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Berbera & Surrounds

BERBERA & SURROUNDS

The historic town of Berbera has been a centre of maritime trade since ancient times. It stands on the Gulf of Aden opposite Yemen, a strategic location along the ancient trade route between the Red Sea and India, and of similar importance during the more recent Cold War. Indeed, in the 1970s, Berbera was an important base for the USSR, which built the 4km runway (one of the longest anywhere in Africa) that somewhat redundantly graces the international airport a few kilometres south of town. Today, Berbera is the main commercial seaport in Somaliland, serving not only the capital Hargeisa, about 150km to the south, but also bordering parts of eastern Ethiopia.

Boasting an idyllic swimming beach and access to innumerable well-preserved coral reefs, Berbera has enormous potential for tourist development, although this remains largely unrealized at the time of writing, with just one rather unconvincing resort hotel and dive centre in place. Also of great interest is the old quarter of the town, where the wealth of crumbling pre-20th century architectural gems – most in urgent need of restoration work – would make it a shoo-in candidate as a UNESCO World Heritage Site was Somaliland ever to gain UN recognition. Even in its present semi- ruinous state, Berbera is an absorbing place, and it doesn’t seem wildly fanciful to see a rehabilitated incarnation of the old town one day forming a Somali counterpart to such iconic cultural tourist hubs as Ilha do Moçambique, Gorée Island or Lamu.

As things stand, Berbera tends to make a less-than-favourable first impression, particularly when you arrive in the harsh light of early afternoon via an extensive and unsightly litter belt of scrubby thorn trees, draped with thin plastic bags. It doesn’t help that the only beachfront hotel,  the out-of-town  Maan-soor, has the stark and unfinished appearance of a construction site. Or that the town can be intolerably hot in the summer (May to September), when daytime temperatures routinely nudge above 45°C, with typical nocturnal minimums of 30–35°C, all but necessitating a room with air conditioning.

Once settled in, however, Berbera is thoroughly appealing, at least during the relatively cool winter months, when average temperatures, although not exactly arctic, are almost 10°C lower. The compact old town, its alleys lined with attractive mosques and other relicts of the Ottoman occupation, is great fun to explore, and the sandy out-of-town beach is genuinely refreshing. Further afield, the surrounding reefs offer superb diving and snorkelling, while the ancient waterworks at the Dubaar Springs – overlooked by old Ottoman fortifications – make for a worthwhile day out. Berbera could also be used as a base for exploring the likes of Mount Wagar and Ga’an Libah.

HISTORY

The name Berbera is truly antiquated. The ancient Greeks and Phoenicians referred to the inhabitants of the Somali coast as Berbers, a name referenced in the medieval Arabic name for the Horn of Africa, Bilad al Barbar (literally, ‘Land of  Berbers’).  Back then,  however,  the name  Berbera was applied to the entire southern coast of the Gulf of Aden, and it is unclear when it became associated with one specific port.

The age of present-day Berbera is difficult to determine. It might well have been one of the ports involved in the ancient trade between the east coast of  Africa and Egypt (page 4) and it is almost certainly synonymous with the port of Malao, described in the 1st-century ad Periplus of the Erythraean Sea as, ‘After Avalites, there is another market town, better than this, called Malao, distant a sail of about 800 stadia. The anchorage is an open roadstead, sheltered by a spit running out from the east. Here the natives are more peaceable.’

Berbera is also a prime candidate for the port described in 9th and 12th-century Chinese documents as Boboli, which traded in ivory, incense, and female slaves (for further details, see page 11). Surprisingly, perhaps, there are no overt references to Berbera in Arabic literature of this period. It is first mentioned by name in the writings of the early 13th-century geographer Ibn Said, and again by the legendary globetrotter Ibn Battuta, who visited the region in 1331 and noted that the sultan of the ‘exceedingly large city’ of Mogadishu originated from Berbera.

