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Somaliland Practical Information

WHEN TO VISIT

The most pleasant time to travel is over the northern hemisphere winter,  from November to  March,  when it is relatively cool,  with maximum temperatures of around 25°C typical on the plateau around Hargeisa, rising to around 30°C along the coast.

By contrast, the summer months can be oppressively hot, especially along the coast, where temperatures in excess of 45°C are frequently recorded.

Winter  is  also  the  dry  season,  which  is  an  advantage  for  those  who  plan  to venture beyond the few asphalt roads – rainfall figures for Somaliland are low, but when  the  rain  does  come,  seasonal  watercourses  and  muddy  depressions  might double the travel times along routes such as Borama to Zeila and Burao to Erigavo, or worse still render them temporarily impassable.

There are, however, some advantages to traveling in the summer, among them that the countryside is much greener,  and bird and mammal breeding activity reach a peak.

SUGGESTED ITINERARIES

The options are somewhat limited.  Most visitors arrive in  Hargeisa,  whether by air or overland from Ethiopia, and the most popular excursions from here are a day trip to Las Geel or an overnight trip via Las Geel to the port of Berbera, which is the most interesting town in the country – as well as being the only one that is developed,  albeit in a  very low-key manner,  for beach tourism,  snorkelling  and diving.

You could easily see the best of what Berbera and Las Geel have to offer in a two or three-night excursion from Hargeisa.

Using public transport, it is usually possible to travel onwards from Berbera to Sheikh and Burao, a trip that might reasonably be characterized as travel for its own sake, and that would add a day or two to your itinerary.

For those with private 4×4 transport, it is possible to divert from the Hargeisa–Berbera road to Ga’an Libah, or from the Berbera–Burao road to Mount Wagar, both of which are good destinations for wildlife and birds.

A more remote 4×4-only diversion from the Hargeisa–Berbera road would take you to the nascent beach resort at El Sheikh and medieval ruins at nearby Bulhar. Allow at least one additional night for either excursion.

More  ambitiously,  with  a  sturdy  4×4  you  could  continue  on  from  Burao  to Erigavo and the wildlife-rich Daallo Forest, from where a scenic mountain pass leads to the tiny port of Maydh.

This excursion realistically requires at least two nights based in Erigavo, but having come this far we would strongly recommend you allocate four nights to exploring the region. At the time of writing, the part of Somaliland east of the track between Oog and Erigavo is disputed by Puntland and widely regarded as unsafe for travel.

Few people explore the far west of  Somaliland beyond the main road to the Ethiopian or Djibouti border.

However, the area boasts a selection of moderately worthwhile archaeological sites, and one true gem in the form of the coast around the historic port of Zeila, not far from the Djibouti border.

One alluring but very off-the-beaten-track possibility,  if you are heading this way,  would be to follow the rough tracks that run along the coast between Berbera and Zeila, a rough 4×4 expedition that takes at least two days and should ideally be done in convoy.

TOUR OPERATORS

Until recently, we were not aware of any international tour operators offering trips to Somaliland – that was until we discovered the following: youngpioneertours.com, untamedborders.com, traveldirectors.com.au, and undiscovered-destinations.com, an adventure-focused company that offers a combined itinerary to Somaliland and Ethiopia.

Three highly regarded specialist companies do operate occasional of a  handful of local-based operators are Somaliland  Travel  &  Tours  (somalilandtours.com), Visit Horn of Africa (visithornafrica.com), Somaliland Tour Guide (somalilandtourguide.com) and of course Somaliland Travel Guide (somalilandtravelguide.com) is a very experienced and well-established company that can arrange trips to all accessible parts of  Somaliland. 

If you are thinking of combining Somaliland with other neighboring territories, Visit Horn Africa (visithornafrica.com) is a promising new Hargeisa-based operator offering multi-country itineraries that can also include Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, and other parts of Somalia.

RED TAPE

All visitors to Somaliland require a valid passport, the expiry date of which should be at least six months after you intend to end your travels.  A  Somaliland visa (emphatically not the same thing as a Somali visa) must also be arranged in advance by all visitors.  This is a  requirement that is complicated by the fact  Somaliland is not yet formally recognized as a  country and thus lacks proper diplomatic representation in most parts of the world (though there is an increasing number of exceptions, as listed below). Another viable option for those flying to Hargeisa is to arrange a visa through a local operator or the hotel where you will be staying.

VISA PRIOR TO ARRIVAL

Ethiopia The most straightforward place to pick up a visa, especially for those travelling via Ethiopia, is the Somaliland Embassy in Addis Ababa, which can issue a visa on the same day (provided you visit in the morning) and charges US$100 for the service.

