Middle East & Africa 2009

Perception Versus Reality In Travel

It was late April and the Ethiopian highlands had been rolling beneath my wheels for several days. Inching towards Djibouti, I consulted detailed road-engineers’ maps of the country to plan my route, and found an enticing-looking dirt track through the Afar region of the infamous Danakil Depression.

I’d developed something of a romantic fascination with this remote bruise in the planet’s surface, a few hundred kilometres inland from the Horn of Africa. For it was here that it is widely thought that, hundreds of thousands of years ago, before farming, before writing, before metallurgy, the ancestors of you, me, Ghenghis Khan, Michael Jackson — and every other human who ever lived — descended from the trees, stood upright and first struck flint against stone.

The thought was mind-boggling — that if could trace my family tree back past my father, past my grandfather who I never knew, past his father who riveted leather covers to the seats of train carriages, past his father after whom a small lane in a Derbyshire village is named, and on and on through the generations, eventually — astoundingly — one of the infants in that epic chain of births would likely have arrived screaming into the world right here, in a vast scrubland plain in East Africa. I was coming to visit my family’s historical home.

Earlier in the year the BBC had broadcast a documentary about the region, sensationally but not-quite-accurately entitled The Hottest Place On Earth. I didn’t see it, but the sentiment was obvious enough. Average dry-season temperatures in the Afar depression are in the region of 50°C — with much higher localised extremes — and if that hadn’t been enough, the highlanders warned me wide-eyed that I would be robbed, kidnapped or murdered by the barbarous Afar tribes who lived there, and they begged me to change my route or take a bus (although it turned out that no such bus existed on the road I wanted to take).

But I loaded up with water and went for it anyway, as I refused to believe that these nomadic tribes would have any bones to pick with a strange foreigner passing through on a bike. The road was, for the most part, a vague collection of tyre tracks in a surface composed of loose, fist-sized rocks and liquid dust that gave way beneath my wheels — but at least it existed. Little cyclones raced through the sea of twisted, gnarly trees that stretched to the horizons. The highlands receded behind me and the region’s collection of dormant and active volcanoes rose up to the north. It was tough going. I saw a couple of trucks each day; great rusty rattling behemoths that bounced across the landscape, part of a new engineering project by the Chinese to build a paved road across the region. I could hear the trucks long before they came into view; a roar and a cloud of dust and they were gone.

The wet season had ended a couple of months ago, and the heat dominated my senses. I stopped to refresh myself — a gulp of hot bathwater with a hint of iodine. Indiscriminate gusts of wind slowed my progress but reminded me that, in this climate, a little headwind was better than no wind at all.

The silence was punctuated only by distant birdcalls, and I felt so dreadfully alone, but I pushed the solitude from my mind and pedalled on. Later in the day I found that I wasn’t alone in the humanity’s birthplace; that some of those attendant to civilization’s first blossom — the domestication of wild life — were still here, continuing a way of life thousands of years old, even as engineers, lawyers and administrators from a faraway technological superpower descended on their lands with mechanised earth-moving monsters to hammer slick new highways across the savannah. Another strangled scream of metal and dirt straining for dominance, another cloud of dust filling my lungs, and, as the truck disappeared into the distance, a line of goats emerged from the haze, snaking through the trees a few hundred metres away.

They were followed by a semi-naked, bare-footed figure who drove the herd at walking pace with occasional staccato yells and a big stick. Seeing me, he broke away from the herd and jogged in my direction. What else could I do but stand and wait? He might as well have been from another planet, just as I might as well have been to him. What common ground do we have, I asked myself, apart from happening to be in the same place at the same time? He stopped a few metres short and, with a big grin, stood and stared at me as if I were a pleasing but slightly abstract painting on display in some shop window. I greeted him in Amharic and he replied, although he probably would have been an Afar speaker.

At the time, the encounter had seemed comically awkward, and in the novelty of the moment, I suppose I’d seen this man as, yes, human, but at the far end of the scale which ran from the consumerist paradigm down to pure nomadic pastoralism.

But in retrospect I cringe slightly at this perception. New travellers focus understandably on those wonderfully-varied trans-cultural differences which contribute so much of the colour and intrigue to the world of humans. But given time to observe and reflect, the opposite perception begins to emerge — that of the great range of commonalities that come with being human.

Even if we stay at home, we’re told we’re all so different, and we’re encouraged to exaggerate these differences in the great ego-forge of adolescence, yet, as the great cosmologist and populiser of science Carl Sagan put it, “An extraterrestrial visitor examining the differences among human societies would find those differences trivial compared to the similarities.” It’s just that we’ve evolved to be good at playing ‘spot the difference’ — it helped our ancestors to survive.

Back on comfortable ground, I set to read up on the region I’d just passed though. According the the UK Foreign Office, I’d just cycled alone across a minefield full of armed kidnappers.

The question that will never be answered arises — how real was the threat? To what extent did conservative bureaucrats generalise the danger out of proportion? Were these friendly, uncomplicated encounters with tribespeople really fraught with the risk of death? Did I really risk being blown to smithereens every time I dashed into the bushes to take a leak?

Tribesgirls in the Afar Desert, Ethiopia
My only photo from the Afar desert

Would I have still taken this road if I’d read the advice beforehand? Was I stupid to put all of my trust into my instincts, my determination, and my belief in the inherent goodness of humanity?

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