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 Camelot of Africa

North of Bahir Dar at over 2000 meters above sea level, Gondar is the next stop on the historical circuit and the gateway to the Simien Mountains. According to Google Maps, it’s about a three-hour drive from Bahir Dar. Naturally, it took us over six hours by minibus. During which someone ate and threw up a bunch of bananas and a jerrycan of petrol spilled all over the back seats. It was one of the better bus journeys we had in Ethiopia.

The historical crux of Gondar is Fasil Ghebbi, the so-called Camelot of Africa, a walled-off compound of royal ruins that would not look out of place on a movie set or rolling European countryside. The wall is 900-metres long and contains the well-preserved outer structures of palaces, a banquet hall, a library, churches, lion cages and other ancillary royal buildings. The construction of which was heavily influenced by the Portuguese, who were hanging around Ethiopia at the time. One of the most delightful things about travelling through Ethiopia is that each place is completely different from the one before and it’s always a surprise.

Gondar was the capital of Ethiopia from 1636 to 1855 and home to a series of Solomonic Emperors and one Empress from Fasilides to Iyasu II. The Solomonic dynasty traces its ancestry back to the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon. The dynasty ruled Ethiopia from 1270 until 1974 when Haile Selassie was deposed during a coup d’etat.

African camelot
Fasilides was Emperor from 1632 to 1667. He came to Gondar in 1636 and at first, camped underneath a sprawling tree while he scouted the area for the best spot to build his castle. He built his castle, established Gondar as the capital, and also started the construction of lots of churches; eventually, there would be forty-four churches in Gondar.

 

fasilides castle
Fasilides’ Castle

 

empress mentewab castle.jpg
Empress Mentewab’s castle. Mentewab was Queen regent for 30 years. She was crowned co-rulers with her young son Isayu II after her husband died in 1730. Our guide told us that she was shunned by the rest of the royal family for her “common” lineage and suspected Roman Catholic leanings. Also, he said, she did a lot to support and foster the education of Ethiopian women. She was one of the most powerful women in Ethiopian history.

 

old lion cages
Cages for the royal pet lions

 

church saved by bees
In 1888, the Sudanese army invaded the city and burned all of the churches in Gondar except for this one. Local lore holds that a colony of angry bees protected the church and warded off the marauders.

 

fasilides bath
Fasilides’ Bath. During Timkat (January 19th), it’s filled up with water and people jump into the pool in their clothes, to celebrate the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan river.

 

banyan trees
Banyan trees invading Fasilides’ Bath

 

After a few hours of wandering around Fasil Ghebbi, taking a quick bajaj ride to Fasilides’ Bath and so much information pouring out of the guide that I couldn’t possibly absorb it all, we were done with the educational part of our day. We went for lunch at an open-air restaurant next to the tree that Fasilides used as a camp when he first arrived in Gonder. The guide had told us that the tree was used to hold court proceedings and convicted criminals were hung from its branches. Now, the tree provides dappled shade and a quiet place to sit.

gondar court tree
Law & Order Tree