There’s a panoply of striking scenery to engage my attention as soon as we leave Asmara, the capital of Eritrea A long winding gorge is succeeded by a line of orange-red mesas, tinged with yellow and green and topped with single lines of trees, soldiers waiting to advance. Next up, a sequence of hills piled high with rock formations, huge curved boulders and enormous round sycamore trees. Breath-taking, and all this in the space of an hour. Today, I’m in a rented Landcruiser and we have a driver, Jonas, who’s very smiley. An elderly wrinkled gentleman, white cloak wound round his shoulders, clambers in as we stop for my photographs, so we give him a lift to the next town (‘God bless you ma’am’). I don't think he's a secret policeman either. Then we retreat to a café, so Fessehaye can eat breakfast.
Continuing south, we wind up precipitous mountain roads, hairpin roads and more stunning yellow ochre scenery. Up here, in the semi- desert, the aloes are now in full orange flower. Donkeys wander around, seeming to prefer the tarmac of the road to the fields at the sides. Flocks of goats and cattle amble across our way, necessitating frequent zigzagging and camel sightings are frequent. Towns with wide empty boulevards appear out of nowhere and astonishingly ornate churches look down from the peaks above these.
The road here is reasonably smooth,. For the most part, the Italians have done a good job of engineering the mountain passes in Eritrea, with solidly crafted stone buttresses, although there is some abandoned reconstruction in one area. There are very few road blocks, compared to other African countries. Nevertheless, my permits are still checked assiduously in and out of town and at hotels and visited sites.
The ruins of Quohaito, our goal, are not especially exciting. It’s a pre-Axumite settlement (700 BC), complete with a small palace. All that remains are a couple of groups of rectangular columns, a dam and a stone lined cavity decorated with lotus flowers. No-one has enough English to explain the significance of any of these dwellings to me, though we’ve picked up a mandatory guide, who I’ve been ordered to pay.
The views are far more rewarding. We’ve been lurching all over the edge of the escarpment in our four wheeled drive and inducing vertigo by trying to peer over the edge. We can see right down the Great Rift Valley in one direction, dark cloud rolling in over the edge. In the other are some of Ethiopia’s highest peaks, 25 kilometres away – I got a bird’s eye view from the plane when I flew in on Friday. They’re now almost obscured, sadly, and it’s starting to rain heavily. We were going to finish with an ancient rock painting, but I’m informed that the bad weather means it’s off. I’m devastated.
Lunch isn’t included in my trip price, so I persuade Fessehaye that I would still like to eat and we sample the local dish, fata: eggs, potato and chilli, all mixed with bread. When we're setting off again we're stopped. I’ve forgotten to put my seat belt on, but a kindly policeman lets me off. ’No corruption here,’ says Jonas.
On the return journey to Asmara we have to stop for half an hour at the no longer abandoned road reconstruction while some Chines JCBs busy themselves. They seem to have bulldozed down half the shale cliff abutting the track. They are spreading it across the way, almost disappearing over the side in the process in a fog of dust. While we're waiting Jonas tells me that this is his first day of work for a month. He is 46 and has five children.
I was hoping to ride the famous Italian steam train through the mountain passes this morning, but there aren’t enough takers. So disappointingly, it’s not running and we’re heading north to Keren. Today, we have a rented Datsun that’s definitely seen better days and Fessehaye is driving. He’s very heavy on the newly sharp brakes. And a policeman has invited himself along for the journey. Apparently, it’s an offer you don’t refuse. Corruption take different forms in different places. But he's in uniform, so I assume he's not a secret policeman.
We’re winding up into mountains again, with more glorious panoramas. The traffic is very light compared to Djibouti, for example, but double-trailer trucks from Ethiopia still frequently chug annoyingly in front of us. They career downhill, hogging the middle of the road. There are too many near misses for my liking, considering the sheer drops beside us. Fessehaye castigates the drivers roundly and then Ethiopians in general. He fought in the war and we pass several abandoned and rusting tanks, so perhaps it’s not surprising.
The houses here are faded white cuboids with pastel doors, though more traditional round African huts appear alongside these as our journey progresses. Keren is Sunday peaceful; boys are kicking footballs on the main square. There’s a three hundred year old baobab tree that contains an altar (a church is now established behind it) and the British War Cemetery. The concrete slabs represent far too many young lives lost.
Fessehaye feeds me roast lamb, meat risotto and later, creamy yogurt. I add sugar to mine and he pours chilli oil into his. The café is full of men watching football. Well, some of the time. The power goes on and off yo-yo style, so Wi-Fi here is even more frustrating than in Asmara.
The highlight of the visit to Keren is supposed to be the camel market. I would have loved it if I hadn’t seen the one in Hargeisa. There are a few camels and groups of donkeys cowering in the shade. Donkeys melt my heart, they have such sad eyes and soft fur. I’m told their appearance is deceptive and they are stubborn and bad tempered. Maybe. I’ve certainly seen them kick violently and bray loudly, though they’re not treated very well and their human loads often seem much too large for them. There are far more cattle here than in Hargeisa, in a separate walled enclosure, all bellowing loudly. One disgruntled beast causes havoc by rampaging through all the hobbled goats, who can’t escape his hoofs. I only just manage to evade his charge, before he is apprehended.
Then, there’s a huge vibrant open air market to wander through; it meanders under the road and I amass another Pied Piper following of children, who want me to point my camera at them, so they can go all bashful and hide their faces.
On the way back to Asmara we stop for drinks at a viewpoint with a row of mountain side cafes. It’s the local equivalent of a motorway service station.
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