Massawa and the Escarpment – Back up the hill

 Click here to go to the first part of this chapter.

I headed back to Chris and Sheila’s where they laid on an early lunch.  I had another swim around the bay.  After a while, I realised that I was not really satisfied with the surface, there was too much going on below me, so I nipped back to the caravan and took the snorkelling gear.  I went into the coral on my own this time, and felt much more at ease and confident.  I looked in the deep.  It was a shame in many ways that Chris wasn’t there because he was so much more knowledgeable.  I saw Sponges and sea cucumbers and could recognise the black spiny urchins a mile off, but the myriad of coloured fish were still a mystery to me.  In a way I didn’t care that I didn’t know the names, I just lapped up the atmosphere, the wonderful world that is only a few feet beneath the surface.  I then lapped up something I wasn’t really looking for, a huge globule of salty water.  I coughed and spluttered and came bouncing onto the surface.

 I decided to spend my last few minutes in the water just relaxing on the surface.  I leant back and the extra buoyant salty ocean supported me with ease.  I lay there and looked up into the brilliant blue sky. I gently waggled my feet to make me turn full circle, and for the last time I look at the mountains to the south, the mainland to the east, Chris’s compound to the north and the Red Sea in the east.

 Then it was time to leave.  The taxi man rolled into the compound bang on time,  but far too early for me.  Thanking Chris and Sheila so much for such warm hospitality, I sat in next to the taxi driver and set off for work and another week in Asmara.  We retraced our steps, over the causeway and the streets of new Massawa, then across the wide desert, including over the Wadi where the concrete bridge was out, past the railway yard, and up to Ghinda, then up and up the valley, criss crossing the railway track.

Bridge out

Bridge out

Then up the true escarpment past all the old accidents, to the very top and the stupendous view back down, then over the lip and in amongst the very tame suburbs of eastern Asmara, before I really felt on home territory as we headed down the narrow straight road to the hotel turn off in the south of the city.

 Along with my excursion to Massawa through some of the most dramatic scenery in Africa, the friendliness of the people in Eritrea helped make those two weeks very memorable.  The little Italian touches – Pizza and pasta, many different coffees, mixed with the Arabic – the sweet teas, the clothes, and the African; the wicked sense of humour.  The crew I worked with were all different characters; Mehari the boss was a quiet man, but had an icy stare that showed that you should never get on the wrong side of him.  I learnt that he had been a major force in the Eritrean army during the war with Addis.  I was fearful for him when the war broke out again.  I was fearful for the whole of Eritrea; for the people who had told me “When we got independence we laid down our guns.  We never wanted to fight.  We just wanted our land back and now we have it, we need never fight again”.  I never understood why they took up the arms again against the Ethiopians for that scrap of land on the border.  I hope they never have to do it again, as the majority of Eritreans were the kindest, most generous and deserving people in Africa.



Massawa and the Escarpment – Walk round the islands

 I woke when the day started.  The bright sun was up in a few minutes and the heat was already beginning to rise when I came off my perch (one last glance around the bay and across the causeway onto the main land).

 After a light breakfast, I set out alone to explore the city. It was one of the strangest places I had ever come across.  I’d never really been to a proper desert city, and Massawa’s position on the Red Sea meant it mixed black Africa with Arab, as well as the Italian and English influence of its brief colonial history.  Whereas Asmara had been fairly unscathed by the recent struggle or independence from Ethiopia, Massawa had nearly been blown apart.  And the poverty of the new country mixed with a sense of doing things right that, even seen years after Independence, many of the battle scars were still in evidence.  I have already mentioned the tanks standing as monuments at the end of the causeway, immortalised, it is said, in the very spot where they liberated Massawa from the Ethiopians.

 Many of the major buildings are holes.  Massawa was at one time a grand trading port, with all the wealth that came with it. The huge palace building on the outer island still stands, but a vast shell hole in the golden dome has shattered its soul, along with a hundred bullet holes in the plaster.  Many other buildings are holed, and you walk among the ruins of houses, offices, shops and schools, and can only wonder at the human suffering that went along with the remaining physical destruction.

 A large ornate Italian Bank in the centre of the city was also shelled, and only its shell still stands.  But amongst this destruction two things are self evident.  One is that the spirit of the people carries on, and people still work and live among the cities rambling streets.  The second is that rebuilding continues, but they are not rushing it.

