The Horn of Africa's Best Kept Secret

When I told people I was going to Somaliland most people thought I meant Somalia and once again assumed I was trotting off to a war zone – something I do not actually do but for which I seem to have acquired a reputation. 

In fact, Somaliland declared independence from Somalia in 1992 but has never been recognised as an independent country by the international community or by Somalia. 

Unlike its neighbour to the south, Somaliland is stable and this has helped it see economic growth and development over the last quarter of a century.  Even so, the country remains poor overall and towns such as Berbera on the coast still bear the scars of war.  Tourism is still in its infancy, yet Somaliland has plenty to offer the visitor, as I discovered.

Click on the photographs to enlarge and see the captions:

Somaliland’s biggest single attraction is the series of cave paintings at Laas Geel. 

Remarkably, these were only discovered in 2002 by a group of French archaeologists.  The colourful depictions of people and animals – long-horned cattle, giraffes and a dog – are believed to date from 9000-3000 BC, making them some of the oldest cave paintings in the Horn of Africa.  The well preserved images adorn the walls and ceilings of ten open alcoves on top of a hill. 

Unlike similar cave paintings at Lascaux in France and Altamira in Spain where restrictions are in place to protect the paintings from human breath and other corrosive elements, at Laas Geel the artwork can be easily visited.  Yet few people venture out into the wilds of Somaliland to marvel at the drawings and the absence of crowds or queues understandably adds to the experience.

Hargeisa, Somaliland’s capital, is a bustling city where traditional houses and markets stand cheek by jowl with shiny glass buildings and smart villas in pastel colours, and four-wheel drive vehicles weave their way past herds of goats. 

The country’s development is in no small part thanks to the million or so diaspora in the UK, the US, the Netherlands or in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.  Many of them send money back to Somaliland; others have returned to open up businesses.  Hargeisa exudes the feel of a city in the thrust of change and growth.

Berbera on the Red Sea coast has a very different feel to it.  The town has a history dating back to antiquity.  It was once a thriving sea port and from 1884 to 1941 the capital of the British Somaliland Protectorate.  Today, it is still home to a number of fishermen but much of the town is in ruins.  Its airport is closed and the only way to get there is by the long drive from Hargeisa.  The sleepy town has a special atmosphere and merits a separate post on this site.