Hunting Pirates in Somalia

When you think of quiet, easy, relaxed, beautiful beach destinations for a holiday; what’s the first place that comes to your mind? That’s right! Somalia! With long stretches of untouched beaches that curve all the way around the horn of Africa and overlook pristinely clear pirate ridden water in the Gulf of Aden, who wouldn’t want to visit this unspoiled paradise? You can have your own soldier for only $15 a day that will follow you around with a sub machine gun; eat raw camel meat right off the dilapidated streets; and haggle your way to a great deal on some designer sandals in the dusty markets…I am kidding of course, well sort of, but Somalia, amidst all its confusion, designation as a failed state and lack of government actually has something to offer the adventurous and seasoned traveler. But first you must understand what you’re getting yourself into and the dangers that exist.

The government of Somalia officially collapsed in 1991, and the ensuing chaos was epitomized in the movie “Blackhawk Down”. After the failed US incursion into Mogadishu, Somalia has been left for dead by the International community, and there has essentially been anarchy in the country. Somalia has since unofficially divided into three parts: Somalia-which is the southern part of the country where the official/unofficial capital of Mogadishu is located; Puntland-in the middle with its only real city being Bosasso; and Somaliland-which lies in the north, bordered by Ethiopia and Djibouti, is considered the only safe area to visit in the country.

Somaliland is considered a de facto country with a functioning government, its own currency, postage, passports, borders, army and most other things that make a country a country. It’s very similar to Trans Dniester in many ways, just not as developed. However, it lacks international recognition and surely lacks international investment to kick start a dismal economy. Somaliland is open to adventurous visitors if they obtain a visa in advance from one of two liaison offices in the world; either in Addis Ababa or in London.

Puntland to the contrary, is extremely dangerous and should be avoided. Besides having no actual sights to see or things to do, Puntland is lawless and seems to be a haven for both pirates and terrorists. Getting there is virtually impossible for foreigners overland to my knowledge and the flights are scarce. However, it is serviced by a few airlines, generally on stopovers or turnaround flights much like its southern overlord, Somalia.

Somalia proper hosts the infamous capital of Mogadishu and is probably the most dangerous place on Earth. There is absolutely no law and order and it is a known haven for terrorists including Al Qaeda. There is no government and even NGO’s and the UN have seemingly given up on the place from what I understand. The only other western people who will dare step foot out of the airport are the brave contractors who are hired by NGO’s who don’t want to be there themselves. Much like it was in Iraq during the war when you’d hear about contractors being killed or kidnapped for ransom. To put it into perspective, the UN headquarters at the Mogadishu airport was even recently bombed.

The only realistic way to visit, and by visit I mean stop off in the airport or actually the tarmac is by turnaround or stopover flight which is how most travelers (and all that I know) have visited the Mog. Daallo, African Express, Jubba, Punt Air, African Star and Djibouti airlines serve Mogadishu if they are actually running or even in business at all. Getting accurate and reliable information on these airlines is nearly impossible.

Believe me it is excessively difficult to coordinate a stop in the Mogadishu airport because these airlines shut down without notice permanently or otherwise; there is no set schedule; cancellations are the norm not the exception; and it is nearly impossible to book any type of flight, turnaround or stop, from outside of the horn. You cannot see schedules or book online and even if you could you’d still have a less than 50/50 chance of going. Basically you have to plan to do things on the fly and get lucky on the ground. The safest option is to do the set stopovers from either Dubai or Nairobi with African Express but nothing is guaranteed. Overland travel and/or entry are impossible and are stupid to even consider.

