I look out across the dusty plain from my vantage point. Beside me is a rickety watchtower in which a soldier is slumped, dozing, wrapped in a blanket. He and the rest of his squad have been posted here to look after yet another crew of road-builders – all native Amharans this time. They’re surveying the area, hoping to lay another streak of asphalt across a landscape which looks like an artist’s rendering of some prehistoric savannah. The sun has not yet risen, and the air is a hazy grey. The headlights of a pick-up truck nose slowly through the maze of wiry trees towards the camp. I half expect a group of raptors to leap from nowhere and drag its screaming occupants into the bush.
As I roll onto the faint tyre tracks, I know that I am venturing into another stereotype. While the raw spirit that exists in Ethiopia is real, it doesn’t mean that suffering is non-existent, nor that the most basic human needs are always fulfilled, nor that some aren’t still struggling vainly towards distant future hopes. That’s the trouble with generalisations. Likewise, it’s easy to see all indigenous, tribal communities through a romantic filter of face-paint, topless women, bows and arrows and blow-darts, and to talk as if ‘Africa’ denotes a single country of chanting warriors and wildlife, or at least a group of fifty-odd nations so uniform that there’s little point distinguishing between them. I have seen not one of those ever-so-African creatures, and I have seen no landscape that resembles the continent of my childish imagination. Until today.
The thick layer of dust flows and parts like water beneath my tyres. Wrestling with the handlebars, I try to pick the best route amongst the submerged rocks. There’s no sign of human life. Camels wander in a clearing, contemplating the prospect of nibbling at the dry scrub. A dozen large, plump birds waddle out of my path and disappear into the undergrowth. One of them reappears in my mind’s eye, steaming gently on a platter next to a jug of home-made gravy and some roast potatoes. But this is not the time for admiring wildlife, nor drifting into daydreams: I have the toughest task yet in front of me, a limited supply of water, and a couple of hundred miles of burning wastes through which to pick a path. There’ll be time for reminiscing when I arrive in Djibouti.
Alert for a glimpse of the Afar tribespeople, I peer between the leafless trees that line the track and spread out across the plain in all directions, obscuring whatever life there is. But I can see only more of the same scrawny trunks. Above the screen of vegetation, a solitary volcano rises on the horizon to the north-east, low sloping sides topped by a rounded peak, the area’s sole landmark. The active volcano Erta Ale lies out of sight to the north, but it would be too far and remote to reach by bicycle without some guarantee of support.
A pair of legs appears between the low branches – and then the unmistakable shape of an AK-47 slung across the chest. I stop, flinching as the disc brakes sing. The legs have gone. Nothing moves.
I keep pedalling, unsure of whether or not I’ve been seen, and equally unsure of what might happen if I am. But several hours of cycling pass uneventfully, with only the sound of rattling baggage and loose rocks giving way beneath the tyres to break the silence.
Then, out of nowhere, I hear a low growl.
It’s a lion!!!
A pick-up truck is bouncing across the earth a hundred yards away. It’s slowing down. My body stiffens.
‘Hey!’ shouts the driver, as the truck stops. There’s a soldier in the passenger seat, flaunting his rifle. ‘Remember me?’
‘Erm!’ I reply, trying to bring back his name. ‘Yes, I met you … at the …’
‘It’s Muraf! From the road-building camp! Yes! How are you?’
Off the hook again! It is long ago that I gave up hope of remembering everyone I met, let alone where and how I met them. Muraf is oblivious, and I tell him I’m fine, thanks, if a little on the warm side out here. He’d passed me the previous day, told me to come and find him at the camp, and when I’d arrived he’d invited me for a cup of coffee – locally grown and just this minute roasted, he’d said, handing me a tiny bowl of the strongest and most delicious coffee I had ever tasted. I’d ended up staying the night. He briefs me once again on how to act if I encounter a ‘native’.
‘You must be very strong. Very strong! You should speak strong. Loud. Tell him to go away.’ I am instructed to treat the tribesman like the animal he is. ‘If he doesn’t go – pretend to talk on your telephone. Say: “Police! Police!” Say this and he will go!’
‘OK – thank you,’ I smile, forgetting to inform him that I don’t have a telephone. He wishes me well, gives me a bottle of ice-cold water, and lurches off east in the direction of another road camp. They’ll take me in for the night if I insist. There are Chinese road-builders there.
