Berbera - A view from our expert author

This charmingly decayed Ottoman port is a great base to explore the region’s splendid beaches and offshore reefs of the Gulf of Aden.

Berbera Somaliland by Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Africa Image LibraryThe historic town of Berbera has been a centre of maritime trade since ancient times, and it lies on the Gulf of Aden opposite Yemen. This was a strategic location for the trade route between the Red Sea and India, and more recently during the Cold War. Indeed, in the 1970s it was an important base for the USSR, who built the 4km runway (one of the longest anywhere in Africa) that somewhat redundantly graces the international airport a few kilometres south of town. Today, Berbera is the main commercial seaport in Somaliland, serving not only the capital Hargeisa, about 150km to the south, but also bordering parts of eastern Ethiopia.

Boasting an idyllic swimming beach and access to innumerable well-preserved coral reefs, Berbera has enormous potential for tourist development, though this remains largely unrealised at the time of writing, with just one operational resort hotel and dive centre in place. Also of great interest is the old quarter of town, where the wealth of crumbling pre-20th century architectural gems – most in urgent need of restoration work – would make it a shoo-in candidate as a World Heritage Site were Somaliland ever to gain UN recognition. Even in its present semi-ruinous state, Berbera is an absorbing place, and it doesn’t seem wildly fanciful to see a rehabilitated incarnation of the old town one day forming a Somali counterpart to such iconic cultural tourist hubs as Ilha do Moçambique, Gorée Island or Lamu.

As things stand, Berbera tends to make a less than favourable first impression, particularly when you arrive in the harsh light of early afternoon via an extensive and unsightly litter belt of scrubby thorn trees draped with thin plastic bags. It doesn’t help that the town’s only proper tourist facility, the out-of-town Mansoor Hotel, has the stark and unfinished appearance of a beachfront construction site. Or that the town can be intolerably hot in summer (May to September), when daytime temperatures routinely nudge above 45°C, and typical nocturnal minimums of 30–35°C, all but necessitating a room with air conditioning.

Once settled in, however, Berbera is thoroughly appealing, at least it is during the relatively cool winter months, when average temperatures, though not exactly arctic, are almost 10°C lower. The compact old town, its alleys lined with attractive mosques and other relicts of the Ottoman occupation, is great fun to explore, and the sandy out-of-town beach is genuinely refreshing. Further afield, the surrounding reefs offer superb diving and snorkelling, while the ancient waterworks at the Dubaar Springs – overlooked by old Ottoman fortification – make for a worthwhile day out. Berbera could also be used as a base for exploring the likes of Mount Wagar and Ga’an Libah.

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