I got up ridiculously early at 5am. The one thing I’m really starting to hate about this country is that everybody gets up really early, they get up and go to bed with sunrise and sunset something I am definately not used to. I had been hoping to miss the annoying hotel bloke when I left, but no, he was waiting for me! For the next 45 minutes he kept calling me his friend and telling everybody who came in that I was, wearing it like some sort of badge of honour. When I was about to set off he asked for the money I have promised him, the 20 Birr from yesterday. I’d already decided that I was going to give him no more than 10 for helping as he’d had quite a few extras out of me. So I pointed out to him that I’d given him frequent tips yesterday which were included in my “promise” and just gave him 10, he looked really puzzled but didn’t push it as I think he was shocked his charms hadn’t worked…. And maybe my angry face!
I heard shouts of “Gonder” and then saw the bus arriving in a cloud of dust. Typically for this part of the world the inside of the bus and its engine power could not live up the paintwork on the outside. I saw the 1990s and entered the 1950s! I quickly put my bag on the roof of the bus myself to avoid another tip as I was running out of change, although this didn’t stop a random kid asking for money for showing me where to put it, where did he think I was going to put it? I did have some thoughts on that now. I jumped on the bus, went back in time, and headed to the back seat in full knowledge that the little kid would eventually make his way to the back. I wasn’t disappointed as if by magic he appeared and demanded that I should give him 30 Birr for his help as the Czech couple (my “friends” as he called them as people seem to assume all white guys know each other!) who are getting another bus gave him 30 Birr to “help”. I pointed out to the little chap that if that was the case I should just give him 15 Birr as there was only one of me but added that as I put the bag on the roof myself I’d made sure I paid myself 15 Birr. It may seem harsh, but there has to be a balance between what you do and don’t give, offering a service/job is different to begging. That said, I have to remember there maybe a bigger reason for his begging, ill family etc. so I just gave a couple of really small coins as this is realistic and what locals would give. Hopefully in time tourists will be treated not like walking money machines and will be treated like everybody else.
The bus eventually set off at about 7:20am little later than I had hoped given my 5am start. More worryingly though, the people who worked there had to push the bus to get it to start….. This turned out to be a bad omen. We sped along a pretty flat dusty/sandy road, littered all around were destroyed minibuses and other cars, sadly I didn’t have enough time to take any pictures when I saw them but many looked like they had been destroyed by gunfire rather than breaking down, covered in bullet holes and shattered windows. I’m hoping these were remnants of the war with Eritrea from four years ago which I guess would make my confrontation in Aksum a little bit more understandable, but from the number of minibuses I had a feeling that this could have actually just been for robbery, which was a little more scary. Further down the road there were bombed out tanks and armoured Russian looking personnel carriers. Armoured windows slightly open with the green dirty paint slowly giving away to rust.
Then after an hour so came my biggest surprise, I hadn’t realised at all that we were on top of a massive plateau about 2km above sea level. The views were amazing as we came to the edge, I tried to take pictures but the windows are far too dirty, covered in layers of sweat and grease from the 1000s of heads that have rested on the windows. And it would barely open. We drove down the plateau side, along a rocky bumpy winding road, down into the surprisingly lush valley, and then bumping our way up on more winding roads up the mountain on the other side, this was an amazing part of the journey and by the time we got to the top I could see that we were barely 2 miles away, in line of sight, from the edge of the previous plateau but the journey had taken almost two hours to get there! This made me come to understand how difficult it is to get around in this famine struck region and also provided me have a better understanding of the famine that has hit Ethiopia. Most of the population live at altitude on these massive plateaus, so where does the water come from? If the rains fail, then there is an immediate impact and life fails.
As we continued, some of the bends on the winding roads were so tight that we had to do three-point turns to get around. And then as we drove towards a place called Adi Arkay, the views became unbelievably spectacular. It’s a landscape I have not really seen before and the contrast between the desert plateau and the seemingly green lush peaks of the Semien Mountains did not look of this world. We stopped here for a short time, and if it wasn’t for the fact that I was travelling alone, visiting these mountains for a few hikes would’ve been spectacular but I realised I did not have the time to stop or the safety. This is always the problem when trying to fit a holiday in around work, I have to stick as close as possible to a rough timetable else I’ll never get back in time, maybe next time…… but I recommend people do a search on the Internet for the Simien Mountains Ethiopia, amazing views. In this town I gave little kid my water bottle after I’d finished and had a look round the markets and got back on the bus for an expected seven more hours to Gonder. But this was starting to get a little painful. Not to mention the fact that I hadn’t realised Ethiopians might not be used to travelling on buses and so the little old ladies sat around me were vomiting profusely with all the tight turns and bumps. This was probably not helped and made worse by the fact that grotty curtains covered the windows preventing those inside knowing where the bus was going, and the windows had to be closed as even on the hottest day Ethiopians seem to believe that the draft from the windows will lead to pneumonia and you will die…. opposed the the stench inside that wouldn’t! I on the other hand didn’t believe this I was able to open the window just a little bit so I got a little draft. It also blew the smell of the vomit away….
