The road was flattening out now as we approached the largest town en route, Ghinda. The entrance to Ghinda was guarded by a large white church on a small hill, then a long main street marked the centre of town. The town is not especially large, but acts as a major centre for the surrounding region. And on a Saturday morning in 32 degrees of heat, people were bustling around getting their chores done before the heat became unbearable. Our progress was quite slow here, but eventually we were through, and the landscape started to change for good. For one thing, for the first time on the trip since Asmara, we went uphill. Beyond there was lumpy landscape of foothills. We darted in amongst these (the temperature crawling up 33…34…35), and the landscape became more like open desert. Interspersed between large areas of open rock were wide wadis, where during rain up in the hills, water floods off the foothills in great quantities and into the searing heat of the desert. The road crossed several of these by grand concrete arch bridges, and as we swept by, we got a glance at the small plots of land cultivated in these wadis. Some of these wadis had water in from the recent rains up in the mountains. I was told later that some of these wadis are the reservoirs for the water supply in Massawa. Dams have been built into these valleys, but rather than constructing them above ground, so that the collecting water would either evaporate immediately or sink into the ground, they themselves are sunk into the sandy wadi bottom. Water is protected from evaporation below the surface and is drawn of from sub-surface pipes. The natural filtration from these underground reservoirs through the fine grains of alluvium makes the water in Massawa some of the purest in Africa.
In the middle of nowhere, a goods yard appeared. The railway, which up until now had been a narrow gauge ghost line had rails on it, and there was an old station with a number of trucks on it. The line, abandoned from before the war, was gradually being re-laid with the hope of taking some of the traffic off the precarious road. Many are sceptical about the project, the tunnels and viaducts are not built for heavy containers that come off the ships at Massawa, but the new railway was being actively pursued and stretched some, er, twenty kilometres from the coast. And apparently goods trains were being run. Unfortunately of course, everything had to be retranshipped when they reached this inland railhead, which was expensive and of course, more or less defeated the object.
On we went, now almost on the flat, the temperature now above 35 degrees. The landscape became more Spartan, the wadis wider and drier. Then at one, the bridge was out, and the smooth tarmac road gave way. The only way across was to drop off the road across a rubbly track, ease the taxi into the river bed and bounce across the wadi. I hoped that this wasn’t the moment for one of the flash floods which overtake these river beds. I looked upstream, nothing, I looked downstream (just in case I suppose) and could only see a man swathed in white cloth riding a camel, as you would).
Back on the main road and the last few kilometres into Massawa were plain sailing. The temperature was 39 now. We passed by the site of the airport, currently under reconstruction, then a group of modern housing estates with brand new concrete houses lining the new roads. Then an older section and a rather messy market area and then Massawa proper.
Massawa is built on two islands linked to the mainland by two causeways. The gentle waves of the Red Sea allow the boats to moor on the sheltered side of the islands without further protection. We passed a cinema and drew alongside the railway track. Both road and rail crossed the first half-mile causeway together. At the roundabout at the end, instead of taking the main road to the old town on the further island, we swung right onto the dirt road, and bounced our way along to the compound where Chris and his family lived and worked.