Ethiopia’s Somali region: a potential adventure travel destination?

adventure travel, Adventure Travel, Ethiopia, camels, Somali Region
As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve been exploring Ethiopia’s Somali region. While my quest for Ahmed Guray’s castle was a failure, I did see potential for adventure travel in the region.
Adventure travelers generally are looking for three things: historical sights, interesting cultures, and natural wonders. The Somali region is a bit short of historical sights, although there are a few of interest, but it’s strong on culture and nature.

First, the historical sights. The main one is Alibilal Cave in the Erer District, about 10 km (6 miles) from Erer town. This cave is covered with prehistoric paintings of cows, giraffes, gazelle, and other figures. Last year I was amazed by the prehistoric cave art of Laas Geel in Somaliland, and I’m really curious to see this cave. I’ve seen some video footage and it looks impressive. Other historical sights include the mosque I wrote about yesterday, and some colonial buildings scattered about the region.

The Somali Region is much stronger on cultural attractions. There aren’t many places left in the world where you can see camel herders living much as they did centuries ago. You can drink fresh camel milk in traditional domed huts made of mats. Try shay Somali, Somali tea that’s mixed with sugar and camel’s milk and tastes a lot like Indian chai. The culture here preserves itself by oral traditions. Sitting with a clan elder and listening to his stories can be a one-of-a-kind experience. The Somali region is the easiest place to experience Somali culture, being cheaper than Somaliland and far safer than Somalia.Most Somalis don’t speak English, of course, but I know of at least one Somali tour guide in Harar, Muhammed “Dake” (guleidhr @yahoo.com). He even spent some of his youth herding camels in this region! Harar makes the best base for seeing the Somali region. It’s much cooler and more interesting than the dusty lowland regional capital of Jijiga, and only adds an hour to your trip.

Because the Somalis are unused to tourism, adventure travelers will be free from a lot of the usual hassles like touts and pushy vendors. Expect plenty of attention though, and a large dose of curiosity. This isn’t a bad thing. You’ll get into lots of interesting conversations that will teach you about the local culture. Virtually all foreigners they see are working in NGOs, so expect a lot of questions about your development project.

Ethiopia’s Somali Region offers plenty of natural attractions for adventure travel. There are five regional parks with various types of wildlife. The Somali officials I spoke to recommended Dado Park, which has lion, giraffes, and elephants. I also got to see three families of baboons on the highway between Harar and Jijiga. Another attraction are the Somali Region’s many hot springs. Like hot springs everywhere, they’re reputed to have healing qualities and people come from all around to “take the waters”. The easiest to get to from Harar or Jijiga is in the Erer district near Erer town, not far from the Alilbilal painted cave. The town is 113 km (68 miles) from Harar and the cave and hot springs together would make a good day trip from Harar. The Erer-Gota hot springs are located on the grounds of one of Haile Selassie’s palaces (now gone to ruin) and it’s still popular with people looking for cures of various diseases. Hot springs are popular with herders too, who wrap their lunch up in cloth and stick it in the water to cook it! Reminds me of wrapping potatoes in aluminum foil and sticking it in the coals of a campfire.

Let me stress that while I’ve been through the Somali Region twice now, I haven’t seen many of these attractions myself, only heard about them from Somalis. Hopefully next year I’ll have a chance to explore this region more thoroughly. In the meantime, if you go to the Somali Region, please drop me a line and tell me your experiences. One person already has. A member of the Ethiopia-U.S. Mapping Mission wrote to tell me that he spent a year there in 1967-68 mapping the region. He had lots of fun hunting and exploring, even though he often didn’t bathe for up to two weeks at a time! Veterans of the mission have a website called the Ethiopia-United States Mapping Mission with lots of information and photos. Be sure to check out the “Stories and Memories” section.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Harar, Ethiopia: two months in Africa’s City of Saints

Coming up next: Not sure yet. Wherever my travels in the Harar region take me!

Ancient cave art discovered in Somaliland


Somaliland is little-known as an adventure travel destination. The breakaway region of northern Somalia isn’t even recognized as a nation, but traveling in Somaliland I found it to be a fascinating and friendly country. Its biggest draw for visitors is the well-preserved cave art at Laas Geel, shown above.

Now Somaliland has even more ancient attractions with the announcement that archaeologist Dr. Sada Mire has discovered rock art at almost a hundred more sites in Somaliland. The Somali-born archaeologist says the paintings date to various periods from two to five thousand years ago. Images include animals, the moon in various phases, and a remarkable four-thousand-year-old depiction of a mounted hunter.

Ten of the sites are so outstanding that they’ll be candidates for UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites list. Her findings will appear in the next issue of Current World Archaeology.

I met Dr. Mire last year in London, and while she was anxious to promote archaeological tourism to her country, she warned that a lack of funding and education meant ancient sites such as Laas Geel were under threat. Perhaps her spectacular finds will encourage UNESCO and other organizations to take an interest in Somaliland and help foster a sustainable tourism that will be protect and showcase the caves.

