Me photographing the incredible rock art at Las Geel - Somaliland
Photo courtesy of Muhyadiin. The photo I was taking appears later.
Grumbling, slobbering camels surrounded me as the sunlight battled to break through the thick clouds. Their owners barked words, the obstinate camels loudly complained. A hazy blanket of dust gradually rose as dozens of camels shifted across the dirt ground. Some camels needed coaxing to move, which required much noise and activity. Feed was distributed, and this silenced most as they contentedly munched on their daily ration. For the first time, the scene had some semblance of order.
My guide through Hargeisa’s animal market was Abdullah, a diminutive elderly man with a weathered dark face, whose quietly spoken voice held a thick accent. His clothes were dusty, but in such an environment, it would be impossible to keep them otherwise.
“Where are you from?” questioned Abdullah.
“Australia.” I replied.
“You have many camels in Australia.” he softly said.
“Yes, we have one million wild camels – nobody owns them.” and a nearby camel gurgled loudly.
“We see your camels on TV, you shoot camels, you go in...” his voice faded as he considered the English word. He made a circular motion with his deeply lined hand.
“Helicopter.” I proffered.
“Yes, helicopter. You shoot
camels from helicopters. We feel sorry for camels, we love camels.” there was a genuine sadness in his voice.
“I feel sorry for the camels too, I also love camels.” I replied, trying to reflect his mood.
“Australia should bring the camels here, we will not shoot them.” he affirmed.
I considered his statement before continuing, “maybe we do business together: I bring camels, you sell them.”
Abdullah laughed through discoloured teeth and we left the cluster of camels to continue our journey through the market. Like most of Hargeisa, this place was dusty. Like all my time in Somaliland, it was impossible for me to move anywhere without being invited for a talk, to share a tea, or as in this case, being followed by dozens of curious onlookers, who had to be shooed away t regular intervals when the crowd became too large.
The kindness of Abdullah was typical of the effort Somalilanders would make to welcome me. Though I have received some incredible hospitality during my travels, there has been none more than that bestowed by Muhyadiin. We met on my first day in Somaliland as we resided in the same
hotel. A young man with a friendly face and piercing eyes, Muhyadiin became my guide, translator and friend over the coming weeks. He assisted me not for any benefit on his behalf, but rather to reveal the country he loved.
After driving me around Hargeisa for a personalised tour, Muhyadiin made a most generous offer. He wanted me to accompany him to his home town of Gabiley where a celebratory meal was being given in honour of his recently born son. Muhyadiin organised a driver, and the required services of a Special Protection Unit (SPU) armed soldier, and after an hour on the road we arrived at his home. A group of male friends and family squatted on the floor before a sumptuous array of delicious food that was noisily and rapidly devoured. I observed this scene with great interest, for it is fascinating to observe different societies and the way people conduct themselves and interact with each other. Though language and customs are different across the world, our similarities are more numerous. Comradeship between men and their love of local cuisine is common across cultures.
A brief appointment with the Mayor of Gabiley, Mr Shuaib Mohamed Muse,
Muse Abdijama - guard of Las Geel, Somaliland
It was he who led the 2002 French Archaeological Team to the site.
ensued. We met in a capacious, stately room, and after an interesting talk where he proudly boasted about the area’s impressive agricultural strength and cave paintings, we returned to Hargeisa to prepare for the following day’s journey.
Using the same driver, but another SPU that Muyhadiin had organised, we headed north-east from Hargeisa, and our first stop was the star attraction of Somaliland, if not on the entire horn of Africa. Las Geel is a collection of reportedly 7000 year old cave paintings that were only uncovered to Western eyes in 2002 by a French archaeological team. I enjoy rock art, but nothing could have prepared me for this. Paintings of bovines, humans, anthropomorphic figures and even a giraffe covered numerous galleries that were astonishing for both their scale and the vibrancy of their colours. When I thought that the quality of the art could not get better, we scrambled across rocks to find it was surpassed by another incredibly gallery. I strongly suspect this will be the finest ancient rock art I will ever see.
When leaving Las Geel, the gate guard, Muse Abdijama, requested a lift, and during our bumpy ride to the main road he
revealed that he was the person responsible for leading the 2002 French team to this site. With Muhyadiin translating, he recounted his tale in a stoic tone.
“The French group arrived in Berbera and went east. But they did not know where the paintings were. They had seen drawings of them, but that was all. They looked for three or four weeks before they came here. If they travelled west first, they would have found it quicker.”
Muse paused and looked outside the window, before continuing.
“They came to my house and asked me if I had seen paintings. I said yes and they asked me to draw them. So I took a stick and drew them in the dirt. They were very interested in what I drew, they talked to each other a lot. They asked me if I could take them to the paintings. I said that I would and we went there.”
