A Bridge Too Far (nearly...)
The warm and sunny weather today belies the fact that it has recently felt like the rainy season has arrived a month early. The city has looked wet and bedraggled. Ethiopian hair likes to explode at any opportunity but especially when damp, which explains why so many people walk around in the rain with a plastic bag tightly over their hair as their only rain protection (check out the picture carefully – behind the guy on the right in the checked hoodie…)
This BBC news article may have escaped your attention, but that was the very area we were in last week for a long weekend created by another public holiday (Chris’s birthday is always a national holiday; “Freedom Day” – the anniversary of the return of Haile Selassie to Addis Ababa after the defeat of the Italians in 1941). We took off on Wednesday afternoon and 1133 km later arrived back on Sunday evening. Our Wednesday afternoon drive was to Ziway to pick up Gary and Peggy for our last break with them before they return to the USA this summer. Taking a bit longer than expected, the last half an hour of our drive into Ziway (3 hours south of Addis in the rift valley) was in the dark. Being the proud possessor of the only fully functional and correctly adjusted set of headlights in the country this was quite a challenge. Ethiopian drivers don’t like to put their lights on (if they have any that is) until they can barely see their hand in front of their face – after all, why waste the battery? I was being flashed relentlessly for having mine on in the rapidly deepening gloom just after sunset. Ziway in the dark was abuzz with unlit horse-drawn carts, bajajs (think tuk tuk) and bicycles, not to mention badly lit cars, trucks, lorries (many with one or two dazzlingly full headlights), and people wandering all over the place. But no street lights worked of course, so seeing anything was practically impossible and after a couple of detours into equally unlit back streets we found Gary and Peggy’s place with our vehicle thankfully undamaged. No wonder SIM Ethiopia recommends never driving outside of Addis in the dark.
The next day’s drive took us south to Shashamene (the heart of the Ethiopian Rasta culture where you can find the best cannabis in the country) then east to the Bale (“Baa-lee”) mountains. The road out of Shashamene is straight and well-made, so to prevent anyone travelling more than say 15 mph the first few miles has speed bumps. Dozens of them. We had a competition on our return journey to predict how many there were - to make bouncing over one every hundred metres or so less annoying. Gary won – there were 31. I presume this road is sponsored by a shock-absorber, wheel and tyre manufacturer.
Fortunately the speed bumps stopped and we could eventually make good progress down this long open road until just after the small town of Adaba, when we ground to a halt. The road had fallen into a river. Heavy rain had washed away a small culvert and most of the road above, and was also responsible for the quagmire down the side of the road to the river and up the other side, churned up by numerous trucks, buses and minivans that had tried with variable success to continue their journeys. We had two rooms booked in the Bale Mountain Lodge still several hours drive away that were pre-paid, so no way was something as simple as a collapsed bridge and muddy swamp with a truck stuck in it going to stop us getting there. 4-wheel drive locked in, down we go. Getting around the stuck truck (now being dragged out by a large tractor) wasn’t too difficult – the river a bit downstream was rockier and quite shallow. Getting up the other side was a problem though, with huge grooves in soft mud created by large lorries almost guaranteeing I would beach our vehicle. We pondered. We analysed. Could I get up the 45-degree bank that flanked this track and arrive safely up on the road above? The requisite assembly of young people and children thronging round us pondered this too, amidst shouts of “give us some money!” The others climbed out of the car, and with my heart in my mouth and the gearbox in “4 low” I revved, roared and slithered up the bank, to experience a remarkable feeling of elation as I arrived safely up on the road, now determined to go on an off-road driving course when I arrive in the UK for the summer. But for now, Bale mountains here we come!
The rest of the journey was unremarkable, if 60 km of unmade road up on to, over and down from a 4000-metre-high plateau can ever be described as such. We descended into a brilliant green rain forest, when, somewhat appropriately, it started to rain. Proper, tropical, rain forest rain. We arrived at the Bale Mountain Lodge, scampered into the large lounge area and sat in front of a log fire waiting for the rain to stop. Eventually it did, and as the cloud lifted the setting sun illuminated a spectacular mountain scene rising out of the forest. All those speed bumps and slithering around in mud had been worth it.