In the late medieval period,  Berbera was certainly an important trade port, although largely subservient to Zeila, as it was situated at the eastern boundary of the Adal Sultanate. The most detailed surviving description of Berbera from this time, penned by Bartema, who mistook it for an island, states that ‘it is not great but fruitful and well peopled: it hath abundance of flesh. The inhabitants are of color inclining to black. All their riches are in herds of cattle … the prince [thereof] is a Mohammedan’. In 1518, Berbera was sacked by a Portuguese expedition led by Antonio de Saldanha. It swiftly recovered from this blow,  however,  to become part of the Ottoman Empire in 1546, and by the end of the 16th century, it had replaced Zeila as the main center of trade and Islamic culture along the Somali coast. For the next three centuries, Berbera’s (mostly good) fortunes rested on a legendary annual trade fair, held during the relatively cool winter months of November to March (see box, page 108). The port mushroomed during the fair, when it supported a temporary population of up to  20,000,  as caravans incorporating several thousand camels arrived from Harar to trade with merchant boats from Arabia and Asia. The key export  during  this  period  was  livestock,  in  particular  the  surrounding  region’s famously tasty sheep, but British traders who visited Berbera in 1840 noted items such as coffee, gum, myrrh, ivory, and ostrich feathers on sale. Britain took control of Berbera in 1884, following the withdrawal of the Ottoman Egyptian garrison to fight the Mahdist Rebellion in Sudan. Berbera was made the capital of British Somaliland in 1888, a role it retained until 1941 when the administration relocated to Hargeisa. Post-independence, a modernized deep-sea harbor was completed in Berbera in 1962, assisted by a US$55 million loan with generous repayment terms from the USSR, which also established a naval base at the port and built the airport outside town.

In 1980, Somalia switched its Cold War allegiance from the USSR to the USA, which took over the naval base and allocated the airport as an emergency landing strip for its space shuttle programme.  Since  the  closure  of  the  border  between Eritrea,  and  the  Ethiopian  War  of  the  late  1990s,  Berbera’s  port  has  emerged  as a major export terminus for Ethiopia, and the leading source of foreign revenue for  Somaliland.  Today, although Berbera feels relatively substantial and is often thought of as Somaliland’s second town, its population of around 60,000 means it is actually smaller than the likes of Burao, Borama, Erigavo, and even Gabiley. This seems likely to change over the coming years, though, following the signature in 2016 of a 30-year management concession committing the Dubai-named multinational DP World to invest more than US$400 million in the development of Berbera as a world-class multi-purpose port (berberaseaport.net).

GETTING THERE AND AWAY

Berbera International Airport, a few kilometers out of town along the Hargeisa road, doesn’t receive the sort of traffic that justifies a runway length of 4km, but a few international flights land there weekly, offering connections to Dubai, Nairobi and Djibouti.

The 150km road from Berbera to Hargeisa is surfaced in its entirety. Allowing for police roadblocks, but not for other stops, the direct drive should take less than 2 hours in a private car. It might take a bit longer on public transport, with the best  options  being  the  East  &  West  buses  and  Salaam  minibuses  that  run  back and  forth  between  Hargeisa  and  Berbera  throughout  the  day,  and  charge  US$5 per person. Coming from Hargeisa, it is usually possible to negotiate a private taxi hire for around US$30–50, depending on whether you incorporate a stop at Las Geel. Technically, an SPU officer must accompany all foreigners travelling between Hargeisa and Berbera, but it’s increasingly common for the tourist office in Hargeisa to issue a letter of waiver upon request to travellers using public transport. Rough tracks run along the coast either side of Berbera connecting it to Zeila via Bulhar and El Sheikh in the west, and to Maydh in the east. There is no public transport in either direction, but it is usually possible to drive to Zeila in a private 4×4 over two days, ideally in convoy, except after heavy rain. The best place to hire a 4×4 for this trip is Hargeisa.

GETTING AROUND

The town centre is very compact and it is easy to walk everywhere. The Maan-soor Hotel and associated swimming beach are quite away from the town centre; if you don’t fancy walking there, you can pick up a taxi at the rank for Berbera or Burao.

WHERE TO STAY

There are fewer hotels than might be expected in  Berbera,  and only two–the central  Damal and out-of-town  Maan-soor  –  that approach touristic standards. Several budget hotels can be found at the southern end of the town centre, and while none truly stands out, they are mostly acceptable enough.

MODERATE

Damal Hotel (48 rooms): Mobile: 065 7000996/7; Email: info@damalhotelberbera.com; Website: damalhotelberbera.com. Easily the most appealing & efficiently managed hotel in Berbera, this newly built sibling of its namesake in Hargeisa occupies the 1st to 3rd floor of the Dahabshiil Bank building overlooking the main junction at the south end of the town centre. Spacious, subtly decorated & sensibly priced rooms come with AC, satellite flatscreen TV, writing desk & a bright bathroom with hot water & modern fittings. The pleasant 4th-floor cafeteria & restaurant offers panoramic views over the harbour & town, & serves a varied selection of Somali & western mains for around US$8, as well as cakes, pastries, juice & coff ee. US$37/52 sgl/dbl. All rates B&B.