 Piece by piece they are rebuilding a new Massawa, new office blocks in some areas, new paving stones next to newly tarmacced roads, reconstruction of old houses, rebuilding of larger villas on the outer island, along with the expansion of the housing stock on the mainland. But carefully does it.  The rebuilding of the railway is one thing.  They bought a small diesel locomotive that dragged a couple of open sided coaches from the centre of the old town across the causeway to the other side.  That is Massawa’s equivalent of a commuter trip. Some say it will take twenty years to rebuild the railway to Asmara.

 I was only hassled once in Eritrea, and it happened in Massawa.  Every where else people would let me get on; they may say hello or ask how are things, but no one had an ulterior motive.  Except here.  I knew it was going to happen.  I was staring off the second causeway that linked the two islands, looking down and wondering where else in the world was harbour water was so clean, so crystal clear.  I could see fish darting in and out of some inferior coral and a hundred spiny urchins squatting against the sides of the breakwater.  A man was approaching me from the old town.  I tried to ignore him, but he insisted on talking to me.  I felt it strange that someone in Eritrea could be so annoyingly inquisitive.  Then it became clear.  He was actually a Tanzania who somehow had got himself on a boat from Dar es Salaam and had got stuck in Eritrea.

 I eventually extracted myself from where he was leading – i.e. to get him some money so he could get his passage home, and I carried on along the causeway.  It unsettled me quite a bit to have had a week free from this in Africa, only to have it thrown back on me.  I do hope that Eritreans remain as friendly and open as they are now, but even during my trip, I found that there was the edge of tarnish.  My boss, Judith , told me about more recent trips of hers, that she saw more beggars on the street than before, and they were being more forceful than ever before.

 Even with the weirdness of the city and its circumstances, normal Sunday life was going on as it does in any city.  In the burning heat, I wandered across a wide open space near the Red Sea.  In a small Fiat car, built sometime in the 16th century, a woman was learning to drive.  Out here with no obstacles she was studying the rudiments of moving off and stopping, turning the steering wheel and how to stall.  I watched the little blue car with the L sign on the roof judder around this wasteground for a few moments before the heat pushed me on.

Massawa and the Escarpment – Night on the roof

 When we got back to the house, there was not much else to do except go to sleep.  I had two options.  Either I could go into the air conditioned play room for the girls and sleep among their Barbie dolls or go up on the roof.  The rain clouds had cleared and the starry sky looked too inviting, so I grabbed a Karimat, a thin sheet and clambered up onto the roof of the portocabin.

 Around me Massawa was still awake and I wondered whether I was going to get any sleep.  I made my bedroom up there, lying out the bed, and setting down a torch and book next to the bed.  I took a good look around.  The first thing which grabbed my attention was the noise from the other side of the causeway.  My eyes led along the well lit road to a bunch of large buildings on the far side.  One of these was an open air cinema where they were showing a Bond film.  I can’t remember which one, but Roger Moore was starring in it.  Every so often, I could hear a blast of music or gun fire from here, and a great roar from the crowd inside.  Then it would go quiet again.  I looked to the south west where the oil terminal was.  A blaze of lights flickered across the bay.  To the far south; nothing, the darkness of three hundred miles of desert came back to meet me.  Aseb is the second largest city in Eritrea, along that coast line, but Chris told me that few people travel along the coast to get there.  The road is tarmacced to the bottom of the bay I could see in front of me.  Then it becomes a dusty track which links a few small fishing villages.  Then the road is purely a desert route, not well marked and without any habitation.  It can take three days of travel before you hit Aseb itself.  Aseb is linked to the rest of the civilised world by the Red Sea and a road that leads straight up into the Ethiopian Highlands.

 To the east, I looked out over the rooftops of Massawa.  The usual night noises could be heard; dogs barking, children crying, mothers calling.  The situation was the same looking north, but beyond the houses the dazzling floodlights of the port and a few ships lights could be seen amongst the others.

 I settled down, covered myself uselessly in the sheet and reached for my book.  As I rested my head back on the pillow I looked up, and realised that this was the one direction I hadn’t bothered with, and was simply the best.  The Milky Way zigzagged across the sky and several planets twinkled around.  And the more I looked, (and tried to shelter my eyes from the earthly light sources) the more stars could I see.

