Wrestling a Cheetah in Somalia

Catchy title, huh? Its actually true (in a way) but more on that in a moment.

Most of my friends thought I’d lost my mind when I told them I was going to Somalia. Maybe they’ve heard me say that I consider Mogadishu to be the scariest place on the planet. Maybe like me, they’d seen the movie Black Hawk Down with scenes filmed in Africa that were truly terrifying. 

Did I tell you about the Somalia tour that involves driving around in an armored car in Mogadishu for $1000/day? No thanks. Pass. 

So how did I end up booking a trip to Somalia? 

Somalia is made up of three parts; Somaliland, Puntland and what I call “the other scary part at the bottom”. Somaliland was a British territory and when the Brits left, the region was determined to keep its autonomy. In spite of the fact that they have their own flag, money and government however, they’re not recognized as a country by the UN or really anyone else. Their passports are pretty much worthless and their money can’t be spent anywhere else. They live in a political bubble. 

The positive thing about travel to Somaliland is that it’s relatively safe. You don’t need an armored car to visit. You do need to hire an armed soldier to ride shotgun. I mean that in the literal sense. I’ll get back to that in just a minute. 

The only airport is Hargeisa and its connected with Ethiopia, Somalia, Saudi and Dubai. The cheapest way to get there is from Dubai. I only needed a couple days to visit. As luck would have it, I was going to be traveling through Dubai from a trip to India and had just enough time to do a quick trip. As a US citizen, I was granted visa on arrival. I hired a company to vouch for me, provide me with a letter of recommendation, and take me on a tour to a few of the sights. Upon arrival everything went smoother than expected and my guide was there to escort me to the car. 

somaliland guard tourism
Somaliland Guide and Hired Gun Photo: Bill Wiatrak

Why was there a soldier in full  camouflage sitting with a gun in the front seat? That was my first question. It turns out that since there’s not any wars at the moment, the government is able to continue to pay their military by requiring tourists to hire a soldier in case things go bad. The Somaliland people aren’t troublemakers, but the guys down south sometimes decide they want to invade and take over the north. To date, they’ve never been successful, but they’ve blown plenty of  stuff up. 

A tea shop in Hargeisa, Somaliland Photo: Bill Wiatrak

So, with heavy tinted windows on our SUV and my private militia we drove around Hargeisa. It was nothing like Black Hawk Down thankfully.  When we stopped for tea everyone looked at me with curiosity, but there was nothing sinister, just polite smiles. There’s only a couple places on the tourist radar in Somaliland, and since I had less than 2 days, I’d have to miss the coastal town of Berbera. We would have time to visit the city as well as Laas Geel, Somaliland’s crown jewel. But first, we hit the camel market. 

Camel Market in Hargeisa, Somaliland Photo: Bill Wiatrak

The Somaliland people are in the camel business and business is booming. Camels are used locally for food  and transport as well being exported to Saudi Arabia and other countries in the market for dromedaries. Walking through the herd of humped creatures was very surreal. I’ve seen a lot of camels in my travels, but this was the raw gritty non-touristy experience. 

Shopping for Camels, Somaliland Photo: Bill Wiatrak

I could have bought a camel for $800. Tempting. Then what? Other than a great story, I couldn’t see any financial advantages. The market was an Instagram dream, but we had other places to go…. Laas Geel. 

Cave Paintings in Laas Geel, Somaliland Photo: Bill Wiatrak

If Somaliland was recognized by the UN, Laas Geel would be a UNESCO site. Its 5000 year old paintings are the brightest and most colorful rock paintings I’ve ever seen. The site is about an hour east of Hargeisa, then another 20 minutes on a hellish gravel road. With a tour, the fees are included and you’re pretty much left alone with your guide to explore the site. It’s an easy hike to see all the sites that takes not much more than an hour. The art is so vivid it could have been painted last week. My guide pointed out various scenes and interpreted what stories its previous occupants might have been telling. I’m pretty sure some of the stories were embellished, but most of “the rock stories” I’ve heard were about Dwayne Johnson.

Camel Steak Photo: Bill Wiatrak

As soon as we wrapped up, I was brought to my hotel and the tour suddenly ended. I had an entire afternoon to run around Hargeisa on my own. There’s only a couple choices of hotels. I stayed at Maamus Hotel ($25 on Airbnb) which serves up a good camel steak and French fried potatoes. No alcohol is allowed in the country so bar hopping isn’t an option. There’s minibuses that traverse the main road. You get out wherever you choose. I hopped into one and met some friendly faces as we headed to “downtown”. 

Money Changers with Pallets of Currency Photo: Bill Wiatrak

One of the most interesting sites is the moneychangers who sit in front of a pallet of currency like a scene from Breaking Bad or a rap video. Since the money has little value, you get a big stack of Somaliland bills for just about any exchange.  Nearby the market is a twisting labyrinth of stalls selling fruit, vegetables, clothing and everything else you’d expect to find. 

The biggest commodity is qat, a mildly narcotic leaf that is the residents’ main vice. Locals buy bags of the stuff and chew it in their cars, sell it and talk about getting more. It’s a national obsession. The subject of qat seemed to come up in every conversation. “If you can’t travel anywhere, take a trip in your mind” were my thoughts. It’s a big deal in Ethiopia too.

Selling Commodities in the Hargeisa Stock Exchange Photo: Bill Wiatrak

I walked through the town for hours and was constantly stopped by curious people wanting to know where I was from and what I thought of their country. Everyone was extremely friendly and seemed very patriotic about their land. Since there’s no tourist sites really, walking and talking was how I spent the rest of my afternoon. 

I had heard about a place in town that had some big cats, but I couldn’t seem to find any more information about it. As I walked back to my hotel, I spotted a sign with a picture of a lion and an arrow. A few blocks off the road was a restaurant that was serving cold drinks and ran a small animal park. For a couple dollars I was admitted to a mini-zoo with several adult male lions. There were several holes in the fence where a person could put their hand in if they were feeling invincible and wanted to pet a lion. No thank you. I looked around the hole for blood drippings and random pieces of bone but there appeared to be nothing out of the ordinary. 

Petting a Cheetah BEFORE he got upset Photo: Bill Wiatrak

I was summoned by a boy who worked there to check out their star attraction. At the end of a 15 foot leash was a fully grown cheetah. Cheetahs are one of the most difficult animals to see in Africa and here, in all his predatory glory, was a fully grown one. The boy motioned for me to come closer and pet him. I thought about how I would explain such an accident to my travel insurance, if I survived. The cheetah lunged at me and stopped short of his rope. I was assured he was just being “friendly”. The boy stepped closer and took my hand to pet the giant cat. Suddenly the cheetah stopped his aggressiveness and started to purr. Purr isn’t the right word, it was so loud, it was frightening. I’m a cat lover and it appeared at that moment, the cheetah was behaving just like my  orange tabby, but on a bigger scale. It’s pretty empowering to pet a dangerous animal. I felt like Siegfried and Roy for a moment, then recalled how that had turned out. 

Some local boys dressed like rappers approached the cat while I was getting my selfie stick ready. They grabbed his leash and handled him tougher than I would have dared. At some point he got provoked and when I petted him for a photo, he lunged at me like a cat who was tired of being touched. I moved quickly and didn’t get bitten, but his paw tore some small gashes in my knee. It was nothing that needed first aid, but as I was bleeding, it made me remember what kind of beast I was posing with. 

It was the perfect ending to my Somaliland adventure. “Did you ever feel in danger”? I’m asked about visiting this country. “Naw”, I reply, “maybe just that time when I was attacked by a cheetah”. 

That’s a good story.