I uncap the bottle immediately and drain the unspeakably cold contents, savouring the precious seconds of pleasure. Left out, it would reach the temperature of a nice hot bath within minutes.
I continue tentatively eastwards along the faint route that has been beaten through the badlands, and the dense scrub begins to slacken off, the terrain rising and falling just enough for me to get a glimpse across a wider expanse of land. I already know that it’s widely thought that this is the precise region of Africa from which hominids emerged – the pre-human beings from whom we are all ultimately descended.
And I try to grasp the enormity of the fact; that if I were to go back through my family history, back beyond my great-grandfather who made shoes for a co-operative in Leicester, past his grandfather who was a framework knitter at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution; if I traced – with some magical omniscience – whoever it was that first migrated to the British Isles with my genetic material, and even further back to whoever it was that journeyed little by little along some unknown route through the same landmasses that I’d now crossed on a bicycle … that if I did all that, then I would finish the journey right here, where I stand now, looking at my own blood ancestor as he existed five million years ago.
But I can’t. I can’t grasp it. I simply see hardy treetops and skyline – barely a hint of green in an otherwise colourless expanse of overgrown, dusty, rocky wasteland, the Amharan highlands fading away behind me and lands entirely wild and unknown in every other direction. A few hundred yards away to my right, a stray twister of spinning dust and foliage glides across the middle distance of the silent birthplace of humanity.
Minutes later I stop again, because a herd of goats has begun to trickle, single file, across my path. Curious, I whip out the video camera and grab a couple of shots. Then I notice a man, walking alongside the animals. He looks at me; stops dead in his tracks. The goatherd! Is this a real Afar nomad?
He hesitates for a second. Then, as I watch, he turns – and runs directly towards me.
Muraf’s advice is ringing in my ears as I flick through the contents of my bar-bag, searching for something that might pass as a mobile phone. I look up again, an electric shiver passing through me. But he is closer now, and it looks like his run is really more of a trot; he moves casually, as one might jog across the road to greet a friend. He slows to a stroll as he approaches, and stops on the edge of the road a few yards away, resting a goat-whacking stick on his shoulder, and assumes a posture of casual observation. He sports a whopping black hairdo that would put the Jackson Five to shame, and is otherwise naked, except for a loincloth, and a very big knife.
There is a moment’s pause. And then a huge grin spreads across his face.
I can’t help but grin back. How utterly bizarre we must appear to each other! For the first time I feel like an utter novelty, a thing entirely without precedent that has appeared in someone else’s territory. This must be wrong; I can hardly be the first foreign traveller to the Danakil Depression. There are plenty of ‘adventure tours’ to the volcanoes and salt mines further north, although my attempts to find records of independent journeys by bicycle or otherwise produced absolutely nothing. But the look on this man’s face is incredulous, as if I had turned up and performed some kind of close-up magic trick. He makes no further approach or attempt at communication.
After a long stalemate, I decide it’s time to break the silence. I can’t think of anything to say other than the name of the village at which I’m hoping to rejoin an established road. I point vaguely ahead.
‘Yes!’ I reply triumphantly. ‘I’m going to Millie!’
Ridiculous. I might as well recite Shakespeare.
We keep grinning at each other until I feel sufficiently uncomfortable to wave goodbye and resume riding. I look back after a few pedal strokes; the young man is jogging back in the direction of his goats, and I continue wrestling my bike across the blazing rocky plain, neither kidnapped nor massacred, but tickled by the little episode of mutual slack-jawed curiosity. The off-road riding is still painstakingly tricky to negotiate, and I amuse myself by wondering how the conversation will go when my interlocutor returns home this evening.
‘You know what I saw today?’
‘Well, I was taking the goats for a walk as usual, minding my own business, when this white guy came past on a bicycle!’
‘I went over to see what he was doing, and he just kind of stood there and stared. It went on for ages. You should have seen him – filthy shirt, ripped trousers, and this big sunhat with “I Love Egypt” written across it. He looked ridiculous!’
‘Ha-ha! Did you speak to him?’
‘Not really. He said something I didn’t understand – something about Millie. Then he looked uncomfortable and went off again on his bike.’
‘Weird, aren’t they, these foreign types? I mean – perfectly good asphalt road to the south, us up here with our guns and goats and crazy hair, and he still feels the need to cycle off-road across this bloody desert! Must be mad …’