Being threatened with arrest as we were leaving Somaliland wasn’t the ideal end to our trip.
Our bags had been scanned and, on spotting a handful of stones (more on that later), a burly customs officer strode across the room demanding a certificate from ‘the Ministry of Magic and Minerals’ or some such, which, suffice to say, we didn’t have. There was a long and somewhat awkward silence. I was aware that Somaliland didn’t necessarily operate within the international legal framework and that might be a problem.
“We will have to confiscate these stones,” he said. We shrugged and agreed this would probably be the best course of action. “And you will have to pay a fine”. Of course we would. He couldn’t seem to recall how much the fine would be until he spotted a crisp, twenty dollar note in one of our wallets. This seemed to jolt his memory and he announced that twenty dollars was, most conveniently, the correct amount.
Relieved of our monetary burden, we turned to collect our abandoned bags when I was beckoned over by one of the young customs officers who had been watching her superior fleece us. “Here! Take this! It’s a souvenir.” And she passed me a handful of the confiscated stones.
And there you have it. A brief anecdote about human kindness that could have happened anywhere but usefully restored our faith in this fascinating land just before we left.
But I’m talking about leaving before we’ve even arrived.
We has made the snap decision to fly to Hargeisa when we spotted the name of the city on the departures board at Djibouti Airport. We secured a visa at the Somaliland embassy located in downtown Djibouti – served by smiling officials which we took as a good sign – and then found a fixer who would arrange our car, armed guards (a prerequisite for tourists visiting at that time) and accommodation.
The next day we flew in. A word on the flight; the airline operates an aircraft that flies circuits between Djibouti, Hargeisa and Mogadishu (not necessarily in that order). When we alighted the plane, the crew were impossibly happy. We asked why – I’m used to surly staff who look upon passengers as a huge inconvenience to their jobs – and one replied that he’d secured the bonus that the airline issues whenever the aircraft flies into, and out of, Mogadishu safely.
In the meantime, as mentioned before, I’m a nervous flyer. The aircraft was a vintage Boeing. The pilot came on and made an announcement he was delighted to welcome us onboard and that both himself and a Russian engineer would be transporting us to Hargeisa. I had two issues with this. One; where was the co-pilot? Two; how much does a Russian engineer know about American planes?
We arrived safely and were bundled into a waiting 4×4 Toyota (always a Toyota!) before heading straight out into the desert. We had less than 24 hours in Somaliland and wanted to see Las Geel – the site of the earliest rock paintings in the Horn of Africa before we left.
I want to caveat the next section with the words ‘I was not taking anything when I went to Las Geel’ because I realise the description of the area make it sound as though I may have been.
We headed out on a long, straight and dusty road surrounded by a featureless landscape occasionally peppered with low custard-coloured buildings when we passed by a village. The desert slowly started to change and become covered in larger stones which, in the slanting late afternoon light began to glow with a roseate hue. Enormous quantities of rose quartz covered the ground emitting this ethereal light (and comprised the stones we tried to take home). In the meantime, the car wound its way around a chicane of tortoises that had all decided to wander home for the night at the same time whilst pigmy-sized deers with enormous eyes peeked out from behind the rocks at us.
We finally arrived and a man who was quite possibly the same age as the paintings themselves, came to greet us. We signed the guestbook (the last visitor had been a German lady some six months before) before being led up to the caves. What a sight! There they were; all manner of humans and beasts etched in ochre, terracotta, paprika and chalk white-dyes, the colours so bold they could have been completed just a few days before.
We turned to look out of the cave; to see what early mankind had seen from this very spot, and we saw the sunset turning the desert floor to fuchsia. A faded moon hung in the wings waiting for the sun to finally exit this celestial stage. And a deer nibbled a scrubby bush crowned by emerald-coloured leaves.
It remains one of my most vivid travel memories.