"EXPLORATIONS" by Larry Bucher

There were some odd corners of Eritrea (and Tigrai province) that I reached (and many more which I planned to explore “some day” but never did reach). I was never a hunter, more of a curiosity-seeker with an exploration itch, so my journeys may not match with many. Some reminiscences of same follow.

South of Dekemhare

Dekemhare is today’s spelling of what most of us knew as Decamere. The early Italians did their best to reproduce the Tigrinyan pronunciation in Italian, but when other Italians read that effort and tried to pronounce it, it came out something like de-CAH-muh-ray. Dekemhare is a pretty accurate rendition for American and British speakers, put the accent on the “HAR” and you’ve got it. It means “the sons (or tribe, or family, or descendants) of Mahari”.

South of Dekemhare is, first, an old, asphalt airstrip; next, the navy transmitter site (not built until the mid-1960s), then an old fort overlooking the lowlands farther south. On my first trip to the area in 1959, my car had not yet arrived. Bill Mote and I took a bus to Dekemhare and rented bicycles there. We explored around the airstrip: nothing but ruined building walls, but we did find three rusted shells, about three-inch diameter, perhaps anti-aircraft.

(The place had been an Italian Air Force Base, and later a British/American repair base until the war in Africa wound down. Another time I went there was in December 1960 — right after the failed coup attempt against Haile Selassie. Rows of boulders had been placed across the strip to prevent its use for . . . I know not what was feared.)

We rode on to the fort, explored it and started back. And that ride back was hell. Perhaps we never noticed the wind when it was at our backs, or perhaps it sprung up in the course of the day. But it was stiff and constant, and held our bicycling to a crawl. We often dismounted and pushed the bikes for a while, trying to give our pumping muscles a break — but the effort of pushing was nearly as bad as trying to pedal against the wind.

Before we made it back to Dekemhare we had both shattered all health-precaution preachings and drunk thirstily from a local well. Once in town I collapsed into an easy chair at the corner bar and surrounded serial Melottis, while Bill looked up some missionary whom he’d met earlier for assistance in getting back to Asmara, because the wind delay had caused us to miss the last bus. And we got a ride back, although my devotion to Melotti drew some looks of disapproval from the churchman.

Our next trip to the area was by car, and this time we proceeded farther. From the fort the road descends gradually into a flat plain, and forks — the right fork goes to Adi Ugri, while according to the maps the left fork should get you to Adi Caieh on the Asmara-Addis road. It doesn’t — or at least we couldn’t find it. That left-hand fork went east for some way then gradually curved south, toward the Tigrai province border; we followed it until it petered out in some scrubland. We disturbed a pack of some 20 or 30 . . . somethings. They may have been rats, but seemed somewhat bigger; we couldn’t get close enough for a very good look.

As soon as that left-hand fork is taken, a lone mountain looms ahead, dominating the flatland. From the west, approaching it, it resembles the silhouette of an armadillo’s back. But it is long and narrow, running north-south, an igneous intrusion. Seen from directly to the south it looks really forbidding. Imagine an ordinary funnel, upside down, with an inverted ice-cream cone placed over the funnel, and the whole slightly lopsided — that’s the closest I can come to a word-picture: gradual slopes at the bottom, suddenly turning to much steeper ones. The core of the mountain consists of massive vertical basalt columns, hexagonal and of about five-foot diameter. The road runs quite close to the base, probably less than half a mile.

The mountain’s name is Amba T’khoyloo — the hardest-to-say Tigrinya word I ever encountered. I was never able to pronounce it satisfactorily enough to be understood without some further explanation; “t’khoyloo” is the closest approximation I can make in the Roman alphabet. I did not think it climbable save by professionals with fancy equipment, but we decided to have a go at it just to see how far we could get. Unsurprisingly “how far” turned out to be “not very”. We were wearing only everyday shoes; we soon encountered a stretch of bare rock which was just steep enough and just smooth enough to frustrate our efforts.

I returned to the mountain in 1961 with three or four other sailors, tennis shoes, and a stretch of rope. Fortunately one of the others was Jerry Butcher, short, stocky, the point guard on the navy basketball team, and a regular mountain goat. He took a brief look at the smooth, steep stretch, took the rope from me, leaned forward, and strode right up it. Nothing to it. He tossed back one end of the rope and the rest of us made our rope-assisted way up with ease. The rest of the climb was, to my surprise, comparatively easy, nor did we need the rope again.

About three-quarters of the way up we came upon a vulture’s nest — one baby bird, featherless, resembling a plucked chicken and about the size of one. It wasn’t much of a “nest”, mostly just the bare, flat rock whitened by guano. The mother soared off at our approach but didn’t try to defend her chick; didn’t dive-bomb or make strafing runs at us.

The summit was long, narrow, and wind-swept. We found, carved in the rock, names of several Italians who had made the climb years earlier (in the 1930s if my memory is correct). We had nothing to carve with, so each of us searched our wallets, dug out something obsolete (I used my army-issued certified-motion-picture-operator ID card), and placed our “calling cards” under a small cairn of rocks. I wonder if they are still there — perhaps with the cards of subsequent climbers added . . . ?

I was told by Eritreans that the mountain is inhabited by “zarti” (zar in the singular) — ghosts or spirits of some sort. We didn’t see any.

