59 – Las Geel, at the ancient cave paintings
Sun 24th Jan, Oriental Hotel, Hargeisa
Cutting to the chase, today we made our way to Las Geel, 50 km out of Hargeisa. The Las Geel site is where a series of ancient cave paintings carbon dated back to 5000-3000 BC were discovered, back in 2003. And under normal circumstances, such a find would result in tourists coming from all over by the busloads. But since we are talking about Somaliland here, only a trickle of independent tourists make their way to this spectacular location.
First, we needed to arrange for transport and the mandatory security detail. For this, we walked down the main street westwards towards the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. The director general, who was reading an issue of National Geographic when we walked in, is a friendly old man who arranged for our permit. The entry fee into the site is 25 USD, the armed guard is 20 USD, and the transport to and fro is 60 USD. Pretty pricey i think. But there is a personal touch to it, since the director general himself offers us tea and shows us rock tools and neolithic knives in his office. Then he also sends along with us an English speaking employee of the Ministry. Mohamed speaks English with a very London accent, having spent time there before returning to Somaliland.
We took a car there, 5 of us: the driver, the armed soldier, the ministry guide and the two of us. Along the sealed road, we passed by several police checkpoints. They really take the security seriously here. Any harm to tourists would detract from their quest to potray Somaliland as a safe place, and hence for international recognition as a valid country.
Somali saying: “When one tries to ride two horses at once, one often ends with a scratched bum”
We turned off the main highway at the village near the twin Nasahablod hills. A further 5 km on rough terrain before we hit the base of the hill, where a single tourist hut has been built. According to the guide, there were 107 alcoves and sites all over Somaliland, 45 in Las Geel (of which maybe 25 are not caved in, and 5 are accessible to tourists) and 43 stone graves. We started at the base of the hill, visiting a series of alcoves.
The first alcove had the most detailed mural with peculiar shaped cows, people (one man was drinking with some instrument from the cow’s udder!), spears, dogs, dancing people in a circle. Women were painted with only the top half of their body showing. The second cave was similar with more amazing paintings. This one was also used as a council room where disputes are resolved. We continued uphill till we reached the highest cave, which was named the king’s cave. A stone ledge was where king would sit and he could view the entire plains below him from there. This cave was also the only one where it was not concave, an outcropping of rock protruded off the ceiling (dropped off) indicating this was a more important spot. Similarly more paintings. The walls and king’s rock “throne” was glazed with some sort of material so that the paintings would not come off after time. The French team who studied the place actually tried to simulate the same concoction used to paint the walls, but their version faded after only two months (whereas the ancient ones are thousands of years old!). We did a couple more alcoves with paintings, each one remarkably preserved. My favourite painting was a hunter protecting his herd from wild animals. My second favourite were a cow and bull humping each other, lol. Finally we ended at the lookout point. There was a small opening which overlooked the other side of the mountains. From here, the lookouts could use the near and far lookout points to see the entire expanse of the plains and warn their king of impending attacks.
I actually worry about the state of preservation of the paintings. There was a local guide with us yes, but the set up is not geared for the influx of mass groups of tourists, should this arise. Unlikely for now, since on my visa, i am tourist 424 as of Jan 2010. I’m assuming 001 was in Jan 2009, and so the country averages 1 tourist a day, also confirmed by Mohamed. Before leaving, we signed the guestbook, which had the last tourists to this site 4 days ago. So hopefully, these tourists don’t go around touching the paintings and defiling them.
On the way back, we passed the remains of an old tank, where of course i took the photo opportunity. And just inside the outermost checkpoint, our car, which had been traveling on really tough terrain of gravel and quartz, had a flat. The spare tire that they had didn’t fit at all (5 spokes instead of 4 slots available) so we had to wait for a bit before taking public transport back.