Overland however, is an option to enter Somaliland in the north from Ethiopia. With the confusing state of schedules and airlines leaving to Hargeisa and Berbera in Somaliland, one needs to be flexible. After obtaining a visa in Addis Ababa, you cannot fly direct to Hargeisa anymore apparently but that is in dispute as well I am told by my not really helpful travel agent in Addis. So in order to assure myself that I was able to get to Hargeisa to make my connection through Somalia and Djibouti, I decided to take the veteran traveler savvy route through Jijiga (airport below).
Ethiopian Airlines flies several times a week early in the morning, via Dire Dawa, to Jijiga, which is a nothing little city about 70 miles or so from the Somaliland border post at Wajaale. Now it’s important to note that you cannot leave and re-enter Ethiopia at Wajaale if you do not have a multiple entry Ethiopia visa because they do not issue visas at the border and I am told they will deport you or surely make you pay big time to let you in. That said, you cannot get a multiple entry visa on arrival at Bole Airport in Addis. So either you get it at the embassy in your country before you leave home or you re-enter via a third country like Djibouti as we were forced to do. I wish I had that information before the trip; it would have saved us a few hundred dollars in airfare.
When my Uncle and I landed at the ridiculously lackluster Jijiga airport which was essentially a strip of dusty tar next to a barn, we weren’t sure exactly how to get to Wajaale. There were a few taxi drivers with some of the most ragged looking cars you’ve ever seen that had all this pink fuzzy crap everywhere (above and below). African drivers love to put all kinds of weird stuff in and on their cars. After a few minutes of negotiating we got one of them to drive us the hour and a half to the Wajaale border post for $60. Trust me this is a much better option that taking the minibus. It also includes some gorgeous landscapes filled with tons of camels, goats, cows and even the odd warthog and monkey.
When you arrive at the border to get your Ethiopia exit stamp you are greeted by tons of kids armed with wheel barrels wanting to wheel your luggage the 200 meters or so through no man’s land to the Somaliland station. Walking this no man’s land is like being on another planet (below). It reeks. There is garbage everywhere. Poverty is appalling. However, everyone is really friendly and really smiley. Everyone is excited to see you and wants to ask you a million questions.
After getting stamped into Somaliland in another surprisingly painless process, you then have to negotiate someone to drive you the 90 miles or so to Hargeisa. Being there only one person with a car, we were whacked for another $60 for the drive but it was a pretty nice Land Cruiser and the driver was very kind. The roads on the Somali side were not paved at all until we got to within a few miles of Hargeisa. Driving those dirt roads which weren’t even marked reminded me of driving in Chad outside of N’Djamena to the villages I visited last January. It was pleasant and we eventually go to our hotel in Hargeisa.

The Ambassador Hotel is one of two hotels in Hargeisa that are suitable for staying safely and has most western amenities, such as showers, toilets and security. We chose the Ambassador over the Oriental because of its proximity of 1km to the airport and its cleanliness. You got a great room for only $50 and never felt any kind of issues.

The hotel has two restaurants, one of which is outside where you can even have your own fanned hut for lunch if you choose. We did and lunch, albeit terrible quality of food was bearable and hit the spot after a long morning of travel from Addis. Don’t get the pizza or the fish burger. The fries on the other hand were fantastic. Throw a little hot sauce on and you’re launched!
After lunch I wanted to organize a driver and soldier to escort us out to Las Geel (above and next several below) which is about 50 miles from Hargeisa and is only accessible via 4 wheel drive as it’s well off the main road to Berbera. You need a soldier escort by the way. They will turn you back at the checkpoints if you do not have one. Somaliland takes westerners safety very seriously ever since a few were murdered by Mogadishu terrorists a few years ago. They are seemingly doing all they can to legitimize themselves to one day become a real country.

