Ethiopia: Abyssinia Adventure -
Hwy 3: West Tigray Province

Bicycle Africa / Ibike Tours
  Self-contained bicycle tour through western Tigray Province. This tour passes through rugged, spectacular countryside and samples some of the wonderful hospitality of the region.  
Elevation profile: Highway 3, Zarima to Axum, Ethiopia
[Graphs are built with incomplete data and are only general representations of the topography.]
For the government of Ethiopia, Tigray Province starts at the 'Buya' River, geologically the Simien Mountain topography ends at Zarima, and hundreds of kilometers of plateau sliced by river valley begins. This is indicative of western Tigray.
Start of asphalt, Zarima, Ethiopia Ethiopian Road Authority Project sign, Zarima, EthiopiaMost of the road is new asphalt from Zarima to Axum. That is cause for celebration. The Ethiopian Road Authority (ERA) project sign lists the project duration as three years and the completion date as October 2012. It wasn't too long before it was clear that in December 2015 they still had hillside to stabilize, bridges to build and sections of roadway to pave. But for the most part the road was asphalt and an immeasurable improvement to Italian rock road. Bravo to the ERA.
River, Zarima, Ethiopia Bananas and mango, River, Zarima, EthiopiaThe lower elevation, warmer climate (almost tropical) and water supply of the Zarima or Dukoko River, enable growing banana, mango and riverside vegetable gardens at Zarima, elevation 1220m. Produce farm, River, Zarima, Ethiopia
hill Zarima-Golima, Ethiopia hill Zarima-Golima, Ethiopia hill Zarima-Golima, Ethiopia hill Zarima-Golima, Ethiopia hill Zarima-Golima, Ethiopia hill Zarima-Golima, Ethiopia
Golima-Zarina, Ethiopia A lot of reality of the next section is expressed in number; kilometers travel and elevation gained and lost. From Zarima to Golima is about 13 kilometers of asphalt road and 500m vertical. rise (in 9km), as the road weaves and winds up the plateau the view are BIG, and the switchbacks are seemingly endless. Say what you might about switchbacks, but the lengthen the the distance, thereby decreasing the grade, yet they make you feel like you are making progress and being successful, which is a moral boost.

These students (left) have this view every day they walk to and from school.

Students walking to school, Golima, Ethiopia
Hill north of Golima, road Golima and Bere Mariyam, Ethiopia Hill north of Golima, road Golima and Bere Mariyam, EthiopiaRiver between Golima and Bere Mariyam, EthiopiaThe hill to the north of Golima is another 500m in 6km from ridge to river. As an aside, it is very difficult to find the names of rivers and other geographical features in Ethiopia.
To reach the next ridge the climb is about 400m, in 6km, which brings you to Bere Mariyam. Bere Mariyam is the name on the town placards on the road. If you want to find it on a map look for 'Chew Ber'. And as with many Ethiopan place names, there may be a variety of spells.
As the old rock lyrics say, "What goes up must come down, spinning wheels got to go round." From Bere Mariyam to the bottom of the next river valley is 400m, over six kilometers. And then most of that has to regained to reach the next ridge at Adi Arkay. Adi Arkay has one of the prettiest settings for a town any where. Massive rock mountains dominate the landscape.
Adi Arkay and adjacent landscape, Ethiopia Adi Arkay and adjacent landscape, Ethiopia Adi Arkay and adjacent landscape, Ethiopia Adi Arkay and adjacent landscape, Ethiopia
Pool Hall under a tree, Adi Arkay, EthiopiaPool Hall under a tree, Adi Arkay, EthiopiaThe center of Adi Arkay is dominated by a large tree.  Under the tree a pool hall / bar has been constructed. It is noteworthy that pool tables, which are not cheep or light have made it to every town in Ethiopia, in multiples, and they are rarely idle. Pool Hall under a tree, Adi Arkay, Ethiopia
irrigating the young street trees in the road median, Adi Arkay, Ethiopia column of students returning from school, Adi Arkay, EthiopiaThroughout the early even things happened as the town move through it paces: Besides regular business at the coffee shops, the water truck rolled up the road irrigating the young street trees in the median. About 4:30 a column of students poured out of the school, gradually peeling away in small groups to the own personal destinations. At the church, the faithful approached for a few minutes of pray and then moved on.
Orthodox Church, Adi Arkay, Ethiopia
Switchback, hill north of Adi Arkay, Ethiopia Switchback, hill north of Adi Arkay, EthiopiaAdi Arkay is at a high point so the next path is down. This time a rather modest 250m drop over 4km to another river. The added dimension here is it is most of the day is below 1500m so the mornings are fresh, but by 10:00 it is getting warm enough to add extra stress to every climb.

