Gondar to Axum: The 2nd Worst Bus Journey

The bus trip from Gondar to Axum was the kind of horror journey Martha Gellhorn would have appreciated.

We were up at 4:30 in the morning to get to the bus station for 5:30. Our bus route would take us North from Gondar to Shire and Shire to Axum. Axum, way up in the north of the Tigray region, was the first capital of Ethiopia. The ruins of the Queen of Sheba’s castle is there and the Ark of Covenant is allegedly hidden away in a small chapel (1).

The bus station, shrouded in darkness, was a cacophony of shuffling feet and disembodied shouting. We were directed towards a green and beige local bus with seats designed for children. It looked like it may have been one of the first school buses ever to exist. Aggressive luggage porters tugged at our bags and extracted a tidy fee to throw the bags up on to the top of the bus. We sat in the too-small, uncomfortable seats for close to an hour while the bus filled up; buses in Ethiopia don’t leave until they are full. The air was stale and smelled of khat. The man in front of us had several ropes of garlic and kept spitting on the floor. I spotted a young man bringing a live chicken on board, carrying it upside down by its feet, and more than one person had a rifle on them. Another man a few rows ahead was turned around in his seat and staring at us with wide unblinking eyes.

It was going to be a long day.

“We’re not heroic like the great travellers but all the same we amateurs are a pretty tough breed. No matter how horrendous the last journey we never give up hope for the next one, God knows why.”

– Martha Gellhorn, Travels with Myself and Another

Finally, the bus was full enough and we got moving. The overflow passengers sat on buckets in the aisle. The sun rose up over the mountains as we drove away from Gondar. A man a couple rows back hummed, loudly and atonally like a wannabe Bob Dylan, the same tune for the first two hours of the journey. When the driver put the stereo on, he only got louder. The same CD played on a loop for the 10 hours it took to get from Gondar to Shire. The bus drove slowly through the mountains, carefully navigating past the usual farm animals and around switchbacks and potholes and fallen rocks. It was a beautiful road, even though the scenery was somewhat marred by the carcasses of other buses rolled over on their sides, windows blown out, in ravines beside the highway. It was dusty, hot and uncomfortable. It was impossible to sleep – the seats didn’t come up far enough to be able to rest our heads on. We didn’t stop for a break for hours; we avoided drinking any water for as long as we could and nibbled on cookies. A child soiled herself and her parents deftly cleaned her up with a scarf and dropped the mess out of the window.

The landscape began to change as we approached the Tigray region. The chiselled escarpments of the Simien range subsided into swaths of arid flatlands dotted with dusty red sandstone and limestone mountains. Camels appeared, loping along the highway and across parched fields.

We went through a military check-point when we crossed the official threshold into Tigray. Soldiers climbed on top of the bus and rifled through the luggage. Male passengers had to deboard and go into a small building to get their IDs checked. The old people, children, women and farenjis were allowed to stay on the bus. I took the opportunity to go for a swift bathroom break. There were four other farenjis on the bus; I made eye contact with the Dutch couple as they wordlessly followed me out to the side of the road. The scorching heat pressed down on us. Trash collected in the shallow ditch beside the road. Their faces mirrored my state of mind: faraway looks in their eyes, mouths set in a grim line.

As we got closer to Shire, we drove by the Mai Aini refugee camp, one of the largest refugee camps in the country that houses thousands of Eritreans. Despite the recent peace brokered between Ethiopia and Eritrea, Eritreans are in limbo and their safety, should they return to their country, is far from certain; the draconian political climate of ” repression, indefinite conscription and economic hardship”(2) remains the same. Along the flat desert highway lies evenly spaced rows of uniform buildings, with corrugated metal roofs and rocks placed on top. I could only see a handful of people. It was a glaring departure from the usual cheek by jowl, colourful and bustling Ethiopian houses.

In Shire, we were gratefully released from the bus and deposited into a dusty bus station with more shouting and corralling towards a minibus to Axum; another two hours of driving. After all that, it wasn’t even the worst bus trip we took in Ethiopia – that honour goes to the horror journey between Mekelle and Lalibela at Genna; a story for another day.

My first impression of Axum was of inviting, wide cobblestone streets lined with palm trees and sidewalk cafes. As the minibus pulled over, there was a woman standing on some concrete steps and screaming. The man she was screaming at tore off down the street. A group of men chased him, caught him and frog-marched him on the sidewalk towards wherever they were taking him. It was New Year’s Eve. We went for dinner and straight to bed.

 

 

 

 

Sources

(1) https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/keepers-of-the-lost-ark-179998820/

(2) https://africanarguments.org/2019/01/15/ethiopia-border-open-why-eritrea-sudan-fleeing/ and https://www.newsdeeply.com/refugees/community/2018/08/16/fear-dampens-hope-among-eritrean-refugees-in-ethiopia

 

 

 

The Blue Nile

My daydream of a nice, relaxing holiday where I got to sleep in and have leisurely mornings with fresh fruit drinks and coffee was not to be.

As it turns out, the buses in Ethiopia leave early. Ridiculously early. To catch our bus to Bahir Dar, we had to get up at 3:30 am to make it to the bus station for 4:30 am, to wait around for another hour for the bus to get going. And by ‘bus station’ I mean parking lot in Meskel Square, next to the Red Terror Museum. The road to the Meskel Square was dark and empty; the parking lot where all the outgoing buses were parked was a traffic jam of honking taxis and people wearing white cotton floating around in the dark like ghosts. We didn’t have time for coffee, which proved to be a good thing since bathroom breaks were to be few and far between. As far as buses go, this one wasn’t terrible. The seats were decent, we had snacks, we got a lunch break and they played music and movies. It would be, by far, the best bus we took in Ethiopia.