 It was difficult to think that I could sleep with 007 saving the world behind my head and this amazing vista straight above, but then the culmination of an early start, a long journey, followed by the snorkelling and beach walk, made me very tired and I was away within minutes.

Massawa and The Escarpment – Bizarre walk and dinner

 We got in the Land Rover (the obligatory white Land Rover) and we drove up to the roundabout.  Two green tanks guarded the causeway in front of us, but they are no longer manned. They are a memorial to the time when the Eritreans recaptured Massawa from the Ethiopians.

 We drove across the causeway and turned right off the Asmara road into the new suburbs of Massawa.  In some places the electric street lights and tarmacced roads have been prepared, but the houses were still absent.  The desert road headed out into the salt pans north of the city, great wide flat areas at various stages of evaporation.  To the east I could see a massive factory belching smoke into the air.  This is Eritrea’s cement works, taking in the raw materials from the desert.  Several ships were moored in the shallow bay next to the factory; their brilliant deck lights in stark contrast to the gloomy skies around.

 Then came for me one of the most remarkable moments of my life.  The neat little tarmacced road came to the edge of civilisation.  The houses stopped, the salt pans were just behind us.  We rose up a very small ridge and the road was about to turn back towards the coast.  Chris stopped the vehicle and I looked forwards to see the desert.  The true desert.  Mile upon mile of rocky plain covered in a thin veneer of panicum bush.  The rocks and bush were distinguishable in front of the vehicle, but quickly merged into a grey nothingness.  And boy, did it go on.  Mile after mile was visible from this tiny hummock.  In the west, I could see the line of the escarpment relentlessly heading north, to the east I could see where the desert stopped.  But in front of me was forty miles of Red Sea Coastal Plain.  The only relief was a volcanic mountain roughly thirty miles north.  Apparently this was Wadi Mogae leading to the town of Mersa Gulbub on the coast.  The moment of intensity as we passed over that ridge was immense.  I had to look back to check that we hadn’t fallen off the edge of the earth.  But, thankfully, the tiny pin pricks of light from the two Massawan islands and the mainland town were still there, but they looked so insignificant that it was not much of a comfort.

 The humidity was oppressive as we bumped off the tarmac and crunched across some ancient coral towards the sea.  Chris parked on a small ridge and we got out.  The beach sank under our weight, the ground was made up of thousands of pieces of shattered coral.  Chris and Sheila explained the origin of these beaches and how the changing sea level has left several layers.  We beach combed for a while and I found a dolphin’s tooth and a piece of turtle shell (which I still treasure, although I suppose I could have been held up for going against the CITES treaty when I smuggled it back in my suitcase a week later).  There was also part of a turtle’s skull on the ground.  The girls collected some rocks for their collection and, although we were in the desert, there was the usual assortment of plastic bottles, bags and waste paper that is almost universal.

 We crunched over the dead and broken coral.  Looking into the distance across the Red Sea a few ships ploughing from Suez out to the Indian Ocean could be seen in the distance, their white lights pricking the greyness.  To the west, the vast grey desert too was pin pricked with settlement.  A few headlight beams of vehicles could be seen intermittently among the hillocks.

 Below my feet the beach decided to get up and walk.  A thousand whelk shells lifted themselves a centimetre off the ground and moved away from me.  As I looked down, each shell hole had a number of curved feet sticking out and a hermit crab was scurrying its house into the distance.  This kept happening as we walked and we ended up herding several thousand of these animals towards the vehicle.

Pair of Shells - bottom one from Massawa

Pair of Shells – bottom one from Massawa

We had a good meal in the beach side hotel in the air-conditioned restaurant before heading back to the most bizarre retail outlet I have ever come across for a sweet; an ice cream parlour in the desert.  Still miles outside of Massawa was this drive in parlour, round and packed with empty tables.  Someone served us an array of flavours as they would in any Italian Beach or London shop; you could have three in one – rum and raisin, raspberry, vanilla, strawberry, blackcurrant, pistachio, coffee, chocolate, orange and lemon Sorbet, or a banana split or whatever.  It was still almost 30 degrees C outside, but our bellies had travelled to the Arctic.

