Somaliland – Las Geel, Berbera, Sheikh & Dhagax Khouré

Friday, 5 August 2022

My Somaliland travels started in the capital Hargeisa and I returned there between excursions which started with Las Geel, easily the country’s major tourist attraction. If Somaliland had more than a handful of tourists that is.

◄ The Las Geel turn-off is about 50km out of Hargeisa, on the excellent UAE financed road to Berbera on the coast. At which point the rock art site is about 6km. I’ve often noted that I’m a huge enthusiast for mosaics and although it’s the Romans who are probably the true mosaic-masters some of their best work can be found in Africa, head to the Bardo Museum in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia to see some of the best. I’m also a rock art fan and my visit to Chad in North Africa in February this year certainly introduced me to some of the best cave paintings and engravings in the world. Libya has superb rock art engravings as well as a wonderful Roman mosaic collection. Of course Australia is home to some of the world’s best – and oldest – rock art and I’ve been lucky enough to visit astonishing sites in the Kimberley region of Western Australia and in the Northern Territory’s Arnhem Land.

▲ Shelter 1 at Las Geel

We climb up the spectacular outcrop behind the Las Geel visitors centre to the series of rock shelters. Shelter 1 has cows, humans, dogs, perhaps two elephants, a tall man with six fingers. Shelter 3 is ‘the window of Las Geel,’ for its views over the surrounding country. Shelter 4 features a couple of giraffes.

▲ The most vividly decorated cow

Shelter 5 has a group of dogs, the most vividly decorated cow at the site and a bull and a cow mating – ‘making fun’ as my driver and guide Abdilahi suggests.

▲ Shelter 6, the last shelter, has a very busy scene including a calf in the womb, perhaps the result of the mating scene in Shelter 5.

▲ Berbera from 35,000feet

From Las Geel we went back to the main road and on – cruising smoothly on that UAE road – to Berbera on the coast. In February, flying from Dubai to Addis Ababa, I spotted Berbera down below, little knowing that I’d be down there six months later. The new port at Berbera has been built by DP World, the gigantic Dubai Ports operator. When a ring road is built around Hargeisa trucks will presumably shuttle back and forth between the port and Ethiopia, but at the moment traffic is surprisingly light. This is a big contrast with Djibouti, only 250km away, from where a constant stream of trucks arrive and depart from Ethiopia.

▲ The modern DP World port is securely fenced off from outsiders, but the old fishing port part of Berbera is wonderfully colourful.

▲ Another street scene in old Berbera.

▲ I had dinner at the beachfront Al-Xayaat Restaurant which was pretty much precisely as described by Lonely Planet, really good fish and lots of cats. They must get fed regularly, because skinny though they were, they were not hanging around our table monstering us for some excellent fish.

▲ The town features the crumbling remains of an Ottoman era Turkish mosque said to date from the 1840s. There’s another Turkish mosque in much better condition and still in use.

▲ Amazingly there’s a dive shop at the Mansoor Hotel in Berbera and looking in the window it did indeed have the requisite equipment. But how many divers are there in Somaliland to make this a viable business? There was nobody around I could ask.

◄ We drove inland climbing up to the mountain town of Sheikh (or Sheekh or Shikh or Shiekh) about 70km from the coast. I was told this was the remains of a British fort built in 1905 on the edge of the town. Perhaps it was a relic of the Anglo-Somali or Dervish War, British military expeditions between 1900 and 1920? The town had some colourful houses and we stopped in a café where, this time, I opted for the real Somali tea with milk and enough sugar to rot your teeth as you drink it.



◄ From Hargeisa I made another rock painting excursion to Dhagax Khouré, about 40km along the road towards Ethiopia and then about 15km off the road. I’m surprised how much human (and goat) activity there was along the track to the site. Plus we spotted three vary large tortoises – well Abdilahi did, he clearly had an eye for them. On one trip, he reported, he saw two tortoises mating, presumably a slow activity? Although the paintings at Dhagax Khouré were not of the same standard as Las Geel, the rocky outcrop was equally spectacular. There was nobody else out at the site although the sad scattering of water bottles and drink cans indicated there certainly have been people here. It was a two hour excursion off the main road to the site and back.

▲ The first overhang up the rocks had a reasonable assortment of cattle and humans, just like Las Geel, plus at least one giraffe painting. A bit further up the hill was a small shelter with just one painting and then right at the top another larger shelter although not as big as the first one. On our way out of the site we detoured to one final shelter with just one painting and, sadly, some big, loud, recent graffiti.