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.






(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




Simien Mountains and the Beast-Ape

Cool Facts about the Simien Mountains:

  • Also called the Roof of Africa, the highest peak is Ras Dejen at 4,533 m.
  • Simien means “north” in Amharic and “south” in Ge’ez. When Axum was the capital of Ethiopia, the range was to the south. When the capital moved and the language changed, so did the meaning of the name.
  • The range was created between 40 and 25 million years ago before the Rift Valley was a thing.
  • The majority of the Simien Mountains is the detritus of a shield volcano. Basaltic lava piled up over the existing sandstone and limestone, which was pushed up and around by volcanic activity and then eroded by the elements over time, carved out like so many marbled chess pieces.
  • Wildlife found in the Ethiopian highlands: Abyssinian wolf, Walia ibex, gelada or bleeding-heart monkey, and lots of terrifying, prehistoric-looking birds: giant pied crows, thick-billed ravens and creepy vultures.
  • Gelada monkeys only live in the Simien mountains. Often called baboons (but aren’t), they are the only living members of the genus Theropithecus, which comes from the Greek: beast-ape.
simien mountain park ethiopia
Simien Mountain escarpment

We hired a 4×4 jeep and a driver from our hotel for an excursion into the Simien Mountains. I have an injured knee, wonky arthritic joints and I don’t like hiking, so it was only a day trip for us. My joints were already in a state from being crammed on buses for so many hours, but I hoped a little bit of a nature walk might do me some good.

donkeys carrying wood on the way to market from Gondar

Bright and early in the morning, again, we set out in the jeep. It was Market Day so there were loads of donkeys plodding along, weighted down with all manner of things: teff, wood, huge sacks of grain and sugar cane. Getting out of Gondar was an obstacle course of donkeys, pedestrians, potholes, vans and trucks and cars and bajajs.

We stopped along the way a couple of times to take pictures and each time, children ran up to ask for money and say hi to the faranjis. Our driver made fun of me for being wrapped up in a hoodie and scarf, even though I’m Canadian and no one else was cold and it’s Sub-Saharan Africa. What can I say? I’m a bad Canadian.

It was a three-hour drive to Debark, where we paid the entrance fee and picked up a guide and a scout. The guide was young and brimming with energy. We learned later that it was his first day. The scout was our protective detail. He sat in the back of the jeep, rifle slung across his lap, chewing khat. The three men filled the jeep with chatter. Road conditions declined considerably when we entered the park; our driver called it the “African massage”.

Once in the park, we were dropped off to walk for a couple of hours along the table top of the escarpment, winding through the alpine forest, and looking out into the valley of dusty taupe and muted greens and blues. Bumblebees like tiny fuzzy 747s zoomed around in Acacia trees. White Abyssinian wild roses and indigo globe thistles were in full bloom. The scout walked behind us, and I spent all day trying to figure out a way to lose him so I could go pee in the bushes. In the end, I was in such a rush, I nearly sat down in a bramble of thistles. Do not recommend.

simien mountain valley vista
Simien valley

Gelada monkeys are the only monkeys I’ve ever met that aren’t jerks. We found two troupes and each time, they completely ignored us. They busied themselves, grunting and squealing, with digging around in and eating grass. They have little leathery faces, shaggy red-gold hair and diamond-shaped bald patches on their chests. For males, the patch denotes where they are in the pecking order with the alphas having bright red patches and low-status boys with light pink patches. In the females, the shade of red indicates where they are in their estrus cycle. The full-grown males looked like miniature lions.

After lunch, we went for a quick walk to a waterfall, down a rolling hill and over a terribly narrow stone bridge. We emerged into a little clearing on the lip of a bowl-shaped section of the scarp that looked like it had been scooped out with an ice cream scooper. A skinny waterfall shot out from the opposite side, glittering with rainbow spumes. A huge thick-billed raven waddled out from the underbrush and just about scared the pants off me. Aptly named, it had a tremendous beak, shiny obsidian feathers and a white patch on the back of its head. It shuffled around, found a good spot and then launched itself into the caldera, gliding in wide, lazy circles with the vultures, all dark smudges against the rock face.

thick-billed raven about to take flight off cliff side with waterfall in the background

two women posing with simien mountain valley in background