Having left the Hamam Appreciation Society in Jedda, we arrive punctually in Asmara. We ride into town under a big black African sky punctured by the full moon. The roads are quiet, but almost every block has a bar with music weaving out. We check in at the Legesi. Bars stay open until 2, so we go to a lively joint nearby; bottles of beer have accumulated on the tables, the stylish waitresses bring us two, a third one later donated by an effusive local
The bikes secured on the roof, we board on the back of the bus to Adi Teklazan. The white scarved ladies are not too bothered with the bumps and happily chat across the aisle. After a frittata we start riding on the arid plane. Soon we reach the edge of a wide gorge: the descent is about to begin, vegetation starts to appear, first these magnificent cacti with pink flowers, then acacias and the solitary baobabs. We take a break at the bottom of the valley, by the dry river bed, shaded by large trees. Later, at Elabored, orange groves are separated from the road by long rows of bouganvillae. In Keren, we walk down the narrow lanes with all the children making sure we know they have learned the first lesson in English: 'What is your name?'. After buying some fruit at the market, including a hard-shelled papaya-like fruit with a dry white paste inside, we rest on the terrace of our hotel, drinking beer and watching the sun set behind the mountains. Dinner included beans, lentils and capretto on injera.
After oranges and caffellatte for breakfast we check the tourist officer, whose only skill was to prepare some good tea. Monday is market day in Keren with traders coming from afar. At the wood market, about 50 camels sit patiently with the wares on their back. One passes by, with an immense load of twigs completely hiding his body. On one street we find the jewellers. In some shops, groups of women advise younger girls on what to pierce. Some of them wear large gold crescent-shaped nose rings. We choose a simple gold ring. Probably the best part of the market is a square where straw is sold; the cream of the bundles contrasting with the kaleidoscopic range of colours of the women's dresses. A quick snack of panettone, and we are back on our bikes; before leaving town we check the camel and livestock market, strictly a man's preserve. The gate attendant, in fluent Italian, gives us the price ranges, 3500-4000 nakfas for a camel, 150-200 for a donkey. We cycle for half an hour until we reach a lush plantation by a dry river bed. There under the shade of big mango trees, we read our books and watch as the caravans of traders head home. Some camels are loaded with beds, sofas and the kitchen sink. We ride back as the sun sets over the much quieter town. After relaxing and comparing views on the hotel terrace, we have sprica for dinner, a tasty goulash on injera. We end the day exchanging travel tips with some motorcyclists, we had met yesterday.
The muezzin wakes us at 5:30, we need to catch an early bus. A beautiful lady with child puts her goat in the trunk. We relived our Sunday ride as the bus winds its way up to the plains. As we change into cycling clothes, local children help each other to ride our bikes. The workbooks of the brother of one of them reveals how all subjects are taught in English after elementary school. Our adventure is about to begin. We climb to the highest point of the escarpment on a fairly rough track. On the way, a charming retired doctor gives us advice on how to avoid scorpion stings (too bad he didn't tell us how to avoid another type of puncture). At the village of Wakkie, barley was being crushed by teams of cattle led in circles by the farmers. Soon after we reach the edge of the escarpment, the view is breathtaking. The track is a series of switchbacks down the sheer mountain face. Somehow a rickety bus is making its way up: it was the last motor vehicle we would see for a day and a half. Down and down we ride and the vegetation gets richer with mostly fir trees. Some parts of the mountain are cultivated with corn growing on terraced plots. We ask the few people we meet about Filfil, our first destination, but nobody seems sure what we mean. In mid afternoon, we start to be hungry and mercifully we find a small farm that sells us drinks and biscuits. The track is now a lot less rough, grass growing on it and for long stretches we can release our brakes. All about us the vegetation is thick and luxuriant. We reach a farmhouse, probably built by Italians; some soldiers stop us, and the leader seems very unhappy to let us through. Fortunately the only English-speaker in the group pleads for us and a visa is hastily written on a piece of paper. Our progress is further slowed by a couple of punctures. We are now entering a virgin rain forest with birds and monkeys making their distinctive calls. It is getting quite dark; will we find somewhere to sleep? A stroke of luck: another army check point. The young fighters happily offer to host us: they clear one of theitr rooms for us, give us blankets and sheets. We join them eating injera and lentils. And it is not over: they prepare especially for us a huge plate of pasta with onion sauce. Even though their English is fairly non-existent, we manage to narrate our travels so far.
The soldiers get up early and the morning light bathes the jungle; we walk up the track and watch the sun rise. After some tea and delicious toasted injera we are shown what is cultivated in the garden: papaya, oranges, herbs, trees for reforestation. We set off as the road descends in the forest. We stop to see some baboons swing between trees. Hornbills fly above us. We finally reach the Filfil river; there is another check-point. As I fix another puncture, Fionnuala expertly persuades the unfriendly soldiers to let us through (or maybe they were warning us about the land mines). After a col the track becomes steep and rocky; at the end of this difficult section the countryside is very dry with thorny bushes and equally thorny acacias. Thorns!! The tired tyres of the Ridgeback don't offer resistance and we start to run out of patches. The river is not dry: at one point a caravan of 40-50 camels is drinking, later we ride near large plantations of papaya and bananas. But it doesn't last: the aridity and heat increases and we start to have mirages that we can replenish our depleted water bottles. Our few oranges have never tasted sweeter. The thorns don't give us respite and we are now using plastic bags to knot our drainer-like tubes. Fionnuala finds that 4 years of university study have been useful, as she applies her knowledge of the photochemical properties of glue. On the far horizon we see a mosque. A lone soldier tells us that there we should find drinks. We have to push the last kilometres, but, yes!, we find liquid and a truck giving us a lift to the Massawa road. At Gyatelay, a long stretch of cafes wait tired truckers. We replace tubes and tyres and find a lift on a taxi. The driver is very cultured and fills us on many aspects of Eritrean history and social customs. His young assistant has been separated from his parents and deported by the Ethiopians. In Massawa, first priority is a shower. Refreshed we meet Paolo and friends at Sallams, where fish is baked in clay-ovens. Delicious, and who would have thought that a few hours earlier we were lost in the arid desert? We pass by Christmas mass being celebrated with lots of incense and beautiful chanting. On the balcony at the Corallo, the halfmoon lights our passions.
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