We were around 50km shy of Dire Dawa, Ethiopia, when the train hit a cow, its impact signalled by an abrupt drop in speed and a judder rippling through the couplings.
“What’s happening?” I asked the carriage attendant as she hurried along the aisle.
“No problem,” she replied brightly, without breaking stride. “A technician is dealing with it.”
It was only later that one of our Ethiopian neighbours told us we’d struck some errant livestock.
The passengers - my photographer Marcus Westberg and I among them - merely shrugged. We’d never kidded ourselves that this trip would be without misadventure.
In the nine years since my first visit, a lot had changed in Ethiopia. The economy had boomed, with years of sustained 10% annual growth yielding significant jumps in life expectancy, living standards and GDP. In September, a rapprochement with Eritrea, Ethiopia’s glowering northern neighbour, brought peace to their shared border for the first time in more than 20 years.
The thing that brought me back here seemed like a concrete embodiment of progress: Ethiopia had a state-of-the-art train. In 2011, the government announced that a new electrified railway would be built between Addis Ababa and the tiny neighbouring country of Djibouti, aided by Chinese loans and expertise. Five years and $3.4 billion (R47bn) later, the first freight train made the 750km, revolutionising landlocked Ethiopia’s access to the Red Sea, where Djibouti’s Doraleh Port processes 95% of its international trade.
The day before we intended to depart, we went to buy tickets at Lebu Station. The new line’s western terminus was a cavernous mustard-coloured building topped with twin cupolas, which sat incongruously on Addis Ababa’s south-west outskirts.
In the vacant ticket hall, the man at the counter seemed shocked when I asked him for two tickets to the city of Dire Dawa. Yet more disconcerting than his reaction was the sheet of paper taped to his window. Blaming recent disruptions on villagers, it then issued a deterrent: “Reminder: think twice before purchasing your tickets.”
The ticket vendor’s parting words: “Bring food.”
It was no small relief when, there the next morning, was the train at the platform. Its Chinese provenance was confirmed by the ethnicity of the “captain” ushering people aboard and by our salmon-coloured tickets, the same as those issued by China’s National Railway.
An hour later, we were enjoying a rare sensation: swift, ceaseless movement through a sub-Saharan landscape.
After all the caveats, and despite the interjection of a hapless longhorn, the train hissed triumphantly into Dire Dawa at 3.27pm, eight minutes early.
City of Djins
Despite its soporific air, Dire Dawa, the railway’s midpoint, is Ethiopia’s second largest city, a fact it owes to the old French-built train line that had fallen in and out of use since its inauguration in 1917.
A village backwater a hundred years ago, Dire Dawa grew into a major transit hub for Ethiopian exports, not least khat, a mild herbal stimulant, which is farmed in the surrounding hills. But the place we were more interested in was a 50km or so minibus ride east. The train had availed us the chance to visit the Islamic outpost of Harar.
It was discombobulating, after the prim modernity of the train, to plunge into Harar Jugol, about 50 hectares of tight-knit alleyways, encircled by 4.5m walls, which is widely considered to be the fourth holiest site in Islam.
The nightly ritual has become a draw for tourists, who gather to shoot photos under the beam of car headlights. But our young translator, Emaj, told us, it also has a more supernatural purpose: to keep the dogs close, because of the ghosts. The hyenas have their own entrances into the city, where they are said to be the only creature capable of seeing and swallowing Djins, spirits of Harar’s past inhabitants, sometimes malevolent, who stalk the alleys under cover of darkness.
The following day we boarded a truck, with a guide named Abdallah Ali Moussa, and barrelled into the desert. We drove for eight hours, through wastelands of rubble and Martian hills, until we arrived at a desiccated plain.
Here, close to the geothermal hot spot of the Afar Triple Junction, where three tectonic plates converge, a forest of pinnacles appeared on the horizon. We had reached Lake Abbé.
We were back on the move the next morning, fishtailing through the sand on our way to Lake Assal, when we stopped at a camp of Afar tribespeople, the nomadic pastoralists who live in the African Horn’s eastern badlands. Abdallah’s cousin lived there with his wife and seven children, and he welcomed us into his tent, a simple construction of plaited palm fronds draped over a scaffold of sun-bleached sticks.
When I emerged, blinking into the sun, a group of children had converged at the doorway. With the audience thus arrayed, the oldest one unfolded his fist to reveal shards of obsidian he had collected. The children on either side of him smiled shyly. They wanted to show me the beautiful stones.
Somewhere across the desert, the train hurtled on. But for now, at least, modernity’s creep had far to go.