Bandits! (The Lake Turkana Road Part III)

It was about on day two that the bushes on our rear suspension failed. Long suffering, these rubber buffers prevent a metal on metal clash in the suspension components. Although this didn’t halt our progress, it made us wince every time we hit a medium to large bump, which happened about every three seconds. It did nothing for our confidence as we had days of off road still to drive, and it sounded as though the car was falling apart! Fortunately Land Rovers are built of stern stuff, and Tess struggled on.

We pulled into Loyangolani, the first convincing Kenyan settlement towards the south end of the lake with two flat spares. We breakfasted, wincing despite ourselves as the gomister (tyre repair guru) bashed our tyres off the rim with a sledge hammer. Punctures fifteen and sixteen. I did a complete double take as a young man wandered past wearing the Exeter University rugby team strip. I recognised it from a hundred yards, as several of our friends played for the university during medical school. He had bought it from the local shop, and had no idea why I was so excited – garments are purely functional here, and he spoke not a word of English. I returned to my chapatti and chai and wondered whose footsteps we were following.

We were a full four days drive into Kenya before we found ourselves on a road that could be classified as having two carriageways. We were unpleasantly surprised to find ourselves on the wrong side of the road when a great pickup full of jackfruit came tearing around the corner. There was barely time to wonder at the irony of this given the amount of times we have rounded corners in Africa to find our carriageway occupied by something with big momentum and small brakes. We swerved back to the left for first time since England, and rattled on our way.

Celebrations in N Kenya

Team beer on Dan’s Birthday (Photo: DN)

We found a particularly beautiful riverbed surrounded by acacia trees and steep hills. The shadows were lengthening and we had business: it was Dan’s birthday. We turned ‘upstream’, away from the deserted road, and slid our way into the forest. There in the safety of the bush, we celebrated with precious Ethiopian beer, cherished single malt, and well travelled Swiss fondue.

We set off late the next day, perhaps not as sharp as usual after the celebrations. As we passed west of Baragoi at the southern end of the lake, we were waved through a fairly significant military checkpoint. There’s a heavy military presence up here, and we read no significance from its existence. A few more kilometres and one of the Swiss’ tyres falls victim to the sharp rocks on the track. Well practised, they swapped over their wheel while we made the team some coffee (just what you need in the midday heat!). We crouched in the six inches of shade that the car threw this close to the equator, and waved as a church group passed in a Land Cruiser, priests in the front, children leaning cheerfully out of the back. We commented on its passage as even this far into Kenya another vehicle on the road was still a noteworthy event. I saw Bass and Michael, one of the Swiss, exchange glances and a raised eyebrow as we packed up, but thought nothing of it, as none of us really understand how Bass interacts with anyone.

As we rounded the next corner, barely two minutes after the church group, we knew something was very wrong. A hundred yards ahead, the Land Cruiser lay was splayed at an odd angle, its doors swinging. The children huddled in the back, and we could see the priest and driver sitting by the car, head in hands. We stopped, and took a moment to scout the situation. This was setting off all sorts of alarm bells. This was perfect ambush territory.

We approached cautiously, game faces on, hearts thumping. There was thick vegetation on each side of the road, good cover for villains. I could see bullet holes aplenty down the side of the Land Cruiser. There was an oil spray from the engine block. The windscreen was shot out, as were the back windows. We crouched by their car.

Bandits attack in N Kenya

Bullet holes in the children’s compartment (Photo: DN)

The priest greeted us eagerly: he had a split brow, and was nursing his arm, which was cut and bleeding. We quickly asked about casualties. None hit, both adults assaulted with rifle butts and robbed. Six bandits, AK47s, they had apparently fled. There were two children missing, who had run off into the bush.

We herded the group towards our Land Rover, and squashed them inside or planted them on the roof. We made the executive decision to go for back up before searching for the two that were lost to the bush. Speeding across the rocky piste with eleven people aboard really put Tess through her paces. We passed a band of men, perhaps seven strong, all with rifles on the road about a kilometre back. They looked at us innocently; we could see no animal herds nearby, no reason for them to be together and armed. They chose to ignore our passing. We made it back to the military block unscathed. Afterwards, I thought again about this unknown platoon, who could so easily have turned on us. How can you tell the difference between an armed shepherd and a roving robber? Fighting any guerrilla war must be impossibly difficult.

