by Trek & Travel web manager Dan
Since the Ethiopia/Eritrea border is closed, the only way around is via Djibouti; even aeroplanes don’t pass between the pugnacious neighbours. The long trip to the border town of Assab passes through the Dankalia Depression - a volcanic desert stretching 600km down the coast and supposedly one of the most inhospitable and remote places on earth. There is one bus in the morning, already full, and another one three days hence. We just can’t wait that long.
Tomorrow’s typically shoddy vehicle is being loaded already and I run around asking, no, begging, for tickets. I eventually find a guy selling a grubby scrap of paper scribbled with Tigrinyan characters. I don’t have the first clue what it says but the driver authenticates it. Well, he says he is the driver. I just have to trust him. That’s one of us sorted at least, and the ‘driver’ assures me (in sign language) that if we turn up at 4am tomorrow he will find us another seat. At least I think that’s what he says.
The bus is overflowing with passengers and luggage before dawn - one of the most crowded vehicles it has been my pleasure to experience. The aisle is piled with bags and the roof is so heavily loaded with precarious items that vertical struts have been welded into the vehicle superstructure to support the extra weight. A war veteran in the station holds out his arms, both missing below the elbow, prompting passengers to rummage for grubby Nfa1 notes. It is quite touching. Another man in an old suit and a face like a landslide stops us. “Pay me. Payment. I am begging,” he says.
Four hours later it is already as hot as an Ethiopian supermodel when the road runs out. It is now little more than a rough track, with the quality varying between cattle grid and ploughed field, via corrugated iron. These conditions turn the bus into a sweltering jackhammer. Everything shakes: seats; windows; all loose flesh. White flakes snow down on us from a pile of empty sacks on the luggage rack labelled ‘Wheat from the people of Japan’. We hold onto the seats just waiting for the shaking to stop, but it doesn’t. I glance at my watch to see how much of this we must endure and notice a pin from the strap has almost been shaken completely loose. Through chattering teeth I keep repeating to myself the mantra ‘This is not a holiday. This is not a holiday…’
Sand, broken rocks and the occasional stunted bush make up a daunting vista. We pass a dusty camel caravan, the gawky beasts milling around the banks of a waterhole, before shuddering to a halt in a village called Foro. The buildings lining the main and only street are whitewashed plank shacks behind which we run to relieve ourselves. Devoid of any shelter we feel self-conscious, at least until an old man hurries into the centre of the clearing, squats, and defecates in front of us. On our route back I almost kick a fresh goat’s head lying among the squalor.
Back in the street I’m accosted by the town lunatic who jabbers in Tigrinya and shows me a battered exercise book containing basic trigonometry. The locals laugh. One man points to his head and explains ‘not working’. Down a side street, I meet a little girl - Susie - who proudly shows me her donkey. She is so smiley that I take her picture. She wants to play so I show her how to look through the viewfinder but she’s already worked out the shutter release and knows it isn’t switched on. I oblige and she takes a shot of me - delighted - then one of her sister, and of her brother. Her squeals of joy make the last six hours worthwhile.
On the way back to the bus the crazy guy reappears and shouts us into a tea shack where he thrusts Nfa2 into my hand saying ‘shai, shai’, then runs off. We gratefully buy tea, and the locals laugh again. When we recommence driving the bus lists alarmingly as we cross a dry river bed and boulders scrape the vehicle’s bottom. Consequently the spare wheel is removed from its bracket and placed in the aisle - a huge, impassable rubber wall. We wait for the inevitable Clang! that will herald the breakage of something mechanical, irreparable and essential.
It doesn’t happen, and the day rolls on interminably. I attempt to lose myself in the Eritrea Times but the promise of ‘Farmers anticipate early arrival of tractors’ is not sufficient to occupy me. By 9pm we are bruised, dirty, exhausted and facing another seven hours of trial by omnibus, but we suddenly stop and everyone gets down into a dark street lined with beds. What fresh ordeal is this? A detail that we managed to miss involves us sleeping in this open air dormitory in Edi. An iron frame, filth-encrusted mattress and greasy brick of a pillow under the stars is to be our boudoir, and any expedition into the inky blackness beyond the lamplight is ill-advised.
Sadly, we still have no money and cannot pay the Nfa30 bed charge. We offer to sleep in the bus but the driver insists on lending us the necessary funds. I try to protect myself to some degree from bedbugs, mosquitoes and assorted stains-best-not-contemplated-too-deeply with my trusty Lufthansa blanket and pillow (danke shön fellas). There is nothing for it but to hunker down and use the day’s trauma to my soporific advantage.
The last stretch of desert is mercifully short and made more bearable at dawn by the glimmering waters of the astonishingly blue Red Sea. Due to the proximity of the disputed tri-border, national and UN army camps line the road. We catch the soldiers bathing out of huge water drums; they wave foamy arms and dance at the Tigrinyan pop blaring from our external speakers. All aboard the party bus! At last, we rattle into the baking, dilapidated port of Assab.
This is an excerpt from Dan's first book, This is Not a Holiday - a tale of travelling the length of Africa on a budget of only $10 per day. If you want to enjoy more of Dan's traumatic African experiences, you can buy the paperback book here.
Also available is the SE Asian-set sequel - March of the Warmduschers.