Precipices and People

And on your left: certain death.

Malas gained substantial status in our eyes today. He picked us up this morning for a ride to Axum, our next destination. During the ride he was more talkative, and though his English was rough, it was way better than our Amharic.

We drove for the first hour out of Simien park down to the town at the bottom of the hill. He gave one of the workers, a very pretty (like most of the people here) young woman, a lift to the town. They were chatting all the way down. Once he dropped her off, he stopped at a restaurant to get breakfast before the long drive. We had coffee and did a little WiFi stuff, then we hit the road.

Pretty soon, the road deteriorated to gravel, not bone shaking like other roads we have been on here, but slow going and dusty. Soon, we started a long decent that took most of an hour to go down maybe three thousand feet. Switchbacks galore, precipices at the edge of the road, it made Utah’s Moki Dugway look like a gentle path. Malas handled the difficult job with confidence, keeping us as comfortable as possible under the circumstances.

Meanwhile, we had a spectacular view looking out from the cliff face. Across the valley were sheer cliffs and canyons. Beyond our valley, badlands stretched to the horizon, which was punctuated by volcanic peaks and weathered buttes.

When we finally got to the little stream at the bottom, people reappeared. Goat, sheep and cow herders moved their animals across the landscape. We drove through remote villages of houses built of sticks, mud and straw. On and on through spectacular landscapes and very rustic African rural villages. The road changed to asphalt, but the twisty switchbacks continued for two more hours. Frequently, we could look down and see three twists of the road we were on a few minutes ago. We crossed a river at the bottom of a desert valley, it was at least 100 degrees, with not a speck of green in sight. Fortunately, we climbed out to a much cooler 80 degrees, and the sparse vegetation reappeared.

At a larger town, we stopped in a shabby hotel for a restroom break. A while later, we noticed that the houses were no longer made of sticks, now they were constructed of stone. I am guessing this was because we were now in the Tigre region, different ethnic group.

We passed some guys with rifles by the side of the road, and a few minutes later passed (we passed every vehicle we encountered. No one passed us) a UN High Commission for Refugees vehicle. Soon we came to a refugee camp, huge, like a city, bigger than any town we had passed since Gondar. Malas told us it was Eritreans. Eritrea is very close to here. Now that the new Ethiopian prime minister is making peace with Eritrea, maybe they can go home.

After about 5 hours, the road straightened out, Malas picked up speed and we reached a small city named Shire, where he dropped us for lunch at a tourist hotel. Lunch sucked, compounded by a waitress who did a worse job than one of our cats (well, she could beat the dumb one, but the other two would be superior). Another 90 minutes and we got to Axum and checked into our hotel.

7 hours of driving to go 180 miles. Maybe 60 miles as the crow flies.

Fun fact:
Ethiopians use a different clock, 6 hours behind ours, so the day starts at our 6am. When we arrived at our hotel the other day, the desk gave us a message that our guide and driver would pick us up the next morning at 2. In response to our gasp, he converted to universal time, 8am. They also use a different calendar, this is 2011.