Inside the car, the mood was business. The children had recovered somewhat, and sat quietly. We have not a drop of military training between us, but thankfully we’re all used to being in high pressure situations because of our jobs, and this kept our heads cool. We piled out, and quickly informed the officer in charge of events. He explained that this was a trouble spot (although they had neglected to mention this to us at the roadblock!), and that they frequently had fatal attacks on this road. They did not have any vehicles at that outpost however, so they would have to use our two cars and a third volunteer who needed to pass through. We were dispatched back with a roof full of soldiers, the priest, the driver, and the children. The Land Cruiser was as we had left it, a sadly disabled hulk. The soldiers fanned out to form a perimeter. Looking again, I realised how lucky the occupants had been. There was a hole through the cab two inches about the driver’s head rest, and holes throughout the back compartment. The children must have hit the deck at the sound of the first shot, otherwise many of them would have been hit.

Bandits attack in Kenya

A soldier perches on Tess as we rig up a tow rope (Photo: RWH)

The soldiers asked whether we would tow the Cruiser to the next town, 30km west. We agreed that we would try, given that it meant we would also have an armed escort for that leg. Rigging up a tow ling took minutes thanks to a medical degree misspent rock climbing, and we crawled away, leaving two soldiers to continue the search for the missing children. We never found out what happened to them, but no more gun shots were heard after the initial assault, so we can only hope for the best.

I had planted myself in the driver’s seat of the Land Cruiser. There’s quite an art to towing off road, a recoiling cable breaking windows is not unheard of, and I wanted to be responsible if we damaged Tess. Two bullets had gone right into the engine block, and I knew that turning the engine over would just damage it further. Tess crawled forwards, puffing on the incline with Dan at the wheel, and we started to move. The strap would go suddenly slack as we descended a rise, then slap taught again. It required our full attention. We were wired.

The tow seemed to last forever as we ascended and descended rough hill passes. The priest described how they had rounded the corner and six men had opened fire without so much as a warning. The car had stalled and rolled to a halt, and the men had advanced brandishing their guns. They had taken all valuables at gun point, hitting the adults with their rifle butts. They had scarpered, just as we had rounded the corner.

I was assembling this story piecemeal, as I concentrated on the towing. I could hear the children talking in low voices through the bullet hole behind me. That missile would have gone straight through my head had I been driving; luckily Kenyans tend to be a few inches shy in height. Ahead I could see the Land Rover slipping and skidding on the loose rocky roads, and at one point I could clearly see chunks of rubber been torn from our rear tyres. Those aged and cracked shoes had served us well, but 15,000 miles, 16 punctures, and one blow out later they were finally giving up the ghost. When we eventually limped in to the town the steel bands were visible in more than one. We were thanked by the church, but departed shortly, conscious that we still had a fair way to go and darkness was falling.

That evening we camped on the shores of Lake XXXXXX. It was a sober group that sat around the fire and sipped a much needed beer. We could not dismiss the idea that it was our cars that the bandits were after, that they may have had a friend phone ahead from the village we had just driven though. Their spoils would have been a hundred fold had they targeted us instead. We were shaken by the days experiences, but not as much as we should have been. I don’t think any of us has let the reality of how near our miss was sink in – after all, we still have three months to spend in this continent. We retired to bed early, Bass and I in our tent, Dan and Dario in the Swiss’ roof tent, Michael in his hammock. I fell into a deep sleep, exhausted.

A raunchy young bull hippo (Photo: DN)

A raunchy young bull hippo (Photo: DN)

Although Africa has a reputation for having a relaxed pace of life, sometimes it can push you to your limits. At about three AM (why does everything happen at three AM!?) I was jerked awake by a hand slapped over my mouth. Bass was rigid beside me, and even as I tried to protest I was shaken by an ear splitting roar from just outside the tent. Sticking our eyes to the corners of the tent, we could see a young bull hippo about nine yards away, bellowing to its floozy along the shore in some sort of antisocial courting ritual. We could see Michael in his hammock behind it, trying to think himself into the landscape. These creatures kill more people in Africa than any other, by quite some margin. They are terrifying. The hippo took a minute to ponder our existence, moving closer to the tent and rippling the very fabric of the air with his snorts. At length he decided that his hormones were more important than his curiosity, and he stomped off in the direction of the distant bellowing female, his four ton body weight squelching great holes into the mud as he did so. Dan and Dario lay giggling in the sanctum of the roof tent, but the rest of us were too tired and shocked to communicate. We lay back without a word, blissfully comatose until the morning.