In the Ethiopian, December temperature profile at 3000m it is cold, at 2500m it is comfortable, at 2000m afternoons are hot for climbing, and at 1500m any climb past early morning will leave you sweating profusely.

River, north of Adi Arkay, Ethiopia
After the river the ribbon of road does a little bouncing up 150m in 3km, with 4km rolling up and down on a plateau book ended by ridges, before taking another 300m descent over 8km to Buya. Not bad by western Tigray standards and the scenery is gorgeous.

The river at Buya is the boundary between Amhara and Tigray Provinces. I was told that it is called the Buya River, but communication was a little muddled and I am not certain the village and river share a name. The name does not appear in any list of rivers in Ethiopia or as a tributary of the Tekeze River (aka Takane River), of which this river is a seasonal contributor.

Hill north of "Buya" River, south of May Ts'ebri, EthiopiaPlateau south of May Ts'ebri, EthiopiaHaving arrived at another low spot, another climb is in store. The change here is about 250m over a few kilometers, before reach a plateau that extends to May Ts'ebri, the May Ayni refugee camp and the village of Imba Madre. The total distance from the river to Imba Madre is 27 km.
I am not a fan of refugee-camp-tourism, but the May Ayeni refugee camp straddles the highway so here are observations from only the snapshot available passing through:
Classic UNHCR tarp as roofing, May Ayeni refugee camp, Ethiopia Power poles and lines with electrical service to houses, May Ayeni refugee camp, May Ayeni, Ethiopia Straight street, solid stone house with metal roofs, May Ayeni, Ethiopia America Bar, May Ayeni refugee camp, Ethiopia
  • The refugee camp, unlike other Ethiopian communities, is laid out in a grid pattern.
  • The camp may be bigger than the town of May Ts'ebri and the village of Imba Madre on either side of it, though with the rapid development and construction in May Ts'ebri this may be changing.
  • Most of the residents of the camp are from Eritrea, which is in itself interesting because Ethiopia and Eritrea have an ongoing simmering conflict. (Ethiopia are quick to condemn the dictatorial government in Eritrea, but generally slow to apply the same criteria to their own government -- except for the Oromo people.)
  • Housing in the camp varies. Some building are covered with classic white UNHCR (United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees) tarps. Some streets have runs of power poles and power lines, with service lines go to many houses. Some sections are entirely built of solid, well crafted stone houses with metal roofs and dotted with street trees.
  • On one side the highway is line with a full range of small town businesses like restaurants, grocery stores, building supply stores, beauty shops, cell phone stores, cafes and bars, including the America Bar (photo above)
  • The opposite side of the road from the residential section is lined with school and service agencies, like "The Center for Victims of Trauma (Gift of the United State Government), "Youth Education Pack" (Norwegian Refugee Council), a workshop that is building a large number small shelters, perhaps chicken coup or hutches for small animals (rabbits?).
  • There are several signs thanking the 2014 donors to the UNHCR's Ethiopia Operations that list 46 countries.
  • In such a quick snapshot it is hard to know what insight comes from the people. There are those dressed in traditional clothes, mostly older generations, and at the other end of the spectrum there are those in hip style that I hadn't seen since Addis Ababa -- mostly twenty-something. But most of the people are wearing common casual wear -- neither rags or riches.
  • There are people who are busy and there are those who are mostly gathered with friends chatting and watching the road. But as this is only a snapshot there are no conclusion to be made about how long they are relaxing or what they did immediate before joining their friends or what they will be doing later in the day.
  • The roadside reception of the camp seemed more subdued than a similar sized Ethiopian town, which is not all bad because the reception in some towns is pretty mocking and disrespectful.
  • Purely with my imagination, I imagine that there are a lot of dreams in the population.
Hill between Adi Arkay and Tekeze River, Ethiopia Hill between Adi Arkay and Tekeze River, EthiopiaBetween the Adi Arkay plateau and the Tekezé River there are 600m of elevation difference. The Tekezé River forms in the highlands near Lasta (think Lalibela), from where it flows west, north, then west again, forming the westernmost border of Ethiopia and Eritrea from the confluence of the Tomsa with the Tekezé to the tripoint between the two countries and Sudan . After entering northeastern Sudan at the tripoint it joins the Atbarah River (It rise 30km west of Gondar and makes a short run north, then west and then north again. It is a tributary of the Nile. The Tekezé is perhaps the true upper course of the Atbarah, as the former follows the longer course and has a higher volume of water prior to the confluence of the two rivers. At the point that the road crosses the Tekezé it is about 850m above sea level.
View from Hill between Adi Arkay and Tekeze River, Ethiopia
Ethiopian Road Authority Mural of traffic signs, hill between Adi Arkay and Tekeze River, EthiopiaEthiopian Road Authority Mural of famous sites in Ethiopia, hill between Adi Arkay and Tekeze River, EthiopiaThe Ethiopian Road Authority has decorated a retaining wall on the hill. Part of it shows a variety of traffic signs, and the other half noteworthy sites in Ethiopia; the Simien Mountains, Fasilidas Castle Gondar, Rock hewed churches Lalibela, Abaya Dam and a train.
Tekezé River, Tigray, Ethiopia Tekezé River, Tigray, EthiopiaCamels and jockeys crossing Tekezé River, Tigray, EthiopiaThe Tekezé River carries water that doesn't get to the parched surrounding countryside. The climate and remoteness of the area is nicely illustrated by the two camels and their jockeys fording the river.

