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Laas Geel, Somaliland
6th - 7th December, 2017
False colour images processed with DStretch,
a freely available software developed by Jon Harman
The magnificent rock art sites of Somaliland, known to the outside world only since 2003, have long been on our wish-list. Now after our Jebel Uweinat expedition it was possible to fit in a short detour before returning to Europe. Both the conditions in the country and the site itself surpassed all our expecations, the trip was perfectly problem and hassle free, and the painted shelters rank among the finest rock art on the African continent.
Staying a night in Khartoum after the Uweinat expedition ended, we took the miday Ethiopian Airlines flight to Addis, connecting to the afternoon flight to Hargeisa (Ethiopian now flies twice daily in the morning and afternoon), arriving just before 5pm. The airport was small but fairly orderly, within 15 minutes we were past the quick & friendly immigration (with visas obtained beforehand at the London Somaliland mission) with our luggage waiting outside. The arranged Landcruiser was waiting outside, and within half an hour of landing we checked in to the spotlessly clean and by all standards comfortable Ambassador Hotel, located on a hilltop very close to the airport, with a fine view over the city i the valley below. The only sign that we were not in a 'normal' country was the polite but very thorough hand search of all our luggage at the hotel entrance, and the barbed wire and concrete barrier fortress surrounding the UNHCR building just behind the hotel.
We had a very pleasant dinner and a good sleep in the hotel, and were ready to depart at 7:30am. As we were to go straight to the airport in the afternoon, we loaded all our luggage and drove accross the city (appearing much more lively and prosperous than I imagined) to pick up the armed policeman who was to accompany us on the short drive to Laas Geel. As we passed along the few checkpoints on the road, his main utility was to speed our passage, as soon as he was noticed on the front street the bariers were lowered for us to pass. Judging by the very relaxed and informal nature of these checkpoints there are no real security issues (at east not in the areas we visited), the requirement for the policeman was mainly for show.
There is not much to see along the 65 km drive along the Berbera road, once one leaves the edge of Hargeisa the landscape turns to an arid shrubland with low hills, with some sparse villages along the roadside. It took over an hour on the sometimes rather potholed road to reach the turn-off to the track to Laas Geel, marked by a cardboard sign and a guard post not far beyond. The track is rather bumpy, but could be tackled with an ordinary vehicle with some care. Away from the road we encountered several nomad settlements with tents very much like the Tibu huts in chad, but instead of the palm leaf matting they were patched from colorful pieces of cloth. Interestingly our driver made a point of bringing litte presents and sweets for the nomad children, clearly the value of the local population in protecting the sites is known and appreciated.
The locality of Laas Geel is a small granite hillock rising about 40 metres from the surrounding shrubland, with some prominent shelters along the Easern face of the hill visible from afar. Approaching closer it is possible to see dozens of smaller ones, scattered all about the hill. The car park is some 200 metres from the hill, with a small exhibit broviding some background information on the sites, and a built path with concrete steps leading up to the hillside. The site was first visited by a French team led by Xavier Gutherz on 4 December 2002, and subsequently some 20 shelters were surveyed and documented (of which 10 are said to have major paintings, the rest just a few figures or traces).
The most important shelter is the very first one encountered ascending the path. It is not the big shelter visible from afar, but a rather low inconspicious one, consisting of two chambers. It is the right chamber that contains the best known paintings, covering the entire ceiling, with one of the finest examples of the strange abstract cattle right at the entrance of the shelter.
The left chamber contains fewer paintings, but these too are very well preserved, showing the typical stylized cattle and human figures.
The ceiling of the right shelter contains the finest paintings at the locality, including two cattle with much larger horns than all the rest, apparently bulls as the prominent udder seen on the smaller animal figures are clearly lacking. Elsewhere in the shelter there are representations of dogs, and several of the stylized human figures. Near the large bulls there are two partially overlapping cattle which appear to be of a different (later) style.
The large prominent shelter dominating the Eastern part of the hill is slightly above the first one, requiring several flights of stairs to reach it. It contains three concenrations of paintings, one at the extreme left, in a small low shelter which cannot be reached from the main flat platform in front of the main shelter, but requires a scramble up the rocks from the first shelter. The main shelter itself has a number of paintings on the rear wall, and at the right, o a slightly higher level there is another fine compact panel. In publications these are all treated as distinct shelters, though it is rather confusing as the numbering changed slightly over time.
The low shelter at the left contains a fine compact panel of cattle on the ceiling, plus several other less well preserved scenes on the rear wall.
The large shelter contains more spread out scenes in smaller groups, predominantly cattle, including one of the finest such representations with an exceptionally elaborate striped dewlap (?) and accompanied by one of the typical stylized human figures.
The niche at left also has a fairly compact but dense panel that covers the entire suitable vertical surface along the side of a small niche. It is noteworthy for the many superpositions, though interestingly there appears to be no marked stylistic distinction between the layers.
Immediately to the left of the niche the ground drops, forming a broad level terrace in front of a spacious high shelter with similar but considerably more faded cattle depictions on the ceiling.
The built path ends here however a dirt trail continues, soon passing a big hollow in the rock, not quite big enough for a person to fit in comfortably. There is a single cattle figure and the remains of some indiscernible paintings at the rear of the hollow.