The joy with which we celebrated the advent of Kenyan tarmac was testimony to our knackered suspension. Its clunking had worsened bump by bump, and we were on day twelve by now. We slipped Tess back into High Range and turned west. Slowly civilisation started to win back. Nomads became few, homesteads frequent, and market towns appeared on the horizon. The density of AK 47s dropped off too, much to our relief. We exchanged rocks for lorries, and by the evening of the second tarmac day, we had joined the freight train of lorries that snake their way from Mombasa to Kampala. We were headed towards Uganda, the ‘Pearl of Africa’, and rain.

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Hypnotic Adventures (The Lake Turkana Road Part II)

Just before you read the next installment, we would like to thank eveyone who has suported us by reading this blog, and by kind emails and messages. It has really meant a lot when the chips are down to know that people are thinking of us back home.

We are now well over half way, and have clovered over 15,000 miles. If you have enjoyed reading this blog, or are as surprised as we are that we have made it this far, please consider donating to our charities. 100% of your donations go to charity, this expedition is completely funded by us! Just click the red ‘donate’ button on the right of your screen. Thank you.

Tess rolls over the rocks in the midday heat (Photo: RWH)

Tess rolls over the rocks in the midday heat (Photo: RWH)

There is no manned border on the Turkana road, and travellers are required to stamp exit paperwork in the remote Ethiopian town of Omorate, some 100km before the border. There is no Kenyan office at all, and anyone crossing this way must essentially enter illegally until they can reach Nairobi, or an exit border. It is sufficiently far south and west from Addis that any return journey is unthinkable, a fact the Ethiopian customs officer obviously takes advantage of on a regular basis. His exit stamps remained very much in their drawer in his dusty little office as he inhaled air through his teeth and inspected our documents. He smirked at us and shook his head.

“There is a problem with these papers” he said, leaning back in his chair and framing himself rather nicely against the huge anti corruption poster on the wall behind him as he did so. “I cannot let you pass. You must return to Addis”.

My sharp response was to request his name, rank, and commanding officer’s details, as well as to comment on his moral fibre, or lack thereof. Luckily my tongue refused to comply with both simultaneous commands, and instead I managed a sort of strangled smirk. I was annoyed at myself. We should be used to these sorts of situations by now, and it feels like a personal failure when you let yourself blood rise. It was obvious what this chap was looking for, but I was reluctant to offer him undeserved backshish for a fabricated problem. Corruption is a big problem in Africa (and unsurprisingly has been found to inversely correlate with the economic development of a country), but we had been pleasantly surprised about how upstanding officials had been thus far, with the hugely expensive exception of Egypt. Admittedly we have perfected the art of making things as difficult as possible for the overly inquisitive officer (our papers are in Addis; can I see your regulations for that offence?; you must take us to the police station for that; can we have a receipt for that fine?; let me just call my embassy and ask their advice). Even so, most frustrations arise from general system failure and incompetence rather than individual corruption.

The springs of the officer’s chair squealed in relief as he levered himself to his feet and sidestepped purposefully around his desk. I had regained my composure, and allowed myself to be led by the hand into a dark corner. Eventually we came to a reluctant and secret agreement. He produced his ink and pocketed our Jackson in one smooth movement, and left me flapping the damp page in my passport and pondering a sad last interaction with a country that had proved to be more alien and wonderful than we could have expected.

We had stayed the night before quite unexpectedly with none other than a Hubertus Von Pachmann. The man was everything his name promised. He had found us on the banks of the Omo, near Omorate, peering into the murky waters and wondering if the crocodiles were absent enough to allow a quick swim. We had happened to stray onto the grounds of a huge farm during our search for a swimming spot, and had bumped into none other than the Austrian manager of a 20,000 hectare property. From his appearance he was in every way the white African, from his toothy grin to his khaki shorts and sheath knife. Life out here was lonely, he told us, many hundreds of kilometres from the capital, and many thousands of kilometres from his wife and children back in Austria. Hubertus was of a persuasive nature, and we soon found ourselves abandoning our swim and settling in with beers and grilled Nile Perch in his back yard. We watched the Southern Cross work its way across the horizon as we heard about the life of a man who had grown up in Rhodesia, volunteering with the elite Selous Scouts when the fight for independence came. He had farmed in Rhodesia, Somalia, and Angola to name but a few, and found himself unable to leave a continent where he had spent and risked his life so many times. As we ate he smelt the rain, long before we caught a whiff, and sure enough thunder caps soon obscured the constellations.