Maan-soor Hotel (56 rooms): Mobile: 063 4419423/4145695; Email: mansoorhotelberbera@hotmail.com; Website: maan-soor.com/berbera. Affiliated to its namesake in Hargeisa, this is the closest thing in Somaliland to a resort hotel, boasting a semi-beachfront location in the heart of the litter belt, some 3.5km northeast of central Berbera. It is also the site of the country’s only dive centre. Unfortunately, however, the hotel makes few concessions to aesthetics, consisting as it does of a large rectangular compound dominated by grass & concrete & 2 blandly institutional-looking rows of square semi-detached bungalows. The rooms are pleasant enough, & come with dbl beds, mosquito netting, dining table, AC, & satellite TV, but are starting to look quite frayed at the edges, especially at the steep asking price. There is also a good restaurant serving a varied selection of seafood & meat dishes in the US$4–6 range, as well as a few vegetarian options. It is set just too far back from the beach to offer much of a sea view, but couldn’t be more convenient in terms of beach access. US$63/84 sgl/dbl. All rates B&B.

BUDGET

Hotel Barwaaqo (60 rooms): Telephone: 741141. The best of Berbera’s limited selection of cheapies, the Barwaaqo has the disadvantage of lying almost 1km south of the town centre along the road back to Hargeisa & Burao. Rooms are spacious & clean & come with en-suite cold shower, fan & optional AC. It also has a decent courtyard restaurant. US$10/16 sgl/dbl, plus US$20 for AC.

Yakye Hotel (30 rooms): Mobile: 441 0098. This tolerable hotel lies at the southern end of the town centre just around the corner from the Damal. There is the choice of an en-suite room with 1 ¾   bed or a twin with shared shower. All rooms have a fan, net & optional AC. US$10 for a sgl or dbl, plus US$20 for use of AC. $

Aw Caqli Hotel (20 rooms): Telephone: 740707. Of a similar standard to the Yakye, but with sgls only, this has clean en-suite rooms with cold water & optional AC. US$10 sgl, plus US$20 of AC.

SHOESTRING

AL Madina Hotel (30 rooms): Telephone: 740254; Mobile: 063 444 8291. This basic but quite pleasant single-story hotel has a design & feel reminiscent of many guesthouses in East Africa. Rooms range from unadorned sgls to en-suite dbls with AC, & all rooms seem to have nets. US$5/8 sgl/dbl using shared showers, US$10/30 en-suite dbl with fan/AC.

Esco Hotel (14 rooms): Mobile: 063 4426554. Clean en-suite sgl rooms with cold water only. US$7.

WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK

The outstanding and the most hygienic option is undoubtedly the fourth-floor restaurant at the Damal Hotel. People staying at the Maan-soor virtually always eat there, if only because it is so remote from any alternative. There are also plenty of decent standalone eateries in town, aimed mainly at the local market.

Al Xayaat Restaurant: Mobile: 063 4447568; (06.00–22.00 daily. Situated on the seafront near the southern end of the town centre, this is the top local restaurant in Berbera. It serves excellent whole or filleted fish, as well as decent steaks, with pasta or chips, for around US$5 per plate. The whole fish is sensational, easily the best meal we had anywhere in Somaliland. The owner speaks good English. The fruit juice is also superb.

Jaais Cafeteria: Mobile: 063 3346399; (07.00–23.00 daily. Pizza (US$5–11 depending on size) is the main specialty of this new restaurant next to Al Xayaat, though availability depends on whether the friendly English-speaking owner has stocked up on cheese from Hargeisa. It also serves coff ee & cakes.

Xeeb-Soor Restaurant: Telephone: 740 055; Mobile: 444 6418. This seafront restaurant at the northern end of town is a lively & likeable spot at sunset when it offers attractive views of the port. There is outdoor seating right on the waterfront, & the menu consists of generous portions of fish or pasta that cost around US$5. There’s good fruit juice, too.

Fadxul Khayr Fish House: Mobile: 063 4448444. Central local eatery serving whole fish or fillets for around US$2. It’s somewhat dingy & fly- ridden but the fish looks very fresh.

OTHER PRACTICALITIES

FOREIGN EXCHANGE there don’t seem to be any bespoke foreign exchange facilities in Berbera but, as with most other towns in the country, US dollars and Somaliland shillings are used more or less interchangeably.

SAFETY Berbera comes across as a very safe city and we have heard nothing to suggest visitors are at any appreciable risk of being robbed or otherwise attacked. Nevertheless, while foreigners are permitted to walk around town freely by day, it is technically forbidden to leave your hotel without SPU protection between 18.00 and 06.00. However, a permit from the Tourist Office allowing you to travel to Berbera without SPU protection would presumably nullify this ruling, and many travellers simply choose to ignore it anyway. Should the local police spot you walking around without SPU protection after dark, they might well stop you, but the worst that is likely to happen is that you’ll be told off or escorted back to your hotel.

