a bus at a gas station

I managed to make it to Hargeisa and onwards to Berbera and back without hiring an armed guard. It didn’t seem to matter I you were covered and took a local bus, but I took a private car once and the guard in the next private car behind us had to pretend to take responsibility of me to get me through the regular checkpoints, turning a 1.5 hr drive into twice as long (even though the road was paved!). We often slowed for goats crossing or dodged a camel, and every village let their livestock roam free and only fenced in their trees to keep them alive.

It’s easy to get tired of this kind of travel: it’s slow, dirty, hot, and long, but the rewards become much simpler. The payoffs weren’t any major tourist attractions or natural wonders; they’re just simple luxuries like taking a normal shower (vs. bucket shower or cold water hose) or finding wifi and some cold water to drink. Someone explained that Somalilanders think cold liquids aren’t good for you, so they don’t refrigerate much or use ice. However, they go all out on telecommunications, with cell phone service and 4g available even in the littlest shacks and faraway places.

checkpoint

checkpoint

I left Somaliland with a tummy at war, disgustingly sick from an unboiled cup of coffee, but the memories of Berbera’s coast and endless beach still made it worth it (they happened on the same day). Las Geels ancient rock art on the road between Berbera and Hargeisa was also interesting, although it could be a lot better managed for the $25 entry the guard either pockets or you pay at the tourism office in Hargeisa. But that won’t happen until more people start traveling to Somaliland, so I encourage anyone with a different taste in tourism and a sense of overlanding adventure to try it soon. At the moment it’s the safest, most peaceful part of disjointed Somalia, but you never know how long that will last!

Overlanding between Djibouti, Somaliland and Ethiopia

When I was researching a trip around the horn of Africa, information was hard to find, and all outdated. Google, Lonely Planet and most other travel guides didn’t offer much help, since I needed to find out if and how it was possible to get visas and cross land borders. After a few weeks of traveling these routes, here’s what I found out, but keep in mind this might only stay relevant for a few months.

I started in Djibouti and traveled overland first across the Loyada border into Somaliland, then from Hargeisa to Ethiopia via the Wajaale border. In Djibouti, there is a Somilland embassy (between the Sheraton Hotel and Ethiopian Embassy) that issues single entry visas in 24 hours for $31USD (payable in local Djibouti francs), but the Somaliland land border with Djbouti also offers the visa on arrival for the same price and it only takes a few minutes. The actual crossing may take a lot longer since even Somalis and Djiboutis need the Somaliland visa, and they like to refuse to pay and be detained by an armed guard for hours until someone gives in (either they pay or they get let off in each situation).

the Loyada border between Djibouti and Somaliland

the Loyada border between Djibouti and Somaliland

There’s an Ethiopian Embassy in Djibouti that gives single or multiple entry visas within 24 hours, and you must have it before traveling overland to Ethiopia. In Hargeisa, there is neither a Djibouti or Ethiopian embassy, so if you enter Somaliland without getting your visas first in Djibouti or Addis, you wont be able to leave unless you fly out of Hargeisa.

As for the actual travel, Djibouti to the Somaliland border is less than an hours drive, but its possible to buy a ticket (from some khat dealers and money changers on 26th street close to the police station) from Djiboutiville to Hargeisa. You show up between 2:30 and 3:30, and a beat up old truck leaves around 4 with 6 passengers and some cargo, drops you at the border, and a Somaliland Land Cruiser takes over the load. Then you wait hours for the border process (I was accidentally grouped in with my fellow detained non-visa holding passengers before I realized I could leave the guy with a gun and sit more peacefully by the shops selling cold drinks and some home-made food from make shift tents) to finish, and continue overnight along a bumpy 400km+ sand track (its hardly a road) which takes more than 12 hours. We had to rescue 3 other land cruisers who had gotten stuck in the sand, and near the end of the trip, when a proper gravel road appeared, we had to dodge alot of road kill – a dead donkey, dead camels, and an entire family of dead cows.

our overnight landcruiser to Hargeisa

our overnight landcruiser to Hargeisa

Then you’ve reached Hargeisa, Somalilands capital, whose city center roads are still nothing less than bumpy dirt tracks. Dust gets blown on you and everybody and everything all the time, but there is a decent paved road going north (to Berbera 150km) and south to Wajaale, the Ethopian border. Its a $5USD bus trip, 100km in under 2 hours, and the border was a bit easier to pass, although the immigration offices were well hidden among the other shops and shacks along the road. From Wajaale, you can travel to Jigjiga and onto Harar within the same day, budget another 3 hours and $3 for each bus (less than 100 birr).

Doing the trip the other way, Somaliland – Djibouti – Ethiopia, remember you must first have a Djiboutian visa or fly into Djibouti from Somaliland. Then there is a direct bus between Djiboutiville and Dire Dawa in Ethiopia (very close to Harar) which travels either early morning or late afternoon and takes all day or all night. I saw the ticket office somewhere on the south end of town on a main street, but don’t know the street name (they’re usually not marked in Djiboutiville, but asking around led me quickly to the place).

If you’re flying in or out of these countries, Ethiopia offers a visa on arrival in Addis Ababa airport, but only a 1 month single entry visa (around $50USD). Getting a multiple entry visa is only possibly in an embassy outside of Ethiopia prior to your arrival, or extending your visa once you’ve arrived. Djibouti, like on the land borders, also offers a visa on arrival for international flights. It costs $6o for a 3 day transit visa, and $90 for a week or more tourist visa. I’m still unsure about the Hargeisa International airport in Somaliland, but it seems flights (i.e. Jubba airways) are usually delayed or cancelled going in or out, there isn’t a mandatory exchange of $50 USD upon arrival or a departure tax, but it also seems the visa on arrival may not be available but in theory it should be.

If you’re interested in traveling to any other nearby countries, keep in mind the land borders between Ethiopia and Eritrea and Djibouti and Eritrea are currently impassable. There is no Eritrean embassy in Djibouti (its been closed for years despite information online saying there is one), Ethiopia or Somaliland, and the only way I’ve heard of people traveling overland is through the Sudan-Eritrea land border. Only Italians and Sudanese can travel visa free to Eritrea, but getting a visa would be hard anywhere in Africa (Europe is a better bet). Traveling south from Somaliland to Puntland or Somalia doesn’t seem easy either, especially since you need a Somalian visa to get out of Somaliland but there’s not Somalian embassy in Hargeisa. Although you used to be able to buy a Somalian passport in Somaliland for $60-75USD!