Later I spot another group of figures in the distance: a dozen adults walking towards me along the track. Judging by the hairstyles on display they’re not road-building engineers, and since they’ve had plenty of time to see me coming, I put on my harmless passer-by act, smile nonchalantly at them as I approach, and call: ‘Hello!’ just as I pass, which gives me enough time to clear the group and recede down the track before anyone can decide whether they have anything further to contribute. I immediately curse myself for being a coward and not stopping to try having a proper chat. Whatever gripe might exist between the Afars and the Amharans, as I predicted, does not appear to extend to me. I’m a curiosity, to be investigated or ignored, just as I have been for the last two years. A solitary figure pedalling a bicycle is not a threatening image, does not carry an invasive agenda. Nevertheless, this place is so alien that it’s got my nerves up, and I’ve ridden straight past the group, intimidated by my own irrational fears.
I arrive at the promised road-workers’ camp in the early evening. Under normal circumstances I would jump at the chance to wild camp for a change, but I’ve been spooked; tales abound of lions and hyenas, people having their faces bitten off in the night. And, of course, I might well be invading someone’s tribal territory. People get jumpy when it’s dark, and I am occasionally unable to contain my snoring. Do I really want myself and my tent to be the unwitting provocateurs of a paranoid night-time ambush by people with AK-47s and very big knives?
These excuses are a convenient way to hide one simple fact: I am too afraid to sleep outside. So I trundle up to the camp gates to try my luck. My calls are answered by a man with an AK-47. He invites me to sit in the shade, alongside a group of Afars with very big knives.
I guess that the men are vaguely attached to the road-building project as a kind of multi-party delegation. It’s interesting to see that they’re a mixture of Amharans and Afars – the latter conspicuous by an absence of clothing and footwear and the presence of a true 1980s hit parade of haircuts. Nowhere else have I seen so many spectacularly coiffed Afros and mullets in one place outside a vintage Top Of The Pops re-run. They’re all affable and interested in the contents of my panniers, and I avoid bringing out any expensive camera equipment – not because I’m worried it’ll be stolen, but because it’ll help me avoid the all-too-common question of how much everything costs. I’m not convinced of my ability to decide on a plausible-but-inoffensive figure here. In any case, the camera seems unnecessary: I’m unlikely to forget this experience in a hurry.
The Chinese engineers – just three of them – are fortunate enough to have their own private compound, but they have not yet returned from surveying. Once they do, I’m told, they’ll ask if I am allowed to stay the night.
‘They’re different,’ says one Amharan. ‘They eat peeg! You know peeg?’
I probably do; I just need to figure it out. Peeg … pig. Pork!
The man makes a face of disgust. Travelling through the Islamic world, I haven’t eaten pork for almost half a year. I realise that I am salivating like a dog.
A small water-tanker roars into the little camp in a cloud of dust, and I spring up for a much-needed refill. I’ve drunk eight litres today, yet I feel drained and dehydrated. The Chinese arrive shortly after, driving their four-by-fours straight into the fenced-off compound, and there is an agonising wait while the leader of the ragtag bunch of soldiers implores the Chinese to accept a traveller for the night. While sleeping in the Ethiopians’ quarters would be perfectly comfortable, my mind has already drifted hopefully back to that Chinese doctor, those big bowls of spicy noodles, and the mind-blowing prospect of peeg.
The leader returns: the answer is yes! Overjoyed, I jog into the compound and thank the Chinese heartily; they regard me as perhaps one might a cat being sick. Nonplussed, I set about arranging my new bedroom, hanging the mosquito net above the slab of plywood on which I will sleep, writing my diary, and taking a few experimental photographs to pass the time before I am invited for dinner. This, of course, happens, and – though it would be unlikely to win any awards – turns out to be as delicious as I could possibly have dreamed, prominently featuring peeg amongst the fried and steamed meats, noodles and vegetables. The Chinese find it hilarious that I can just about handle a pair of chopsticks, despite having never been anywhere near China, and I explain at length about the popularity of Chinese food in Britain as they gaze blankly at me. I try to imagine the converse – how bizarre it would be to discover that on practically every street corner in China there were an English takeaway, selling fish n’ chips, pork pies and Cornish pasties.
The next day I meet a teenage girl on the side of the trail.
‘Hello!’ I call. No answer.
‘How are you?’ I try. Nothing. The girl, hair carefully braided, skin of pure black, stands grinning at me. Grinning, of all things!
Then I notice that she is in fact topless, and that my African stereotype has finally been fulfilled.
‘Do you speak English?’
My conversational skills are deteriorating today. And I rattle onward, having gleaned no further insight into this mysterious, staring, grinning tribe of award-winning hairdressers and goatherds from this one teenage girl with her breasts out. Then, through the wiry bushes, I notice a man-made shape. I roll forward until I can make it out better. It’s some kind of tent; a small curved dome five or six feet high, a frame covered with panels of canvas. It looks like a sweltering place to be, but at least it’s shelter from the fierce elements. It’s a home, that’s for sure. And, like my own little green and yellow tent, it’s a home for someone on the move.
As I watch, a figure appears from the side door.. The figure is tiny; the head grossly out of proportion. Of course. It’s a child. A little boy. No more than two or three years old. He totters out and stands in the sun, looking about. He hasn’t seen me. But then someone or something summons him from within the tent, and he looks back and turns before wandering purposefully back into the structure. I watch for a little longer, but he doesn’t reappear.
The scrubby desert gives way to rising crags of sharp, multicoloured rock. And the heat seems to engulf not just my body but all my other senses too, indescribable in its oppression, as crushing as a sack of bricks. I run my tongue around the inside of my mouth. It feels cool in comparison. The rims of my eyelids burn, and I can almost hear the ground sizzling. Some point of sensitivity deep within each nostril stings sharply, as if I am inhaling flames; all moisture dragged from the creases and crevices of my face and into the ferocious void. Memories of wilting in Sudan are reduced to mere pleasant days in the sunshine. And maybe I have begun to understand what it means to live in the hottest place on Earth.
The image of the tiny child by his front door stays with me, and it takes a little time to realise why. It’s because I have travelled to what by any standard measure is one of the most remote, uncivilised, impoverished and undeveloped regions on the planet – and what have I found? A worried mother calling her toddler indoors. Communities of people living together. Tradesmen and professionals eking out a living. I will find exactly the same scenes played out in all manner of varied ways in every society on Earth. Nothing separates me from these nomads – or from anybody else alive – but for the lottery of birth.
As an asphalt road shimmers into view up ahead, I realise that I have taken more than just a shortcut across the desert. I have inadvertently made a journey to the end of the Earth, via the birthplace of man. And, somewhere between Weldyia and Millie, the romantic idea of some mysterious and fundamental stratification amongst the people of the world has been destroyed.
Given that, how much longer can I continue to roam in childish wonder?
Just a thought, really. Just a very very quick thought, that’s all.
It’s technically incorrect to describe that girl as having ‘had her breasts out’, when, in all likelihood, she never ‘had her breasts in’ in the first place. So, I guess I should just say, ‘that teenage tribesgirl, with her breasts’. Maybe.
My point is that it’s a matter of perspective, isn’t it?
Anyway, I’m going to shut up now. Night.