WHAT TO SEE AND DO

The oldest quarter of Berbera, known locally as Darole, is also the most northerly part of town, hemmed in by the old port to the west, a series of tidal flats to the north, and several recently resettled suburbs to the south and east. Darole itself can be divided into two distinct districts, with a rough boundary being the road that runs eastwards from the municipal building. The more northerly of these two districts, essentially the former residential quarter, is centred on old Darole Square and is studded with venerable mosques and other architecturally noteworthy buildings. By contrast, the southern district, stretching west from the main market, is less architecturally distinguished and more commercially oriented,  making it closer in feel to other modern Somali towns such as Burao or Hargeisa.

Strong on the character but remarkably run down and poorly documented,  the narrow roads and alleys that run through the older part of Darole with Elmi Bodhari bakery are lined with handsome pastel-coloured buildings dating back to the  Ottoman era.  Among the most striking of these are the  Ottoman  Mosque (with three-storey minaret),  the row of single-story  homesteads  opposite  it,  the  buildings Darole  Square, and  several  other  dispersed  two  and three-storey  mansions  in  varying  states  of  repair  and  disrepair.  Architectural oddities  include  the  buildings  marked  ‘domed  mosque’ and ‘old synagogue’ (the latter reputedly boarded up by departing Jews during World War I and now survived by three crumbling walls), and several flat-roofed mosques, vaguely reminiscent of certain west African Islamic architectural styles, in the backstreets to the east of the main road.

We’ve been unable to determine the age of any of Darole’s buildings, or for that matter any other pertinent historical details about them. It seems logical to assume, however, that most of these buildings post-date Burton’s description of Berbera as a ‘wretched clump of dirty mat-huts’ and also that they pre-date the withdrawal of Ottoman Egypt. This would suggest that they are predominantly from the period 1860–80, but this hasn’t been confirmed. It is also unclear to what extent  the  current  semi-ruinous  state  of  many  of  these  buildings  is  attributable to  bombing  and  other  military  activity  associated  with  the  civil  war 1989–91, or simply the result of decades of neglect. Whatever the case, the architecturally fascinating northern quarter of Darole rewards casual exploration, revealing new sights at every turn, and one can’t help but be conscious of its immense potential for rehabilitation and restoration.

Central Berbera is also bursting with human interest. Most people still dress in the traditional style and they are exceptionally friendly, particularly the giggling gangs of camera-loving children that will sooner or later attach themselves to any stray traveller. The market area, although more subdued than you might expect, is well worth a look, and plenty of small local eateries and juice stalls offer shade and refreshment when you are ready to escape the afternoon heat. The arid location of this isolated old port town is underscored by the camel herds that mill around the alleys, holding up the traffic as they feed on a low branch or thoughtfully contemplate a change of direction. We were told by locals that the males occasionally become a little aggressive and frisky when approached the wrong way – probably not a huge concern, but still reason enough to give them a few metres berth.

Outside  the  old  town,  the  most  interesting  part  of  Berbera  is  the  district  of Sha’ab, running out towards the new port. The Ottoman Mosque here has a balconied minaret similar to the one in the town centre, and it is said locally to be one of the oldest buildings in Berbera, although its age cannot be confirmed. The new port like Malao some 2,000 years ago, ‘sheltered by a spit running out from the east’ – is worth a look, but you’ll need to obtain permission from the Municipal Headquarters first, and possibly the harbourmaster, too.

AROUND BERBERA

DUBAR  WATERWORKS The main source of freshwater for  Berbera since time immemorial has been the palm-lined Dubar Springs (N 10°20.467, E 45°08.081), which lie about 12km out of town at the base of the eponymous mountains and are fed by their drainage. Prior to the Ottoman occupation, the people of Berbera would have had to fetch drinking water from the springs on camelback, to supplement the meagre supply of sour brackish water in wells closer to town.  That all changed, however, when the Ottoman rulers built a rock and limestone-plaster aqueduct that connected the springs to the town, using the slight downward gradient created by a 180m drop in altitude to transport the water.

It is unclear when exactly the aqueduct to Dubar was built, but it had evidently fallen into disuse when Cruttenden visited the area in the 1840s and was so far gone when Burton visited in 1855 that he was unable to trace it to more than 10m of its head. During the colonial era, the aqueduct was rehabilitated and maintained by the  British,  who also built the stone collective chambers that still surround several wells there. The aqueduct filled with rubble during the civil war and fell into disuse thereafter, but it was restored to working order in 2009 with the assistance of UNICEF and various other donors.