It poured. It should have been a time for celebration, jubilation. We had not seen rain for a full three months, and this was rain as only the tropics can muster. It bounced several feet off the concrete, thundered on the steel roof, cascaded through our ill fitting Land Rover doors to soak our worldly belongings. We sat silently, conscious of the endless river crossings we would have to face over the next few days, fully aware of our inexperience. Hubertus remained cheerful, told us this was a “just a spot of rain. Ja, it will be sucked up by the morning”. He was of course right. Dry as a bone, we set off the next morning refreshed and inspired.

The turning to Turkana was unmarked, unused, unceremonious. Had it been in the UK it would have barely qualified as a farm track. We exchanged wry smiles, selected Low Range, and turned south. We were excited and nervous, and for the next week every jolt, every new noise was an irreparable mechanical fault.

The rocky road (Photo: RWH)

The rocky road (Photo: RWH)

Everything seemed exaggerated here. The bush was wilder and more vicious, the river beds huge and treacherous, some hundreds of meters wide – but blissfully empty. The heat was more intense, reaching 45 degrees at midday when the sun would cast no shadow from a man. The road alternated between deep sand and large pebbles, which chattered angrily as we drove over them. I was transported by the sound to the winter swells raking the stones on St Agnes beach. Lake Turkana stretched across the western horizon just like that ocean so many miles away. We couldn’t shake the feeling how far we were from home, or anywhere else for that matter. It seemed an eternity since we had departed from the cold, misty headland of Droskyn. Here the nearest help was a minimum of two days drive in every direction. We carried all we would need: fuel, water, and food for 600km of wilderness, as well as a best guess of tools and spares that may prove essential.

Nomads in Lake Turkana

Nomads move their herds around this hostile environment (Photo: RWH)

As we drove we passed the occasional nomad in traditional garb, looking strikingly at home in their hostile environment. They shepherded great herds of camels and the ancient horned Ankole-Watusi cattle from one frazzled patch of grass to another. Everyone here has a high velocity rifle slung over their shoulder, oiled and ready. Being from a land where the most lethal weapon on show is a taser, guns make us nervous. It would be so easy for any of these men to relieve us of all we had and leave us to expire in this beautiful wasteland. We were greeted however with nothing but waves and stares, by people whose borders were tribal, not international. Addis Ababa and Nairobi were words whispered by the wisest of elders; these people are governed by the same rules today as a thousand years ago, and the Ethiopian Kenyan border is but an arbitrary line drawn by unknown, un-witnessed colonial powers.

Scouting the dry riverbed (Photo: RWH)

Scouting the dry riverbed (Photo: RWH)

We were in convoy with ‘the Swiss’, whose Vauxhall Frontera struggled to keep up with even our rheumatic vehicle.  Multiple times, they beached on the central islands that separated the ruts of the track. Each time, we would strive and sweat in the searing sun to dig them out. Tess groaned and roared, but each time succeeded where we had not in pulling them free. We were glad of their company, unshakable cool temperaments, and psy-trance music. Several times the path was lost, or proved impassable, and we struggled to keep up a pace faster than 15 kilometres per hour.

The sky was beginning to bruise as we pulled in to a small peninsula which protruded out into the lake. Here in the Siboloi national park is a small collection of buildings populated by countless skeletons and fossils, which has served for decades as an anthropologist’s frontier camp, and is the base for Dr Richard Leakey’s project which discovered the ‘Turkana Boy’, a 1.6 million year old Homo Erectus skeleton on the shores of Lake Turkana. We are finding that you really have to do something wild to impress anyone in Africa, and sure enough the greeting we received from the American anthropologist who resided here was as casual as though we had just strolled in from walking the dog. “Nice day?” he enquired, as we emerged shell-shocked from our traumatised vehicles. We stared as he lit his pipe, and discoursed about his life here. He resides in one of the most impressive and amazing places on earth, in my book.

Lake Turkana at sunset

The dying sun catches the ripples on Lake Turkana (Photo: RWH)

The sun was low slung, and scattered its rays in a thousand beads of colour as we ran down to the shores for a swim. The water was cool, and distinctively alkaline – almost soapy, and the sun caught the ripples and the top of the thunder caps that were throwing bolts of lightning across the eastern sky. We cooked outside, agoraphobic and mesmerised by this endless hypnotic space, and  wondered what was to come.

