We arrived in Massawa Port, Eritrea just after noon. As I sauntered down the gangplank my head, usually filled with logistics and gibberish, felt surprisingly clear: all I could imagine was the little strip of white running down the right of Africa finally being coloured in. The final sticker in my collection, my last Pokémon, the Kenner toy that completes the set. When I finally touched down it was as good as landing on the moon.
Africa. Done. At last.
Arriving in Tunisia at the start of May 2009, I would have never envisaged it taking so long and I guess I can say that I’ve been to all the countries in the Middle East as well, but thirteen months is a long, long time to spend cracking one (albeit vast) continent. South America took me two weeks, Europe just 21 days. I honestly thought Africa would take about three months.
But as I strode out of the port into the charming little town of Massawa, the sense of achievement was incredible. I had found a way in. A secret entrance into Fortress Eritrea and in doing became (I think) the first person to visit every country in Africa without taking a single flight.
Mandy really wants me to hang up my boots at this point. Who can blame her? I’m already six months overdue. But with just 39 more countries to visit, it would be insane to give up now. In another world, my friends are tramping it across the Glastonbury festival in England right this moment. They’re probably sitting near the Brother’s Bar watching the Jazz World Stage and wondering if they should go and cadge some free food off the Hari Krishnas beside the Glade. Damn I miss them. I miss my life. I don’t want off, I just want this damn rollercoaster to hurry the hell up.
People keep asking me if I get tired of all this travelling. The truth is I only get tired (and grumpy!) when I’m sitting still, waiting for the train that never comes. If I’m moving, I’m happy, I’m energised, I’m gung-ho for victory: the final footfall in the final country. If I do nothing else worthwhile in my life, I’ll always have this. I hope I can persuade readers of this blog to go see for themselves the truth of at the heart of humanity: that contrary to popular opinion, the good outweighs the bad. Don’t believe the doomsayers: we’re almost there, all of us.
Eritrea is an old country but a young nation, having gained independence in 1993 after a long and brutal marriage with Ethiopia. An unholy union stitched together in 1950 by the hopelessly idiotic United Nations and propped up by the iron fist of the Soviet Union. For thirty years Eritrea fought to be a nation again, against almost impossible odds. The town of Massawa, as you can see, still bears the scars from this long and most uncivil of wars, tucked away in a corner of Africa that nobody seemed to give a damn about.
Twenty years ago, Massawa was carpet bombed by the Ethiopians, using planes and bombs supplied by the Russians. Over 90% of the town was wiped out. Thousands died.
Much of the promised reconstruction has failed to materialise, and so many of the beautiful coral-stone buildings are crumbling apart. Twenty years ago Dubai was a desert. Twenty years is a long time.
The government of Eritrea must shoulder the lion’s share of the blame for the lack of reconstruction. Too busy picking fights with its neighbours (as you well know, the borders with Sudan, Ethiopia and Djibouti are all closed, and Eritrea went to war with Yemen not so long ago over some uninhabited islands). As North Korea and Burma can no doubt testify, true ‘independence’ is a bit of a lie – no country can prosper without the help of its neighbours and friends from around the world. There are some projects, such as the causeways that link the mainland to the two islands of Taulud and Massawa, that have been completed with help from the Italian government – and rightly so, Eritrea historically being one of Italy’s two colonies in Africa (the other being Libya).
But there is plenty more to be done. And I’d be more than happy to come back and help out – seriously, despite the headaches I experienced getting in here, it really is love at first sight. If Massawa is in any way representative of the rest of the nation, then Eritrea is far and away my favourite bit of Sub-Saharan Africa.
It is simply stunning – the island of Massawa oozes with atmosphere, a sleepy little port town since the year dot, with all the trimmings that entails. The people are wonderful, really wonderful – inquisitive and generous, and always ready to have a laugh.
There’s a decent beach up the coast, the diving is said to be magnificent and, best of all, the beer is cheap (40p for a bottle of Asmara!). The icing on the cake is that the architecture is just sublime – local materials with an Italian influence, but 100% Eritrean.
Even the broken down palaces tell a story and there is something strangely beautiful about their sullen decay.
Light years from the prim n’ proper fakery of Qatar’s ‘old souk’, this is the real thing, the genuine article. No robotic clean straight lines, no need for inane mutterings about light and space, no fancy 3D walkthrough, just buildings with a real sense of humanity, culture, art and history about them.
Kicking back in the afternoon in the shade of a tree with a cold Asmara beer, chatting to the locals, not a car on the road to disturb the spell… I could happily spend a long, long time here, taking in the chill that I found curiously absent from The Caribbean.
I can see myself here in a few years time, maybe writing the great American novel or helping the locals restore one of these great buildings. And as the sun set over the broken dome of the Imperial Palace, I set off into the night, finding friendship and laughter wherever I looked.
The crew of the Ibn Al Waleed were spread out all over town. After catching up with the chief I found the Filipinos from the ship, who were grateful to be somewhere that not only had cold beer, but a place where it is almost as cheap as it is in the Philippines. After many beers and more than a few whiskeys, I lost track of what we were celebrating.
And then I remembered. Africa, you put up a good fight old girl, all credit to you.
But I won.
It IS possible to visit every single country in Africa without taking to the air.