Long and Winding Road

Trip Start Jun 12, 2011
Trip End Jun 16, 2012

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Where I stayed
Abandoned quarry stockpile
What I did
Marvelled at the amazing countryside

Flag of Ethiopia  , Tigray Regional State,
Tuesday, November 15, 2011

This part of Ethiopia has the most consistently bad roads that I've encountered on this trip. Asphalt is but a  dream and their condition suggests that even a Grader is a rarity.  It is also amazingly mountainous, and we began by descending from the plateau that Debark sits on.  Here Tom and Daniel (our tour leaders/drivers) revealed Tortuga's party piece: rear jump seats.  At the back of the cabin the roof opens and four lucky passengers get to effectively sit up on the roof, watching the world go by with the wind in their hair.  I raised my hand, cambered up and soaked it all in.

The Scenery in northern Ethiopia is very striking.  All day we passed by gorges, pinnacles and seemingly endless mountain passes.  The only thing that I can think of which comes close is the Drakensberg Mountains in South Africa, but this was easily more impressive (sorry to all my SA rellies, but at least it's another thing to add to your bucket lists).  It looked like the surface of another planet...just covered in trees and grass.  Just as we were starting to hit some rythm we rounded a corner and came to a grinding haunt.

Unlike the first world, most roadwork sites in Africa seem free of the health and safety rules which bog us down.  Here an excavator had knocked a pile of rock and dirt all the way across the winding mountain road.  There were no signs advising of upcoming hazards and noone to control the trickle of oncoming traffic.  You just stopped because your path was blocked...simple!  We figured that this wouldn't be a quick fix, so we decided to stand around and watch the works for a while.  To our amazement, a dozer appeared within 15 minutes to clear the debris.  His effort demonstrated why the first world imposes such strict rules.  While everyone watched he pushed pile after pile straight over the edge of the mountain and into the valley below.  Boulders tumbled into trees and crushed bushes.  Hilariously one also knocked over a powerline that ran below.  Without blinking an eye he shoved the last of the debris off the edge of the hill, nearly tipping his dozer over at the same time, then turned around and went back to his original task.  With the obstruction removed, the delayed traffic jostled to squeeze through the newly formed gap.

This had set us back about an hour, but it was the road itself which was the biggest impediment to progress.  Just as we'd negotiate one mountain pass, another would appear and Tortuga would be reduced to a crawl again.  Most of the stretch is currently being reconstructed but my guess is that a sealed road is still a few years into the future.  By the time the sun started to go down we were barely half way to our next destination of Aksum, just 245km away.  Our leaders started searching desperately for somewhere near the road to pitch a bush camp.  As the last rays of sunlight disappeared they opted for a roadwork quarry stockpile.  We'd covered just 151km in 10 hours and our spines were jelly.

We pitched the tent and prepared dinner.  We soon began to realise that shapes were materialising in the darkness around us.  Torchlight revealed a handful of local villagers who obviously had nothing better to do that watch tourists pitch camp and cook food...kind of like an African "Big Brother" I suppose.  The actually helped to entertain us with one of the most insulting gestures I've seen in a while.  My bunkmate, "Coogan" cooked up Chilli Con Carne and didn't go light on the chillies.  We didn't mind since we were all starving, bu there was a bit left over at the end of the night.  As a gesture of kindness we offered this to the (what we assumed were starving) villagers.  Their eyes lit up and they gratefully grabbed the pot and all huddled around.  About one mouthful later they reappeared and handed the pot back, still full.  Not sure how Coogan felt, but we all thought it was hilarious.  HAHA.

[156 days on the road]
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Rosemary Grant from Qatar on

Hi Andrew,

Sounds like you are having fun!! The photos are amazing.

I searched to find your itinerary and finally have found a Dragoman tour that looks like what you are doing, so will be looking at all the details of their expeditions and following along with you in spirit but definitely not in body!! Sounds way past my comfort zone.

If you ever come this way, there is a bed with your name on it!! I doubt my horrific housekeeping will phase you!!

Take care.

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