To Hell and Back: Somaliland and Ethiopia

On January 18, 2019 by keirobyn

[January 2018] We had a ‘memorable’ winter vacation driving through northern Kenya to Somaliland and back.  While most people in both countries are very friendly, we had a series of bad experiences.

We got to the border of Ethiopia and Kenya at Moyale, but the border was closed to vehicles due to tribal fighting on the Ethiopian side. The border had been closed for 10 days and was still closed to vehicles.  We had to sleep in a hotel in no-man’s-land for 2 days before the customs office reopened.  When we drove through Ethiopian Moyale, many buildings were burnt out and shot up by bullets. The health inspectors at the border told us that bodies had been on the street for a week and they had helped clear them.

We had a (mostly) pleasant time driving to Addis, then through Harar and an uneventful entry into Somaliland.  In Somaliland, we visited the rock art site of Laas Geel, the port of Berbera, and then did the long and sketchy drive through the desert (we got stuck in the sand) to the border of Djibouti.  We arrived on January 1st, when the border was closed, so we camped on a garbage pile in no-man’s-land (sound familiar?) and then tried to enter the next day.

Djibouti customs would not let us in because we did not have a Carnet de Passage to enter (car passport). I’ve been able to travel almost everywhere else in eastern and southern Africa without a carnet, which are a pain to get. However, the customs officials told us we could go to immigration in Djibouti City and sort out the paperwork, since we had valid visas that we had gotten in Nairobi.  After a few more phone calls, however, they decided that even we could not enter!  We were super alarmed, because we had already checked out of Somaliland and they do no issue visas at the border and even if we could get them to do so, they cost $100 each (in Addis).

The Somaliland border guards, however, were helpful, and simply reversed our exit and let us and our car back in.  We spent the next 10 hours driving back through the Somali desert.  We tried to take a short cut and got lost (very stupid and dangerous!). We ended up driving through the desert for a while in very deep sand at high speed (so we wouldn’t get stuck).  If we had gotten stuck, or broken down, we probably would have been dead before anyone found us.

Our next challenge was getting into Ethiopia.  We had previously stopped at the Hargeisa (capital) branch of the Ethiopian Embassy/Consulate.  They had told us that 1) they don’t issue visas to non-residents and 2) we couldn’t take our car back into Ethiopia at the Somaliland/Ethiopia border.  I thought it was likely that we were going to have to abandon our car in a hotel parking lot in Hargeisa and just fly back to Nairobi.  $20,000 screw up!  However, thankfully, Ethiopia began issuing online visas 6 months prior for ‘air entry only’.  However, a friend had used these at a land border, so we got the visas and tried our luck at the border.  The border officials grumbled about our visas, but let us through.  They also allowed our car back in with the same car permit we had used the first time through, which was still valid (date wise).  Whew!

Our second day in Ethiopia, we were driving from Dire Dawa (2nd biggest city in Ethiopia) to Addis (the capital) on the road recommended by Google Maps, which was also the shortest route.  Initially the road was a new Chinese built 6 lane highway.  Then only one side was completed.  Then…. dirt.  No problem, we just continued, because we didn’t want to backtrack.

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This is the route we took.  The correct way is the (paved and longer) A10 that is not marked.  Our 4 hour trip was from Dire Dawa to the junction at Mieso.

We passed a lot of Somali villages (the people are ethnically Somali even though they are living in Ethiopia). Many people tried to stop us to ask for money, water, etc…, but nothing too unusual, that’s par for the course in Ethiopia… there was very little traffic and zero foreigners around, which we didn’t think was too unusual.  After driving 4 hours and 100 kms, we were 5kms from the asphalt on the other end when we passed through another village.  We passed a large tree with about 50 people sitting underneath the tree, some of them were men with AK-47s (situation normal).  They yelled at us and tried to stop us.  We kept driving.  We missed a turn, when we turned around, we saw that the village was coming towards us, including the armed men.  It looked like Blackhawk Down.  I started driving fast towards the village, to make the turn over the railroad tracks and to safety.  The men started pointing their AK-47s at us and the car.  They were throwing huge rocks in front of the car to stop us.  I accelerated and made the turn, dodging the rocks.  People were jumping out of the way of the car.  As we passed, we head about 5 gunshots.  As we cleared the village, I realised that they had shot out our front left tire and the car was hard to control.  I kept driving as fast as I could.

We made it two kms to a military checkpoint, where a guard stopped us because he had heard the gunshots.  He called for back up and many police and military quickly arrived.  They helped us change our tire and took a report.  They said no-one had been on that road for 10 months, because it is so unsafe!

After dealing with the police, we headed to Addis for two nights and then quickly for the border.  We were never so glad to be back in Kenya!

All these dramas aside, there were, of course, some good parts to our trip and definitely a lot of beautiful countryside.

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