By Conrad Heine
When Dr Jama Musse Jama, the visionary behind the Hargeysa Cultural Centre, the Hargeysa International Bookfair and more, came up with the idea of a three- day hike through Somaliland’s interior, from the iconic heritage site of Laasgeel to the ancient port town of Bullaxaar, he knew the challenges would be considerable: one doesn’t simply take a walk through Somaliland, especially with foreigners in tow. But for Dr Jama, it was a challenge with a purpose. As he puts it: “Somaliland has great potential in terms of tourism. Many already know Laasgeel, but there is much more to know.” From this mission, he hopes to understand how feasible a regular mission would be. And, for this man of Hargeysa, it was also to be “a personal journey. I wanted to know the place and the people.”
For me, the motives are personal too. I have been coming to Somaliland since 2005, but my roles are usually Hargeysa-centric: to work on international election observation, to present at a book fair, to explore another media story. There’s another Somaliland out there I want to see more of: a land of ancient heritage, of threatened environments, of people living lives a long way away from the elite bubbles of Hargeysa to which we outsiders gravitate, or find ourselves confined. Plus, in my homeland of New Zealand and my adopted home of Britain, and wherever I find myself, I hit the hills every possible
opportunity. As a regular visitor to this corner of the Horn, why wouldn’t I do the same here
And so it came to pass that this inaugural walk was born, one that will hopefully become a regular event and beat a trail (but not TOO much of a trail) for other trekkers. At an unreasonably early hour one morning in February, we find ourselves at Laasgeel, contemplating the three days ahead.
There are nine of us, with varied motives: myself; Professor Michael Walls, my fellow election observer, New Zealander and hiking enthusiast, wielding map- making technology along the way, all the better to leave a legacy of this particular mission. Dr Jama of course, and Xasan Cismaan and Tirsit Yetbarek, his Hargeysa colleagues, who will document the walk for posterity. Ahmed Ibrahim Awale, co-founder and chair of the Somaliland Biodiversity Foundation, here specifically to document the flora, fauna and state of the environment. Cabdifataax Yuusuf Saleebaan and Sharmarke Axmed Ducaale from the Special Protection Unit (SPU) of the Somaliland police (our foreign presence makes their presence compulsory), openly puzzled by the idea of such a walk for fun (we’ll encounter this sentiment often enough). And finally, Musa Cabdi Cilmi of Laasgeel, a local who knows the area well, and whose reassuring presence will many times, soothe over the next three days.
Since documenting heritage is a key purpose, Laasgeel (“waterpoint of the camels”) is an entirely appropriate starting point. But Dr Jama is distracted: there’s a crack in the rock here, one growing every day. With Laasgeel’s status comes increased footfall (a visit seems to be a must for every foreign arrival), and ignorant and damaging selfie-seeking behaviour. After a short reconnoitre of inspection, Dr Jama rejoins us: necessary action must wait. (And soon follows: in March, a funding collaboration between the European Union and the Hargeysa Cultural Centre to preserve the treasured cave paintings was announced. But that’s another story…)
For now, there is a walk to be done. Up the riverbed of Laasgeel, we amble. For now, I am carrying the crew’s entire stock of sabaayad, Somali pancakes, but I restrain myself from sneaking a graze. En route, we pass the “Gol Waraabe”, the “burrow of hyenas” high above, where the furry residents are clearly lying low, no doubt laughing to themselves as they observe the eccentric human behaviour below.
A ceremony takes place
After an hour or so of silent slogging as our muscles and minds slowly come to terms with what lies ahead, we leave the riverbed at the valley of the Guullaane, where the eponymous trees are present in numbers. Here, an important ritual takes place (photo below left). As Dr Jama writes: “A traditional Somali belief states that if there is only one woman travelling with men, she should be given a small stone to put in her clothes (faraqaa loogu guntaa dhagax yar). It is believed that this will protect the convoy from any ill fates and misfortunes that otherwise would occur.” As if she isn’t already carrying enough, this honour befalls Tirsit, our sole female team member. The tradition is respected, with the gift of a stone sweetened with additional flowers.
On we go, towards the village of Dhebihagoog, looming as Fort Laramie in my mind: sweet tea is promised. Ahmed points out the acacia species (Galool, Qudhac and Cadaad) dominating the gullies and tributaries we pass: it is great to have his eye and expertise, and there’s more to come.
But first, Dhebihagoog (named, Ahmed explains, for the umbrella-shaped dhebi tree). We spot it from afar, a scattered collection of dwellings, as we pass through a herd of donkeys, including one of a completely white and ghostly hue. In four hours, we have come almost 9km, and the sun is burning: definitely time for tea in the shade. The village seems quite ghostly itself on our arrival but soon wakes up to greet us: tea is gratefully purchased as we briefly recline.
Residents surround us, mostly women, children (we are told there is no school to attend) and a single teenager. Our hosts explain that the men, back from agricultural work, are sleeping, more likely to socialise at night. And here we encounter for the first time questioning that will take on a regular theme: why is a group of people, especially some foreign, undertaking such an arduous walk when a perfectly reasonable vehicle track lies nearby? (A sentiment no doubt shared by our SPU escorts.) With some difficulty, we make it clear we are actually walking for fun. I’m not sure we’ve convinced them: nevertheless, such future business will no doubt be welcome, and hopefully make a contribution.
All good things come to an end, and onwards we march, as the heat rises, alleviated as we head into what proves to be the most spectacular stretch of the entire walk. First, a slightly upward slope to the Xamarta Pass. A seasonal watercourse is fringed with
Zizyphus trees, locally known as “Gob”, with edible seeds we consume en route. Stark volcanic rock formations abound, and the landscape is dotted with burial grounds, seemingly of different epochs (Islamic and pre-Islamic). And then, after crossing the flat and rocky Burroho plain, we start our descent from the mountains down through the Carmaale pathway, where, Dr Jama tells us, “the male-camel caravans come through, as well as being a pastoral migratory track during their transhumance between Guban and Oogo in line with the dictates of climatic conditions.”
But before we head down, our first casualty, inevitable after 20km of foot-pounding, and it is none other than Dr Jama himself. His footwear (a cautionary tale here) has not been up to the task, and blisters have finally broken through. The shade of a spindly acacia stands in as a dressing station, and our leader pushes on, for now.
Passing through the Carmaale pathway to Galxiddigaale
The zigzagging path makes for a difficult downward
descent, but first the view atop the pass is a worthwhile advance prize, all the way to the sub- coastal ranges, and far below, the seasonal watercourses winding towards the sea. Here, we cross the demarcation between the regions of Maroodijeex (Hargeysa) and Sahil (Berbera). And, after 23km, with darkness looming: the village of Galxiddigaale, near the sacred pond of the same name. After some negotiation, we are welcomed most warmly into a settlement which, although nine houses only, is an important centre for over 100 scattered families and one of Somaliland’s most disconnected communities.
Over a meal of goat, freshly slaughtered (thankfully out of the line of vision of this squeamish, vegetarian…. usually…correspondent) we take in our surroundings, as Dr Jama narrates for us his conversations. One elder resident recalls his childhood in the valley. “Allah protected this place from evils.” Which is why surrounded by mountains, the present inhabitants are unwilling to allow roads into the area.
But isolation has a price: state services, particularly schools, are completely absent, and villagers’ health suffers—we are told of an outbreak of malaria not so long ago, which killed several inhabitants. Sadly, some contemporary habits—notably khat-chewing—do make their presence felt. Dr Jama speculates that if this inaugural walk leads to the establishment of a regular trail of visitors, this could provide more opportunities, in a manner both sustainable and respectful of autonomy.
Meantime, Dr Jama, despite his battered feet, is a happy man. As the rest of us attempt to sleep off our walking aches on the unyielding ground, he joins the villagers into the night, as the village comes alive with “historical love-songs… the most famous 60s and 70s vibes: “Aabbe ma qummani e ha bixin”, “Qosol baabay kula tahay”, “Canbaruud bislaadiyo”, “Dawadii naftaydaay” and many other long songs of my age.” Truly, this man never sleeps.
Melting point: the sacred pond
It’s a rainy night, and a cool morning: early, after tea, we push on. Three riverbeds, respectively from Hargeysa, Dhubato and Dacarbudhuq, meet at Galxiddigaale, the latter two merging into the Caloolle, a permanent watercourse through the year. [Compare with Drainage Map on page 19 – Ed.] Thus, the landscape is green. Yet from Hargeysa the Marodi tug leads to the world beyond: plastic waste litters the riverbed, a jolting reminder of how far pollution can penetrate into the environment, and one Ahmed (see photo below) notes (as do we all).
First, another highlight: a visit to the sacred Galxiddigaale pond (literally “pond of the stars”, reflected here in the night), guided by Saleebaan, a senior village resident. It is believed that the waters here cure diseases both human and animal, and its level is unchanging through drought or tempest. The brackish water is said to be drawn from the sea (almost 40km distant) and again Ahmed’s expertise is handy: he points out marsh grasses, Tamarix bushes and, sadly, an unwelcome invader: Mesquite (Garanwaa), a curse in these parts.
Whereas day one was strenuous and exhilarating, day two is a damp grind. Throughout the day we head downwards along the riverbed, a welcome source of water (filter use strongly advised) and on to the Gol Xangeeyo hills, where Ahmed points out the Wancad (Aerva javanica) trees, used by nomads to make pillow props and the Lebi (Delonix elata), which apparently makes the best camel bells. It is a soothing landscape, but less spectacular than the previous day’s: until that is, we reach a flat landscape from which dramatic and imposing reddish-rocky protuberances rise, fringed by distant mountains: the so-called “Maqaaxi Shabeel” – the “Tiger’s Teashop” (no, no tigers in these parts).