We left Addis and drove into rolling hills and farmland just as the sun lifted off the horizon; fingers of pink and orange stretched in all directions. Acacia trees like giant leafy umbrellas stood amongst the fields of teff. Teff is the tiny grain that is used to make injera, the spongy, slightly sour bread that serves as plates and cutlery for Ethiopian food. It was harvest season, and people were out in the fields, crouching down in the billowy golden teff with a scythe, cutting it down bit by bit. Piles of cut grass were heaped up in rows and then combined into bales. I saw a few women carrying giant bales of teff on their heads; it looked as though the bales had sprouted legs and were walking themselves to market. As the morning unspooled, farmlands morphed into busy villages of clay, cow dung and straw houses with thatched roofs. Children walked to school, books in hand, in their powder blue and parrot green uniforms. Women hauled plastic containers of water on their backs. Villages gave way to a steep decline into the Nile river valley. We crossed the river and climbed the other side. There were donkeys everywhere. The bus frequently had to stop and wait for a donkey or three to amble out of the way. Or to navigate a pothole. Hours passed this way. The Ethiopian countryside looked just like I imagined, only it felt surreal to actually be there; it might’ve all been a dream.

We arrived in Bahir Dar at around 4:30 pm. A swarm of touts, guides and bajaj (Ethiopian tuk-tuks) drivers surrounded us when we disembarked. We had arranged a pick up from the bus station with the hotel, so when a smiling guy greeted us and said he was from the hotel, we followed. He took us to the right hotel, but we found out later he did not work there. He was trying to get us to book a tour with him. Perhaps he would have been the better one to go with.

Bahir Dar is full of waving palm trees and mosquitoes. Blue and white bajajs zipped around palm-lined streets and Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile river, glittered in the sun. We went up to a lookout point to watch the sunset over the lake and the river that winds from it like a great blue snake. The blue of the sky meets the blue of the water and the landscape was a meditation on the color blue.

“The world is blue at its edges and in its depths. This blue is the light that got lost. […] This light that does not touch us, does not travel the whole distance, the light that gets lost, gives us the beauty of the world, so much of which is in the color blue.”

Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Blue Nile river and Lake Tana in the distance
A study in blue: a view of the Blue Nile and Lake Tana in the distance

 

The next day we went on a full day tour of Lake Tana and the Blue Nile Falls, arranged through our hotel. In the morning, we were ushered onto a long wooden boat with a shade covering and puttered out onto the lake. Lake Tana is vast, edged with papyrus reeds, coffee plants and lush forest, its soft blue water ripples like silk. We visited two monasteries on richly wooded islands in the middle of the lake. Birds twittered from the trees and incense hung heavy in the air. The monasteries, round buildings with layers like Russian nesting dolls, perched in amongst the trees. Inside the first layer, vibrant religious paintings covered the circular walls from floor to ceiling. Men dressed all in white sat outside the building in a group; low, rhythmic chanting drifted up and mingled with birdsong. A guide was explaining the finer details of the paintings to a group of hushed tourists when a fracas broke out in the treetops just outside. The group abandoned the lesson to watch a troupe of monkeys fight with a flock of birds. I thought I saw the guide rolling his eyes. The pathway to one of the monasteries was lined with vendors selling crosses, small paintings and coffee. They called, “Look! Look! Looking is free!” as we passed. When we returned to the edge of the lake, we sat at one of the coffee vendors and had a little teacup of freshly brewed coffee and looked out over the lake, studying the rocks in case they were actually hippos.

 

On the way back, we stopped in a reedy part of the lake and waited for the hippos. A purple-brown, bulbous head popped up out of the water with a splash and dove under again and again. A baby hippo poked his head out of the water, waggled its little ears and disappeared. We left too soon; I could have watched the hippos playing peekaboo for ages.

As we stepped off the boat, the tour organizer and a minivan were waiting for us. The tour organizer impatiently ushered us into the van with a group of other tourists and sent us on our way. He’d said it was a quick, one hour drive to the Blue Nile Falls and we’d have more than enough time to get there, see the falls and return before it got dark. And that might have worked out, however, along the way, one of the tires burst. The driver swapped it for a spare and we were on our way again. Briefly. Until the same tire burst again. And this time, there was no spare. We were stranded. A group of children ran out and thronged us, all smiles and giggles and requests for money. We loitered by the side of the road for a while until it became apparent that if we wanted to get to the falls that day, we were going to have to do it ourselves.

Mini van with popped tire by the side of the road
Stranded

 

 

A passing bus was flagged down and half of the group squeezed their way in. The rest of us waited for the next one, hoping there’d be more room. There was not, but we stuffed ourselves inside anyway, pressed into the crush like play-doh into a plastic mould. I should have gone to the bathroom before we left.

Worries over how we’d know where to get off were assuaged when the bus terminated at the back end of a little town and people helpfully pointed us to the ticket office for the falls. After paying the entrance fee and acquiring a guide and an armed guard, we walked through farmer’s fields towards the little boat that would take us across the river, stopping to sample little gold fruit from a kumquat tree. People were loading long stalks of sugar cane onto donkeys and the children were chewing on broken off pieces and jumping around, all hopped up on sugar. The sun dipped low in the sky; twilight approached.

Finally, we crested a hill and descended into the soggy, marshy green slope that faced the falls. It was dry season and most of the falls were diverted into the hydroelectric dam, so the falls were only at about 15% of the wet season volume. Still impressive, though; curtains of water rushing into a wide swath of lush, misty, muddy valley, awash in the soft golden light of the gloaming.

We made it back to the little town just as night fell, and met the idling replacement minibus that took us, without incident, back to Bahir Dar.

blue nile falls in lush valley
Blue Nile Falls