Afambo to Abhebad

It took almost three days to reach the Boha River. In that time we settled into life on the road. 
A diet of dates, lentils and pasta, cooked in purified Awash River water, nightly Afar visitors, wind storms and dreaded hyena encounters. Although they never tried to enter our camp, they came close enough to keep me wide awake, one hand resting on my sharpened bamboo pole.

The banks of the Boha were buzzing with life as goats, cows and camels waited their turn to cross the crocodile-infested waters either by swimming or riding an ancient rusted boat. Long-haired, sharp-toothed Afar herdsmen huddled in the shade drinking shay and breaking gambo. All eyes were quickly fixed on the ferengis. Our crossing was a several-hour ordeal, at the end of which we were forced to pay many times the local fare before piling in the filthy boat weighed down with burlap sacks, stacks of reed mats and dripping boys falling over the passengers as they pulled us across by a rope connecting the other side. For the return crossing, we made plans to build a raft and bypass the Boha monopoly.

Once across we sat down beneath a cluster of acacias to reach on a deal with an Afar trio. Muhammad and Thoreau were both young and fit, only "essential flesh and bone" as Thesiger once described the Afar, and seemed much friendlier than the other candidates we'd met. The third was much older, and promised to contribute wisdom and an insider's knowledge of our route. After shaking hands on the our new fellowship, we never saw the old man again, but Muhammad and Thoreau proved essential to the expedition. Each carried next to nothing and was as confident with camels anyone in these parts. On our first night together we camped in an abandoned Derg airfield, not far from a ruined old tank. Heat rash from dirt, sweat and the baking ground made it difficult to sleep, and David and I welcomed a rainstorm that chased Muhammad and Thoreau off into the barren wilderness to look for shelter. The midnight rain came several times on the trip to Abhebad. Each time David and I rejoiced and our Afar friends scurried off into the dark.

Within just three more days we could see the glimmering strip on the southern horizon that was Lake Abhebad. Instead of taking the one-day route south, David decided we'd stick to Thesiger's route, circumambulating the volcanic mass of Dema Ali. Appearing out of nowhere, another red-eyed old man joined our team, also claiming intimate knowledge of the terrain we hoped to cross. His expert advice put anywhere from 4-6 more days on our trip to the lake. Together we circled Dema Ali's blackened wasteland, its jagged rocks drawing blood from the camels' poor feet, making the journey in just two days. Talk of Issa (Somali) raids to the south, hippos on the banks of the Awash, hyenas on the slopes of Dema Ali and a fierce "demon government" that ruled the area kept things interesting. On the second day, David's watch thermometer passed 40° by 8am. A few hours later it reached well into the 50's. Our water was running dangerously low.

Finally Abhebad came into view to the east, the Djibouti shoreline a faint watermark on the horizon. We paused to take in the view Thesiger once traveled so far and suffered so much to see. Next, like a mirage in the distance, a small patch of date palms came into view over a ridge called Hobo Mountain. The approaching sound of rushing water almost convinced me I was dreaming. Soon the camels were lapping up cool water from the Awash and our crew was stripping down to bathe in the oasis's flurry of streams, cascading into pools beneath the shade of date palms. We felt we'd arrived in paradise, a long-forgotten Eden at the end of the world. A cluster of aris and stone huts set a stone's throw to the north of the oasis was to become our new home: Harissa.


Road to Asaita

After a week back in cold, rainy Addis, we boarded a bus heading east into the sweltering lowlands of Eastern Ethiopia. Just beyond Awash we crossed the bridge into Afar territory and made a beeline northeast to Logiya, a seedy trucker's colony sprawled along the main road to Djibouti. It was night by the time we arrived, but the heat was still oppressive. A dust storm forced us behind the concrete walls of a run-down hotel. Mosquitos made the most of our time together and sweat soaked the bed throughout the night. The next morning we rode to Semera, Afar's bland new capital, to secure our permits for traveling around Asaita. Back in Logiya, an afternoon walk back down the main drag zapped up my sweat and sent my head spinning on the brink of heat exhaustion. I was already beginning to think fondly of cold, rainy Addis.

