|Dire Dawa road traffic|
Further meditation is curtailed by the arrival of a final passenger, and muggins reverts to making eyes with a baby on its mother's back outside. The van won't start, of course, and cohorts have to push it to ignition. We stop after five minutes to fill up with petrol; this time the driver gets out and pushes it to the cusp of a slope, jumping back just in time.
The Natives Are Getting Ugly
|Beggars outside dental clinic|
|Stealth shot towards palace gates|
Dire Dawa (pronounced dirEduhwuh) is literally a railway town, a service centre when the French laid the Djibouti-Addis Ababa tracks a century ago. It's a remarkably pleasant place on a semi-arid plain, an hour's ride from, but lower and quite a bit hotter than Harar, though still balmy, green and flowery enough to deserve the title of garden city. In fact the locals call it Queen City of the Desert. It has masses of grassy roundabouts with tree-lined avenues spoking out diagonally, the ubiquitous green broken by splashes of red, yellow and orange from the blooms.
Equally ubiquitous are the tuk-tuks, onomatopoeic three-wheel open-side taxi carts working on motorbike engines and weaving in between pedestrians, goats and the occasional loaded camel. Muggins has splurged out, treating himself to the best hotel in town – huge corner bay-windowed room with a/c (not needed), fan, hot water, TV etc, even if in need of a bit of paint and other touchings up, all for $40.
|Dire Dawa station|
It's all rather sad. The railway that gave birth to the town hardly functions any more. This was the journey that Evelyn Waugh took from Djibouti to Addis Ababa to cover Haile Selassie's coronation in 1930 for The Times, etched later into immortality in Scoop. Now it no longer runs to Addis at all and is very degraded; there only seems to be one train from Djibouti every seven to 10 days or so, although there are some local routes.
Time for an aperitif (tea) at a pavement cafe in the station square opposite the nondescript yellow building with its blue lettering. An ebullient Frenchman, married to an Ethiopian, who spends part of his time in Dire Dawa and part in Toulouse, is my Deep Throat on latest intelligence. A train from Djibouti is due in at noon, he informs me; it may be an hour or two late but it's worth waiting for the sight - 'quite an experience, quite a commotion,' quoths he. Westerners are advised not to take it, he adds; it takes longer than the bus, 14 to 20 hours or even more, and is swarming with robbers, bandits, ne'er-do-wells, rapists, paedophile priests, the taxman, the abominable snowman and Uncle Tom Cobley and all.
|Locomotive in station square with 'AIDS' flags|
The siren tolls the knell of noon-time day/At 3 it tolls again for post-noon play. Well, just in case you forget to take your siesta. As for muggins, it's flash back time to the London blitz, ready to dive for the shelter. After the siren-bracketed hiatus it's back to the station. There's no sign of the Djibouti bullet train but visits to and, what's more, photographs of the station and tracks are mysteriously not verboten, once you get a pass from management. The line is single track, but there are numerous ones here in the station and yard, all overgrown with grass. Broken down carriages from third to first class, goods wagons, burned out old locomotives, others crashed, haunt the tracks. A true railway graveyard.
Back at the station cafe just before twilight; not a sign of my shinkansen from Djibouti - no train, no crowds, no pre-arrival bustle, no nothing, just a few kids playing football outside the closed iron gates. The only thing that even smells of rail transport is an old grey locomotive stuck on an island in the middle of the roundabout as a memorial to what once was, with two AIDS campaign flags flapping from it. Aha, those red-pink bows might not be for AIDS; they could be beer adverts since they're also on the sides of a beer van. It's getting darker and darker; a huge beer bottle-flanked screen has lit up with local news and adverts.
|Tracks and broken down trains|
|No need to raise or lower the toilet seat|
|These trains have seen better days|
|Run into the ground|