Not quite Qohaito – Eritrea’s Ancient Site

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Eritrea won’t go down as my favourite recent travel destination, I found the capital Asmara disappointingly quiet and subdued. You could multiply that by 10 for Massawa, the semi-deserted Red Sea port. Nevertheless my final Eritrean destination, the ancient Aksumite centre Qohaito, was the biggest disappointment of all. I never got there.

▲ The road to Qohaito – between Segheneyti and Adi Keyh

I’d gone by bus down to Massawa from Asmara, the 100km trip took almost fours hour in each direction. It’s a similar distance from Asmara to Qohaito, but since Qohaito is on the 2500metre-high plateau like Asmara the trip is up and down, rather than just down down down – and then up up up on the return trip – to and from Massawa. Since the road isn’t so busy and since Qohaito is 25km past Adi Keyh, the last centre of any size, going by bus wouldn’t be simple, so I rented a car and driver to get there.

▲ Hilltop church, a herd of goats and pedestrians at Segheneyti

From Asmara we drove out to Dekemhare, a quite large town although there seem to be almost as many donkey carts as cars. Next up was Segheneyti, notable for its large trees, quangle wangle trees if I remember my small children’s favourite Edward Lear nonsense poetry book correctly. There were lots of camels, goats and lots more donkeys as well. We stopped once for the driver to check for a funny noise from a back wheel, but continued on – the traffic really light in either direction – to Digsa and finally Adi Keyh, the last town before the ruins of Qohaito.

 ◄ About 10km out of Adi Keyh and about 15km before the ruins site the worrying rattle from the left back wheel suddenly became much more worrying. When we stopped the wheel was just about to fall off, there was just one wheel nut holding it on and no sign of the other four wheel studs. The stud holes on the wheel were a complete mess and I diagnosed, correctly I suspect, that back in Asmara the wheel had been changed and somebody had forgotten to tighten up the nuts. I didn’t think the studs had sheered off – if we were lucky, and we were – they’d all been shaken loose and were now inside the brake drum.

So my driver jacked the Land Cruiser up, we removed the wheel and he then hitched a ride up the road to look for phone coverage so he could call Asmara for help.

Apart from our big problem – the wheel falling off – we had a secondary problem, apart from the jack and wheelbrace, there was not a single tool in the car. Absolutely nothing, not even a screwdriver. Which made getting the brake drum off rather difficult. Before the driver returned I’d managed to shift the drum a bit by battering it with the wheel brace and levering it with a flat rock. Fortunately a passing car stopped to help, the driver did have a few tools and eventually we managed to get the drum off although in the process the brakes began to leak brake fluid which seriously worried me, if not my driver.

I was also worried about the two of them clambering under the car when it was only shakily supported on a spindly little bottle jack. I wedged the wheel and a big rock underneath in case it fell off.

◄ The ‘fallen out’ wheel studs

Eventually we’d reassembled it but although we could scavenge a wheel nut from each of the other three wheels two of the studs were so damaged the nuts wouldn’t thread so we had to start back to Asmara with three wheels held on by four (out of five) wheel nuts and the fourth wheel by just three.

▲ At Segheneyti on the way back we paused for this fine example of the local tree.

▲ It’s said to be the tree which appears on the 5 nakfa note.

My final Eritrean unhappiness awaited me when we got back to Asmara. This little 100km-each-way trip was costing me about US$300, a very pricey car rental particularly since we never got there and completely because of their incompetence, forgetting to bolt a wheel on properly. I’d paid US$260 as a deposit, the final figure depended on the distance travelled and the fuel consumed. As far as I was concerned that 90% was a write off, but I certainly wasn’t going to pay any more. They still asked for it.