Kenya The Somaliland Liaison Office  in  Nairobi  (5th  Floor,  Utumishi  Co-op  Hs,  Mamlaka  Rd;  Telephone:  +254  (0)20  528  1047;  Email:  info@somalilandliaison.com; Website: somalilandliaison.com; ( 09.00–16.00 Mon–Fri) charges US$75 for a single-entry visa valid for one month and US$135 for a multiple-entry valid for three months.

UK The Somaliland Mission UK (234–236 Whitechapel Rd, London E1 1BJ; Telephone: +44 (0)20 3441 2631; Email:  contact@somaliland-mission.com; Website:  somaliland-mission.com; (10.00–16.00 Mon–Fri) charges GB£30 for a three-month single-entry visa and GB£60 for a multiple-entry visa valid for six months. Service is usually same day, but this cannot be relied upon.

USA The Somaliland Representative Office in Washington DC (6019 Tower Ct, Alexandria, VA 22304; Telephone: +1 703 370 1423; Email: mission@somaliland.us; Website: Somaliland.us), which opened in 2016, charges US$80 dollars a single-entry visa, and it takes at least five days to issue.

Djibouti  As of  2017,  visas can be issued by the upgraded  Somaliland Representative Office in Djibouti (Telephone: +253 (0) 77249286).

Visa on arrival Visas can be obtained on arrival only by prior arrangement with the immigration office in Hargeisa, and then only if you are landing at Hargeisa airport. The usual procedure is to email a scan of your passport to contact in Hargeisa, ideally about two weeks prior to your arrival date, and then for two copies to be printed off and taken to the immigration office for processing. A visa will be issued on one of the printed scans, deposited at the airport and pasted into your actual passport after you land.  The charge is US$10 payable on application and another US$60 payable on arrival. It might be an idea to ask to have a copy of this visa emailed back to you so you can produce it on arrival. A good contact to arrange a visa on arrival in this way is Somaliland Travel & Tours, which offers it for free to people travelling with them and charges US$100 to do it in isolation (in both cases, exclusive of the US$60 payable on arrival at the airport).

Customs and immigration  Provided you already have a visa, immigration is usually straightforward  (but be warned that without a  visa you will be refused entry).  Up to  400  cigarettes,  40  cigars, or  400g  of tobacco can be brought into the country duty-free, as can a reasonable amount of perfume for personal use. Alcoholic beverages of all kinds are illegal, and travelers caught importing any wine or spirits can at best expect it to be confiscated. We are not aware of any restriction on the import or export of currency.

GETTING THERE AND AWAY

BY AIR A handful of major international carries now fly to Hargeisa Egal International Airport (HGA).  FlyDubai (Website:  flydubai.com) and Air Arabia (Website: airarabia.com) are the best options for connecting flights coming from Europe or North America, while Ethiopian Airlines (Website: ethiopianairlines.com) is a useful option from elsewhere in Africa.  Other smaller regional airlines offering direct  flights  to  Hargeisa  and/or  Berbera  (BBO)  from  the  likes  of  Mogadishu (Somalia), Nairobi (Kenya) and Djibouti City (Djibouti) include Ocean Airlines (Website: ocean-airlines.com),  African  Express  (Website: africanexpress.net), Daallo  Airlines (Website: daallo.com), Jubba Airways (Website: jubbaairways.com) and the recently relaunched Air Djibouti (Website: air-djibouti.com).

OVERLAND  Many travelers cross into Somaliland overland from Addis Ababa via eastern  Ethiopia, and it is possible to travel overland from Djibouti to Hargeisa in the 4x4s that serve as public transport  between the two cities, possibly stopping en route at  Zeila. However, this is a rough trip that might take anything from 14 hours in the dry season, to a couple of days after heavy rain. The departure point in Djibouti City is on Gammel Abdul Nasser Avenue, and it is conventional to book your seat in the morning and pay a deposit, then to return in the mid-afternoon for departure at around 16.00. When you get to Hargeisa, the driver should drop you at your hotel of choice for no extra charge.

SAFETY

The first question to pass through the mind of many prospective visitors to Somaliland will be, ‘Is it safe?’.

To be honest, this question has no definitive answer. Officially, Somaliland is part of Somalia, undoubtedly one of the most lawless and dangerous countries in the world. As of early 2018, the US Department of State website (Website: travel.state.gov) and the British Foreign Office (Website: gov.uk/foreign-travel- advice/Somalia) warns against travel in Somalia and Somaliland, citing bombings, kidnappings, illegal roadblocks, and potential terrorist attacks as reasons to avoid all but essential travel.

In practice, however, Somaliland functions as a completely separate country to Somalia or Puntland, and it is universally regarded to be far safer than either of these fractious neighbors.

