Besides the painted caves of Laas Geel, the most promising road trip from Somaliland’s capital Hargeisa is to Berbera, 160 km north of Hargeisa and the country’s main port on the Red Sea. Nobody knows how old Berbera is, but it’s been an important port since ancient times and is mentioned in The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, a Greek sailor’s guidebook from the first century AD. It boasts beautiful coral reefs, a lighthouse with a sweeping view, and a historic synagogue.
We got to see none of these things, but our trip was educational to say the least.
I and my travel companions, Swedish photojournalist Leo Stolpe and a Somali expat who doesn’t wish to be named, hired a driver through my friends’ hotel. Since we did it on short notice the hotel owner couldn’t get one of his regulars and had to hire someone he didn’t know. He explained to the driver that we wanted to see everything and we’d be out all day. He also told him that if he did a good job he could expect more work in the future.
The driver seemed friendly enough. He spoke decent English and was in good spirits as we left. He was in even better spirits when he stopped to pick up a large bundle of khat, a narcotic plant. I noticed he spent a lot of money to get a choice bundle with lots of young shoots and leaves that would guarantee a strong effect.
First stop was the shrine of Sheikh Yusuf al-Kownin Aw-Barkhadle, on the highway north of Hargeisa. Aw-Barkhadle was a devoted Muslim who came from Harar to defeat a false holy man who was fooling the people with his magic and sleeping with their daughters. When Aw-Barkhadle told the charlatan to renounce his evil ways, the man challenged him to a magical duel. Aw-Barkhadle let him go first, and the man waved his hand and opened up a tunnel through a mountain on the outskirts of Hargeisa.
Aw-Barkhadle shrugged and said, “That’s simple. What’s difficult is passing through.”
Enraged, the false holy man arrogantly walked into the tunnel. Aw-Barkhadle ordered the mountain to close by the power of Allah and the evil one was entombed inside. To this day when Somalis pass by this mountain they throw rocks at it or slap it with their sandals. Its stone is never used to build houses.
The shrine is a simple affair of whitewashed walls trimmed with green, the color of paradise. Non-Muslims aren’t allowed inside, but I still felt a strange atmosphere to this building, shining brilliantly in the sun amidst a stony plain of thorn bushes and unmarked graves.
%Gallery-93452%The road to Berbera had a dozen police checkpoints. Since our route took us only along the main highway we had permission from the police in Hargeisa to travel without a bodyguard and we experienced no trouble at the checkpoints. Soon we could smell the sea air and we drove through the busy port. Past Ottoman mosques and colonial-era bungalows we could see giant freighters moored in the glittering water. We stopped at the Maansoor Hotel, which has an excellent restaurant with a view of the sea, and the added bonus of the only dive shop in Somaliland. Our driver had been chewing khat constantly for almost two hours, but didn’t seem to be affected by a loss of appetite the drug usually gives and we all enjoyed some wonderful fried fish. We rented some gear from the dive shop, checked the map to see how to get to the coral reefs, and headed out.
Then the trouble started.
The coral reefs are three kilometers outside of town. A coastal road leads there, but we found the road blocked by soldiers in a “technical”, a pickup truck with a weapon mounted on the hood, in this case a heavy recoilless rifle capable of punching a hole through our engine block. The soldiers politely but firmly told us we couldn’t pass. Luckily I remembered the map showed a more roundabout road that would get us around the military zone and to the coral reefs.
The driver didn’t want to go and refused to ask anyone for directions. Luckily our Somali friend managed to get someone to tell us which way to go. The driver grumbled all the way out of town, saying this wasn’t part of the deal, that we only said we wanted to go to the beach, etc., etc. Our Somali friend tried to reason with him, reminding him that he had been hired to take us all around, but to no avail. After a few minutes of obviously not trying to find the alternate road, he turned the car back towards Berbera.
We were getting pissed off. Berbera’s main attraction is the coral reefs, but our khat-chewing driver didn’t care. Not listening to reason in either English or Somali, he drove us straight to the beach and parked the car. He’d gone on strike, and sat glumly staring out the window chomping on more khat.
Leo, being a good travel companion, gave me some solid advice.
“Look, Sean. This is the fourth country you’ve been to that’s on the Red Sea and you’ve never been in the water. Just forget about this guy and let’s go swimming.”
Good plan. The beach was clean, the water as warm as a bath. We swam out and dove under, hoping to find some uncharted coral reefs. We didn’t have any luck but had a great swim anyway. When we finally made it back to the car our driver, teeth stained green with khat, rounded on us.
“Where have you been!? It’s time to go!!!”
We tried to calm him down and said we’d head back to Hargeisa after stopping at the dive shop to return the equipment.
“No!” he declared. “I’ll drop off the equipment next time I’m in Berbera.”
Yeah, sure you will, I thought, but said, “It will only take a minute.”
“We don’t have time! It will be dark soon and I won’t take any more side trips.”
“Side trips? The dive shop is right over there,” I said, pointing. “We have to drive past it to get to the highway.”
Even Mr. Khat couldn’t argue with that logic, so grumbling all the while he stopped at the dive shop and glared at us until we were back in the car.
“Where’s your guard?” he demanded. This was the first time he had mentioned it.
“We have permission from the Hargeisa police to travel without one, we already told you,” Leo said.
“I won’t drive without a guard!” Mr. Khat shouted.
Our Somali friend reasoned with him in their own language. After a minute the driver grunted and headed out.
At the first police checkpoint outside of town, the cops inspected our papers and let us through, but our driver wouldn’t budge. He started shouting to the police that he didn’t want to drive at night without a guard and insisted one of the cops get in the car and that we all go back to the station. The sun was setting and we were headed in the wrong direction.
Our Somali friend muttered, “This is a shit man.” I was tempted to ask how to say that in Somali.
Mr. Khat had really worked himself up into a fever pitch now. He was ranting and raving, obviously suffering a bad trip from the drug he’d been eating all day, and once he got to the police station he vowed he’d leave us there. The police chief stepped in, and a long debate ensued about whether we had to hire a officer or not. A call to higher authorities decided that we would. As that was being arranged our “driver” came up to me.
“Where’s my money?” he demanded.
“The agreement was that you’d be paid when we got back to Hargeisa,” I said as calmly as I could, which wasn’t very calmly at all.
“I WANT MORE MONEY!” he screeched.
“For not taking us anywhere? I don’t think so!”
OK, that’s not what I really said. I can’t print what I really said. In a moment the cops jumped between us and the driver started threatening the police chief. Yes, the police chief. A club brandished over his head shut him up, but only just barely. The police chief told him in no uncertain terms to take us back to Hargeisa, that we’d pay for the police escort, and we’d pay him what we agreed on and not a shilling more.
So it was decided. The drive back was spent in glum silence, except for the smacking of our driver’s lips as he gobbled down more of his ridiculous little leaves.
There’s a lesson in all this. Somaliland doesn’t have a real tourism industry yet, and visitors need to find an experienced driver and make it clear to him from the beginning what they want. Drivers need to understand they’re being hired for the day, not for a certain number of kilometers. Hotel owners need to find reliable drivers. They need people who are relaxed, enjoy their work, and are flexible with international visitors who want to be shown everything.
And they need to find people who aren’t addicted to drugs.
Don’t miss the rest of my series on travel in Somaliland.
Next time: Somaliland, building a nation.