The Road Ahead… (The Lake Turkana Road Part I)

Back at home when we were planning this trip, I would occasionally be asked which parts I was most worried about. I would reply Sudan or Northern Kenya, Somaliland having been a late spontaneous diversion. My worries were mainly based on a lack of knowledge about what things were like on the ground in these places, and the true risks of driving through them. The reason we didn’t know much about them is because there just aren’t that many people visiting these places and writing about them. As it turns out Sudan was one of the best experiences of the trip, safe and friendly, and Somaliland one of the most exhilarating (although with enough anti British sentiment to justify my concerns!). The third and final ‘scare’ was to come in Kenya…

The crossing into Kenya from Ethiopia is renowned for being remote, difficult, and dangerous. The traditional route from Addis Ababa to Nairobi runs through hundreds of kilometres of Ethiopian lowland before the lush fields give way to desert mountains. Here, in the forgotten north of Kenya lies a barren wasteland populated only by nomads, bandits, and the occasional traveller. This is the section that has really had me worrying; over a thousand kilometres, with multiple reports of robbery and murder, with two Brits and two French overlanders having been shot here in 2009. We also had in the back of our minds the knowledge that we have an old car, and over such a distance a major problem could develop which we might not be able to solve. Staying in one place to fix the car in this sort of territory didn’t sound like something we wanted to do. Unfortunately this part of the trip was entirely compulsory: there was no alternative if we wanted to continue driving south.

Planning the road ahead (Photo: RWH)

Planning the road ahead (Photo: RWH)

There were two options. First, the road through Moyale, which is the ‘official’ crossing and regarded as a risky and uninspiring route with apparently endless corrugations. These are infernal waves that arise on unsealed roads that make you feel as though your very teeth will be shaken out. If hit at their fundamental frequency (which happens all too often), the car will protest loudly, refuse you the privilege of steering, and ultimately shake its self to bits. Until recently, tagging on to an army convoy was compulsory along this route.

Second is the Lake Turkana road, which runs through the tribal lands of the famous Omo valley and down the east coast of this great lake, through the beautiful Siboloi national park and past Dr Richard Leakey’s Homo Erectus footprints. Think The Constant Gardner. Sounds far more appealing, except in reality it is more of a vague track comprised of deep sand, sharp igneous rock, and multiple river crossings which can easily rise to leave you stranded half way down if the rains hit. Fortunately we had a full 5 days before the storms were meant to arrive… There are also reports of a significant Al Qadea presence on the opposite side of the (admittedly huge) lake. This road is much less travelled, and as such it would involve a bit of a leap of faith.

As budding anthropologists and connoisseurs of human folly, we decided to opt for the latter option. Naivety played its part as we assumed that a single day of rest after our whirlwind Somaliland tour would refresh us for the coming passage. We set off after sad fare-thee-wells to our dear friend Bob*, the British cyclist we had met in the Sudan, and Colin, a French reggae saxophonist whose appearance is not unlike John Lennon, and whose hospitality we can confirm to be excellent.

The mountains retreated as we wound our way south, as did the tarmac. Good roads lasted as far as Arba Minch, a picturesque market town happily situated overlooking lakes Abaya and Chamo, and home to a significant American Airforce base. Here we forgot our worries for a few hours as we supped cold beers (the gloriously named St George) and watched the monkeys pull the outside of the Landie apart.

Contented monkey/accomplished breakfast thief (Photo: RWH)

Contented monkey/accomplished breakfast thief (Photo: RWH)

A chance meeting in Addis had put us in touch with an Australian surgeon, who had lived and worked in Ethiopia for over thirty years. We postponed our onward journey and spent an enjoyable morning accompanying him on his daily ward round, which seemed in the main to consist of abdominal examination with his walking stick, and cajoling male nurses by way of headlocks and Dutch rubs. It made me think what it would be like to spend a whole career in an isolated African hospital. Lonely, would be my first thought, quickly followed by isolating. Infrastructure just doesn’t allow easy access to the outside world here, although the internet and mobile phones are helping. As friendly and all consuming life here would be, cultural differences are so vast that it would surely be many years before one felt truly at home here. It takes a certain type of person to manage that, and looking at this man laughing and jostling with the patients, I felt a sudden rush of respect. I wondered if I could ever be that person.

