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A TRAVELERS' CENTURY CLUB-INSPIRED
"FLY THROUGH" OF SOMALIA
by Ted Cookson
Published in October 2003
Dust off your atlas!
I returned to Cairo on the morning of 8 April 2003 after a 4-day/5-night trip to Kenya, Somalia and Djibouti. The entire trip was centered around a Somalia "fly through" from Nairobi to Djibouti on 5 April. The "fly through" finally allowed me to complete my Travelers' Century Club (TCC) collection of 52 destinations in Africa. Organized in Los Angeles in 1954 by a group of the world’s most widely-traveled people, the TCC maintains a list of 317 countries and places.
Actually, I had visited Somalia previously. I had flown to Hargeisa in northern Somalia (and also to Djibouti and North Yemen) in January 1985. While working in Riyadh I had managed to obtain a Somalia tourist visa. But to do so I had had to phone the Somali consul in Jeddah and chat him up on a number of occasions over a period of several months. Finally, when I learned that the consul planned to visit Riyadh on business, I sent some toys for his kids to his hotel. With that gift I finally struck gold. The consul then relented and granted me a tourist visa to Somalia.
The reason for my April visit to Somalia was that in 1999 the TCC finally recognized that the northern Somali province had split away from Somalia to become the independent republic of Somaliland. (The North, calling itself Somaliland since the early 1990’s, is the former British Somaliland, the capital of which is Hargeisa. Unfortunately for Somaliland it is not yet recognized officially by any other country!) That meant that I had to undertake a trip to Mogadishu or to one of the other cities in the South in order to be able to include Somalia in my TCC destination count again. My earlier visit to Hargeisa counted only for Somaliland after the breakaway.
So on the night of 3 April I flew from Cairo to Nairobi via Khartoum on Kenya Airways. I enjoyed a wonderful dinner at Nairobi’s premier Indian restaurant on 4 April. Then early on Saturday morning I checked in at Unit One of Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta International Airport for my 8-hour Daallo Airlines flight from Nairobi to Djibouti via Mogadishu and Galckayo (pronounced “Gal-keye’-oh”) in Somalia and Hargeisa in Somaliland.
For many Westerners the names "Mogadishu" and "Somalia" conjure up visions of the extremely bloody movie "Black Hawk Down." I had seen the first half of that movie myself last year but had had to walk out before it was over after the constant gore finally became unbearable.
In fact, I had written off the possibility of visiting Somalia during the past few years for the obvious security reasons. But then I learned about the existence of Daallo Airlines (www.daallo.com), which serves Somalia using Djibouti as a hub, from several fellow TCC members. One flew Daallo to Mogadishu disguised in Arab garb. Another fearlessly flew to Mogadishu with his wife and child! And two others flew to Mogadishu with only a minor hitch. They were taken aside and isolated from the other passengers on their aircraft after the crew realized that, as loudly-conversing Westerners, they were beginning to receive threatening glances from some of the Somalis on board.
I realized that if these people had all been able to fly into Somalia and live to tell me about it later, then I should be able to get in and out safely too. Also, I thought the time was especially ripe now since Somalia peace talks have been ongoing in Kenya since late last year.
Still, there was always some doubt about safety in my mind. So it was with some relief that I found that I was not the only Caucasian checking in at Nairobi. As it turned out, four other Westerners were on my flight, including one other American! Two of the four - a Spaniard and an Aussie - were AID workers, and the American was probably either an AID worker or an architect since he was carrying blueprints. I never spoke with the fourth who, judging from his accent, was probably from eastern Europe.
The Daallo aircraft was an aging Ilyushin-18 four-engine turboprop which had apparently done time in Thailand, judging from the script used for the on board signs. The plane was manned by a six-person Russian crew - a pilot, a navigator, two mechanics, a fellow whom I think was a security guard since I never saw him do anything other than stand around, and a stewardess who spoke limited but functional English ("soft drink - take!").
With about 80 seats, the aircraft featured - in typical Russian style - a curtained "V. I. P." section in the rear with a dozen seats and, I think, the only passenger toilet on board. The large toilet compartment, which reeked of the blue liquid chemicals flowing in the seatless toilet bowl, served a dual purpose. First and foremost, it was indeed a toilet. But it was also used to store crates of soft drinks manufactured in Jeddah.
Acting protectively, one of the two Somali stewards managed to steer three of the Westerners, including me, into the back VIP compartment as we boarded. Two of the other Westerners sat up front with the other Somalis.
It was a 2-hour flight from mile-high Nairobi northeast to Mogadishu's sea level "Km 50 Airport," situated 50 km, or 30 miles, from town. Sandwiches from Nairobi and soda pop were served for breakfast. I was probably the only passenger who realized that the soda pop had come from our toilet. Not long before we arrived at Mogadishu it was easy to spot the meandering Juba River, the main river in southern Somalia, through the aircraft's large round windows.
The landing after noon on the smooth dirt strip at Km 50 Airport was an exciting one. Our experienced Russian pilot brought the plane in for a perfect three-point landing. The four props stirred up lots of dust, obscuring the sage brush which covered the flat terrain outside. We taxied over to a large cement slab on the far side of the strip opposite some small nondescript single-story structures. At any other world airport these structures would have been called a terminal building. But here there was nothing so formal as that.
After the engines had been turned off, our on board Russian maintenance team climbed right down the stairs and began to change one of our ten extremely worn aircraft tires. Luckily, all spares were carried with us.
