Saturday, July 29, 2017

Ethiopia 2017 - Day 6. Bahir Dar to Gashena to Woldiya

I have consulted with the travel expert at the resort, and he believes I don’t have enough time to cover my insane plan of visiting Gondar, Lalibela, and Aksum before coming into Mek’ele tomorrow afternoon. So, he suggested going to Lalibela, covering 200 km of paved road and an additional 60 km of dirt road, spending the night at one of the Lalibela hotels, spending tomorrow visiting Lalibela, and finally driving to Mek’ele (another insane plan as future developments would show, but a pan nonetheless). But of course I had to throw in a monkey wrench, because I wanted to see the high mountains north of Bahir Dar and thought I could spend a few morning hours doing that by following the road to Gondar.

It is a truly magnificent landscape, with the ubiquitous eucalyptus being joined by native pine trees and some magnificent old patriarch Warka trees that look like enormous umbrellas (fabulous story-telling trees if you ask me). Warka trees are some type of fig, and are indigenous to Ethiopia.

Besides seeing a greater diversity of trees, the most striking landscape features are spines of basalts that rise a few hundred feet up into the air, sticking out as a lonely thumb. Since the viscosity of basalt is too low to rise as a spine, I conclude that these are the plugs of cinder cones that have since long eroded. Then it hit me. I was climbing up the slopes of a giant shield volcano, where the lava was fed to the surface through fissure eruptions that later focused into a single cylindrical vent, just as has been witnessed by the eruption of Puu’oo in Kilauea. Pretty neat structures, and I have never heard of a rock climber who can boast they bagged one of these spines.

I turned around at about noon, thinking 4 hours should be enough to reach the beginning of the dirt road to Lalibela. Foolish me, on two counts. First, driving here is slow work, because when you cross towns you have to slow down to the pace of the snail. The second is the lack of gasoline! Plenty of diesel and gasoil to go around, but no gasoline! (In retrospect, I wonder if the region is being starved of gasoline because over the last year there has been social unrest, and gasoline if the first thing mobs turn to when building Molotov cocktails). At some point I was so concerned about running out of fuel that I filled the tank with low octane gasoil, which is what the tug-tugs run on. I have now ascertained that cars can run in gasoil, perhaps at the expense of some loss of power.

So I went back to Wereta, and from there took the road through Debre Tabor, and finally Gashena, which is where the road to Laibela takes off from. It was 6:30 pm, so I only had one more hour of light, and had only half a tank left. Would I have time and gas to reach Lalibela and, even more important to get back to Gashena and then drive an additional 100 km to Woldiya, where I might find gasoline? What can I say? I chickened out and with great regret decided that I will visit Lalibela in a future trip, when I have a jerry-can of additional fuel with me. Incidentally, Lalibela is a World Heritage site, where in antiquity all sorts of Christian Coptic churches and chapels were carved out of the stone (similar to Petra, in Jordan, but in that case the so called churches were nothing else than elaborate tombs).

Let ma backtrack a little and tell you that the road from Debre Tabor to Gashena is one of the most unnerving roads I have ever driven, partly because I got caught under a pretty heavy downpour. The road snakes along the narrow ridge that separates two steep tributary watersheds of the Blue Nile. It was like walking a narrow slippery plank with steep drops of at least a 1,000 m on either side. Fabulous to behold, but I can assure you I drove it very, very carefully. Why have such steep watersheds been carved? I think it is because under the hard plateau basalts there is a thick sequence of deeply weathered basaltic pyroclastics (air-fall tuffs and lahars). I bet it is this same sequence where the buildings of Lalibela were carved from.

OK, so I had 100 km to go to Woldiya with less than an hour of light, so chop chop. Alas, as the light diminished the number of potholes seemed to increase, and when I turned on the headlights they barely made a difference. Oh, no, the headlights had the same illumination value as a candlestick L So I had to drop my speed and crawl for more than 50 km, praying that neither man nor beast would suddenly pop in front of the car.

Note: The animals in Ethiopia are really stupid. Whereas goats, sheep, cows, and horses in Mongolia would shy when the car approached, their stupid cousins here cross the paths of incoming cars without blinking an eye; donkeys will actually try to meet the car head on!

I was dead tired when I got to Woldiya (on the main road between Addis Ababa and Mek’ele), late at night, fearing that I might end having to sleep in the car. But no. I did find a restaurant where loud music was playing while the patrons were watching the Mexico-New Zealand soccer match, which also doubled as a hotel. A very modest hotel, mind you, but the owner welcomed me with a smile, gave me a “western room” with bath, and coaxed one last meal out of the kitchen before it closed. I have said it before, and I will say it again over and over: Ethiopians are amongst the friendliest people on Earth!

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