Explorers Connect

Encircle Africa

Trip ReportJames Hipkiss

Into Somaliland The 13 months of travel were hard, fantastic months. I was heading to Tangier, Morocco, from Tangier, Morocco. Strange perhaps, but returning to where I had started was a pre-requisite of circumnavigating Africa by public transport, solo and unsupported, for the first time.

It was an expedition I had christened Encircle Africa. I learnt within days of leaving Tangier that the term public transport is a much looser one in Africa than in Europe, roughly equating to anything that is willing to transport you and your 20 kilogram rucksack anywhere for a fee. The important factor was that I didn't have my own transport, and was morally barred from privately chartering any. Four of the 13 months were still ahead of me at the Somaliland border with Djibouti on the edge of the Gulf of Aden. I had approached Somaliland, the autonomous semi-independent region of north-eastern Somalia, from Ethiopia. In doing so I had abandoned the African coast at Lamu, Kenya, to avoid unsafe southern Somalia.

This was the first significant detour from the coast since leaving Tangier and heading west around the continent nine months previously. The temperature seemed to jump significantly as soon as I cross the concrete bridge designed for functionality rather than beauty over the plastic-infested dry Wajaale River. It marks the border between Ethiopia and Somaliland, close to the Ethiopian town of Jijiga. An old Peugeot bush taxi took me and five others the two hours to the de facto capital, Hargeisa. Built in 1953, the Oriental Hotel is the oldest in the capital, and one of the best in town; the management used to the whimsical desires of visitors trying to circumnavigate the continent it seemed. It was unusual for my meagre budget to stretch so far. I was usually looking for the worst hotel in town. The Oriental was one of the few multi-storey buildings in the centre of the city. Photographs around the reception area showed a torn shell of a building.

It had recovered well since the civil war, the collapse of Somali central government and the declaration of unilateral independence by Somaliland in 1991. The wide corridors of the upper floors overlook a central covered courtyard that acts as breakfast room and restaurant. My room looked out over the dusty roads dotted with the vast parasols of goldsmiths and money-changers. The money-men sat in the shade besides pyramidal stacks of blocks of grubby Somaliland Shillings the size of house bricks. Held together with rubber bands they equated to little more than 12 each. Wandering around the city centre, a few blocks of mostly unattractive utilitarian buildings, it was difficult to avoid falling into conversation, making Hargeisa a very friendly place. Elegantly dressed ladies in colourful wax cloth wraps greeted me in Mancunian, London, and Scottish accents.

The lingua franca in Somaliland is English, the state having been the protectorate of British Somaliland until independence in 1960 and unification with Italian Somaliland to create Somalia. Seeing the success of their homeland, a substantial number of people have returned from refuge in Britain. At 600 for a prime specimen, I couldnt afford a camel at the livestock market. There were almost as many good-natured but clingy children as animals. The camels looked nonchalant, perfectly suited to the conditions, their owners initials painted in vibrant green on their flanks. In contrast, the children were desperate to take in every second of my visit, despite the pleas of older citizens to leave me alone. On Independence Avenue I past a red post box made in Stirlingshire.

It was torn open like a ripped up inner tube of toilet roll. On a stone plinth the camouflaged fuselage of a MiG fighter jet sent from Mogadishu that crashed while attacking the city before independence in 1991. Since then, while the rest of Somalia has become a byword for chaos, internationally unrecognised Somaliland has quietly advanced, even housing a Coca-Cola factory. My circumnavigation saw me moving roughly northwards soon enough. I managed to get a place in an old Toyota Land Cruiser heading towards Djibouti via a rough road and a 20 hour journey time. We travelled from the late afternoon onwards, to avoid the heat of the day, in what could tentatively be called desert. Given the surrounding dryness of the environment I was surprised by the quantity of wildlife. Tiny dik-dik, antelope the size of a domestic cat, roam as the vehicle passes.

Birds of an astonishing variety of colours shoot by the open windows. A giant tortoise desperately tries to look inconspicuous beneath a scraggy bush, its limbs drawn in in sleep. The view became a little monotonous as the sun sank and it got increasingly difficult to decipher the objects around me. The ground was sand, the shrubs small woody-stemmed plants with small leaves. Our arrival at Boroma (twinned with Henley-on-Thames) did little to break the monotony, and as it got dark I tried to sleep, drawing in my limbs like the tortoise. The early morning eventually arrived, and saw me arrive at Zeila. How the driver found his way I couldn't say, with tyre-tracks leading off in all directions all the time. I would have liked to spend a little time in Zeila, the home to one of the oldest mosques in the world, but my lack of private transport prevented me doing so. I was also concerned for the apparent lack of water.

The Zeila I was expecting to arrive at was an ancient port. I began to believe the Gulf of Aden didn't actually exist, not catching sight of the muddy blue, flat and uninteresting water until the border with Djibouti at Looyada. My short time in Somalil and had ended, though my circumnavigation and the desire to be near the edge of the African continent would continue for another four months, until I reached Tangier and was able to remind myself that I had been there before, and the first solo and unsupported circumnavigation of Africa by public transport was complete.