Then onwards to the hills of Weyle Naaxshe (“making calves fat”) and past a mountain called Sarar Awr, “the place where camels feel better”. The names paint a picture of centuries of lives both nomadic and sedentary in these parts. Likewise, when we move into the valley of Cali Ooye, named for a tree abundantly present, with salty leaves renowned as medication for malaria, and, apparently, a food source in times of drought. Alongside, we observe also Subkax, an endemic fruit tree used for food in the rainy season. In hard times, a valley of relative plenty.
Once again, we are footsore: so, after a dramatic traverse of the dry Waaheen seasonal watercourse with its wide bed fringed by mountainous sand dunes, we are pleased to arrive in the village of Faruur (“cleft lip”, for the watercourse between the hills, Ahmed explains). Once again, we have covered 23km since dawn, once again we are welcomed (the
tea and the dinner of goat milk and ghee is consumed with… glee), once again our explanations of our motives are met with benign and amused scepticism.
Faruur and onwards to Bullaxaar
Faruur, being on the vehicle track that serves as a road around here, has more going on than Galxiddigaale: it is home to a mosque, built around 2010 in the memory of one Xuseen Ileeye, who drowned in the Waaheen riverbed nearby. For Somaliland’s 2017 presidential election, 600 people cast their votes here, a synergy particularly pleasing to this writer, an international observer of that very poll. We bed down for the night in what served as the polling station, under a Qudhac tree and two Gob trees: its history does not render the ground any less punishing.
Nevertheless, the rest is welcome, and we are up particularly early for the final stretch to Bullaxaar. The end is in sight, but not yet…while day two was defined by dampness, this one is all about searing heat, as we force-march ourselves for 32km, across the yawning Waaheen, then through the Kulan and Maygaag trees across a coastal plain, with only a pause at the teashop in the village of Afgooye, all the way to Bullaxaar. The sand is heavy underfoot, and we make a silent group, apart from panting and describing burgeoning blisters. Silent, that is, until we round the corner into Bullaxaar and Xasan, the youngest amongst us, breaks into a run: “Guriga, Guriga!” (home, home!). Over three days, we have come some 78km.
We know how he feels, but there’s work to be done: after a welcome lunch of camel meat and rice, we are whipped on to the ruins of Old Bullaxaar, for a press conference and ceremony with local dignitaries. Here, Ahmed points out yet another abundant ecological invader: Prosopis juliflora, originally from Central America, introduced in the 1950s as a windbreak for date plantations, and gone feral ever since: another reminder of the delicate ecosystem around us.
Followed immediately by another. As we melt under the sun before the cameras, we observe the ruins of the old port around: 500 years of history, once one of the most vibrant centres along this coast, now virtually a pile of coral-stone dust, and a sobering message of what can happen when heritage goes unprotected. One very much on our minds, with the nearby ancient port of Berbera under grave threat of imminent development (not to mention Laasgeel, back at the start).
Suddenly, it is over: first a refreshing swim in the
ocean, then back to Hargeysa, rushing via four-wheel- drive along the routes we have just trekked, with a brief pause at yet one more heritage site: Ceelcaanood, a collection of shrines just off the main road between Hargeysa and Berbera, where a well known local religious man, Suufi Xasan, is buried and commemorated each year along with other local saints.
A walk is just a walk, as we often insisted along our way, but what is the legacy? For several team members, it was a rare opportunity to gain a more holistic understanding of Somaliland, away from the urban centres of power, business and politics. The Covid-19 pandemic has killed the idea of future walks (at least for the moment), but Dr Jama holds on to his hopes that this inaugural expedition will lead to more: he foresees opportunities for small-scale tourism and economic opportunities along the way, with the full participation of those who call the area home, and briefing sessions (on safety, etiquette, environment, history and culture and more) in advance for participants.
But it is a long-term vision. Says Dr Jama: “The potential is there. The challenge will be building the necessary infrastructure, and a very comprehensive and multi-layered social communication and local community engagement is needed. We need to raise the knowledge of the people in this kind of activities.”
Knowledge-raising is ongoing: since February, the walk has been written up by Dr Jama, maps made, a film posted (see link below) and, in early September, the walk featured at a workshop on responsible tourism at the Hargeysa Cultural Centre (standing in for a planned session at the annual Hargeysa Book Fair, sadly cancelled by the pandemic). There will be more.
For me, the chance to join this inaugural walk was simply an honour. But the final words are best left to Dr Jama himself: “What I found surprisingly touching was to see Somaliland through a different lens, to appreciate the diversity, beauty and kindness of Somaliland and its community. This walk, as I wrote somewhere else, ‘is a small initiative with a big heart, and a big footprint for Somaliland and its burgeoning tourism offering.’”
About the Author
Conrad Heine is a council member of the Anglo-Somali Society, a regular journal contributor and a freelance journalist often in the Horn. A 17-minute film made by Somaliland’s media (in English) about the inaugural walk is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ljQP-RLQCW4. Ahmed Ibrahim Awale Tweets at @aiawaleh; many of his photos from the trek can be viewed