I gazed out across the plains from my vantage point by a military watch-tower at the eastern edge of the Ethiopian highlands. I was about to leave the familiar craziness of Amhara and to cross the Afar desert, the site of the hottest air temperature ever recorded, and the home of the nomadic Afar tribes.
Even by Ethiopian standards, the road was terrible. I had already pedalled over five hundred bone-shaking kilometres along steep mountain tracks. I couldn’t believe my bike was still in one piece, and I was paranoid that something was going to break in the middle of nowhere.
As usual, the locals of Amhara had nothing good to say about their neighbours. Thieves and murderers, the lot of them, apparently. Those who stopped for a chat loved to spin tales of drivers being pulled from their vehicles and shot. All the tribesmen carried AK-47’s, they said. One young man made me promise to take a bus across the region. “Of course, of course!” I lied.
I had spent several weeks in the mountains, enjoying the temperate climate. Coming suddenly down from above three thousand metres altitude to just above sea level was a serious shock. It was even hotter than Eastern Sudan. I could not believe the heat – it was withering, and I just had to do my utmost to ignore the intense discomfort that accompanied my every movement. And, amazingly, there were actually people living permanently in these conditions! My sweat evaporated before it had a chance to form beads on my skin, and my clothes became crusted with concentric white rings of salt and grime.
But the new environment was invigorating. Wild camels grazed by the side of the track, flocks of flightless birds scuttled away from my noisy passage, and the distant whoops of baboons could be heard from far away across the tree-covered plains. It was a place rarely frequented by people, least of all cyclists. Images conjured up by the word ‘Africa’ suddenly looked remarkably like the landscape that I was riding through. And, as I had predicted, the reception from the nomads was just as warm as I’d experienced anywhere else.
My first meeting came early in the morning on the second day. A huge herd of about five hundred goats was crossing in the distance. As I drew nearer, I spotted a semi-naked figure, at just about the same time as he spotted me. I waved a cheery hello, as was my custom to everyone who stopped to gawp at my strange appearance. He came towards me and stopped about ten metres short of where I rested on my handlebars.
I don’t think he really knew what to make of my presence. I was wearing a wide-rimmed hat, long-sleeved cotton shirt and a pair of rolled-up handmade linen trousers with a huge tear running from the crotch to the left knee (hence the prolonged need for lycra undershorts). He wore a piece of fabric around his waist which extended to his thighs, with only a knife in an elaborate curved sheath and a big stick for whacking goats to embroider his otherwise simple image. He had a whopping curly mullet of a haircut which made me chuckle inaudibly. He grinned at me and I grinned back. We had no common ground, other than happening to pass the same piece of desert track at the same time, and no common language other than “hello” and the name of the town at the far end of the desert. Pleasantries over, I pedalled on.
A little later I came across a tribeswoman walking down the side of the road, alone. I pulled alongside and greeted her, and she returned the greeting with a friendly smile. She was carrying a bulky sack of something-or-other atop her head, and I wondered what was in it. Again, with nothing to further our interaction other than to stare in wonder at how freaky we must have each looked to each other, I continued my bumpy and diabolically-hot journey across the quiet plain, gazing at dormant volcanoes in the distance and wishing I had the water and the range to visit one of the active ones. (I should add that the entire exchange was conducted with her being entirely naked from the waist up.)
After three days, I was spent. I had reached Mille, a small and familiarly-styled Ethiopian town, where asphalt made a welcome reappearance. It had been a short, fun, challenging and far from hostile ride across Afar, but from here I faced two or three mind-numbing days of flat, smooth road in the wearing heat of the desert.
I had already resolved to accept a lift along this road if it was offered. There had been plenty of adventures recently, and I simply wasn’t in the mood for another forgettable long-distance slog. I’d done it before, under much more challenging circumstances, in Sudan, and succeeded, and that was enough. So I was relieved when, after a few hours of pedalling, a trucker named Sisay pulled over ahead of me to take a photograph, and subsequently demonstrated how to strap a bike and trailer to the unit of a 30-ton petrol tanker. By the time the sun set, I was in Djibouti, a few kilometres shy of the outlying mountaintop town of Arta, where I would meet Yves and Benjamin, two young Frenchmen on a year’s work placement in the former French colony.
After a much-needed day off for my legs and backside, I rode into the city of Djibouti. It was reminiscent of Khartoum – a sprawl of wide, hot, dusty streets, big compounds housing crumbling official buildings, lines of colourful figures perched on upturned crates under trees selling juice, tea, coffee and snacks. I located the embassy of Yemen and obtained my visa quickly and easily before finding my way to the port.
From here, I somehow had to find sea passage to Yemen – easier said than done in a place where rules, schedules and job titles are practically non-existent. I spoke to a hundred different people and received a hundred different sets of information. Sometimes I was bought meals and welcomed to sit in air-conditioned offices while people made phone calls for me, and other times I was sprinting down crowded streets, yelling at the top of my voice for someone to collar the man who I had just caught casually turning over the contents of my handlebar-bag (this happened twice in a single day). My brain hurt from suddenly having to dig out so many long-forgotten years of French. It was chaos.
And amidst the chaos, my saviour appeared: a young Somali man of twenty-three named Rashid, who like almost half of the population of Djibouti was unemployed. Thousands of men spend their days and nights loitering outside the port, waiting hopefully for a rare few hours’ work when a particularly-big container ship comes in. At sunrise, the streets and wharfs are littered with sleeping figures, fluorescent-yellow vests rolled up as pillows, ready to be donned when the elusive promise of casual labour happens to bless their lives.
Rashid offered to help me through the bureacratic labyrinth in exchange for a thousand francs – about seven dollars – but as we got to know each other he withdrew his request and said that he was happy to help me simply because it gave him purpose for a few short days. I often grew stroppy and frustrated when this promise or that piece of information turned out to be bogus, but he endured my complaining. “This is the African way”, he lamented, having grown up to understand that there was no system, there were no prospects and that nothing ever worked properly. The streets were roaring with the sound of a thousand generators as the electricity went out for the umpteenth time that day. Another man who I offered to help by fixing his computer problems was fuming because his internet connection had inexplicably failed again, leaving him with nothing to do other than sit at his desk and stare at the clock.
Today will be my fourth day at the port of Djibouti, and the fourth time that I’ve been told that there is definitely a boat to Yemen today. I’m curious to see how Yemen differs to the other Arab lands through which I have ridden so far, so I’m keeping my fingers firmly crossed.