Using the very nice and helpful desk staff, we got a guide/driver which spoke good English and a soldier for $120 which was a pretty good deal I thought based on what I had read and heard about prices and we were off to Las Geel.
Las Geel is indisputably Somaliland’s “piece de resistance”. If it were not located within the confines of Somaliland, it would immediately be deemed a World Heritage Site and tourists would flock to go there. Well maybe not flock as it’s still in the horn of Africa but you know what I am saying!
Hundreds of Neolithic rock paintings adorn the gorgeous caves and rocks. Their state of preservation is nearly perfect and will amaze you; especially when you are told that these paintings date back 7000 years to approximately 5000 BC. The paintings are generally of animals and people seemingly doing tasks. Some are extremely vivid and the whole site is fascinating and the setting is divine. You feel like you could be in Sedona, Arizona, USA at times with the gorgeous reflection of the sunlight from the red rocks in the late afternoon sun as we had.
We also had to fortune of running into a group of journalism students from Hargeisa who were taking in the sites and were supposed to interview each other about their thoughts and experiences at the site. To their excitement, appears two white guys and they quickly took their pens, pads and tape recorders and essentially had a press conference with us. It was a lot of fun for me and I was happy to help. My Uncle didn’t feel quite as at ease but he went with it and had fun too. They kept asking the same questions over and over again. Where are you from? Why are you here? How do you like Somalia? How do you like Las Geel? It got a little cumbersome, but I was happy to help.
After an hour or so at the site, we headed down to the small museum that details the 2003 discovery of the site and the excavation by the team of French archaeologists. It also had a guest book for visitors to sign. In obscure places like Somaliland, I always like to flip through a guest book like this because there’s a decent chance I might know a few people who have signed it. Places like this aren’t exactly common to visit and the people who travel like I do are generally the ones that might be there. Like clockwork, I knew three people who had signed in the past two weeks. Two of which I knew had been and another I was surprised to see but excited. It is funny how the Internet connects people from all over the world as some guy who I had been talking with on Thorn Tree was actually just there.

After Las Geel we headed back. We were both exhausted and had a small dinner and headed to sleep as we had another ungodly busy day of flying, stopovers and more. The day would eventually break down to 6 flights in 5 countries over 36 hours before finally arriving in Algiers, Algeria for a few days where we are now. It is our last stop in Africa on this trip. We also have one night in Istanbul on the way home to New York. I am exhausted and hope I didn’t ramble too much in trying to sum up our Somalian adventure.

Adventure is the exact right word. It is like the Wild West in Hargeisa but the streets are alive with people and brimming with life. People are friendly and they are happy you are here. I can only personally speak about the airport in Mogadishu and even less in Puntland but they are unsafe to visit and should be avoided at all costs. Maybe one day Somalia and the International community will get it together. It truthfully wouldn’t be a stretch to say that if they did, Somalia’s coast could become a tourist attraction.

I have seen it for myself last winter when I flew from the Seychelles to Paris. Out the left side of the plane we literally cruised up the stunning Somali coast and over the horn itself. All that said and realistically speaking; that is a pipedream and probably decades or even centuries before it happens. I for one am rooting for the Somali people. They deserve better.

I was going to save this for my reflection post I like to do after I get home. But being as though he is snoring next to me on a plane full of Algerian Muslims which I know makes him uncomfortable; I want to give my Uncle David some props (My Aunt Robin too for letting him go with me!). Not only has he been a great travel companion but he has visited places he never thought he would have gone or would have never dared go. He has done things that made him uncomfortable to his core and did them as my friend and not just my Uncle. He has shown a ton of energy (for a 63 year old man) and has kept up pretty well with my energized and hectic way of travel with far too little sleep. In truth he barely has even asked where we were going, he was just along for the ride. Having him with me has been special for me personally in a lot of ways but as a reflection in travel styles it is fun to hear his takes and I know he loves to watch me work as the world is my office. If you ask him, he’ll tell you it’s arduous, with lots of ups and downs but fun. For me, it’s all fun and part of a greater learning experience about the world and a journey of self discovery. I will value this trip forever and will be sad when it ends. It is the trip of a lifetime.

FYI-I’m having a lot of trouble uploading pictures from the terrible internet connection we have here at the hotel in ALgiers. I will try and upload more when I get home.

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  1. I am blown away, that must’ve been an amazing experience. I have never even heard of Las Geel but it looks pretty awesome. Be safe and good luck rest of your trip in Algeria.

  2. Sounds like an exotic entry into Somaliland, I don’t know of anyone that has done it in from Ethiopia, only in from Djibouti. Only thing I noticed you never mentioned was the money sellers in Hargeisa with their outrageous stacks of Somali currency.

    Were there any other foreign travelers at the Ambassador Hotel?

