The Bus to Aksum

After Awra Amba, Yanush, Nathan, and I headed north to Gondar where we played in the ruins of 16th century palaces. That was absolutely amazing, and photos will be forthcoming shortly.

After Gondar, we were faced with a choice between flying northward to our next stop, Aksum, or driving in a public bus. We opted for the second in part because the plane was expensive, and in part because busing through the Simien Mountains seemed like it’d be cool. Cool it was, and terrifying!

This post is taken straight from Yanush’s journal entry about our cliff-hugging, rooster-crushing bus trip through the mountains from Gondar to Aksum. I don’t think I can describe the trip better than he has, so I hope you enjoy!

“0500: The face of Ethiopia’s cities (& I guess every other city in the world) really changes after dark. Gondar is pitch-black with the exception of a few shop lights and street lamps. Down the dirt road near our hotel, a woman cries and seems to beg to her husband while he pulls her along by her arm. A few tuk-tuks pull up to us but we ignore them. Up ahead, some young men argue loudly until one sprints past us, the other holding up a big rock. The man running stops, throws a rock, and disappears down a side street…

0533: We’ve heard stories, I’ve read about them & been warned against them, & I can tell you that everything said about Ethiopian public buses is true! As well as us, there were 3 other farenjis, 2 German hikers who hopped off 2.5 hours into the journey at Debark & a Spanish man, Luis, who would stay the whole journey with us. I think the bus could legally carry ’bout 60 passengers…We counted 85 or more at one point, and that’s not to mention everything strapped to the roof & all the bags, food, and livestock inside…but we’ll get to that later.

The road was constantly bumpy, and we pushed up on mountains over jagged rocks and through streams & deep puddles that were more like ponds. The bus & the driver are heroes in my book! The bus was a regular model you would see ’round these parts, pretty old & beat up except for the tires. Each one was as thick as a tractor’s and wide as three regular tires melted together. The views were amazing, just mountains and green, rolling hills & giant rocks sticking out as far as the eye can see. The ride was constant chaos, there was NO room standing or sitting. The ticket man climbed over seats to give out tix to newcomers, kids lay across their mothers to save space, and a super-crappy speaker crackled out loud blasts of Ethio-pop music as well as people playing their own musices from cell phones. At one point, you would hear 3 or 4 different repetitive songs playing at once, a rooster cry, the engine rev, the bus scrape on rocks as we dug into gaping pot-holes, & lots of laughing and loud conversation…

A classic stretch of “boulders acting as a road” in the Simien Mountains. Luckily, this road has something of a shoulder between the tread-way and the cliff’s edge. Ours frequently did not, and looking over the cliff-edge from our precarious perch’s in the bus made for interesting ponderings about dying should the bus tumble.”

At one point, I had propped my knees up on the seat in front of me for hours and I needed to move, so I put my feet on the floor & stepped right on a rooster that had made itself comfortable in the space that I unknowingly provided for it. It squawked loudly, I felt so bad. The old guys behind us laughed their heads off.

Oh, the poor rooster...

Oh, the poor rooster…

Just imagine, 85 people crammed in with roosters running ’round below the seats, rusty-head-case-gypsy muysic echoing like a madman lost in thought, the smell of clumps of garlic cloves & baby vomit, a constant side-to-side-up-&-down motion only found on the most primitive home-made roller coaster, & an endless unreachable landscape that would make even the most seasoned backpacker look twice!

This beautiful vista was the background for much of our terrifying journey on the mountain road. The Simien Mountains are simply breath-taking, matching some of those views I have seen trekking in the Western US of A. I can't wait to get back to trek here!

This beautiful vista was the background for much of our terrifying journey on the mountain road. The Simien Mountains are simply breath-taking, matching some of those views I have seen trekking in the Western US of A. I can’t wait to get back to trek here!

We stopped for maintenance atop a pile of boulders acting as a road, and we all jumped out of the super-bus and stretched our bodies. For some reason there was a cop toting an AK-47 just sitting calmly like he’d been there all day. I sat amongst the rocks happy but aware we were hardly even 1/2 way through our journey to Aksum. The bus started moving so we all jumped back on & Alex jumped onto a rooster, the same that I had assaulted earlier[, causing it to defecate on Alex and Nathan’s water bottle bottle and the area right beneath our seats where we’d’ve like to put our feet for the next 6 hours.] A haggard brown goat cried out from above us, tied to the roof with the rest of the cargo…[As we drove on,] we had a close call with the edge of a mountain & the three of us compared deaths from falling higher up or lower. Delirious, Alex and I sang “I Believe I Can Fly.”

I continued with my blank stare & awkward position crammed between Nathan & a badly placed pole. I noticed Alex and Nathan’s water bottle roll past me. It had shit on it from when Alex crushed the terrified rooster. I listened to an entire “Watts Prophets” album & paid close attention to how the rural Ethiopian lives. Villages, makeshift shops & random cattle herds dotted the green pastures…I held the red H20 bottle with my right foot & propped my left knee on the seat cushioned by one of Nathan’s flip-flops, and watched Luis chat to some happy travelers in front of him.

Yanush and Nathan during the torturous ride.

Yanush and Nathan during the torturous ride.

After 12 hours, we reached what one could only dream of — a road! Black, smooth, lined & without fault, it could be an overstatement but after 12 hours of shopping-trolley-over-mountain-type transport, a road might as well’ve been a reclining La-Z-Boy floating through cotton candy clouds air conditioned by the breath of only the finest goddess…

Here’s something to think about, this bus makes that same trip to & from Shire [the next connection point to Aksum] almost daily, and anybody without means of income for flights will travel this way. I on the other hand had to do it once. To see happy faces & children who didn’t cry or throw tantrums after a full day of that makes we wanna slap any Aussie complainin’ about a coffee not made quite right or a Melbourne-ite wishing for a bigger 4WD 2014 model or justifying buying a tenth pair of designer shoes because they haven’t anything that suits their new dress…No matter how much I try not to be, I am one of these people; a tourist on an adventure through poverty & danger with the knowledge that I hold citizenship & a free ride to safety & ignorance. I watch through the bus window like one watches a 1/2 hour doco’ on TV in between air freshener commercials & life insurance adverts. That’s the way of the world.”


2 thoughts on “The Bus to Aksum

  1. glad to hear from you all–it was a while and I was getting a little anxious. the ride sounded like something you would see on tv as part of a story. stay safe, LOVE Grandma

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