Within Somaliland itself, there have been infrequent instances of foreign aid workers being killed or kidnapped since independence in 1991, acts perpetrated by Al-Shabaab and other external groups hoping to destabilize their peaceful neighbor, but such incidents are evidently on the decrease.

Indeed, the last such incident occurred in 2008, when Hargeisa and Bosaso were hit by six coordinated suicide bombings. Since then, Somaliland has attracted a significant trickle of travelers from across the Ethiopian border, and the impression of every foreigner we met traveling or working in Somaliland is that visitors have little to worry about in terms of security, provided that they stick to regularly visited sites such as Hargeisa, Berbera, and Las Geel, and ask local advice before heading further off the beaten track. That said, the enduring instability of the entire Somali region precludes too many glib reassurances.

Also bearing on the issue of safety is the official requirement that all foreigners moving outside Hargeisa must be accompanied by an armed member of the Special Protection Unit. The official line seems to be that this is an ultra-conservative precaution against the devastating effect the killing of a  foreigner would have on Somaliland’s petition for international recognition. But it wouldn’t be necessary, surely, unless there was a genuine risk associated with travel outside the capital?

Perhaps, or is it simply misplaced paranoia? It has even been suggested that the SPU policy exists at the instigation of foreign UN and NGO workers with a vested interest in maintaining Somaliland’s official high-risk status (it means that salaries are higher than in a more stable country). What can be said with confidence is that it is increasingly common for the tourist office in Hargeisa to issue a written waiver of SPU protection to backpackers upon request – an anomaly from which you can draw your own conclusions!

Whatever the actual risks associated with travel in Somaliland, the reality is that if you get into any sort of trouble there you’ll be a lot more isolated than would normally be the case. There will be no embassy to help bail you out, since Ethiopia is the only country in the world with formal diplomatic representation in Hargeisa. Furthermore, most travel insurance policies explicitly exclude cover for countries subject to the FCO or US State Department travel warnings quoted above, in which case you will also be uninsured.

Security issues aside, Somaliland is largely free of more conventional crime, such as pickpocketing, mugging and theft from hotel rooms. Indeed, we have heard of no such incident involving a traveller anywhere in Somaliland, and would regard the country to be as safe as anywhere we have visited in that respect. All the same, there is a significant disparity in wealth between most locals and visitors, so it might be viewed as tempting fate to wander along unlit streets alone at night or to carry large sums of money or valuables publicly. And on the basis that it is preferable to err on the side of caution, below are a few tips that apply to travelling anywhere in Africa.

  • Most casual thieves operate in busy markets and taxi parks. Keep a close watch on your possessions in such places, and avoid having valuables or large amounts of money loose in your daypack or pocket.
  • Keep all your valuables and the bulk of your money in a hidden money belt. Never show this money belt in public. Keep any spare cash you might need elsewhere on your person.
  • A buttoned-up pocket on the front of the shirt is one of the most secure places, as money cannot be snatched from it without the thief coming into view.
  • Where the choice exists between carrying valuables on your person or leaving them in a locked room, we believe the latter is generally safer, assuming that the room is absolutely secure. However, some travellers’ cheque companies will not refund cheques stolen from a room, or might reject the claim on a technicality, for instance if the door wasn’t damaged during the robbery.
  • Leave any jewellery of financial or sentimental value at home.

BRIBERY AND BUREAUCRACY Bribery is a fact of life for people doing business in many African countries, but it is seldom an issue for travellers and we neither heard nor experienced anything to suggest that visitors to Somaliland need be concerned about having to bribe their way out of a sticky situation.

However, the wheels of bureaucracy tend to turn rather slowly in Somaliland, and  any  serious  dealings  with  officialdom  are  likely  to  be  infused  with  the spirit  of,  ‘why  fill  out  in  duplicate  what  can  be  filled  out  in  triplicate?’  This is especially true if you want to visit any attractions off the beaten track, which must normally be preceded by a visit to the nearest municipal office, police station, or both.

For  travellers,  most  dealings  with  officials  are  at  the  ubiquitous  roadblocks, which  are  normally  straightforward  and  friendly  encounters,  provided  you  are accompanied by an SPU officer or have a waiver letter from the tourist office.