The vicinity of the Tekezé is one of the section that road improvement have yet to arrive and the bridge looks like it was constructed decades ago with an industrial size Erector Set (for those who aren't familiar with this classic engineering and construction toy, it still has a presence on the Internet.)

Gravel road, Tekezé River, Tigray, Ethiopia
10 percent slope sign, mountainside between Tekezé River and Adi Gebru, EthiopiaIf you play the old classic rock song backwards it must say, "What goes down must go up, spinning wheel must go round, but oh so very slowly." The next iteration of inclined plane, between the Tekezé River and Adi Gebru, zigzags across the mountainside for 13km and transports the traveler 800m higher. The combination of low elevation, reflective hillsides and high sun raised the temperature to sweat spurting levels -- drink plenty of water and it is a cleansing process..

I couldn't help to note that while every steep slope sign in Amhara Province was for 7% (which was often an understatement), ALL of the steep slope signs in this section of Tigray Province are for 10%, which felt much closer to reality at most of the signed grades.

Mid-hill a UNHCR truck passed, heading toward May Ayeni. It had at least a dozen people in the back. There is no simple way of knowing their stories.

Colorful shops of Adi Gebru, Tigray, Ethiopia Adi Gebru provided a welcome location for re-hydration and a caloric intake -- in the form of bread and peanut butter.

Eye catching in Adi Gebru is the colorful store fronts.

One strategy when children start to crowd uncomfortable close is to pull out a camera and start taking picture. Often they group will back off a little and calm down. But it can also go the other way where everyone starts mugging for the camera, wants their picture taken and want to see it on the digital screen. This may be a near riot. In any case the operation went pretty well during the reststop in Adi Gebru.

Provisions shop, Adi Gebru, Tigray, Ethiopia
People, Adi Gebru, Tigray, Ethiopia Children, Adi Gebru, Tigray, Ethiopia Students, Adi Gebru, Tigray, Ethiopia Children, Adi Gebru, Tigray, Ethiopia
Plateau, between Adi Gebru and Inda Aba Guna, Tigray, Ethiopia Top of the plateau! Who knew it could happen, but the segment from Adi Gebru, through Inda Aba Guna, to Shire only rise 300m over about forty kilometers. 