Massawa and the Escarpment – Swimming, Resting and Raining

For me it was the noise.  As you draw close to the reef, there is a crackling noise, which continues incessantly.  It is like people breaking loads and loads of kindling ready for a fire.  I asked Chris about this and he said that the argument has never been settled.  He thought the most likely explanation for it was that there are a species of shrimp living in the coral and surrounding area which stuns prey by clicking loudly with their claws.  Apparently the noise produced gives off shock waves which can paralyse small fishes at several places, and the noise itself can be heard for miles through the water.  Magnify that by the number of shrimps that can live within hearing distance by the number of times they click their claws together and it might explain this incessant noise.

 Looking around I could see different coral shapes.  Then I saw the enemy, the spiny urchin.  Its small body is masked by a set of long black spines.  The spines themselves are not poisonous, but made of fine calcareous material that breaks easily and can stick in your foot if you have the misfortune to stand on one in bare feet.  The irritation caused is intense and there is little you can do about it until the body works out the fragments of lime.

 This worries me and starts me hyperventilating when I see some. What is worse, Chris has told me not to put my foot down on any coral, and the problem is that my instant reaction when there is a problem is to do this, and I am torn between putting my foot on the fragile coral or on the urchins which live on the sandy crevices between fronds.  Hu hu hu hu goes my bronchial system.

 Gradually I come round to easier breathing and I am putting my foot down less regularly and enjoyed the spectacle.  It was better than TV where you look straight at a glass bowl, these brilliantly coloured fish were swimming all around me, and some of them would come up close and give me a good stare before flicking their tails at me and scurrying off into another crevice.  Looking around, there were butterfly fish and angel fish, eels poking their heads out of every hole.  Crossing the coral, the bottom drops steeply away into a grey-green gloom on the far side.  The number of species was even greater on this side, and despite the feeling that I could no longer put my foot down, I felt more confident to explore here.

 Moving off the coral reef, there was far less activity, but some of it was amazing.  While most of the sand was flat, some areas had wide craters, abutting each other closely.  These craters were fairly shallow, and in the centre was a hole.  Each crater contained a small goby fish that swam around rather agitatedly.  But alongside, in every one, was a snapping shrimp, that would clean up the area around the crater.  When the goby had snapped at a passing morsel of food, the shrimp would quickly come and grab anything spewed out of the side of the mouth.  The shrimp lived in a small hole in the pond and waft its tentacles in the water to sense any change in circumstances.  Every pond had its fish and every pond had its shrimp.  They lived together in a remarkable piece of symbiosis.  It is difficult to work Darwin’s theory of evolution in to this  place; where did the relationship start – did the shrimp find itself in a fish’s pond and find the living easy.  Did the goby decide that the shrimp was not that good to eat?  How did the fish keep its area clean before the shrimp started the domestic work?

 Elsewhere, there were a few small rays buried in the sand, only their eyes showing.  A sudden movement sent them shuddering off in a cloud of sand and two flaps of their curious wings sent them forty yards away.

 After a while, I tired of having salt water in my mouth, of breathing in a coughing splutt,  so we decided to come out.  We moved into the relative cool of the caravan and I had a shower and some lunch.  Massawa grounds to a halt at about 12 o’clock.  The heat is so intense there is nothing you can do.  Chris, Sheila and the kids went off into their beds.  I went out and sat in the shade between the caravan and the container with the offices in.  Slumped in a seat I read a few pages of a book as the wind between the two buildings quietly refreshed me in the stinking heat.  The bay in front of me looked completely glazed over.  The mountains to the south shimmered.  The sky still moved as clouds built up from the east and moved over the mountains, but everything else was still.

 Something that surprised me about the desert was the activity of clouds.  In many ways, you expect clear blue skies all day and crystal clear views of the stars at night.  But here we had wispy cirrus clouds that built quickly into thunderstorm clouds before dissipating over the land.  The sky to the south became quite dark as the afternoon dragged on.  The mountains disappeared into a large black cloud and the wind caught the lower edges and sent them towards the escarpment.  Some rain appeared to be falling but much of it seemed to evaporate before it got to the ground.  Then the cloud stuck on the western escarpment.  It was then that I remembered the area I had passed through in the morning.  The green acacia thorn and relatively well watered hills below Asmara existed because these clouds built up.  They were too high and the desert was too hot for rain to reach the lowlands, but the mountains caught the clouds head on and the moisture replenished the parched land almost daily.  It was still only a tiny amount of rainfall, but it was more than anywhere else received.