LAND  MINES  A  grim  legacy  of  the  wars  that  gripped  post-independence Somaliland between 1964 and 1991 is the large number of landmines – possibly as  many  as  100,000  in  the  vicinity  of  Hargeisa  alone  –  that  were  laid  and  left  unexploded  when  Somaliland  declared  itself  independent.  In the  early  1990s, the US Department of State described the landmine situation in Somaliland as a ‘very serious problem’, and International Red Cross ranked it third among the world’s most severely mine-affected  areas  –  with  one  amputee  for  every 652  persons,  and  an  average  of  two  mine  victims  per  day  being  checked  into Hargeisa Hospital. Since 1999, however, a number of international organizations, including  the  Halo  Trust  (w  halotrust.org),  an  NGO  funded  by  the  British and US governments among others, has been involved in a series of clearance operations that have rendered all but the most remote minefields benign. Indeed, its website states that ‘as of 1 November 2017, HALO has cleared 23,000km² of hazardous area … disposed of over 4,570 landmines, 33,100 items of unexploded ordnance and 215,000 items of small arms ammunition’ and its stated mission is to ‘clear Somaliland of all high priority minefields by mid-2019’. From a traveler’s perspective, there is no significant chance of straying into a minefield provided you stick to the areas covered in this guide, but anybody thinking of heading out to more remote parts of the country should be alert to the possibility of unexploded ordnance and ask around in advance.

WOMEN TRAVELERS

Women travelers generally regard sub-equatorial Africa as one of the safest places to travel alone anywhere in the world, and Somaliland is probably no exception when it comes to gender-specific risks.

That said, single women are advised to avoid hotels listed in the budget or shoestring category, in particular those with shared showers and toilets, which are highly unlikely to be frequented by local women.

Likewise,  it is unusual for local women to eat alone in restaurants,  and female travelers who do so might become targets of unwanted curiosity or flirtation. Many female travelers to relatively conservative countries consider it to be a good idea to pretend you have a husband at home or in another town – and, ideally, a wedding ring as ‘proof’ of your status.

The biggest restriction on women travelers to Somaliland is the need to adhere to smothering local dress codes in all public places.

For local women, the standard items of clothing are a loose-fitting, all-enveloping ankle-length dress called a direh “Dirac”, and a bonnet-like headscarf called a hijab that covers every last hair on their head.

Some women also wear the more severe abaya,  a  long black or multi-colored garment,  reminiscent of a  nun’s habit,  that leaves only the eyes,  hands, and feet exposed.

Female travelers should dress similarly, at the very minimum wearing a loose ankle-length skirt, a top that is sufficiently baggy to mask the shape of their breasts, and a loose headscarf.  Aside from being offensive to local sensibilities, any attire tighter or more revealing than this might, in a Somali context, create an unwanted impression of availability.

GAY TRAVELERS

Any act of male or female homosexuality is a criminal offense.  Offenders risk imprisonment or, in extreme cases, capital punishment.  That doesn’t mean homosexuality doesn’t exist, but out of necessity, it is very clandestine.

Setting aside the rights and wrongs of the matter, Somaliland clearly isn’t a destination suited to single travelers in search of anything approximating a gay scene (or, for that matter, any other form of secular nightlife), and at risk of stating the blindingly obvious, gay couples who do visit the country should exercise maximum discretion.

WHAT TO TAKE

LUGGAGE  If  you  intend  using  public  transport  or  doing  much  walking,  it’s  best to  carry  your  luggage  on  your  back.  There are three ways of doing this:  with a purpose-made backpack, with a suitcase that converts to a rucksack, or with a large daypack. The choice between a convertible suitcase and a purpose-built backpack rests mainly on your style of travel. If you intend doing a lot of walking, you’re definitely best off with a proper backpack. However, if you carry everything in a smaller 35 to 45-litre daypack, the advantages are manifold on public transport and in terms of overall mobility.

CAMPING GEAR Opportunities to camp in Somaliland are limited, and most people wouldn’t want to bother with camping gear unless they plan on staying overnight in rural areas such as the Daallo Forest or Mount Wagar. If you are doing this with a local operator, best to get them to arrange any camping gear you require. Otherwise, the minimum requirements are a lightweight tent, a bedroll, and a sheet sleeping bag.

MONEY BELT It is advisable to carry all your hard currency and credit cards, as well as your passport and other important documentation, in a money belt. The ideal money belt for  Africa can be hidden beneath your clothing,  as externally worn money belts are as good as telling thieves all your valuables are there for the taking. Use a money belt made of cotton or another natural fiber, though bear in mind that such fabrics tend to soak up a lot of sweat and you will need to wrap plastic around everything inside.

CLOTHING If you’re carrying your luggage on your back, restrict your clothes to the minimum, for example, two pairs of trousers for men or two long skirts for women, three loose-fitting shirts or T-shirts, at least one sweater (or similar) depending on when and where you are visiting, socks and underwear, one pair of solid shoes and one pair of flip-flops or sandals.