There might actually be a word for "flat" in Tigrinya.

Sorghum field, between Adi Gebru and Inda Aba Guna, Tigray, Ethiopia

Camel hauling construction material, village, between Adi Gebru and Inda Aba Guna, Tigray, Ethiopia

Processing harvested crop, Tigray, EthiopiaThe primary cereal crop for the region is sorghum. This is closer to a region that had a poor rainy season this year. While it didn't look like there was a high yield in the fields, there was some crop to harvest.

Added to donkeys as pack animals were camels. They are used to haul construction materials like poles, rocks and gravel.

Camel hauling construction poles, village, between Adi Gebru and Inda Aba Guna, Tigray, Ethiopia
Group relaxes with a beear, Inda Aba Guna, Ethiopia It seems that the way to meet local, English speakers, is to find group of older men at a bar or coffee house in the afternoon, with nicely cut Western cloths. If they were drinking beer the optimal number was three bottles per participant. Regardless, if there was an English speaker among the group I was often invited to join them and they always had plenty of questions to keep the conversation going. Versions of this formula worked several times.
Main street, Shire, Tigray, EthiopiaShire has had a main street modernization treatment, like so many towns in Ethiopia. Theirs must have been one of the earlier ones because the trees are more mature. In addition to sidewalks, curbs, a median and trees, Shire also has street lights.

A nice touch in the boutique hotel was a cloth rose on the bed. Unlike the main and more expensive hotel in town, it had WiFi in the rooms, not just in the lobby area.

Hotel bed with rose, Shire, Tiigray, Ethiopia
Memorial for Major General Hadush "Hayelom" Araya, Shire, Ethiopia The traffic circle in Shire is dominated by local hero Major General Hadush "Hayelom" Araya (1955-1996). General Hayelom is a former member of the Tigrayan Peoples' Liberation Front (TPLF), which overthrew the Derg, and is the leading member of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) political coalition. While a member of the TPLF he acquired the nickname Hayelom, "Overpowering"   As a popular commander of EPRDF forces, General Hayelom led his forces to northern Shewa and later marched to Addis Ababa coming out victorious in 1991. One of his most daring acts was the "Agazi action", which happened on the early evening of 5 February 1985: he led a squad of TPLF fighters in attacking the main prison in Mek'ele, and freed over a thousand prisoners, killed 16 prison guards and wounded 9 soldiers without losing a single man. General Hayelom was shot down in Addis Ababa at a restaurant bar 14 February 1996; the motives for his death officially remain unexplained. The government story is he was fighting with another man over a prostitute and his adversary pulled out a gun and shot him. Others say it was a government set-up. In May 2008, the Late General Hayelom Araya Monument was unveiled at his birthplace, Shire. Some see the memorial as cynical because it was erected by the government that some hold responsible for Araya's murder. Critics of the government site a string of strategic political murders that were covered with trivial explanations.
Ravines and canyons cutting the plateau, Tigray, Ethiopia Canyons but the plateau, Tigray, EthiopiaThe plateau is not as flat as it appears to be. Mostly out of sight are valleys,  ravines, gullies, canyons and chasms. Even the breaks in the plane that are visible are hard to judge from afar. What might look like a small fault line across the plain can be the rim of a deep canyon.

Hills between Shire and Selekleka, Tigray, Ethiopia And in places the plains are interrupted by ridges of hills. So there are hills to cross between Shire and Selekleka, and Selekleka and Wkro Mayay, but the similarities of the elevations of the three towns do give a clue to the topography between them.  Nothing stays flat for long.

On some of the hilltops and ridge lines there continues to be churches.

Working camels, between Selekleka and Wkro Mayay, Tigray, Ethiopia Between Selekleka and Wkro Mayay there was an increase in the number of camel. Many were hard at work carrying construction materials.

Wkro Mayay is set in the hills above the plains. Over the ridge it is a relatively easy last 20km to Axum.

Flatter countryside approaching Axum, Tigray, Ethiopia

(South: Gondar to Zarima) (East: Axum)


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Ethiopia Bicycle Tour: Tigray Province