Tuesday, September 14, 2010

39 - In Search Of Mirages

Near the Somali border
On the Grand Bara, a huge sand plain between rocky mountains; we're on the hunt for mirages. Daniel, the guide, is pointing them out everywhere – see that lake over there? And that lorry over there? Of course, muggins sees nothing. I do see a few far-off bushes, a couple of grey leafless thorn trees, but not a mirage in sight. Not even a goose – what a wild mirage chase!

We left Djibouti town early this morning, passing a huge US base behind the airport, vast rubbish dumps everywhere, an enormous vehicle graveyard with the shells of hundreds of wrecked cars and trucks, a myriad tyres, and arrived at the border with Somalia for a look-see. Then we turned west past low green bushes, copses of thorn trees with low flat tops, large flocks of goats, a herd of camels, a desert golf course of sand and pebbles with not a blade of grass, make-shift shelters of nets and tarpaulins hanging from scant branches, bunkers left over from World War II to ward off an Italian invasion from its Somali colony – and everywhere arid stoney plain and bushes littered with plastic bags and other refuse.

Road near the border
Large tractor-trailers with containers from Maersk, even Zim with the Star of David, make a tortured climb through this member of the Arab league along the tarred two-laner to land-locked Ethiopia. Now we're driving across the baked, cracked pancake of Grand Bara, Daniel trying to talk me into seeing mirages. No go, not even a pub with ice-cold beer on the wavey horizon. I'm totally mirage-less. Daniel's getting a bit pissed off with my visual ineptitude. He says US special forces use the Bara as a training ground, with helicopter drops etc., but I can't even mirage that.

We come to a huge pile of rocks and climb up to see 10,000-year old red rock paintings of giraffes, elephants, oryxes, unfortunately degraded by ultra-modern white graffiti. We drive back across the sun-baked ground, Daniel in desperation. In the distance a large sheet of water stretches out close to the roadway. At last a mirage that I can see! And non-existent reflections of trucks in the non-existent water, too! More mirages.
Local resident appears from nowhere
Last Exit - Ali Sabieh: The little hut by the side of the tracks is the last station in Djibouti on the Addis Ababa railway of Evelyn Waugh's Scoop fame. Muggins takes a photo op, and everybody starts screaming, not because picture taking is verboten, but because they want to get paid for it. Likewise at Ali Sabieh's picturesque pink and blue mosque, and at the yellow one, and at the qat stalls, and... and... and...

Grand Bara plain
Ali Sabieh is not only a border for Ethiopia, but for Somalia too, and US special forces are based in the region, according to Daniel. A hill adorned with a vast painted Djibouti flag – a red star on a white triangle indented into blue and green – affords a superb panoramic view over the town, its scattered green groves and the craggy dun mountains surrounding it on all sides. At the bottom are the rounded tents of a 20-year-old refugee camp for the officers and families of the murderous Ethiopian Derg regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam, who was welcomed with open arms by Zimbabwe's equally murderous Robert Mugabe when he was forced into exile. Little kids appear from nowhere on the hill seeking alms. We give them water.

There's a large qat market in Ali Sabieh, and our driver, Adam, now has an enormous bunch of the stuff on his lap, breaking off the leaves and chomping contentedly, the bulge in his left cheek growing exponentially by the minute. This should prove an interesting afternoon's drive. Daniel swears qat's not a soporific, merely a euphoric. Let's see if Adam gets too euphoric and starts dancing and kangaroo-hopping all over the place.

View of part of Alie Sabieh with refugee camp in foreground
We continue westwards, past more WWII bunkers built into the red mountains. There are very few green bushes on the stoney ground, then suddenly vast spreads of yellowish tufts stretch out to the horizon. Where there are little shacks and canvas and reed hovels, vast spreads of plastic bags and other refuse mar nature, and where there are not the occasional plastic bottle reminds you of the passage of humans.