Ideally, bring light cotton or microfibre trousers. Jeans are great for durability, but they can be uncomfortable in hot weather and slow to dry after washing. Skirts, like trousers, are best made of a light fabric, and should reach the ankles. For men, any fast-drying, lightweight shirts are good, but ideally pack at least one with long sleeves for sun protection. Women should be conscious that any combination of shirt and bra (or no bra) that reveals an obvious bust shape, or even elbows, might offend local sensibilities. For general purposes, one warm sweater or fleece should be adequate.

Socks and underwear must be made from natural fabrics, and bear in mind that reusing them when sweaty will encourage fungal infections such as athlete’s foot, as well as prickly heat in the groin. Socks and underpants are light and compact enough to make it worth bringing a week’s supply.  As  for  shoes,  bulky  hiking boots are probably over the top for most people, but a good pair of walking shoes, preferably  with  some  ankle  support,  is  recommended.  It’s also useful to carry sandals, flip-flops or other light shoes.

OTHER USEFUL ITEMS An unlocked mobile phone will be useful. You can buy a local SIM card for next to nothing in Hargeisa, and credit is readily available and inexpensive. This also doubles as your alarm clock for any early starts.

Binoculars are essential for close up views of wildlife, especially birds. Compact binoculars are more backpack-friendly, but their restricted field of vision compared with that of traditional binoculars can make it difficult to pick up animals in thick bush.  For  most  purposes,  7×  magnification  is  fi ne,  but  birdwatchers  might  find a 10x magnification more useful. Be careful flashing your binoculars around any military  installation,  bridge,  border  post,  roadblock,  or  other  locality  where  it might be mistaken for a camera.

If you stay in local hotels, carry a padlock, as many places don’t supply them. You should also carry a towel, soap, shampoo, toilet paper and any other toiletries you need, including tampons. A torch is essential as electricity is never guaranteed. Another perennial favourite is a Swiss Army knife or multi-purpose tool.

Very little English-language reading material is available in Somaliland, so if you tend to read a lot when you travel, bring a Kindle, or carry a good supply of books or magazines. The same goes for any field guides or other background or interpretive literature you require. Novels can sometimes be exchanged with other travellers.

Medical kits and other health-related subjects are discussed on page 64, but do note that contact lens solutions may not be available, so bring enough to last the whole trip – and bring glasses in case the intense sun and dry climate irritate your eyes.

ELECTRICAL Electricity is 220V AC at 50Hz cycles and is available in most towns and cities across the country.  British-style square three-pin plugs are in use. Hotels sometimes plug round-pin European plugs into the square holes, which works but is rather unsafe. It is a good idea to buy a suitable adaptor before you travel,  although  you  should  also  be  able  to  locate  one  in  Hargeisa  if  need  be. Stabilizers are required for sensitive devices, and adaptors for appliances using 110V. Batteries sold on the street are mostly of very poor quality, so bring any that you need with you.

MAPS The only commercially available map of Somaliland of which we are aware is ITMB’s 1:1,170,000 Somalia & Djibouti. It is not as accurate as it might be but is still worth carrying if you intend to explore off the beaten track. As far as we know, other than the ones included in this book which were prepared from scratch by the author, there are no town maps available for anywhere in Somaliland.

MONEY AND BUDGETING

Day-to-day expenses in Somaliland are quite low if you stick to public transport. At the budget end of the price scale, it is usually possible to find an adequate room for US$10-15, and even the priciest hotels cost significantly less than US$100. Food, drink and public transport are also quite cheap. However, if you plan to travel in a private 4×4, budget US$200 a day for a vehicle, driver, and SPU protection. Note that all prices in this guide are likely to be subject to inflation over the life span of this edition. 

The local currency is the Somaliland shilling, which is available in denominations of Ssh 5,000, 1,000, 500 and 100. It is trading at Ssh 574 to the US dollar at the time of writing (July 2018), which means that when you exchange a US$100 note into the local Somaliland currency, you’ll receive at least 200 individual banknotes (more if the vendor doesn’t have enough Ssh 5,000 bills to cover the transaction!). As a result, the markets of Hargeisa are lined with foreign exchange stalls, piled high with bricks of local currency held together with elastic bands, where US dollars are traded freely with Somaliland shillings.

In practice, there is little need to change money in Somaliland, as US dollars and Somaliland shillings are used more or less interchangeably, and the path of least resistance is to pay for things in US dollars, accept change in either currency, but possibly to break US$10–20 into Ssh 500 notes on the day you arrive so you have some small change when it is required.