On one of the many twists going back up to the top of one of the plateaus, and to put it into perspective these were at least 1000 metre climbs, the bus while turning a tight corner, stalled, but this was relatively flat stretch of slightly downhill road and with a roll and a bump the bus bump started again. The journey continued with the scariness of what were up to 1000 metre drops on one side of the road and the fact that if a corner was too tight the bus had to roll backwards with nothing more than a man at the back jumping off and putting a metal block behind the back wheel to stop it from plummeting down the mountain barely a foot from the edge. I hate to think how many buses have gone over the edge this way, how many people have died, it’s absolutely treacherous. Along with the vomiting, at this stage the constant change and altitude had given people nosebleeds although this might have also been caused by the amount of dust being thrown around from the roads. But then halfway up on the final and most impressive climb to a town called Debark the bus stalled on a very tight corner. It was 12:30 PM, pretty much the hottest part of the day and I was pretty dehydrated by now being sat on the bus in hot dry conditions with very little air. I did have half a litre of water left but I was rationing myself for the journey. I would’ve had more if it wasn’t for the fucktard overcharging stallholder at the market who had prevented me from buying more as he wanted 3 pounds equivalent to the small bottle of water. I’d had no option but to buy this but then had no change for any more. He was charging the locals about 30 pence!
After much trying to restart everyone was asked to get off the bus and the driver told everyone try and push it to bump start it. Bump starting a massive bus on a tight turn on a dirty track with rocks everywhere on a steep climb on a hot day at altitude in a dusty he area was never going to be easy, especially as it was also diesel! Not surprisingly we could not get the bus moving to any speed which would turn the engine over. Worse still they couldn’t put the engine in reverse to bump start it downhill as we were part way through a three-point turn and reversing would simply let the bus plummet down the cliff edge. What was worse was when I joined in pushing the bus it became apparent that a lot of people, well men, who were pushing were doing pretty much nothing more than just placing their hands on the bus while only a few of us were really putting any effort into it. After this disappointment we eventually had to give in. At this point and after this effort I thought I would grab my bottle of water from the bus and just take a small sip to keep me going and I was gasping. Well, what a surprise, someone had stolen my water, nowhere to be seen, when I asked if anyone had picked up by “mistake” everyone just blanked me. Words could not describe my hate for the people on the bus and the country at this time. Yes, maybe it’s all about survival and I was being irrational, but here we were all on a bus journey together, not a plane crash in the Andes where we were about to turn to cannibalism!
Hours went by with no traffic other than the odd car which could do nothing more than drive past and take a message. Then maybe 5 or 6 hours later a lorry came along, the only lorry in all this time. In a rather large amount of irony when you’ve had your water stolen and are dying of thirst, the lorry was transporting 1000’s of empty drinks bottles! After ages trying to tie a knot in some wire rope they somehow found, which made me think this could have been a regular occurrence, they managed to tow the bus part way up the hill until there was a relatively flat piece of road. They were then able to try bump starting the bus in reverse. He was really bad at this so we all helped to give another bit of a push and then, with the roar and accompanying belch of black smoke the engine started. The lorry driver said something to the bus driver, something changed hands, I’m guessing 30 Birr, seems standard here! and we set off. I don’t quite know exactly what was said but I’m guessing by the way the bus driver drove from this point on, it was to take the bus out of gear and keep the revs high at all times when he was slowing down for a corner. But for us or maybe just me there was a little inwardly cheer and for a moment I didn’t hate my fellow passengers. But then just add to the irony just a little further on up the hill there was actually a water stop with a water pipe feeding fresh water from the mountain down into a water tank, if I’d known this was there I could’ve walked up the hill and got some of the water, which around here at this altitude would’ve been relatively safe, and I travel with a water purifier anyway just in case…
Just as it was getting dark we pulled into the village of Debark at the top of the plateau. The driver left the engine running while we were all allowed off to visit pretty much the only restaurant here and open. When I say restaurant it was little more than a wooden shack randomly placed in a field, quite common here. At this point though I was really feeling unwell, dizzy and slightly delirious. My knees were also bruised from the seat in front, not helped by the nail sticking out in the seats, my arse was killing me as the roads are extremely rocky and bumpy, particularly at speed, and there was simply no padding (on the bus, not may arse). I walked to the hut and opened the door of the restaurant. I looked at what they had to drink, no water, nothing other than Pepsi! So I ordered a Pepsi. The taste was unbelievable. I think because we’re used to these things we take the flavour of sugary foods and drinks for granted. You have them with your burger meal, you have them at work as part of your lunchtime meal deal, but trust me when you’re suffering extreme dehydration because some arsehole stole your water, the flavour you get is so intense, it almost felt like it was burning my mouth, I really can’t describe it but this wasn’t just fasting. This had been a build up of a lack of water over a few days and also from being in an environment where there was no shelter or shade from the extreme conditions. I bought a couple more bottles for the rest of the journey and amazingly unlike the man in the tourist town he charged me the going rate, I like to Debark! Bugger all here, but I like it!
After a nice man in the restaurant had offered me food to share with him which bought back some of the humanity of the country, we continued on but the driver was so focused on making sure he didn’t switch the engine off and stall the bus, he had forgotten that we needed diesel, we ran out! You should never let a diesel engine run dry as you have to manually pump diesel back through the system to get it working again but luckily for once today we went on a downhill slope so after filling up the tank and about 30 minutes of tweaking the engine it started up again and eventually we pulled into the town of Gonder at about 8 or 9 o’clock. I took a taxi to the Belegez Hotel which was recommended as I figured I should treat myself after today but it was late and it was already full, so I ended up in a hotel called The Circle. So I have booked into an expensive 70 Birr per night hotel which I have to be honest is not worth it but I’m just happy to have a bed and I have already arranged for a guide for tomorrow as I’ve learned so far that these guys can limit the amount of hassle you get as a tourist walking around town. The only other thing I did tonight was buy loads and loads of water. I was so very thirsty and was only satisfied after drinking almost 4 litres which made me realise just how dehydrated I’d become.