My first trip to Massawa was on a bike
by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–1964)
In January of 1963, my group of PCVs to the Empire, some 280 + of us, assembled for a conference in Asmara.
On the Friday between workshops, four of us: Tim Bodman, Charlie Michener, Ernie Fox, and myself — all Ethie Ones — decided to rent bikes for the 70-mile trip from Asmara down the mountains, across the Danakil Desert, and to the shores of the Red Sea. None of us was stationed in Eritrea, so did we know the way to Massawa. We just knew it was downhill from Asmara, at an elevation of 7,628 ft., to the sea.
Starting before sunrise we pedaled five miles to the edge of the mountains. At that level, we were above the billows of white and gray clouds that lay perfectly still, enclosed the valleys below and encased the rugged mountains peaks. The red sun coming up out of them looking like a sore thumb.
It was cold when we pushed off down the mountain, and for a while we were bothered with the wind that froze our fingers to the hand brakes, but soon we were too busy and excited to worry about the cold, and all our concentration was centered on the zig-zag blacktop road ahead. We descend single file on the edge of the mountain through hairpin and corkscrew curls. We bent into the turns from the outside edges of the road, cut the corners, and then leaned to the opposite side and maneuvered the next curve.
All the while people, dogs, and livestock filled the road. And then Tim, smashed into a man who had stepped into his path to cross the road. We stopped to make sure he was okay, and Tim, while hurt from his fall, said he was going on with us. Charlie dropped back to ride beside him as we continued as a pack going down to the sea.
Out of the cold morning of Asmara we rode, into the wet clouds, through the villages of Embatkala and Ghinda, past the ancient monastery of Bizon, and onto the tropical climate of the desert where we stopped to eat a breakfast of wine, cheese, and bread, and to watch a camel caravan move idly across the baked flatlands carrying bundles of wood and skins.
In two hours we had covered sixty-nine kilometers.
I remember spotting an elderly European man in a shop along the way who was obviously the owner. He was sitting back in the corner of the roadside restaurant that was no more than a shed, while several Eritrean women did the cooking. It was obvious — as he was giving orders to the women in Italian — that he had stayed in the Empire after the war and started this drive-in, here in the depths of the Danakil. He wasn’t, of course, the only World War II veteran we saw in our rural villages and towns during those early years of the Peace Corps in Ethiopia.
Pushing on across the desert, after having dropped out of the hills, the four of us found that it was no longer all downhill. The highway, while mostly paved and not heavy with traffic, did rise slightly as we headed to the Red Sea, and this demanded that we pedal our way, and not glide along.
It was on this stretch of two-lane highway that a bus full of PCVs came down out of Asmara and passed us. They too were headed for Massawa and a day of sunshine and rest by the sea.
The driver, spotting the four of us, slowed down, perhaps being told by the Volunteers to pull over. There we were!
A few asked us if we wanted a ride, and the girls (of course) offered us food and water, or anything else they could give us to help us on our trip. We kept smiling and declined the offers of a ride — there was no way we would give up on the bike ride and the challenge to making it to the Red Sea.
Waving goodbye, we followed slowly after them as the bus quickly disappeared in the distance.
It would take us almost two more hours to cross the width of the desert, but we did it — first joining together to ride into town —as we reached the bridge and rode across it into Massawa.