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Out of Africa (Part 5/7) - Ethiopia - Axum

Updated: Mar 31, 2019

A broken obelisk, Axum, Ethiopia
A broken obelisk: symbolic of Axum's faded charm

Keep on Truckin'

The Simien Mountains receded into the background as our truck negotiated a serpentine and potholed road north out of Debark and in the direction of Axum, our next destination, 280km but ten to twelve hours distant. We had managed to organize the truck pretty quickly on arriving in Debark – someone found us eating our meal, still euphoric from our success in getting through the Simien experience with wallets intact – and acted as a go-between between us and the driver. Buses in these parts are almost non-existent, and if there had been one that day heading in the direction of Aksum, it would have left at 5am. We got two berths in the front of a truck cab, along with the driver and two other random passengers squashed in with us somehow. The first part of that afternoon’s journey was spectacular; although we had left the Simien national park, mountainous terrain still abounded, and the amazing vistas just kept coming as the truck crawled up and down countless breathtaking switchbacks.

Stunning country between the Simien National Park and Aksum, Ethiopia
Stunning country between the Simien National Park and Aksum

The driver crunched through the gears as the truck lurched dangerously close to the edge of the road; countless broken crash barriers and half-destroyed walls stood testament to the dangers of unwary driving in this area. This stretch of road, built by the Italians during their brief occupation, traverses several massive passes, including the Wolkefit Pass, which peaks at around 3000m,and takes in some of the most impressive scenery in Ethiopia. Our driver had prepared himself for the arduous journey by bringing a large sheaf of ‘chat’ to chew on – a mild stimulant which is something like the plant version of Red Bull – and he clung on to the steering wheel wide-eyed as he tapped his feet on the pedals to tinny Ethiopian pop.

Hitch-hiking, Ethiopia
Our truck driver. Don't expect to get anywhere fast in Ethiopia

Shire - truck stop

For about four hours, I was happily transfixed by the stunning scenery outside the window. As darkness began to fall, I asked the driver where we were, and to my dismay we were only just over half way to Axum. The next four hours seemed endless, and the cramped cab became more and more irksome and uncomfortable. Eventually, the truck pulled up about 10pm in a town called Shire (appropriate name for this most provincial of areas, though disappointingly pronounced more like “Shearer”), and the driver announced we were stopping here for the night – our journey would continue at 5am the next morning. We were shown into the most flea-ridden of hotels imaginable, which was acceptable to our traveling friends regardless, but which lacked even water and probably electricity. Although I've never claimed to have high standards, we quickly decided we needed to upgrade to something better, following the previous two nights of extremely basic conditions. We made for the smartest hotel in town – which turned out to be the smartest hotel on the trip, a 'three star' place that would be quite costly anywhere else but was only about 150 birr ($10) each here. We spent the rest of the evening luxuriating in fine style with unheard of conveniences like cable TV (BBC World again), relatively good quality food and drink (tomato soup, spaghetti bolognese and two varieties of beer) and soft beds with fluffy pillows. It seemed like paradise after the Simien mountains - and indeed, everywhere I'd been since I'd left Addis. In reality, it was a bang average place with few frills but a rare ability to provide clean bed linen and keep bedbugs at bay. This, in Ethiopia, is a true find and you need to appreciate small luxuries like this. Needless to say, we failed to make the 5am lift to Axum the next day; we both surfaced about mid-morning the next day and I spent about an hour over breakfast before lazing around for another several hours. The mountains had certainly taken out of us; we were extremely lethargic and the mere effort of travelling the two hours to Axum seemed almost daunting.

Ethiopian bus travel
Ethiopian buses - not for the faint-hearted

Eventually, we made it onto another crowded, sweaty, smelly bus which defied even my low expectations by being slower and more unpleasant than anything previously experienced. The ‘road’ ceased all real pretensions of being a road at all, and just descended into being a surface which happened to link two places together. As I bumped up and down on my backseat, catapulted into the air every few minutes as the bus crashed into yet another pothole, my backside started regretting setting foot on the damn thing. There seems to be an unspoken law against opening windows on Ethiopian buses, which adds to the stifling discomfort of the whole experience, and when you do try to wedge a window open, you’ll find that somebody will stubbornly slam it shut again instantly. A fear or superstition that draughts cause illness, apparently. As darkness fell, we finally pulled into Axum – three hours after leaving Shire. Tired, irritated and hungry after what should have been a routine journey, we made straight for the tired, unimaginatively-named but budget priced Hotel Africa. (A snip at $12 a night with breakfast). Bedbugs were included in that price - obvs.

Stellae Field: Aksum, Ethiopia
Stellae Field: Aksum

Another night in

Axum is famed for its massive, teetering stellae, ruins of palaces and underground tombs, and is probably deservedly a world heritage site. The ancient memorial obelisks were erected in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD, when Aksum was the capital of an extensive empire, which dominated trade between Africa and Asia. The obelisks mark burial chambers, so serve much the same function as the far more famous pyramids of Egypt, a few hundred miles to the north. The town is a major pilgrimage site for many Ethiopians, and curiously many believe that the ark of the covenant was laid to rest here in the Church of St Mary of Zion. Unfortunately, it is not possible to have a look at this, as it is zealously guarded by a carefully chosen and vigilant priest. Those few who have attempted to approach the ark uninvited are said to have burst into flames spontaneously. Truth or myth? Who knows in this crazy country. Neither would surprise me overly. We arrived in the midst of a major religious festival, and the atmosphere in the town was somewhat euphoric as kids roamed the streets banging drums, singing and chanting and generally bothering anyone vaguely foreign looking for money and gifts. We had settled into an evening of cards and St. George beer in our rather disappointing hotel restaurant to escape the madness, only to be attacked by a group who spotted Harry unwisely peering out of the doorway at them. A group of at least twenty kids sang and danced in somewhat of a frenzy around our table while we looked on in bemusement; they were not very content with the handful of birr we gave them, but they were soon shooed out to go and bother someone else. We pretty much gave up on a night out in such circumstances, plumping instead for a decent meal in the Remhai Hotel, one of the town's finest which isn't saying a great deal. Still, they served more than a passable onion soup and lasagna By this point I had unfortunately pretty much given up on Ethiopian food - most unlike me to be so unadventurous where food is concerned - but in all honesty I'd just had too many poor, unimaginative dishes of indeterminate flavour served up with the tasteless soggy dishcloth that is injeera, and so was happy to just eat Italian food every night - most of which was on the right side of acceptable.

Religious festival, Axum, Ethiopia
Religious fervour: we arrived on a religious holiday and there were crowds on the streets

Underwhelming obelisks

On arriving at the site of the Stellae field the next day, I was mildly disappointed. It was a bit like going to a Talent Contest where the stars of the show come onto the stage on crutches and limp around for a few minutes looking a bit decrepit and past it, singing out of tune. If you can imagine a smallish field with a few admittedly impressive structures, around 30m high, with the rest either crumbling and horizontal or else supported by cranes and reinforcing concrete, then you have Axum. You look around for a while, trying to be suitably impressed (few guidebooks forewarn you and my usually reliable Lonely Planet certainly didn't), but in all honesty it's hard to be. The place is somewhat underwhelming when you really want it to blow you away with its majesty and beauty, and it sends you away feeling there could be more to it, it could be better presented, somehow cared for in a way that doesn't destroy utterly its visual appeal.