Adi Abun/Amba Soloda

South of Asmara, in Tigrai province, the road from Asmara leads directly into Adwa. About 3-5 miles north of Adwa there is a road triangle, a small village (Adi Abun), and a road leading west to Axum (and thence on to Gondar). A bit farther north, just before the triangle, another road cuts eastward, past Yeha (a pre-Axumite temple), past Debra Damo (mountaintop monastery), and joins up with the Asmara-Addis road in Adigrat.

I usually stayed in Adi Abun when I visited the area, in a small, very primitive hotel/gas station at the triangle. It was there that I ate one strange and memorable dish, the only time I encountered it. It consisted of the internal organs of a sheep or goat: lungs, liver, heart, stomach, intestines, diced into small pieces and served raw, with a thin, yellowish sauce whose primary ingredient was the gall from the animal’s gall bladder. If you have ever gotten an accidental taste of gall — which I did, as a boy, when chickens were being butchered — you will know that it is incredibly bitter and truly horrid. But they did something to the gall that removed the bitterness, the sauce was delicious, the food was delicious (served with the standard injerra).

On my first trip to this area I happened to leave Asmara with relatively little Ethiopian money. I didn’t worry about it, I had U.S. dollars, Adwa was a provincial capital (I incorrectly thought), there would be banks . . . I should have worried about it. No one wanted my U.S. money (I believe that’s the only time that’s happened to me; it was certainly the first time). There was no bank. There was no place to change money. Fortunately someone connected me with the Adwa pharmacist; he made monthly replenishment trips to Asmara and was willing to change money for me. We became friends, he introduced me to others, they taught me their local card game. It was played with two or three decks, I remember little about it but believe it resembled rummy. What does stand out in memory is when I shuffled cards — they had never seen a fan shuffle and were intrigued by it.

Amba Soloda looms over the Adi Abun triangle, just east of the road. It is the first peak of a crazy-quilt patch of mountains that extends on eastward; the 1896 battle of Adwa was fought in these mountains, northeast of Adwa itself. Naturally Bill Mote and I wanted to try to climb Soloda. We managed to get up early enough that no street boys were yet on duty, and were able to make the climb unescorted. The climb was easy until near the top. From there we tried different routes, Bill didn’t make it to the summit but I found a way. There were remnants of a small ruin on the top — low rock walls. I was told that it had probably been a church.

On another trip I was for some reason particularly concerned about thieves. And as I lay in bed half-asleep, half-awake, a white-clad figure raised the window and quietly climbed in. I played possum until, at an appropriate moment, I threw off the covers and leaped to my feet to grapple with the intruder — and no one was there. The window was still locked from the inside. Dream, hallucination, sleepwalking . . . call it what you will, maybe some of each. I felt befuddled at first, and then quite foolish.

On yet another trip I decided to come the long way, down the Addis road to Adigrat and across. I was accompanied by two sailors who were devout alcoholics. They shared a bottle of whiskey, passed out, awoke as I was driving west on the Adigrat-Adi Abun stretch. It was hot; it was dusty. We came to a stream crossing the road, which formed a fair-sized pool. On seeing this, my passengers called for a stop. They stripped and had a great time cavorting naked in the cold water. Shortly before this we had passed a local lady, well-dressed, carrying a parasol, walking in our direction. She must have seen the nudity from a distance; I don’t know how she crossed the water but she made a wide, semicircular, off-road detour to avoid us. I expect she had quite a story to tell to shocked listeners when she reached her destination.


Bizen is the monastery on top of the mountain above Nefasit, on the Massawa road; I expect quite a few of those who read this will have been there. My first climb — uphill walk, actually — was in 1960 with three or four other sailors. When we reached the monastery area, one of the monks spoke with us briefly then left us to our own devices.

Looking down one precipice, I noticed a small pile of bare wooden sticks in some shrubbery; I looked more closely — and the “sticks” resolved themselves into a human skeleton, on its back, head toward the cliff. Given the great distance from which I saw it, I suppose it is possible that I might have misidentified an ex-baboon, but I thought then and still think that it was human. We speculated that it was probably an executed sinner — had a monk fallen accidentally, they would surely have retrieved his body for burial.

Going back down, still on the flat mountaintop, we saw from a distance several dozen monks working industriously in a field of grain of some sort. We got closer and . . . those weren’t monks. Baboons, having a feast and a frolic.

In 1995 I went up to Bizen again, on a climb organized by the embassy admin officer. There were about 20 of us, mostly U.S. special forces soldiers there for demining. The sign at the bottom of the trail had been replaced by a newer one, but the words were unchanged: “It is absolutely forbidden for women to visit Bizen.” I was told, however, that a woman had done so — one of the female EPLF fighters, during the war, presumably excused by military necessity.

The admin officer had procured candles, sugar, and various other groceries for the monastery, and we got a very friendly reception. (That was why our reception in 1960 had been so indifferent. I had had no idea, then, that visitors were not expected to come empty-handed.) We were given cold water and some doughy snacks, taken on a tour of kitchen, suwa brewery, church, and given an “audience” with the abbot — who was 87 and had been at Bizen since age 12. I not only could not locate the skeleton I had seen so many years earlier, I could not even locate with any certainty the particular cliff from which I had spotted it.

Larry Bucher
162 West Pine St.
Spearfish SD 57783-8632


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©Copyright Rick Fortney 1998 All Rights Reserved