I saw no guns at all in Somalia. There was no obvious armed security. One man dressed in military fatigues did shoo away two kids who wandered up to the aircraft stairs at one point. But he did nothing to control the crowd of perhaps 50 Somalis who gathered in the shade of the aircraft's belly and under the wide wings. These were disembarking passengers as well as both greeters and stragglers who had wandered over from the direction of the low buildings across the airstrip.
Baggage from Nairobi was offloaded by hand down a simple ladder and onto a pickup truck, and boarding passengers' baggage was similarly hoisted up by hand into the baggage compartment.
I asked a Somali bystander if he could sell me some local currency, and he directed me to a young man in a pickup who flashed a thick wad of Somali 1,000-shilling notes. As a souvenir, I purchased 1,700 Somali shillings for one U. S. dollar.
After smelling gasoline blowing in the warm wind under the plane, I glanced up and noticed that jet fuel was leaking in steady drips onto the ground from the fuel tank in our right wing. Since the maintenance crew was paying no attention to the dripping, I figured that it was just par for the course. At least no one was smoking close to the plane.
The blueprint-toting American on board actually disembarked at Mogadishu. He had been accompanied from Nairobi by a well-dressed Somali man. During the flight I had overheard the Somali instruct the American to proceed directly to the car that would be awaiting them upon arrival. The Somali said that he would handle the formalities for both of them.
After nearly an hour on the ground at Mogadishu we lumbered up into the warm skies again, this time more full, with 67 passengers on board. Lunch, served with plastic silverware, was pasta smothered in Unknown Sauce (was that meat in the sauce or not?). I think lunch may also have been catered in Nairobi. But the pasta made me think of Somalia's Italian colonial heritage, and I wondered how much that heritage must have influenced the national diet. After an hour and a half of flying over parched, wadi-pocked terrain, we landed on the paved airstrip near Galckayo, located on the edge of the Ogaden Desert just south of the joint in Somalia's great geographical dog leg.
I also disembarked at Galckayo. While I was staring at the bald aircraft tires, one of the Russian maintenance men walked by, smiled and apologized, in his thickly-accented and broken English, "Crazy country, Somalia - NOT Russia!," as if to acknowledge that the tires of this aircraft would not have been quite so bald had it been operating back home. Fortunately there was no further changing of tires at Galckayo as it was by then mid-afternoon and quite warm out. Since the dripping fuel was no longer a novelty, I didn't linger long in the hot shade of the aircraft but elected to return to my smelly seat near the V. I. P. compartment toilet. There was a breeze blowing in the airplane's doorway, at least.
I didn't overhear the passenger count for the next leg. But many passengers did disembark at Galckayo. It was another hour of flying northwest to Hargeisa in the former British Somaliland. The small terminal at Hargeisa with its stubby control tower proclaiming the altitude in feet is another remnant of the colonial era. In Hargeisa I asked the Daallo ground handler for help in buying some local currency. He directed me to an old man who led me through a crowd to a bank window in the side of the terminal building. I purchased 3,500 Somaliland shillings for one U. S. dollar before reboarding the plane. And these bills were crisp and new as opposed to the fingered Somalia bills I'd gotten at Mogadishu.
For the final half hour flight there were only two passengers. No passengers boarded in Hargeisa for the last short hop over to Djibouti on the coast. Landing at Djibouti at 5:30 p.m., an airport bus carried the two of us over to the terminal. I cleared immigration and took a taxi to the Djibouti Sheraton four miles away. The driver, with whom I conversed in Arabic, pointed out the French military barracks as well as a small American military presence.
Due to thin air schedules I had spent four nights in Djibouti in 1985, so I didn't feel a pressing need to play tourist there again this time. Djibouti is a poor, sanitized French-speaking Arabia wannabe which can exist primarily because of French foreign aid. Instead I soaked up the local color on the Preferred Floor of the Djibouti Sheraton for two days, finishing Paul Theroux's latest African travel tale, Dark Star Safari, and keeping up with events in Iraq on the 18 satellite channels piped into the room. This hotel property had really been upgraded since I last stayed there in 1985. What I couldn't figure out was why many of the rooms on my floor were occupied by German-speaking soldiers. Perhaps there were military training exercises in the Djibouti desert.
On Monday night I flew back to Cairo on the Ethiopian Airlines red eye service via Addis Ababa and Khartoum. The brand new air terminal in Addis is marvelous compared to the run-down old terminal which is now scheduled to be converted for use with domestic flights.
Interestingly, I had been required to obtain a visa for Djibouti in Cairo prior to departure. But, had I wished to remain in Somalia, no visa would have been required since Somalia is not a functioning country. It's still just a collection of warlords.
Next three TCC destinations: Kosovo and Afghanistan in 2003 and the island of Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic (which I plan to visit from Cape Town on the annual supply ship) in late January 2004. Then I need to find a way to land on the nearly-impossible-to-reach Wake Island, currently run by the U. S. military. And finally I need to figure out how to afford two trips to the Antarctic (one trip to one of the Russian bases and a second trip to the South Pole itself which conveniently counts for 8 different destinations) in order to complete the TCC list finally.
ABOUT TED COOKSON: Egypt's most widely-traveled travel agent, Ted has been to every country in the world! He has also visited 307 of the 315 destinations on the list of the Travelers' Century Club (visit www.eptours.com and refer to World Travel Club). A travel agent in Cairo since 1986, Ted manages EGYPT PANORAMA TOURS, a full-service travel agency, at 4 Road 79 (between Roads 9 and 10, near the "El Maadi" metro station) in Maadi. Contact Egypt Panorama Tours (open 7 days a week 9 AM-5 PM) at: Tels. 2359-0200, 2358-5880, 2359-1301. Fax 2359-1199. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Web site: www.eptours.com.
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