    Look forward to more pics when you get back to NYC. Good report.

  3. We didn’t see any other foreigners at all at the hotel or otherwise. We didnt change US dollars because everywhere we dealt with took dollars.

    ken thanks and Las Geel was really cool!

  4. Did you see any pirates, LOL?!

  5. Sounds like you and your uncle are having an incredible trip. Good luck to you both and thanks for sharing your amazing stories. I really look forward to your postings.

  6. So how does it feel to be at 190 UN countries and to only have 2 UN countries left (Libya and Angola)?

  7. That’s very nice how you are traveling with your uncle and even an even nicer write up about it. If I was yhour aunt, I would have had my reservations about letting my husband go to Somalia.

  8. Christine says

    I am in awe of your travels. A friend sent me the link to your site and I cannot stop reading about your adaventures. How do you find the time to do all this? Can I come on your next trip? I cannot even think how difficult and scary some of these trips must be.

  9. How did you know that you could enter Somalia via your flight to Jijiga across that crazy looking border? Also, what’s up eith that taxi? Sounds and looks like quite an adventure.

  10. Thanks to all. Elle, I did not see any pirates, although I was looking! Ryan, it feels good I suppose, wish I could’ve seen Libya this trip but will go asap along with Angola and Cabinda. Christine, I make the time and all are welcome on my trips!

    Luis, I knew about it from researching beforehand. I had spoken with several people that had done the trip and it sounded like the most exciting way to enter the country. I am always partial to crossing borders overland, assuming they are safe as I was convinced this one was. Sure enough it was hassle free and makes for a good story and experience.

  11. Pallavi Gupta says

    Hello Lee and thank you for sharing your fantastic story in Somalia. Best of luck with your journeys.

  12. jason smart says

    I stumbled upon your website about a year ago and quickly read about everywhere you had visited, but I have to say, this entry about Somalia/Somaliland was the one I enjoyed reading most. The reason is simple: this place is so far off the tourist trail that most sane people would not even consider going anywhere near it. But you did. Absolutely fantastic.

  13. Jason, thanks a lot buddy, I really appreciate that. It was a hell of an experience and I am glad all went well and I could share with everyone.

  14. Your favorite cousin Kari says

    I love your reflection at the end. Made my eyes well up a little :). From what I hear my dad had a wonderful time and sure does sound like a trip of a lifetime!

  15. Thanks Kari, it was a lot of fun! See you soon.

  16. Jill Lyon says

    Are we talking the same David?? The one that won’t even eat a vegetarian hot dog??? Sounds wonderful, Lee, keep safe and have a great time wherever you are! Jill and David

  17. Wow that’s amazing. 1. That you went to Somalia 2. That you went overland and had no issues. I enjoy your site. Thanks and good luck.

  18. Lee did not focus much on Southern Somalia and the capital Mogadishu. That is the most “intriguing” part of the fractured country. He also failed to state that it was once an Italian colony. Mogadiscio was once a beautiful Italianate coastal city on the Indian ocean. When a colony, the Italians did a lot to build roads, schools, hospitals, infrastucture, a Cathedral, and various Fascist-era monuments like the Arch of Savoy, and magnificent Cathedral Mezza-Croce during the 1930’s and 40’s. All blown to bits during the devastating civil war and ousting of dictator Said Barre, starting in 1991 and still raging ! Somalia became independent in 1960 and is the only country on Earth not to have a recognized central gov’t in 23 years and counting ! That means no municipal services like an international airport, no central bank, no army, no postal service, telephone service, no grid municipal services ,i.e., sanitation,sewers electricity, etc. Private entrepreneurs have stepped in to fill the void, in a patchwork of faulty and unreliable services. The heaviest national industry is basket and fish-net weaving ! Foreigners can not enter the country, for fear of the very real threat of kidnap, robbery and homicide. It truly is the most lawless and dangerous city on Earth ! That is why it seems so intriguing for Westerners and white people in particular…because it is so unreachable and precarious !

  19. Just discovered your blog through business insider, you ate an inspiration.

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