Monthly Archives: May 2018

Police statement

Five days ago on Independence Day eve we were all coming back to our hotel just after dinner around 11pm. The president had put on a street party with bands and there was a crush of people. Jostling my way through I had my wallet protected with one arm. In the blink of an eye I could feel my mobile phone being lifted out of my trouser pocket and, despite turning around instantly I was none the wiser who took it.

Next morning I changed passwords but was informed that I could not make a statement to police as the station was closed for Independence Day! Subsequently we went to Massawa and now that we are back I organised last night for one of our guides to accompany me to the station this morning.

My guide turned up promptly at 9 am which was a surprise. Went to the central police station negotiated our way past the AK47 toting guard and went up the grimy stairs, first one office then the other. Eventually told will need to go to another station.

We walked about 2 km to the other station again past a machine gun armed policeman only to be told that these statements are only done on Tuesdays and Thursdays, today is Monday. Nonetheless we went through the dirty courtyard past the derelict, rusted car with a couple of trailors piled on top of it and past the little veggie patch planted with silverbeet again up dusty stairs. The first guy gave us a sympathetic hearing and we all went down to the cafeteria. I had to buy 2 foolscap sheets and carbon paper for 3 Nafka (20c) and my guide wrote my report in the local language.

From there back past the beets and the car to another less friendly guy who sent us back again. On our return he relented and opened up a massive ledger book and hand wrote in it and countersigned my written form and endorsed it with a number 08/18. Not a computer anywhere and most of these supposed policemen on duty were wearing T shirt and jeans. Truly a “this is Africa” (TIA) experience.

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Dahlak Islands

Amazingly we have scored permits to visit the Dahlak Islands! This has been off limit to previous tour groups. Just off the coast of Massawa it consists of 124 islands that still produces pearls. It is also a marine haven for dugongs, sharks, rays and coral reefs. Historically it was variously controlled by the Ottomans, Yemenis and during the Derg Ethiopian administration it housed a Soviet naval base. Today it is a neglected backwater, which, for the environment is probably a good thing. Our little motor boat speeds out over the calm blue sea. ll around is just blue with no sign of any land anywhere. After about 45 minutes a strip of yellow sand emerges on the horizon and it is no time before we are at small 50 metre x 700 metre sandy island. Covered by tussock grass and surrounded by inviting warm turquoise sea it is home only to sea birds that circle noisily overhead angry at being disturbed. There is a rusting high metallic observation tower at one end of the island. We spend a magic few hours swimming and snorkeling. While the snorkeling was unexciting by Pacific standards it was nonetheless a relaxing beach day trip.

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Massawa

It’s difficult to imagine that this was the prize that the Ethiopians and Eritreans fought over  all those years ago. There is a substantial port here for sure but it is quiet and the surrounding town is crumbling and devoid of life. In the two days we are there only two ships are unloaded but if one looks at the depths of Eritrea’s world economic rankings it’s probably not too surprising. Technically these two countries are still at war and the closure of the land border between the two is a classic case of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. An open border would give the Ethiopians the optimum sea port and the Eritreans a needed boost to their economy. Massawa is totally unlike Asmara. Muslims predominate here and the architecture, what’s left of it is Arabic. Sadly, as with Berbera in Somaliland all too many buildings are falling apart and there is no effort made to even clear the collapsing mess. Most of the buildings in town were shuttered and there were very few people in the streets. In fact our group of 20 wandering through the interesting back alleys easily matched the number of locals. 01 02 03 04 05 06 07 08 09 10 11 Our afternoon was at a beach resort just out of town. As it was Saturday afternoon there were a few Eritreans swimming enjoying the hot turquoise coloured Red Sea water and golden sand beach. With the temperature in the high 30s this was a refreshing way to complete our day. 20 21 22 23 24

African “Puffing Billy”

Anyone who knows me well will know I have a fetish for train travel. Before the civil war with the Ethiopians a narrow gauge steam train connected the capitol of Asmara with the port city of Massawa some 100km away. Asmara sits at an altitude of 2300 metres so it is quite a drop down to sea level. This line was constructed in the 1930s once again by Mussolini with the purpose of going from the port city of Massawa through Asmara and beyond into Kassala in Sudan. Most of the line is in disrepair but there is a 40 km stretch that is still intact between Asmara and Nefasit. Sadly any regular services ceased a few years ago but the train can be charted and, in one of the perks of group travel we have done so.

