Roadtrip Day 21: Crossing the Blue Nile Gorge

Wednesday 24th January, 2018

Today’s trip 550 km, 12 1/2 hours

An early start for our 550 km journey from Bahir Dar to Addis Ababa. This drive takes us through big farming, crop and cattle country, as well as the spectacular Blue Nile Gorge. Ethiopia’s equivalent of the Grand Canyon!

We see several nasty accidents on the road, in one a Toyota Utility vehicle has broken apart in three parts; chassis, tray and the cab!

This is the main road to Addis, but it is just the size of a country back road, albeit nearly completely sealed.

We stop in Debre Marcos for an early lunch and a much needed coffee. We confirm the name of the town by checking the name on the local bank branch sign. Then we are off again, after the now customary quick check of our tyre pressures.

Amhara farming area

The road continues through teff country, with endless fields of these grasses. The grains are used for making injera bread, daily staple of Ethiopian cuisine. The straw is used for feeding cattle and mixing with mud to build houses.

Most of the teff is still harvested manually, using sickles and bullocks. Bullocks also do the thrashing process, separating the grains from the crop by walking over them in small circles, edged on by a farm hand.

Thrashing teff

The multiculturalism of Ethiopia is clearly demonstrated as we drive through Dejen, here an Orthodox Christian Church is built opposite a Mosque.

We are heading towards the Blue Nile Gorge, one of the largest gorges in the world, it cuts down to a depth of 1500 metres.

The gorge separates the Amhara region in the north, from the Oromiya region in the south where Addis is located. The winding road that crosses the gorge, even with its new bridge, is known as one of the most dangerous roads in Africa. The ongoing tectonic activity causes the thin layer of tarmac to break up regularly and slide downhill. As a consequence, the road is covered in large cracks and potholes.

Blue Nile Gorge

We see several trucks than have rolled down a number of the switchbacks before coming to rest towards the bottom of the gorge. These trucks are slowly stripped of their useful parts; the older the accident, the less there is left of the truck. One fears the worst for the driver.

Recent accident- most dangerous roads of Africa

As we enter the Nile gorge the geologist in me gets treated to the entire sequence of strata in Ethiopia in a very comfortable way from the back of the Prado, with stops at the strata boundaries.

The spectacular landscape of Ethiopia has been moulded and sculpted by forces inside the earth which continue to act today. Volcanoes simmer in the lowlands, earthquakes episodically open chasmic fissures in Afar, and the Rift Valley continues slowly but inexorably to widen in response to ongoing continental drift. At the same time, the great rivers from the highlands continue to roar and cut deep into their awesome canyons, amongst which the Abay (Blue Nile) is the largest (Ref. Frances M Williams, 2016).

The exposed geological sequence is from the methamorphic basement to the latest volcanics.

Stratigraphic column Blue Nile Gorge (Wiley, 2008)

The top layer consists of a very thick sequence of volcanics. These are the youngest examples of a major volcanic plateau in the world. They are very extensive, relatively undeformed, and can be up to 2 km thick! The total volume of volcanic rocks here is estimated to be around 350,000 km3 (Mohr 1983). Just imagine the volcanic activity that created this volume of basalt over such a relative short (only 5 Million year) period!

The basalts are draped unconformably over an early Cretaceous fluvial / alluvial sandstone unit of 200-500 metres thick, called the Debre Libanos sandstone or Upper Sandstone.

Underneath this is a 400 metre thick package of Jurassic limestones, which are known as the Upper and Lower Limestones. These in turn overly the Triassic Adigrat sandstone, which is around 300 metres thick and displays massive bedding features.

On the south side of the gorge we also see a Cretaceous marl and a sequence of Anhydrite and Gypsum.

Even for non-geologists, the sheer scale of the basalt columns, the obvious size of the layers and bedding on display, and the faults and deformation features alongside the road, are very impressive!

As we drive down into the Nile gorge, cross the river and then head up the south side, we see lots of baboons. They look quite vicious, definitely not to be messed with! My photos, made from the safety of our car with windows firmly shut, aren’t worth sharing, alas!

Blue Nile Gorge South flank (notice the broken guard rails)

As we continue driving through the highlands south of the Blue Nile Gorge we see more cattle, more teff fields, and encounter more potholes. This small road is the main arterial road linking Addis Ababa with Gondar in the North and continues on further to Sudan.

Main Road between Bahir Dar and Addis Ababa

A couple of burned out trucks are evidence of recent unrests, demonstrations against the Tigrean dominated government.

It is dark as we finally descend into Addis, on of the few capitals in the world without street lights. We have done 2500 kilometres in 21 days! Our only incidents were one flat tyre, a hit with a very stubborn donkey (no worries, we were just going at donkey walking pace), we hit one road stop wire, and a man on his phone walked into us as we were stationary.

We have by now developed a “road” vocabulary:

  • Where is the road?
  • Why are we on a goat track?
  • Hole!
  • Chinese bump!
  • goat / sheep / cow/ donkey / camel / horse ….. with exclamation mark!
  • Ras Worshela (dick head)

Our only argument occurred when Mike started singing along with the music in the car and Frank threatened to stop and throw him out. The rest of the journey Mike sang along quietly instead!

Time to unpack the car, do a serious amount of laundry, and get some dinner.

Travel Details and Tips:

Accomodation: Family stay in Addis Ababa

Tip 1: If an Ethiopian tells you something is going to take 20 minutes, be prepared for a long wait. They have found a big problem and don’t know how long it is going to take….

Tip 2: For an excellent guide on the geology of Ethiopia, check out the Geoguide “Understanding Ethiopia” by Frances M. Williams from 2016 (Springer). Frances is an English / Australian geologist who now lives in Adelaide, and has spent a large amount of time in Ethiopia. She also organises semi annual geo-tourism trips to Ethiopia.

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