A few days before I'd joined up with David, freshly arrived from the UK, and Go'obo, our expedition translator. Errands had kept us busy right up until catching our bus, rushing to all corners of the city to tick off each item on our list, a lengthy one that included memory cards, 2-meter bamboo poles and a battery charger to connect with our solar packs. Go'obo met with us each night as we discussed our preparations and route, a map of the lakes spread out in a Bole Road cafe. Despite having left Afar for the last time when he was just 13, Go'obo seemed un-phased by any of the concerns that every one else in Addis seemed to have about travel in Afar. Most people's first reaction to the idea of buying camels and setting off into its lawless wilds had to do with getting killed, castrated or both. One friend called it a "suicide mission." Go'bo's only reaction was to slump a bit further back in his chair beaming his casual million-dollar smile, "It's alright, man!"

When evening came in Logiya, we barely made it out of town, cramming into the last minibus along with about twenty other passengers. The landscape became completely barren as we headed southeast, then sparse greenery popped up again as we neared Asaita. Once again we arrived after dark. Setting up camp in the courtyard of a nameless hotel/brothel, we had our first meal at Lavly Kaafe, the only eatery in Asaita with its own generator (quite the handy feature seeing as the power was out just over half the time). Over the next few weeks we'd fantasize about Lavly and its ice-cold Mirindas.

Over the next few days we made the last preparations for the expedition. David and I scoured the Tuesday Market, a hodgepodge of makeshift stalls and tents packed with burlap sacks of dates, grains and spices. Planning to feed 6 people for several weeks, we had to hire our own gari (horse-drawn carriage) to get everything back to our place: UNHCR jerry cans, ropes, oil and hefty bags of berbery, pasta, lentils, onions and garlic. But the biggest purchase by far came just outside of town at the camel market. Go'obo and David worked patiently to get a decent price on two quality camels. In the end we settled on 14,000 birr for a strong young camel that was quickly named Tony, and 7,000 for an older one. The second camel got its name later that night when the old man who'd agreed to keep it until morning was caught trying to skip town with our deposit. Bolbirri, 100 birr in Afar, was the pitiful amount of the deposit. We sealed the deal that night in the candle-lit home of the bearded sheikh who owned Tony.

After shaking hands, we took the ropes tied to both camels' foaming mouths and led them through the pitch black streets towards our place. Someone held a torch behind us, casting my camel's massive shadow on the walls ahead, towering over mine. In a dirt lot just outside the hotel courtyard, we tied their front legs together and left them for the night.

Go'obo woke me early the next morning, shaking his head like something awful had happened, "Let's go." I guessed the camels stolen and ran after him down the street, still struggling to wake up. Hitting the main dirt road just beneath our place, I was relieved to see both camels hobbling around, hovering above the shops that were just opening and being their awkward selves. A growing crowd was staring as much at the camels as at me. Tony and and Bolbirri didn't belong there. We untied their legs and started to march them out of town. I soon felt far more out of place than the camels, the shouts of "ferengi" growing louder than ever. Go'obo wisely pointed out a detour to keep us off the main streets, recognizing that a ferengi leading a pair of camels out of town might attract a bit too much attention. Finally outside the city boundaries, we found a place to feed Tony and Bolbirri, both of whom Go'obo believed to be starving. We'd already covered a few kilometers and the day was fast heating up when I remembered that I too would eventually need some water. We led the camels another couple kilometers to the east, supposedly heading to the home of one of Go'obo's relatives. Perhaps a tad late, I decided to head back to Asaita to let David know where the camels had gone. I caught a brief ride on the back of a mule cart and stumbled into the hotel courtyard. David and I hit the market again to top up on supplies before hiring a couple garis to get our mountain of gear to where the camels were feeding. Like anything in Ethiopia, this proved a lengthy process. Asaita was under the afternoon chat spell and it was several hours before the garis were moving.

Go'obo was sitting under a tree not far from where I'd left him, way out in the countryside watching the camels strip acacia leaves. Himself starving and on the verge of collapse, he set off to fetch his relative from a nearby village. It was nearing dusk when he returned and camels were finally loaded. We took them to a small cluster of aris (dome huts) surrounded with an acacia thorn fence and set at the end of a dried up field. Bare-breasted old women and half-naked kids watched curiously as we approached. Go'obo's kin promised to keep an eye on the camels and gear until the next day, and the three of us made the trek back to Asaita as darkness fell. Four liters each and a final meal at Lavly marked our last night in civilization. The next morning would begin our trek to Afambo and the end of the Awash.