Burton explored Dubar extensively and noted that there were two main springs in the area. The larger of these, Dubar Wena (‘Great Dubar’) was a ‘dry bed of a watercourse overgrown with bright green rushes  …  about half a  mile long’, its surface ‘white with impure nitre’ but with ‘tolerably sweet’ water in ‘numerous pits’ that ‘abundantly supplied the flocks and herds’. At Dubar Yirr (Little Dubar) by contrast, a spring of warm and bitter water flowed from the hill over the surface to a distance of 400 or 500 yards, where it was absorbed by the soil’ and formed a ‘rushy swamp’. According to Burton, ‘the rocks behind these springs were covered with ruins of mosques and houses’, but no such structures survive today. Visible from miles around are the imposing ruins of an old stone fort, whose outer walls stand 2–3m tall and enclose an area of around 400m2. The fort stands sentinel on a steep, rocky hill overlooking the springs and reputedly dates to the Ottoman era, but the smaller house-like structure in its centre was clearly built or renovated during the British colonial era. As is so often the case with archaeological sites in Somaliland, the fort is unexcavated and the limited information available regarding its history is somewhat contradictory. It is said locally to date to the 19th century, but Cruttenden described it as a ruin of ‘considerable antiquity … different [in style] to any houses now found on the Somali coast’ in the 1840s, suggesting a much older construction date. Either way, it is an interesting ruin to explore, offering a superb vantage point over the palm-studded springs and surrounding plains. In order to visit Dubar you first need permission from the Mayor of Berbera, which can be obtained by visiting the municipal office in town before midday, and you may also need to get the thumbs-up from the Department of Water. Once these permits are in place, follow the Burao road out of town for 2km past the junction with the Hargeisa road, then turn right onto an unsignposted but conspicuous dirt track and follow this for another 10km, forking to the left at the only real junction. You can park right next to the waterworks, and then climb up a loose rocky slope to the hilltop fort shouldn’t take longer than ten minutes in either direction.

BERBERA MARINE PARK The Somaliland coast can justifiably lay claim to being one of the world’s best-kept marine secrets, lined as it is with a series of reefs whose potential as a diving and snorkelling destination is on a  par with the better-publicized and more developed Red Sea and East African coastline that flank it. Despite some recent habitat deterioration and loss of marine resources due to unregulated overfishing, especially in the vicinity of Zeila, these reefs remain in excellent condition and support a wide range of underwater wildlife, ranging from a dazzling variety of brightly coloured and bizarrely shaped small reef-dwellers to such marine giants as the whale shark and manta ray, alongside several species of dolphin and sea turtle. Offered no official protection until recent years, the Somaliland coast is now the site of two proposed marine parks that have yet to be formally gazetted. The most accessible of these is the  30km2  Berbera  Marine  Park, which safeguards a 10km coral reef running west from the port of Berbera, an area known for its kaleidoscopic wealth of reef fish and dense dolphin population. The other more remote protected area is the 50km2 Sa’ad ad-Din Marine Park, which protects the eponymous archipelago offshore from Zeila, close to the border with Djibouti, and supports the largest, most pristine and most biodiverse reefs in the Gulf of Aden, comprising almost 100 varieties of coral and hosting at least 132 species of reef fish. At present,  the only place running commercial dives and snorkel excursions off the  Somaliland coast is  Maan-soor  Sea  Tourism,  which operates out of the eponymous beach hotel 3.5km from Berbera, and has the same contact details (page 79). At the moment, it uses four different dive sites focused in and around Berbera, but there are long-term plans to run longer trips to Sa’ad ad-Din. Single dives cost US$50 per person inclusive of gear, while snorkel trips are US$20 per person, with a minimum group size of four and an additional charge of US$100 per party to charter a boat to the dive site. It is strongly advised to make advance contact with the dive school to be sure they have everything in place to run an excursion.

DHAMBALIN ROCK ART SITE  This remarkable rock art site, situated about 100km east of Berbera, was unknown to the outside world until October 2007, when the archaeologist Sada Mire was persuaded to visit it by two residents of the nearby village of Beenyo. It is the only such site in Somaliland where sheep are depicted, alongside wild animals including giraffe, lion, baboon, and even marine turtle. There are also many human figures, clearly wearing headgear, holding a bow and arrow, and accompanied by dogs, in what appear to be hunting scenes. A pair of pre-Islamic burial sites face the paintings, and while they are too modern to be associated with the artists, who lived 3,000–5,000 years ago, their presence might suggest that the paintings were held sacred by subsequent inhabitants of the area. The site is unlikely to open to tourists until a landmine field en route has been properly cleared.

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