We were five days drive down the Omo valley, and approaching the border town of Omorate when I jumped down from the Landie to get some phone credit from the village store. This haphazard assembly of wood and sacking toted the village’s only light bulb, which swung cheerfully from its bare wires, sparking occasionally, as if to remind the observer of the exotic nature of its power source. I retrieved the credit from through the metal grating (a security device preventing you from swiping the three Coke bottles or twelve bars of soap that populated the store’s sorry shelves) and turned back, only to find my way blocked. Under that grubby light I could just make out traditional tartan and a kaleidoscope of beads tumbling over bare breasts. My gaze shifted upwards to note the drooping ear lobes and prominent lip ring of a Morsi tribeswoman.  She swept past me, producing her HTC smartphone from the depths of her garb and brandishing it at the shop attendant who picked up another card just like the one I held in my white, western hand, and pushed it through the grate. I returned to the car, feeling all at once like I was a very long way from home, clutching my ten year old Nokia and thinking it odd to hold such a 21st century errand in common with such a lady.

We were invited to spend an evening with a family from the Hamer tribe, who are famed for their traditional lifestyle and muddy dreadlocks. Luckily the son of our hosts was able to guide us to the village; we picked our way through kilometres of bush, avoiding mud holes and camel thorn. Motor vehicles just aren’t a feature here, so we had to make up our own way to the village. We were warmly welcomed into the settlement, a rough collection of traditional huts ring-fenced by viciously barbed wooden fences (everything in Africa has spikes). Our first glimpse of host family was of a dozen naked children of varying sizes playing amongst the goats, and the two wives of the head of the family sitting either side of the threshold, one nursing, one threading beads. We spent a memorable evening cooking and working out ways to communicate.

Omo Valley and Lake Turkana (2)

Hamar wife nursing the latest arrival into the family (Photo: RWH)

Our conversations drifted lazily. We discussed the health giving properties of drinking cow blood (particularly good mixed with milk, apparently), and the recent losses and gains of each tribe. The merits of each breed of goat were explained, as were the turns of fortune that were heralded in the stars. Our chatter continued, until the head of the family, a wizened, wispy man asked us what we thought of the men who could kill from the sky. We approached the subject from as many different directions as we could, given the limited vocabulary of our translator, before we realised he was talking about the drones that frequently flew nearby from the Arba Minch base to Somalia. It struck us how strange a worry this was for the chap to have, given how many other more apparent troubles he had to worry about; the state of the crops, the arrival of the rains, or the threat of neighbouring tribes. We imagined him sitting at the door of his mud hut at night, watching the lights of the drones overhead, and wondered at how else the outside world affects even this apparently isolated tribe. We tried as best we could to explain the intentions of these men from across the sea who possessed this secret of flight. His blind, amber eyes fixed on us in turn as we spoke, but here under the African sky the motives and justifications seemed peculiar and distant, and we struggled to convey the ethos of the Americans to this man, a true elder.

Dario indulging curiosity (Photo: RWH)

Dario indulging curiosity (Photo: RWH)

We awoke with the sun, as it rent apart the sky in spectacular crimson. The boys were already gone with the goats to the watering hole. The wives were digging the vegetables. It was time to turn south, towards Kenya, and trouble.

*It is only in the last few days that we have heard from Bob. Given that he left Addis on the 3rd March, we were getting pretty worried. All we know is that he has made it safely through to Nairobi. You will soon be able to read about his experience here.

The Adventures of Salami Man (Part 2)

 

The sun was almost extinct as we climbed the steps in front of Berbera police station to find an old man in a wicker chair. Two armed men in dusty berets flanked the Police Chief but he himself displayed no military attire. He wore only a swathe of burgundy fabric, richly embroidered and firmly swept around his bent body. His face was scarred and wreathed by steam from the teacup he rested carefully on a saucer. The steam rose beneath his tiny dark eyes and he inhaled as he looked out over the pinkish town. From behind his teacup the Police Chief listened to Captain Paunch then spoke some quiet instructions. A man in a collared shirt appeared and translated for our benefit. We were to come back in the morning. The Police Chief would not see us now.

 

Soldiers conducted us to a smart hotel, made reservations for us then left. We were told in no uncertain terms by the manager that, should we leave the grounds, the Police would be contacted immediately. As we sipped coffee and contemplated our house arrest Colin came hurrying with news “The owner wants to see us!” From Colin’s tone we could see the coffee would wait and we followed. At a table on the grass outside the hotel restaurant was seated a smartly dressed Somali man. He smiled broadly and addressed us in perfect English, “”My name is Mohammed Kadar and I am the owner. Firstly, I am aware of your situation. Please know that you may stay here, free of charge, and I would like to invite you to dine with me as my guests.”