A steaming ancient black engine greets us before we board the whimsical little green wooden seated passenger’s cabin. I quickly find a spot on the back platform sitting on a step to the side outside the carriage legs dangling off the train. Here I savour the chugging of the steam  engine, the roar through the 30 tunnels and the feel of the warm Eritrean breeze at my face. My eyes and my camera rejoice at the panoramic vistas of the highlands stretching away to the horizon.

Here’s to train travel African style!

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For the locals, even an used line is an integral part of their life

For the locals, even an used line is an integral part of their life

One of 30 tunnels

One of 30 tunnels

Wedding photos on the line and we crash the party!

Wedding photos on the line and we crash the party!

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Immediately after the war against Ethiopia the stop gap to keep the rail running was putting a Russian truck on a carriage to use as an engine

Immediately after the war against Ethiopia the stop gap to keep the rail running was putting a Russian truck on a carriage to use as an engine

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Coffee ceremony on the train

Coffee ceremony on the train

Asmara

Asmara is pretty little town very unlike any in Africa. It has a more Caribbean feel to it. Recently designated as UNESCO world heritage are it is the sleepy little capitol of Eritrea. This is an early 20th century city, there is no high rise here, no modern buildings. Mussolini injected huge amounts of funds into the building of Asmara to make it the centre of a second Roman empire spanning Africa. The buildings here are pre WW2 and as this place was an Italian colony then it borrows heavily from Italian Art Deco style. This is a city frozen in time and that’s what gives it its charm.

It’s flat and compact and is a perfect walking town which is what we did. Enjoy the images.

The church of Our Lady of the Rosary, the Cathedral of Asmara was completed in 1922. Built in a Romanesque style it is across the road from our hotel.

The church of Our Lady of the Rosary, the Cathedral of Asmara was completed in 1922. Built in a Romanesque style it is across the road from our hotel.

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Mural on the main street

Mural on the main street

Cinema Impero built in 1938 still functions as an operating movie theatre. The inside as depicted in the image below has not changed since the day it opened

Cinema Impero built in 1938 still functions as an operating movie theatre. The inside as depicted in the image below has not changed since the day it opened

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Ancient projector

Ancient projector

Camel crossing

Camel crossing

Municipal office built 1937

Municipal office built 1937

High court built 1937

High court built 1937

Mosque

Mosque

This and next two Market building

This and next two Market building

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Dome of the market

Dome of the market

Orthodox cathedral

Orthodox cathedral

Devotion at Orthodox cathedral

Devotion at Orthodox cathedral

THis and next two Medabar market a large complex where rubbish is recycled and recreated into useful utensils

THis and next two Medabar market a large complex where rubbish is recycled and recreated into useful utensils

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Overview of Asmara

Overview of Asmara

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Fiat Tagliarino petrol station built in 1938 with the verandahs built as a replica of aicreaft wings. Notice that these survive despite a complete lack of pillars peripherally

Fiat Tagliarino petrol station built in 1938 with the verandahs built as a replica of aicreaft wings. Notice that these survive despite a complete lack of pillars peripherally

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Tank graveyard

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Yes, that’s me on an old Soviet made Ethiopian tank. It is only fitting that any narrative about Eritrea begins here at junkyard for military hardware on the outskirts of Asmara. This is a country forged in the crucible of war. It is a short 27 ears since the country final achieved independence after a long and bloody civil war with Ethiopia that stretches back to the late 1970s when Ethiopia’s last emperor Haille Sailassie was still in power. Most of the conflict was conducted on the Ethiopian side by the repressive Communist regime known as the Derg that ousted Sailassie and ruled with an iron fist, with Soviet support throughout the 1980s.