For those who don’t want to carry large amounts of cash around the country, or who will be spending a long time there, an ingenious and convenient alternative to credit cards (which are not accepted anywhere) is provided by ZAAD (Website: www. zaad.net),  a  phone  banking  and  payment  service  linked  to  the  mobile  provider Telesom. To register for this service, you must first buy a local Telesom SIM card, then visit any ZAAD office with a passport-size photograph to set up an account, deposit some money in it, and key in a four-digit activation key that allows you to set your own pin. Once active, you can pay most hotel, restaurant, filling station and other bills directly from your phone, and can then withdraw the balance from your account upon your departure from the country.

Below are a few things you need to consider when preparing your finances for Somaliland.

  • Credit cards are of limited use in Somaliland. There are a few ATMs in Hargeisa where you can draw US dollars against a MasterCard (and there’s also one where Visa cards are accepted) but there are no ATMs elsewhere and other brands (such as American Express or Diner Card) are simply not recognized.
  • While US dollars are universally recognized and freely interchangeable with local currency, other currencies – even euros and pounds sterling – are little known and are unlikely to be accepted outside Hargeisa, where the central branch of the Dahabshiil Bank represents your last opportunity to exchange them for US dollars or Somaliland shillings before heading out of the capital.
  • US dollars issued before 2000 are simply not accepted as legal tender anywhere in the country, so avoid carrying them with you at all costs (and if possible, try to bring the newest notes you can locate, ideally issued within the past five years).
  • Travelers with experience in Africa usually tend to carry high denomination US dollar bills (ie: US$50 and US$100), in the knowledge that they usually fetch a significantly better exchange rate than smaller ones. However, there is no such discrimination in Somaliland. Indeed, given that you will most likely make a lot of relatively small purchases in US dollars, and that change is often tricky to locate, it pays to carry a good stash of smaller denomination bills, such as US$1, US$5, US$10 and US$20.

GETTING AROUND

Although occasional flights do connect  Hargeisa to other towns in  Somaliland (check the  Daallo and  Jubba  Air websites),  the more normal mode of transport is by road. 

Conditions are variable.  The main road from Borama via Hargeisa, Berbera, Sheikh, Burao, and Oog (the Garoowe border post with Somalia) is surfaced and can easily be covered in any sedan car.

All other roads, including the ones from Borama to Zeila, and Oog to Maydh via Erigavo, are unsurfaced and too rough to risk without a 4×4.

There are no buses in Somaliland, but foreigners are usually permitted to use the inexpensive but jam-packed shared taxis that run along the stretch of road from Borama to Burao, via Hargeisa and Berbera, and also to travel in the 4x4s that connect Hargeisa and Burao to Zeila and the Djibouti border.

Other parts of the country may only be visited in a 4×4 with a local driver, which can be rented through one of the agencies listed under Hargeisa. From what we know, self-drive car rental is not an option in Somaliland.

It could be that overlanders with their own vehicle are permitted to drive themselves with SPU protection, but we have never heard from anybody who has done this.

ACCOMMODATION

Accommodation in Somaliland is generally far more varied and pleasant than one might reasonably expect, and by overall African standards, it tends to be pretty good value, too. Detailed listings for specific towns are given in Part Two of the guide and graded into four categories: upmarket, moderate, budget and shoestring. The purpose of this categorization is to break up long hotel listings that span a wide price range and also to help readers isolate the range of hotels that will best suit their budget and taste. It is based as much on the feel of a hotel as its rates (which are quoted anyway) and placement may also be influenced by the standard of other accommodation in the same area.

It is worth noting that hotels in Somaliland almost universally refer to a room with two beds as a double, and a room with one large bed as a king-size or family room (possibly reflecting the notion it would be appropriate for a large bed to be shared only by a married heterosexual couple). Some hotels also refer to a room with one large bed as a single and apply the term family, king-size, or VIP room to a larger room or suite. In this book, we have applied the term ‘single’ to any room with one small or three-quarter bed, ‘double’ to any room with one double or larger bed, ‘twin’ to any room with two separate beds, and ‘suite’ to any accommodation that has includes a separate sitting room. This may not tally with terms used at the hotel reception, so ask to see a room before committing to it.

UPMARKET  This category includes the country’s limited selection of Westernized hotels  that  might  genuinely  be  considered  as  tourist  class,  although  they  would struggle to gain more than a two- to three-star ranking anywhere else in the world. Rates are typically around US$40–80 for an en-suite double room with television, Wi-Fi and air conditioning. This is the category to look at if you want the best room in town, irrespective of cost.

MODERATE Hotels in this category are a little too simple to be classified as upmarket but they are also a notch or two above the budget category in terms of price and/or quality. In cities, expect unpretentious en-suite accommodation with  hot  water  and  possibly  a  television,  a  decent  restaurant  and  English- speaking staff. Prices are generally in the US$25–40 range. This is the category to consider if you are traveling on a limited budget but still expect a reasonably high standard of accommodation.