Continuing along the path one arrives below a long shallow shelter some distance up on the hillside, needing some scrambling over the steep sloping granite plates to reach.
There are several groups of paintings along the rear wall of this shelter, including the only unambiguous wild fauna depiction at Laas Geel, a giraffe and a few unclear gazelle or antelopes.
The proper path ended here, but it was possible to discern a worn indistinct trail leading up the hillside. My hunch proved correct, there was another shelter higher up, invisible from the path below. It contained some more of the now familiar cattle, but more importantly I recognised it from photographs as the only site ("cave 7") at the locality with shelter deposits. The French team excavated it and found evidence for several distinct occupational periods, the one that most likely matches the paintings was dated about 3000-2500 BCE.
From Cave 7 there is a perfect view of the Northern end of the low hill with two large prominent shelters and the surrounding countryside. It is also the end of the upper cluster of sites, there are no more paintings worth noting on the far side of the hill or in the large Northern shelters.
Checking out the shelters matched the description in the publications, I only found some indiscernible traces of paint in the more likely left one, with a comfortable shaded terrace in front of it (the other shelter had no real floor, it was more a hollow in the cliff unsuitable for dwelling).
Our driver and the local guardian both confirmed that there were no more paintings on the Western side of the hill, nevertheless I made a quick foray to the far side of the northern spur of the hill to have a look at the countryside. There was a very large and comfortable shelter which did contain some very meager traces of paintings, including a human figure accompanied by a white camel which id definitely much more recent than the other paintings seen so far at the locality.
The top of the Northern spur offered a very good vantage point, with an unobstructed view over the flat country to the North speckled with white dots of grazing goats. A little closer a flock of sheep approached, each with white bodies and black head and neck, exactly like sheep depicted on Iheren style paintings in the Tassili. In the other direction there was a good overview of the sites along the side of the hill. Amongst the rocks I have already spotted some agamas, but here I could manage a few photographs, one a female, the other a more patient male. They were subsequently identified by Philipp Wagner as Lanza's Spiny Agama (Agama lanzai), a distinct local species only described a few years ago (Wagner et. al. 2013).
The remaining sites are on a lower level closer to the foot of the hill. The first one was a spacious rounded niche at the base of a low clif about half-way up to the uper level of sites, large enough to comfortably accommodate a person or two.
The paintings on the rear wall include possibly the finest single cattle depiction, with a very elaborately decorated dewlap, accompanied by a human figure and a series of intriguing shapes with no clear function or meaning. Another, partially weathered cattle also has a very elaborate dewlap not seen in other shelters.
A little to the North, on the far side of a gully and a slightly lower level there is another larger shelter, which is full of some very fine scenes on the ceiling, the second most interesting series of paintings at Laas Geel after the first shelter.
The paintings are not easy to photograph as a rock ledge below them prevents easy access. The most noteworthy is a cattle with a unique patterned dewlap decoration, accompanied by several dogs. There are further fine cattle on the ceiling, including a pair which our driver believed to be mating until I pointed out that they both have udders.
The last site is about 50 metres away at the foot of the hill, under a shelter formed by a large boulder (the only such site at Laas Geel, all other paintings are in bedrock shelters). Interestingly this last site (variously referred to as Cave 9 or Cave 10) was not seen by the discoverers in 2002 as it was infested by a particularly agressive swarm of wasps, they could only discern the paintings with binoculars.
The paintings cover all of the rear of the shelter, the second largest panel here, mostly depicting the typical cattle, together with a number of human figures and some dogs, plus some hard to discern animals (also dogs ?) with a collar composed of vertical lines.
We completed the tour of the principal shelters, but for completeness I checked out several smaller shelters for some vestiges of paintings. A little below the first shelter along the side of the built path there were two small alcoves, both containing some very meager paintings, the first a single cow, the second the remains of what appears to be a group of human figures (plus an almost invisible cow).
Below the large shelter, at the Southern end of the rock outcrop with the niche with fine cattle at the Northern end there was another prominent shelter (the easternmost site at the locality), neither our driver nor the local guardian were aware of any paintings in it. Nevertheless I climbed up and was not surprised to find several faint but discernible figures, including a fine panel on the rear wall with a number of cattle.
We have spent four hours at Laas Geel, which was just about enough to see and photograph all the sites at an unhurried pace. Our flight back to Addis was at 5pm, as getting there took over an hour and a half we needed the same time to return. We left around half past one, and as we approached the road I caught glimpse of a couple of gazelle some distance in the bush. They were not particularly nervous, permitting me to get out of the car and walk to within 60-70 metres of them before they broke into a slow trop, apparently not too concerned about our presence. They were later identified as Northern gerenuk (Litocranius walleri ssp. sclateri) a rare and threatened species, but apparently abundant in Somaliland where it is not hunted.
The rest of the return to the airport was rather uneventful, passing the small villages, then taking a shortcut along the perimeter of Hargeisa direct to the airport to avoid crossing the middle of the town in the afternoon traffic.
With the unexpectedly positive and hassle-free experience in Somaliland, we plan to return for a longer visit sometime in the next 12-16 months (possibly combined with some other rock art regions in NE Africa), please keep an eye on the Planned Expeditions page for updates, or "like" the FJ Expeditions FaceBook page to receive notices of news and updates.