Published: May 2nd 2012April 1st 2012
Henok drives slightly more carefully around the winding bends. We have 2000ft to descend from the mountain capital of Harar to the desert railhead of Dire Dawa. The road is steep, and we pass deep canyons. It is the end of the dry season and the earth and stone looks central asian.
"Does this remind you of Afghanistan?” I ask Francois?
“Yes some parts very much” He replies in his perfect if slightly accented English. Francois had decided to join us after all, and he sat in the left seat behind Henok taking it all in. The villages are scarce and extremely poor. We pass the same derelict 109 safari landrover that we saw on the way in.
The Ethiopians are building an enormous cement factory, that acts as the mountainside guardian of Dire Dawa. The guidebooks all bill this town as being a transit point for onward travel, with nothing to recommend it apart from the railway station. But we are decided. We are going to stay in Dire Dawa for a night before starting our two day journey back to Addis Ababa. And with that, and some investigation, we pull into Ras Hotel number one.
This Ras hotel is even more charismatic than any other. It has the look of a 1960’s American film set. The barriers between stair cases, restaurants, bars and kitchen are large hard wood slats. The bar stools are large and encompassing. The black and white stucko floors go well with the fake hourglass figurines on white wooden poles that serve as dividers between sections of the bar. The ceilings are high and have fans and chandeliers. With high ceilings and marble to the roof, the lobby is a cross between a James bond films and the Moscow metro. My room has a fan made in America in the 1960s.
We sit on massive oversize chairs and are accosted by flies.
“Do you have wifi.” We ask the receptionist.
“no only broadband” he replies. Broadband turn out to be a bunch of computers that just about work.
“Hey I have wifi” says François excitedly. And indeed they do. We all check our email.
Dire Dawa receives a first class slagging by Mr Philip Briggs, the author of the Bradt Guide. He calls the town, hot dusty and dirty. In response to these comments, Mr Briggs received
a plethora of complaints from readers who saw more in Dire Dawa than dust. Unfortunately the Bradt guide fails to capitalise on these words and the “defence of dire dawa” section is incredibly boring, I suspect it is written by a Dutchman.
Dire Dawa is an anthropologists dream. The area around the railway station has colonial railway architecture. You can see where the linesmen lived, the signalmen, the engineers, the chief engineer and the chef de station. The tin roofed stone and wood houses become stone and finally stone with tiled roofs. Dire Dawa is a charming town. Called the queen of the desert by the Ethiopian ministry, they are not far wrong. Briggs is clearly a South African who has not been able to leave the legacy of his nation’s thought process behind.
Expecting James Bond to come out of the woodwork at any time, we stroll off down to town. We find the railway station. “Closed” and then a cafe opposite. Where Harar had been manic, with small streets and poor accommodation, Dire Dawa was clean, pleasant, orderly and with no real touts. We stroll to a market, Henok joins us, he has bought some duty
free clothes. When I say duty free, I mean smuggled in and no duty paid. We walk over the dried up river bed, on a bridge and through the arab and the french quarter.
Quite perchance, we stumbled upon the chat market where hundreds of ethiops served chat for the consumption thereof. We strolled amongst them, wandering from stand to stand. The experience was intuitive.
After Dire Dawa we commenced the long journey back. Henok did not annoy me too much. He borrowed 200 birr from Imike and we stopped in Awash. I tried to take a photo of a Danakil tribesman, but he wandered off with his AK47. Henok was now starting to be less than helpful. He was clearly scared of the frizzy haired Danakil and was thinking only of his tip. We decided to do a game drive in the Awash National park, only Henok was not a driver guide and had no idea of how to deal with animals. He sped around the park, scaring away what little wildlife there was. Eventually I told him to slow down.
Having seen the parks only four ibex a bunch of birds, loads of illegal cattle
and camels we stopped by the private camp who wanted $80 for a warm straw hut. We declined and went back to the former prostitutes palatial by comparison, palace for a glass of (our) red wine and dinner.
The drive into Addis was made more tolerable by the fact that we all chatted and the journey passed swiftly. We pulled into the Taitu, and Henok took all our money and his tips. We got into our rooms before imike realised that his camera bag was not there. I called Henok and asked if he had it, he said no. Imike exploded into a fury. He clearly had something of value in the bag, (D700 etc etc) and was not happy to see it go. I tried to calm him down, but he was “spitting fire and brimstone”. I now knew that in all our travels I had never overly angered him. I needed to say my prayers, so I told imike to calm down, I’d make my peace with God and then help him torture the relevant parties to get his kit back. I said my prayers as quickly as was decent and hurried downstairs to see what could
be done. Imike came back up the stairs with his bag. Henok had had it after all. Mike was extremely calm and said that he felt he “should be admonished” for thinking less of certain people.
“But I know we over tipped Henok” he said clearly.
The next two days were spent whiling away our time. Francois and I were treated to a guided tour of the railway station and locomotion yards. We bought him an Egypt air ticket to Cairo and Paris, and I caught up with my old friend Felix Worku, who I met on my 2010 mad truck sojurn. And then all too soon, it was time for the three hooligans to head out to the airport. We caught the midnight flight to Istanbul and Francois the Egypt air special to Cairo.
“You know Henok never paid me back that 200Birr he borrowed for fuel” i Mike mentioned as we boarded.
There are more photos below