It was a bloody war with the larger, numerically stronger Russian backed Ethiopians conducting waves of assaults within Eritrea. Over more than a decade of war the Eritrean rebels were on the back foot, constantly yielding territory until the Ethiopians controlled the capitol Asmara and most of the inland territory of Eritrea. In the early 1990s the rebels pushed back at a time when domestic pressures and the collapse of their main backer the USSR resulted in the Ethiopian dictator Mengistu fleeing to the safe haven of that “paragon” of human rights and democracy, Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. The Eritreans won their land back and, for the first time independence. Sadly that has not resulted in a democratic state and as, so often happens in Africa, another dictator steps in and this place has been ruled by the one man in a one party state without election to this day.

This place has been described as the North Korea of Africa. It is neither socialist nor communist. The prevailing politics is more there to keep the dictator in power. Part of this process is isolation from the outside world and not much information leaks into or out of this place. Visas are difficult to obtain. Flights in and out are sparse and travel anywhere outside the capitol Asmara is restricted and permits are required and travel must be with a guide. I am looking forward to seeing as much as I can of this “closed” country.

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Pirates

Speeding along the glassy turquoise seas past a massive container ship I look forward and muse over the fact that we have 2 uniformed soldiers carrying Kalashnikovs sitting at the bow. A sailor looks down from high up on the deck of the Tanzanian ship. Did he even for a split second think that we may have been Somali pirates?

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The sun is beating down on us as the inclement weather of the last couple of days is just a distant memory. Our little speed boat skims over the Gulf of Aden across Berbera’s harbour and after an hour our destination comes into view. We jump overboard onto a tiny patch of sand that barely qualifies as an island. Perched on it is a red and white “candy cane” lighthouse that is rusting and sadly out of action.In typically African fashion that does not mean that this outpost is deserted as a couple of locals live at the base of it ostensibly to keep a watch out against invasion.

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Reflections

At the end of my week here I reflect on what was it like travelling through Somaliland. Did I feel safe here? Well, yes and no. Armed guards always tip the odds in your favour of course. I felt safe in the capitol, Hargeisa, much less so in the rural back blocks of Berbera where there was a distinctly hostile xenophobic vibe.
Overall the country is quite barren and dry and the cities and towns are pretty basic African meets Middle East affairs, poor and run down. Infrastructure is basic but there are some impressive buildings built with foreign aid. Education and health care all costs the Somali money with no real government subsidy.
For the tourists, hotels could best be described as spartan. Service everywhere happens at snails pace. Somali cuisine is unspectacular consisting of spice rubbed grilled meat, fish and rice. Interetingly the influence is Middle Eastern with quite a hit of cardamom as a spice.Of course there is no alcohol.
Infrastructre wise this is a newly developed country having to rebuild after most buidings having been razed by war and then rebuilt. All is low rise here. The roads even in the heart of town are geerally dirt and potholed and the traffic is frequently at a standstill.
Most of people are genuinely friendly and interested in the,for them, stange sight of white skinned humans in their midst.Having said that there are a few who go out of their way to be difficult. THe females in our group where sometimes chided for some perceived breach of the local dress codes despite them covering up and wearing hijabs. Similarly, as I have experienced in other Muslim societies photography can be a real issue. There are frequent times when after having a chat with someone I ask if I can photograph them or their wares, Having gained their permisiion there is always some unrelated (usually male) bystander who tries to come over the top bullying both me and the pliant local preventing the photograph. At its worst here in the market a young lady engaged me and took me through the meat hall to her families stand. I made small talk with the man running that counter and eventually asked if I could take a picture of his meat stand (excluding both him and the girl who had moved to one side. I had no sooner finished the photo when I saw out of the corner of my eye a guy from a stall further up and well away yelling and brandishing a butcher’s knife threatening to throw it at me. Scary stuff and I high tailed it out of there.

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This was an interesting trip to an area that is shunned by tourists due to decades of ongoing civil war.While it is bereft of any “big ticket” natural attractions. It affords an interesting insight of a resourceful and resilient populace determined to carve out a modern coherent society rebuilding from the devastation of war. These people are proudly succeeding.

