The old, weary bus sets off from Asmara at 4am, overflowing with passengers and luggage. This is one of the most crowded vehicles it has ever been my pleasure to experience. The aisle is piled with bags, including our own rucksacks, and the roof is so heavily loaded with precarious items that vertical struts have been welded into the vehicle superstructure to take the extra weight. By 8am the dented tin box is already roasting hot, and another ten people get on and occupy the last remaining standing space. They have come direct to Massawa in faster minibuses to avoid the police checkpoints on the main road. They will now remain standing for the rest of the journey through the Dankalia Desert, which was quoted as taking ‘a day’.
Shortly thereafter, the road peters out. Our way is now little more than a rough track, with the quality varying between cattle grid and ploughed field, via corrugated iron. The heat and vibration turn the bus into a sweltering jackhammer. Everything shakes: seats; windows; any loose flesh. The contents of our stomachs ‘settle during transit’. We hold onto the seats just waiting for the juddering to stop, but it doesn’t. I glance at my watch to see how much of this we have so far endured and notice a pin from the strap has been shaken almost completely loose. White flakes snow down on us from a pile of empty sacks on the luggage rack, labelled ‘Wheat from the people of Japan’. Ahead of us, an evil-looking oil is dripping onto the back of one of the soldiers. Through chattering teeth I keep repeating the mantra: “This is not a holiday. This is not a holiday…”
Sand, broken rocks and the occasional stunted bush comprise a daunting vista. The Danakil Depression is billed as one of the most desolate places on earth. I attempt to lose myself in the Eritrea Times, but the promise of ‘Farmers anticipate early arrival of tractors’ is not sufficient to occupy me. Two hours later we shudder to a halt in a nameless, one-street village and run behind a row of wood/tin/plastic homes to relieve ourselves, devoid of any shelter from wide and curious eyes. We feel quite self-conscious until an old man hurries into the centre of the clearing, squats, and defecates right in front of us. On our return route around him, I almost kick a fresh goat’s head lying among the squalor.
Back on the main ‘road’, the town lunatic accosts us and tries to explain his maths homework to me in Tigrinya, the local language. He jabbers excitedly, wielding a battered exercise book scribbled with pages of basic trigonometry. The locals laugh. A passer-by points to his head and explains “not working.”
Down a side street, I meet a little girl - Susie - who proudly shows me her donkey. She is so smiley that I have to take her picture. She is intrigued by my lithographic engine so I show her how to look through the viewfinder. She’s already worked out the shutter release though and knows it isn’t switched on. She thrusts the thing at me until I capitulate and she starts clicking away like a pro: several of me, then one of her sister, and of her brother, and of her shack. She squeals with delight at the game, and it makes the last 6 hours worthwhile.
On the way back to the bus, the crazy guy reappears and waves us into a café where he thrusts 2 Nakfa at the owner, saying “Chai, chai,” before running off. We gratefully drink our tea, and the locals laugh again. Too soon, Trial by Omnibus recommences. The vehicle lists alarmingly as we cross a dry river bed at 5kph, boulders scraping the vehicle’s bottom. Consequently, the spare wheel is removed from its bracket underneath and placed in the aisle - a huge, impassable rubber wall. We wait for the inevitable ‘Clang!’ that will herald the breakage of something mechanical, irreparable and essential. Somehow it doesn’t happen, and we roll forward interminably towards Assab.