BUDGET  Accommodation in this category is aimed squarely at the local market and  doesn’t  approach  international  standards,  but  is  still  reasonably  clean  and comfortable,  often  with  a  decent  restaurant  attached,  and  en-suite  rooms  with running cold or possibly hot water. Expect to pay around US$10–20, depending on the location. If you are on a low budget but want to avoid total squalor, this is the category for you.

SHOESTRING This is the very bottom end of the market, and listings are usually small local guesthouses with simple rooms and shared showers and toilets. Running the gamut from pleasantly clean to decidedly squalid, these hotels typically charge less than US$10 for a room. It is the category for those basically looking to find the cheapest rooms in town.

EATING AND DRINKING

FOOD  Eating out in Somaliland tends to be an unceremonious activity, and the local  food  is  seldom  anything  to  write  home  about.  Local  restaurants  generally serve  a  limited  selection  of  pre-cooked  dishes,  typically  pasta  and/or  rice  with vegetable  or  meat  stew,  with  the  most  common  meats  being  mutton,  goat  and camel. The choice is far greater at those moderate and upmarket hotels which have their own restaurant. In addition, Hargeisa now boasts a cosmopolitan selection of international restaurants, many owned or managed by Somalis who have lived abroad and are used to catering to Western palates.  Berbera is a good place to break the regime of red meat with some fresh fish. Eating out in Somaliland may be problematic for vegetarians since there is no guarantee that the vegetable sauce offered at most local restaurants will be strictly vegetarian (it often seems to contain small bits of meat, and even where it doesn’t, it may well use some sort of meat stock). Outside of Hargeisa, strict vegetarians will most likely have to stick to bread, the fresh market produces, and whatever tinned items they can locate.

One distinctly Somali dish worth trying is Laxoox, a filling pancake-like flatbread traditionally baked on a metallic circular stove called a daawe. It is usually eaten at breakfast with sweet Somali tea, or sometimes eggs, or sugar and lime, or even ghee. Laxoox is clearly a relation of Ethiopian injera, and has a similarly spongy texture, but it is made from wheat rather than tef, is less sour, and much smaller and floppier (you would normally eat three or four individual pancakes in one sitting). Fresh bread, known as roodhi, is also widely available in the mornings, either as a  crusty  roti-like  flatbread  mofaa,  or  more  conventional  rolls.  Also popular are the greasy fried dough balls known as khamiir. There are also several Ethiopian restaurants in Somaliland, especially in Hargeisa, usually serving far spicier fare than is conventional for the Somali.

If you are shopping for a trip into remote areas, supermarkets in Hargeisa stock a  fair  range  of  imported  goodies  such  as  crisps,  biscuits,  chocolates  and  sweets. Elsewhere in the country, the selection is very limited. Fresh fruit and vegetables are widely available at markets.

DRINKS  Now  with  its  own  bottling  factory  in  Hargeisa,  Coca-Cola  is  widely available in Somaliland, as are various other sweet carbonated drinks. You can buy packaged fruit juices in some supermarkets, but a more attractive (and very budget-friendly) option is the delicious freshly pureed or squeezed fruit juices made  at  stalls  and  restaurants  in  the  larger  towns.  Coffee is available at most restaurants, usually fresh brewed and often very strong.  A local favorite is Somali tea, which is often spiced and usually brewed with milk and a generous dose of sugar. If you prefer your tea free of milk and/or sugar, ask for Lipton. Indeed, tea-drinkers might want to specify they want Lipton anyway, as otherwise they  might  well  be  brought  coffee,  which  is  also  widely  referred  to  as  tea  in Somaliland.  Bottled water is available, but make sure it’s sealed.  No alcoholic drinks are sold anywhere in Somaliland, although a few smarter restaurants and hotels stock alcohol-free beer.

SHOPPING

BARGAINING AND OVERCHARGING The emphasis that some tourists place on bargaining can be a little over the top.

Bargaining has its place, but the common assumption that everybody quotes inflated prices to tourists is nonsensical.

Bartering is of little value at hotels, restaurants, and supermarkets, but it may be necessary with taxis  (shared or private)  and markets,  where some bargaining also goes on between locals.

As ever, the better informed you are about prices at the start of the process, the more likely you are to be able to come to a mutually satisfying agreement, so it’s worth asking at a few stalls to see what the norm is before starting the process.

In addition, you’ll find that stallholders will be far more amenable if you are buying a range of products rather than just one or two items. The key to bargaining is to be relaxed about it. 