 

We sat and cautiously ordered meals, while Mohammed Kadar spoke “I am a hotelier and property entrepreneur. Over the years I have seen very few tourists in Somaliland and I would like to extend to you our tradition for warm hospitality. I hope that you will return to your countries with positive experiences and that this will hopefully support the growth of a tourist industry in Somaliland.” He then added that perhaps the national news would be interested in meeting us. We were a little uncomfortable with the idea of being used in the media as symbols of social change. As we saw it, this made us potential targets for any group focused on sabotaging that social change. We mumbled a few non-committal responses, “maybe tomorrow or something”.

 

Barely had we forked a morsel of our fresh fish suppers when we found ourselves staring down the barrel of a camera lens. Considering our being a little stunned by this swift development the group coped well, myself excluded. When my turn came to be interviewed the camera panned to my face. Wide-eyed and sweating I began, “I am delighted to have the opportunity to visit Salami man…I mean Somaliland”. Shit! I froze, mute. My eyes darted to Bas. He was staring back at me. As the silence dragged, he mouthed noiselessly “what are you doing?!!”. My eyes snapped to Rich who had lost interest and returned to his fish. On realizing that this was what most people watching this news segment would be doing, my panic eased and I was able to burble some sentences about how safe it all was here. The little red camera light blessedly went off.

 

The news crew left us. Mohammed Kadar passed his gaze across our faces and spoke, “I am glad you feel that you are safe here. For so many years the international community has been saying that we are not safe. The UK foreign office forbids visiting under any circumstances. I think that many Somalilanders are beginning to doubt themselves. They say to one another “are we safe, if the world says we are not maybe we are not”. On this thought we retired to bed.

 

At 7am our escort took us to meet with the Police Chief a second time. In the police headquarters we sat before a broad mahogany desk with our hands in our laps like naughty school children. The anxiety around the table was palpable, we had no idea how serious our illegally exploring Somaliland would turn out to be. Behind the desk the Police Chief was unrecognizable from the day before. Yesterday’s thin frame was lost in an imposing construction of decorated epaulets, brassy buttons and pomp.

 

The Chief surveyed us, deciding whom he would address. He then barked in Somali “Who is your Chief”. One of the soldiers lining the walls shot a finger at the back of my head dragging the Chief’s eyes to meet mine. It seemed this faded military dinosaur could only operate in a system of clear hierarchy. If previous experience in Africa is anything to go by, rank is assigned in order of beard size and as such I had been designated leader. I was invited to tell our story, which I dutifully did and hoped I was faithfully translated. After a few moments the Chief spoke from beneath wilting grey brows, “You will be taken back to Hargeisa.  We will send a soldier with you. First you must go to the Mayor of Berbera, you will go there now!”

 

We ambled across a hot concrete courtyard to the next stratum of power. We were not in the least bit reassured that our small legal violation seemed to warrant such a high level of appraisal. As we congregated around a similar broad mahogany desk a younger man in a suit greeted us in English, “I have heard about your situation and you will understand that you must go to Hargeisa to see the Minister for Interior”. This engagement had not been made clear to us but we nodded meekly. The Mayor spoke to us, with a detached but reproving air, about the seriousness of this episode and the possible implications of our behaviour. We exchanged frightened glances. Why did we need to see the Interior Minister? Yesterday this was a small bureaucratic faux pas; today it seemed that we were on the cusp of an international incident.With every moment that passed we felt ourselves sinking deeper into a mire of strange politics we did not understand. The Mayor concluded his diatribe with “…of course before you go you will have to visit the Port of Berbera”. This parting shot was a little confusing but we nodded along and allowed ourselves to be lead out.

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Next we were driven to a small port outside Berbera. We were met by a man who lead us among the aging wooden ships and shiny steel liners with the manner of an excited tour guide. “This port was recently refurbished in 2009, it receives 5-10 ships a week importing all manner of things including, electrical goods, food, motor parts, fuel etc. Exports include mainly camel!” As he said this he gestured to an enormous Greek passenger ferry. We peered through the stern and saw that the cavernous hull had been partitioned into thousands of small stables, each filled with hay. It looked as one might expect the Ark to look had the great flood struck during the Greek economic crisis.

 

As our guide proudly discussed his port we came across a surprising realization. The politicians seemed to be attempting to give us a guided tour of Somaliland’s top attractions while keeping us under close arrest. This industrial port seemed to be the Mayor of Berbera’s idea of a holiday highlight. We dubbed this surreal sightseeing as the “Golden Handcuff tour”.