Samosa seller

Samosa seller

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Meat market, freshly slaughtered no refrigeration, teeming with flies

Meat market, freshly slaughtered no refrigeration, teeming with flies

Salt seller

Salt seller

Spice stall

Spice stall

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Dentist signage

Dentist signage

Our bus

Our bus

Gazelle at our lunch stop

Gazelle at our lunch stop

Monkey at the market

Monkey at the market

Deluge

It is close to midnight and the teeming rain hammers our corrugated roof. I have never experienced rain like it! Despite this hotel being particularly downmarket we do have aircon that actually works until a massive clap of thunder and all power is lost until the next day. Fortunately the storm means that our overnight low is only mid 20s rather than the more usual 30 for this time of year. Nonetheless it was a hot and sweaty night’s sleep.This place gets only 5-8 days rain per year and we have experienced 2 of them already. The rest of the time it is dry and searingly hot.
This morning it is still raining heavily and many of the streets here are underwater.

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There is no prospect of going on our boat ride so we head for the hills to a village called Sheikh. It is a scenic 2 hour drive up there on a winding hairpin bend road. The view from the top back to Berbera on the coast was beatiful despite the clouds. The highlight here was the remains of the British garrison built in 1901 and decommissioned in 1941.

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Berbera itself is the only sheltered deep water harbour on the Gulf of Aden. In ancient times it traded spices, food, Frankincense and Myrrh with Egypt and Yemen. In medieval times it was part of the slave trade. During British colonial times it was the capitol of what was then British Somaliland. In modern times it has been a militarily strategic port successively for UK, Italy, USSR and USA.Today it is also the major trading port for Somaliland and neighbouring Ethiopia.
For a city with such a proud and long history all I have to say is that it is pretty bloody awful now. There are tantalising glimpses of old Arabic and colonial architecture but it is all terribly run down. Everywhere there are shells of buildings that look like they have been bombed but they have just fallen apart as there was never any significant fighting here. It is dilapidated and dirty and in this place the demeanour of the locals matches that of the place.

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Harbourside

Harbourside

The women on the tour here have experienced the most hassles in Berbera. Respectful attempts at photography through consent are met with hostility. We have seen 2 ugly street brawls between locals. Even photographing local buildings elicits an angry rebuke from the locals. Late in the afternoon our bus stops for us to take photos of the outside of a mosque. A maniac on the roof hurls abuse and a large stone at us which lands a couple of feet in front of me. This is an environment hostile towards us, unlike in Hargeisa I would not dream of wandering in the streets without our armed guard here.

The offending mosque

The offending mosque

I will be happy to head back to Hargeisa tomorrow.

Rain

I awaken to grey sky and rain, not quite what I expected for the horn of Africa. The forecast is for a class 1 tropical storm. We leave Hargeisa after breakfast for the 3 hour drive to the coastal port city of Berbera. Overnight rains have transformed dips in the road into river crossings that our tough, colourful bus negotiates with ease. Halfway along we turn left onto a dirt 4 WD track that tests our driver and vehicle a bit more but both pass with ease.
Our destination is Laas Geel caves. Situated in the middle of nowhere this stunning collection of rock art was only discovered by archaeologists in 2002. Dated to between 5000 and 9000 years ago it features some of the most vibrant rock art that I have ever seen. The dominant theme and the most beautiful feature cattle but there is man, giraffe and wolves here. A short but steep climb takes me to the first of 6 caves. These are not fully enclosed caves rather crevices in the rock much like the aboriginal paintings in northern Australia. They have not undergone restoration so the colours and clarity are all the more impressive. Worryingly, because of the history of war and the fact that Somaliland is a self proclaimed but not recognised independent state, it has no UNESCO world heritage protection. the For an archaeology enthusiast like me this was easily the highlight of my trip here.

Site of Las Geel caves

Site of Las Geel caves

Bull with human underneath. Note the elaborate neck decoration

Bull with human underneath. Note the elaborate neck decoration

Cow notice the non anatomical position of the udders

Cow notice the non anatomical position of the udders

Again bull with man underneath

Again bull with man underneath

Giraffe, less impressive but still very clearly visible

Giraffe, less impressive but still very clearly visible

Cow grazing, man beneath

Cow grazing, man beneath

Cattle mating

Cattle mating

Herd of bulls

Herd of bulls

Our drive onward to Berbera was marred by getting bogged in the soft sand and having to dig and push the bus out.

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At Berbera leaden clouds and rain force a cancellation of our planned beach afternoon.

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