It’s not fair, I think, that flights to the toughest places leave at the toughest time of day – the night.Yet again, to go off to Somaliland I had to get up before 4 a.m. to get to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport by 5.15. Even at that time, there were plenty of cars on the roads. It was a Sunday morning, so they were not going early to work – more likely they were going home late from the bars and nightclubs of the city. Which was evident in the way a few of them were slowly zig-zagging along pothole-free roads. It was another slow flight over the arid lands in the inappropriately named Dash.
On arrival at the refurbished Egal International Airport at Hargeisa, I took a bottle of mineral water from my rucksack while waiting for my colleagues to clear the visa queue. I peeled off the plastic seal and looked round for a waste bin. A young Somali official noticed. “No problem,” he said.”You can throw it on the ground – this is Africa.”
He looked somewhat bemused when I smiled at him and slipped it in my pocket. Few of the locals are so fastidious, it seems. The city is littered with those flimsy plastic bags; pink and blue, they hang on the thorn bushes, they clog the gutters and along the dry river bed they wait for the rare sluicing rain ....
These days, however, Somaliland is not really so tough a place. Hargeisa, the capital, and Berbera, the port on the Gulf of Aden, have some good hotels; the shops are well-stocked; you don’t see young men on the streets with AK-47s. It has regular commercial flights. It has eight pages devoted to it in a Lonely Planet travel guide.
It is a long way in more than kilometres from violent and troubled places like Mogadishu and the al Shaabab controlled regions of south-central Somalia .... But this is not a political piece.
It is a simple telling about a drive towards the east, from Hargeisa to Burao, the capital of the Togdheer region of Somaliland.
There is a seemingly more direct route to Burao across country, but the almost 300 kilometres of tarmac road north-east to Berbera and then south-east to Burao is more secure – and most probably faster.
Beyond the city the land is flat, the soil is thin and the thorny vegetation is sparse. Quite often you see large herds of camels being slowly driven to Berbera for export to the Gulf states. You pass through a gap in the Golis chain of mountains that runs parallel to the Gulf of Aden, from Ethiopia in the west and into Puntland in the east. The road to Burao skirts Berbera town and turns back to the south.
Here, the coastal plain is narrow, and quite soon you snake up and into the mountains, where the vegetation greens and thickens the higher you go. At the top is the town of Sheikh. You might think you are in cattle country to the north of Naivasha.
The contrast with the stony and sandy lands you have driven through from Hargeisa is quite dramatic: the grass grows greener, the acacias spread wider, the community facilities – especially some schools and health centres – are more substantial and neater.
This is where the expatriate officials liked to stay and cool off when Somaliland was a British colony. A few kilometres beyond Sheikh, there is a securely-fenced and watch-towered estate that, so I have been told, belongs to some prince from the Gulf, who comes there occasionally with his retinue.
What they do there I have no idea – not hunting, because the game in these parts must have been shot out long ago. In the four times I have travelled this road, I once saw a family of warthogs scrabbling in the dust – no other wildlife. Even birds are scarce.
After Sheikh, the vegetation thins out again across the wide plateau until you reach Burao, where trees grow along the river course. Burao is a volatile place, with a mix of clans. It was here, in May 1991, that the conference was held (with no support from the “international community”) that reached agreement between different clans, and the independence of Somaliland was declared – but not recognised by the rest of the world.
On a previous visit, we had stayed in the City Plaza Hotel which, despite its name, is a quite rustic place, with comfortable bandas and dining tables set out under the shade of trees.
This time, we tried the more city-like Egal Hotel, with its grandiose conference facilities but less remarkable bedrooms.
Let me just say that it was a treat to get back to the Ambassador Hotel in Hargeisa – where the rooms are scrupulously clean and the food in the garden restaurant is varied, well cooked and attractively presented. No, Somaliland is not such a tough place.
By John Fox