Prehistoric cave art discovered in Transylvania

A group of speleologists exploring a cave in the Apuseni Nature Park in Transylvania, Romania, have discovered what could be Central Europe’s oldest cave art. Paintings of now-extinct species rhinoceros and cat were found next to images of bison, a horse, a bear’s head, and a female torso.

While dating cave art is difficult, based on the style archaeologists believe the figures are anywhere from 23,000 to 35,000 years old. No cave art this old has ever been found in Central Europe.

Coliboaia cave, where the art was discovered, is one of hundreds of caves in the Bihorului Mountains. Many have yet to be explored and there are likely to be more archaeological surprises in the future.

The question remains of what to do with the cave. There will be a temptation to open it to the public, but with the controversial reopening of Altamira in Spain, and the problems over preserving the paintings of Lascaux in France, the debate over how best to preserve humanity’s oldest art is growing louder than ever.

Lascaux image courtesy Sevela.p via Wikimedia Commons.

Laas Geel: Somaliland’s ancient treasure

Before becoming a writer I worked as an archaeologist, and one of the things that inspired me to choose that profession was the beautiful cave art of Europe–places like Lascaux, Altamira, Chauvet, and so many others.

One of the things that inspired me to go to Somaliland was the recently discovered painted caves of Laas Geel. The paintings are being studied by Sada Mire, Somaliland’s head archaeologist. She dates these paintings to the Neolithic period, when pastoral peoples tended their herds in a landscape that was greener than the dry, stony plain that makes up much of Somaliland nowadays.

The art seems to have been made over time, with some figures painted over earlier ones. Dr. Mire estimates they could be anywhere from 5,000 to 11,000 years old. Dating rock art is extremely difficult, especially since so little has been studied in this region. Dr. Mire is the first ever Somali archaeologist, and one of the first to seriously study the Somali region.

Laas Geel is a little more than an hour drive northeast of the Somaliland capital Hargeisa. Foreigners venturing outside the capital are asked to hire a soldier or policeman to protect them. While this is a mostly peaceful country, the government doesn’t want any bad press, and a couple of foreigners have been killed in recent years. So one fine morning I head out with a hired car, our driver, a Kalashnikov-toting bodyguard, Swedish photojournalist Leo Stolpe, and Ali, Dr. Mire’s assistant from the Department of Antiquities.

A short drive along a well-paved road and we make our first stop to see some other relics of Somaliland’s past. Right next to the road is a rusting old Soviet-made tank, destroyed during the war of independence. There used to be many more of them scattered around the country but most have been hauled away for scrap. This one remains and has become a local landmark.

Ali is more interested in a rocky hill nearby. He leads us up the slope under a strong mid-morning sun and shows us two heaps of small stones. To the untrained eye they look like nothing, but I can see they aren’t natural.

%Gallery-93102%”What are these? Cairns?” I ask.

“Yes,” Ali replies. “Graves from the pre-Islamic times.”

One of them is about ten feet in diameter and consists of thousands of fist-sized stones. I wonder who is buried here, and what they did to deserve such an expense of labor.

Soon we’re speeding along the highway again. It’s not long before we turn off onto a dirt track. The Landcruiser jolts and crashes across deep pits and humps. Through the scrub we can see a herd of camels and the low dome of a nomad’s hut. It’s taken less than a minute to leave the twenty-first century behind. After a short ride we make it to a gate. Beyond is a small concrete building and behind that is a rocky hill. We’re here.

The Department of Antiquities doesn’t have much money, so one of the most impressive rock art sites in the world has no grandiose museum, no visitor’s center, not even a guy selling tickets. Well, we do have to pay to get enter, but we don’t get a ticket. Considering the precarious situation this unrecognized nation is in and the long list of important projects it needs to fund, it’s a small miracle there’s a Department of Antiquities at all.

The painted caves of Laas Geel are actually rock shelters. Nine of them dot the hill on all sides, and while their depth provides them with ample protection from the sun and the occasional rainfall, they offer sweeping views of the surrounding countryside. These aren’t hidden, secret places like the painted caves of Paleolithic Europe.

That makes them no less mysterious. Ali leads us up the hill while the guard and driver go off to enjoy a local swimming hole. As we enter the first of the rock shelters we’re all stopped dead with wonder. Somaliland’s past, which to me had only been some flint tools and half a dozen dry academic articles, suddenly explodes into full color. The entire interior of the shelter is covered with figures. There are hundreds of them, mostly cows of various sizes. Some are schematic outlines, others are drawn in elaborate detail. Humans stand in between with their arms upraised as if in worship. A few tiny hunters run amidst the herds.

There are other animals too, antelope and dogs and a giraffe, but the cows predominate. This is the art of a pastoral people, as many Somalis still are. The nomads we passed just a mile back would probably draw the same images if they could pluck up the courage to enter the shelter. Somali folklore teaches that spirits hide within these shelters and possess whoever enter, although that wasn’t enough to stop a group of fighters during the civil war from burying one of their comrades in a niche at one side of the cave.

