Thursday, September 23, 2010

44 - All Alone

Bomb squad on the lookout
Nobody yet recognises Somaliland's independence. On gaining it in 1960 British Somaliland voted in a referendum to unite with Somalia, the former Italian colony, being of the same ethnic and linguistic make-up. But things turned sour, and after Somalia fell apart in 1991 on the removal of its dictator, Somaliland voted for independence in another referendum. Since then, it has been doing pretty well – at least they're not killing, torturing and beheading each other as the clans and Shabaab Moslem extremists are doing down south. What's more, they've just had elections judged fair and free by international observers, the opposition won, and the government is actually handing over power – a rare occurrence indeed in Africa. According to a Danish documentary maker here both main parties tried to do their little bit of rigging and it kind of evened out.

Countryside outside Hargeisa
From the international recognition point of view they're even worse off than other self-proclaimed countries such as Trans-Dniester, Abkhazia and South Ossetia which have Russian support, or Nagorno-Karabakh which Armenia coddles. Ethiopia withdrew its diplomats and air link after a terrorist bombing in 2008. Still that hasn't stopped them from trying to push a nascent tourism industry, into which yours truly is about to dip his dainty toes on a four-day trip into the boondocks - to such exotic places as Berbera, Sheekh, Burao, where the authorities discovered a house full of suspected Shabaab suicide bomb equipment and belts a couple of weeks ago, and Erigavo, a source of frankincense, in the far east near the border with Puntland.
Laas Geel
Of Guns, Goons And Baboons - And we're all set to go. At the moment independent tourism by local bus is not allowed – it's a sort of an on and off affair and muggins has had to arrange a tour at $200 a day. Hussein, Abdi and Mohammed are drawn up waiting for me by the land cruiser outside the Oriental Hotel. Hussein is the guide, Abdi the driver - and lanky, comic Mohammed? Well, he's dressed in uniform, has a black beret, and is carrying a dirty great rifle. The authorities insist that a member of the police Special Branch Unit (SBU) accompany foreigners on their peregrinations across the country; you're just not going to get through the numerous police checkpoints without one. The reason is supposedly to ensure tourists' safety and encourage them to venture out despite the deadly 2008 bombing of UN offices and the Ethiopian mission in Hargeisa. You can see bomb disposal cars at the ready in the city.

Cow with udders
Mohammed tries to take the front passenger seat, but I shoo him to the back. I'm now wondering if that's a wise move? He's sitting right behind me and I only hope he knows what to do with that freaking gun, because I don't want a shot in the bum. Actually, he's not a goon at all; he speaks some English and seems very intelligent, with a winning crooked smile. But of his gun skills I know nothing.

We move off at a fine pace across the sandy, yellow grass savanna, with plenty of low green bushes, copses of trees and reddish termite castles. Just after the last and before the next of umpteen police check barriers, a large troop of baboons under the command of a huge male lope across the road in a show of spontaneous symbolism.

Stone Age da Vinci - Large rock overhangs on outcroppings on the vast savanna make a natural shelter against the elements on the 4,000-foot high plateau where 7,000 to 10,000 years ago some artistically inclined cavemen felt their home needed a make-over. They set to work with the rock minerals at hand - deep red, white, yellow – and produced some truly remarkably paintings. OK, the Mona Lisa, or Last Supper it ain't, but then old Leonardo had some 6,500 to 9,500 years of technological advances to work with.

Cow on rock, with Mohammed standing guard
These paintings at Laas Geel (Camel Spring) were discovered by French archaeologists in 2002. They're not the sort of rock paintings you have to strain your eyes and imagination to decipher. The cows with udders waiting to be milked are clear as daylight, deep red with horns in white. So too are the men in white shirts, the women, the odd lion, the group dancing, and the family dog with his upturned tail. Regardless of non-recognised independence claims, these certainly deserve to be put on UNESCO's World Heritage Sites List. Interestingly, despite the site's name, there don't seem to be any paintings of camels, which would seem to suggest their absence from the region way back then.

More cattle
But is that Fred, Wilma and Dino up there on that curved rock ceiling? Yabba Dabba Doo!

Man in shirt and trousers
Man with dog (Dino?)
Four dancing figures
Cow with man
Cow with horns and stick-figure head
More rock paintings
View from cave over to other cave painting sites

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