If you adopt an aggressive posture,  it is only likely to irritate the other party and lower the likelihood of a successful conclusion to the whole business. It is important to retain a sense of proportion: regardless of how poor you are in Western terms, you will mostly be a lot better off than the person you’re dealing with.

PHOTOGRAPHY

Photography is part and parcel of traveling, but it needs to be done with sensitivity. Taking wildlife photographs and scenic views is fine, but you do need to be a little more circumspect when photographing buildings and people. 

If you are caught taking photographs of military or government buildings,  you may run into problems with the officials,  and while it isn’t illegal for non-Islamic visitors to photograph mosques and shrines, locals may object to it vociferously.

In towns, it is usually fine to snap general street scenes, but if it’s clear that a significant number of people are disturbed by your camera, put it away. If people turn their faces away from the camera or hide it behind their hand, point your lens in a different direction, as continuing to photograph will cause offense.

It is also vital to always ask permission before photographing specific individuals – many people will be fine with it, but it is rude not to check first.

MEDIA AND COMMUNICATIONS

MEDIA There are a few English-language newspapers printed in Somaliland; foreign papers are very difficult to locate. 

There are a few local radio stations, but most broadcast mainly or exclusively in the Somali language, with an emphasis on religion and news programs. Most hotels in the moderate and upmarket category offer a bouquet of Arabian satellite channels including Al Jazeera.

COMMUNICATIONS The main telephone service providers are Telesom (telesom. net) and Somtel (somtelnetwork.net), and a local SIM card for your mobile should cost US$5 (though they are sometimes issued free at the airport) and come with a full instruction sheet. If the card needs to be activated, dial ‘*120#’ and it should happen automatically. A voucher for US$5 will most likely cover all the texting and phone requirements of those staying in the country for just a few days, as well as allowing for the purchase of a data bundle (dial *444#’ to convert airtime to data).

There is no postal service to or from Somaliland.  Internet access is widely available. Locals will often point out that the service is generally faster than in most parts of Ethiopia, which is true, albeit not setting the bar very high – it is pretty slow by any other standards.

Most hotels now offer free Wi-Fi service to guests, as do many restaurants in Hargeisa. If you want to be online more-or-less permanently, then it’s best to buy a local SIM card and data bundle, which is very inexpensive.

CULTURAL ETIQUETTE AND TRAVELLING POSITIVELY

BEFORE YOU LEAVE  If you want to swot up beforehand on what it means to be a  responsible tourist,  a  UK-based source of information is  Tourism  Concern (Telephone: 020 7753 3330; Email: info@tourismconcern.org.uk; Website: tourismconcern.org.uk).

It’s also good to do some research about the country you’re about to visit  –  not just its weather and its costs and hotels, but also what makes it tick: its history, culture, achievements, failures and so on. It can help to break the ice with local people if you know something (anything!) about their country and way of life.

CARBON EMISSIONS If you would like to offset the carbon footprint of your flight, try carbonneutral.com, run by a UK organization. The website has an easy-to-use emissions calculator and a range of offset programmes.

IN SOMALILAND Fancy terms such as ‘cultural sensitivity’ and ‘low-impact tourism’ often boil down to good old-fashioned respect and common sense. As a visitor, you should be willing to adapt to and respect local customs and traditions.  For example, learn a bit of the local language, seek the permission of the community leader before roaming through villages, and ask before you take photographs.

Be aware, too, that greeting procedures tend to be more formalized in Somaliland than in modern Western societies, and elderly people, in particular, should be treated with special respect. If you need to ask somebody directions or anything else for that matter, it is considered very rude to blunder straight into interrogative mode without first exchanging greetings.

Somaliland is a strictly Islamic country and generally very conservative. It would be imprudent to get involved in religious discussions of any sort, and atheist or agnostic visitors will be better off saying they are Christian than declaring their lack of faith. 

Local clothing mores are conservative, for males and females, and should be followed closely by visitors. Be aware that Somalilanders, like most other Muslims, reserve the use of the left hand for ablutions, and the right hand for eating and other social activities.

It is considered highly insulting to use one’s left hand to pass or receive something, or to shake hands left-handed. If you eat with your fingers, as is customary in Somaliland, use the right hand only, or you risk causing serious offense.

Also be careful to use energy resources such as water and electricity efficiently, not to wash in lakes or rivers (regardless of local practices, because of pollution) or get too close to the wildlife. Shop locally and use the services of local people whenever possible. 

Buy souvenirs from the craftspeople who made them rather than via middlemen who will siphon off profits, and patronize small street vendors rather than big supermarkets. Don’t bargain unreasonably; the difference may be the cost of a drink to you but a whole family meal to the vendor. Use the services of a local guide, or a child who wants to help, and pay a fair rate.

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