Ali leads us scrambling over the hillside to find more shelters. Each one is covered in artwork. Some of the stones have been painted completely red. The pigment is made from mineral sources and brewed into a paste that sticks to the rock better than plaster. This, and the dry climate, is the reason the paintings have lasted so long. But now that they’ve been discovered, armed guards have been posted to keep the art from being chipped off and sold on the international antiquities market.

The animals are beautiful and seem to fall within three main types: simple red figures, small and cruder white figures, and more elaborate drawings of cows that show decoration on the neck that reminds me of the personal marks the dealers at a Somali camel market put on their animals.

But the human figures attract me the most. Were these real people? Ancestors? Generalized drawings of the whole clan? It’s hard to tell, but it’s obvious they’re worshiping the most important thing in their lives–their cattle. A German archaeologist I worked with who was fortunate enough to visit Lascaux caves in France once told me, “It’s so different from Mayan art. With Mayan art you’re not sure what’s going on, but with Lascaux you look at the drawings and say ‘they were like us'”.

Exactly. Although I can’t understand the deeper meanings behind the paintings or truly know the world out of which they came, that was my reaction. The ancient Somalis were like us. Their lifestyle was totally different, of course, but they thought enough like us that they could communicate what they believed in a fashion that someone can appreciate and (kind of) understand thousands of years later.

Dr. Mire and her team have already discovered several other rock art sites in Somaliland. Who knows what they’ll find in the next few years? Even though Somaliland isn’t on most political maps, the efforts of a few dedicated scholars are putting it on the archaeological map.

Don’t miss the rest of my series on travel in Somaliland.

Next time: Khat, the drug of a nation.

Somaliland: the other Somalia

There are some places you just can’t consider for a vacation. While even Iraq has recently opened up to carefully handled tours, Somalia remains out of bounds. What with an Islamist movement proudly proclaiming its ties to Al-Qaeda, and a decades-long civil war between rival clans, there’s no chance of exploring the Somali culture and landscape, right?

Actually, that’s only half true.

The Republic of Somaliland is the northern third of what most maps show as Somalia. Anyone paying attention to the news knows that Somalia hasn’t been a unified nation for quite some time, but this one region, a little larger than England and home to 3.5 million, has managed to bring stability and a developing democracy to its people. Born out of the colony of British Somaliland, it gained independence in 1960 and immediately joined former Italian Somaliland to create what we now know as Somalia. A brutal dictatorship and a civil war later, it declared independence in 1991 and has quietly built a nation as the rest of Somalia disintegrated into chaos.

But no other country recognizes Somaliland as an independent state, which makes it very hard to get international investment and attention. Now Somaliland officials are hoping an increase in tourism will help to literally put their country on the map. It already has regular contact with its neighbors Ethiopia and Djibouti, and has representatives in several major capitals. The Tourism Ministry is busy making plans and there’s a good website highlighting Somali Heritage and Archaeology.

%Gallery-84671%With a countryside only thinly populated by nomads, Somaliland has good potential for safaris. Lions, cheetahs, zebras, antelope, and other animals are easily spotted. Even more stunning are the well-preserved paintings at Laas Geel, believed to be some of the oldest in Africa. They’re located near the capital Hargeysa and remained unreported until 2002. Colorful paintings of hunters and animals date back an estimated 9,000 years.

Other towns to check out are Barbera and Zeila, two ports with excellent coral reefs as well as old colonial buildings from British and Ottoman times. More important than bricks and mortar, though, is the chance to interact with a culture that has had comparatively little contact with the outside world. This is a rare chance to see a country unaccustomed to tourism, where there are no “tourist sites” and “local hangouts”. For the adventure traveler, it’s still pretty much uncharted territory.

After almost 20 years of independence, Somaliland is beginning to get some recognition from adventure travelers. The most recent edition of Lonely Planet Ethiopia has a short section on the country, and three young backpackers recently posted a video of their trip there on YouTube. A reporter from the Pulitzer Center has also covered the country on an online video. Somaliland could become the adventure travel destination of the new decade.

While Somaliland has some good potential, travelers should take care. Government bodyguards are required (costing $10 a day each) and there are few facilities for visitors. The country has also attracted the ire of Al-Shabab, an Islamist group with ties to Al-Qaeda that wants to take over the Horn of Africa. In 2008 a series of deadly car bombings blamed on Al-Shabab left two dozen dead in Hargeysa. Also, the countryside is not yet safe enough for foreigners to travel overland from Ethiopia on public transport. There are regular flights to Hargeysa from Addis Ababa and other regional capitals. The office for Somaliland in Addis Ababa (which is not recognized as an embassy by the government of Ethiopia) can issue visas and give advice. If you do decide to go, it’s best to plan well in advance and talk to the government as soon as possible.