 

The Harbour Master, who also spared some time to meet us, insisted that on our way back towards Hargeisa we stop at Somaliland’s main historic site, Laas Gees. On our departure he said to me “give them this and tell them I sent you”. He passed me a hand written note. With our chit in hand and a soldier in the passenger seat we set off back towards Hargeisa.

 

At the entrance to Laas Gees we were astonished to find that our scrap of paper did not cause the gates to fly open with a trumpet blast and drum roll. There was still baksheesh to be payed. After arguing bitterly for his bribe the sentry jumped happily into our Landie for a lift up to the cliffs. Eight people in the Landie was made possible by the park guard’s sitting in the front passenger seat on our bodyguard’s lap. Watching them manoeuvre themselves awkwardly into position with their AK47s still strapped across their shoulders was quite a pretty picture.

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The anthropological site of Laas Gees is found among a series of caves and bluffs jutting out from the flat desert west of Berbera. On the walls of the caves are preserved 10,000-year-old images of troglodyte life in a warm palette of ochre, red and brown. From the caves one can cast out over the plain where snakeskin riverbeds lie like ghosts of the cirrus threads that streak the sky.  As the sun begins to burn all the yellows of this ageless landscape into the rich reds of the cave paintings it provokes an old contentment, a feeling of fraternity with our distant forebears.

 

Next day in Hargeisa we were collected from our hotel by two men from the, quite Orwellian, Ministry of Information. They lead us to a large government building where a crowd of people was waiting for us. From the depths of the mob a news crew materialized to interview us. We were reeling from our new found celebrity in the capital as we followed our friends from the Ministry of Truth inside the government building. Through several narrow corridors we found a doorway swamped by a mass of bodies. A thoroughfare was made for us and we pushed through it.  As we entered we were instantly petrified before a riot of flashbulbs and lenses. Piecemeal we gathered our wits and realised that the lenses were pointed to our right where a man in white robe stood. One of our guides pointed to the man and said, “Prime Minister”. Strangely we were all, I think, a little disappointed that the fanfare was not for us. It is extraordinary how quickly fame goes to one’s head.

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When the crowd in the room had thinned we were seated around a conference table towards the back of the room and the Minister of Tourism came to sit with us. We exchanged the pleasantries that by now we were very accustomed to. The men from the Ministry for Distribution of Opinion filmed our discussion and prompted us with things we ought to say.

 

What followed was a series of similar conversations with each of a string of dignitaries:

Head of the Army

Head of the Navy

Mayor of Hargeisa

Chief of Immigration

Minister For Tourism

Minister for Information

Leader of the Opposition

Attaché for the People’s Republic of Administration and Liaison Officer

 

We were hungry and little tired of the circus when the white robe of the ringleader swept back into the room. The Prime Minister sat at our table quietly and waited while the cameraman prepared. We also sat silent, star struck. He disposed of the pleasantries quickly and spoke to us with calm conviction of the severe implications for his country of their “unrecognized” status. He described fervently how his endeavours to bring Somaliland forward have been obstructed by this ruling and of the effects these limitations have had on the people of Somaliland. Despite his frustrations his outlook was positive. He was confident of his ability to build a future and his self-belief was infectious. When the Prime Minister left we were moved by his words and more than a little inspired by his ambition.

 

The following day we explored the streets of Hargeisa, tasting the foods and enjoying the bustle of business in the market. As we walked countless people stopped us in the street. “Hey you are the tourists!”, people would shout from cars “I have seen you on the TV”, “Welcome to Somaliland”. We were unable even to hide in a crowd watching football, we were sniffed out by yet another news crew for interviews. Our fame in the capital was growing it seemed.

 

After dinner that evening we were picking our way home through the sandy backstreets of Hargeisa when from the shadows a man appeared. He was wearing torn clothes and his face bore the badges of a brawler. “You are the tourists aren’t you,” he said. “I have seen you in your red Land Rover. You are staying at the Jasmine hotel aren’t you?”. We did are best to appease this friendly, if frightening, character and continued home. At the point at which one’s identity and movements are well known by a city’s disreputables it is perhaps time to leave. We returned to Ethiopia the next day.

 

Although we were a bit arrested and spent the greater part of our trip quite frightened we could not help but depart with a fondness for Somaliland and indeed a strong empathy for their cause. They seem to have done all the right things to earn their independence from Somalia and it must be said that their young and well-educated political class inspires confidence. Perhaps in a few years the international community will change their view and we shall all be passing our summer holidays on the beaches of the Costa del Somalia.