A Day Trip and Detour Out of Addis Ababa
Unusual for an African capital, Addis Ababa is fortuitously located at the heart of a region rich in both historical sites and natural beauty. Tourists often overlook this convenient geographical boon in their over-eagerness to attack the more famous historical circuit of the north. However, both curious Addis Ababa residents, as well as the more nuanced tourist, can easily rectify this oversight in as little as a half-day trip.
I set out to pioneer this mission on a day trip to the town of DebreLibanos, specifically to the RasDarge Bridge, more commonly referred to as the Portuguese Bridge, a few kilometers from the area’s namesake monastery.
I drove up to DebreLibanos with an Ethiopian friend and a small, obsequious driver. We met in the Flamingo Area of Bole Road and continued as a group from there. From the moment I slid onto the gray velour of the backseat I knew my relationship with the voluptuous BMW jalopy would mirror that of a film noir protagonist with his femme fatale: she would hurt me again and again, yet I would remain transfixed and forgiving. Indeed, staring through the front two seats at the archaic dashboard, the car resembled Bogey’s in The Big Sleep. Unfortunately, in my dust-worn Nike’s under the angry Addis Ababa morning sun I felt little like Lauren Bacall.
As we crawled across the city like one in a colony of sedated ants I settled into the worn crevice of the backseat and closed my eyes. Two hours later, stirring from my sun-soaked slumber expecting to open my eyes like a Disney Princess to a whole new world, I instead opened my eyes to a Kobil gas station not two kilometers from our starting point. The only difference from when I fell asleep was that the car was at a stand still with the pale blue hood jutting upwards forming a V with the sloping windshield. The hood was propped up by the driver, who delicately examined the soot-lined interior like an adolescent discovering the wonders of the female anatomy. Soon a successful chug in the little engine that barely could was heard and we were back on our way.
Slowly we rolled out of the city emerging into the hills of Entoto like entering Narnia, the Soviet-style architecture of the city melted away until we were surrounded only by the leaping silver leaves of Eucalyptus trees, imported 200 years ago from Australia by Emporer Menelik II but now, like the macchiato, more native to the city than injera.
The main road from Addis Ababa to the northern city of Bahir-Dar weaves through high moorland swathed in unexpected heather-like vegetation that is more bucolic British shire than Ethiopian farmland. Views of sharp, rugged mountains sever the horizon line like the work of an Exacto knife. The pockmarked fields and hillsides are dappled with pre-rain shadow like an Appaloosa, and roll by with only a ribbon of concrete to interrupt them, the white dotted median like a seamstress’ preliminary stitch.
About 60 km outside of Addis we pass a parking lot with a plaque erected in 2005 to commemorate the Ethio-Japanese cooperation in the construction of this excellent paved road conveniently lacerating the countryside in our desired direction. Several small towns flank the roadside giving way to breadths of barely inhabited farmland. The swaths of empty roadside in between are ornamented by a motley crew of shoddily uniformed day school students, funeral goers, firewood carriers, farmers and shepherds; their faces all united by a rare combination of hopeful reserve and exhausted aimlessness.
Three and a half hours after our 8.30 am departure we complete our 100 km journey and pull into the driveway of the Ethio-German Hotel lucratively boasting the only entrance to the famous “Portuguese Bridge.”
The decision to skip the monastery is a time concern and we choose only to attack the view, the bridge and the baboons.
The modest German Hotel, a conglomeration of small satellite buildings orbiting around a traditional tikul hut for a main dining room, offers a breathtaking view of the Jemma Valley, named for the river that formed it, a tributary of the Blue Nile.
The sweeping view of the valley looks like the Grand Canyon polka-dotted with the endemic Ethiopian Gelada baboons. Desiccated Cacti sprinkle the narrow footpath with bulbs and growths like mongoloid potatoes. My camera bulkily in tow, I weave deftly through the pointed Aloe Vera plants and leaping thorns. Approaching the crest of the canyon a simian suburb comes into view. The clusters of Gelada Baboons are calm, implacable in their composure. The vagrant tourist is clearly more afraid of the monkeys than any of these self-satisfied baboons are of him. My approach causes not even a flinch, so habituated to my human presence that they rival New York City subway rats in non-chalance.
After photographing and bidding farewell to my mini Planet of the Apes we continue to mount the hillside interrupted only by a handful of solicitous school children attempting to sell their respective handful of hand-carved limestone crosses. I am tired of having people make me feel guilty for not buying their wares and so promptly explain my devout Jewish faith and dislike for crosses. Their response is a look of melded confusion and disinterest that soon dissolves like selective amnesia allowing them to repeat their sales pitches ten seconds later like tin wind-up toys.
As I continue down the 500-meter footpath, skittering adroitly over loose rocks and sediment like a bashful Billy goat, I wonder where exactly this famous bridge is. My query is met by the not so distant sound of a waterfall. My expert logic reasons that where there is water there must be a bridge near by. And indeed, within the next few meters a handsome medieval footbridge comes into view shocking me with its seeming composition of stone. The bridge, or dildeye in Amharic, spans the Gur River before its eventual several hundred meter plunge into the Jemma. I have heard that the bridge, like the castles of the northern medieval town, Gondor, is built from egg and wheat, but even I can tell through the moss and lichen stains that this bridge is not constructed from Wonder bread. I should have known pancake batter was too intriguing a construction material to be true. And as research later revealed, it is in fact only the sealant that is made from “egg” and not even egg yolk—eggshell. A precursor to cement, RasDarge, Emporer Menelik’s nephew, used a sealant of Ostrich egg shells and limestone for the bridge. Slightly less miraculous than the egg yolk and wheat I was expecting.
The bridge is thought by many, including the local “guides” on the hillside, to have been built 400 ago years but as my reading would later confirm, despite its timeworn appearance, the bridge was actually built at the turn of the 20th century by Prince RasDarge. The confusion regarding the bridge’s history is explained by a common case of mistaken identity. The bridge is referred to as “The Portuguese Bridge” presumably as a result of confusion with the two 17th century bridges, built by the Portuguese, that span the Blue Nile further down in the valley.
While the bridge is charming, it is the spectacular view of the valley from the lip of the gorge and the baboons that inhabit the view that make any amount of car trouble worthwhile.
The trek back up to the car makes the walk down seem like child’s play and we all need a few minutes of discreet wheezing before we are ready to reload into my old automobile acquaintance. I never thought I would be so relieved to climb back into that hot and cranky car. Like so many femme fatales before her, my initial vehicular frustration was appeased by the end result—a near certain justification of the means, sputtering oil tanks, tender engines and all.
About The Author
Chloe Malle is a freelance journalist currently based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia where she teaches English as a Second Language and assists an American physician at the local Mother Theresa Clinic. Chloe studied creative writing and comparative literature at Brown University. She likes all animals except rodents and enjoys bookmaking and collaging in her free time. Please contact her with any Ethiopian queries or article assignments at Chloe.Malle@gmail.com