 The afternoon wore on and it seemed like it would never get cooler.  Eventually, though, Chris and Sheila emerged and we pottered around before going out to dinner.  It then did something that hadn’t happened in Massawa for weeks.  It rained.  Small black blobs of rain fell on the sand and immediately soaked down and disappeared into the excess of dust.  But it rained.

Massawa and the Escarpment – Learning to snorkel

 The compound was made up of a caravan, a portable room and a couple of converted containers

The Hillman Compound

The Hillman Compound

.  Chris and Sheila had spent some time in a house, but had eventually settled in the caravan just because it proved convenient and a nicer surrounding.  The immediate area around  the caravan was covered in netting to keep the sun off.  A breeze came through between the shed (where they kept a museum of artefacts found in the Red Sea) and the caravan.  It was not exactly cool, but it was a welcome relief from the near 40 degrees in the shade that was around in mid afternoon.

 But the thing that was most amazing about the compound was the garden.  You came out of the front door of the caravan onto a stone jetty with a small wall.

Chris and Sheila's front garden

Chris and Sheila’s front garden

  You dropped off the small wall into the warm water of the Red Sea, a shallow sandy bay.  Just a few yards out, a coral reef that curved round the bay into the deeper water in the distance.  This was the garden.  I had been there a couple of hours when Chris asked me whether I wanted to go Snorkelling.  The last time I had attempted this was in Gorgona in Colombia, where I had a pair of cheap goggles which filled with water immediately, and I remember I had gashed myself on the side of a piece of razor sharp coral and opened a wound which could only be closed by wrapping a rubber tourniquet around my entire hand with the strap from someone else’s goggles.

 Was I pensive?  I said not.  I borrowed a pair of baggy shorts, a pair of sandals and a  good mask.  We went into the water and I flailed my arms about to get over to the coral reef.  I was not the best swimmer in the world.  Correction.  I was a terrible swimmer.  I would not even attempt to swim normally unless I know that I can reach out with my foot on the ground.  Eternal shame, terrible mistake, should have got confidence when I was child, but there you are.  I think the thing was that I was never in the right atmosphere to learn how to swim properly.  My experiences as a child amounted to the overpowering chlorinated stench of the Victorian Public Baths in Garston, South Liverpool, and the cold, grey, overpopulated waters of beaches on the south and west coasts of England and Wales.  If I had been brought up in Massawa or the Caribbean or Dar es Salaam, I am sure I would have been easy to teach, as the water is warm and inviting, the climate is fine and getting out of the water did not form an ordeal in itself.

 Here was wonderful.  The Red Sea is unusually salty, probably because of the severe evaporation rates, particularly in shallow bays like the one I snorkelled in.  I could quite easily lie on my back looking up into the blue sky and float without effort all day, sun burn permitting.

 Chris wanted me to see the reef though and he gave me a quick lesson in snorkelling. Try to breathe normally, don’t put your feet on any of the spiny urchins.   I went over for the first time and started trying to use the gear.  I found that water started splashing into the pipe. I was looking down too hard, I should look across.  I got a mouth full of salt water and coughed and spluttered upwards.  Chris came back and asked what the problem was.  I hoarsely told him.  He taught me how to “spit” the water out through the release valve at the back of the pipe, the pressure opening this valve and exhaling any fluid that had got in.  Still, I didn’t like the taste of the very salty water on my mouth, but I suppose you got used to it.

 I tried again.  I found myself unable to control my breathing when I went down.  I was taking short sharp breaths, and quite often the waves lapped over the top of my pipe and down came another glob of very salty water, causing me to splutter and stand upright once more.

 Chris asked me whether I felt relaxed.  I did feel relaxed, but my respiratory system was telling me otherwise.  I told him it was that feeling of claustrophobia at the moment when you put your face down into the water –like pushing yourself against a pillow.  Once through the skin, I was free again, and could calmly observe without hyperventilating. Salt water permitting.

 Having at last mastered my breathing, I could start looking around me.  The wonders of the coral reef are known to many through film or personal experience, but as with so many things, there are elements of a coral reef which can only be appreciated with your own experience, and things no-one had ever told you about snorkelling become your enduring memory.

Massawa and the Escarpment – across the desert

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.

Entering Massawa

Entering Massawa