He halted speaking, but there were still more to learn, so I asked “What did the French people do when they saw the paintings?”
Muse replied, “They were very excited. They laughed and jumped and were very happy. They stayed
for a while and went to Hargeisa to tell the President.”
With barely a change in tone, he continued to his most important part of the story.
“One day, the President called me on the phone and asked ‘Are you the person who showed the French people the paintings’ and I said ‘Yes’. The President said ‘These paintings are very important, they must be protected so everyone can see them. I want you to protect them.’ So I started working as a guard here.”
It was an honour to meet Muse and to hear his tale. In the wider world he is the forgotten man in the rediscovery of Las Geel, but without him, Las Geel may still be a site known to only a handful of local farmers. It is important that more people know of his importance to Las Geel.
The biggest travesty of Las Geel is that is not inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Obvious politics is in play since Somaliland is not given its due recognition, and given the rather frosty relationship with Somalia, the latter is of no mind to submit the sublime site for listing. Thus, there is
Las Geel, without recognition nor international support, an untouched and underappreciated marvel that should be on every traveller’s itinerary.
After depositing Muse at the eating establishment of his choice, we continued toward the furthermost point of our journey, the town of Sheikh that rises 1470 metres above sea level. We passed the rugged, dry and beautiful Golis Range on our right, whilst below a sun-bleached sandy terrain was interspersed by trees, bushes and grazing camels. I have never espied a greater concentration of camels during my travels than I have in Somaliland. The temperature warmed the further we progressed along the road toward Berbera, but it cooled again once when we headed inland and commenced our ascent of the Golis Range at the village of Hudisa. At the summit there were wonderful views of the route we had just traversed.
After a restful sleep, the morning was spent wandering around Sheikh, and as is usual for any destination where they are few tourists, it is the tourist who becomes the tourist attraction. Thus, I was followed by a crowd of mostly younger males during my peregrinations around the town. This typified my time in Somaliland – a trip
filled with hospitality, curiosity and safety. The need for an armed SPU seemed redundant, as there was not even the slightest hint of any threat at any time, nor was there that sense of tension one feels in places of conflict.
This was the furthest point of my exploration, and if I was not a solo traveller, I would have continued further, but the cost of private transport for one person only permits limited excursions. For our return journey we stopped in the maritime trade centre of Berbera – a town with some crumbling buildings and mostly deserted streets. That ubiquitous Somaliland hospitability and friendliness was again on display, though again, a couple of local residents seemed overly sensitive about the presence of a foreigner with a camera.
We stopped at the beach where my new Somaliland friends enjoyed a frolic on a long, empty beach. Since I come from the country that has more beaches than any other nation on earth, and that familiarity does produce a degree of indifference, I was content to observe the fun. Our final stop was at the famed Keeb-Soor Restaurant, a busy place with simple tables and plastic chairs, and again,
I was the only foreigner in attendance. An intermittent sea breeze from the adjacent harbour cooled me as I devoured the dish of fried fish covered in a combination of sweet and chilli spices. This was one of the finest fish meals I have ever consumed, and I even ordered another serving.
Twenty minutes after commencing the 150 kilometre drive back to Hargeisa, a loud noise was heard from the front of the car, and we immediately pulled over. I initially thought there was a problem from the tyres, but my check of them revealed nothing. However, the driver, Sa'eed Toor, correctly guessed that the radiator cap had shot from its usual place, hit the underside of the bonnet and now rested in some unknown location. Despite our extensive search, the radiator cap could not be found. We were stranded.
Though the Hargeisa-Berbera road is the major one in the country, it hosts little traffic. Just like my vehicle troubles in Afghanistan, a long wait for assistance was likely. But unlike Afghanistan, that assistance soon arrived. A NGO working in Somaliland halted their vehicle only because one of the occupants knew Muhyadiin who was frantically waving by the
Feasting at Muhyadiin's home - Gabiley, Somaliland
Note the food coloured in the red, white and green of the Somaliland flag.
side of the road. “You are lucky that we knew Muhyadiin,” one of the NGO employees informed me afterwards, “for it is our policy not to stop for anyone.” Though I was reluctant to leave my friends, Muhyadiin insisted I accept their offer of a lift to Hargeisa. I bade farewell and returned to Hargeisa at dusk. Muhyadiin arrived at midnight after their vehicle was towed back to Berbera to replace the radiator cap and make minor repairs.
This had been a wonderful, albeit brief journey through Somaliland, and it demonstrated how much there is for a traveller to explore. For all of the generous hospitality shown to me by so many people, there was one person upon my return to Hargeisa who strived to provide me with an unpleasant stay in Somaliland. Most surprising, he was an employee of the Ministry of Tourism...
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