Saturday, July 29, 2017

Ethiopia 2017 - Day 5. Addis Ababa to Bahir Dar

I took off at 6 am, intent of traveling north to cross the Blue Nile, pass through Debre Markos, and finally come to spend the night at Bahir Dar, by the shores of Lake Tana. I am assured that the road is paved throughout, so 8 hours should be enough to cover the 550 km. I filled the tank in the only gas station that was working at that time, and took the steep road that climbs up from Addis into the high Ethiopian Plateau. Oh, no, the road is narrow and was full of trucks slowly grinding their way up the slope at a snail’s pace L

Fortunately the traffic cleared once we made it to the top, and I saw ahead of me a landscape of rolling hills where farmers were hard at work plowing the soil with plows and teams of oxen that belonged to another era. It was beautiful, but I wonder why were then plowing in June? Were they going to get a second crop of teff during the summer? An alternative explanation is that they were using an old dry-land agriculture trick, in which you break the soil in coarse lumps to facilitate infiltration. Once the rain reaches the intact underlying soil it infiltrates by capillarity it stays there, unable to evaporate because it is protected by the coarse layer of turned soil. In this way the farmer can “store” the water until the time comes for the next planting.

After 150 km or so I came to the edge of the Grand Canyon of the Blue Nile. It was a magnificent sight, with the thin ribbon of muddy water nested in between the walls of an enormous canyon, a good thousand meters deep. The road that goes into the canyon (and out of it in the other side) is paved, but it has been deformed into a swell of waves by the passage of heavy trucks, so it feels like you are sailing across a choppy sea.

The canyon has magnificent exposures of the stratigraphy of this region. On top one sees the upper Cenozoic flood basalts of the Ethiopian massif, underlain in turn by lower Cenozoic sandstones, Upper Mesozoic limestones, and Lower Mesozoic cross bedded massive sandstones typical of the arid climate of Pangea. My geologist’s heart is chortling with happiness. I could very well be looking at the Navajo Sandstone in Zion National Park. But I knew I was in Africa when a tribe of chattering baboons crossed right in front of me, and made itself comfortable by the side of the road so the females could nurse the infants that were hanging for dear life to their bellies, and so the males could engage in the ritual game of grooming themselves.

The landscape changed as I reach the high plateau on the other side of the river. It is so verdant, and the fields are getting ready to be harvested. I am not sure I can recognize many of the crops, but in some small plots I saw corn, which you can buy roasted by the side of the road, and beans. I assume the “grassy” plots are teff.

When I looked at the route I had to follow I was worried that it was going to all be twisty mountain roads, but actually most of it was meandering through gentle hills. This would have enabled me to make good time, were it not for the fact that people and animals very much feel they have right to share the road with little cars like mine, minibuses, and enormous trucks. It is not too bad when I am the only car in the road, funneling through lackadaisical groups of three or four people walking side by side on the edge of the road. The real problem comes when a huge truck is decided to share the narrow corridor, coming at the people from behind. So I have to stop, let the truck go by, and then resume my way while the folks continue uninterrupted their conversations.

Speaking of people, this is not Mongolia, where you can go for miles without seeing anyone. People are everywhere here, so it is really hard to stop to pee. No sooner have I stopped at an apparently empty spot when four little boys pop out of the bush, smiling and asking for a coin. Once I was in the middle of doing my business when a little boy popped out and simply stood staring while I finished watering the daisies.

I was approaching Debre Markos, at about half the way, with a little under half tank of gas, so I decided it was time to top off. Imagine my distress when I found out that the three gas stations in town had run out of gas! No sooner had I noticed this when the needle started leaning decidedly toward the one quarter mark. I started sweating, as I wasted some more of my precious fuel driving 15 km to the next town (no gas either), and another 15 km, and a final 20 km where one of the attendants took pity of me and directed me to a hidden pump in the back and topped me up. I was shaking a bit as I gratefully shook his hand.

The last leg of the trip was again different. Many years ago Ethiopia was in the verge of environmental collapse, because all trees had been cut for cooking fuel. Then one of the emperors (Menelik II?) had eucalyptus trees brought in from Australia and in the years that followed the new trees expanded explosively through northern Ethiopia, until now they form veritable forests in the highlands. Because eucalyptus grows so fast, a logging industry is now well established here in the highlands, with farms of young, tall, straight trees growing everywhere. Eucalyptus is not such a great wood, because it is too twisty to cut planks, so instead they are cut when they are 5 to 10 cm in diameter, stripped and loaded to impossible heights in heavy trucks, and are ultimately used as poles, either to frame a house that will be letter covered by adobe plaster, or to build scaffoldings used to build 8-storey high buildings. Some of the wood is also charred into coal, to satisfy the energy needs of rural families.

After nearly 12 hours of travel (very nice slow travel) I finally made it to Bahir Dar, the city at the southern shore of Lake Tana. This lake is the source of the Blue Nile, so for a water guy is like coming to the origins of it all. I decided to splurge and book myself into the Blue Nile Resort, and am writing this log from my two room suite seeing the sun rise over the placid waters of the lake. Not my style, but I have to say that luxury is not bad from time to time.

No comments: