x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Somaliland to Nairobi: tip back mango juice and enjoy the ride

The Practical Traveller Chris Guillebeau sets himself a series of goals on his way from Hargeisa to Nairobi.

It's been the longest of days. At 3.30am I wake up in Hargeisa, Somaliland, where I had been touring after coming in from Nairobi. By 3.45 there's a knock on my door, informing me of the arrival of a taxi driver - but it's an unnecessary reminder, because I'm already heading out.

I trudge down the hall of the guesthouse and take a quick shower. At 4am I'm in the taxi, headed for the offices of African Express Airways, the carrier that will fly me back to where I had begun this leg of the journey. There's just one problem: African Express only flies from Berbera, a coastal town three hours away from the capital of Hargeisa.

The airline provides a complimentary shuttle service for the journey, but insists that all passengers arrive at the tiny airport in Berbera by 8am, a full three hours before departure. Thus the 3.30am iPhone alarm and the 4am taxi ride. Having been warned that I simply must arrive at the bus station by 4.15 or else they would leave without me, I get there promptly and then sit on the ground waiting for half an hour.

We finally depart and I begin what I term the first trial. I divide a long day's journey into segments, and here's how the morning of this day plays out:

Goal: get to the bus station at the airline office by 4.15am.

Goal: endure three-hour minibus journey, arriving at the airport in time to check-in.

Goal: get boarding pass, clear immigration, and successfully embark the aircraft.

Today, I have seven such goals, ending with my safe return to Nairobi approximately 16 hours after the trip began. The challenge is made more interesting by the fact that if I had stayed in Berbera instead of going to Hargeisa, I could have avoided the middle-of-the-night awakening and the ensuing bus journey. But then I would have missed the chance to understand more about life in Somaliland, so I'm glad I went.

Yes, glad - and also tired. I make it to the airport and cleared immigration but the challenge isn't over. Before returning to Nairobi, we still have two stops to make. The first is Mogadishu, where approximately half the passengers disembark and another half join to take their place.

Goal: land in Mogadishu without dying.

Next, we make a stop in Wajir, Kenya, where I pass the time writing most of these notes. As we are flying in, a Ugandan traveller I sit next to gives me the rundown on this additional stop. For some reason, the Kenyan aviation authorities don't trust the security in Somalia, the world's most dangerous country, so before any flight can enter the capital of Nairobi, it must first divert to Wajir, a much smaller city far from government buildings and masses of people.

"The theory is, if there's a bomb on the plane, they want it to go off over a remote part of the country," my Ugandan seatmate cheerfully tells me. It's a pleasant enough thought to consider while the flight attendant passes out drinks: a choice between 7-Up and mango juice. I take the juice and examine the bottom, which advertises "at least five per cent real juice". I look at the back: "Produced in Bangladesh".

Might as well drink it up, I decide. We all need some mango-flavoured sugar water to get through the day sometimes. When life gets hard or you happen to be flying via Mogadishu, tip back a bottle of juice and enjoy the ride.

Goal: make it to Wajir with the airplane intact.

Goal: get transit visa for Kenya.

It's a comprehensive security stop in Wajir. Everyone gets off the plane with all their hand luggage, and all checked luggage and cargo is manually removed by ground staff for screening. It's also the first international point of entry for Kenya, which means all passengers must shuffle through immigration and purchase visas if necessary. The upside of this long procedure is that once we re-enter the aircraft, we'll now be on a domestic flight and there will be no further immigration procedures on the other side in Nairobi.

I get my US$20 (Dh73) transit visa, go through another security check and join the group of waiting passengers outside. The setting is tranquil - rural Africa at its best. I talk to an African man with a Norwegian passport. "Been away for a while?" I ask.

He's eager to chat: "I come from Somalia, but I left 30 years ago. I cried when I saw Mogadishu. I was happy to return but sad to see so many destroyed buildings."

In conversations like these, I try to listen more than I speak. Another man tells me about an ethical crisis he faced when offered a grant from a large oil company. He emailed his professor in Lagos to ask if he should accept, and the professor said he should: "They owe so much to Africa. You might as well do something good with their money if you're able."

After sitting for a while, we board the plane and make the final flight to Nairobi. There's one more security check upon arrival, but this one is minor, with no long queues or passport inspection. We're back where we started, and I take a last look at the African Express jet on the tarmac before heading through the airport and out to a waiting taxi.

Goal: arrive at the hotel, express gratitude for a safe return, and collapse on the bed.

Chris Guillebeau, 33, is the author of The Art of Non-Conformity, published by Penguin. He is on a five-year mission to visit every country in the world, and is currently on number 178. Next week: how to become a travel expert.?????