Now my camera's shutter cover won't close properly; it looks like a drooping eyelid. It must be because I electrocuted it at the bonobos near Kinshasa. We arrive at Dikhil palm oasis. It's 42 Celsius, 108 Fahrenheit, but dry. We stop off for a drink. When we return Adam has a left cheek burgeoning into Mount Everest, teeth and lips green, and an idiot grin on his mug. He still  manages to function, though, and we pass the house of an orphanage that a Dubai organisation is building – and of course the usual refuse everywhere, plastic bags clinging to stones or flapping from bushes.
Refugee camp
Ali Sabieh
A camel train of smugglers from Ethiopia passes near the road, now a roller-coaster dirt track. They start screaming at my photo op, and I'm pretty sure it's not for money this time. Afar villages lie scattered on the desolate, stoney plain, often no more than mud bricks with straw roofs, sometimes simply amassed sticks topped by tarpaulins, though in the larger villages they are of stone. The plain is crisscrossed with tyre tracks going in every which direction, indecipherable for any outsider. Let's hope Adam's qat instinct is a good gut instinct. At Koutabouya, an Afar village of widely scattered dun-coloured blocks and humps, USAID has built a blue and white school. Still we push on.

Planet Of The Apes - Groves of greyish brown thorn trees, the same colour as the stoney ground, stretch out towards grey brownish crags and mountains – the moon with trees. It's an ocean of rocks and stones. A small patch of solitary green – the same colour as the driver's mouth – on the cusp of a low cliff shows there must be some water somewhere.

Ali Sabieh street
Suddenly, a phantasmagorical scene of massive volcanic chimneys surges up on the horizon, tortured, twisted, pinnacled - ogres' castles. Tufts of green appear, ponds of water, calcified white chalk patches. We've arrived at a lake, Lac Abbe, where Planet of the Apes was filmed. This has a certain significance for muggins, because a certain person who shall remain unnamed, says I remind him/her (see, I'm giving no clues) of Galen, the ape played by Roddy McDowall.

Up close the chimneys are even more fantastic, something to illustrate a Grimms fairy tale. There must be hundreds of them soaring up from multiple bases, reaching up to 150 feet, the largest standing in solitary majesty. Boiling water bubbles up from the ground and the chemicals-laden lake stretches out into the mountains of Ethiopia. At twilight the chimneys take on even more fantastic forms; one looks like a seated lion, another like a wolf baying at the moon, a third like a huge French poodle begging. One more African dusk: the curfew tolls the knell of parting day/The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea... Only this time the herd are eey-oring donkeys belonging to nearby Afar villagers.
Ali Sabieh railway station
We eat out in the open at a nearby camp. Adam won't even look at food, his qat having killed any appetite. They put out a narrow cot under the stars with a mosquito net. It's stiflingly hot, impossible to sleep; the brilliant constellations make pretty patterns through the netting. Now Mrs. Moon shows her face. After an eternity a shape looms up in the dark. Arghhh, it must be Galen! No, it’s only Adam stumbling over to Daniel, mumbling something and staggering off to the van. He starts the engine and moves off 100 feet. Daniel says Adam's staying in the van because he can't sleep outside. The van! Air conditioning! Muggins nips quickly van-wards.

Smugglers' camel train
It's cooler, though still not ideal – the narrow mattress in the back is on a 10/15 degree incline, and I keep on rolling off. It’s impossible to sleep. At about 5 I finally doze off. But Daniel has had the genial idea of getting up at 5 to watch the sunrise amid the chimneys, so bang goes Sweet Morpheus. Of course, there are grey clouds, so there IS no sunrise. But the vision of the chimneys slowly emerging from the gloom to take on the full scope of their tormented shapes still makes it worthwhile.

Wilderness 'forest'

Planet of the Apes - Lake Abbe volcanic chimneys
Chimneys with bird head in centre


Volcanic steam pool
Volcanic steam pool with garbage
The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea
Chimney alley
At left and right, poodles baying at the setting sun
Reaching for the sky

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